October 23, 2002

Zen Centres and Freedom from Fear

Charles Miller connected some dots between zen peace of mind and releasing fear in his post Calm Zen Centre.

When I felt like screaming, I just said in a conversational tone to whoever happened to be around, I am the calm, Zen centre of my world. And you know what? It worked. It still works. Just a little mantra that puts my mind into a place where I can recover my balance, and move ahead.

And just before that post he described One of those days when everything just falls into place.
... where you manage to find flow, and stay in it. One of those days where you move from test, to code, back to test, back to code with ease. One of those days when you don't feel like you're fighting the environment.

Seems like as good a time as any to start posting my thoughts about fear and peace of mind.

Charles' description of those days is a perfect example of how I think life is supposed to work in general, and how it would work if we could only maintain that zen centre on a daily basis. It's fear that interferes with peace of mind. The negative consequences of fear are nicely summarized by Yoda in the Phantom Menace:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Though, the path from fear to suffering tends to be much more direct, in my experience.

Charles describes that his mantra works consistently to restore a sense of balance, even or especially when he feels like screaming. I've had exactly the same experience [1] using different mantras. My primary mantra is "release my fear." I have several other mantras which I use to reinforce my peace of mind including: "demand peace of mind", "demand belief in self", "trust that needs are met", and "practice acceptance". When I have the presence of mind to mutter these mantras to myself instead of screaming [2], I'm consistently rewarded with almost immediate peace of mind and a sense of balance. To the extent that I can maintain that balance, I enjoy life more and I am much more effective in general.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but that seems like enough for right now

[1] No two people can have exactly the same experience. To be more precise, I would describe my own experience with the same or strikingly similar words as Charles does.
[2] "screaming" in this context could be one of many unhelpful behavior patterns. Fellow geeks: think of it as a metasyntactic variable

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October 06, 2002

Dream Encyclopedia

Back in the late eighties I was reading an article about a CD-ROM encyclopedia and while reading I drifted off into a day dream that was only loosely related to the article. At some point my attention returned to the article and I skimmed back to where I was last paying attention to re-read the article. I realized that my daydream had been much more interesting than the article anyway.

At that time I was corresponding with a Canadian scholar at the University of Toronto whom I had met at a guest lecture at the University of Colorado. I described the day dream to Dr. Veltman in my next letter. That eventually lead to two semesters in Toronto and one in Siena working essentially as an apprentice to Dr. Veltman.

Quite a few years have passed since then, but the day dream is still fairly clear in my mind. It's been embellished somewhat over the years.

I'm looking at a photo-realistic animation of a falcon in flight. I'm able to adjust the camera position to observe the falcon's movement from various angles and to zoom in on details like the tail feathers, or wing tips. In an adjacent window pane I can see a larger view of the falcon in the context of its flight. The window panes are synchronized so that I can see how the adjustments in the tail feathers effect the flight path in the more distant view. As I'm watching this I feel myself developing an intuitive grasp of the relationship between the changes in the wings and the flight behavior. As the falcon dives toward it's prey I can see how the wings change position and see how minor changes in the wing feathers effect the flight.

In the close-up pane I turned on a wind-tunnel display which visualized the effects of the wing on the surrounding air. I could see how the changes in the feathers effected the turbulence behind the wing. And I could begin to see how the patterns of changes in turbulence correlated to the flight path in the other display.

Then I changed the second window pane to be a close-up view of the wing. But in this view I was able to remove layers from the display to see what was happening inside the bird. So I could remove the feathers and see how the skin flexed underneath. In the correlated pane I could still see the feathers. Again there was an intuitive connection developing between what I saw in the feathers and what I saw in the skin. I removed another layer and could see the muscles themselves. At this point I opened another pane to see the larger context again. Now there was some connection developing between the musculature and the changes in flight path.

Peel back another layer to see the various biological systems in motion: I could view the circulatory and respiratory systems, and in a separate pane correlate those systems with the muscles, or feathers, or flight path. There was a display that visualized what was happening in the nervous system. It looked something like distant thunderstorms firing through the limbs. And again I could correlate the visual patterns in the nervous system with other aspects of the flight of this falcon.

Having explored the falcon in some detail I brought up a different bird in the adjacent window to compare the systems and dynamics of the different birds. I started first with other raptors, an eagle, an owl, a hawk, and then compared a penguin swimming in comparison to the falcon flying. In each case I was able to compare the muscles and nervous systems across species. I could adjust the speed of the animations so that the flapping was in synch.

The next phase in the exploration took me to a slightly larger view. I zoomed away from the specific bird an looked instead at its niche. I could view the interplay between the insects which fed on plants, and the smaller birds which fed on the insects, and the falcons which fed on the smaller birds. I could display the nervous systems and see in the thunderstorm flashes when the predator and prey became aware of each other and how that awareness changed their behavior. I could zoom into different aspects of this wetland to see how the soil changed as it neared the edge of the water. And adjust the display to highlight different elements and chemicals in the stream. And in zooming and dialing in different aspects of the wetland I felt the same intuitive connections developing between the changes in the soil and how those effects rippled through other members of the wetland. In a sense it was a witnessing of The Butterfly Effect.

Zooming out I changed to a continental view where I could examine the paths of migratory birds and weather patterns. I could view the cycles in alpine watersheds and peel back the layers of earth to view aquifers. Adjusting time scales, I could watch the tectonic plates move, watch mountains form. Here I could compare different parts of the world in adjacent windows. In one I could see the Rockies, in the other the Himalayas.

Changing topics entirely, I opened a history of the Roman Empire. Here I could see in one window a display of the changes in the Roman boarder. In another window I could see a progression of technological discoveries. I began to see a correlation between the technologies of road building and the corresponding amount of territory under Roman control. Adjusting the time slices I viewed a colored display of the linguistic changes over the centuries. For a time there was a surge of red as Latin spread with the Romans. Over time the different regions colorations changed as French and Italian and Spanish diverged from Latin. I could correlate some of the natural boundaries with the changes in language.

In a later view I could see animated presentations about the movement of technology. Innovations moved rather slowly for centuries and then exploded after the invention of the printing press.

Though I still love this vision, I have been sobered over the years as I've developed a greater understanding of the insane amount of data that would have to be collected -- devices invented just to capture some of the information. Digitizing the world is no small undertaking. And in my daydream the interface to this encyclopedia was all completely intuitive. But I shudder to think of the effort required to enable an intuitive adjustment to point of view, and comparisons and layering and selecting of different species. Sigh.

On the other hand, Shrek animators used tools that allow them to manipulate digital muscles and bones to create the characters' life-like facial expressions. And The Visible Human gives some hints of the kind of data-based imagery that's possible. Some of the technology is out there in the form of medical visualization tools like CAT and MRI. And technical evolution happens insanely fast. I can't decide if I'm likely to see anything like this in my lifetime or not.

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October 04, 2002

Zork Threads

My earliest computer memory is from second or third grade (1975-76). A guy brought a line printer with a modem coupling into our schoool. The program in question allowed you to enter a number up to fourteen digits (or something like that) and it would type out the written form of that number. I think half the class asked for 99,999,999,999,999. No, I don't remember what the written form is. It was a cool demo for as young as we were.

But my first memory of actually playing with a computer is of Adventure.

When I was about nine, I think, Dad took my brother, Greg, and I to his office. To keep us out of everyone's hair he handed us off to "the computer guy." Computer Guy sat us down at a terminal built into the side of a computer which spanned the length of the wall. I think I remember it having Digital's name on it and being mostly blue. It might have been a PDP-10 or -11, but I was too young to know one way or another, and the memories are old enough now that I can't even be sure about the color. Computer Guy started up Adventure and showed us a few basic commands to navigate and then left us alone to explore. At some point he came back and showed us the magic words xyzzy and plugh. Greg and I were completely hooked.

When I was twelve I got my first computer, an Atari 800. I chose it over an Apple II because I liked it's editing mode better and I thought I was going to program games. It was on my Atari that I first played Zork I. I think I played it for a month before I remembered playing Adventure at Dad's work. I became an Infocom junkie. I bought Zork II and III and Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with my allowance. I bought InvisiClues.

In high school I got rid of my Atari and bought an Apple IIc. The computers at school were Apple's and I'd long since given up on programming video games. I wrote several different character generators for DnD in BASIC. Later on I tried to write one in Pascal, but the data structure I created to hold the characters was too big to compile. Some years later I sold my Apple IIc, the Okidata printer my Dad got me as a birthday present, and all my software to help pay for one semester of college.

In my first job after college, a coworker asked me why I always used the metasyntactic variables plugh and xyzzy. I recounted the tale of Dad's work and Computer Guy and Zork. After that conversation I got on the net and found a port of Infocom games to MacOS. I was so excited to get back in the little white house with the trophy case.

Five or more years later, I recounted the tale to another coworker. After hearing me reminisce about it for a while he said, "you'll like this, then" and promptly beamed me a copy of Frobnitz for my Palm III!

History of Zork

Posted 02:04 PM | TrackBack (0)


I like to brag about being a third generation native of Colorado. My Grandad was born in Meeker and my Dad was born in Oak Creek. I grew up in Lakewood, a suburb west of Denver. Living only an hours drive from the Continental Divide I have been spoiled by good ski conditions. I started downhill skiing when I was seven. My favorite place to ski is probably Loveland, with Mary Jane a very close second. I now live in Boulder which makes Eldora a compelling choice when there's fresh snow.

For you open source geeks, I'm a Turbine family committer. Though I've been decidedly silent on those projects lately. At first I was cranking for a deadline at PlanetCAD. We nailed that deadline. Shortly thereafter I was laid off. Since then I've been job hunting, bloghopping, and polishing this site.

I started practicing Aikido in 1989. My training has been interrupted a couple times by travel and injury and most recently by wedding plans. I tested for shodan (1st degree black belt) in April 1999. When I got started at the CU Aikido Club, I had no idea how lucky I was. The club is lead by students of Boulder Aikikai which is an exceptional place to train. For fellow aikidoka, people tell me I take pretty good ukemi.

On August 10th, 2002 I married Sarah Cleary. I cannot express the depth of my love for her. And since I'm no match for any of the Poets for describing love, I'll resist the urge to bore you with bad poetry. :-) I met her and got to know her through swing dancing. I'm a reasonably good lindy hopper (real men let go just before five), but I haven't been dancing regularly in a couple years. I was one of the founders of CSDN. I didn't have the time it deserved and left it in much better hands shortly after its inception.

I describe some of my professional accomplishments on my resume. Since I'm not limited for space here, I can say a little more about my time as a research assistant. Largely because of an idea I had for an animated encyclopedia, I was invited to spend a semester in Toronto essentially as an apprentice to Dr. Kim Veltman. While there I created an animation to explain a vanishing point which knocked his socks off and lead to a five month stay in Siena, Italy and another semester in Toronto the following year.

I've always got a list of projects simmering in the back of my mind. Regrettably few of them ever make it to the foreground.

I still play DnD with some friends from high school once or twice a month.

I like to think of my grandfathers as archetypes that have influenced my character. My Grandad was a mountain man. I don't really know all the specifics, but he trapped beaver and worked as a game warden by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. I remember him as very soft spoken, but a great story teller. He generally didn't say much, but if you could get him going, he could really spin a tale. He and his wife were both renowned marksmen.

My Grandpa was an inventor. His most notable inventions were the first pre-mixed soda fountain, and an insulated coffee pitcher which is now commonplace in restaurants like Denny's, Perkins, IHOP and so on. He was fairly wealthy for a time, while his soda fountain sold wherever Coke went in Europe. Later he lost his fortune on another invention. Uncle Bob reports that Grandpa had an opportunity to work on some early computers, but he didn't understand them and declined. I remember him continually pacing, cooking up some new idea.

Edit: You might be looking for another Eric Dobbs

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