An unexpected experience connects with my childhood love of science

I’ve developed cataracts. Nothing very surprising there: there’s a family history of cataracts, and 42% of people here in the US between 52 and 64 are affected. So I’ve moved quickly through the various stages of understanding:

  • Shit, what’s happening to my eyesight? Did my optometrist screw up my last prescription?
  • Hmmm, I’m having difficulty reading highway signs. Perhaps I should get this checked.
  • Cataracts? Eye surgery? Ick…
  • Hmm, lens implants. How does that work? Let’s watch the video…. Wow, that’s cool!
  • Just a minute… you can choose any power lens you want? So I could get 20/20 distance vision and use reading glasses? So I could go out… walk… drive… without glasses for the first time since I was 4 years old? Awesome!

And so that’s what I’m going to be doing during September and October, spread out to accommodate travel and other stuff.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

I was sitting in the optometrist’s office, going through the usual left eye/right eye tests, reading the charts (“Can you read off line 2 to me?” “There’s a line 2???“), and suddenly she handed me a black paddle with a pin-hole. “Look through this,” she said, “and tell me what you can read.” And after a moment’s adjustment, I was able to read off the whole chart. Then I moved the pin-hole slightly, and everything went blurry. From somewhere inside me, an 8-year old voice asked if she could wait for a moment, and by moving the pin-hole around I was able to trace out the blotchy shapes of the cataracts on my lens. And as I did so, I was back in 1958, in our house in London NW2, lying in front of the fire in the sitting room, reading the dark green, leatherette-bound, 18-volume encyclopedia of science that my mother had bought for me at a jumble sale, and reviewing the diagrams of the optics of the eye, filled with awe at the power of science.
We all assume that a trained professional can measure things like cataracts to sub-millimetric precision using fancy technology. But it was surprising – delightful! – to find that I could visualize the same phenomena using a $5 piece of plastic. That was a very cool experience.

iPad thoughts after a few days

Herewith a few of my thoughts about the iPad after living with it for nearly a week:

  • If you only read one review of the iPad, make it this wonderful essay by John Gruber over at Daring Fireball.
  • The KeyNote and Pages apps look beautiful, and work pretty well, but they are going to be useless to me until Apple puts some kind of decent synchronization in place. I don’t care if the iPad is synchronized to the web (via or, or to my desktop (via wifi); it just has to work seamlessly and automatically.
  • We need printing. Via wifi, of course.
  • The most beautiful iPad app is Emerald Observatory.
  • I really need a nice case. As I noted, the Apple-supplied sleeve uses a clingy rubber-like material, which makes it really hard to insert and remove the iPad. (The word “fetish” came up while I was trying to describe it to a Chinese colleague, which provoked an urgent search in my Chinese-English dictionary app!) Right now I’m using the sleeve from my EeePC netbook to protect the iPad, but I need a decent – and attractive – case/stand combo. Twelve South are working on an iPad version of their lovely BookBook cases, but there’s no ETA on that.
  • Right now I mostly use the iPad for web surfing and watching Netflix content. Email is OK, but I’m looking forward to the unified inbox in 4.0. I haven’t found the perfect iPad game, although watching Jim land a 777 at SFO in X-Plane was pretty compelling.
  • I use iPhone apps on the iPad only for convenience, not by choice. At 1x they look odd; at 2x they are too jagged.
  • The future lies in pure iPad apps, that take advantage of Adam Engst’s insight:

    The iPad becomes the app you’re using. That’s part of the magic. The hardware is so understated – it’s just a screen, really – and because you manipulate objects and interface elements so smoothly and directly on the screen, the fact that you’re using an iPad falls away. You’re using the app, whatever it may be, and while you’re doing so, the iPad is that app. Switch to another app and the iPad becomes that app.

Visualizing "lots and lots"

Visualizing huge numbers can be very difficult. People regularly talk about millions of miles, billions of bytes, or trillions of dollars, yet it’s still hard to grasp just how much a “billion” really is. The MegaPenny Project aims to help by taking one small everyday item, the U.S. penny, and building on that to answer the question: “What would a billion (or a trillion) pennies look like?”

The MegaPenny Project, tip of the hat to the Bad Astronomer.

On the toe liberation front….

Inspired by a colleague of mine, I just acquired a pair of Vibram Fivefingers KSO shoes. Vibram Fivefingers KSO A couple of years ago I spent most of the summer in some really thin “river runner” style shoes, and it was the closest thing I’d found to having the freedom of going barefoot while still providing some basic protection. So the prospect of taking the next step and liberating all five ten toes was intriguing.
After years of being cooped up next to each other, my toes aren’t really used to the idea of independent existence, so it took a few minutes to put the shoes on, get each toe into its own pocket, and adjust the straps. Within a couple of minutes I found that the shoes felt very comfortable, and I wore them for a couple of hours around the apartment, with no obvious ill-effects. Obviously today isn’t the day to try them out and about(!), but come the spring…

On "Wisely Using Your Advantage"

Enough politics: let’s talk about probability. The Quantum Pontiff has a delightful piece up about “Gambler’s ruin”:

Gambler’s ruin is one of my favorite basic probability exercises… Suppose you have access to a game in which you have a slight advantage in winning… [W]hat is your probability of ruin, given a starting bankroll of D dollars, an advantage of p, and a target of T dollars?

The math isn’t too hard, but the results are surprising. Check it out.

Building a nervous system from everyday parts

File this under “things that I expected to happen, but not so soon”:

Researchers from the Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group at the University of Reading have developed a robot whose movements are controlled by neurons growing in a culture dish.

The really beautiful bit of the experiment is that the neurons seem to have self-organized into a trainable network. I wonder what happens when we scale up and go 3-D….
UPDATE: This may not be as radical as first thought. I still think it’s really cool.