Author Archive: Conrad Schiff

Issue 77: Eclipsed by a Summer Break

This month, the Blog Wyrm staff decided to take a break from publishing our favorite blogzine. The reasons for this are many and manifold. All of us need a time to recharge; kids need to be ferried back to school; and a once-a-in-long-time opportunity to see an eclipse presented itself.

So, in place of this month’s offering, we instead offer these very beautiful images of the cresent sun produced by the ‘pinhole’ cameras formed by spaces in leaves.

Eclipse Crescents

Ordinarily, we only see roundish, splotches since the round sun images overalap and the holes in the trees aren’t really pinholes. It is astonishing just how well the sun’s images appeared on the day of the eclipse.

So, we will be back next month with our usual spate of columns. Until then, enjoy!

Issue 76: Whose Line Is It?

I thought I would take a moment to say a few words about one of the funniest shows ever on TV – Whose Line Is It Anyway? Born across the pond in Great Britain, Whose Line is a hilarious improv show. If you’ve never seen it you should. Recently it’s become a staple viewing in the evening and it really brings a smile to my face before heading to bed.

And speaking of bringing smiles, this month’s columns are full of fun.

Creature comforts. That’s the term that the car companies used to describe the little touches that make a car fun to drive. While this may seem mindless advertising drivel to some, the way cars design their man-machine interfaces can make all the difference for the driver’s comfort and safety. Aristotle To Digital examines two such designs – one done right and the other wrong – and speculates on the thoughts that passed through the mind of the designer.

Constraints in dynamical systems are both interesting and complicated and applicable to a wide variety of situations. This month Under The Hood finishes its multi-part exploration of generalized coordinates the resulting relationship between energy and the Hamiltonian. This month’s column shows explicit examples for those cases when the energy and the $$h$$ function are looks at the theoretical basis for handling constraints within the Lagrange method of mechanics.

There is an interesting situation that develops in economics of efficiency and conservation. An increase in efficiency can undermine policy attempts to conserve natural resources. This occurs when the efficiency improvements make it widely more attractive to use the resource being conserved. Common Cents beings a two-aprt series on the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate and the Jevons Paradox that describe under what situation such a perverse calculus can occur.

The business of comics is always tricky – afterall the publisher needs to balance the need for quality from the creative team against marketing to catch the eye of the reader and pull them in. This undertaking gets even more complex when trying to reinvent a beloved, existing character and the results can go quite wrong. About Comics presents one such case – the reinvention of Doctor Strange in the mid-nineties.


Issue 75: Bad Messaging

Stop for a moment and consider Twitter. Not in the sense as a politican or sport star may use (or misuse) it but rather in it as a messaging platform. The tweet limit of a 140 characters is manifestly too short to do anything with except to utter a platitude, push out a pithy remark, or otherwise put one’s foot in one’s mouth. Most rational people would agree that Twitter is an excellent way to get in trouble. Now step back and consider that bumper stickers were the Twitter of those pre-wired generations doomed to live without the constant intrustion of the internet. How much less can be said with a bumper sticker? How much more is the possibility to misinterpret? The answer is a lot more.

Case in point. I was driving a couple week’s ago when a car got in front of me. The rear-end of this particular vehicle was festooned with lots of bumper stickers. One, in particular, stood out from all the others due to its immense font, white in color, standing proudly on a deep, dark green saying, for all the world to see “Kill Bees”.

Knowing the economic and biological importance of the honey bee, I was first confused and then indignant at the ignorance dancing in front of me. My indignation changed when, stopped by a red light, I was able to close enough to the car to see the much smaller font decrying mosquito and lawn treatments that kill bees.

Bad Messaging

Talk about bad messaging. The only thought that remained in my head was to wonder what kind of a person is unable to understand that only a few people will ever get close enough to their bumper to get the full idea. The majority of the motorists following this four-wheel tweet, no doubt, was left scratching its heads trying to figure out just why caused this guy to be filled with hatred for, arguably, the most beneficial of all insects.

Fortunately, this month’s issue of Blog Wyrm (its 75th no less) is a vertiable clinic in excellent messaging so sit back and enjoy the columns.

What is about the one-percent that gets under our collective skin and drive us to distraction? It’s not entirely clear but whatever the cause, the effect is that most of us turn into first-class chumps when we catch the disease, which cripples our economic literacy. Common Cents presents case studies of some of the unlucky ones in the hope that you’ll be able to notice the tell-tale signs in yourself or those around you and seek assistance before it is too late.

About Comics reviews The Black Monday Murders, created by Hickman, Coker, Garland, and Wooton. Part occult tale, part murder mystery, and part conspiracy theory, this intruiging new series from Image Comics that explores just how far people are willing to go for money and power. The resulting narrative is engaging and shows just why comics are such a versatile art form.

Under The Hood finishes its multi-part exploration of generalized coordinates the resulting relationship between energy and the Hamiltonian. This month’s column shows explicit examples for those cases when the energy and the $$h$$ function are the same and when they differ.

Aristotle To Digital continues its analysis of the K Means cluster algorithm. The new variation in the mix is a more robust seeding mechanism that promotes the algorithm up to the K++ Means.


Issue 74: Distracted Society

I know that we live in a distracted society. I get that. Everyday, I see people texting while driving, fumbling through conversations due to the interruptions of one gadget or another, and generally having the attention span of a squirrel. But I believe I have now seen, with my own two eyes, the pinnacle of our ability to be disengaged in our own lives.

Picture the scene. It is early night, about 9:30 or 10:00 pm. The sun has set and the streets are thin on people. A perfect time for lovers to be out and about, enjoying each others company with a tryst here and an assignation there. So I wasn’t surprised when I turned into a lonely byway and found a young man in a clutch with a young woman.

The young man held her at her hips, pulling her in tight to him. His forehead resting on her collar bone, he appeared by all my perception to be in the throws of deep emotion. For her part, she had her arms drapped over his shoulders. What could be more idyllic?

Then I noticed that she held between her hands a cell phone and that she was surfing the internet, or texting a friend, or playing Clash of Clans for all I know. What was clear was that the boy (it really is hard to call him anything else) was clearly engaged in their union while she was clearly not. Go figure.

Well this month’s offerings aren’t a distraction but rather an engaging enrichment sure to entertain.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, by now you’ve heard of the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.
Not only does this blockbuster feature the favorite characters from the first movie but it introduces a few new ones. Most notable amongst these is Mantis, a character whose comics existance is likely unknown to most of the viewers. About Comics tries to rectify that by giving a retrospective of her publication history.

It’s a free country right so how can individual choice be bad? Well generally this is true, except for those cases where we all share a common resource. In these cases, unthinking individual choice can lead to big problems. Common Cents presents concrete examples of this ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ that are no further than your car or your cellphone.

The human eye and the mind/brain behind it are remarkable things. Patterns in plots and pictures are evident to even the most unschooled unmongst us but remain essentailly elusive for computers. Aristotle To Digital explores a cluster identification algorithm that called K-Means Clustering that helps narrow the gap between human and machine.

Under The Hood begins a multi-part exploration of generalized coordinates the resulting relationship between energy and the Hamiltonian. This month the focus is on the general conditions when the energy and the $$h$$ function are the same and when they differ.


Issue 73: April is the Cruellest Month

This month’s title is pulled from the first line of The Waste Land, the long form poem by T.S. Eliot and hailed as one of the greatest and important poetic works of the Twentieth Century. I suppose that I’ll be labeled a cultural degenerate when I say that I really don’t care for The Waste Land. Yes, I’ve actually read it and invested time in deciphering it. I’ve listened to lectures analyzing its content against the wider cultural content pre-WWII England. Still I don’t like it – except for that first line and its unusual spelling.

That said, I am all for poetry. Robert Frost’s work pleasantly suite my mood, especially Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. <a href=”″>Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is also a favorite and William Butler Yeat’s The Second Coming has secured a permanently place in my mind. Other poems spring to mind and I could go on and on citing modern and traditional works. In the final analysis, my dislike of The Waste Land springs mostly from the my belief that obscurity doesn’t equal profundity and that length doesn’t equal quality – being clear and concise is a thing of beauty.

Speaking of clear and concise writing, this month’s issue has another spate of though-prvoking articles.

How much control should the government exert on the economy? When should it intervene on the behalf of one company against another? These questions have been debated as long as there have been economic concerns. This months, Common Cents looks at this question in the contect of Apple file for corporate divorce from Imagination Technologies, its primary supplier of the GPU-based technology for iPhone and iPad.

Ask most people about philosophy and they will invariable tell you that it is a difficult and esoteric subject practiced by brilliant, aloof people who can’t relate to day-to-day life. Indeed, the modern conception of a philosopher is a far cry from someone who welds parts together, or solders circuits, or manufactures hardware. And yet, deep philosophical questions can lurk even in industrial settings. Aristotle To Digital examines the intersection of troubleshooting and philosophy by way of an unusually-named modern tool of quality engineering – the fishbone diagram.

The power of the Lagrange method of mechanics can hardly be overstated. The use of generalized coordinates opened doors for solutions to problems that the older Newtonian approach struggles mightily to solve. The Lagrange approach even set the stage for the advent of non-Euclidean geometry and the invention of General Relativity. Unfortunately, with great power sometimes comes great confusion. Under The Hood begins a multi-part exploration of generalized coordinates the resulting relationship between energy and the Hamiltonian.

If you have ever opened a Golden Age comic, the first thing you probably notice is that the look and feel is obviously ‘old-fashioned. Regardless of the publisher, character, or focus, these Golden Age comics have a distinct look that visually identifies them as belonging to a classic era. The same can be said for Silver Age books and, to a lesser extent, also for the Bronze Age. The Modern Age books operate differently. About Comics looks at the evolution of the comics zeitgeist from the late 1930s to present day.


Issue 72: Listening to Words

At a recent lunch, a colleague of ours pointed out how he had begun to hone his listening skills and that he increasingly realizes just how often people tend to take for granted that everyone else uses words in just the same way that they do. For example, when negotiating a schedule, he says that he often hears his employees reaching agreements with each other – agreements that can’t be met but which sound good all the same. The reason the agreements sound good is that each person hears a set of words and imagines that the meaning is precisely what they want rather than what the other is actually intending. By listening carefully and slowing everyone down in order to more carefully define their terms, he’s been able to avoid a lot of headaches.

So we thought that this month’s Blog Wyrm would focus on words and meanings and perceptions in a variety of contexts.

Everyone knows that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? It’s one of Newton’s three laws and a pillar of physics. But sometimes what is meant by equal and opposite action and reaction is more complicated than at first glance. Under The Hood explores the various meanings and nuances of this old idea.

Understanding words precisely is a sign of intelligence. Being able to play with them and layer multiple meanings is also a sign of intelligence. Both attributes are needed for artificial intelligence to pass the Turing Test. But sometimes, as this month’s Aristotle To Digital argues, being confused may be the most important aspect to help an AI blend in.

Can words and ideas deeply affect the economy? Yes! when they persuade large numbers of people to ignore great job opportunities simply because these jobs aren’t cool. Thankfully, Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, cares about this jobs gap. Read this month’s Common Cents to see what he has to say (and, amusingly) how he says it.

Finally, this month’s About Comics looks at the evolution of words and ideas in comics over the decades from the early days in the Golden Age to the modern comic.


Issue 71: Sigh… The Oscars

February is usually a hard month. It’s typically cold and dreary. Historically, it brings a lot of snow. Every 4 years (well almost…), it gains a leap day, throwing off segments of the population as well as posing the standard conundrum as to the correct way to calculate the age of the people who are born on this day. Not to mention how hard it is to spell. But far more tiresome than any of these, is the yearly celebration of the narcissistic and the banal: The Oscars.

Nowhere else in the entire world can one find a bigger collection of spoiled, self-centered, ‘artists’ who use a faux awards ceremony as one part advertisement, one part ego stroke, and one part political stump speech. These artists tell us to love not hate while the characters they portray gun down everybody in sight. They tell us not to waste or pollute while cars, planes, and buildings are destroyed with gleeful abandon for the sake of their art. They tell us that torture doesn’t work while they manically portray some deranged caricature of mobster who always gets the information he wants by beating it out of some poor stooge. They tell us that what counts is what is on the inside, while they diet and train and liposuction and tanning booth their way onto the red carpet. They decry greedy capitalists, big business, and the sins of money while simultaneously demanding bigger and bigger paychecks so that they can spend profligately. Why we collectively watch this trash that masquerades as a venue for their much-deserved recognition is beyond me.

Fortunately for those of you who like counter-programming, Blog Wyrm has a fine spate of columns this month.

Starting off the rotation is an interesting analysis of decision making in the face of uncertainty. Aristotle To Digital dissects the Secretary Problem and shows that knowing precisely when to stop can be a very difficult thing indeed.

Ever hear of the twisted cubic? It’s a wonderful, elegant, simple-to-define space curve with some interesting properties that makes it an object of fair amount of mathematical research. Just the thing to demonstrate the nature of minimal frames, a topic that has been ongoing within Under The Hood.

There seems to be a universal argument in all creative undertakings as to who deserves the lions share of the credit. Is it the actor, or writer, or director and so on. Comic books are no different. This month’s About Comics discusses this perennial, fan-favorite source of drama.

What do haircuts and wine tasting have in common? If you didn’t say regulations and licensing then you need to read this month’s Common Cents where all will be revealed.


Issue 70: That’s 240 in Dog Years

Well Blog Wyrm has reached another milestone – 70 issues. And all in the space of about 2 years. Not bad! Imagine if we had put out one per year. That would be 240 in dog years (not sure what that old expression really means but why not slip it in – we’re celebrating here). One per year would make us a septuagenarian and we all know what that means:

Yep! The world would be our oyster. Well, enough with the jocularity and pointless banter and onto the columns.

Ever wonder how can we explain the sorry situation that exists within the American citizenry with regards to a working knowledge of the rules of economics? Well the blame rests squarely on the those innocuous board games that everyone is playing. Don’t believe it? Well this month’s Common Cents will prove it beyond a reasonable doubt (assuming that your reasonable doubt makes allowance for tongue-in-cheek shenanigans).

Speaking of shenanigans, an old and somewhat comical word, one need look no further than some of the colorful turns of phrase offered by our political class in their finest moments – when they are walking that fine line in a speech where they try to be all things to all people. And certainly the famous oration If By Whiskey by one Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. is often argued to be the pinnacle of political double-speak. But there are always two sides to every story and, as Aristotle To Digital demonstrates, Soggy may have more in common with ancient Greek philosophy than anyone ever thought.

On a more sober note (see what I did there), About Comics looks the great love story from J. O’Barr , The Crow. This graphic novel, which has all but disappeared from the comics discourse, was one of the great works from the 1980s. It went on to inspire a movie franchise and a number of spin-off works.

Finally, Under The Hood plays with the method of moving frames and shows how minimal frames can arise in a variety of ways.


Issue 68: Thanks for the USA

Each November, much of the USA gets geared up for a variety of holiday events. Turkeys meet their rightful end, kitchens are occupied with intermittant squabbles about the right way to cook, schedules are rearranged around football and Black Friday, and the transition to Christmas carols and poor holiday movies seems to come earlier and earlier. It is really easy to become jaded and turned-off by the whole spectacle. But we at Blog Wyrm would like to remind our readers that the thing we should be most thankful for is the very system of the United States that allows us to be crazy fools, from time-to-time. The same holds true in our political and economic circles. All of these can be summarized in one word: freedom. Let us all be thankful for the freedom that living in the oldest and greatest experiment in democracy.

We can also be thankful for the really cool columns coming out this month.

Unfortunately Jack wasn’t able to successfully complete her Halloween Challenge on Green Screen. However, she’s keeping up with her current streak of out-of-the-box material. Not only is it the first full-length feature on a television series, it also happens to be about an anime. Don’t let that scare you away, though; this show is chock full of details virtually any audience can enjoy.

This month’s Aristotle To Digital examines the application of regression within logic throughout the ages. While many things in life change, the use of this logical tool has remained essentially the same over 2500 years yielding a variety of really amazing results ranging from ontological justifications of Man’s purpose, to the existance of God, to the foundations of mathematical set theory. This is one tool in the human toolbox that looks like it will never become obsolete.

Under The Hood continues its analysis of waves and the wave equation with particular focus on the Lorentz transformation and how the speed of the wave become invariant to all observers. This famous and important result is the cornerstone of relativity theory.

About Comics finishes the two-part series on the Watchmen mini-series. Despite its highly-lauded position within the literature of the twentieth century and its beautifully-constructed facade, Watchmen is, at its core, a vapid and simplistic exploration of nihilistic philosophy.

Do you think that a pencil is simple? Do you think that it is easy to manufacture? Read this month’s Common Cents as it argues that the division of labor and the Invisible Hand guide society in into making it look easy when it is anything but.


Issue 67: The October Classic

By the time this issue of Blog Wyrm publishes, the world may know the outcome of one more game in the truly historic World Series matchup between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. Perennial losers both, the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and the Indians since 1948. On the surface, it is hard to decide who to root for since both teams tug at the heart strings for support with their down-on-their luck history and their diehard, loyal fan base. From shear length-of-drought, one may be tempted to root for the Cubs. But Blog Wyrm would remind the reader that the Cubs are the only team in baseball that has ever turned a simple fan into a pariah.

The famous Steve Bartman incident, which took place on October 14, 2003, showed not only how petulant Cubs fans could be but also how low-class several members of the team were and still are. Blaming the Cub’s NLCS collapse on a single play, many in Chicago were ready to tar-and-feather Steve Bartman instead of putting blame where it was due – on the players. Bartman’s quality of life was irrevocably destroyed. The only reason that Blog Wyrm isn’t ready to completely argue for the total rejection of the Cubs is that Bartman maintains his loyalty and support for the team even to this day.

So if you root for the Indians in the Fall Classic that’s great. If you root for the Cubs, do it for the right reason – that a win by them may finally bring some measure of peace into the life of a guy who didn’t deserve all the grief the Windy City heaped upon him.

Now onto the columns.

Under The Hood explores how waves and the wave equation look to different observers with different points-of-view. Contrary to the usual ‘lore’ found in some physics circles, there is a reasonable mathematical and physical interpretation of the wave equation after it has been subjected to a Galilean transformation. Since this behavior is central to the arguments that lead to Special Relativity, it is particularly important to understand just how far one can get with the classical picture.

Continuing last month’s theme on how complexity can arise from simple rules repeated often, Aristotle To Digital discusses Conway’s game of life. This form of cellular automata pretty much launched a revival in that field and makes for a fun home programming project. It is amazing to see the boundless patterns that emerge from these simple rules. And, by the way, the how system is Turing complete, meaning that one can actually program the Game of Life using the Game of Life – very meta, in the strictest sense of that term.

When are money and wealth the same thing? Almost never! But that hasn’t stopped a huge portion of the known world from conflating the two with sometimes humorous and other times disastrous consequences. Join Common Cents as it reviews Jane Gleason-White’s book Double Entry and reflects on the creation of wealth amidst the assignment of credits and debits on the accounting ledgers of the world.

For a different “October Classic,” our own Jack attempts a Halloween-themed marathon in Green Screen. She attempts to watch and review a different creepy movie every day of the month! Follow her on her quest starting with the Halloween Challenge post and continuing through the “Next Post” link at the bottom of each one. How far did she get?

And finally About Comics begins the first of a two-part installment on the acclaimed Watchmen mini-series. Widely held as one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century, the 12-part comic series by Moore and Gibbons set the bar for what comics should/could be. But does it really deserve that lofty position? Read and find out.