Saturday, October 30, 2010

Another half off the hedge

kw: observations, photographs, local events

Last year I pruned the hedge on the side that overhung the sidewalk. This is the opening image of that post. While we trim the hedge about monthly during the 5-month growing season here, pruning is a (thankfully) rare event. It is a huge amount of work. We pruned for shape when we moved in, because the hedge had been trimmed wrongly in the past, and the top was wider than the bottom. A hedge is supposed to be a little wider at the bottom.

A year has passed, the pruned side is recovering nicely (see below), so we decided to prune the other side. I remember asking a horticulturist how resilient Privet is, and being told I could cut it to the ground if I liked, and it would grow back. It is a remarkably robust plant.

Here is one view of today's work. I'm about a third done on this side, with seventy feet to go.

I don't have a sidewalk to guide me on this side, so I'm cutting to about half a meter from the roots. I checked beforehand, and the original planting was done quite well, so the plants are in a very straight line. I can also sight along the top from time to time to guide my progress.

Pruning is not done with a hedge trimmer. There is too much need to cut thicker branches that the trimmer can't manage. I'm using a hand "snap cutter" and when needed, a lopper. You can see in this image that branches are cut off close to the plane that I hope to establish for the new growth.

Just to the left of the middle of this image you can see that the hedge is nearly opaque, while the rest is rather transparent. The growth on the other side has begun to fill back in, but there is quite a ways to go.

I have the cuttings bundled and ready to haul off. I took my time, putting cuttings in piles with a bit of care, so it was simply a matter of tying them about amidships for carrying.

While I could have spent more time and gotten more of this done, I find that the hand surgery I had a couple of years ago pains me after a couple of hours, so I take that for a warning signal and leave work for another day. Tomorrow is supposed to be like today, so I'll be able to get more done then.

This is the opposite side of the hedge, the one that was cut last year. Compare with the first picture; it is recovering well. Though the angle is different, it is easy to see that the cut ends don't show amid the new foliage.

In another year, this side ought to be well filled in, and the side I am cutting this year will look about like this. A word to the wise, though: fences are lots easier to maintain than hedges. If you don't have a hedge, don't get one!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Can we be even more human?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, motivation

I once worked for a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporation. While I was in the process of transferring to a new job in the "mother corporation", the subsidiary got a new president. Early on he gave a speech with the title "A Passion for Profits." I went right to my desk and wrote him an e-mail recounting my career and its basis in a passion for excellence (also the title of a great book by Tom Peters, which I read several years after applying the term to my own attitude toward work). I explained that producing excellence reliably had always been followed by substantial profit and profits.

I also noted that "passion for profits" is a synonym of "love of money", which, a Bible verse tells us, is "a root of all kinds of evil." I'd been told he is an active Bible student. His reply was so self-serving and disingenuous that I did not continue the contact. I was SO glad to be leaving that subsidiary.

The fact is, in pursuit of excellence, it was great to be a software developer for the 1960s-1990s. A computer application either delivers or it doesn't. People will love it or hate it. I learned early on to train one or two high-energy customers, then recruit them to write the "help" text. Then the help was much more helpful. As a developer, I knew too much about the ins and outs of a program, and I could not write "help" that would be very useful to someone who was new to it.

Based on a lifetime of such experiences, I was interested to take the little assessment at Dan Pink's 'Drive' site, to see where I fit on the Type X versus Type I scale. To my surprise, the summary stated, "…we assess your behavior as mostly type X." I was as honest as I could be with the assessment questions, and being brutally honest about it, I realize that, while I require a lot of freedom in my own workplace, I am less willing to afford those benefits to others. It's a good thing I am not a boss! I have joked this way in the past, "If I lead a horse to water, and it won't drink, my impulse is to drown the horse." Sadly, it is more true than I'd wish.

I am thus very glad to have read Daniel H. Pink's new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is definitely raising my consciousness. It helped me understand just how good some of my own bosses have been. If they were not expressing Type I behavior, I'd be in real trouble!

So what are Type I and Type X? As the author explains, we have three levels of motivation: Survival, Production, and Fulfillment. He calls the first Motivation 1.0, using the analogy of an operating system. It is how the human race operated for its first million years, and how animals operate. In the recent past, civilization arose, and with it the division of labor became more formalized. Motivation 2.0 emphasizes efficiency of Production, and efficiency experts such as Frederick W. Taylor built an industrial machine with humans as cogs needing to be coerced (rewarded and/or punished) into producing goods and services.

Motivation 3.0 is our third drive. We exercise it when pursuing a sport or hobby that we enjoy. The key word here is "enjoy". The only way Motivation 3.0, or Fulfillment (my word, not his), can work is if three elements come together: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. An internally motivated person is typically more productive than an externally motivated person, yet the productivity is a side product of the joy of the work itself. Type X, then, refers to eXternal motivation (2.0), while Type I refers to Internal, or Intrinsic, motivation (3.0). The latter outperforms the former, hands down.

Case in point. Before I left that subsidiary, I worked several years in a "skunk works" that developed a workstation for geo-scientists to use. We numbered twenty, including our supervisor, who also loved to write computer software. We were all "superprogrammers". The term was coined by Caper Jones in 1977 to describe computer programmers who were ten to 100 times as productive as their fellows. A good journeyman programmer could produce 2-3 debugged, tested, "correct" lines of "high level" (Fortran or COBOL) computer code daily. Superprogrammers breezed along producing up to 200 lines daily—tested, debugged, and correct. My typical production rate in the 1980s-90s was 100 lines daily of Fortran code. As a result, our small shop outproduced software corporations that employed 100-200 (or more) programmers to develop commercial workstations that we were competing with. And we loved the work. Our proverb was, "A vacation is when you work only eight hours a day."

In such a work environment, we had lots of autonomy. "Flex time" was "start any time before 7:30, go home any time after 4:30". While nobody had a cot in their office, the idea did get raised, and not by any bosses, either. But a fellow has to eat and see the family once in a while… As the prior paragraph demonstrates, we also experienced mastery. And as for purpose, nothing could be simpler. We wanted to produce the best workstation system to help our customers find more oil than anybody else in the business. We wanted to beat the pants off our competitors, which included Microsoft. We did so, year after year.

All good things must end. Mr. "Passion for Profits" was deeply distrustful of people who are internally motivated, was blind to the evidence of superior productivity, and had the group broken up. The company uses a commercial product now. I escaped intact. I am 1,500 miles away, and have worked my way into a near-skunk works situation. I hope it can last another couple of years until I am ready to retire. People love my work, and I love doing it. The "managers" keep their hands off as much as possible. So far, no blindness.

I wonder how I would fare at Atlassian, a company touted in Drive as one of the most Type I companies, if not the most. One thing they practice is "FedEx Days", a day in which individuals and groups can work on anything they like, so long as they have something to report to everyone else the following day. The results are so outstanding, sometimes it seems that those quarterly events yield half the company's products. We use an Atlassian product, Confluence, at work.

The book doesn't just explain Motivation 3.0 and the research behind it. It contains a substantial section of tools and suggestions for persons and organizations. Type I behavior, particularly for control freaks like me, cuts both ways. It is, for me, a new level of the Golden Rule, learning to offer the same autonomy to others I demand for myself. The author conveniently provides several condensed versions of his theme, including a Twitter tweet: "Carrots & sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

C60 in paper - partial success

kw: hobbies, photographs, mobiles

More than two years ago I posted instructions for making an origami module for a "spiky edge polyhedron". This followup has been a long time coming.

I decided to make a shape based on the geometry of a buckyball, or buckminsterfullerene, or C60 (formally, C60, but I'll forgo the subscript codes, as most writers do). The 60 carbon atoms in C60 are held together by 90 bonds, and the origami modules I am using correspond to chemical bonds, so I needed 90 of them. I decided to make it colorful by making the 60 bonds that surround pentagons to be of five colors, and using a sixth color (gray) for the rest of the bonds. I spent months doing one or two of these per weekday, because it is really tedious making more than a couple at a time.

The dihedral bond angle needed for C60 is about 20°, while the smallest dihedral that is practicable with these modules is 36°. Thus I know there will be some steric strain; the ball will "want" to be a lot smaller than I am making it, and will strive to close early. Fortunately, paper ought to be flexible enough for this to work.

I began by putting together the twelve pentagons. Here are two of them. That used up all the colored modules. By inserting a tab from each into a pocket of the next in round-robin fashion, I have a tab left at each corner for connecting to the gray modules that will hold the pentagons together while outlining the hexagons.

This shows the twelve pentagons laid out in a planning pattern, ready for me to connect them with gray modules. There are several ways to color a buckyball, and I can see that this is not really the most symmetrical, but it will serve.

To make the twelve pentagons, I just had to insert one tab into one pocket at each step. From this point, I have to insert two tabs into two pockets simultaneously, and do it properly sixty times (once for each end of the linking module). Sorry, but I neglected to photograph one of these double-tab insertions.

Here is a top view once the first five linking modules and five pentagons have been assembled around the one chosen to be central to the building process.

This is an oblique view at the same stage. Just below center you can see where a linking module will be put onto a pink and a purple tab to complete the facing hexagon. The hexagon is trying to be a pentagon-and-a-half, showing the steric strain I mentioned. The dihedral bond angle these modules are built for is actually better suited to attaching the twelve pentagons together without linking modules at all.

Look closely at where the pink tab bends away from the pink module it is part of. There is a blue tab going into the pink module's pocket. The blue pocket is open. When I attach one end of a linking gray module, its tab will go in the blue pocket, and the pink tab will go in the gray pocket. I insert them halfway, apply Elmer's Glue-all, then push all the way in and press tight for a bond.

Shapes without steric strain can be assembled without glue, though they slide apart at a rather light touch. I glue all shapes since I want them to last for years.

Here is the completed ball. It was a bit of a tussle getting the last five linking modules and the final pentagon in place. The hexagons and pentagons are showing a bit of distortion, another symptom of the steric strain, but the piece is quite pretty nonetheless. Over the coming months (years?), I'll produce some less elaborate shapes to go together with this one, the centerpiece for a new mobile.

Make your doctor happy

kw: medicine, doctors

This last year has been a pretty good one for me, including physically. I had my annual physical exam this morning, and my doctor hardly spent any time scolding me. Overall, he was pleased.

While I don't always work out consistently, it is more than before, in other areas I have done well. The primary matters: Eating less but eating better and getting a new pet cat. The results:
  • Blood pressure used to average 150/100. Now it is 125/80. No more talk about medication.
  • Weight went (on the doctor's scale) from 235 to 205 (107kg to 93kg). Still overweight, but going the right way.
  • LDL cholesterol a little down (99 to 95), and HDL holding at a low, but livable 38. A few years ago HDL was 25, which is scarily low.
Starting a year ago, at the doctor's suggestion, I got a blood pressure machine, and used it almost daily for six months. Then I went to weekly. Five months ago we got a kitten (urged, nay coerced, by our son). BP went below 140/95. The next month I began losing weight, on purpose. That gradually brought BP down further. Today's measurement by the nurse was 118/70, but I think that might be a bit off. People are more subjective than BP machines. It made my doctor happy, though.

I lost the weight by the "Chinese proverb method": eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a clerk, and dinner like a pauper. The joke behind the proverb is, kings get up too late to eat breakfast, clerks usually skip lunch, and paupers don't get any dinner. Anyway, I take it at face value, having a substantial breakfast, a slender lunch, and nearly no dinner. That's good for losing 2-4 pounds weekly. Adding back a little more dinner makes it a maintenance diet. I plan to hold in the near-200# range to get used to it, before trying to lose more.

Life is like Tetris: you can keep clearing blocks but eventually one stack will reach the top deck and the game is over. I feel like I've cleared a few layers and given myself some breathing room. Maybe I can't do much about my life span, but I've done something for my health span.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Side thoughts on brief riches

kw: musings, wealth, motivation

I lived for several years near Ponca City, Oklahoma, when I worked for Conoco. The most famous town landmark is the Marland Mansion, built in 1925 for E. W. Marland, founder of Marland Oil, which became Conoco. This image is from Wikimedia Commons.

I remembered something one can see at the mansion while reading about motivation, a quote by Marland: "Who knows why people do what they do? I spent money like water on my town and my people, and they thrived and prospered."

As is plainly visible, he spent money on himself at a pretty good clip also. So much so that by the time the mansion was finished, he was nearly broke, and never lived in it! He had always wanted to live in a palace. Like Moses and the promised land, he saw it but did not enter in.

There is another quote by him that I find poignant. He was a scientific innovator, and invented a number of the techniques of geophysical prospecting for petroleum. At a speech in, I think, the late 1920s he said (I paraphrase), "We have learned where oil is to be found, and how to find more."

When he was saying this, he did not know that he had already found every drop of oil he was ever to find. All of what we now call "easy oil" had been found. It required further innovations by many scientists to refine the techniques he pioneered so as to see further and more clearly into the earth, then refinements in drilling technology so as to reach the oil once it is found.

At the time I transferred out of Ponca City, the first "deep water tension-leg" drilling platform was installed in 1,500 feet (450 m) of water. It was a technical success, but at then-current oil prices, a commercial failure. Oil prices are now four times higher. Current technology, such as that used for the problematic BP well Deepwater Horizon, allows drilling in water four times as deep. Marland would be impressed. He would not be surprised.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Leaky mountain

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cities, places

This is the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, an observation tower on the same grounds as a 24-storey hotel. At 1,149 feet, it is the tallest observation tower in the US and the second tallest, after the CN Tower in Toronto, in North America. An office tower or two are taller, but this is simply, like the much smaller Space Needle in Seattle, a place to ascend for a look around (and to ride the highest roller coaster in the world).

Why is it there? In a city noted for ephemeral existence, for show over substance, its builder apparently wanted to make a more permanent statement. It has been said that it would cost more to remove it than was spent to build it. In a city where everything gets removed sooner or later (the venerable Sands was imploded long ago), this prediction will probably be tested within the decade, or two at most.

Note: This and the following image were obtained from the Wikipedia Commons.

Ninety miles to the north a low range of mini-mountains stretches across the desert. Yucca Mountain, as a portion of the range is called, was designated some 25 years ago as the site of a nuclear waste repository for the entire nation. Recent news has it that the project is terminated, but there is so far no future direction for the disposal of nuclear waste.

What do these have in common, besides being juxtaposed in one book? That is the reason for the book, About a Mountain by John D'Agata. In 2002 he helped his mother move to Las Vegas, and stayed on for a time himself. While there, he became interested in two mysteries about the place, the suicide of a 16-year-old boy who jumped from the Stratosphere, and the highly polarizing Yucca Mountain.

This is not a work of journalism. Indeed, when on a tour of the Yucca Mountain site he was assembled with "the press", he complained that he was not a reporter. The guide was not concerned, and remarked that he'd be getting a better tour. Reading the book makes it clear, this is an inner journey, and it loops about somewhat like the scary ride attached to the observation deck of the Stratosphere. While the book opens with reports of a birthday parade for the city and of boosterism in favor of Senator Reid, it ends with a detailed timeline of the young man's last hours. In between, they are intertwined.

The book is structured around a reporter's questions: Who What When Where Why and How, but it concludes with three more chapters titled "Why". The message I was left with: the boy's suicide is emblematic of our species' rush to exterminate ourselves. Self-destructiveness seems as built into us as is the survival instinct.

Yucca Mountain has been the focus of enormous amounts of mis- and disinformation from both sides of the debate. We read of this odd explanation being offered to schoolchildren, about "half-life": "Well, think of half life as nature's egg timer ... After the buzzer goes off, the half-life is over and all of the radioactive elements are safe." If only it were so! The author soon points out (via an interviewee's explanation) that after a half-life, half remains, and after another half-life, half of what was left remains, which is a quarter, and so forth. If you start with enough "stuff" to destroy Las Vegas 300,000 times, after 18 half-life periods have elapsed, you have enough left to destroy the city, just once. In other words, still not quite safe!

The author set out to find out why 10,000 years was chosen as the period the repository would be guarded. Five pages on which he was shuttled from one "authority" to another follow. He did find out that the original scientific report had mandated ten million years, but 10,000 was chosen as a more palatable period for political reasons, and either figure is laughably unrealistic anyway.

Question: How do you make a sign whose message will be clear in 12,000 AD? More than a chapter is devoted to this, and to some of the 600+ commissions and committees who are trying to figure it out. An example by a linguist illustrates the problem: We can still read Shakespeare, whose English is but 400 years old. Chaucer, who wrote in what linguists call "Middle English" about 250 years earlier, is quite a bit harder to read. Then another few hundred years back we come to Old English, which only scholars can read. That takes us back less than a thousand years; nine-plus to go.

But 10,000 years ago there were no written languages! The oldest written languages still in use are Chinese and Hebrew, both dating back about 5,000 years (this is not mentioned in the book). And Hebrew would be dead if it had not been restored as a living language by Zionist Jews in the 20th Century.

My own opinion is that nuclear waste ought to be reprocessed to extract all useful materials and re-purify the U-235 and Pu-239 for producing more energy. The useless stuff, if any there is, should go back in the mine it was extracted from, which kept it safe for millions of years until we dug it up. And to keep the "fuels" out of the hands of terrorists? Guard them, using Blackwater or someone similar, someone with no sense of humor, who are empowered to ensure that the penalty for attempted theft of nuclear materials is a body riddled with M-1 rounds.

The author needed a lot of endurance just to find people who would speak frankly about the flawed science and political compromises behind the choice of Yucca Mountain and the whole subculture of waste disposal it was supposed to create. It required just as much tenacity for the author to determine information about the boy's suicide, and about suicide in Las Vegas. Nobody official will comment, and he had to hire a private investigator to find out a little.

Of course, public statistics (you won't get them from any Nevada governmental agency) show that Las Vegas is the suicide capital of the world. It isn't hard to figure out why: it is a city of losers. To gamble is nearly always to lose. Most visitors can tolerate losing over and over again and keep their mental balance. But gambling attracts addictive personalities, who are not known for stability. Some lose, lose, and then lose hope. Then they jump off a building, or go drown, or use a gun or pills to end it.

The boy was too young to gamble. He wasn't too young to get grounded. It happens to teens every day. For this one, there was an attractive nuisance, if he had the endurance to make his way to the tower, wait in line for a ticket, wait for the elevator, and so forth. It took a few hours. His final trip was pretty short: 833 feet, taking 8 seconds. In this kind of era, with a sharp up-tick in the forces of destruction, will the human race one day find itself taking a short fall to oblivion?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Standing in

kw: local events, weddings

I had just one line: "On behalf of the family, I do." But then, I wasn't the star of the show, the bride was. In the version of the wedding ceremony I participated in today, the bride and groom don't say, "I do," they say, "I will," (in answer to "will you ... have and hold ... etc.?"). The bride's father is the one who says, "I do" when asked "Who gives this woman ... ?" or, in this case, the stand-in for the father.

A young couple obtained their wedding license and certificate in China just before moving to the US. But in China it is rare these days for anyone but the very rich to have much of a ceremony. The bride/wife really wanted a nice ceremony in a beautiful chapel, so a bunch of us arranged it. Today it came off, in a lovely Swedenborgian chapel in Wilmington, DE.

People came from several places, including the groom's Alma Mater in the Lehigh Valley. All together, there were some forty friends in attendance. There was a photographer and a videographer, so they'll have plenty of material to share with their relatives back in China.

I won't go into more detail here. Not only do I guard my own identity in this blog, I protect anyone who hasn't given me permission to name them or show their picture.

Friday, October 22, 2010

When E I and O are the same

kw: observations, english language, phonics

Today for the first time I saw the name Jayson Werth in print. He is an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, and drove in an insurance run by getting an eighth inning home run in the fifth playoff game with the Giants.

My interest today is with his surname rather than his athletic career. Until I saw it in the newspaper, I'd somehow had the idea that it was spelled Wirth. I didn't think of Worth because "real words" are less frequently used for English names. Taylor rather than Tailor, for example. Thankfully, a Smith is still a Smith (unless she's a Smythe).

Whether it is spelled Werth, Wirth or Worth, however, the pronunciation is exactly the same! In fact, if it were Wurth, it would still be pronounced the same!! English is not the only language that has inconsistent vowel phonetics, but it is definitely the worst. Items like this give my Japanese-born wife fits.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An ugly messiah story

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel, rejections

I am a pretty tolerant fellow, but a hundred pages into Norman Spinrad's He Walked Among Us, which telegraphs its message with a cover photo of someone walking on water, I'd had enough. I decided not to go down this garden path any further. I'd had enough profanity and vulgarity, and metaphorically rubbed shoulders with too many scumbags. In fact, only one principal character had not yet been revealed as a scumbag (but who knows; I never will). I jumped ahead to the last ten pages or so of this 540-page tome to check my early conclusions. Spot on.

I picked up this much. About 100 years into the future, time travel has been invented, but they can only afford to send one time traveler back. Their incentive to do so is that our generation has so totally screwed up the environment that Earth is nearly uninhabitable. So what kind of ambassador to the past do they pick? A stand-up comic. They figure, because they can read it in old, old issues of Variety, that a comic can say he's from the future without being either jailed or committed to an asylum. Meanwhile, he uses his stand-up routine to tell today's folks just how bad they are making things for their grandchildren.

The time traveler, one Ralf, connects up with a real sleazeball of an agent, who brings in a stable of "talent" to polish his act. Among them is an over-the-hill science fiction writer (only in his 40s, but already writing bombs instead of blockbusters), who happens to be in the midst of writing just such a future-messiah story, but he hadn't hit on the comic as hero until he met Ralf. So the book gets rather recursive.

In the end, which I did read, Ralf does raise the consciousness of enough people to get the future changed for the better. Now, if the author could make that into a high-concept story without the stream-of-consciousness drone of so many people whose minds I hated visiting, it might have been a book to take me somewhere I'd enjoy going, along a path I would not mind traveling. No such luck.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Manner or Manor

kw: language, usage, homonyms

I have occasionally commented on misuse of homonyms. For many years the most frequent misspelling in print was the use of hoard when horde was meant. In a plug for a new store, a news article might mention that it was visited by "hoards of shoppers".

Lately a new one has cropped up. Shakespeare's Hamlet is probably the origin of the phrase "to the manner born", which means that Hamlet understands a local custom because he was born and raised there. "The manner" in this case can refer to any locality or ethnicity. Much later, "to the manor born" appeared, and has more recently become the title of a popular British TV series. This refers specifically to being born rich.

Consider: "She well knew the ravages of poverty, being to the manor born." This is clearly an error, for the other phrase is meant, and it counts as a misspelling. But this: "The games they played, the powers they wielded, were second nature to him. He was to the manner born." This could go either way. The writer may really mean manor in this instance, but the phrase is not used improperly. The one encompasses the other.

A "search-poll" turns up some interesting statistics. I Googled both phrases, then repeated the searches in the Google Books page (the quotes were part of the search strings):
  • "to the manner born" in Google – 430,000
  • "to the manor born" in Google – 98,000 (all top hits refer to the TV show)
  • "to the manner born" in Google Books – 50,000 (many advice books)
  • "to the manor born" in Google Books – 16,000 (many relate to the TV show)
[Searches were performed late 10/20/2010; the figures will likely change daily but stay in these relative proportions.]

For a list of hundreds of sets of homonyms (AKA homophones), see Alan Cooper's Homonym List, to which I contributed a few hundred examples some years ago.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making milk the most versatile food

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, regional foods, cheese, memoirs

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had really fine cheese. I guess I'm not much of a foodie, and I very seldom attend the sort of party where I'd be served something snootier than pizza and soda pop. The cheese I put in my sandwiches is typically packaged Cheddar or Jack cheese that we buy by the block, a pound or two at a time. The typical American eats thirty pounds of cheese yearly. I figure I come in closer to half that.

Therefore, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge by Gordon Edgar took me to entirely new territory, a land of milk producers going into a "value added" trade, of the network of relationships and trust (or its lack) that flows through a retail establishment and keeps it going, of handmade (the cutesy word is "artisanal") food products that can cost from $10 to $40 per pound, of patrons who budget for their cheese purchases the way so many of us budget mortgage payments.

The author backed into the cheese business, much the way most "soul mate" professions are entered. Few indeed are they who grow up saying, "I want to be a brain surgeon," attain it, and love it all their lives. Many more look back and say they can't really understand how they got into this or that field, but are sure glad it worked out that way.

The style of this memoir is engaging, a synergy of "life of a former punk rocker" and riffs on the ins and outs of the cheese business. Each chapter ends with a short discussion of two cheeses, and I confess I never heard of any of them except Roquefort, the name-controlled French blue cheese that can only be produced by the molds and bacteria of certain caves…and any number of aging rooms that were inoculated with stolen microorganisms, but whose products cannot, by law, be called "Roquefort". But of others with names like Hopeful Tomme (by Sweet Grass Dairy) or Explorateur, a triple-cream Brie, the names are just a string of letters on the page. Oh, yeah, there is Cheddar in one blurb, but of course it is Montgomery Cheddar, quite a bit tastier (and I believe the author when he says so) than the much, much cheaper factory Cheddar I'm used to.

Mr. Edgar comes across as a great drinking buddy, someone I'd undoubtedly like immensely were we to meet, as long as we don't discuss politics. It is a pleasant surprise that, while he remarks on the conservatism of many of his dairy farmer friends, he does not put them down. He recognizes that political viewpoint frequently is a product of one's environment, and his rampant punk liberalism simply would wither in a farm setting. But I would not trot out my Reagan-Bush-Bush sympathies in his presence.

He is a natural storyteller, and if you buy cheese from him, you'll likely get a bit of a story along the way, and maybe learn something about your expected repast. He has learned what to tell and what not to tell. Not everyone can handle the story of rennet, as told in the chapter "Rennet, What's in It?" (an enzyme extracted from calf stomachs - see, I told you). Rennet, and its many substitutes, particularly those that cater to vegetarians, have a lot to do with the way a cheese will turn out. But rennet and all coagulants are mainly acidic substances that make the milk protein, and some or most of the fat, curdle out into a semisolid mass that is further processed into various cheeses.

A bigger taste determinant is the type of milk used: cow, goat or sheep, and whether it is whole or part skim, plus pasteurized or raw. But the biggest taste contribution comes from the microorganisms, whether mold or bacteria, and frequently both in sequence. It is the bugs that distinguish a Brie from a Gouda, a Cheddar from a Jack, Swiss from Mozzarella (I didn't check whether the milk is the same, but there'd be a difference anyway, and it might be interesting to use Gouda bugs on a different milk. I reckon someone's made the experiment already).

I hope I learned a few things. Perhaps I'll even risk an extra couple of shekels at the "real" cheese section of the store and learn a new taste or two.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An even more direct look?

kw: astronomy, extrasolar planets

My two prior posts related to the search for life outside the Solar system. The Seti program currently involves listening for radio signals from a civilization on another planet, while the Kepler mission is looking for small planets that eclipse (transit) their host star and are in orbits that keep them just warm enough for liquid water to be stable on the surface. Sometimes we might wonder, "Why not just look for planets directly?" We expect to, some day, but I'll come to that. Let's determine what we are up against.

These days, Jupiter is a bright presence in the evening sky, two or three times as bright as Sirius, the visibly brightest star. How bright would it be if it were far away? More to the point, how bright would Earth be if we were observed by someone about ten parsecs away?

If both Jupiter and Earth were observed from outside the Solar system, Jupiter would be about five times as bright as Earth. Although it is five times as far from the Sun, it is 10.7 times the diameter, or 115 times the area. Now move away ten parsecs (32.6 light years). This is the standard distance for defining absolute magnitude. At this distance, the Sun's brightness is 4.8 magnitudes. At this same distance, the Earth's brightness is at most 27.6 magnitudes. If we calculate out what this means, the Sun is about 1.3 billion times as bright as the Earth.

Modern telescopes can see stars of 30th and even 32d (apparent) magnitude. The kicker is, not when they are very close to brighter stars, particularly not stars of fifth magnitude, which is very bright. From ten parsecs away, the maximum separation between the Earth and the Sun is 0.1" (a tenth of an arc second, or 1/36,000 degree). That is very close indeed. Although a telescope such as the Hubble Space Telescope can resolve objects that are within 0.03" of one another, that is only if their brightness is quite similar. Take a look at the following image.

This is a small portion of the Hubble Deep Field. While the astronomers purposely picked a nearly star-free bit of sky to look through at distant galaxies, they could not avoid a couple of stars. The one near center of this image is about a fifteenth magnitude star. See how light scattering inside the telescope has puffed up its image to a size larger than the image of many of the smaller galaxies nearby? That illustrates the problem.

A point only 0.1" from the center of that star's image is well within the washed-out circle, but a planet would not be visible even in the much larger gray-green halo. What can be done to improve the contrast?

A mission NASA is planning, provisionally called the Terrestrial Planet Finder, would use four telescopes attached to a long boom, whose light could be combined to null the star's bright image, while enhancing that of a very nearby planet. The last I read, there isn't a set launch date, just a fuzzy objective a decade or more away. When you are working against a billion-to-one contrast ratio, over angular distances much less than an arc second, this is the kind of approach that is needed.

May the time come that we can look at a planet directly and measure its potential for life, or the level of life present! It makes me wonder just how many years away we are from a time when we will know for sure that some kind of life exists "out there."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Getting a direct look

kw: astronomy, space science, extrasolar planets, stars

As a pre-requisite to some of the discussion below, it would be a good idea to read this Stellar Classification article.

The Kepler mission to discover earth-like extrasolar planets has been under weigh for most of a year. It occurred to me to do a calculation or two to see what they are up against. This space mission uses a telescope, a smaller version of the Hubble telescope, to look at thousands of stars, searching for planetary eclipses.

Among the questions you want to answer when planning such a mission are
  • What kind of star to watch
  • How sensitive the detector needs to be
  • How frequently each star needs to be checked
  • How many stars to watch
There are others, but these are the biggest factors.

What kind of star to watch? The star classification is most important, because it determines how long the star will stably warm a planet without melting it. The sun is a G type star, specifically G2. From heaviest to lightest, and along the Main Sequence (the portion of a star's existence that it is relatively stable), stars are classified O B A F G K M. Heavy stars are rare but very bright, so we see lots of O, B and A stars in the night sky. Light stars, lighter than the Sun, are very abundant but less luminous, so not many such stars are visible to the naked eye. The brightest G type star is the famous Alpha Centauri double star, visible from the southern hemisphere, which is of the first magnitude, appearing about one-tenth the brightness of Sirius, the brightest. It is only 4.4 light years away, so it can be that visible. About a tenth of the total brightness is supplied by Beta Centauri, a K type star that is so close it takes a telescope to distinguish them.

The Sun is a young-to-middle-aged star, just 4.5 billion years old. It has steadily warmed, now being 40% brighter than it was 4 billion years ago. It will continue to do so, and the Earth will become too hot for life in about half a billion to one billion years. So a G2 star can keep a planet habitable for about five billion years. That has been long enough for complex life to arise in this case, but whether this is common or very rare, we're trying to find out (the Kepler mission is part of the effort).

Let's consider a star that is one-quarter as bright as the Sun. Its classification would be K2 or K3. Its mass would be about 0.7 the Sun's, which means its expected stable existence would be about three times as long. It is a good candidate for hosting a life-bearing planet. The planet is also far enough from the star that it won't be tidally locked, which is considered a detriment.

If we were to consider heavier, brighter, hotter stars than the sun, their "useful lifetime" is shorter. Unless life gets going quickly, and complex life is correspondingly "easy", there is little chance for an A or F star to host aliens we could talk to.

Of all Main Sequence stars, G stars comprise 7.5% and K stars comprise 12%. What about M stars? They are all quite a bit dimmer than the Sun, 8% or less of total energy released. While they have spectacular terms of existence (many billions to trillions of years), most are somewhat unstable, the more so as you go from M1 to M9. Many are flare stars and would periodically sterilize any planet in the otherwise "habitable zone". Some M stars may be suitable hosts for life-bearing planets, but even though M stars in total comprise 75% of all stars, few of these are that suitable. So the focus of a mission like Kepler is on G and K stars. Of the seven exoplanets so far found by Kepler (all of them too hot, but a good test of the system) all were found orbiting stars a bit larger than the Sun. Detector sensitivity is part of the story.

How sensitive a detector? The primary issue here is strong linearity and discrimination. When Earth crosses in front of the Sun, it blocks only 0.000084 of the light, a factor of 1/11,800. You need to be able to "see" such a difference clearly. That means each observation must be long enough to gather plenty of photons so statistical noise is much smaller than the signal. Photon statistics follow a Poisson distribution, which has a standard deviation (SD) of the square root of the mean. Gather one million photons, and your scatter is 99% confined to three SD units, or plus/minus three thousand. That is a third of a percent. Go for ten billion: the scatter in readings will be 300,000 counts, or one in 33,333. That is a good level to shoot for.

This has two implications. One is, you need to return to each star you are watching about hourly. If you are watching 3,600 stars, each one gets about one second of photon-gathering time. Of course, the light is being gathered by a large imaging detector, so you can gather many stars' data at once. In the ideal case, the telescope can be pointed to a single area and watch it for up to a year, gathering thousands of millions of stars' light curves almost continuously. But to gather ten billion photons per star, you need an integration time of sufficient length, which could be from a few minutes to an hour, depending on the brightness of the star.

That is the second consideration. Brighter stars can be usefully measured from farther away, but it is the dimmer stars in which we are most interested. This tradeoff also steers our search parameters in the direction of G stars and the brighter half of K series stars. Only a small number of M stars are close enough.

How frequently to check each star? This boils down to, how long does an eclipse last? If someone is watching us with their own Kepler mission, and they are located right on the ecliptic, they will see a 13-hour eclipse each Earth year. For the K3 star described earlier, the longest possible eclipse is 11.5 hours, but it occurs almost twice as frequently. Back to Earth eclipses of Sol: If the earth is viewed such that it is 0.997 of the Sun's radius from a central eclipse, the eclipse will last just one hour. That is near the detection limit, for the Earth will stay in the region of limb darkening, and darken the Sun my a factor closer to 1/20,000.

This means that the longest time lag between observations should be of the order of an hour. A few minutes is better, but this depends on the brightness of the star and the number of photons our telescope gathers for it.

How many stars to watch? How many Earths do there need to be for a single observer to observe just one of them? The geometry works out to 338. Put another way, only one in 338 stars in the heavens is situated close enough to the ecliptic to detect Earth using the eclipse method. For the K3 star? the figure is 200, because the planet is closer to the star. This means the Kepler mission is more likely to find planets in the habitable zone of K stars than for G stars. If you want to find one hundred Earths, you need to observe twenty or thirty thousand stars.

That is close to the stated goal of Kepler's mission, with one caveat: Not all stars are expected to have planets in "Goldilocks" orbits, not too close, not too far, but just right. Some consider that only 5-10% of the target stars actually have the right kind of planet. Some consider it is closer to 50%. By watching 100,000 stars, we have a pretty good chance to refine this number, at the very least.

A few years from now, we ought to have much better statistics on just how many planets there are in the Galaxy that could harbor life. Then it is up to the engineers to put something in orbit with sufficient data-gathering power (a big mirror!, or 2-3 of them) to look for oxygen in a planet's atmosphere, or other signs of life, while fending off the parent star's glare.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where are they, indeed?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, radio astronomy, space aliens

Fifty years and counting. In April 1960 Frank Drake first listened to space using a radio telescope at Green Bank, WV, initiating Project Ozma, which has since morphed into SETI. For a few years around 2003 I ran the Seti@home "screen saver" application (actually, I soon turned off the screen saver part because it runs three times faster without it).

It has been estimated that the combined computer power of perhaps a million people running this application is about a petaflop (1015 calculations per second). That was several years ago, and it would not surprise me if the current figure is closer to an exaflop (1018/s). I do not run it at present because I don't run my computer when I'm not there. That may change now that I have a computer that is a bunch faster than the one I had in 2003, and a better Internet connection.

The fiftieth anniversary of Project Ozma is also the occasion for Paul Davies, who chairs the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, to issue his book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. The book could be taken as a long riff on the question Enrico Fermi asked in about 1946: "Where is everybody?" It might seem that the prevalence of UFO reports beginning the following year provides an answer, but so far, these stories tell us lots about human nature, and nothing about space aliens. Dr. Davies takes this up as he closes his first chapter, "Is anybody out there?"

Perhaps you know of Dr. Drake because of the Drake Equation:
Nc = N* fp Ne fl fi fc Lc
These are, in order, the Number of (possibly) Communicating civilizations, a product of the Number of Stars formed yearly, the fraction thereof with planetary systems, the number of planets per system that are potentially habitable, the fraction thereof that develop life, the fraction of planets with life that develop intelligence (of a type and level that can build radio telescopes and powerful transmitters), and their average Lifetime as interstellar communicators.

Only the first and last component of Nc can be fairly estimated from data at hand. N* in our Galaxy is about seven per year at present, though it was a little higher a few billion years ago. Lc for Earth is less than 100 years for our accidental emissions of broadcasts such as old Amos 'n' Andy or I Love Lucy until the end of high-powered analog TV broadcasting just last year. But most of us have been getting our TV from cable for a decade or more already (ours is the last house on the block to use antenna reception for all the TV we watch). I use TV as the standard because VHF and UHF signals get out of the atmosphere much more readily than AM radio, and have quite a bit more power than FM radio, which is also VHF. Yet if we decide to become "radio loud" so as to attract attention, then Lc for Earth might be as long as we last without blowing ourselves up. Whether that is another generation or many millennia, who knows? But the Sun will remove civilization in about half a billion years, so that's our extreme limit.

As the author describes, the opinions about the other factors range the map, but are clustered about pessimistic and optimistic, with little to go on for a middle ground. By the Copernican principle—we're pretty average, not special in any way—we might conclude that life abounds in the cosmos, and most stars with habitable planets have smart "people" living there. Using some fairly optimistic numbers in the Drake Equation yields an estimate of about 20 million planets out there, all trying to communicate with their nearest neighbors. However, that puts the average spacing between communicating planets at about 50 light years.

Then there is the opposite view, the "rare earth" analysis, based on the notion that for life to form might be harder than we think, and for intelligent life (that can build big radio dishes) to evolve might be even harder. Using one-in-a-million for a couple of the parameters in the Equation indicates that the chance for even one Earth to arise (that would be us), is a one-in-a-billion or -trillion shot, so that we are a lucky fluke. Which is it? We won't know, and can't know until we either hear from someone or find other evidence that someone is out there.

Could we receive old TV shows from our planet if we put one of our radio telescopes on a planet around the star Sirius? Not yet, except perhaps with the Arecibo radio telescope, which is half a kilometer in diameter, but can't be steered (it is anchored to a bowl-shaped valley in Puerto Rico). How about with this array:

Maybe, maybe not. The Allen Radio Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory is online now. While each dish is relatively small, there are, so far, 42 of them. This array is sufficient to detect a signal of the type we could produce using Arecibo and a kilowatt transmitter, pointed right at a star of interest. If smart aliens are sending a pulsed signal, say with a peak power of a megawatt, 0.1 second on, 99.9 seconds off for an average power of a kilowatt, we'd hear it from as far away as a hundred light years or so.

What does it mean that, after fifty years of listening, we've heard nothing we can clearly say, "This is them!"? Firstly, we've only listened in the direction of about 0.01% of the stars within 100 light years. There are lots of stars out there! Secondly, we've only listened in a small part of the potential radio (and light) spectrum. There are lots more wavelengths out there!!

From the ground, the Allen array looks big, but this aerial photo (from Google Earth) shows that there is not much "capture area". The Allen dishes are the white blobs that are casting shadows. The larger things are part of the older radio observatory. Spreading them out over a large field makes it possible to focus sharply on stars of interest, but doesn't strengthen the signal. The whole array has less capture area than Arecibo, but has the virtue of being steerable.

Is there something besides radio signals that would indicate intelligent life? We are not yet capable of getting the spectrum of an exoplanet's atmosphere, so we can't even detect an oxygen/water atmosphere or photosynthesis, both of which would at least tell us "life happened". Could we detect human activity on Earth, even from a nearby place like Neptune? Dr. Davies has a chapter on such questions. In fact, he is very thorough in his analysis of all the factors that could tell us of life unlike our own. For example, we might someday find creatures on Earth (probably bacteria) with a different code for turning DNA into proteins.

I mean really different. There are at least seventeen variations on the "standard" code used by all Eukaryotes, found among Bacteria and Archaea. But they are all very similar and probably indicate branches off the "standard" tree, rather than separate life-initiation events. So we're talking a completely different code, and perhaps a basis in four rather than three DNA bases per codon, or a set of quite different amino acids, other than the twenty or so in use by all (so far) known life. Such a finding would help us say that life wasn't so hard to get started, because it did so more than once on Earth…or, alternatively, that it also started somewhere nearby such as Mars and came here on a meteorite (or spacecraft?) and flourished once it got here.

The author proposes widening the SETI search. He really tries to think outside the box. The way we are searching now is based on what we might do if we were trying to send a signal for others to receive. What if, instead, we look for signals that accidentally come our way, from one planet to another who are already in contact? Could we eavesdrop? We'd have to be close to a direct line between them, or the beam being used would miss us. The narrowest beams would be not radio signals, but IR or visible laser beams. It is a tossup whether light is better, though, because stars are bright in the visible and near-IR spectra, compared to radio.

Then there are artifacts. Will we one day find a black obelisk on the moon? How might it signal its presence, if it wants to be found, but is waiting for us to become spacefaring, à la the film 2001: A Space Odyssey? We've already blown that chance until at least 2030. But there are lots of possibilities and the book outlines everything I might have thought of, and more.

The last question for the last chapters is, should we ever receive a definite interstellar signal, at Allen array or elsewhere, then what? Do we crank up a transmitter and shout "Hello!"? Is that smart? How will it affect our culture and politics, and particularly, our religions? The various major religions of Earth have survived the Copernican revolution, and are currently working through the Darwinian revolution. What would an Alien revolution be like? Would it be the end of our civilization, or the trigger for a better one? Probably neither, at least not in the short term. People get over things. Since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for espousing that other planets had people, even religion has gotten over it, to some extent, and most religious leaders make sounds like they could accept aliens as just another kind of people who need faith.

What'll we do if the first interstellar communication we receive is evangelistic in nature? The author doesn't ask this, but it naturally follows from understanding that it is quite like one of our wealthier religious leaders to build a dish and buy a big transmitter and send an evangelistic message outward. How much would they really be like us?

Lots of questions simply have no answer yet. The book ends by saying that we simply don't know.

Weaving with straw

kw: family history, genealogy, writing

If locating a new ancestor is like finding a needle in a haystack, genealogy as practiced by my mother and two other women to whom I am related is like weaving the haystack into a tapestry, and using it to display one's needle collection. First and foremost, I am thinking of a book I received very recently, Buckland Filleigh: A Continuous Thread by Madeline Jane Taylor.

There are thousands of books that recount the family history of one specific family, but a much smaller number that weave together the history of a region or place out of all the family stories to be found in it. When a place is small enough, it is possible in one volume to encompass all the family histories, and that appears to be what Mrs. Taylor has done for Buckland Filleigh, a parish in Devon, England that is one of twenty-six in the Shebbear Hundred.

A Hundred is an administrative unit, as set up by the Saxons, consisting of one hundred "hides", a hide being a land area that can support one family. It is not hard to determine that Buckland Filleigh, then, contains but a handful of hides. But in modern times, by which I mean since the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, only a few families might live by farming, while the rest have "day jobs", so the chronicle of even this small place is rich with stories and is quite a challenge to compile.

I cannot yet review the book, as I am still reading it, and that right slowly. For the moment, it is quite amazing the amount of raw information from parish records, land office records, tax records and other sources that the author has compiled to produce the book. Was it Rumpelstiltskin who wove straw into gold? The nugget for which I obtained the book is the last appendix, an 8-generation descendancy chart for Stephen Vanstone, an ancestor of Mrs. Taylor's, and also one of mine. From noting where the line to her and the line to me branch, I reckon that we are eighth cousins.

Genealogy of the Lindsey Family, compiled by Emily Lindsey, is an unpublished manuscript that jump-started me and my mother in the genealogy obsession. We received in 1962 a typescript produced by my mother's cousin from the manuscript. This cousin had typed up the 1901 manuscript and added a few pages to bring it up to date to 1962. The total volume is but 30 pages of double-spaced typescript, containing the vital data for about 100 people, beginning with Thomas Macy, one of the original purchasers of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Miss Lindsey, my great-grandfather's sister, must have been about my age when she compiled the material, starting with the Lindsey family Bible.

The descendancy record from Thomas Macy to her generation occupies just five pages. The following twenty-one pages record other descendant families, Freelands, Pecks, Turners and others. My mother's cousin added Lusters, Wilcoxes, Vanstones and more, and one or two more recent generations of the other families, for a record of about 100 cousins through the fourth degree, most of whom I've never known.

Then there is my mother. She, my brothers and I figured out Miss Lindsey's system (by no means clear at first), and drew charts of the ten generations of our own family tree. Within a few years, my parents' nest emptied and my mother joined a genealogy club, among other pursuits. Then I found in a library The history of Nantucket: county, island, and town, including genealogies of first settlers by Alexander Starbuck. Mom told me, "At the genealogy club, we all have cake when someone finds one new ancestor. This book has about thirty, so we had quite a party!" That was in 1970, now forty years ago.

Just a few years ago, my brother sent all her genealogical records to me; she'd sent them to him when she could no longer continue to research and compile. He did quite a bit of research himself, in the years just before we all got computers. The core is a large, half-folio-size binder of pedigree pages, more than 100 of them. A box of photocopies from books, newspapers, and other sources rounds out the material. My brother did not add to the pedigree pages, but had gathered census records in both the US and England. Again, this was before computers: he photocopied microfilm records.

I think if she'd had time and energy, my mother would have written a book from all this. She is gone now six years. Since my brother sent me all the stuff, I've put it into and the number of ancestors in the tree has grown to just over one thousand. The descendancy information on cousins I've chosen to track adds another hundred or so. That is quite a needle collection!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rolling it the other way

kw: animals, pets

We had the good fortune to have a well-behaved cat for nearly eighteen years, until she died about ten years ago. I am not counting the first half year, when she was learning her good behavior! About five months ago we finally got a kitten to raise, and she is now seven months old. She is a pretty good cat, though still very young, but more active and assertive than her predecessor. We are learning how to cat-proof our house.

One issue that arose once she got big enough, is toilet paper. Now that she can reach the rolls in the dispensers, she delights in rolling out a long tail of the stuff for her to chase and pounce upon and drag about. After discussing what kinds of habits we could re-learn the most easily, we decided to change a long-standing practice and turn the rolls around so they dispense from the back instead of the front. This being a cat of very little brain, she hasn't figured out why she can roll and roll and roll the paper, and none comes off any more. She seems to have given up already.

It is taking us a bit of adjustment to learn a slightly different motion to get paper, but we do think we're smarter than this cat. This is one reason in favor of putting toilet paper rolls so they roll from the back, something I never thought of in the previous five or six decades!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Museum days II

kw: photographs, museums, fine art

Convexed by Will Wilson was our window on a different world today at the Brandywine River Museum. My museum-happy relative and I had planned on visiting two museums today, but this one occupied all our time until he had to catch his train in midafternoon. We had gone there specifically to see the Wyeth exhibits of all three generations. That we did, then on the storey below we were quite taken by the exhibit Reality Check: Contemporary American Trompe l'Oeil Painting. Photography is not permitted in the museum galleries, so I obtained these images from the museum's web sites.

This painting typifies what many think of as Trompe l'Oeil ("fool the eye"): photographic detail, an experience of full depth (the frame is painted: everything you see here is on a flat canvas), complex subjects, and a sense that the painting is emerging from the canvas. The next image takes that last verb a step further:

Emergence by Mikel Glass seems to bring the subject right through a canvas, painted on canvas (!), and apparently nailed to a plain frame (but the frame is also painted on). I noticed that many of the paintings in this exhibit had apparent light effects such as the shadow of the man's leg here. The spot lighting in the gallery was placed to enhance the effect; if that leg were really sticking out of the canvas, the light was placed so that the shadow is in the right place.

While we saw a superb exhibit of Howard Pyle's work yesterday in Delaware, The Nation Makers is probably his most famous work, and is at the Brandywine. This is part of the permanent exhibit American Illustrators. Pyle was N. C. Wyeth's mentor and Wyeth's early commissioned canvases for Treasure Island (he was 29) are also on display nearby.

Of course I won't forego showing one Wyeth, The Raven by Jamie Wyeth, who is just a year older than I and has clearly spent those years well. This is my all time favorite Wyeth painting.

At lunch, my wife remarked that this reminded her of the years we spent in South Dakota. We visited Mount Rushmore once on our own, but whenever a relative visited, that is where we would take them, that and other spots that we might never visit without the added stimulus of the visitor(s). It was great to take a day off of work and see a couple lovely, smaller museums with stellar collections of their own.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Museum days

kw: photographs, museums, fine art

A relative is visiting for a couple of days, and he is even more of a museum fanatic than I am. He has already seen everything in Philadelphia and nearby, so we dropped by the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, which has a couple of unique collections. Firstly, starting well before 1910, the museum began collecting works by illustrator Howard Pyle.

Not only do they have The Mermaid, unfinished at his death in 1911, they have this portrait of his studio, made by one of his students shortly after his death, showing The Mermaid as it was when he died. Rather than reproduce a bunch of the paintings here, I'll leave it to readers to search his name in Google Images. Be sure also to check out this Wikipedia article on him.

Howard Pyle inspired two generations of painters and illustrators, including N. C. Wyeth of nearby Chadd's Ford, PA. Among the Pyle works I could also see hints of a style that was developed further by Norman Rockwell. The emotional "bang" of a painting by Pyle, Wyeth or Rockwell simply overwhelms me. It is much more satisfying than the more cerebral art called "Modern". Look here for more by Rockwell, here for more by and about Wyeth, and here for more by and about Pyle.

The British Pre-Raphaelite Brethren (PRB) painted (and produced other works) in styles primarily reminiscent of late Medieval art, rejecting the conventions of their time and anything that was not "pre-Raphael". This is Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon. The girl is Moses' sister Miriam. It is an earlier example of PRB work, done when they were focusing on classical and biblical themes. The later "stunners", paintings of the beautiful women they gathered as their mistresses, are characteristic of the waning days of the movement.

Ten of the best Pre-Raphaelite works are showcased here. The website discusses the development of the movement, and tells a bit about Samuel Bancroft, the Wilmington industrialist who collected the paintings that form the bulk of the museum's PRB collection. It is the finest collection of these works to be found outside Britain.

Also among the later works by the PRB is this stained glass piece, produced by Tiffany Studios for Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one of the founders of the movement. The museum houses another piece of Tiffany work on a similar scale, by one of Howard Pyle's students.

While a Tiffany window is a spectacular artwork when seen as a whole, what I find most interesting is in the details. Tiffany glass firstly has almost a fractal quality, produced by many sections being "confetti glass", in which chips and shards of multicolored glass were dropped into a molten glass pane and allowed to halfway melt into it before it was cooled, annealed and cut for piecing. Secondly, the layering is quite unique, bulking up some sections to a few cm thick (an inch or more).

This closeup shows both techniques. Lead piping from an underlying layer is visible to the right of center, and the primarily green confetti chips are visible throughout.

That touches on only half of what the museum has to offer. They also have a stellar collection of John Sloan and members of his "Ashcan School" art movement, the Copeland Sculpture Garden on the museum grounds, and two visiting collections.

More museums tomorrow!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Newer news

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, news, social trends

What happened to these? Gone the way of the buggy whip, for sure! You can still buy a buggy whip, particularly in Amish country, and you can still obtain a Mergenthaler Linotype, if you want to produce printed text the way it was done from 1886 to about 1975. But technology has advanced, and few people alive today have even seen one of these, though our libraries are full of older books and other materials that were typeset on them.

One of my father's first jobs, as a teenager, was to hand-set the headlines for a newspaper, in the compositor's corner, where the rest of the room was full of Linotype operators. My first paying work was as a paperboy, from age 11 to 15, when I could get a "real" job. We paperboys (and a girl or two) got the chance to visit the newspaper production floor yearly to Ooh and Aah over the machines. In the 1950s, Linotypes and roll/web presses still ruled.

Now we can all publish at will, using MS Word or Corel Wordperfect or OpenOffice Writer and a laser printer or inkjet printer. Or we can do virtual publishing, like blogging, tweeting, or filling our Facebook Wall with our thoughts. It may not be long before lithographic offset printing is completely superseded. If you take a daily newspaper, it is still printed on a roll/web press, though the ink plates are produced by phototypesetting machinery. But there aren't any 11-year-old paper carriers any more; they've joined the Dodo.

What about this guy? Also going the way of the buggy whip, or of the Dodo? Not so fast! News is changing, and changing fast, but we still need someone to gather it and write it up. There will probably always be a place for the professional journalist, but they are getting competition from the amateurs, and the thought of journalism as a "day job" is definitely on the way out, even though the profession itself remains with us.

Journalistic trends and technology's impact on the news form the core of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get by Ken Doctor. The author has formulated his thesis as twelve "laws"; as listed on the back cover of the book:
  1. In the age of Darwinian content, you are your own editor
  2. The Digital Dozen will dominate
  3. Local: Remap and reload
  4. The old news world is gone—get over it
  5. The Great Gathering; or, the fine art of using other people's content
  6. It's a pro-am world
  7. Reporters become bloggers
  8. Itch the Niche
  9. Apply the 10 percent rule
  10. Media learn how to market, marketers learn how to make the most of media
  11. For journalists' jobs, it's back to the future
  12. Mind the gaps
I don't propose to detail these twelve Laws; that's the author's job, after all! But three key terms stand out: Darwinian content, the Niche, and the Gig model (from the 11th Law).

First, Darwinian content: The news has escaped the newsroom, and is all over the Web. Stewart Brand once made complementary statements: "Information wants to be free" and "Information wants to be expensive". Based on the proverb that two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, once information is produced and distributed to a few, it is bound to get out to all. On the other hand, producing information is not free. If it takes someone a couple of hours to gather the material for a short news item, and another hour to type it up and proofread it (something not many will do), who is going to pay a few hundred dollars for the time spent? Bloggers like me write because we love to write, and enjoy the interaction from readers, in the form of comments and e-mails. But I have a day job to pay my bills. If I had to live from my writing, I'd firstly monetize my blog, and you'd begin seeing banner ads or pop-ups, so I could get click-through revenue. I'd do a few other things differently also, such as write freelance material for magazines.

But someone, paid or not, wrote 72,000 news articles containing the word "recession" in the past hour, according to Google News, which I just checked a few minutes ago. Making the same search at Yahoo News yields only 137 articles, but they have been curated and edited, rather than aggregated by a search algorithm. Even 137 is an overwhelming number. No matter how a certain four or five stories make their way to the top of Google or Yahoo's list, those are all I am likely to read. On average, among avid readers such as myself, that is all anybody is going to read. The rest are "selected against", in Darwinian terms, and their ideas, worthy or not, die a-borning.

Many of those articles may be from "citizen reporters" (the Pro-Am model), but at least some of them were written for pay. They are free to me because some advertisers are hoping I'll click on their ads, which tightly surround the list of search results, and maybe buy their stuff.

So if I can get all of this stuff free, why do I still subscribe to the daily newspaper? To tell the truth, I spend more time on the daily crossword, Sudoku and cryptogram than I do reading. But I do read, and I read mostly from the Local section. My wife, not a puzzle worker, spends about an hour a day, and reads mostly national and world news from the A section. She tells me what she finds interesting there, so I let her read first.

This brings us to local reporting and special interest reporting. Back at Google News, if I enter "recession" and the city where I live, this more focused search brings back just eight articles written in the past week (and none for today, yet). Now that I can read. Half of these articles, or edited portions, are likely to wind up in the newspaper, where I'll read them anyway. So focused content is of interest to me, such that I pay for it. This is likely to continue, which is what "Itch the Niche" is all about. If the Google Search robot has been gathering my searches (I use three computers, so it is harder for them), it knows my interests by now, and can target news stories to me. Or I can be nice and go to the Google News Agent and get articles e-mailed to me about search items of interest to me (I wonder if they'll ever figure out the Hong Kong connection, though). By the way, "niche" does not rhyme with "itch", though the author seems to think it does. It rhymes with "wish". But I guess the alliteration was too good to pass up.

Finally, as the giant news operations have been breaking up, journalists have been returning to the 1880's model of working as a stringer, doing all freelance reporting. This is the Darwinian model of the journalism job market. How is an honest reporter to make a buck? The best ones are getting richer than if they'd kept their day job, but most of them are scraping by while doing their own marketing, which takes time away from writing. They are also blogging and tweeting up a storm. The biggest category of blogs has always been News or Current Events (depending on which blog aggregator you look at).

We are part way (probably much less than halfway) through a transition, but the current shake-out is this:
  • Tweets yield the most immediate news.
  • Blogs are next with more content and sometimes decent writing.
  • News aggregation sites archive either the best (AP and Yahoo, for example) or nearly everything (Google, the Hoover vacuum of content), in case we missed a story on Day 1.
  • By the time a story hits newsprint or the radio or TV, it is pretty old news in today's culture.
So there you have it. The news scene is today's news, and will be for some time to come. Maybe micropay models will one day allow journalists to make a more steady buck again. For now, they're suffering, along with a lot of out-of-work editors. "Daily" papers come three times a week some places. In another generation, only a few old fogies like me will still enjoy the feel of a paper news sheet or printed book; everyone else will have Kindles, iPads, or whatever supersedes them. We're getting there, if our journalist friends can just hold on while the rug gets pulled out from under them another five or six more times on the way to a new news world.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Data modeling is not for humans

kw: computer science, data modeling

I'm taking an afternoon break from the onerous task of writing specifications for a new database and its workflow application. I haven't done data modeling for a few years, and the rust is evident! This kind of work makes more demands on the memory and imagination than anything else I can think of.

I hate to get halfway through a spec document and run into this kind of conundrum: We have two similar items, sets of vocabulary terms. One set is preferred, the other deprecated. One set must be unique, but the other, which embodies synonyms and abbreviations to the first list, need not be. In other words, particularly for the abbreviations, a deprecated term can have more than one interpretation from the preferred list. Wasn't that as clear as mud?!

OK, our database programmer prefers to put both lists into a master vocabulary table with a flag field that indicates which type each term is. The conceptual database looked fine, and even the logical data model seems workable, but going to the physical model, things get creaky. I am not sure a uniqueness constraint can be enforced for one type of term but not the other. I think I'll have to go back and talk everyone into having different data tables for these, which means rewriting about a third of what I've already done. Oh, joy!

Not the first time I've had to do a massive rewrite. Just a pain. Back to the grindstone…

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I won't be holding my breath

kw: religion, islam, provocation

The proposed mosque near "ground zero" in NYC is back in the news, getting much play in the talk shows, and so forth. Yeah, these guys have a First Amendment right to practice their religion, but remember that we jail people for crying "Fire" in a crowded room. Their proposal is just as damaging. Here are my two cents' worth to America's moderate Moslems:

Please wait until we put al Qaeda and the Taliban permanently out of business; in fact why don't more of you go to Afghanistan and Pakistan and help us do just that?

When a church or synagogue is permitted to be built within sight of the Ka'aba in Mecca, then I'll be ready to allow a mosque to be built within sight of "ground zero". OK, let's get real: When a church or synagogue is permitted to be built anywhere in Saudi Arabia!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

More on sleeping the weight off

kw: dieting, news, sleep

A bit more accurate information has been released about the Annals of Internal Medicine article regarding sleep deprivation and weight/fat loss. The study is termed a "crossover" study, meaning some participants slept the longer hours the first weeks and the others did so the latter weeks. That was not made clear in earlier news items. This is a key point, because it removes one possible cause of confusion. Please see my post this morning for the rest of what I said about it.

Sleeping the weight off

kw: news, dieting, sleep

The article is titled Dieting? More Sleep Helps Burn More Fat. It is one of about 700 news articles on this topic in the past day or so that are based on a study reported in Annals of Internal Medicine (I would link to the article, but it is embargoed until the issue goes on sale).

Ten volunteers on a low-calorie diet spent four weeks confined to a lab. For two weeks, they slept about 8.5 hours nightly, and for two they slept 5.5 hours. The key finding? During the latter two weeks the volunteers lost twice as much lean mass (muscle) and half as much fat, as compared to the first two weeks. The total loss each two-week period was the same, about 3kg. One more effect was that during the low-sleep weeks, the subjects reported feeling more hunger, and they had raised levels of ghrelin, a "hunger" hormone that also causes fat retention. It is not stated whether the study participants had the opportunity to exercise while confined to the lab.

Naturally, I find this upsetting. I have been reducing by dieting all Summer, and have so far lost about 12kg. I sleep very little, but that has long been true. A "good night's sleep" for me is 6h, and 7h is superb. I haven't slept an 8h night in thirty years.

In the article linked above, they do mention a few questions the study raises. Primarily, how does amount of sleep affect metabolism in general? But my key question is not raised, not only in this article but in a few others I perused: What was the effect of reducing sleep during the latter half of the experiment, rather than the other way around? The experiment needs to be repeated with low sleep first and more sleep later, to ferret out the effect of sleep from the effect of already having lost some weight. It is known that during a period of weight loss, the level of ghrelin rises.

It is necessary to distinguish correlation from causation. Based on this study and on what else is known, we cannot yet draw a conclusion that sleep deprivation was the primary cause of the shift from fat loss to lean loss during the study. I was very disappointed to find that the study had no control. The author of the article, Lynne Peeples, quotes the conductors of the study, who state that more and larger trials need to be performed to answer the questions this study raises. I heartily agree. A properly controlled study needs at least these four groups:
  • Sleep a lot, get lots of exercise
  • Sleep little, get lots of exercise
  • Sleep a lot, lay around
  • Sleep little, lay around
Of course, you'd need at least six volunteers in each group, to generate adequate statistics. Come to think of it, double the number of groups: half of each group needs to be people who have been exercising habitually, and half couch potatoes, and these need to be distinguished, so it is really an eight-group experiment.

Hoo, boy! Things proliferate. For each possible confounding effect you want to control for, you have to double the number of groups! For example, the same eight groups could be split according to
  1. Get plenty of sleep or get too little, all 4 weeks,
  2. Sleep lots 2 weeks then too little 2 weeks versus sleep too little the first 2 weeks, then sleep a lot, and
  3. Exercise or not.
If we add the factor of those who habitually exercise or not, that makes sixteen groups. I'll stop there. The doctors have their work cut out for them to determine what is causing what!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Brandywine at flood stage

kw: local events, flooding, photographs

I went to the Brandywine Creek near the DuPont Experimental Station today. The creek had just begun to recede, and was at flood stage. An awesome sight. Click on any picture for an 800x600 pixel version.

This is the view looking West from the Rising Sun Lane bridge toward Breck's Mill. The river is just lapping against the mill's parking lot, which gets a lot of business because it houses a post office. There were extra people there today, sightseers like myself looking for a convenient place to see the rushing river.

From that parking lot, this is the view of the larger mill building on the East side of the creek. Its lower storey was half submerged. The debris in the foreground, just beyond where I was standing, included plenty of stuff washed from people's yards: basketballs, flip-flops, lawn chairs, toys of all kinds, but was mostly branches and other plant litter.

Near the main building of Hagley Museum, the debris in and next to these sluice gates shows how water rushing off the hill behind had been several feet deep the night before. My wife tells me she awoke about 3am this morning (Friday morning) to the sound of really hard rain. I reckon that is about the time this debris was emplaced.