Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I thought a Runcible was a Spork

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

The traditional runcible is a spoon-fork combination, with a wide central prong flanked by two recurved prongs nearly as wide. The sci-fi runcible is so-named because its matter-transmitter field is generated between two recurved prongs, though these are meter-scale. Neal Asher is one writer who liberally employs the runcible in his galactic-scale space fiction, including the new collection The Engineer Reconditioned. This book is essentially his Engineer collection of 1998 plus about 30% new stories.

In the title novella, the Engineer is a genetic engineer, a stasis-preserved survivor of a long-extinct starfaring species. Taking his clue from Heinlein's Dictum that "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", the author writes of this Jain engineer and a small device that expands—when fed high-temperature crabs—into a machine that clones one of the human characters, and just as an aside, transmutes elements so as to provide an example of supplies (s)he desires (the species has three sexes).

A number of the other stories take their impetus from the Owner, a godlike machine-supported human of a hundred centuries' age, with a starship that raises tides on any world it circles. This irascible character is presented as a minimal-interference Jehovah-like being, all-powerful (or so close as to make little difference) but disinclined to interfere. Of course, he does save the day a time or two—else why introduce him at all?

Of note in Asher's work is his ability to get the reader under the skin of several kinds of quite diverse alien beings. The stories are high-concept, so surprise endings are rare, but one surprise of note is the twist when a bigoted character learns which species is the high-level intelligence being studied and readied for galactic contact.

Finally, do you know about the little parasite that gets into the head of an ant and alters its behavior so it crawls to the top of a grass blade, where it is eaten by a sheep, the next host in the parasite's life cycle? Asher makes use of the behavior-manipulating parasite idea in several of his scenarios. A touch grisly but a masterful bit of ideation.

Monday, March 30, 2009

We built your world, now we are claiming it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, human personality

Eleven years ago I first took the Keirsey version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test. My type is INTP: Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Perceiver. However, the tendency toward each of these items is not very great. On scales that range from -50 to +50, I am +6 for I, N, and T, and +2 for J. I was told by the test proctor that, for example, +6 on the F-T scale means something like +50-44, meaning I have strong feelings to go with my strong intellect, rather than a weak intellect and no feelings: yes, I happen to be a deep thinker who cries at weddings and sappy movies.

Just this morning, I ran through one of the free MBTI tests one can find, and on a slightly different scale, found the following (I remain INTP on balance):
  • Introverted 56% vs 44% Extroverted
  • iNtuitive 58% vs 42 % Sensing
  • Thinking 54% vs 46% Feeling
  • Perceiving 50% vs 50% Judging (Tie broken in favor of P)
This type is called the Mastermind by one research group, and the Architect by another. Does this tell me anything useful? I cannot say it bears out my life experience; my life experience is the basis for the classification, so that would be circular reasoning! Rather, it helps me identify people of similar type, and it begins to expose the conflicts that make up my life.

In the same class as I eleven years ago, there were more than twenty people. When these test results were presented to us, we'd all given permission that the whole room could know our results, so we were seated, successively, according to our scores on each axis. One woman I worked with at the time was consistently seated near the end of each arrangement. She was, for example, a 50 on the T scale. This doesn't mean she cannot have feelings, just that she never uses feelings as a basis for decision or action. In sum, for her, there is little or no inner conflict. She is comfortable with who she is.

I, on the other hand, am full of conflict. I don't just "see both sides of an argument", I see several sides that neither antagonist has thought of. I've learned to keep quiet about that most of the time. Two people in a "don't confuse me with facts" mood don't respond well to further confusion. Anyway, being rather introverted, I don't run toward a fight, I dodge out.

Laurie Helgoe (PhD) was raised in a family of ten, a noisy family as she remembers, and she was the one who most often dodged out. With strength born of maturity, she has written a marvelous book, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength. A great value of the book for me is that it shows how much of the structure of society and civilization is due to the quiet work of introverts. The author also has determined that introversion is the majority tendency.

It is "common knowledge" that introverts are a distinct minority, ranging around 25% of us all. Common knowledge has it wrong. In 1998 when the Keirsey Personality Sorter had been taken by 200,000 people, 41% who'd taken it were introverts. The instructor of our class noted that introverts are less likely to self-test, because they live in their own heads already, and are more familiar with what is in there. Thus, the number was probably closer to half. Yet the book we were using stated that the "I" types in Myers-Briggs represent 25%. This turns out to be based on a guess made decades earlier. Dr. Helgoe has better figures. A representative national study done in 2001 pegs the proportion of introverts at 57% (she quotes the study but does not cite it; I wish she had cited it).

Much of the book comprises a self-help manual for the wounded introverts, who abound. America is an overtly extroverted society, for which partying and self-revelatory small talk are primary values. The key "networking" function is the cocktail party, a chamber of horrors for most introverts: what thinking person gains anything of value from standing around nibbling inedible hors-d'oeuvres and gradually getting drunk while talking of meaningless things to people one is unlikely ever to see again? An introvert prefers a more meaningful conversation with no more than two others, sitting in a corner with a side table to hold the drink she plans to ignore anyway.

Have we internalized society's values, to the point that we devalue our own? The author comforts us with her own experience: once she gained her own voice, though she listens much and says little, her boss once said, "When Laurie speaks, people listen." I identify; I have had that said about me also.

Where introverts fall flat is in repartee, except for a few (with prodigious memories) who have pre-thought out thousands of social situations and "have a million of 'em" when it comes to snappy comebacks. The few of these I know are less popular than one would think, because they don't know when to stop. I am reminded also of Steve Wozniak, in his first appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" a couple weeks ago: after his fumbling dance, he didn't just listen to the judges' comments, he had a quip in reply to each. He had more to say than all other contestants combined, and came away looking quite the fool. I am pretty sure the Woz thought he was leaving quite a different impression (Maybe he is crazy like a fox, though. While he got the lowest score from the judges, his public popularity kept him in the running).

Dr. Helgoe sees American society like the Yin-Yang symbol, in which light and dark follow each other, and each embodies a drop of the other at its heart. She sees in this the growth of us as individuals. We gain abilities "borrowed" from our opposite number. I see this in myself. Shy to the point of needing psychiatric help in my pre-teen years, I have become, as an adult, a sought-after public speaker. I've learned how to work a crowd, without feeling crowded. I know how to gain restoration in solitude; as one chapter of the book has it, "Alone is not a 4-letter word." But I still avoid situations in which I'd need to answer quickly. I simply have to think things through. I've become an incredibly hard sell to any promoter with the "limited-time offer". I know an honest deal will be here tomorrow, and if it won't, it ain't.

The best advice for the inner-directed among us, that true "quiet majority" (not quite silent), is this: don't allow anyone to blame you for your virtues. Dare to think things through, and deny the push for an immediate answer; dare to live by your own standards, and ignore those who fear your lack of conformity; dare to be a person who allows himself/herself to see farther, and eschew the hasty dreamers who can't take time to look ahead. Live richly, for your inner life is rich. It is OK to be your own best friend.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hail today

kw: weather, hail

This isn't the biggest hail I've seen, but it is the first at this home. The biggest stone visible, the one on the step stone in the middle, is about half an inch, or 1.2 cm.

While the weather was nice all afternoon, after a calming rain in the morning, we heard there would be a thunderstorm about dinnertime. My wife and I had just finished some yard work when it got windy. It was about 6:30 pm. Gray clouds had been building only a short time when "bang! bang!", we began to hear hail hitting the Bilco door. It only lasted a few minutes, and all the stones were less than a centimeter. After a short pause, it started up, dropped a few hundred larger stones, and it was all over. This is the result.

I'm glad that's all there was. A couple decades ago, while living in South Dakota, we had hail as large as five inches (13 cm). We had to replace the roof, the cars were badly dented, and I got hit by a three-inch (7+ cm) ball that left quite a bruise. Small hail like this is almost a relief!

Friday, March 27, 2009

I try to get clean

kw: product testing, opinion

A few days ago I reviewed Green Goes With Everything (here). The book is mainly an extended advertisement for the new line of Shaklee products. I've used a very few Shaklee products for nearly forty years, including Basic H, the blue-colored household cleanser concentrate. I mainly use it in the shower. It is the only thing with which I've cleaned my body since 1970. Every evening, I use about one CC on my hair and face (I keep it out of my eyes), and another CC on my body. Thus, a gallon jug is good for almost 2,000 showers. I use it undiluted.

I decided to try new Get Clean Basic H2, which replaced Basic H not so long ago. It is claimed to be more concentrated than Basic H. I am finding out if that is true. Last evening, I put two ounces of water in a small squeeze bottle and added a quarter ounce of H2. That's an 8:1 dilution. After some experimentation, I found I needed several CC to get cleaned off.

Tonight I added another quarter ounce to the squeeze bottle, making it a 4:1 dilution. I used one CC on my hair. Not quite good enough. A second wash with one CC got my hair and face clean. A couple CC on my body did well enough.

I'll add another half ounce to the bottle tomorrow and see how it works at 2:1 dilution (or 33%). I suspect it'll require going that far, or all the way to a 1:1 dilution (50%) before I can get equally clean with one CC, as I do with one CC of H. Should that be true, I'll judge the product acceptable. At the moment, it is provisionally "barely acceptable".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The new voodoo

kw: musings, genetics, ethics

On the way to work, I was listening to a discussion of genetics and privacy. One of the participants was Art Kaplan, a bioethicist from U. Penn, who was warning just how hard it is to keep our DNA private. We shed skin cells at the rate of a couple of grams a day—that is billions of cells—and a small sample of our saliva, such as a lip mark on a drinking glass, contains a sample sufficient for sequencing. I recalled that we lose several dozen hairs from our head daily, and men with body hair lose another few dozen from arms, chest, whatever. Then there is shaving residue, both male and female.

Who might want our DNA? Plans are in the works, for example, to maintain a national DNA database for criminal investigations, similar in nature to the FBI's fingerprint database. So far, the FBI hasn't gained authority to have everyone fingerprinted, but you'd be surprised how many fingerprint sets are on file. All sorts of programs that take prints get into the files (For example, I've been fingerprinted for a criminal background check, needed to teach music. I am sure the FBI got a copy). So, the FBI and most other criminal investigative bodies are interested in our DNA, though they are likely to have political trouble getting authority for comprehensive DNA gathering.

Who else? My insurance company would love a DNA sample. They could find out if I'm prone to genetically-determined chronic diseases; they can't as yet exclude coverage, but they are sure to try to get such powers. Will the day come when I won't be able to get coverage without having a mouth swab taken?

Even if such measures never become legal, some entities may find it worthwhile to gather DNA on the sly. It is so darn easy! Legends of voodoo, not much based in reality so I'm told, imagine a kind of "espionage of body stuffs", where a practitioner gathers skin flakes from your mattress and pillow, shed hairs off the floor of your room, and even cells shed into your toilet. Such measures, found in fiction, but not much in real life, could become a new trade in "gray DNA harvesting".

But it doesn't need to be that intrusive. The waiters at a restaurant, or the busboys, can get DNA from drinking glasses. It can be gotten off doorknobs, and from sweat in garments and gloves. Imagine what a cloakroom attendant would be willing to do for a doubled or tripled salary. The mouse pad at my desk probably contains millions of cells shed from the skin of my hand over recent months. Who is able to enter my office after hours? Does anybody in my company care? Will they ever? (Therefrom cometh paranoia)

Your hair and fingernail shavings may not be much use in making a voodoo doll, but they could be gold to your insurance company. Perhaps the only defense is rampant vigilantism against such practitioners, to make it so NOT worth their while…

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Being green is easier than you think

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, environmentalism, advertisements

To be totally up front here, the book under review is mainly an extended advertisement for Shaklee products. Also, I happen to be a favorable witness, having used certain Shaklee products for forty years. I was a distributor at one time, but soon found it more lucrative to program computers—I am too introverted to be a good sales person.

I also found I didn't need to read right through. Green Goes With Everything: Simple Steps to a Healthier Life and a Cleaner Planet, by Sloan Barnett, is something of a reference book. Ms Barnett is a journalist, and the wife of a Shaklee executive, so she has gathered a ton of research into its chapters.

Her opening chapters are autobiographical. She was a casual Shaklee customer (in spite of the executive connection) until a child's asthma attack got her attention. When she found that much asthma is caused by, or triggered by chemicals in common household cleaning products, she basically went on a rampage. Wherever she could, she replaced products with Shaklee products, and found other alternatives for almost everything needed to run a modern home.

Most of the chapters are topical: houshold cleansers, body and baby products, food, water, air, energy…she covers it all. She closes with an appendix that is a 33-page resource guide, to just about everything Shaklee doesn't produce but is chemically and ecologically acceptable. This guide is kept updated at the GreenGoesWithEverything web site.

Forty years ago, Shaklee really had only one or two products that were worth the extra cost. The company has revamped the product line and streamlined manufacturing, so that many of the products are now either competitive or less costly on a per-use basis, and work as well or better than "the usual". I am re-evaluating my own choices of home products, a process I began early in the year, before I ran across this book. The hurdle now is not economical or practical, but a matter of being willing to change certain habits. Using a super-concentrated cleaning product requires being willing to mix it up rather than using it as it comes in the bottle. And, as the author states several times, being willing to forego "fragrances", which are often toxic or problematic: "Clean doesn't smell like lemons, it smells like nothing."

A useful reference book, if you don't mind its advertising nature.

Monday, March 23, 2009

An apostle's education

kw: spiritual musings, scriptures

I decided at the beginning to avoid discussing Bible studies in this blog. Today I will make a rare exception.

Acts chapters 13 and 14 narrate the first apostolic journey of Paul and Barnabas. Traveling quickly to the seacoast west of Antioch, the two plus John Mark sailed first to Cyprus, Barnabas's home country. Very little is recorded there; only the miraculous blinding of a sorcerer named Elymas and subsequent conversion of Sergius Paulus the Roman consul. They soon found themselves in Asia Minor, where in Pisidia, in another Antioch, Paul spoke in a synagogue, the first message of his that we have in any detail. Some disciples were made, but also some enemies.

Along the way it had become clear that, while both Paul and Barnabas had miraculous gifts, Paul's was much more active, or that he was much more prone to use it. He performed many healings. As it happened, he may have been just a bit too eager to use his gift. It seems to have got him into trouble in Lystra.

The first thing recorded about the apostles' visit to Lystra is that Paul, speaking to the crowd, saw a crippled man who evidently believed what he was hearing. Paul called out to him loudly to get up and walk, which he did. The people, who were pagans with only a thin veneer of Greek and Roman culture, naturally thought that they'd been visited by gods. Speaking their own language, which the apostles didn't understand, they began to arrange a sacrifice honor Paul and Barnabas. When they understood what was happening, the apostles, horrified, rather roughly restrained the crowd, refusing the honor.

It is clear that they two made some serious mistakes here. They were on the fringe of the Empire, among people whose culture and history were opaque to them. Being brought up in Judaism, they didn't understand how serious an insult they committed in refusing the sacrifice, nor were they clearly aware how serious their enemies from Pisidia were. These enemies had followed them and now stirred up the people against them. Paul was stoned, though the job was fortunately botched. He lived through it.

But what was the original mistake? Not understanding how superstitious the people were, compared to those in their 'home towns', Paul didn't realize that he could not simply do a healing here or there to convince people of the gospel of Christ. While Jews and cultured Romans responded to miracles as Paul might expect, the Lystrans did not. Paul had misused his gift. He survived the experience, barely, and learned from it.

We find that the apostles' success was greater after they left Lystra. There is no record of raising up any churches in Cyprus. There is a hint that churches arose in Pisidian Antioch and Lystra, but Iconium and Derbe were clear successes, and the apostles spent some time in that region.

God engages in on-the-job training, and a strong-willed Pharisee like Saul/Paul needs strong teaching. As many apostles (missionaries) since have discovered, the devil uses real bullets, and we do well to learn our lessons early and clearly. A few years later, Paul drove out a demon in Philippi, which got him in a bit of trouble once again. It is another instance in which he'd have done better to make less of a public show. Thankfully, we see no other instances of this error being repeated. When Paul got in trouble later on, it was for his virtues, not his faults.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The God wars, round n

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, faith, debates

The cultural pendulum has swung so far in the anti-faith direction that apologia becomes necessary. Some pretty big names have published books based on the premise that religion is evil. Now, thankfully, a credible witness has arisen in David G. Myers, writing A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith isn't Evil.

Though the book has nineteen chapters, the author has three basic points. Firstly, that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. That is, it is historically true that some great evils have been perpetrated in the name of religion. However, let us not forget that the greatest evils known, in terms of mass destruction of human life and human habitat, were perpetrated by avowed atheists such as Stalin and Mao. Let us agree leave both kinds of extremism out of the debate as aberrations, and instead discuss the historical facts and current events as they impact the daily lives of people who have one or another belief, acknowledging that atheism also is a belief system.

Secondly, that having faith is good for those who have it, particularly those who actively follow their faith. Faith and its impact in people's lives has been studies a number of different ways, in many, many studies. "Statistical theology" has admittedly returned a null result, meaning that there is no statistical evidence for miraculous answers to prayer. For example, there have been studies of how well people did if they were prayed for and either knew it or didn't, compared with people who weren't prayed for. What confounds such studies is that a great many of the subjects of the study were being prayed for by people unknown to those who conducted the study, so the results don't allow us to untangle the known from the unknown effects. In other studies of subjective experiences, it has been consistently shown that people of faith are consistently more content.

Certain studies that seem to show better health or longevity in places with fewer numbers of people of faith, are shown in a new light. The better health, wealth and longevity are found to correlate best with greater levels of general education. Even the more, though education and religious practice seem to be anti-correlated, the faithful in those more educated places are more likely to be praying for the multitudes of the non-religious around them. Which brings up the third point.

Thirdly, living among the faithful is better, even for those who are not. Those countries or states that are so prosperous are enjoying the fruits of an earlier culture built on living faith and a religious culture of responsibility, self-control and hard work. Those areas in which faith has been largely abandoned are going downhill, becoming less congenial places to live. Those social experiments in which a serious attempt was made to abolish religion all turned into failures, and became miserable places. I think particularly of Russia and Eastern Europe, of people who are rekindling faith in huge numbers, even as they rebuild societies destroyed by official atheism.

The book closes with an appendix, "International Society for Science and Religion Statement on Intelligent Design." The crux of the statement is the sentence is, "We believe that intelligent design is neither sound science nor good theology," to which I say, "Amen." Let's stop arguing side points, and focus on the key issues. Author Myers has done much to clear away the underbrush of side points. People of faith and people without any faith deserve the chance to discuss their views without the dishonest historical clutter that has grown up around the entire arena.

Friday, March 20, 2009

What are we doing to the ocean floor?

kw: oceanography, myths, seismology

The supposed Atlantis on the ocean floor off the coast of Africa isn't the only set of odd markings down there. I also reported markings of a seismic survey in the Gulf of Mexico. Below is a short gallery of other seafloor markings that are probably all made by us. All images were made to a common scale, a 400x400 pixel image with a width of about 350 km (220 mi). The altitude of virtual view was 528 miles (850 km).

Off Bergen, Norway, at 64°N 3°E, at 2km depth and more, this large area of markings is not quite as regular as "Atlantis", but is the closest in appearance of these examples.

West of Ireland, at 54°N 17°W and 4km depth, we find these deep furrows spaced about 10km apart.

The markings here are hard to discern, even with some added contrast added to the image. It looks like traces of a 3D seismic survey running roughly parallel to the coast. There is a distinct kink near the center of this image. You may find it easier to go to the coordinates noted and look from a closer elevation. This image is off North Carolina, but the whole survey stretches north to Cape Cod: 33°N 75°W to 38°N 68°W. That is hundreds of kilometers.

Off Los Angeles, 32°N 122°W, at a depth of 5km: The image is a portion of a large area with furrows spaced 25-30 km apart. These differ in appearance and orientation from a regular set of geological faults further to the north.

South of the Aleutian Islands, 46°N 158°W to 50°N 176°W, from the edge of the continental shelf to 6km depth, these markings are spaced 15-20 km apart, over a huge area.

It may be that one or more of these formations has a natural cause, but certainly not all do. Such artifacts, over areas larger than many nations on land, are difficult to conceive. Interestingly, areas where I expected to find lots of markings, such as the southern North Sea, the South China Sea, and the Newfoundland Banks, appear to have none. I haven't even looked south of the Equator. What these show is that our impact on the ocean floor, seemingly out of reach several kilometers down, is widespread and profound.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The one-author genre

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

Set aside The Martian Chronicles and a few other Mars stories, and it becomes clear that Ray Bradbury is not really a science fiction writer. He is a poet of human psychology. I got the first inklings of this upon reading the closing story in Chronicles (I don't recall its title), that ends, "We are the Martians." And The October Country seems pure fantasy, and perhaps it is, but it also is poetry.

This is doubly clear in his new collection We'll Always Have Paris. It even closes with an overt poem, the first I recall seeing in Bradbury's work. In these twenty-two pieces—some are a bit hard to call "stories"—, drawn from the hidden corners of all of the author's career, we find the particular Bradbury perspective: Many of them turn a corner, in ways even more subtle than O. Henry, but many do not. Rather, they go in a straight line leaving you traveling, at considerable velocity, in a direction that you know cannot be sustained. A corner is sure to come, but you get to turn it for yourself.

The opening story is one such. "Massinelle Pietro" is the title character's name, and he's going to jail. Pietro is most like Zorba the Greek. When life hands you lemons, don't just make lemonade, dance upon the lemons to make lemon wine (my phrasing, but it makes me recall "Dandelion Wine"). You end the story with Pietro's home/store/emporium half-emptied of its banned menagerie and Pietro in a squad car, but still carrying one little dog. What will become of them? Work it out for yourself. You've been given enough by then.

And a story like "The Twilight Greens"…is it horror, or something else? We need a new word, one that combines a threat of impending doom with a hint of possible redemption. The most tragic story is "Come Away With Me", in which, finally, the rescued one cannot accept his rescue, and the protagonist finds there is nobody else to rescue. Almost a case of White Knight Syndrome gone wild, but done with more class.

Now I can look back at seeming-sci-fi works like Chronicles with a new eye. I tell my music students that I look for the day that they progress from playing the instrument to playing the music. There are many writers of science fiction or other fiction modes. For Bradbury, sci-fi or whatever are instruments. He writes to play your soul.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The steam-powered rocking chair

kw: book reviews, science fiction, historical fiction, anthologies

A couple of dozen years back, a new term was applied to a retro-Victorian style of science fiction writing: Steampunk. I grew up at the tail end of the steam-and-clockwork era. My best summer job was working a maintenance job at an amusement park, on a narrow-gauge live-steam train ride that is still operating at Cedar Point. I've ridden a Stanley Steamer. I also once did my math homework on a gear-driven calculator the size of a large typewriter, that sat in my Dad's office. And our family hobby of collecting and repairing antique clocks remains with me, in attenuated form, today. My favorite running clock has its gears exposed under a glass bell jar. Strange to say, this quintessential symbol of the age of analog devices is one of the first truly digital artifacts.

I also grew up in a time of protest. The comfortable life once called "the American dream" gave way to Vietnam-era disillusionment and anti-establishment became the norm. It is amusing today to see what has become of those who proclaimed, "Don't trust anyone over thirty!", as they reach their sixties. But the anger of the times got a name: Punk. Put nostalgia for steam trains with the anti-tradition edge that remains in today's empowered Boomers, and you get Steampunk, a collection edited by Jan and Jeff Vandermeer. This anthology gathers some very disparate strands of a genre that is a bit too big for one word, plus three self-conscious essays.

Steampunk is not just a literary genre. It has birthed an even larger genre of "graphic novel" (thicker-than-usual comic books) and a smattering of web sites. One of the best on the web is BoingBoing, which celebrates technology in toto, with a heavy emphasis on retro-steam/gear tech. This image is from a BoingBoing article that points to The Insect Lab, an artist's online studio for sculptures, not just of insects, but made out of insects with gears and other accessories added.

Such insects would fit right into "Minutes of the Last Meeting", the penultimate story in Steampunk, a tale replete with steam trains and brass-gear-driven machinery, coupled with nanotechnology that drives both medicine and surveillance. Could that cricket in the corner be watching you? (or be the eye of a supercomputer that is watching you?)

The stories collected in the anthology cast a wide net, one that laps a little beyond what I'd call Steampunk. Though "The Giving Mouth" has a steam-n-gear setting, it is a creation myth, and "Seventy-Two Letters" is a riff on Kabbalism. But other than these quibbles, I find that the thirteen stories collected in Steampunk present a comprehensive survey of all the tropes one might associate with the genre: gear-and-string-driven writing aids, steam robots of both men and horses (which graze at coal seams), a bustle-bound ladies' society that takes gardening to new heights, the doctrine of homunculi taken to its logical extension (in another story that becomes a creation myth), and several versions of the Frankenstein watch-out-what-you-create cautionary tale (from both 'scientific' and 'golem' ends).

What makes these stories (mostly) so satisfying to me: they tend to follow Campbell's Dictum, which was "Pose a problem, then solve it." With so much of today's so-called Sci-Fi falling into the mainstream trap of agonistic maundering, I do like a good story that Gets Stuff Done.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arcadia in my mind

kw: travel, reminiscences

When I plan a trip, I "visit" prospective motels via Google Street View. "Driving" down a street and "looking" every which way in Street View gives me an idea what a neighborhood is like. The property may look fine, but the neighborhood makes the difference.

This is a Travelodge in Pasadena at which I've stayed before; I like it pretty well. It is one of three in eastern Pasadena that I've used. Since they are all of similar quality, each time I go I choose by price.

I am gradually losing all my reasons to visit Pasadena. Once, all my family lived in the Pasadena-Arcadia area. Dad was the last to move, to Portland last summer. My niece will soon graduate from Occidental College, a half hour or less to the southwest, so if I don't stay in South Pasadena, I'll probably resort to this Travelodge again…for one last time.

Looking east toward Arcadia after clipping that image, I realized I was looking at an area near a place I used to live. When my parents first moved back from Ohio to California in 1967, we lived at this house in Arcadia. I lived with them there two years; they were there several years longer.

I can only recognize the house by its location. A later resident has walled in part of the front yard, hiding the front of the house. The driveway doesn't seem as steep as it did forty years ago, when I used to back my VW Bug down it, nearly always banging the bumper on the street.

That driveway used to go beside the house, to a garage behind, where Dad and I rebuilt the VW's engine, and my brother took two junked Subarus and produced one running car. None of the houses has a driveway that goes 'round back now. Everyone has added either a side garage or a bedroom. One neighbor even dug out the driveway to street level.

This was the house in which I learned to sleep through cacophony. A family hobby is antique clocks, many gathered while we lived in the Midwest. About twenty or more mantel clocks were kept running in a special set of shelves. By midnight every night, their chiming, along with the cuckooing of at least two cuckoo clocks, fairly rattled the walls. Several were Westminster chimes, with their sixteen-beat tune preceding the twelve sonorous Bongs. One was a Wellington, which has twice the melody!

I retain half a dozen antique clocks, but I keep only one of them in "bonging" trim. My family is less tolerant of midnight music than I.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leaving room for the peculiar

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rural places, eccentrics

Driving from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Denver some fifteen years ago, we stopped for a break in Limon, Colorado, a few hours short of our goal. Right at the end of the town, just a quarter mile from its beginning, was a little museum. We spent a charming hour there, then found the town was about to have their annual Founders' Day Parade, so we stayed for that. It was great. Serendipitous charm.

Reading Way Off the Road: Rediscovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America, by Bill Geist, made me nostalgic for the rural and semi-rural life I've led in other, smaller towns. If more people spent significant time in "flyover country", I wonder if there'd be the kind of political polarization that currently plagues America. Some places and incidents in the book reveal truly charming aspects of rural America, though a few reinforce the backwoods stereotypes.

Take school bus racing. Vehicle racing of any kind is quite a foreign concept to a New Yorker. Heck, most of them never enter any auto unless it is a taxicab, and that is seldom. They haven't felt the 'need for speed'. But in places where you simply can't live without your own car (most of the country), auto racing is a popular spectator sport, and for many a participant sport.

Not many of us can afford to get involved directly with NASCAR racing, and Formula racing (such as Indy) is further beyond reach. But anyone with the entry price (typically 'bring your own junker') can enter a demolition derby. The cream of the DD is the School Bus Figure 8 Race, first promoted in Bithlo, Florida, about 15 miles outside Orlando.

Bill Geist, as the informal Fun Story Director of CBS News, has been to a great many odd places, to participate in, or at least watch from a safe distance, a great many local oddities. He freely acknowledges his debt to the cameramen, who must do everything he does, but backwards or over his shoulder.

The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is more easily recognized as a safe, homey country entertainment. But did Bill go there for the country bands, the pie contest, or the tractor pull? No, he interviewed Duffy Lyon, who carves the yearly Butter Cow. He compares her undertaking to that of Michaelangelo, who only carved one of anything. Ms Duffy has created a new cow, working in a 40-degree (4°C) meat locker, each year since 1960. That's a lotta butter, a lotta cows, and an amazing oeuvre (she actually uses that same butter for about five years running before replacing it).

It is said there is less to do in the country. That depends on what you mean. There are certainly fewer Broadway shows and night clubs. But the work hours are longer. Nobody in the city works an 80-hour week, week after week for decades, the way most family farmers and ranchers work. Yet they find time for pastimes.

Some pastimes are decidedly odd, such as collecting twine and winding it into large spheres. This is just one of three twine balls of roughly the same size, twelve feet diameter, that contend for the title of the World's Largest Twine Ball. This one in Cawker City, Kansas, is probably the winner. Cawker City really is in the middle of nowhere, being about 150 miles from both Kansas City and Wichita, to the northwest of both.

The twine used for these is typically used twine from hay bales, once the bales are "unbaled" to be fed to livestock. The real champions of this sport beg twine from all their neighbors for a few counties in all directions. Twelve feet seems a practical limit, because they get too heavy to turn over, and tend to flatten once their weight exceeds a few tons.

Many a small town has a special something; someone famous was born there, or something significant was done there first or invented there. Some are famous for doing things differently, such as Whalan, Minnesota (100 miles southeast of Minneapolis), which being only two blocks long, is shorter than the average parade. So a few years back they decided to hold a stationary parade. The line up a police cruiser (borrowed from a nearby town that has one), a convertible with their oldest resident, a borrowed, and small, marching band, the local VFW veterans with a few flags, and some people on horseback. They line up, stand erect, and the townspeople and other visitors walk around, up one side and down the other. It doesn't take long!

Chattanooga, Tennessee, as it has grown, has swallowed up the unnamed place where the first tow truck was built, by a fellow who got tired of using mule- and human-pulled ropes to right overturned tractors or rescue ditched cars. He welded some stuff to the back of a Packard he'd cut apart, and created the first towing business. The museum honors this profession, without which most of us would have at least one dead car still lying dead by the side of the road.

It has been said, the slower you travel the more you see. Life may seem slower in Flyover Country, but I can attest to the richly detailed tapestry of lives, made by people who are as individual as all the differently-colored flowers in a Spring meadow. Bill Geist and his crews have dug out some pretty intersting specimens for our enjoyment. If a few folks here and there are motivated to take a driving tour through seemingly empty country, this book will have done some solid good.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

As close as one might wish to get

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, photography

The Book of Close-up Photography: A Complete and Illustrated Guide to Close-up Techniques and Equipment by Heather Angel contains this charming picture of her son in a hollow tree. In keeping with her practice, which reports that this image on film is ×0.05, and on the page is ×0.4, this image as shown here is about ×0.25, if your monitor's pitch is 100 per inch (4/mm).

This image also exemplifies the author's preference for "close-up" in ranges close to life size. She does not neglect more highly magnified photomacrographs and photomicrographs, the former roughly life size on a 35mm film frame and the latter much more greatly magnified. But most of the book is devoted to images you might get using the "macro" settings on a lens with a macro range…that's most zoom lenses these days (On cameras with a scene wheel, the "macro" setting looks like a tulip).

It became clear while perusing the book—it is a reference book, not something one just sits and reads straight through—that lighting is the key issue, being much more important than the type of lens or camera. The second-most important piece of device is a solid tripod, or several. While it is possible to take good close-ups by available light, and even hand-held, the author makes it clear that the smaller the subject, the steadier the camera must be, and the harder it is to get sufficient light.

Thus, we find her, in an appendix, recommending quite an elaborate "close-up studio" as shown here (click on this image for a readable version). The appendix covers much more than just this: Tripods and other supports, accessories such as bellows and extensions, many kinds of lighting accessories, copy stands and light tables, and a handy table of depth-of-field information for various lenses and magnifications.

Note: the depth-of-field data are based on a 30µ circle of confusion. That is 4 pixels wide on my SLR, and more than 10 pixels wide on a typical point-and-shoot camera. For the latter, much narrower depths are the rule, requiring a circle of confusion closer to 5µ (2-3 pixels)

Every image in this richly illustrated book has technical information: lens used and magnification, plus often notes such as length of exposure or special lighting. One "still life" image of grapes in a snifter notes six light sources. Most of us try to get by with two: ambient light plus our camera's built-in flash. The take-away message: any kind of photography, particularly close-up and macro, will benefit from making a modest investment in extra sources of light, whether a lamp on a stand or a slave flash unit and extension cords so flashes can be positioned away from the camera. Better lighting cost less that a better camera, and gains you more.

Friday, March 13, 2009

For those who knew Wells when - or want to

kw: book reviews, science fiction, short stories

When H.G. Wells gave Alvin Langdon Coburn free rein to provide photos for a collection of his stories, effectively making him co-editor, they broke new ground and set the stage for all later collaborations between author and photo-illustrator. In 1911, they produced The Door in the Wall and Other Stories, which has in recent years (1980) been reproduced to make this classic available again.

This was no introductory workpiece. The Time Machine had been published fifteen years previously and Wells was a household name. He gathered stories old and new, so the book has some insight into his development as a writer. The writing style throughout is the kind of self-conscious near-dialog with the reader that is characteristic of Victorian storytelling. This is Wells as your favorite uncle at the fireside, ruminating on the highlights of this or that extraordinary encounter or adventure.

The eight stories in this little book each develop a single idea: a youthful paradise lost; a new god served, bloodily; a seducer's comeuppance; and in the closing novella "The Country of the Blind", an extended study into whether the one-eyed man is truly king among the blind.

Wells had a rare ability to take a notion to which most writers would devote a two-page short story, and develop it into a six-page thesis, examining the idea from all sides, and wasting no words. When you're done with one of them, you feel you've been somewhere. Though these stories are typically far from comforting, you're glad you went.

No wonder Wells is still beloved.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Halfway to Nirvana

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, spirituality

Reading unedited (or only lightly edited) conversations is some of the hardest reading there is, even when one of the participants is the Dalai Lama. I tried, and struggled, and strained, and halfway through I just bogged down and stopped. Maybe I'll get the book on Books on Tape and listen to it!

The book is Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, edited by Paul Ekman, PhD, the other participant. Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama spent a total of twelve hours together in several long conversations from 2000 to 2007. They were seeking common ground between esoteric Buddhism and Western Psychology, though Dr. Ekman's particular take on psychology is informed by his study of the fleeting expressions that reveal our emotions.

The early parts of the book are spent exploring more negative emotions such as anger, disdain and hatred; maybe I should have read the second half first, for its subjects of compassion and empathy are a little less onerous. I skipped about to check. The reading is equally hard, but a bit easier to stomach overall.

The Tibetan language has words for emotions that are not found in Western languages, while Western emotional studies distinguish emotions from moods; moods are not taken account of in Tibetan emotional theory. That theory is rooted in the moment, so perhaps it makes sense that it ignores moods, which are chronic conditions that predispose us to particular sets of emotions.

There was agreement on this distinction: it is relatively easy to understand what is needed to "catch" an emotion before it becomes a potentially destructive action, but it requires years of study and arduous practice to learn to first recognize the emotive process, then modify it. Most likely, very few people are capable of doing so, no matter how much they might practice. Many are little disposed to practice anyway.

What little I learned of compassion, as expressed by the Dalai Lama, makes sense of the old koan, "What sound does a single hand make, clapping?" Put in Western terms, just as it takes two hands to clap, it takes two to tangle. A truly emotionally adept person can decline to fight without causing offense. For the rest of us, we "bring it on." We all know sayings like "count to ten." Most of us even remember Jesus and Steven both saying, "Father, forgive them." But I expect, if I were the one about to be crucified or stoned, I'd struggle; I'd try to "take a few out with me."

Where is the place of compassion in the midst of a world full of opressors and terrorists? Having compassion with a crazy terrorist is an excellent way of losing one's head. Could Gandhi's nonviolent, compassionate methods make any headway against Fidel Castro's (or Raul Castro's) Communist regime? The Dalai Lama hasn't made much progress in freeing Tibet from Chinese Communism. I mean what I say. One of my dearest friends was a Cuban apostle who spent years in prison camps, then took advantage of a furlough to swim to freedom. He now lives in California.

Here is Gandhi's secret: The British knew they were wrong. They could be shamed. Here is why China won't go the way Britain did: They think they are right. They cannot be shamed. Compassion is useless on a one-way street. Two hands can't clap if one of them is holding a gun: soon there is only one hand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Too much Java doesn't speed you up

kw: observations, computer problems, java

My computer is several years old, and it has been getting steadily slower. I've done a lot of things, like defragging more frequently, running registry fixing and defragging software, and cleaning up the disk. None were more than a partial solution. I finally found, at a friend's suggestion, something that goes a long way toward getting the computer back to normal.

In the Control Panel, there is a module called the Java that opens the Java Control Panel. It has several tabs. Under the Java tab (where the arrow cursor is), both "Runtime Settings" sections have a "View" button. When I clicked on the upper "View" button, I got a panel like the one shown below.

There are twelve versions of Java that have been updated onto my computer over the years. All of them were checked and thus, active!! As shown below, I turned off the check mark for all but one of them, the latest.

I don't know what kind of overhead is required to have twelve versions of Java ready to interpret every applet that crosses the wire, but it can't be a good thing.

This image shows what the settings window is supposed to look like. After I unchecked eleven of these and clicked "OK", I clicked on the second "View" button. In that section, only the latest version was checked. All OK there.

I won't claim that this solved all my slowness problems, but it helped a lot. If you've never looked at your Java runtime settings, give it a try!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dancing with the Woz

kw: observations, popular culture, dancing

A couple years ago our old 19-inch TV died. Warned of the impending digital switchover (we use an antenna, only), we got a set that can tune in anything, analog or digital. I think it has four kinds of tuners in it. It is not that much bigger at 26 inches, but it does excellent HD at 1080i. I guess I could have predicted that, once we could watch better-looking TV we would watch more.

Last evening my wife just had to see Shawn Johnson dance (with partner Mark Ballas) on Dancing with the Stars, so we watched the second half. An unexpected treat was seeing Steve Wozniak dance, shown here with partner Karina Smirnoff. They did the Cha-Cha. I didn't realize that the Cha-Cha is considered a ballroom dance, or that it's done with a partner!

The Woz did a creditable job, though he got the lowest score of the night. It was amusing to see his banter with the judges; nobody else said nearly as much. I suspect his popularity will push him onward for another round or two, but I'm rooting for Shawn to win it all.

Dream writing

kw: dreams, writing

I woke up from a vivid dream a short time ago. I had entered a quirky writing contest; I had a moment to look at a flash card with a subject, then half an hour to write an essay on two sheets (supplied) of paper. I awoke at that point, struggled a bit to remember the subject, then an essay began to spin itself out in my head. Here is the result:

Subject: "All men are created equal. Defend or refute."

Thomas Jefferson knew what he was about when he wrote, "…all men are created equal." He had no way of knowing whether it is true of "all persons…". What is true: we all begin as a fertilized ovum containing 46 chromosomes (except for a few genetic accidents). A male ovum contains a single Y chromosome. At this point creation is complete, and development, chance, experience, and education take over. These items certainly are not equal.

Consider my parents, two musical people with little else in common, though they got along quite well. Dad, a mechanical sort with great people skills, had a year of college and an Army background in the Corps of Engineers. Mom, an emotional, even passionate woman with a flair for extravagance, loved history and geology, finished junior college and worked in an engineering office until the two of them married in 1946. They had four boys…four quite different boys.

I, the eldest, got the history and geology, and a good dose of the musical talent. I got little of the mechanical aptitude. I became a computer programmer, something nothing in their background (except musical aptitude perhaps) could have predicted. I came close to earning a PhD, but didn't finish.

Boy #2 is a historian, calligrapher, and now archaeologist. A good singer, but otherwise not much of a musician. He, as I, is a perfect speller.
He did complete a PhD.

Boy #3 got all the mechanical aptitude, but being dyslexic, is not much of a scholar, though he finished college. He designs environmental remediation equipment.

Boy #4 disdained college in favor of Dianetics training. He usually makes his living as a handyman and remodeler, though he has the best people skills of us all. He plays guitar and, like all of us, can sing well.

Four boys, four very different people, yet with a common thread. Created equal perhaps, but creation isn't everything.

There you have it. I don't think I'd have won the contest.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Seismic Survey

kw: speculation, myths, legends

In posts on 2/20/09 and 2/26/09 I speculated about what is the real nature of a grid on the seafloor that some think is Atlantis. Since then I have taken just a little time to snoop around looking for other seafloor artifacts that may be related.

This image shows the traces of seismic surveying located on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most thoroughly surveyed regions of the sea floor. (click to see a larger image with more clear traces showing.) The survey was "3D Seismic", which records low-frequency sonic reflections from sub-seafloor rocks. The sonic data can then be used to calculate a three-dimensional model of the configuration of the rocks to a depth of several miles. It is a powerful exploration technique, and as you can see, it chews up the ocean floor rather thoroughly.

The location of this area is 28°45'N, 88°30'W, at a depth of 7,160 ft, or 2,180 m (By contrast, the "Atlantis" pattern is found at a depth of about 17,900 ft, or 5,460 m). Considering that the area shown is about 50 miles wide by 30 miles north-south, the traces are about a half mile apart.

If the "Atlantis" pattern is a sonic survey of some kind, it is much looser, and the source was quite a bit more energetic. Possibly whoever did it was looking for much deeper targets than what is shown here in the Gulf.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

a hairy heirloom

kw: family history, photography

A few years ago my father sent me this old horse blanket that had belonged to his grandmother. As a matter of family history, it is thrilling to have it. It is a tapestry woven from horse hair, as the best ones of the time were made, because it doesn't irritate the horse. The artistry is equally amazing.

To photograph it, I first laid it out on the driveway and took a picture from a ladder. That picture is very keystoned, however, and I wanted one that was more straight. I decided to take several pictures, shooting straight down, and try to find panorama stitching software, but nothing was available at a cost I was willing to pay.

Recently, the price became right for the stitcher that comes with Windows Live Photo Gallery: free. I am becoming quite a fan of this program, even besides its panorama tool. I used it for a few "straight line" panoramas, but I wondered how it handles multi-line image sets. This horse blanket was the perfect subject; the four shots I took have a large overlap with the center of the blanket. The stitcher worked quite well. The overlap error seen at top center and left middle are because of my missing the angle on one of the "vertical" shots. I may take the blanket out of mothballs someday and re-shoot.

The original for the stitched image is about 12 Mpx. It contains an amazing amount of detail. This crop shows the blanket stitches for one of the roses and the edging. (Note: The image you get by clicking the first pic is a 1Mpx reduction, while this one is being shown full size, 400x300.)

Handling larger images is showing up the deficiencies of my current computer. It takes about eight seconds for Irfanview to open the 12 Mpx image. I needed to see if this scales with image size, so I went to a nearby library and photographed the building in two ways. First, I took four images with the camera horizontally oriented, then eight with it set vertically. It took MLPG about five minutes to produce a panorama with the set of four, and ten minutes with the set of eight.

The latter panoramic image is nearly 50 Mpx, and takes almost a minute for Irfanview to open, even though the file is an 8 Mbyte JPEG. I noticed some time ago that a 7 Mbyte JPEG of a much smaller number of Mpx (10, I think), opened quite a bit quicker than that, so it is the uncorking large numbers of pixels that takes the time, not the reading of the bytes off the disk. Makes sense.

The upshot? I need more computer! I am waiting for Windows 7 to get out; then I'll get one. The XP/Vista/W7 saga is another story entirely. Suffice for now, I just don't want Vista.

Friday, March 06, 2009

After life in the dark, even a candle is blinding

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help

There is no need for me to call Cathy Alter a potty-mouth. She calls herself that. She is also a potty-pen (or -keyboard). She has written Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me about Love, Sex, and Starting Over. She may have hit bottom when she began a one-year makeover, for which she decided to use the advice from about a dozen women's magazines such as Glamour, Jane, Cosmopolitan and O.

For a conservative man, the book is certainly uncomfortable reading. She is the proverbial "scarlet woman" against which people like me warn our sons. But it seems she primarily consumed the attention of several scarlet men (until she turns things around), so she'd have had little energy left to corrupt any innocents.

For her, the value of the articles she attempted to follow lay in getting her out of her own comfort zone. That is the main requirement for growth of any kind. And she did grow. In the bargain, she rounded up an apparently quite suitable husband. The book culminates in their wedding.

I found it interesting to follow (when I wasn't skipping smut) the evolving thought processes of a person about 20 years my junior, raised by a lusty, perhaps promiscuous mother (her father is present and honored but firmly in the background), in a Jewish but rather irreligious home. And you know, she did grow. There's a lot less potty-mouth in the Cathy who closes the book.

As an aside, I am no saint, and have my own past, which I prefer to conceal. A poem I follow reads in part, "Living in Christ, no more shall be named/things of which now I am truly ashamed." 

I grew, with help from Christ and His people. Ms Alter grew, with help from an amazingly banal collection of pop culture publications, plus a number of stalwart friends. Growth is good.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Don't bother trying to download these

kw: photography, scenery, amazing products

Oh, you can download these tiny images if you like, but the original image is 440 Megapixels and accessible only via a special viewer like that used for Google Earth. It is a 160° panorama of Golden Gate Park and the Bridge. The host site, Gigapan.org has a collection of gigapixel and near-gigapixel images, created with a new robotic tripod, your digital camera, and special software to stitch together a few hundred images. This is not an ad for the machine, so I'll let you link to it from the Gigapan.org web site if you like.

Of more interest to me as a photographer, is the actual blow-my-mind detail in a gigapixel image. For starters, click on the panorama above to see a 1 megapixel image, with one-440th of the detail. This snippet to the left is not much of an enlargement, but we're just getting going.

There is a walkway below center, with people on their way to or from the pedestrian lane of the bridge.

Zooming just 2x, we can see the nearby section of the walkway, but the farther section, near one of the bridge abutments, is still not so clear.

Zoom a further 3x, and you can begin to see people on the far section of the walkway: a small group at the center, and someone in a red jacket to the right.

A further zoom by 4x (this is a total of nearly 30x) reveals four people with bicycles. The image you see when you click here is pretty close to full resolution. Its size is 667x415: 277 kilopixels, or 1/1600th of the entire image.

The process used to make these is to drive the camera, with its zoom lens all the way out, over a gridded pattern with some overlap from image to image. In this case there were five rows of 24 or 25 images each. A special stitcher program converts the array into one large image. The image capture process takes several minutes.

Like any multi-shot panorama, the Gigapan works best with stationary landscapes. Moving things like cars and people cause amusing anomalies. The stitch line between two rows runs through the middle of this clip. Take note of the direction the feet are pointing on the man on the right. He turned clear around between passes, while the other two men moved only slightly.

You would not want to print a gigapixel image. I don't think they make paper big enough. Photo printers produce prints with a resolution no better than 150 dpi (6 px/mm). A square gigapixel image is more than 30,000 pixels each direction, and would require a sheet 200x200 inches or larger (almost 17x17 feet, or 5x5 meters). No, the appropriate medium is a viewer to zoom and pan online, which is what Gigapan.org provides.

This also got me thinking, we've all been using a multi-gigapixel viewer for some time, in Google Earth, Google Maps, and similar products from Mapquest and Vicinity, and let us not forget Microsoft's Terra Server. Considered as a big image, how many gigapixels are in the Google Earth dateset? The calculation is hard, because the resolution varies from place to place. The base resolution is 1 meter, available over most of the land area of Earth. I don't know what the resolution is for the sea floor, so let's just figure out the 25% that is on land:
  • Global radius is 6,370 km, or 6.37E6 meters.
  • Global area is 4πr², or 5.1E14 square meters.
  • Land area is one-quarter of this, or about 1.27E14 m².
  • That is a 127,000 gigapixels, minimum, or 127 Tpx!
A significant amount of Earth is actually shown at resolutions approaching 20cm. I have read that high-altitude aerial photography is being merged into Google Earth, with the goal of providing global coverage (on land, at least) at a resolution of 10cm or 0.1m (4 inches). Not quite enough to read the license plate of your car, but sufficient to produce a datastore for an effectively 12.7 Petapixel image (1.27E16). Wow.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Just what I needed

kw: observations, seasons

Daffodils are rather foolish. Mine have been several inches out of the ground for nearly a month, and I suspect some of them got nipped in this week's cold snap. Wiser crocuses have yet to show even the tip of a flower bud. When winter is milder, sometimes the Forsythia blooms before March 1, but its buds are not showing any signs of cracking open either, but they are getting swollen and ready.

The birds are also gearing up for Spring, being attuned to the length of the day, and less troubled by a brief chill. This morning at sunrise when I went out to get the paper, I heard plenty of birdsong. I don't know many birds' songs, but I did recognize the chickadee. I could hear five or more other songs but didn't see the singers. I did see sparrows and robins. Of course there are flocks of starlings shuttling here and there, but they squawk more than sing.

There was no wind, even no breeze, just a calm chill. Standing still, listening to the birds heartened me.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

This virtual environment is very real

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, computer revolution, companies

Hmmm, let's see what I've used today. Of course, I do most of my searching with Google, often starting from an iGoogle page when I'm logged in. I've used Google Maps to see how close a certain hotel is to one of the Septa rail stations in Philly; searched Google Images to find a good pic for a presentation (preferably at a .gov site so it has no copyright); updated a Knol I've been writing; and now I'm using Blogger. This is just the first half of my day. I may use Google Earth later (trying to find seafloor scars of trawling…maybe the supposed Atlantis is unique); there is a chance I'll do a patent search, though I have professionals to call on for that; and at home this evening I am as likely to use Chrome as Firefox and I may fire up Picasa if I have time.

I wonder how many people bother to click the "more" button at the top of the Google search page. For me it is easier to state what I haven't used: Shopping, Groups, Calendar and Finance.

The last button on this list opens up a big page full of offerings (not all unique, by the way), which I've shrunk by half for the image below.

Randall Stross has researched the Google revolution for his book Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know. (I toyed with titling this post "The Audacity of Google", but decided to leave such conceits to our Socialist-in-Chief.)

Google's unofficial motto is "Don't Be Evil." So far, most people have given them the benefit of the doubt. While Google has about 70% of the searching action, it is also becoming dominant in video (with two offerings) and digitized books. Its principals make no bones about their desire to index everything that is digital and to digitize (and index) everything that isn't. The famous PageRank™ Algorithm ("THE Algorithm") produces the index that makes Google Search so popular. Its power results from the completeness of the collection on which it is based: a trillion web pages so far.

At the other end of the spectrum, Google Books is the first major salvo in Google's attempt to get everything into digital form. They've already gotten a couple million titles digitized, but copyright issues often mean that you can get only a glimpse into a book's content, and must follow a link or two to find the book at a bookstore or library. They have the best nationwide library search method I've used. Company spokesmen are candid that the entire project is long term; they claim it will take 300 years (not just for books, but for "everything").

Supporting all of this are some very big data centers. A typical center cost $600 million to build and equip, and they are located near power plants to minimize power line losses. They suck down electricity like a steel mill. Google's investment in these centers is approaching $4 billion. That's a lot of disk space; their first terabyte cost nearly $20,000. Today a 1Tb disk costs less than $100 (I just gave one to my son). The Google datastore is measured in Petabytes, or thousands of Tb.

This reminds me of an old joke: IBM invents a disk with literally infinite capacity, called the God Drive. The Government orders two. These days, I suspect Google has more storage capacity than anyone. I suspect they're close to an Exabyte.

This capacity and completeness has made Google Translations, which is statistical rather than rule-based, work better and more consistently than nearly all others, nearly all of the time. When you have a few trillion words and word combinations as a basis, the statistics of even obscure expressions become meaningful, and therefore parseable.

Google is not yet quite the size of Microsoft (Its market cap is ~70% of Microsoft's), but it has equaled IBM and surpassed Coca-Cola, and its market cap is bigger than three of the five largest oil companies. Its primary source of revenue is still the ads on its search results pages. Some enterprises, such as Books or YouTube, seem to be more like loss leaders.

As the author reports, Google wants to be an environment that we never exit. Of course, every business would like to have such ultimate customer loyalty. Over the years, cinderblock entities such as Sears and Wal-Mart have been "the place for everything you need", and in the online world, Alta Vista and then Yahoo vied with Microsoft for the title.

Google has gone farther than all of them. Looking at this menu of offerings (click for a more readable image), the items I see lacking are Travel, Job Listings, and Real Estate (among things I use with some frequency).

Can Google become the place we never leave? They have yet to face the kind of trust-busting challenge faced by Microsoft and others. I wonder when one will come. Until then, do you know what is another term for Conspiracy? Business Plan.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Noreaster update

kw: local events, weather

I learned something. The panorama below is only 2/3 the size of the one from the prior post, because I didn't provide enough image overlap for the rightmost section, and the software refuses to use it. Oh, well.

The good news is, the snowfall totaled only five inches here, when we'd been prepared for about twice that much. As tired as I got shoveling what did come down, it was plenty! I'd had some idea of taking a photo about daybreak, when there was a predicted break in the action. But the snow stopped earlier, between 4:30 and 6:00AM, then restarted with lots of wind. I didn't dare to risk my camera in those conditions. The shots for the scene above were taken at 3:00PM. It was calm, just at the freezing mark, and the snow had stopped for about an hour.

This was only the second snowfall all winter, making it one of the milder winters we've experienced here. I'll take it. Spring starts officially in less than three weeks. Maybe, since March came in like a lion, it'll go out like a lamb.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

March 1 noreaster begins

kw: local events, weather

When we first moved to the East Coast more than thirteen years ago, our first January experience was having a "noreaster" drop two feet of snow on us. I remember shoveling eight inches three times. That was one day that work was canceled, but I'd rather have worked!

About 7pm this evening, all along the mid-Atlantic area, a "noreaster" got rolling and the snow began falling. We've been told to expect up to eight inches total in this area, a few miles north of I-95. By 9pm I decided to chronicle things a bit, and went out to take a few pix by the light of the streetlights. I used a tripod and panned all around. Three of these were put together into the 180° panorama below (click on it for a bigger version).

I'll take another set in the morning. The storm is supposed to end before daybreak. Using the ISO 800 setting, I shot these at f/5.6 for five seconds each, using the 18mm extreme of my zoom lens.

I must say, I sure like Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery. I've been wanting a simple panorama-making program for some time. I've tried to download the "stitcher" program that Canon distributes with its cameras, but couldn't get one that worked on my machine. WLPG has a good kernel, that figured out the three images I gave it and produced a good panorama. I have three more, for a full 360° panorama, but I haven't tried to throw all that at the program yet (I wonder what it does with the wrap-around). Later.

Now we'll see what the morning brings.