Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wonderfully Evocative Photo...

Here's a great example of the artistry a great photographer can add.  It isn't all about the film, lens, and camera.  The simplicity and lack of distractions inherent the in the black & white medium greatly adds to the impact of this photo.  From Shorpy..

A Parable...

From Edsger Dijkstra, circa 1973 (don't miss Dijkstra's comment at the end!):
Years ago a railway company was erected and one of its directors -- probably the commercial bloke -- discovered that the initial investments could be reduced significantly if only fifty percent of the cars would be equipped with a toilet, and, therefore, so was decided.

Shortly after the company had started its operations, however, complaints about the toilets came pouring in. An investigation was carried out and revealed that the obvious thing had happened: despite its youth the company was already suffering from internal communication problems, for the director's decision on the toilets had not been transmitted to the shunting yard, where all cars were treated as equivalent, and, as a result, sometimes trains were composed with hardly any toilets at all.

In order to solve the problem, a bit of information was associated with each car, telling whether it was a car with or without a toilet, and the shunting yard was instructed to compose trains with the numbers of cars of both types as equal as possible. It was a complication for the shunting yard, but, once it had been solved, the people responsible for the shunting procedures were quite proud that they could manage it.

When the new shunting procedures had been made effective, however, complaints about the toilets continued. A new investigation was carried out and then it transpired that, although in each train about half the cars had indeed toilets, sometimes trains were composed with nearly all toilets in one half of the train. In order to remedy the situation, new instructions were issued, prescribing that cars with and cars without toilets should alternate. This was a move severe complication for the shunting people, but after some initial grumbling, eventually they managed.

Complaints, however, continued and the reason turned out to be that, as the cars with toilets had their toilet at one of their ends, the distance between two successive toilets in the train could still be nearly three car lengths, and for mothers with children in urgent need -- and perhaps even luggage piled up in the corridors -- this still could lead to disasters. As a result, the cars with toilets got another bit of information attached to them, making them into directed objects, and the new instructions were, that in each train the cars with toilets should have the same orientation. This time, the new instructions for the shunting yard were received with less than enthusiasm, for the number of turntables was hardly sufficient; to be quite fair to the shunting people we must even admit that according to all reasonable standards, the number of turntables was insufficient, and it was only by virtue of the most cunning ingenuity, that they could just manage.

With all toilets equally spaced along the train the company felt confident that now everything was alright, but passengers continued to complain: although no passenger was more than a car length away from the nearest toilet, passengers (in urgent need) did not know in which direction to start their stumbling itinerary along the corridor! To solve this problem, arrows saying "TOILET" were fixed in all corridors, thereby also making the other half of the cars into directed objects that should be properly oriented by the shunting procedure.

When the new instruction reached the shunting yard, they created an atmosphere ranging from despair to revolt: it just couldn't be done! At that critical moment a man whose name has been forgotten and shall never be traced, made the following observation. When each car with a toilet was coupled, from now until eternity, at its toileted end with a car without a toilet, from then onwards the shunting yard, instead of dealing with N directed cars of two types, could deal with N/2 identical units that, to all intents and purposes, could be regarded as symmetrical. And this observation solved all shunting problems at the modest price of, firstly sticking to trains with an even number of cars only -- the few additional cars needed for that could be paid out of the initial savings effected by the commercial bloke! -- and, secondly, slightly cheating with regard to the equal spacing of the toilets. But, after all, who cares about the last three feet?

Although at the time that this story took place, mankind was not blessed yet with automatic computers, our anonymous man who found this solution deserves to be called the world's first competent programmer.

I have told the above story to different audiences. Programmers, as a rule, are delighted by it, and managers, invariably, get more and more annoyed as the story progresses; true mathematicians, however, fail to see the point.

The Sound of a 56k Modem Connecting...

If you're of a certain age (translation: if you're an old fart like me) and you used computers in the '80s and '90s, then the sound of a 56k modem connecting (generally to your dial-up ISP) is one that's probably burned into your little grey cells.  While those noises are familiar, most likely you have no idea what they all meant.  Here's a nice explanation, complete with archaeology :)

Best Fonts for Programming?

Anonymous Pro wins the vote...

Euphorbia punicea

Common name “Jamaican poinsettia”.  From BPOD, of course...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Proclaims my mom, about this:

Americas More Civilized Than We'd Thought...

Not now, but a long time ago – in the period before 1492...

Over the past ten years or so, scientists have made a number of discoveries about the broader extent and higher population than previously believed in “pre-historic” Americas.  Many of these discoveries have been in South America, particularly in Amazonia.  Here's one that is in the United States, giving strong evidence for a civilization there about 3,200 years ago that was capable of mustering thousands of workers to build a large earthworks.

It fascinates me that the evidence of human activity is so difficult to find and interpret, just a few thousand years after the fact.  I wonder what people a few thousand years from now will think about, say, the human occupation of Southern California?  Our artifacts look so permanent – especially on the time scale of a single human life – but clearly they are not...

The Spread of Religions...

I've long been surprised just how ignorant most people (from anywhere) are about religions – especially about religions other than their own (or the one most familiar to them).  Prominent amongst the topics of ignorance: any sense of the historical context of religions.  So...I predict that this infographic will have many surprises for people:

Cats vs. Birds...

The birds are losing, more dramatically than anyone knew.  It's mostly feral cats causing the problem:
America’s cats, including housecats that adventure outdoors and feral cats, kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds in a year, says Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., who led the team that performed the analysis. Previous estimates of bird kills have varied, he says, but “500 million is a number that has been thrown around a lot.”

For wild mammals, the annual toll lies between 6.9 billion and 20.7 billion, Marra and his colleagues report along with the bird numbers January 29 in Nature Communications. The majority of these doomed mammals and birds fall into the jaws of cats that live outdoors full-time with or without food supplements from people.

“The results are remarkable, not only for the big number, but also for the proportion of deaths from feral cats,” says Gary M. Langham, chief scientist for the National Audubon Society. The study assigns 952 million to 3.1 billion bird deaths a year to these wild cats. “These numbers really elevate this threat to a new level.” 
Felines are land sharks...

Potential Downfall of American Society...

Summary: A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.

Isolated for Forty Years...

A Russian family, afraid of what the Soviets would do to them because of their religion, lives in Siberia cut off from the rest of the world (their cabin is at right) for over 40 years.



Back in the early '80s I worked for a company with what seemed to me a radical policy with respect to employee compensation: everyone's compensation was posted so that all could see.  This had all sorts of repercussions, most of them, I have to say, quite good.  Everybody knew exactly where they stood; there was no worrying about whether you'd negotiated the right salary for yourself.  It made questions about compensation very easy to raise.  Most of all, it made it impossible for the company to sustain any sort of compensation that didn't match the merit. 

I suspect this particular company maintained this unusual level of transparency because there were several relatives and close friends of the founder employed there.  By being completely transparent about compensation, many potentially destructive rumors were quashed.

This morning I read that there's a detectable trend toward such transparency, and more...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Oh, Yeah, I'd Say I Was Fine, Too!

Via Jim M.:
A Wisconsin farmer named Olie (Olav) had a car accident. He was hit by a truck owned by the Eversweet Company, a Harley Westover Company.

In court, the Eversweet Company's hot-shot attorney questioned him thus:

'Didn't you say to the state trooper at the scene of the accident, 'I'm fine?"

Olie responded: 'vell, I'lla tell you vat happened dere. I'd yust loaded my fav'rit cow, Bessie, into da... '

'I didn't ask for any details', the lawyer interrupted. 'Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, 'I'm fine!'?'

Olie said, 'vell, I'd yust got Bessie into da trailer and I vas drivin' down da road.... '

The lawyer interrupted again and said, 'Your Honor, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the police on the scene that he was fine. Now several weeks after the accident, he is trying to sue my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.

By this time, the Judge was fairly interested in Olie’s answer and said to the attorney: 'I'd like to hear what he has to say about his favorite cow, Bessie'.

Olie said: 'Tank you' and proceeded. 'vell as I vas saying, I had yust loaded Bessie, my fav'rit cow, into de trailer and was drivin' her down de road vin dis huge Eversweet truck and trailer came tundering tru a stop sign and hit my trailer right in da side by golly. I was trown into one ditch and Bessie was trown into da udder ditch.

By yimminy yahosaphat I vas hurt, purty durn bad, and didn't vant to move. An even vurse dan dat, I could hear old Bessie a moanin' and a groanin'. I knew she vas in terrible pain yust by her groans.

Shortly after da accident, a policeman on a motorbike turned up. He could hear Bessie a moanin' and a groanin' too, so he vent over to her. After he looked at her, and saw her condition, he took out his gun and shot her right between the eyes.

Den da policeman came across de road, gun still in hand, looked at me, and said, 'How are you feelin'?'

'Now wot da fock vud you say?'

Take That!

There are petty thieves in almost every workplace.  They drive their fellow workers crazy by stealing drinks and food that belong to others, usually from the refrigerator.

Whoever posted the sign at right has secured revenge for all of us :)

Cisco Sells Off Belkin???

Cisco appears to have completely given up on its various forays into consumer electronics, selling off the profitable Linksys line to Belkin.  I have no idea whether those forays actually made good business sense, but what is clear is that Cisco has been punished by investors for having done so.  The Flip video fiasco actually impacted us personally – we owned one of those things.  This sale won't impact us directly, but it saddens me.  Linksys is a solid brand, with good-to-great products at very fair prices.  Belkin is a schlocky brand, known (quite justifiably, in my own experience) for iffy products and high prices.  I suppose its possible that Belkin could leverage this acquisition to push their own reputation uphill, but somehow I suspect that the opposite is more likely.  I fully expect to see “Linksys” slapped onto Belkin's existing networking products – the electronics equivalent of lipstick on a pig...

Women in Combat...

Some interesting thoughts from a female veteran, and this post has links to three other excellent articles, all thought-provoking.

If politics weren't part of the mix, I'd say there was a chance (albeit a small chance) that the military could figure out how to do this right.  Throw politics into it, though, and I think it becomes impossible.  And of course politics is in the mix, inevitably so, as Congress controls the military's purse strings...

Photos from 2012...

A collection of beautiful and fascinating photos taken in 2012, like the photo below of Mt. Rainier (in Washington State) casting a shadow up onto the cloud bottoms...

That's It, the Internet is Finished!

I Miss Estonia...

It's been eight years or so since I last visited this little country.  I ran across this beautiful photo taken yesterday near Suurupi, Estonia, and it reminded me of my own delighted treks through the forests and backcountry of Estonia...


Another in a series of similar ads.  Each of these makes me wonder how I'd react were I to witness this...

Scottish Ponies...

Awww...  Isn't that cute?

Our Future, on Display in the U.K...

Danny and Gina articulate the reasons why it makes no sense for them to work – and makes great sense for them to  stay on welfare.  They're young (21 and 18, respectively) and have a kid.  They live in a nice apartment, they have a big TV, they can afford their main vice (smoking), and they feel no guilt about sponging off the taxpayers (check out their reasoning).  If they were to take a job (which they admit would be easy for them to do, even though neither of them has any notable skills), their take-home income would actually go down (because their income would be taxed and their eligibility for welfare reduced).  Their reasoning is impeccable.  They are absolutely correct – they're better off on welfare than working.

Now of course they could undertake to get the education required to get a better job, and then go compete in the marketplace.  Many people (hopefully, most people) would do exactly that.  But that's all such a terribly large effort, fraught with the possibility of failure.  If, instead, they can just sit at home and rake in the welfare checks – that's ever so much less work and has no risk to themselves at all.

The important elements of this situation are already in place in the U.S., most especially in our large cities.  The progressive agenda keeps putting more pieces in place (Obamacare is a huge example).  During Clinton's administration significant welfare reform took a big step in the right direction, but the Obama administration and the predominantly Democratic administrations of most of our large cities are rapidly undoing those changes.  On our current trajectory, I'd estimate that the U.K. is only 5 to 10 years ahead of us.  So we can look forward to our own millions of Danny and Gina, whom the rest of us will support by having the fruits of our own labor stolen from us by “progressive” politicians.

Oh, goody.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Some More Smiles...

...from reader Simi L. (who is himself a doctor):

Should Be Hallmark Cards!

Reader Simi L. sent me a collection of these.  A few favorites:

Unbundling Education and Certification...

American universities and colleges provide (allegedly) two distinct services that have always been bundled together:  they educate, and they certify (via the degree) that the education has actually been accomplished.  The convention has always been that if you want that certification (the degree), then you must attend class (the education) – even if you've already obtained that education through some other means (for instance, by education yourself). 

The University of Wisconsin is about to change that.  They're going to provide the certification (that degree) to anyone who can pass their tests for it.  In other words, they are going to unbundle the certification and the education.

This has the potential both for good and bad, like most things.  One possible good outcome: the emergence of specialized degrees, especially those aimed at certifying an individual's readiness for gainful employment.  This will be enabled by the relatively low cost of a certification program as compared to an entire curriculum.  Employment-focused degrees would be worth a lot to American industry if they're well done.  One possible bad outcome: the emergence of schlock degrees, wherein the only real requirement is forking over some money.  Just as for the schlock schools and correspondence courses that exist today, the education industry will have to develop defenses against these.  Probably the main defense will be the same one as today: the reputation of the issuing school.

More a capella...

I'm discovering that there is an entire (and well-populated!) genre, long-established, of a capella music where voices replace music that would ordinarily be played with instruments.  It's all new to me!  Here's a famous English ensemble: the Swingle Singers, singing Waltzing Matilda:

Zappa on Education...

Frank Zappa was an interesting man, far beyond his music, which is how I first came to know about him.  I still listen to his music frequently.  I think there's a lot of truth in this:


Between Friday and Saturday, we've had just over an inch of rain.  My new weather station software graphs rainfall rates, rather than cumulative precipitation – an interesting difference that I'm still getting used to.  The peak rate in this storm was about 15 hundredths of an inch (4mm) per hour.  On average, that's a light drizzle :)

That reminds me of the most intense rain Debbie and I have ever experienced.  We were just west of Hilo, up in the hills on the Big Island of Hawai'i.  We watched the storm cell approach, saw it dumping torrential rains on Hilo, and then it hit us.  I didn't have any instruments with me, but I did watch things like pots, buckets, etc. filling up.  I guessed the rate at about 4 inches (100mm) per hour, and that rate was sustained for 20 to 30 minutes.  The locals told us that this sort of rainstorm happens regularly; they didn't think of it as unusual at all!

And to validate that, I did a little googling – and discovered that the record one hour rainfall rate is 12 inches per hour.  It's a tie between Hawai'i and Missouri.  So the locals were right – the 4 inches per hour we saw was no big deal :)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dogs, Socks...Nothing More...

Norman Borlaugh: the Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity...

Relatively few Americans know anything at all about Norman Borlaug, quite possibly never having heard of him at all.  I first heard about him myself when reviewing American winners of the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago.  Borlaug stands out amongst them for actually having accomplished something real and lasting – revolutionizing agriculture around the world, enabling a hungry world to eat.  I've since read several books about him.  There's no doubt that Borlaug's teachings saved lives – perhaps as many as a billion.  The Atlantic put a good 1997 article about him online; it was written while he was still alive...

Obama “Recess Appointments” Ruled Invalid...

Obama's been slapped down (for once!) for one of his many overreaching attempts to create an Imperial Presidency.  Much more here from Ricochet and Megan McArdle.  Three cheers for the appellate court having the guts to stand up to him...

Fools of Chelm...

Playwright David Mamet is an eloquent convert to conservatism from progressivism.  His writings are often interesting and provocative, as is this article on gun control.  An excerpt:
Healthy government, as that based upon our Constitution, is strife. It awakens anxiety, passion, fervor, and, indeed, hatred and chicanery, both in pursuit of private gain and of public good. Those who promise to relieve us of the burden through their personal or ideological excellence, those who claim to hold the Magic Beans, are simply confidence men. Their emergence is inevitable, and our individual opposition to and rejection of them, as they emerge, must be blunt and sure; if they are arrogant, willful, duplicitous, or simply wrong, they must be replaced, else they will consolidate power, and use the treasury to buy votes, and deprive us of our liberties. It was to guard us against this inevitable decay of government that the Constitution was written. Its purpose was and is not to enthrone a Government superior to an imperfect and confused electorate, but to protect us from such a government.
Go read the whole thing...

IQ and Vocabulary...

High IQ (as measured by conventional tests) and large vocabularies are strongly correlated.  Which causes which (or are they completely independent, and the correlation is simply chance)?  An interesting discussion...

Opportunity: Nine Years on Mars...

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of Opportunity's landing on Mars.  The plucky little rover was designed to last just 90 days, but it did a little better than that – and it's not done yet.  The panorama below was stitched together from many individual images, and shows over 210° of view from Opportunity's current perch on the rim of Endeavour Crater.  Full resolution version here.  From APOD, of course.

Class Act...

This past Monday, Quirky accused OXO of ripping off a design for a “broom groomer”.  This caught my eye, as I'm a fan of both OXO products (especially for the kitchen) and Quirky.  The issue is a classic intellectual property dispute, an area I have some familiarity with.

OXO's response is quite unconventional.  The conventional response would have been to counter-sue Quirky and start a war of attrition, doing neither side any good.  Instead, OXO published an open response that details the many ways in which Quirky's complaint is unjustified.  It also details the many opportunities OXO has for a countersuit, and on the face of it they look much more substantial than Quirky's complaint.  Then OXO simply calls for a truce – and a return by both parties to designing great products.

Nice, OXO.  A tip o'the hat to you for a classy response.  I hope it works out well, and serves as an example of an alternative to mutually destructive litigation...

A Marine and His Dog...

Marine returns home after a year-long deployment, and his dog greets him:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Electronic Medical Records Encourage Fraud?

Unfortunately, this is all too believable.  With a paper record, it's all too obvious if someone “pastes” in a template (though I've actually seen this done in a few of my own medical records).  With an electronic record, at least with current technology, there's no way to detect this.  I share Megan McArdle's angst about this.

I have no doubt that this is an unintended consequence of Obama's electronic medical record mandate, just as I also have no doubt that there are good consequences of having them.  However, it also seems like something that could have been shaken out in a more orderly, market-driven rollout.  Mandates such as this have another unintended effect: the motivation of the vendors is no longer function and quality driven (as a competitive marketplace would drive); instead it's focused on delivering a product that meets the minimum mandated requirements as quickly as possible.  The “first mover advantage” in such situations completely outweighs any normal competitive issues.  Result: you get a product that looks exactly like what it is – a designed-by-government-committee mess.

Our country is in the very best of hands...

More Awesome People...

Women in Combat...

My quote of the day is from a reader and friend, Larry E. (a Marine, but not on active duty), who said in an email to me:
This has been done before in other militaries and the end result was always reducing standards for women. The flaw here is that the goal really isn’t just to open up positions to women, it is to get women in those positions. A subtle but important difference.
Yup, that's exactly what I"m afraid of.

Yesterday's news was full of stories about our military leadership assuring us that there would no lowering of standards, and no double standards (one for men, one for women). They're saying loudly and clearly that our current military standards will have to be met by women if they want the role.

Bet that doesn't last long.

Here's Larry's entire email:
I took some interest in the announcement because it was a frequent topic of conversation when I was in the Marines in the 80s.

And even way back when I was in the Marines we would complain that women would get promoted just as fast as men, but had a lesser physical fitness standard. Call it military affirmative action. Much has changed over time, for example, back then women were given classes on harmonizing their lipstick with their cap-cord so you can imagine our.. consternation at this. Today the training for women is much closer to their male counterparts but it remains that their physical fitness standards are less stringent. If they were not, there would be very, very few women in the Marines.

In this case, the impetus seems to be that it is difficult for officers to make it to higher ranks without combat experience. In fact, officers that are destined for higher things tend to move around a lot as they gain some experience in a variety of positions. Logistics, combat units, garrison units etc. I’m not surprised at all there are fewer women general officers. There are fewer women in the military overall, until the last few decades the positions they filled were severely limited with only the last decade or two opening things up significantly.

Each military service has specific standards, physical and mental, that are required. Each job in each service has varying standards in addition to the minimum. You take a placement test before joining, and during your training, you must meet certain minimum physical and mental standards to pass or you will find yourself either out of that service or moved to a different job. We were always threatened with cook school if we couldn’t pass.

Combat Infantry is no different. There are very demanding physical needs that are beyond the physical requirements for say, computer programmers. And while we say in the Marines that every Marine is a Marine Rifleman first, and the standards in general are quite high, the reality is also that while each had to meet minimum physical standards, Combat Infantry has to meet more rigorous physical standards and even within there, if you are a big hulking guy, you will be carrying the mortar base plate while someone else carries the machine gun.

So you’d think the solution is simple, ensure that the minimum standards for each job is set appropriately. If it requires carrying an 80 pound combat load 20 miles, then there is your additional standard. If it requires doing complex math test for it, if you need eye hand coordination (video games) to fly drones, then that is your standard.

Unfortunately this doesn’t really work.

This has been done before in other militaries and the end result was always reducing standards for women. The flaw here is that the goal really isn’t just to open up positions to women, it is to get women in those positions. A subtle but important difference. Initially they just open up the positions for women if they can meet the standards for that job. Reasonable and fair. Then they find out that perhaps only 1 woman out of thousands can actually meet the standards for certain positions and zero for others and so they are embarrassed that their policy doesn’t work. The standards are questioned relentlessly and eventually adjusted until they do get women in those positions.

So where does it leave us?

I agree that the positions should be open to anyone capable. Frankly it is the only right thing to do. But the end result is also clear. We will have people in some positions that are far less qualified for them. For the most part, it will be women officers ticking a box on their career sheet before moving on. Leading a combat infantry platoon perhaps. Her men will either make fun of her for lacking the ability or be impressed she can hang at all and the Sergeants will keep things moving along. Not much different than its always been really.

Don't Like Your Job?

Here's an alternative you might consider:

That's It - the Internet is Finished!

Beautiful Butterfly...

From a collection of images my mom sent me:

Dogs and Trampolines...

My mom sent me a video of a dog playing around on a trampoline, which I thought was pretty cool.  I went onto YouTube and searched for it in an embeddable format, and found it – along with dozens of others.  I had never heard of dogs enjoying a trampoline before!  That same search I linked will also lead you to videos of cats, foxes, and even skunks on trampolines...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

President's Day...

Via my mom:
I was eating breakfast with my 10-year-old granddaughter and I asked her, "What day is today?".

Without skipping a beat she said, "It's President's Day!".

She's smart, so I asked her "What does President's Day mean?"

I was waiting for something about past Presidents like Washington or Lincoln, etc.

She replied, "President's Day is when President Obama steps out of the White House, and if he sees his shadow, we have 4 more years of Bull Shit."
Precocious child, she is...


CircuitHub is a startup providing a parts library (datasheets, specs, etc.), free.  It's essentially crowd-sourcing for electronic component data...

Women in Combat...

Yesterday came the news that as one of his last acts before stepping down, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will rescind the long-standing ban on women in combat roles.  For some roles this will take effect immediately; for others it will require development of implementation plans and a rollout strategy.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I fully support equal opportunity for women and men.  The idea of a mommy coming home in a body bag doesn't bother me any more (or less) than the idea of a daddy coming home in a body bag.  If a woman can do the job (whatever that job may be), then by all means she should have the opportunity to do so.

On the other hand, I worry that the military bureaucracy will implement this mandate by watering down the performance requirements for combat roles so that more women can reach them.  The military will do this to win points from the Congress-critters who supply the armed forces with money.  Their excuse will be the statistical difference in abilities between the genders.  There are physical gender differences; for example, on average, a man can carry more than a woman.  There are gender differences in intellectual capabilities; for example, statistically men can read and interpret maps more easily than women.  Then there are cultural gender differences; men are more likely to be willing to endure the harsh field conditions of combat.

All of this means that if current standards in all these areas aren't changed, then relatively few women interested in these jobs will be able to meet them.  The military will feel pressured to lower those standards, and our Congress-critters will happily provide that pressure, in the interest of “fairness”.  This will make all the progressives happy, but it will result in a less capable military – something that I (and many others) would be quite unhappy about.

My prediction: in less than one year, we'll hear calls from Congressional Democrats (and not from Republicans) to “fix the gender discrimination” in the military's high standards.

Best Pet Video Evah!

Made for the Raleigh, North Carolina SPCA:

Awesomely awesome!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Smoke is from Prescribed Burn...

The smoke you see to the northeast of Jamul is from a prescribed burn near Pine Valley.  You can see it on the HPWREN Los Pinos camera (below).

It Was So Cold...

There's one problem with this, though...the Republicans aren't any better about this than the damned Democrats!

Super-TIGER Breaks Balloon Record...

Super-TIGER is a cosmic ray experiment lofted by balloon over Antarctica.  It recently broke the record for length of a balloon flight by staying aloft for over 45 days.  The map at right shows its track over Antarctica, color-coded for which circuit it's on: green for first, blue for second, and red for the current third circuit...


Anyone older than about 25 has experienced the astonishing increase in the frequency of the word “like” in ordinary speech.  I'd be surprised if “like” made it to the top 100 words of my own speech.  For some speakers I have listened to (painfully, usually in a store checkout line), “like” approaches 50% of the words they utter.  These people are predominantly young women, many of whom would be quite attractive if it weren't for their verbal vomitus.

My most recent experience with this phenomenon was just Monday, while standing in the checkout line at Home Depot in Encinitas, California.  A woman of perhaps 20 was in line just before me, and we were behind perhaps 3 others.  She was deep in conversation on her cell phone, which was turned up so loud that I could easily hear both sides of the conversation.  You'd think this would be an ordinary sort of experience, but it wasn't ordinary at all – it was very hard work.  First, I had to mentally subtract all the “likes” in order to have a prayer of understanding the flow of the conversation.  Then every sentence uttered, by both parties, sounded like a question (because of the rising intonation at the end of the sentences).  Upon parsing the actual words, though, it became clear that none of the sentences were questions.  Unfortunately they weren't normal declarative sentences like us old fogies use for communications.  No, these sentences were some new construction that I'm unfamiliar with – full of strange intonations, unusual sounds, and other words (such as “soooooooo...”) interjected into unfamiliar locations within sentences.

However, I'm confident that after five minutes or so, I figured out the actual content of the conversation.  Here's my translation in full:

Woman in front of me: “Hi!”
Woman on phone: “Hi!”

Eventually it was her turn to check out, with her quart of paint and a few other related supplies.  There was some back-and-forth with the clerk, mainly about where one swipes credit cards.  Like the earlier cell phone conversation, her side of this one was about 50% “likes” (and no, I am not exaggerating).  I could see the clerk (a woman of perhaps 30) was working just as hard as I was to keep up with the young woman's speech.  Part of it I never figured out, but the young woman did swipe her credit card, eventually.  Then she mercifully walked out of range of my tortured ears.

The clerk stared at the young woman as she departed, agape.  Then she asked me “Did you year her?”  I think the clerk wanted some reassurance that our mutually experienced encounter was not a hallucination.  I was happy to oblige.

Rachel Lucas has noticed the same phenomenon:
...I said that the girl’s way of speaking had sounded so shockingly stupid to me that I could hardly keep from grabbing her by the shoulders and begging her not to go around Europe talking that way because it gives Europeans an excuse to smugly think Americans are subliterate fools. I said she sounded literally brain-damaged.
Yes, exactly.  Go read the rest of her rant...

Curiosity Photo Dump...

I found the photo below in today's dump of raw images from the Curiosity rover on Mars.  I have no idea what it is, but somehow it suggests water to me...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Physical Therapy Day!

Slow blogging today, as we're off to the city for some more physical therapy for Debbie's knee.  She's up to 60 pounds of weight-bearing on her injured knee...

Kira Davis on Gun Control...

I have no idea who Kira Davis is, but she does a fine job articulating the basis for the Second Amendment:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lunar Companion...

Tonight the moon is just over half full, and as I walked the dogs (6:15 pm local time) it was nearly straight overhead and shining bright in a clear sky.  I glanced up at it while I was walking, and noted that there is a bright star quite close to the moon – less than one lunar diameter away, towards the northeast.  A star that appeared that bright, that close to a bright moon, almost surely was a planet.

So when I brought the dogs in, I grabbed our binoculars and walked back outside to check.  Sure enough, that's Jupiter shining brightly so close to the moon.  I couldn't see any surface features in the binoculars, but I could make out three moons of Jupiter, all in a row (from my perspective) – a giveaway that it is Jupiter.

I'm surprised this conjunction wasn't mentioned on any of the web sites I frequent.  I can't remember a closer conjunction between those two bodies.  With a little googling, I found this press release:
Slooh Space Camera to Broadcast Live Feeds of Super Close Moon / Jupiter Conjunction

On Monday, January 21st, the Moon will appear amazingly close in the sky to the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. The Waxing Gibbous Moon - the lunar phase between first quarter Moon and a full Moon - will be approximately one degree south of Jupiter appearing to be only a pen width apart. This will be closest conjunction between the two celestial bodies until 2026.

Slooh Space Camera will cover the event live on, free to the public, Monday, January 21st at 6:00 PM PST / 9:00 PM EST / 02:00 UTC (1/22) - International times here: - accompanied by real-time discussions with Slooh President, Patrick Paolucci, Astronomy Magazine columnist, Bob Berman, and astro-imager Matt Francis of the Prescott Observatory. Viewers can watch live on their PC or IOS/Android mobile device at t-minus zero.

By good fortune, the Great Red Spot will be traveling across the middle of Jupiter's disk during Slooh's live broadcast.

If skies are clear, individuals can view the conjunction by looking at the Moon and finding the brightest star in the sky next to the Moon, which will be Jupiter. Individuals with binoculars or telescope may capture more detail of Jupiter, including some of the satellites.
Looks like I caught it perfectly, even if by accident!

Who Lopped the End Off My Graph?

You'd expect a solar intensity graph, taken over the course of a day, to show half a cycle of something approximating a sine wave.  Solar luminosity at any given moment is mainly proportional to the cosine of the sun's elevation in the sky.  There's a little extra attenuation when the sun is at lower elevations, as there's more air for it to travel through – and if the air is dirty, much light will be absorbed by the dust and other particulates.  Out here, though, the air is really clear.  So why does today's solar intensity graph look like this?

From about 9 am to 4 pm, the graph looks like what we'd expect. 

Before 9 am, it's just chopped off.  The reason is straightforward: before 9 am, from the vantage point of the weather station the sun is blocked by Gaskill Peak (one of the mountains forming Lawson Valley's eastern rim).  At 9 am the sun rose over Gaskill Peak, and the intensity jumped to right where you'd expect it. 

After about 3:45 pm, the graph gets all squiggly.  That's happening because at that time the sun is approaching the horizon (again, from the weather station's perspective), which right there is formed by some chaparral brush.  You're seeing the light from the sun being attenuated by highly variable shadows of the chaparral's leaves and branches – perhaps even being moved around by the wind. 

To get a really pretty graph, we'd need to have the weather station up on top of a local peak, with clear views to the horizon where the sun sets and rises (of course this would change throughout the year).

We only had seven and a half hours of bright sunlight today...

How Quickly We Forget...

It's been nine years ago this week:
Opportunity, NASA's other Mars rover, has tooled around the red planet for so long it's easy to forget it's still alive.

Some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) away from the limelight surrounding Curiosity's every move, Opportunity this week quietly embarks on its tenth year of exploration—a sweet milestone since it was only tasked to work for three months.

"Opportunity is still going. Go figure," said mission deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis.
Designed for three months of operation, but here we are 108 months later and Opportunity is still going strong, and still returning good science.  An astronaut wouldn't have lasted quite so long :)

Huygens Landing on Titan...

This isn't an actual movie taken by a video camera, but rather a simulation of a movie constructed from data taken from instruments on the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005.  It's a marvelous visualization of that technical triumph.  From APOD, of course...

Giant Gamma Ray Burst...

In 774 or 775 AD.  Researchers figured this out by examining some ancient cedar trees in Japan.  A new theory is that colliding black holes in the Milky Way galaxy caused it.

What interests me most are the effects of this irradiation on life.  Did the number of radiation-induced mutations jump?  Did this irradiation have any observable consequences?  I've read of several studies that are underway trying to figure this out, but it will be tough – in general, one can't determine what caused a mutation.  Probably the closest anyone will come to actual proof is if they can demonstrate that a statistically significant increase in the number of mutations occurred at the time of this large radiation dose...

Aerial Photography...

But not from airplanes, and not from balloons.  These photos were taken by cameras mounted on kites!

What Happens When...

The experiment: First, soak an ordinary tennis ball in gasoline (what the British call “petrol”).  Then set the tennis ball on fire and whack it with a tennis racket.  What happens?

Not what I expected:


Cross dressing, meth selling, sex toy store owner, sex in the rectory – naturally, we're talking about a Roman Catholic priestReallyThe criminal complaint is online there.

Mushrooms of Concrete...

There were some very strange and tragic stories in the 20th century, amongst them the paranoia of Albania that led to the construction of three quarters of a million concrete “mushrooms” (bunkers):

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Did you know that Richard Feynman was an artist?  I don't mean his bongo drums – I mean drawing and painting.  Even though Feynman is one of my personal heroes, until this morning I had no idea he had this talent.

Unsurprisingly, nude women are frequent subjects – but also people that he knew (some of whom are famous themselves), and his relatives (especially his adopted daughter Michelle).  There's a collection of his art here; my favorite of the bunch is at right.

Ofey?  That's the pseudonym he signed his artwork with...

Weather Station Heart Transplant...

I'm in the midst of a makeover on our home's IT infrastructure.  Mainly this means removing things – parts of our infrastructure were over 10 years old, and technology has come a long way in that time.  I'm replacing 5 servers, a noisy Cisco 3550 switch, several routers, and some other gear with a single Mac Mini Server, a silent Cisco SG 300-20 switch, and a 3TB mirrored disk array.  Ah, quiet!  And small – this whole setup fits on a single 18" x 36" shelf, with plenty of room to spare.

One of those old servers I've replaced was a Windows 2003 server box – the last vestige of Windows to remain in our home.  It is now shut down, plug pulled out of the wall.  I could do this because WeatherHawk (the manufacturer of my weather station) now has an OS/X software package.  Yesterday I installed that package on our Mac Mini Server, and set it up to report weather as a personal weather station on Weather Underground (the link will be permanently at right).

This new software installed and configured painlessly.  While I can't really see how it's built, I can tell from some of the interactions that its communications protocol implementation is much better than that of the old Windows software I'm replacing.  Getting it connected to Weather Underground was totally painless.  There was a big surprise for me upon installing it, a very pleasant one: the software has the option of working with a MySQL database!  I already had MySQL installed on my server (for my own purposes), so all I had to do was create a database and login for the WeatherHawk software and voila!  I'm now collecting the weather data straight into SQL database – which means that reporting on the data is very straightforward.  Win!

The Mechanic and the Surgeon...

Ah, I need a good one like this, but for programmers...
A Honda mechanic was removing a cylinder head from the motor of a Honda when he spotted a well-known cardiologist in his shop. The cardiologist was there waiting for the service manager to come and take a look at his car when the mechanic shouted across the garage, "Hey Doc, want to take a look at this?”

The cardiologist, a bit surprised walked over to where the mechanic was working on a Honda. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag and asked, ”So Doc, look at this engine. I opened its heart, took the valves out, repaired or replaced anything damaged, and then put everything back in, and when I finished, it worked just like new. So how is it that I make $24,000 a year and you make $1.7M when you and I are doing basically the same work?

The cardiologist paused, leaned over, and then whispered to the mechanic ... “Try doing it with the engine running.”

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Graduation Myth...

Robert Weissberg on our education system:
America lives in a fantasy world regarding education. We think that more years of schooling makes for more knowledgeable workers, when the truth is that we are promoting bad habits that are hard to reverse. Many business managers deal with that truth by hiring more motivated immigrants with solid work habits, giving their good employees more hours, or automating tasks.

As far as improving American education by turning out ever more graduates, the venerable Professor Pogo nailed it: we have met the enemy and he is us.
Read the whole thing...

Local Beauty...

The first plant below is one I couldn't identify.  I found it alongside the dirt road that goes uphill from our home.  The second plant below (two photos) is a Narcissus of some kind, one of zillions growing in our yard right now.

Curiosity Snaps...

A couple of interesting photos from today's image dump.  The top image reminds me of pebbles tumbled in water (smoothing them off) and collecting in a quiet place on a stream bottom.  The bottom image looks like a zillion veined rocks I've seen (here on Earth!):

Invisible Animals...

Animals have evolved some astonishingly good camouflage.  The photo at right shows a pika (a rodent in the U.S. Rocky Mountains); Debbie and I have experienced this critter's hiding ability first hand.  We've often heard them but were unable to see them – even though they were less than 50 feet away!

Here's a great collection of these invisible animals, in photos...

I'm No Longer Surprised...

I used to be really surprised when people don't know really obvious things, such as seen in the sign at right (photo sent by my mom).  But no more.  I've run into it way too often to be surprised any more.

Not so many years ago, I had a young fellow working for me.  He was married and had two kids (he now has four).  In a conversation with him one day, I discovered that he had no idea where peanuts came from.  He guessed they grew on trees or bushes.  When I told him they actually grew underground, he didn't believe me – until he googled it and discovered the truth.

I then began a quest to find all the obvious things he didn't know.  He surprised me over and over.  For example, he assumed that milk was made in a factory, like soda.  He had no idea that it originated in a cow.  His wife breast-fed his kids, so I know he's been exposed to the concept.  Once I told him this, and he googled to confirm it, he stopped drinking milk.

Then I found out that he had no idea where honey came from.  Once again, he assumed it was made in a factory, like molasses or sugar (there's a whole 'nother story there!).  When I told him it was made by bees, and harvested from their hives, he was absolutely incredulous.  He loved honey – had it on his toast or biscuits every morning.  No way was it regurgitated by bugs!  He googled it...and hasn't eaten honey since. 

I never asked him about bananas, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't know they're from plants. 

Oh, My...

Via my mom:
A guy asked a girl in a university library: "Do you mind if I sit beside you?”

The girl replied with a loud voice: "I DON'T WANT TO SPEND THE NIGHT WITH YOU!"

All the students in the library started staring at the guy; he was truly embarrassed.

After a couple of minutes, the girl walked quietly to the guy 's table and said: "I study psychology, and I know what a man is thinking. I guess you felt embarrassed, right?”

The guy then responded with a loud voice. “$500 FOR ONE NIGHT? THAT'S TOO MUCH!”

All the people in the library looked at the girl in shock.

The guy whispered in her ear: "I study law, and I know how to screw people".

Linux Command Line...

A free ebook on the Linux Command Line...

A New Low for a Lawyer?


This lawyer takes a woman he's known for many years as a divorce client.  He ends up having an affair with her.  He bills her for the times they were having sex.  Then he breaks up with her.  That same day, she tries to kill herself.  She survives, and accuses the lawyer.  He denies it all initially, but finally admits it.  He's been suspended from the practice of law indefinitely.

That's not all.  Back in 1997, he was put on probation because he bought cocaine from a client.


Oh, My Sides Hurt!

Even if you're not into electronics this is funny.  If you are into electronics, it's hysterical!

I can't decide whether the guy is making a joke, or this is his schtick to make his point, or if he's just really that dumb.  Doesn't matter.  It's funny!

A Fine Gun Control Rant...

From Rachel Lucas, of course:
There are countless other examples of things no gun-grabber ever says a word about banning even though doing so would save thousands of lives a year, because with those things, the gun-grabber seems to at least tenuously grasp the concept of the balance between personal liberty and “what keeps children from dying”. Nobody “needs” swimming pools or cars either, and unlike firearms, the right to possess them is certainly not protected by the Bill of Rights, and they’re involved in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, many of them children.

The president never talks about that, or goes to the homes of drowned kids to hug their parents for the cameras, or pretends to tear up on TV every time another 20 babies are killed in car accidents. Because drownings and traffic fatalities aren’t politically sexy or easy to demagogue.

If any of these gun-control jackoffs actually in point of fact cared about preventing the deaths of children, they would be agitating for the elimination of all inanimate objects that “cause” enormous numbers of kids to die, but they don’t agitate, because they don’t care. Hell, by the logic of Obama and Biden and their entire insane clown posse, we should be working on “parent control”. Bunches of kids are beaten to death by their own mothers and fathers every year. Maybe we need background checks and licensing before people can procreate.

What? Why not, you selfish bastard? You’re talk about your personal “rights” and “liberty” – how dare you. Don’t you care about the dead children? How many innocent little kids have to die before we take reasonable steps?

Gah. It’s all so fucking ridiculous. Grotesque kabuki theater.
Go read the whole thing...

Friday, January 18, 2013

I Don't See What This Guy Thinks Is So Funny!

It's 55°F outside, and I'm freezing my butt off!

Frozen Waterfalls...

Lots more like the one below from Croatia...


A Few of My Favorite Things...

Via reader Jim M., sung to the tune of A Few of My Favorite Things, from The Sound of Music:
Botox and nose drops and needles for knitting,
Walkers and handrails and new dental fittings,
Bundles of magazines tied up in string,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Cadillacs and cataracts, hearing aids and glasses,
Polident and Fixodent and false teeth in glasses,
Pacemakers, golf carts and porches with swings,
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the pipes leak, When the bones creak,
When the knees go bad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Hot tea and crumpets and corn pads for bunions,
No spicy hot food or food cooked with onions,
Bathrobes and heating pads and hot meals they bring,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Back pain, confused brains and no need for sinnin',
Thin bones and fractures and hair that is thinnin',
And we won't mention our short shrunken frames,
When we remember our favorite things.

When the joints ache, When the hips break,
When the eyes grow dim,
Then I remember the great life I've had,
And then I don't feel so bad.


Eric Thomas is a former professional football player turned motivational speaker.  He certainly got my attention!

How About a Shotgun?

A man, his wife, and their kids, escaping from the 1992 riots provoked by the Rodney King beatings.  They were unarmed, and being attacked by hundreds of rioters.  Just read it...

Operation Stratosphere...

I'd have a lot of fun with a project like this: send cameras aloft (via balloon) into the stratosphere, taking 360° still and video images all the way up and down.  Bonus: image the balloon bursting!  One example result: you can explore the image below in a 360° viewer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why Parents Drink...

Via my mom.  And no, this isn't her story about me:
A father passing by his son's bedroom was astonished to see that his bed was nicely made and everything was picked up.

Then he saw an envelope, propped up prominently on the pillow that was addressed to "Dad."

With the worst premonition he opened the envelope with trembling hands and read the letter.

Dear Dad:

It is with great regret and sorrow that I'm writing you. I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with Mom and you. I have been finding real passion with Stacy and she is so nice.

But I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercing, tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes and the fact that she is much older than I am.

But it's not only the passion...Dad she's pregnant.

Stacy said that we will be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood for the whole winter. We share a dream of having many more children.

Stacy has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana doesn't really hurt anyone. We'll be growing it for ourselves and trading it with the other people that live nearby for cocaine and ecstasy. In the meantime we will pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so Stacy can get better.

She deserves it.

Don't worry Dad. I'm 15 and I know how to take care of myself.

Someday I'm sure that we will be back to visit so that you can get to know your grandchildren.

Love, Your Son John, P.S. Dad, none of the above is true. I'm over at Tommy's house. I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than the report card that's in my center desk drawer.

I love you.

Call me when it's safe to come home.

The Wrong Diner...

Gun Control...

Via Jim M.:
A reporter did a human-interest piece on the Texas Rangers. The reporter recognized the Colt Model 1911 the Ranger was carrying and asked him "Why do you carry a 45?" The Ranger responded, "Because they don't make a 46."
The old sheriff was attending an awards dinner when a lady commented on his wearing his sidearm. "Sheriff, I see you have your pistol. Are you expecting trouble?" He promptly replied, "No Ma'am. If I were expecting trouble, I would have brought my shotgun."
I was once asked by a lady visiting if I had a gun in the house? I said I did. She said, "Well I certainly hope it isn't loaded!" To which I said, "Of course it is loaded; it can't work without bullets!" She then asked, "Are you that afraid of someone evil coming into your house?" My reply was, "No, not at all. I am not afraid of the house catching fire either, but I have fire extinguishers around, and they are all loaded too."

We Remember...

Via the good doctor Simi L.:

Do You Know What This Is?

You probably think it's a snowflake, right?


It's a baby picture of Frosty the Snowman.

This cruelty was inflicted by my lovely bride.

Martian Images...

Both in today's dump from Curiosity.  The top one is in true color, a close-up taken with the MHLI camera (full resolution).  The bottom one is a composite panorama of images taken by the Mast camera (full resolution), color-adjusted to show what the scene would look like were it on Earth.

Basic Science Errors in the Mainstream Media...

It surprises me how commonly I find basic science errors in publications from mainstream media.  Here's an article in The Economist that provides a great example.  The offending paragraph:
It is true, and was the basis of Edison's showmanship, that low-frequency alternating current can be more hazardous than an equivalent direct current. By oscillating at a similar frequency (50-60 hertz) to the human heart, a sufficiently strong alternating current can cause that organ to beat arhythmically and thereby induce ventricular fibrillation—a potentially deadly condition that needs to be corrected immediately.
Most of the rest of the article is at least close to accurate, but this paragraph is laughably inaccurate.  For starters, the statement that alternating current oscillates at a similar frequency is off, by a factor of 60.  The author appears to have confused oscillations per second (in alternating current) with beats per minute (of our hearts).  He then goes on to develop a theory, unknown to science, that this similarity of frequency is the reason why alternating current induces arhythmia.  It's just wrong; completely made up so far as I can tell.

The mainstream media is full of this sort of thing.  It's a rare day that goes by without me spotting at least one of them.  Most of them never get corrected, or even noted by any commenters.  This can only mean one of two things, I think: either people who are reasonably science-literate have just given up, or there aren't very many science-literate people.  Come to think of it, it could be both at the same time.