Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Vancouver Lookout

This morning, I caught the sunrise at 8 am. I still can't believe the sky begins to light up around 7 am and by 4:30 pm it's already dark.

Soon, the sun rose into those clouds and it was dark again, but then, the clouds scattered and the day was spotless and sunny. My first and only thought was - Lookout (and books after I get back down).

The Vancouver Lookout is a 147 m tall observation tower with a rotating restaurant. Reminds me of Seattle's Space Needle. Underneath it is the Harbour Centre with Simon Fraser University's books and gift shop :D Today, they had a book clearance and I managed to get three awesome titles for a bargain price. I also bough a maple syrup lollipop and Canadian Moose Droppings which are actually milk chocolate almonds :))
Going Up

I love heights and I don't enjoy crowds. The lookout is situated nicely above the city and during my visit, there was barely anyone except the tour guide and security. At one point, a free tour was announced for the ones already on the observation deck, but I was the only one who showed up so the tour felt like a friendly discussion. I learned a few things about the sights visible from the Lookout today. First, what exactly was I looking at.

Mt Baker                                                                  Vancouver's industrial port

Canada Place (where cruise ships come)                 Stanley Park and North Vancouver

The Lions Gate Bridge is the bridge that connects Stanley Park to North Vancouver and its name comes from these two mountain peaks which look like two lions lying down.

Gastown is the oldest part of Vancouver. They say when Gassy Jack came to what would later becomeVancouver, back in 1867, he noticed there were no saloons for a drink. So he called to the people working at the nearby mill and in less than a day since his arrival, Gassy Jack had his saloon up and running. In Victorian times, 'to gas' meant to talk a lot, something for which Jack was famous, thus his nickname.

Seaplanes take tourists on a truly panoramic view of Vancouver and beyond. Also, if you'd like an alternative to cars, there are SeaBusses to take you to North Vancouver or Granville Island.

I love this view - like a gem hidden in the distance.


Friday, December 11, 2015

London Drugs

When I walked around Pacific Centre (one of the local malls), I kept on seeing London Drugs directions and signs and wondered why do these people have so many pharmacies! I was also surprised not to find any giant stores in which they sell anything like Carrefour or Auchan back in Bucharest. I really needed a frying pan and I noticed the grocery stores around here didn't sell any so I searched on the internet. I found an impressively diverse collection of pans - guess where... at London Drugs. They sell frying pans in the pharmacy? Hey, there's a post office in the pharmacy so I shouldn't be surprised. But that was when I saw the London Drugs website and I understood that it is the local Carrefour. It took me a week to find it - seriously, why the name? It's confusing. I avoid pharmacies by default. The story of London Drugs is an example of "Start Small. Dream Big". They began as a local, humble drug store in Vancouver in 1945 and they named themselves after George VI's home, London. At that time, George VI was the king of Canada. Today, apart from the heart of their business, the pharmacy, they also sell computers, TVs, furniture, cosmetics, appliances, toys, books, frying pans and pretty much anything you'd need.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sunny Day!

This is the first clear blue sky I've seen since arriving in Vancouver. As soon as one ray of light touched a glass building, the whole city seemed to have lightened up. The sun was everywhere and the light was bright because there are so many glass skyscrapers around.

I've always though tall mountains close to water make an impactful scene together. The peaks I can see from my bedroom are about 1,400 meters high and even if they're small compared to others, the fact that you're standing at their feet and looking straight up at their foreheads makes them feel much bigger than that. The skyscrapers in the North of the peninsula are built on lower ground than the building I am in. In the photo below you can see a glimpse of the Vancouver Lookout. During the night, it has red lights glowing on top like a Christmas tree.

Today I've explored the Public Library in detail. It has 7 levels with books sorted by topics. For instance, you get the Children's books on one level, Fantasy, Fiction and Mystery on another. In bookshops around Bucharest, amongst the local books and international best sellers, you sometimes see a few colorful covers belonging to fiction stories from overseas under the "Foreign Books" section. Those were the ones I was always looking for. When I entered the Fantasy and Fiction sections here :D [I need an emoticon for a really big grin] there were countless colorful covers beckoning to quench my endless thirst for exciting stories. I recognized some books from home and found other promising titles. Can't wait to get back there and read! The library - as in the building with the books - is surrounded by cafes and places to get a nice hot drink for you and your books.

This is not your ordinary library; you don't just borrow books here, this place takes its role seriously in the community and organizes many events and workshops for the people. There are many technical workshops which teach attendants how to use a computer, a tablet or the internet, but also more advanced technology such as video and sound editing. There is an actual recording studio for those workshops within the library. Then, there are workshops focussed on careers and finding a job. There are creative writing workshops for children, teens and adults and reading clubs. ( They're awesome. :)
The library also has a green roof. Here is a nice replica of the library displayed on the 7th floor near the special collections, close to the original copy of "A Christmas Carol".


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Second Trip Around Vancouver

Hello dear readers,

When I'm in a new place I can't stay put. I have to explore everything and walk everywhere. So after a week long cold and being held indoors, I'm all over Vancouver these days. Yesterday's "stroll" completed my jet lag recovery since I woke up at 8 am instead of 5 am. I had breakfast at Gutenberg's (Egg Benedict with turkey this time and a giant waffle) and went to apply for a Social Insurance Number.

Today, I had to go groceries shopping, but since I was quickly done with my visit to Service Canada, I decided to make a tiny detour by MacLeod's Books and The Paper Hound Books which happen to be very close to each other. Both shops have floor to ceiling large bookcases filled with books to the brim and a lot of piles of books everywhere. There are so many books that they form mazes around the shop. There are new books, old books, timeless books, rare books on pretty much any topic you could want.

After I accidentally found the exit and persuaded myself in getting out of the shops, I kept walking down Pender Street. It was still early to go grocery shopping in my view and I thought I could just have time for a brief stop at the cinema in The International Village Centre. But as I was walking I saw Opus down a street to the left and I couldn't resist. Opus Art Supplies holds my other weakness - notebooks and ink :D I rolled down the hill towards the shop and relaxed my eyes on the large variety of notebooks, papers, fountain pens, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With all the packing I've been preparing for my move to Canada, I had forgotten to take a few ink cartridges for my pen. I was reminded of this when my pen suddenly dried up while I was writing. I hate it when that happens because I'm usually writing something important with my pen and by the time I find a replacement I forget my idea.

After I unglued my eyes from the notebooks and got my ink cartridges, I went to see if the Vikings and Dragons shop was open in the International Village Centre. And it was! I browsed around and there were rune dictionaries and collectibles, jewelry and statues. I've never seen so many dragon statues in one place. At 1:15 pm I was up on the 3rd floor at the cinema and got a ticket for The Good Dinosaur just as it began. I haven't been to the cinema in a long while and the experience of the big screen was welcoming.

When the movie was done, I decided it was time to go groceries shopping. The shops closest to me are Urban Fare and Choices Market. They have fruit and vegetables, meats and cheese, a salad bar and a hot food bar. Also, you can find a few pet accessories and cleaning and cooking articles. And light bulbs. There is always a wellness area in each store which has supplements - not to be confused with a pharmacy. (You find post offices in pharmacies :)) At lest the one near me has.)

It's been raining all day with brief stops so I didn't take any pictures. Instead, I bought a new umbrella (from the pharmacy) and someone stopped me to ask where I had bought it which is odd because you can buy an umbrella here in nearly every spot where there is a cash register.

Well, that would be it for today. I'll return with more tales as I explore Vancouver.

See you.

Monday, December 7, 2015

My First Wandering Through Vancouver

It's December and I've just moved from Bucharest, RO to Vancouver, BC earlier this week. The 17h journey was fine and drafty and the huge Boeing 747 landed like a feather - really, that was the smoothest landing I've ever experienced. Of course, what better way to start the week in a new place than to catch a good cold and stay put when there's so much to explore. But today I felt much better so I went outside and what a fine day I chose, too. I got to see the Christmas parade on Robson Street!

Listen to Vancouver's Christmas Radio while reading this post. It adds to the mood. I grabbed breakfast at Gutenberg's Cafe near the Public Library. Got Eggs Benedict and fluffy buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup. I tasted maple syrup for the first time and it was less sweet than I expected. All the better - it means I can eat more of it without being sick.

Then the exploring began and I'll surely feel it tomorrow - there are many climbing streets in Vancouver.  I left home at 9 am and returned around 3 pm. I haven't counted the miles I made, but I've been to the public library, to the Pacific Centre, to Canada Place up at Vancouver Harbor, to the Transylvanian Bakery (it is an 8 year old Romanian family business which makes deserts) where I met the owner (I'm getting a Savarina tomorrow), to the International Village Centre where there is an incredible store called Vikings and Dragons! There are statues, T-shirts, carpets and whatnots - all with Celtic decorations and dragons! But it was closed...

Around 9 o'clock it's not yet fully light outside and there aren't many people on the streets, either. But the restaurants and cafés are packed. There was a nice queue waiting to get a table at Medina's. And for good reason - Medina is an amazing café with Belgian wafers and interesting dishes such as Avocado Toast (a thick layer of fluffy bread covered in avocado and tomato salsa served with sunny side eggs). The decorations are vintage and there is a cozy feeling about that place.

After more walking around identifying shops and heritage buildings I was walking down Georgia Street when I began seeing people gathering on the edge of the street. Also, a crowd of red clad elves hurried towards downtown. Then I read one of the red banners hanging from every light pole on the street - Vancouver Christmas Parade. I came to the Art Gallery at Robson Square where carols were sung and visitors could decorate their own gingerbread and snowflakes. At 1 o'clock the parade began and so did the downpour. My hands were numb on the umbrella holder and on the camera. Grinch was marching amongst the police officers :))

I'm tired now from my cold earlier this week, from the walking and from the remains of the jet lag. I'll be doing more exploration this week. Can't wait :D I can see the stadium from my bedroom window and tonight it's red. In the past days it's been green and blue. I wonder what color will it be tomorrow.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Conflicts and Questions

Dear Reader,

It's been a while since my last post. Sorry to have kept you waiting for more stories or drawings. The past months have been a confusing time with many ups and downs, a rain of epiphanies and a storm of sad news.

A few days ago, I came across a quote which made me shudder. It belongs to Warsan Shire, a gifted Somali-British poet who feels her words. The quote read:

Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
Ran my fingers across the whole world
And whispered
Where does it hurt?

It answered

Deep down, panic is the first reaction to the past months' news as fear for the uncertain future increases. In a story, harmony is disrupted by a conflict which is always resolved one way or another. This world seems to be going from one conflict to another regardless of topic, just for the sake of it. But, why not prevent conflicts? There are so many practical books on how to handle conflicts at work or in a team, but nothing on preventing global scale conflicts. People say they want peace. I wonder how they each, define the peace they wish for... So, in this post, I'm not going to give a solution like I've always been driven to do. Instead, I'm going to ask you a question: 

What do we, souls living on this planet, need to do, invent, build or learn in order for our world to stop having conflicts between its people and between people and nature?

Here is a song for you to go with that thought: Beneath Your Beautiful.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

10 Lego Machines You Wouldn’t Believe Someone Actually Bothered To Build

The humble Lego block - we’ve all met with it, either in childhood as our favorite toy or in adulthood picking them painfully from our feet in the kids’ bedroom. The following constructions made with Lego are way beyond these domestic encounters - in fact, they’re more than mind blowing, they’re unbelievable.

Lego offers an impressive variety of pieces and many of the creations on this list use them in order to gain functionality, not just shape or size. Lego Education, Mindstorms and Technic provide the mechanical parts necessary to bring these constructions to life.

10. Drawing and Sculpting

Spirographs draw mesmerizing spiraling shapes. You can draw them by hand using the plastic circles found in toy spirograph sets. But there are also automated spirograph toys in which a happy faced, plastic, pink insect holds a pencil in its hands and spins around on the spot. When you lift it, a beautiful pattern is revealed underneath provided that you’ve placed it on a piece of paper in the first place. There are many Lego Spirograph designs out there, but the machine itself doesn’t spin. Instead, the platform holding the paper does while the arms holding the pen move in an elliptical shape. The combined movements form these wonderful drawings. A great Lego Spirograph is “Spirograph V4because it’s compact, fast and the lines are not shaky. It’s built with 786 Lego Technic parts.

On the sculpting side, there are Arthur Sacek’s milling machines built from Lego Mindstorms. The Lego 3D Milling Machine carves whatever model it is given into flower foam in a bas relief manner. The arm with the drill moves from left to right, back and forth and up and down to remove material from the rectangles of foam. The 360° Milling Machine functions the same way only that it takes in a cylindrical block of flower foam which it spins while drilling. The output sculptures have well defined, smooth features.

9. Electro Music Machine

Another bizarre Lego construction is Alex Allmont’s “Play House”. This machine is an automated Acid House music generator. Alex, a full-time coder and part-time arts PhD in improvisation with polyrhythm and phased rhythms, combined his two passions: music and Lego building into one thesis. Different Lego blocks are hammered onto a surface and that beat is captured by piezo transducers (little devices that transform the pressure they catch into electricity) eventually turning it into different sounds. It is amazing how all those pieces manage to stay in sync while creating the right beats.

As Alex himself says on his blog, this is the most complex Lego Technic mechanism he has put together and a lot could have gone wrong. The original design was a whole lot more complex and its creator states that the current version is greatly simplified due to many impediments encountered such as short circuiting the machine due to its over increased sensitivity to touch. “The goal is to make listeners shift their attention between the sound itself and the mechanism that generates it.” he says and the results are according.

8. Loom and Braiding Machines

Nicolas is a 25-year-old mechanical engineer with a specialization in design process. This means he can plan out and build a machine that builds something else and as a Lego enthusiast, he has the components to do just that without spending a fortune. Nicolas designed and built a Lego loom machine that creates fabric by weaving wool threads the same way a person would manually. The threads that give the length of the fabric are stretched up and down alternatively while two robotic arms push one thread at a time through them. Then, a comb presses the newly added thread to form the weave. It took 2000 Lego Technic pieces to build the loom machine.

He also made a braiding machine that makes wristbands and ropes. It is powered by a single motor and has nine spools of thread (three spools on each of the three arms) that rotate clockwise to form 3 threads. These are then rotated counterclockwise by a large wheel forming the final wristband or rope at a speed of 35 cm/min. The braiding machine was chosen by Siltex (who manufactures material for automotive, space and aeronautic) to be adapted to braid composite material based on Carbon, Aramid and Innegra. The project was a success.

7. The Fastest Robot to Solve a Rubik’s Cube

At the Big Bang Fair in 2014, David Gilday and Mike Dobson showed up with a donut looking Lego robot that claimed it could solve the Rubik’s Cube. Its name was “CubeStormer 3and it solved the classic puzzle in a staggering 3 seconds. The human record for solving the cube is 5 seconds. Eight Lego Mindstorms bricks coordinate the movement of the arms while a Samsung Galaxy S4 uses its camera to analyze the mixed cube and give the commands to the robotic arms. The four arms grip the cube by its four central squares enabling them to rotate all four sides.

The record also contains the analysis time along with the time it takes to actually solve the cube. “Our real focus is to demonstrate what can be achieved with readily-available technology to inspire young minds into taking a greater interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” said David Gilday. The next records he is preparing his robots to break is the 4x4x4 and 9x9x9 Rubik’s Cubes.

6. Robotic Arm

Lego allows us to build impressive and useful things and it is a great educational tool to observe the elusive mechanics of machines with all its nuts and bolts. A student called Max Shepherd replicated the joints and functionality of a human arm with Lego Technic parts on a full scale. The fingers can move independently within the natural limitations. It can hold a tennis ball and pour out a glass of water gently, without spilling. The amount of weight it can lift depends on the shape of the object and the orientation of the wrist and elbow, but it can't maneuver more than a couple of pounds. The arm uses pneumatics for muscles and it is controlled by a joystick.

The building instructions are available on the internet and it takes over 850 pieces to build the Lego arm. Max’s main purpose for this project was to mimic the full range of motion of a normal human arm and hand as accurately as possible.

5. Weapons

Yes, people have built accurate guns and crossbows from Lego. Although scary at first, the ingenuity behind them is remarkable. Lego weapons come in all shapes, sizes and ammunition. From guns and pistols to crossbows and sniper rifles. Some use plain Lego blocks as bullets, while others throw eight rubber bands at a time. In the common handgun, the bullet, usually a Lego block, is propelled by a rubber band. After every shot, the next bullet automatically enters the chamber and you need to pull back the mechanism so that the rubber band stretches over it and can be ready to fire.

The internet is teeming with all kinds of Lego weapon designs. There is even a book on how to build a few handguns including the Desert Eagle and the Mac-11 Rubber Band. The number of Lego blocks that make up these weapons vary greatly. A small pistol can have 288 pieces of both technical and classical Lego while the large MP5 can have as much as 972. Even if these weapons merely throw Lego blocks around, caution is still needed when choosing a target as sometimes they can do a considerable amount of damage like shattering CDs to pieces or going right through a can of soda.

4. A Car

That’s right - a car! A fully functional, drivable, vintage, gangster looking car built entirely from Lego. This piece of engineering runs on compressed air stored in bottles at the back of the trunk. Its author, a 20-year-old self-taught technology prodigy called Radu Oaida has managed to roll it down the road at 30 km/h (he didn’t push the pedal too hard afraid of a Lego explosion). Over 500,000 blocks of both classical and technical Lego went into the building of this car. The engine alone is composed of about 100,000 parts having 256 cylinders and according to Radu, it was the hardest part to build. The air pushes down the pistons and makes the whole mechanism move.

Steve Sammartino, a Melbourne entrepreneur met Radu online and when he found out about his unusual project he raised $20,000 worth of funds with a single tweet in 2012. Radu built this car to draw attention over air powered transportation and to demonstrate that one can build an eco-friendly car out of toy parts.

3. The Great Ball Contraption

Alright, so we’ve seen that Lego pieces can be combined to create functional objects such as cars, guns and artificial arms. But what if we combine everything it is capable of? In that case we would obtain an impressive conveyer belt and the ones who have already built it have called it "The Great Ball Contraption.” There is not much purpose to this gigantic machine except getting hypnotized while you watch the journey of the tiny plastic balls as they are hurled, pushed, churned, lifted, carried and thrown into the air from one point of the mechanism to the other.

In 2014, it held the record for the largest number of modules joined in one functional track (80 modules) and the whole circuit was synchronized to output one ball per second. A module is a part of the whole mechanism that is responsible for getting the balls from its beginning to its end in a bizarre way. Modules include cranes, tall circular slides, catapults, trains that transport balls in their wagons, elevators, ferris wheels that scoop the balls one by one in their seats and drop them on the other side, tunnels, churning containers, steppers, hammers and a salmon run track with trampolines that make the balls jump to the next module. It’s hard to count the total pieces that went into the building of this insane circuit because people keep adding modules to make it even crazier.

2. Insanely Large Constructions

People have always had a thing for building large statues, palaces, towers, empires and so on. In the Lego world, this passion manifests itself mostly in the form of life-sized (or larger) statues. From the Lego replicas of the Star Wars characters and the bust of Michael Jackson to the towering sea serpent that smiles at you from the waters of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, the list goes on since Lego junkies are willing to build anything out of these tiny blocks. These aren't functional Lego machines like the title hints, but their size earned them a place in my list.

Still, people want more so what could be better than a giant statue? A whole country made from Lego! To celebrate the 50th anniversary since the introduction of Lego in Japan, the Japanese peripheral organized a cross-country workshop in 2012 called “Build Up Japan”. Over 5000 children and their families from six different regions teamed up to reimagine Japan. Instead of building existing landmarks, the children were encouraged to let their imagination run free and build what they wanted their country to look like. The assembled pieces then traveled to Tokyo where they were joined to form the monumental Lego map of Japan which added up to 1.8 million pieces.

1. The Rolls Royce Trent 1000 1:2

In 2012, Rolls-Royce revealed an innovative jet engine “concept” at the Farnborough International Airshow. Weighing just a fraction of the mass of a conventional jet engine, it can cut down noise and CO2 emissions by an astonishing 100 per cent. Unfortunately, this engine will not be able to take any passengers. At over 300 kg and measuring more than 2 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 Lego replica is one of the most complex Lego structures ever built. Rolls-Royce wanted to build this amazing creation to show how exciting careers in high-tech engineering can be.

Ed Diment from Bright Bricks helped convert the real jet engine into Lego and he explained the scale of this project: "When building the Lego engine we had to reflect that sophistication and complexity, replicating everything from the huge fan blades to the control systems. That's not easy to do and it made me realise how amazing the actual Trent 1000 is.” Having over 160 separate components and full moving parts, the engine allows people to see the intricate inner workings of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 jet engine which powers the enormous Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It took 152,455 Lego blocks and 1,280 hours to assemble the whole masterpiece.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Never Hero - my 5 star review

I think it’s only a matter of time before "The Never Hero" becomes a sci-fi bestseller and a blockbusting movie. The story is more than gripping, it’s throat clutching. As we follow 22 year old, non-violent, thin Jonathan’s life go upside down the moment he wakes up in a puddle of his own blood without a single injury, we witness one of the most enjoyable mental treks. As deep and sober as the message may be (I’d say it can strike an epiphany) the level of entertainment reaches the same scale and the book doesn’t fail to deliver.

The plot is well crafted and the details are so real, you’d expect a Ferox run down your street. Had this book not been given any drop of fantasy (I'm referring to the Ferox's story and the blond man's implications), it would have probably not have had the same impact. With a little bit of imagination dripping into downtown Seattle, it stands as a remarkable metaphor that sends you thinking what is good and what is evil because in the end, this story is about neither. It is this uncertainty that makes things even more sizzling. There is great wisdom entwined in this story sometimes manifested as insightful questions rather than straight statements. There are also real facts from the worlds of martial arts and training. My favorite part was Jonathan’s psychological journey deeply captured in dialogue and gestures in a soul touching manner. Nothing is overdosed - the dialogue, the gestures, the thoughts, past and present - everything is just in the right amount to instill the ultimate sensation while reading.

It’s remarkably written - deep, thoughtful, balancing emotions and machine-like duty, shedding a view over themes like faith, war, morals, smothered anger and much more. Everything blends incredibly well with the characters and depth of detail - it was just enough to keep the flow smooth and tugging at my curiosity without feeling like something is missing or over pouring.

An amazingly written story, Ellery!
I’m eager for the sequel.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Coco's Journey - a children's story with dragons and their pet parrots

I've always drawn on my school notebooks - dinosaurs, animals, dragons, cartoons, characters and scenes from the books I read until I began drawing my own stories. My favorite place to draw was the math notebook, but I was careful not to discriminate any subject - they all had their share of my drawings.

I went on sketching on my notebooks through high school and all over my algorithm books at University. The stories I shaped with my drawings became increasingly complex until I felt the need to write them instead of unrolling them in endless comic strips - and I was also running out of notebooks to draw on. Now I'm a software developer by day and a writer by night. In between I draw. I like connecting ideas in unlikely ways to create new things the same way you'd connect Lego blocks and then I illustrate them. I publish most of my work and ideas here, on Stirring Steer.

I had the idea for this story a while back, sometime before high school, as a token of inspiration from my own pets. As most of my stories, it started with countless sheets of drawings and scribbled characters on the edge of the school notebooks until it became a comic strip stretching on many pages. Later on, I took the writing from my comic, added a little more detail and after some thorough editing which turned into a complete rewriting, "Coco's Journey" the book emerged.

The drawings on my school notebooks.

The first page from "Coco's Journey" comic strip.

A few illustrations from "Coco's Journey" the book.

"Coco is an ordinary cockatiel who lives in the kitchen of a dragon family. One night, his beloved mate is kidnapped by a mysterious figure and Coco sets out on an amazing quest to rescue his sweetheart. But the dragons' house is huge and dangerous, full of hidden rooms and surprises. How will he find his mate in this maze? Embark on this exciting journey to meet Coco's friends, enemies and unlikely allies who all live in the dragons' lair."
- Goodreads

After the book was done, I decided to visit some of the characters to see if I could get an interview and updates on their lives.

Coco seemed to be doing... fine after the whole adventure. He and Moldy now have four featherless little joys.

Fifi has published his rhymes. His feathers still haven't grown back, but he's thinking seriously of booking a plane ticket out of here.

Mary refused to give an interview.

One of my favorite sayings is "The whole story is fiction, except for the parts that aren't." by Michael Crichton. Coco, Moldy and Cleo, my pet parrots, actually existed and the cockatiels did have four featherless bundles of joy.

When the baby parrots were still small, Coco wouldn't let us approach to change the sheets so we had to lure him away to clean the nest. While he was away, the babies would hiss at us noisily sounding like a nest of snakes instead of adorable parrots. But as they grew up they followed us all over the house and snuggled on our shoulders. Bringing them up was a great experience.

Cleo was the most sociable of all birds - he always came on my glass of water to take a bath when I was trying to drink and he would always screech loudly when he saw mum's red nails and fly around in circles close to the ceiling.

You can read the story for free here in exchange for a review or an opinion or a spoonful of feedback or whatever you'd like to say.

You can also buy the eBook from several online shops - Amazon,  iBooks, Scribd, Kobo, Copia and Ciando are just a few of them.

Enjoy! ^^

Friday, November 7, 2014

Skeletons of Ideas or Cross-Field is the Future

The building blocks of knowledge

      Picture this: you divide the knowledge of a field into its building blocks (the atomic "things" that knowledge is made of). I call these "things" concepts because they are the basic ideas from which that knowledge is built. For instance, Quick Sort is such a building block for computer science because it is a concept = it's a way of doing / describing something. In social psychology, the Abilene Paradox is a concept - a building block for its field - since it describes a phenomena that can happen in groups of people. In origami, the Mountain Fold is a concept for its field since it identifies a certain action to achieve a new shape (it is a way of doing something in order to get a result, just like Quick Sort is for sorting numbers).

Why combine these concepts cross-field?

      Remaining in one's field is beginning to be dangerous and it will be even more so in the future as problems grow in difficulty and size and complexion. The solutions will have to be creative, inventive, plausible to implement, ideally simple. This can be achieved not by getting a team of laser junkies, but by combining the strengths and cultures of specialists from many fields. There is no field that has all concepts in it. For instance computer science doesn't have an Abilene Paradox concept and you might need it should you ever design a system that simulates group decision making. The only way to learn about it is by peeking over into psychology's concepts.

How can we combine these concepts cross-field?

      If you just start combining the concepts described above and more like them, you will only end up with something pretty in your hand, but useless. It will be useless because it is not placed in a context and not given a problem to solve. Therefore it cannot bring value if it just sits around.
      Here's a great example:
      In this TED Talk, Robet Lang tells how Lawrence Livermore National Lab used origami to fold the oversized mirrors for its newest, huge telescope.
      This is an inspiring example of cross-field in practice. The context is given by the telescope itself and the problem is how to get those immense mirrors out into space provided that no new, larger rocket is built to transport them. 

      So how do we combine the concepts? I see two ways thus far.
      Either way, you must have the context and the problem so that the fitting of concepts is not done randomly, but in a certain direction.

1. Intuition

      Everything starts from the humble, manual labour. You just need access to all of this knowledge: The Concepts, The Contexts and The Problems.
      For play, let's say there is a bowl with contexts written on cards, then there's another bowl with problems and then there's a bowl for each field with its concepts in them. You get a context and a problem and then you can browse through the concepts from the bowls and see what you can build.
      The human brain is wired to spot patterns and connections in order to solve problems. We are born problem solvers. Once you read the context and the problem, your mind immediately starts searching for solutions - it's in our nature. And browsing through concepts at this moment (known or unknown to you) is like choosing the lego pieces to build what you have in mind. Understanding the concept you picked up is done nearly on the spot* (like understanding the shape of a lego piece to determine whether or not it will help you).
      Also, you could be shown related concepts to the one you picked (e.g.: if you choose First Order Markov Processes, it will point you to the Second Order Markov Processes or to Trigrams from Natural Language Processing).
      *Let's say the simplified concepts are written on cards (they can be expanded by connecting, for instance, to your phone during play so you can interact with the concept and see examples of its usage for a deeper understanding).

2. Algorithms

      Soon enough algorithms that can combine concepts that solve the problems in the given contexts should emerge. Maybe expert systems. Or maybe some Artificial Intelligence algorithm that is trained by observing the human intuition of matching these concepts. 

The Future of Learning

      I also see applications in the future of learning because if knowledge is delivered in this brain friendly form, one could learn them much faster. As I've seen in school, my main trouble was using the concept I had just been taught (that is generalizing it and placing it in a context other than the didactic example). This happened because that concept was taught too specifically to its field, without any other more intuitive explanations such as examples from real life or metaphors. I don't think math is supposed to be left in its own language - if it's also explained intuitively (aside from specific notations) it will lose its intimidating look and one could start using it on his/her own in other fields - not just the semester test or exam. And this goes for pretty much every field - physics, chemistry, psychology and so on. But the most urgent are the ones which hide in their own language like math and physics.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Speedy Books

Each point in life has its own needs and interests in order for you to grow to the next point. If you like the title of a self-help book for example, odds are that you're looking (more or less consciously) for ingredients to make your next stepping stone.

In that title-appealing book you might not be interested in all the stories or exercises, but some sentences might change your life, providing a crucial part of the stepping stone by resonating with you more than others. So, how can one take what's useful from that book without taking too long, namely, going through the whole book? (most interesting bits do not depend on the rest of the book).

So here's my recipe:

  1. you find an attractive title that promises to give you that crucial piece of your next step
  2. read 2 reviews to see what it's about
  3. read the table of contents to see the structure - look for chapter summaries or any other shortcuts given by the author
  4. look through the pages - don't read everything, just look and see what words pop up to you. Read the beginning of a paragraph and its ending to search for hints
  5. once you find a sentence or exercise that makes you sizzle, write it down (copy it if it's short, write it in your own words if it's long) (if it's your book you can highlight the sentence - much better than stopping the reading flow to write - ebooks make this really easy)
  6. self assess yourself to figure out where you are now (if you haven't done so already) and integrate your findings from that book in order to go to your next stepping stone and move on to new grounds

I'd like to see an app extract those juicy parts from a book and just lay them out to you. But something else happens when you skim through the book - you get exposed to its content and you might find something relevant where you least expect. Your brain takes bits from what you quickly read and then produces something unexpected - this would be avoided if one relied on an app.

But then again, it all comes down to time. You might want to spend 1h skimming the 200 page book, reading here and there, or you might want to spend 10 min reading the output of the app. I think it depends on the book and the needs of the reader - a handful of books actually deserve to be read whole, while others become relevant and useful if they are taken apart.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Exposure to Inspiration in 12 Activities

"So… have you started that cool story, yet?"
"Ah, no. I'm still waiting for inspiration."
Looks familiar? Seems to me that it's happening dangerously often and not only in writing. It's cross-field. It happens to anyone who is creating something.

I don't think inspiration is something you wait for. I believe it's something you let yourself exposed to.

At some point in your creational process, you'll be in a cloud of fog and you won't be able to make much sense of it. It will feel like being lost in a boundless place where crumbs of incomplete ideas and concepts swirl around chaotically, without connecting. It's not a fun place to be in and if you stay for too long it may start nibbling at your peace of mind.

In this place, you'll feel a thirst for the new, for freshness, for ideas and concepts to connect within yourself so that the fog can melt away so you can resume your creative process. This effect may be achieved by taking a vacation type of break in which you get out of your comfort zone and destroy routine and tasteless monotony. But not everyone can always afford a vacation in the middle of work. So here's my idea - a collection of 12 activities that expose you to inspiration.

1. Look at wallpapers from different categories (abstract, fantasy, nature, animals, motorcycles, logos, symbols, mythology, sports - anything you can think of both known and unknown to you) and put aside the ones that seem to resonate with you (to see for later). Follow your first instinct as you scroll through the pictures so as to avoid saving more than you really like.

2. Listen to music and make a playlist with those songs that resonate with you. I've noticed that chill remixes have a healthy impact during the beginning of the foggy times. (the ending of a foggy period usually escalates in intensity and you might feel the need to listen to blood rising rhythms or strong messaged songs according to the state of spirit).

3. Get a relaxation massage. It does wonders for those that work at the desk. As you lock your body in the writing / coding / reading position and don't move for hours, lumps of blood are formed on your back and cause pain and stiffness. A relaxation massage will warm your back and clear those lumps. When you get off the massage table you'll feel like you can do a back flip.

4. Travel to places you are less familiar with like parts of the city you don't normally pass by while going to work or school. If you live in a big, crowded city, visiting an island for a while and seeing how the people live there will refresh you dearly. It doesn't have to be something expensive. There are many wonderful places to see on a low budget. City breaks are precious jewels of opportunity and many are inexpensive. Experience different cultures and learn about the customs. You'll find some similar customs with your own culture and customs that don't exist in your culture and so on. At the end of your journey you'll see how elements from your travel will start to unconsciously squeeze into your work.

5. Visit places near you like museums, parks, lakes, cafes, galleries, toy shops, gift shops, libraries, interior design stores, Feng Shui stores, gardening shops (anything that has many interesting objects on display such as statues and useful, funny looking objects). You don't need to buy anything, just feast your eyes. As you ride the bus, look at the architecture of the buildings around you (you don't have to be an expert or identify any artistic current, just look at the design).

6. Take improvisation classes - the personal development games in improvisation teach you a lot about yourself by simply letting you find out how you react in a certain situation. It's a good way of figuring out if you're mentally stuck on something that's blocking your creative process… or revealing some other hidden fear for that matter.

7. Rearrange your working room. If you have many books in this room, you can try building a standing desk for example or any other thing that you can somehow use. You can rearrange your desk or laptop or working spot or the object on your desk (statues, post cards, mugs, skeletons). You can make statues from empty cans of your favorite drink. You can make shapes from the pins on your board. These are interior design ideas for DIY (do it yourself) objects that help better organize interior space. I've noticed that having a place for each object you use helps at cleaning the fog… and the room.

8. Meet new people. This always adds a wave of welcomed freshness. Visit a community that focuses on a sport / game / activity you like (e.g: reading, writing, Go, chess, self development, tennis, dungeons and dragons, computer games, public speaking, storytelling, tech hub meetings, scuba diving, mounting hiking, climbing, a boot camp on leadership etc.). Doing the activity you really love (that is usually procrastinated savagely) is a way of keeping the fog away simply because you're doing something that really makes you happy. And you can't be blocked in this because it's your groove.

9. Shatter monotony to pieces. Avoid the patterns you usually take time and time again (e.g: a talk about earrings / nutrition / mountain goats / swimming / origami with a friend that loves the topic, even if this topic has never interested you). You'll be surprised at the new concepts you'll find out and you will have practiced keeping an open mind. Don't shove off things you don't know just because you've never met them in school or at work. We learn while we live - this means we learn even after we leave school. Get used to the feeling of not knowing and embrace it instead of fleeing away from it. If you run away or close your mind to the new, the fog will get thicker. If you stay open, more things will connect and new ideas will take shape - some even immediately implementable. You can replace monotony with healthy habits that guard your mind against the fog.

10. Move your body. Practice a sport as lightly and as often as you like. It can be riding your bike in the park in the morning or kick boxing if it's more to your liking. Or simply going for a walk. The thing is to move because moving your body will clear your mind of pestering debris.

11. Read books and articles that help your creative process - be it fiction or self development or watercolor picture books.

12. Play! a game (board game, video game, improv game etc), an instrument, a prank (be nice), charades etc. Go play board games in the cafes that provide them. Gather friends for a talk and some fun. Go to adventure parks and ride the zip line over the lake. Watch a fantasy movie.
We learn by doing and by experiencing and what better way of doing than playing (at least in the beginning so as not to get hurt). If you want to be a CEO and you've barely begun researching what it means and what one must do to achieve it, you might want to see for yourself how you react to this in a business simulation. If you dream to climb mountains, visit the climbing wall for training first. In playing, you still get to do what you wish and get the first taste safely. And besides, relaxing and playing takes care of your sanity. Going too long without play can make you grumpy and unpleasant and you can hurt others by accident.

Note: These activities work best after a walk or a little sport because your mind is relaxed, open to the new and not clinging to anything from the past.

Inspiration is triggered most of the time unconsciously by something new that connects with what we already had in mind. It can be a new item to add to what we had or a new way of looking upon what we already had. Both ways have the same effect - they melt the fog.

And once your fog has been melted, you'll see others around you who have melted their fog in their own ways. Each idea is a beacon that lights your way and they can become traveling ideas if combined.

Always be on the lookout for beacons in the fog. They come in all shapes and sizes and from the most interesting of characters. You might be surprised by what you find.