Just Don’t Tell Me It’s Maths

English: cuisenaire rods

Cuisenaire rods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last weekend a long time friend of mine came over and was helping me do some organisation of the shelves in my lounge room. He came upon a small pile of hexaflexagons and asked what they were.

Despite all evidence to the contrary I’ve always thought of myself as terrible at mathematics. My view is entirely due to the terrible state of Maths education in Australia in the 1970s and the terrible High School I went to. I never did get the hang of algebra in my second year and from that point on I was lost.

I’ve always had a fascination with puzzles and patterns. When I was small it was my Spirograph, string art and Cuisenaire rods then it was Martin Gardner’s book ‘Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions’ – the first chapter devoted to hexaflexagons. I remember my brother and I both littering the house with them.

It reached it’s height when I was 18 and meant to be studying for the final high school exams. Instead I spent two months studying Rubik’s cube to develop my own solution and a set of transforms for a dozen or so patterns. Since then it’s been the odd outbreak of fascination with something but never the single minded dedication of those two months. So I have done some incredible things over the years, just don’t tell me it’s maths and I’m hooked.

It was last year my favourite YouTube recreational math freak Vi Hart celebrated Flexagon month by shooting a few videos dedicated to them and I just had to make some of my own and go through all that fun again.

If you enjoy recreational maths or puzzles you should have a good look at all her videos. Until then get yourself a paper strip, make a hexaflexagon and get flexing.

Written in response to this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge.

Sparse Prose

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, late 1939. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Weekly Writing Challenge asks “Go back through your blog archives and find a bloated, nasty, air-filled paragraph. Copy it in all it’s former glory into a new post. Paste it a second time so that you can edit it until it cries for mercy and we can see the strong, shiny, new version below. Strip out the adverbs, replace weak verbs with strong verbs, axe the bloated phrasery that takes up space and yet says nothing.”

It adds “Editing takes practice. Self-editing can be especially difficult because it’s often hard to see the problems with our own writing. Perseverance pays off — keep at it — the lean and mean prose you produce will be worth the effort.”

That’s true. Editing does take practice. Truth is that this exercise isn’t going to be easy for me as I’ve had practice. I spent several years as a magazine editor with some hard teachers. The two copy editors I worked with had both previously worked at a good newspaper and were patient teachers.

When I finished I could write tight prose and had little problem cutting a magazine contribution by a quarter. When I post something on this blog it’s already had a tight edit.

That said lets give it a try. First the original.

From “My Baby Pillow And Meditation”

The first baby pillow caused a huge rumpus; when my mother was at the University studying one weekend my father had to call the doctor and he mentioned how dirty my baby pillow was. My Dad took it upon himself to get rid of it. After he had thrown it into the incinerator my mother came home to discover a four year old frantic and screaming so the sewing machine came out and with an old throw pillow contributing the filling and a tablecloth contributing the black and white check cotton a new one (with one of the old baby pillowcases on it) was rushed into service. Mum said she first spent ten minutes telling my father exactly what she thought of his intelligence and thinking then not talking to him for two days.

Now for an edit.

My first baby pillow caused a real rumpus. Mum was out Saturday. My father had to call the doctor for me. He called my pillow “dirty”. Dad got rid of it in the incinerator and Mum arrived to a four year old frantic and screaming. The sewing machine came out, a throw pillow gave up the filling and a black and white check tablecloth the cover. The new one, with an old pillowcase on it, was rushed into service. Mum gave Dad her thoughts on his intelligence for ten minutes then the cold shoulder for two days.

134 words to 97. Not bad, I think I’ll take that. I’m not sure that the second version is better but it is tighter. The Weekly Writing Challenge named Ernest Hemingway as known for his “unadorned, sparse prose style” and so before attempting this edit I dragged ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ off the shelves and read a few pages. To me my edited version feels more like Papa Hemingway’s style than my own and I think I was subconsciously going for that when I did my edit.


A photo of an iconic picture. Arnold "Jack" Williams on the Bridge.

A photo of an iconic picture. Arnold “Jack” Williams on the Bridge.

I live in Sydney and in this town there are two things that can be described as “iconic” – when I was very young living a hundred miles north it was only one but then they built the Opera House. The first iconic landmark was the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Since 1932 the Sydney Harbour Bridge has joined the city of Sydney to the suburbs of the North Shore. It’s easily recognised not just for the central role it plays in transport — every New Year’s Eve it provides the focus for the first big fireworks display in the world with fireworks shooting up from it’s pylons and arch while more cascade from the deck.

A bridge across the harbour had long been dreamed of before it was finally built. Francis Greenway, a notable architect in the young colony of NSW, first proposed it in 1820. A century had to pass before construction started in 1922.

It was in 1928 that construction of the steel arch of the bridge started but by then Arnold “Jack” Williams had been a foreman rigger on the construction for just over a year. Jack wanted the high wages of the Bridge crew to support his wife and then his baby sons, in 1930 he was taking home twenty nine pounds a week when a carpenter, painter or plumber was getting four and a half.

By the time the bridge was opened on Saturday March 19, 1932 a lot had changed for Jack. He now had two small sons and his wife had left him, taking off to Perth with a sailor. He’d done well though, he was now a foreman rigger.

That Saturday was a big day, the culmination of years of work for many and Jack was filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment at what he had helped achieve. Jack wanted to share that pride with his sons but Roy was still too young, Eric at three and a half might appreciate the celebrations so Jack made a decision. Eric would come along with Jack to the opening including the march by the workers across the Bridge before it opened.

Years later Eric didn’t remember anything about that day but he did remember his father telling him that Jack had carried him on his shoulders for the march. It was one of those family stories, the ones you’re never sure are real but you sure do want them to be true.

Eric did well for himself too. Jack had made sure that all three of his sons got a good education and Eric had risen high in the steel company that had given him a traineeship to put him through University and lived in a unit right on Sydney Harbour where you could see the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Then in 1982 there were celebrations for the Bridge’s 50th Anniversary including a documentary. In the documentary there was some film of the opening celebrations including that worker’s march. There, about half way along the marching workers, was a lean man in his early thirties carrying on his shoulders a small boy.

So I live in Sydney where the Sydney Harbour Bridge is more than iconic, it’s probably the most recognised landmark in the country. To me though it has a special place in my heart, after all my Grandad carried my Dad across it to celebrate the construction all those years ago.

This post was written for the Weekly Writing Challenge entitled “Iconic”.


This weeks Weekly Challenge:

Tell us about a character in your life. It could be your best friend, your partner, your child, or even your third grade teacher. With as much detail as possible, make this person real for us. Tell us more than what they look like or how you met. Let us know what their laugh sounds like, or that oddball quirk that makes this person so unique.

(I’m not sure how well I’ve hit this one but I’ve edited it twice without, I think, really improving it so here it is.)

Chris was a true introvert, hiding not just personality but intelligence and knowledge in the quiet nature. To those that knew there were many gifts in the knowing; the strong friendship, almost love, given to me.

There was the pain we shared at being outsiders, both of us saddled with depression, we were both capable of manic silliness and strangeness that further set us apart from our teenage peers.

Chris was the strongest of the three of us in his way. To watch us you would have said Pete, but Pete was just an extrovert, broken deep inside. Chris was the strength and glue of our triumvirate.

The bright eyes, the long black hair, the waif like arms and legs so thin in the thinnest of faded jeans. Bursting with energy. Why do I remember smiling but not laughing?

We talked, how we talked, talking about nothing and everything. Teenagers. The most interesting debates to us were about trivialities. I thought I was a reader but Chris had read everything. Science Fiction, philosophy, maths, science, I loved that mind and the willingness to share.

Then there was the music, sure we all listened to Double Jay but Chris would listen constantly and haunt the indie record shops, coming back with singles from Klark Kent, The Dead Kennedys and even more obscure bands from overseas such as The Normal while we went all over town to see The Saints, Radio Birdman and Jimmy and The Boys.

We were young, it was the Seventies and despite appearances Chris was our leader.

Long Live The Paperback

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

English: A Picture of a eBook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weeks writing challenge from Daily Prompts asks “How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand?”

I love a paperback. There is nothing nicer than browsing through a bookstore looking at all the covers, picking up the odd book and reading the back cover and inside the front cover before deciding to buy. I also love the feel of a paperback in my hand as I read.

There are also the technical advantages, a paperback doesn’t need power and you can read it in a wider range of light levels such as a sunny beach. I’ve also found a number of e-books with terrible quality control, particularly in fiction. One notable example was one of John Marsden’s novels from the “Tomorrow When The War Began” series where the publisher had obviously produced the e-book by scanning from paper and had done little if any checking of the result — it was full of errors that even a quick scan with a spelling checker would have picked up.

It’s also (currently) much easier to organise a bunch of paperbacks than e-books. I know that the bookcase in my office is the place to go for tech books and that in my lounge room one bookshelf tends to have general fiction and reference and the other has science fiction and non-fiction. When I’m browsing for a book to read that’s handy. On an eReader you can only list by author, title or date last read — they need to allow some sort of tagging or categorisation for those times when you think “I’d like to read some science fiction but I’m not sure what”.

On the other hand there are reasons that I love Kindle on my iPad. The ability when travelling to carry a lot of books in a small package is a dream for an avid reader like me. Before I had the iPad I littered the world with books that I bought cheaply and left behind as I travelled (you can even find an English language second hand bookstore in Rome and Florence if you try).

An eReader is also extremely useful for carrying technical documentation and books. Whenever I get a new gadget I always look on the web to see if I can download the manual in PDF and load it into my reader. As an IT professional I also have a number of tech books I use frequently and a number I am reading for my education and they are much easier to carry in an eReader. An eReader also makes multiple bookmarks and annotations easy and, at the same time, don’t damage the book as it does when you turn down page corners or write in the margins of a paperback.

You might think that e-books are cheaper, and for tech books they often are, but I find it surprising how often Amazon will sell you a mass market paperback of a fiction book for less than they sell you an e-book. I imagine this is because publishers offer Amazon a large margin on mass market paperbacks that allow them to discount steeply while keeping margins on e-books smaller. This is going to have to change.

I’d also like to once again raise the idea of browsing. Browsing at Amazon or in iBooks is still a much less pleasant experience than a good bookstore and the recommendation engines are terrible. When it comes to finding a new author or an interesting new book my favourite bookstore in Newtown is streets ahead of anything online. I even buy books there knowing I could get them cheaper on online just because I value the skill of the people that stock and staff the store (I’d ask you to do the same with your local bookstore).

Then there’s the question of lending, giving away and selling of my old books. I don’t often lend a book, perhaps I treasure my books too much and trust people too little, but I do it. I also give away a lot of books once I’ve read them a few times. This is what makes opportunity shops and second hand bookstores such a nice place to find inexpensive books. This is not just possible with e-books under the current licensing restrictions. Another thing that should change.

So to (finally) answer the question, when it comes to reading, apart from all the other uses I have for books such as reference and education, I prefer an old fashioned collection of dead trees. I do have to admit that for convenience an eReader is becoming much more useful and I expect I’ll be using one more and more over the next few years but I will always prefer a paperback, and I don’t think I’ll be alone.

The Devil Is In The Details

This weeks Writing Challenge from the Daily Post asks:

Your challenge this week is to practice your powers of observation. Take any person, place, or event, and write three paragraphs describing your subject in great detail. Here are three scenes to get you thinking — feel welcome to choose one or more of these scenes and riff off of it, or create your own:

A woman walks into a restaurant. Imagine this scene and capture every detail you can in a few paragraphs. Describe the woman: is she old, young, or in-between? What type of restaurant is it: fancy, casual, or a diner? What is she doing? Pack as much detail as you can into a few paragraphs that will help us imagine this woman clearly.

So I decided to give you an opening (didn’t we have something about opening sentences recently?), three paragraphs to open up a story.

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Wrapping Up 2012


This weeks Weekly Challenge from the Daily Prompt editors at WordPress.com is to “wrap up” the year.

Having a look back at 2012 for me is a mixed blessing. This year has had a few happy moments but includes a lot of pain.

The two things that leap immediately to mind are happy; Sarah’s wedding and the arrival of Macduff.

Sarah is the first of my brother’s children to marry, his eldest. Sarah is an amazing young woman who has carved out a career for herself as a science journalist after gaining a degree from Johns Hopkins and then a Masters in Science Journalism from UC Santa Cruz (go Banana Slugs!).

Sarah fell in love with an Army doctor, well, one in training, and so found herself moving to Hawaii when he was posted there to finish his medical training. They both love each other deeply so do not regret the move but I know both Brian and Sarah miss their family some. At the same time they both enjoy an outdoor life and Hawaii has much to offer them, they are constantly going hiking or off to one of the other islands for a weekend.

Their wedding was a wonderful, joyful and romantic day. The bride looked breathtakingly beautiful in her white gown and the groom looked handsome (and, as he should, just a little bemused, confused and shocked) in his Army uniform. Sarah’s sister Paige stood by her side and looked almost as beautiful.

The day will live in my memory for a long time. Thank you to Sarah and Brian for a wonderful day and to my brother for making it possible for Jessica and I to get there.

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Hitting Freshly Pressed

There's my post up on the Freshly Pressed page.

There’s my post up on the Freshly Pressed page

Tony was up to his usual morning routine: radio on 702 Sydney and MacBook Air on his lap as he sat on the couch, web browser open with multiple tabs showing his mailbox, calendar, RSS reader, Google Plus and Facebook – the usual list of suspects.

This morning he also had open a tab new to his routine, WordPress.com showing the blog reader, a feed of blogs on WordPress.com that he had started to follow.

I had started up a WordPress.com blog after giving up trying to keep my own blog free of spam comments and malware break ins. It had been an entire weekend’s work to extract all my posts from two other blogs and shift them to WordPress.com. I was happy with the shift, I’d found a theme I liked and even spent some time tweaking and customising it. I’d already had a couple of good comments on posts and a few other WordPress.com bloggers were following my blog.

A post on “Daily Post”, a blog written by staff at WordPress.com, caught his eye. Weekly Writing Challenge — Mind the Gap asked bloggers a question “Are animated GIFs the stuff of junior highschool hijinks or, are they the political cartoons of the new millenium?”.

Brain cells lit up, synapses connected and a few vague memories surfaced in Tony’s mind. He remembered seeing some animated GIFs which were high quality photographs with a small amount of subtle movement animated on top. New York Fashion Week also seemed to be associated with the memory.

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Animated GIFs, junk or art?


(c) Beck and Burg Cinemagraph animated GIF from Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg

Are animated GIFs the stuff of junior highschool hijinks or, are they the political cartoons of the new millenium? What do you think? This was the question from WordPress.com’s Mind The Gap.

OK, let’s start with a little about graphic file formats. The file formats used on the web are changing. At one time the GIF was king. The format was developed by CompuServe, the first major commercial online service in the US. It is limited to just 256 different colours in each image. It’s a ”lossless” format in that no information is thrown out during the compression. Over time the low colour resolution meant it was overtaken by JPEG which offered more colour fidelity but does lose information when compressing the image. Now even JPEG is starting to wane and most people are changing to PNG, back to a lossless format.

There is one place where GIF still reigns, neither JPEG or PNG offer any ability to have those short animations of the animated GIF. This year the format celebrated it’s 25th birthday.

So does the animated GIF offer anything other than short animations of cats, dogs and babies doing amusing things? Can we find art or commentary in the format?

The truth falls somewhere in the middle. While the vast majority of them are just ”highschool hijinks” it is possible to find examples that are lifted above this. There are some that become art.

I’m a great believer in art, a lover of art. I also believe that art can be found in many places, not just hanging on the walls of large stone buildings titled ”Gallery”. I appreciate the art in many places such as paper folding, painted on building walls, on the stage of a theatre and in a well written novel just to name a few of my favourites.

I don’t know about political cartoons but photographer Jamie Beck and motion graphic artist Kevin Burg have used the GIF format to create what can only be described as art. Art is something that touches you, informs you, makes you think. Beck and Burg produce photographs with a small amount of movement that do just that.

They call them cinemagraphs, more than a picture but less than a video. They are like a moment in time brought to life in this file format. You can see them here and here. These are photographic gems that could be done no other way than by animated GIF.

This trend of animated GIF as art is seemingly a new one but more and more artists are exploring it. While the work of Beck and Burg was the first I saw they are not alone. A search at DesignBoom for articles tagged animated-gif-art brings up over a dozen other articles about artists exploring the use of the medium in interesting ways. Among them another favourite of mine, the DANSE$ project from Ryan Enn Hughes that he describes as ”combining aspects of photography, motion pictures and painting in a digital environment.” Hughes work moves away from the realism of Beck and Burg into a style reminiscent of impressionist paintings.

Earlier this year The Photographer’s Gallery in London had an exhibition of animated GIFs.

“In a world where most Digital SLR cameras can shoot high definition video, digital technology raises questions concerning what a photograph is and how we make sense of it,” said Katrina Sluis, the curator of a digital series that begins with the animated GIF exhibit, in a statement. “Our opening show embraces the animated GIF as a uniquely screen-based image.”

Is the animated GIF the political cartoon of the new millenium? Perhaps not but this format is certainly more than high school hijinks. The web is as broad as it is deep and just like everything else; Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr and even WordPress blogs; it is possible to find the juvenile, the silly and the amusing but it is also possible, in all of those places to find more — intelligence, taste, skill and yes, art.