Travelogue: Last Day in Doha


The alarm clicks on, and a singer fills the pre-dawn room with exotic consonants over a heavy background of strings and a plucked ood. It is 4am here, and in an effort to get on California-time, I will immediately commence to pretend that it is 5pm. I extricate the daily slippers from the plastic wrap and cram my wide feet into the narrow terry-cloth toe-cups, don the comically plush bathrobe, and Skype home to see the last light of dusk over her shoulder. She’s dog-sitting for friends, and he starts woofing when I say “Hi Kai!” It occurs to me that he might not have a real sense of simultaneous ‘here’ and ‘there’. Where do you start when you set out to explain time zones to a dog? You’re having dinner, I’m having breakfast. Woof.

Here are a few things that I will remember (actual conference notes and details are in my notebooks). The charter bus from the hotel to the conference center has curtains that like to stay closed, preventing us from getting any real sense of the city as we ride back and forth. There are people spending a lot of money doing studies and having meetings. Stephen Hippell uses a Finder window on his laptop to browse around and show photos and videos while he’s presenting – it’s both fascinating and annoying at the same time. Sauteed mushrooms over rice with steak medallions are a good breakfast – fruit on the side. The Sheraton Hotel is a tetrahedron. People and businesses are moving to Qatar because people and businesses are moving to Qatar. Because there is almost no “here” here, they are making one. The Persian Gulf is like a big bathtub full of epsom salts; warm, salty, calm, and shallow. If a woman has her face covered do not engage in conversation unless she starts one. Six kinds of hummus in a buffet is not excessive. The breeze coming in from the gulf smells like warm iron. Dust is the reminder that the desert is still here. The people that you meet during the breaks are often more interesting than the people presenting. A tree stands alone in a shallow depression in an open lot, sand and bits of debris piled up against the trunk – a testament to determination. The birds here sleep in the daytime, coming out at dusk and dawn to chatter and chirp in the imported palm trees. Architecture should be more than just surprising. The Islamic Art Museum puts all those geometric patterns that are on doors and screens in a context that makes them make sense. You hardly ever meet anyone native to Qatar. Instead of carrying your groceries in the souk, you hire a really old guy with a wheelbarrow and he follows you around while you shop.

I know almost nothing about geography, and often amuse my fellow attendees by asking where their country is. I use my hands to make the shape of their continent and have them point out where they live.
“Over here,” they will say after orienting themselves to my hand-map, “near the base of this finger.”
“Is it nice there?”
“Oh yes. You should come and visit us. But stay away from this area here,” pointing at the bend in my wrist, “things are a bit unsettled there.”
My carpal-tunnel irritation has evidently leaked into the neighboring country.

After a presentation on the new language of school architecture, wherein I pick up the evocative characterization of “classic” schools as the “cells & bells” approach, I turn to my row-mate and offer, “Those so-called ‘playful’ spaces looked awfully sterile to me, what do you think?”
He pauses for a moment, and says, “In my village, the classroom is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the village, and it is also used for town meetings.”
“So, no fancy desks or individual study places?”
“The blackboard is tied to the tree when school is in session. Sometimes, the tree is also the jail. If someone does something bad, we tie them to the tree until the police from the municipality can come and pick him up. Sometimes we would be studying and there would be a drunk man tied to the side of the tree opposite the blackboard.”

He is from Angola, down by the first knuckle of my thumb.

Hex-tree GPS Encoding

I had the pleasure of attending PyWebSF and struck up a conversation with my old friend Tadhg about the idea of creating a web service (a’la http://bit.ly) that would provide a unique short GPS “tag” for any arbitrary GPS location. You can read Tadhg’s excellent accounting of the discussion here.

I didn’t write any code (yet) but I did have an idea that is a variation on the QuadTree solution that I proposed during the conversation. I call it Hex-tree and have no idea if it’s already been done, but I think it will create very short location identifiers algorithmically.

zoom level 0

zoom level 0At zoom level zero (on a standard Mercator-projection of the globe), we see that every place on earth can be crudely described by the numbers 0-F (hexidecimal). Suppose we are interested in specifying the precise location of San Francisco, CA. It’s in tile 4, so our address is going to start with a “4”. Already we can see that the first digit of a HexGPS coordinate contains enough lat/lon information to know what continent we are referring to.

zoom level 1

zoom level 1Zooming in to tile 4, we see the eastern pacific tile is now recursively subdivided, and that our target is in tile 6. The address so far is “46”.

zoom level 2

zoom level 2Zooming in again (and wishing I had used a higher-res map to begin with), we see that San Francisco is in tile 5. Our address is now “465”. The notion in this system is that you can visually determine if two addresses are nearby by just looking at the initial similarities of the two strings. Two addresses that started with “465…” would be known to be within 100 miles of each other (approximately). If you compare “465…” with “46E…” you can tell that they are within 500 miles of each other.

Travelogue: First Day in Doha

//Doha//Monday//WISE2009//Day One

Life in a hotel is simple for conference attendees. You wake up knowing what you will wear, where you will eat (but not what), and what you are doing the rest of the day.

I find serendipity only in the face-to-face encounters with other attendees. I have animated discussions with educators and policy-makers from Camaroon, Bangledesh, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Mali, Bahrain, France, England, Belgium, Berkeley, Davis, and Washington, DC. Later, during our conversation over dinner we discover that no one at the table has yet met a Qatari citizen.

There are over a million people living in Qatar. Of that, approximately one hundred thousand are Qatari citizens. Citizenship comes with an eighty thousand dollar per year allowance tax-free from the Sheikh. Needless to say, no foreigners are ever granted citizenship. An unknown percentage of the citizens are away collecting degrees at universities around the world, which further reduces the native head count. So it is a common experience for visitors to Qatar to spend a month here on business and never meet a citizen.

Jaded business people describe the Qatari as detached and aloof. I have the romantic notion that this could be a nation of Bruce Waynes, building their bat-caves around the world and springing to action when the time comes.

At breakfast I eavesdrop on a Japanese representative from a shipping company as he interviews a potential captain for a fully loaded oil tanker lying dormant in the Persian Gulf. The shipping company is losing a thousand dollars an hour while the ship sits still. The conversation is formal and reserved until he and the captain, a sun-beaten man with a scar that runs through his left eyebrow, discover that they both were in Burma during the coup, hiding in the same town. By the time I sign my bill, they are laughing and gesturing wildly with their cutlery.

The waters of the Persian Gulf appear to be about as turbulent as a swimming pool, only warmer. Waves lap at the manmade shorelines only when the occasional speedboat passes. Beneath the surface, silver and black fish drift about, looking for morsels of food on the sand covered rocks.

Despite the temperature difference between the shore and sea, no wind comes to stir the palm trees. Doha sits in a pool of it’s own exhaled breath, dirty with construction dust and diesel exhaust. It’s partially constructed skyline of whimsical architecture fades into the murky distance.


We are flying east, across the top of the Atlantic, racing toward daylight. Our flight-path creates a mechanical compression of time, collapsing 12 hours of night into 5 elapsed hours.

We lose the normal advantages of economy of scale in these long-haul flights. Fourteen hours in the air, requires enormous fuel reserves, and the math begins to erode the efficiency of big airplanes. We will burn more fuel to carry the fuel than to carry the people and the plane. To combat this, we climb to the edge of the stratosphere, cruising at 37,000 feet, sleeking thin air to reduce the friction on the plane.

I find sleep difficult to hold onto, alternating between creative flashes that force me to dig out my notebook in order to catch them, and an empty-headedness that reminds me of misspent hours watching junk on television.

Without dreams, I replay recent memories. Watching the tarmac baggage handlers load cargo boxes into the belly of the plane, suddenly noticing that they are all wearing ties. The toilet in terminal B where someone has written "Don’t Concentrate". Flight attendants wearing sky-caps and winged-oryx lapel pins.

The sleep mask traps heat against my eyelids, and I invent solutions involving overlapping Venetian blinds, working out how they will be sewn. Dim light, rosy with the dawn, leaks under the window shades. I will need my sunglasses soon – my sleep-deprived eyes and addled brain too susceptible to migraine to risk looking out the window.

I work out new ways to describe the point of Tinkering School. Soon, I’ll be talking about education, pedagogies, policy-making – I don’t use the right terms, refer to the proper research, or know the important names of pioneers in this field. I think of Basquiat, madly scribbling away only to end up standing around dumbfounded in galleries where art critics described his work in terms that sounded like nonsense. Looking for a label to put on it, these educated people call it "experiential learning" and I clamp down on my knee jerk reaction to say "yes, but it’s more than that…" and provide an amusing anecdote instead.

According to the live map, we have crossed into France. I will attempt a nap again, in hopes that I can be awake as we cross Afghanistan.


I awaken at 6:15pm, 18:15 according to the flight data on the display built into the back of the seat in front of me.

We are greeted by young women holding WISE2009 signs, and directed to board the bus that everyone else is boarding. The bus ride takes us through a living museum of international war planes and helicopters. A retired Navy colonel, now school administrator, points out interesting details that our untrained eyes do not notice; a helicopter equipped with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, an unmarked C5 troop carrier ("not one of our birds"), a squad of combat-trained men standing at attention under the wing of the C5.

"This was a tough trip for me," he says to another attendee, "I have to clear all of my travel with the State Department, and they weren’t sure it was a good idea for me to come to Doha."
"Well, I know things," he adds cryptically, and turns to look out the window, memories of past "ops" flooding through his mind. All of those meetings with mysterious men under dubious circumstances, and the years spent doing things he can never tell anyone about – not even his wife. It was the not-telling that drove him to school administration. His father had been a principle at the other high school in town – there being a family edict that the kids would never go to the same school that dad worked at. "There can be no hint of impropriety," dad said whenever the subject of why the kids had to go to the school that didn’t have a pool or a jungle gym was raised.

We are herded from one waiting area to another by flocks of young women with signs. A system that seems like it could be very efficient, but isn’t. Our luggage arrives, and we collectively discover that all of the zippers have been opened and the contents rifled. A town-car takes us to the Sheraton, and I, not having exchanged any money yet leave the matter of tipping to my ride-mate, a woman who creates new schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan. I feel like a cad. Later, I have dinner with the Dean of the University of Virginia. We talk about how much fun it is to climb trees.

I am awake again at 2am.


Midway through dressing, I discover that my shaver has been partly dismantled and put away on. A practical joke from the team at customs inspection? Needless to say, the rechargeable batteries are completely dead. The front desk sends up the world’s worst twin-blade shaver and I dutifully nick and gouge my face until it is somewhat smooth. Now, to breakfast.

I had occasion recently, to deconstruct an all-in-one printer/scanner/fax/copier. As the parts came off the machine, I carefully separated them into piles; screws and springs, gears and wheels, optical components, switches and sensors, and e-waste. I stacked up the impressively cost-engineered multi-layer circuit boards, pausing to wonder at the computational power of the custom surface-mount devices, and was struck by the irony that the sensors and switches were now going to be attached to an Arduino – a device with a tiny fraction of the compute power. What a waste…

If manufacturers design their devices for re-use and re-purposing, then we could create a special category for extended life recycling, with a lower recycling tax base. The first step is to define a minimal reprogramming USB protocol, which automatically burns out a read fuse to prevent access to the proprietary ROM data on first use – functionally turning your printer into an Arduino-like object the first time you plug your USB cable directly into the circuit board.

Is there an e-book reader sleeping inside your old printer? How long would these devices last in new incarnations? How many more students around the world could create innovative derivative products based on obsolete down-cycled hardware?

We demand universal access to the compute resources we purchase.
If it lasts forever, let us make it work forever.
Require reprogrammability.

Addendum: Paul Bostwick (in the comments) adds this brilliant idea:

Maybe the original seller could roll out the secondary use ideas as a follow on product: Imagine a page that prints out after 100,000 pages printed or 4 years. “Dear owner of the Bubble Jet 3 series MFP. As your MFP enters its final months of usefulness, please consider the following options: The large molded plastic parts are all #4 so if you’d just like to have some destructive fun and your community recycles #4 plastic, you should be able to, with a phillips #2 screwdriver, render your MFP down to some bits in your recycling bin and just a few less easy to recycle parts. Among the harder to recycle is the controller board, it can (in a non reversible way) be turned into a simple MP3 player with our Remixer kit. Or a more sophisticated one with the Remixer Delux. The following website is dedicated to reemploying the controller boards and keypads on these devices so you can send these parts working or not to them and they’ll either safely dispose of them or integrate them into their projects – at no cost to you.”

In the less fanciful case of items that could not print their own organ donor instructions, I’d be more likely to fill out a warranty card if I knew I’d get at a later date some end of life tips and help on responsibly moving the goods along.


The response to this little doodle that I did with my nephew Mori has been amazing. Can a doodle spark a revolution? Is there a little Giraffstronaut in all of us trying to get out?

Get your t-shirt at the Pivotorium (kids, men’s and women’s sizes/shapes).

Can anyone recommend a better place to make one-off t-shirts than Cafepress? Just wondering…

Using data collected by the weather station known as KDALCTY1, I threw together a little bit of processing code to try to get an idea of just what portion of a year is flyable. In this visualization, every row represents one day, and every day is sampled every 20 minutes. If you look closely, way over on the left are the dates. Noon is the center-line of the image.

I used 270 (due west) as an optimal wind direction, and 14mph as the optimal wind speed. A big green ball represents the sweet spot of these two parameters. Everything else is worse to some degree or another. If no ball is drawn, then the conditions are not considered flyable (too light, too strong, wrong direction). No accounting for humidity is taken.

2008 summary of flyablity at the Dump.

Click the closeup to see full size. Your browser may re-size the image since it’s 3660 pixels tall, so you may have to click on the image once it loads to actually see it full size.

The next step is to create a comparison with 2007…

Since co-producing the Plerkshop (a day-long workshop examining the meaning and value of play in the workplace) with Scott Klemmer, and Bill Verplank of the d.school at Stanford University, I’ve become fascinated by some of the work going on there and have had the privilege of being invited back on many occasions.

Recently Bill and Terry Winograd invited me to have a look at the results of a quarter-long student project to develop and explore toy design in a class they called “Toys for Learning” (the nested self-referential aspects of the title were not lost on me).

Rather than write a lengthy posting today, I offer these scans of the notes that I took during some of the presentations. Clicking on the thumbnail images will take you to Flickr where you can see much larger versions.

note: the top of this page is largely my exploration of the glass-bottom boat project for Tinkering School this year.


I was, in general, impressed with the projects. There seemed to be an overriding opinion that the hardware integrations were the source of most of the problems, and I find it surprising that this is still the case 30 years after I started fooling around with electronics and computers. Shouldn’t this be easier now? The littlebits project looks like a step in right direction.

Students at Stanford are forced to balance the demands of multiple simultaneous courses (as was evidenced by team members who could not be present at the presentation due to finals) and I left wondering what they could have accomplished if they had been given two solid weeks with no other interruptions.

In any case, I found things to like about every project and have talked about the Toonables marionette and the SeaMe virtual aquarium with multiple people since Monday night.

In particular, with Toonables, while watching a couple of kids make an animation, I was struck by how they had a tendency to focus on the animation of just one limb of the marionette. The end result almost always looked like a frozen person kicking at a soccer ball with one thawed led. I started wondering how the conception of the end result, despite the immediate feedback of the system, was not fully realized by the child operators – they were happy to see the animated leg, not disappointed to see the frozen, lifeless body it was attached to.

Canada Syndrome

While freeing up some space on my laptop, I found this amusing little experiment. My intention was to create a complete document of an entire vacation as a single comic book. To my current way of thinking, it’s far better to put these half-finished things out than to sit on them indefinitely.

This story unfolds during a 2006 paragliding trip to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

Canada Syndrome - the comic book.

Also available as hi-res PDF for your printer.

The Experiment that Started the Experiment

The Experiment that Started the ExperimentHolding a piece of scrap-paper in one hand, the ball resting on a table, and snapping a picture I suddenly become interested in spherical lenses. I remember that some of the earliest microscopes (from the 1600’s, I think) were made with polished balls of glass.

I decide not to look anything up on the internet until after I try building a camera using this ball as a lens.

First Sketch

First SketchBall, box, viewscreen, and a hole to put the camera lens through.

Second Sketch

Second SketchPutting the parts in relation to each other helps me think through the construction and builds a more detailed model in my head.

Precision Layout

Precision LayoutI mark and cut crude holes on both ends of the box. Later I will put more precisely cut pieces of cardboard over these holes.

Making the Imaging Screen

Making the Imaging ScreenAfter trying various materials readily at hand, I settle on tissue-paper (which keeps the Christmas theme going). The cardboard frame is cut slightly wider than the box so that it will make a gentle arc when it presses against the sides – this will (hopefully) more closely match the focal arc of the ball and keep the screen in place.


AssemblagePutting all the parts together (using mostly gravity), the camera starts to take shape. The ball is so much heavier than the box, I had to hot-glue a piece of plywood to the box to create a sturdy support.

First Image

First ImageI neglected to account for the minimum focal distance of the camera, as a result the camera must be outside the box in order to actually focus. But, as we can see from the upside-down image of my yard, the ball is working as a lens.

Notes for next iteration: longer box, put the ball inside the box to reduce intrusion of light from the sides, different viewscreen material (possibly sanded plastic from discarded packaging).