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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 07:17 pm
I get the week following Christmas as vacation. [ profile] vixyish will be out of town during that period. It strikes me that I should do something interesting instead of just sitting around the house. Vacation time is one of my most limited commodities, after all. I like the idea of doing something... nonstandard, but I'm having trouble coming up with ideas. A week isn't actually all that long, nor is the dead of winter timing helpful. (And, yes, the southern hemisphere sounds great, but I probably can't afford that.) Turns out polar bear season in Churchill ends in November. Ideas, folks?
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Sunday, September 25th, 2011 12:10 pm
A bit late, maybe, but time for my yearly Burning Man writeup.

This was my fourth year, and the first time I was really with a bunch of close friends. (I have camped with friends before, but they've always had kids or Ranger duties to attend to.) It was a very different experience this way. It was nice having a dense social network available, but I found myself interacting with strangers a lot less. That was a bit jarring, as usually the playa is the one place in the world I'm a complete extrovert. But being able to share the experience with [ profile] keystricken and [ profile] adularia was really special. I'm sure I can find a balance eventually. :)

My big projects for this year were the Skinner Box and the Kalamazoo for its second year. (See below for pictures.) The Skinner Box worked great, but didn't get quite the attention I wanted it to. And I found that I didn't enjoy sitting around camp waiting for people to use my art. I'd much rather be wearing or driving my art, out interacting with people more actively. Still, a lot of people really enjoyed it, particularly those who understood the joke, and the el-wire sign was a great landmark for navigating at night.

I won't quite say the Kalamazoo was a triumph, but it was as close as I got. I'm very, very glad I bothered to upgrade it and drag it down again this year, as its more or less complete failure last year had been wearing on me. It's now both beautiful *and* functional, thus righting a offense to my moral sensibilities. [ profile] jadine and I drove it all the way around Esplanade on Wednesday -- a trip of about 3.6 miles if I'm doing my sums correctly. This took 7 hours and I pretty much wanted to amputate my arms by the time we were done. But I damned well did it! The Kalamazoo got a lot of favorable comments. Those who got it *really* got it. There were also a certain number of jackass comments, particularly when we went out to the Man burn Saturday night. (The energy of that night is a lot different.) But I eventually got into the right mood of unleashing a torrent of abuse right back at them, aided by my superior platform, and that ended up being kind of fun.

The laser helmet was acting weird, I think maybe the laser modules are failing. The lightsuit was well received, just awkward to wear in that environment. I might save it for local cons in the future.

I'm thinking I might take a break next year. It took me a long time to get into the event this year, and I don't want to burn out. On the other hand, I still have plans for some big projects. So we'll see. If nothing else, I really need to change my arrival plans. Spending 5 hours in line Monday afternoon is a real bummer, ruins the whole day. Early entrance, maybe, or just get there at night. Might as well not be baking while sitting in line.

Lots of pics, of course )
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Monday, September 12th, 2011 10:25 pm
When we took the Kalamazoo out on the scientific expedition last month, I made sure to ask people to get lots of footage. Why? Because I wanted to do a music video. I had coincidentally become totally hooked on Caravan Palace not long before. It was a perfect combination, so I went for it. Of course, Burning Man got in the way, but better late than never. Here it is!

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Monday, August 22nd, 2011 12:37 pm
The time of the great migration is once again upon us! If you're going to Burning Man, and you wouldn't mind seeing me, what will your address / camp name be?

I'll be with Camp Strowler, somewhere near 5:00 and F. Look for the Skinner Box, we'll be trying to get good frontage for it. I'll register at Playa Info eventually, but don't hold your breath Monday.
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Friday, August 19th, 2011 11:06 pm
So, yeah, I kind of switched to using Google Plus as my main blogging substitute. Look me up there, if you haven't already. I'm still not officially decommissioning my LJ, but it sure does seem inevitable at this point. Kind of sad, I was hoping to make an even 10 years.

But I can't resist posting this, the demo video of the Skinner Box I've been working on for the last few weeks. It is a new level of ridiculous contraption for me!

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Monday, June 13th, 2011 10:10 am
Being a big fan of near-future singularity fiction, I've been following 3D printers for some time now. Particularly the open source designs like the RepRap. Anything that brings something designed in a computer into the real life has an inherently fascinating touch of the occult to me. One that can brings parts of itself into the real world, von Neumann style, is even better.

The problem is, as intellectually neat as they are, the final product they're capable of printing just isn't very good. I'd love to have one, and I've thought about it, but I'd really just be getting one for the experience, not for practical use. I can always go rent time on one at Metrix, if I do ever have a problem that can only be solved by an ugly little piece of plastic. Given my comfort working with nicer materials, that's just not a common occurrence -- it has yet to happen, in fact. Hot metal smells way better than hot plastic, after all. Without a real use for one, I might crank out a couple sets of brackets, just to claim self-replication status, but then it would end up sitting unused. I'd rather just follow the blogs and watch other, more motivated people work out the problems and slowly improve the system. Neat idea, but just not very practical.

That was my mental status on the subject earlier this year, when I re-visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and finally got to see the full set of exhibits there. Not being a stranger to the subject, I was well versed in the early history of home computing. But seeing the artifacts in person, all laid out together, made something click in my mind. Home computing in the 70s was an absolute joke. A real company once had a "kitchen computer" for sale for $20k -- and the only output it had was a set of binary lights! (This was the earliest recorded incidence of "you can keep your recipes on it" marketing.) The hoemmade units weren't any better, of course, just much cheaper while being even harder to build and use. It was all very neat stuff, of course, and I very likely would have been keenly interested at the time. But completely useless and very easy to dismiss. Sounds familiar?

Not a shocking revelation, I suppose. But it was odd to think about a modern set of technologies as possibly being in the same situation. It's not hard to invent scenarios in which home 3D printing is amazing, but it is certainly hard to see how a RepRap or MakerBot or even a high end commercial unit can get there. And maybe the analogy is false. Physical objects tend not to scale as omg well with time as electronics do. The inherent physical limits are already a lot closer. I'm still not going to get a 3d printer any time soon, for all the reasons listed above. I've got more than enough interesting hobbies at the moment, thank you very much. But I'm definitely left wanting to keep an even closer eye on what is happening there.
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Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 09:43 pm
(Post mirrored from here.)

As I've vaguely mentioned in a couple of posts, I've been working on productizing the the EL wire interface cards I used in the Lightsuit. This involved getting a custom circuit board printed, which was a first for me. Designing some simple packaging and documentation was also fun. It isn't anything fancy, but it is entirely functional.

The kit was finished just in time for the Kitsap Mini Maker Faire last week. That makes it's past time to make the official announcement online: the Attoparsec Eight Channel EL Wire Interface Kit is now available!

What can this kit do for you? Control up to 8 strands of EL wire from a microcontroller. Why would you want to do that? Because it's awesome -- and can be lot more interesting than just having it blink.

Setting up that little demo took a couple of hours. For an example of what can be done with a little bit more effort...

The kit is selling for $20 in person, $22.50 online with shipping included. Plenty of time left before That Event In The Desert to do something really cool. Just saying.
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Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 04:03 pm
So, I've been seeing this thing about texting in theaters being forwarded all around, and I'm responding very negatively to it and the kind of attention it has received. I'm not exactly sure why, but it really raises my blood pressure. It feels very ugly to me. (Note, the specifics of this incident do not interest me much, as little of the commentary praising it have had any knowledge of it either. I'm addressing just the response here.)

Partly, I just can't imagine why anyone would care that much about someone texting. Particularly in a theater that serves food! If you were so concerned about avoiding distractions, why would you be there in the first place? But even besides that fact, is texting really that much more distracting than the occasional whisper or giggle? It strikes me as a weird hissy fit, to want to watch a movie in public and then get all bent out of shape when the environment is slightly out of your control. Adults should be able to deal with that. I worry that we're developing a counterpart to "family friendly" in even explicitly adult areas that is equally stiffling and restrictive, like we can barely stand to be in public at all, but if we must then it had better be micromanaged down to the smallest detail.

Partly, it reminds me of the tedious and lingering anti-cellphone populism of the turn of the century. Now it's part of a larger reaction against people being connected all the time. Which I guess annoys some people? Multitasking is a survival trait now, so get used to it. Being network connected makes me better. I'm smarter, faster at accomplishing goals, I have a better memory, I'm more social. So I take it poorly when someone wants in any way to shut that down because of vague politeness concerns. Can it be done rudely? Sure! That's no reason for a blanket ban. Maybe the lowest brightness settings on phones could stand to be even lower. Mine certainly could, and I'd welcome that change. (On my Nexus One, the Kindle app can actually take the screen darker than the system settings can. Weird.) But I'm getting really sick of seeing self-righteous complaints about "are things online really that much more interesting than real life". Well, yes, often they are, because online is THE ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD. If the fact that ALL OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE is sometimes more interesting than making smalltalk with you, I don't think the problem here is with me. You'v

Partly, so much of the commentary is focusing on the caller's word choice. The undertones of classism are really unpleasant. And, of course, lots of misogyny coming out of the woodwork as well.

I dunno. My reaction is obviously emotional, but so is everyone else's. I'm pretty comfortable not being on the side of the "yeah, fuck that bitch!" internet patrol.
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Friday, June 3rd, 2011 09:35 am
I want to build an underground lair. Comfortable, though without too many distractions. I want it to be able to host about half a dozen people indefinitely. I want it to lock from the outside.

I want there to be a big screen in the center which has a live feed of what I'm seeing and hearing, where ever I am. Around the conference table in front of the screen would be a series of microphones. Each one, when triggered, transmits into an earpiece I'd always be wearing.

I want to kidnap Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), Donald Stewart (The Philadelphia Story) and Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday). Maybe a couple others, too. As I go about my daily life, their job will be to follow what I am doing, and feed me witty dialog, Cyrano-style. I could listen to all their suggestions and choose the best. There should probably be some kind of dispenser of writer treats, to reward whoever came up with the best line.

I realize this would be a violation not only of human rights but also the laws of physics, as I'd need a time machine to make it happen. I don't care.

And, of course, I want all the children of the world to join hands and sing in the spirit of peace and harmony.
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Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 11:02 pm
Last month [ profile] ladydrakaina was making a TARDIS dress. It obviously needed a TARDIS hat which would light up and make VWORP VWORP noises. So I got called in.

There is a complete writeup on the Attoparsec blog, but here's the demo video which shows off all the important bits:

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Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 12:06 pm
When I was researching clock design extensively last year, I had an odd linguistic revelation. All my life I'd been saying a clock was "fast" or "slow" to indicate it was ahead or behind the correct time. This purely meant a fixed offset -- a clock was 5 minutes fast, and would still be 5 minutes fast next week. In fact, if a clock really WAS fast, getting further and further ahead I'd have to explicitly specify that. It was a sloppy use of "fast", but, eh, natural language is full of that. I never really thought about it. It wasn't until getting into the history of clocks that I realized this hadn't always been an idiosyncratic phrasing. It used to be quite literal. Clocks used to suck, even very expensive ones. If your clock was fast, it would be noticeably gaining time day after day. We live in an era of incredibly cheap, incredibly accurate clocks. Even the cheapest quartz wristwatch might only gain a few seconds over an entire year, a level accuracy that used to only be found in the best observatory regulators. So while the immediate observation is the same (a clock is 5 minutes ahead), the underlying condition is completely different. It's like seeing a plane taking off over a continental plate boundary and thinking they both have the same velocity since they're the same distance away from you. We take it so granted that clocks are (for >99.99% of human activity) perfectly accurate that we have taken the indefinite integral of a common figure of speech without even realizing it. That's pretty cool. I can't think of any other examples of that happening.
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Friday, May 27th, 2011 01:16 pm
Last weekend I finally attended Maker Faire. It was, of course, quite awesome. Some unordered thoughts:

Lots of kids! I thought that was really positive. The US as a whole has obviously given up on education, so it's down to use to save as many as possible. There's so much neat stuff to be done, kids, and you can do it too.

It was weird seeing so many Burning Man devices off the playa. I like that more people get to experience them this way. But seeing them in such a tame environment, around advertizing and vending was somewhat uncomfortable.

I really, really want to show there next year. The hexapod, hopefully, though I think Attoparsec could put together a compelling booth no matter what. Sell the EL wire interface kits, maybe. (Did I mention here I'm making an electronics kit? Detailed news on that soon.) They have an entire display area set up in the dark, for light-based art. Having the lightsuit pulsing in there would look great. And maybe the pedal-powered van de graaff generator I've been idly poking at.

It has left me feeling unsatisfied with my level of creative output. Which is both a good and a bad thing, and pretty standard for me when attending something like this. It doesn't help that work has become somewhat more boring over the last month or two. Part of me is once again starting to dream about making awesome, tangible things for a real job. But this has helped me really dive into the Kalamazoo upgrade process this week, at least. Its appearance at the soltice parade is looking ever more likely. And gods but it feels good to be a bit achy and bruised and abraded at the end of the day!

I got to see Ari there! That was really cool.
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Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 03:14 pm
Odd memory: At one point, when I was maybe 8, my mom took me into the doctor to have some weird spots that had been appearing on my arm looked at. I now realize she was concerned about leukemia or something equally scary. The doctor couldn't figure it out, and eventually they went away. What I don't think I told anyone until this day is that I knew exactly what they were, but was too afraid of getting in trouble to say: they were frostbite. I had found that spray-on deoderant builds up a thick layer of intriguing, fizzing goop if your target is very close to the nozzle. It is also very cold. (It also contains propane as an accelerant, but I didn't discover THAT goody until 4 or 5 years later.) The spots were simply the areas I had done this, using my arm as a target.

Two reactions now that I think it over: I can't blame that poor doctor for failing to diagnose highly localized spots of frostbite on an 8 year old. And once again I feel rather guilty for what I put my parents through unknowingly.

(Wikipedia tells me the medical term for frostbite is congelatio. I sure hope that isn't ever actually used. We keep losing toothy old anglo-saxon terms {sucking chest wound} for much more anemic alternatives {pneumothorax}. "Congelatio" sounds like a dessert, while "frostbite" is some kind of evil imp, or at least a prog metal band. The choice is obvious.)
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Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 04:37 pm
Wow. Somehow I let it slip almost 3 weeks since my last post. The Mackenzie canoe trip might have been the last time I went so long. Not sure what happened, just kept failing to find the time. I fear this signals the beginning of the end of my regular blogging era, but we'll see.

Since I'm home sick, I thought I'd make a post which demanded lots of images and web research of the kind I try to avoid at work. Ever since the 2011 Temple was announced, I've been meaning to make a post about it.

So, every year a Temple gets built at Burning Man. The design changes, and currently a different group builds it every year. It is burned on Sunday night, in what I'm told is a much more solemn and moving ceremony than the burning of the Man. I've sadly never been able to stay due to travel time constraints.

I really like this year's design, and I'm looking forward to seeing it on the playa. I think this is the first time I've bothered looking up the design ahead of time, but last year's design didn't really work for me. It was very different, and that's not a bad thing. It did have a very interesting organic details and some neat little nooks and cranies that I appreciated. But it was roughly and ugly and not a little bit spooky. Overall it made me think of a design from those studies on how to mark nuclear waste disposal sites so that even post-collapse, illiterate societies will know to avoid digging wells there. It very much sent the messages described in that study:

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.

(I'd love to see some of the other designs done as an art installation on the playa. They're beautiful and terrifying and incredibly evocative. They're just not Temple material!)

The Temple is non-denominational; it's not even religious. Many people would consider it strongly spiritual, certainly. I'm not sure how to classify how I feel about it. The tradition is that people write notes and leave items to be consumed in the fire. These are usually in regards to a loved one who has died, or some other painful experience. Most notes are just jotted onto the unfinished wood with sharpie, but there are a lot of pictures, some very nicely framed and obviously prepared ahead of time. I once saw a wedding dress.

Let's be honest -- I don't always handle religion very well. It's a character flaw of mine, and as I've gotten older I've become a lot more tolerant. But deep down, part of me is still pretty scornful of the whole thing. The Temple is by far the largest bit of vaguely organized spiritual expression that has ever really moved me. Every year I go and spend an hour or so wandering the structure, reading the notes. Most are simple goodbyes. Mostly to loved ones, some to those for whom the love had soured and turned to hate. Some are sad, some are accepting, some are bewildered and lost. The sense of the scope of human suffering and loss is staggering, and very raw. There is no attempt at mythological explanations to hide the pain, no dogma or sacrament or ceremony to get in the way. This is several thousand people screaming into the void that they exist and that existence hurts at times. And that ever with that pain, existence is still a rare gift to be treasured.
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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 09:28 am
I'm still working on a full April Tools write-up, but I edited all the video together last night. So if you've ever wanted to see me repeatedly tip over/sink in a very small, hastily constructed boat, today is your lucky day! (You'll just have to add the Yakety Sax soundtrack yourself.)

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Friday, April 29th, 2011 08:31 am
Last weekend was Norwescon, and I haven't enjoyed a con that much in a very long time. I'm not sure what the difference was. It helped, of course, that I was showing off lots of cool stuff that I've made: I wore the laser helmet and lightsuit at nights when party hoping, and had the electro-mechanical goggles on during the day. I think I finally found an effective outfit to use with my steeplejack pants, judging by the comments I got. (And I finaIly bought a pair of the cargo hakama from the same people!) I also had some other random toys like the fireprop and brass fan to show off at my "you can make neat stuff at home, you don't need fancy tools, honest!" panel. My panels generally went quite well. Only one of them was sparsely attended, and I think I performed my moderation duties with style.

Generally, though, I think I was getting off on the feeling of being part of cluster of very cool people. [profile] vixyish and [personal profile] tfabris's concert was just great, [personal profile] tereshkova2001 was amazing in her avatar costume, and [personal profile] ladydrakaina's TARDIS dress was a bit hit (not to mention super cute). Agora and friends were there in style, and that felt really great.
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Monday, April 25th, 2011 12:13 pm
At the con this weekend I went to the Rocky Horror screening Friday night, after finding the room parties a bit lackluster. It was fun -- more RHPS casts need to include a Drow, or have Frank killing Eddie with a lightsaber. I almost never go anymore, but it will always hold a soft spot in my heart, so it's nice to have a reason to attend a screening every few years.

The stage show was chaotic and not particularly well done, and the audience was pretty much just incoherent. Being at a con this is to be expected. But it's always striking to me how standard that is even at the handful of normal productions I've attended over the last decade or so. The cast might have a few ratty costumes and basic props, but nothing more. And the audience is pretty much just screaming random things the entire time, only uniting for the most well known and standardized of callbacks. There is a certain enjoyable energy to it, but eventually it just becomes deafening.

Maybe I'm spoiled, though. My first real exposures were with the Absolute Pleasure productions at the Magic Lantern in Spokane. All through my later teen years they did RHPS twice a week, Fridays and Saturdays. (I later found out that the MC, Doctor Midnight, was actually the film critic of the local newspaper.) They had some really great costumes and props, including a cellophane-wrapped pommel horse and full sonic oscillator control wall. It was a smaller theater, and most everyone there was a regular. The audience participation wasn't exactly in unison, but there was a general agreement about the lines, with a lot more call and response between different groups. I have no idea how common that level of production ever was, but everyone I've mentioned it to has been surprised.

I'd be shocked to see anything like that now. Who the hell is going to go twice a week these days? Most places only do it monthly, if that. I'm just glad it still happens at all. It's a weird and unlikely and often misguided bit of pop culture than deserves to be preserved in some form, even if just as a fossil to remind us of the rocky (ha) path it took to get where we are now. I sure would like to attend a really well orchestrated production again someday, though.
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Thursday, April 21st, 2011 03:20 pm
Random question: in all of the make-something/elimination reality TV shows that I know of (like Project Runway and Face Off), the contestants are always only given a certain amount of time during the day in which to work on something. Even during a multi-day project, they can only work 8-12 hours and then have to be taken back to their cages. Why is that? It seems like, if you want drama and ill-advised creative efforts, letting them stay up for 48 hours with an IV caffeine drip working feverishly on a project while yelling at their hallucinations would be a no-brainer. Could it be a liability thing? Or maybe they just don't want to pay for the film crews? Seems weird to me.
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Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 02:52 pm
Keyboard design is a contentious thing. Everyone knows qwerty kind of sucks, but very few people use alternative mappings. Most of these are designed to improve typing speed by putting common letters on the home row, and keeping letters which are frequently found next to each other in words assigned to different fingers, to optimize typing motions. This is a very sensible, very 20th century approach to solving the problem. I think it's all wrong.

We should switch mappings, mind you. But as more and more typing is done on mobile devices, the criteria for optimization is changing. I doubt Dvorak is noticeably better than qwerty if you're thumb-typing, for instance. More important than just changes in the physical act of typing, though, is the fact that typing on mobile devices is almost universally aided with automatic correction tools. This works great if you typo 'hst' for 'hat', as 'hst' isn't a word. But if you typo 'pot' for 'pit', it's not going to help much. (Unless they start doing higher level semantic correction, which isn't impossible but does raise certain interface issues.) I would like to propose the need for a new keyboard layout which optimizes typing speed on smart devices by minimizing the number of off-by-one typos which can turn a valid word into another valid word. Keeping vowels well away from each other would obviously be the most important thing. Not clustering uncommon letters like X and Z next to each other would also help. Q shouldn't be banished to the edge of the keyboard, it would be much more valuable acting as an enigmatic wall between two higher frequency letters.

That should work pretty well until we get a real mind-computer interface working. Hopefully with advances like this we can skip over the horror of widespread voice input entirely.
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Monday, April 18th, 2011 02:26 pm
I may have finally figured out why our current reality is so disjointed and contradictory, particularly for the last 10 years or so -- since, yes, the year 2000. I think when the modern conception of the future was first invented, back in the 50s, we inadventantly forked history. We invented two futures, each equally probable. On the one hand we had the shining pulp SF future, with flying cars and robot maids. On the other we had the apocalypse, global thermonuclear war with mutants and cannibals. Both of these were simultaneously assumed, and thus became contradictory self-fulfilling prophesies. We live in the super-position of the two. If you average the two alternatives, (Jetsons + On the Beach) / 2, you get the world we live in. Amazingly advanced and progressive while simultaneously horrible and retrograde.

This can't be a stable situation, yet it has lasted for 50+ years at this point. This points to a negative feedback loop keeping the two timelines intermingled, something which makes the alternate seem more probable whenever we get closer to one extreme. That can only be a trick of human perception, though. The next decade will see the absolute quantification of the analog world. The harsh light of objective measurement will finally determine if we live in heaven or hell, and then the waveform will collapse once and for all.

(Plot ideas: someone trying to control the waveform collapse? For good or evil? Or just to prevent it? Cross ref: the eschaton, particularly Frederick Pohl's conception thereof.)