Friday, July 29, 2011

How big a harvest?

kw: gardening

I braved the 95 degree (35 C) heat to harvest this afternoon. The heat wave, plus a rainstorm right in the middle, has the tomatoes going wild! on prior days, I could pick a bowl of tomatoes every second day. This is in accord with past years. Today I got three bowls of four varieties.

Besides the extra heat (and we're keeping the plants watered, but letting the lawn brown over), there is one added element this year. Right after the plants were established, about early June, I found a bag (one lb, or .45 kg) of Miracle Gro fertilizer. Fortunately it had directions for a hose-end sprayer, so I used about a third of it on the garden. It got blue stains all over my hands when I was mixing it up, but they washed out. I have a very high section of rabbit fence along one side, and they've reached the top, about nine feet (2.8m).

In the picture, the small ones are Sweet 100, our favorite cherry tomato variety. The medium ones at the right are Early Girl, which began producing about ten days ago. The largest ones at the left are Better Boy, the most fungus resistant of the beefsteak varieties. In with them is one cluster of Roma, an oval shaped tomato that is the best for cooking. Sitting atop the cherry tomatoes are three purple sweet peppers. So far, of three plants (all different), this is the only one to produce anything.

I weighed this harvest: twelve pounds (5.5 kg). We can get tomatoes right through September, so we stand a good chance of a 300-pound (135 kg) year. It's a good thing we have lots of friends who like tomatoes!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

LinkedIn Bonanza

kw: social networking

One of my LinkedIn friends stumbled on a way to make a little cash. I reckon his boss is sorry he made the bet!

(Click on image to see it more clearly) The total of Likes and Comments is more than 35,000 in just fifteen days...

The godmaker

kw: book reviews, fantasy, magic, mythology

What if all the old myths were real? If magic were being held in abeyance for a time, but is poised for a resurgence? What if, among the mages, a few could still become gods, and a god be born who could make other gods? (Even as I write it, I realize that this last question is answered in Mormon theology by their concept of Jesus. Orson Scott Card started out a Mormon, and I suppose he still is.)

Reading Orson Scott Card's latest, The Lost Gate, has been a great way to get right out of myself. While I usually read fiction looking for interesting ideas, I read Card for his characterizations. His books are all morality plays, and in the past some of his "good" characters were, as I think of it, pathologically good. With experience, he's gained some balance.

Danny North grows up thinking he's a non-mage among mages, but turns into a late bloomer, and (could you guess?), the greatest mage of all. It is the ultimate Ugly Duckling story. Because of some senseless taboo held by the magical Families secretly living in the modern world, a powerful mage like Danny is supposed to be killed as soon as his powers become evident. Danny escapes.

The crux of the matter is this. The greatest mages are the Gatemages, and the greatest Gatemages are Gatefathers, those who can create a Great Gate to the planet Westil where the mages originated (along with all other non-mage humans). Once a Great Gate is produced, those who travel through it, both ways, multiply their powers. All Gates heal, but a Great Gate makes a mage into a super-mage, and makes the strongest mages into nearly immortal gods. All the Gates were destroyed thirteen centuries ago, and the former gods are in hiding, just itching to be re-deified.

Much of the narrative describes Danny's coming of age, and the somewhat parallel life of a powerful Gatemage on Westil whom Danny will one day need to confront. Along the way, Danny gains a few allies, and comes to this realization: as he gains godlike power, who else will he allow to benefit from it? Who can be trusted to resist the corrupting influence of great power? Of course, Danny himself must do so.

The book's Afterword makes it clear that Card intends to continue the series; Stonefather was an earlier book in this mage world. It will be interesting to follow the tug-of-war within the author as he explores Danny as a maturing Mage. Follow Card and his publishing schedule at Hatrack River.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Portia-san, is that you?

kw: translations, linguistics

On a wild hare, I typed a phrase from Shakespeare (with three words modernized) into Google Translate, and picked Japanese as the target language. Here is the result:


I don't read Japanese well enough to know how good the translation might be, but the word order, as the "hover" function reveals, is:

"Mercy's quality strained is not, it the place beneath upon, heaven's gentle rain (it) drops."

This is grammatically correct, at least. Now, to hit the Reverse function:

"Not the quality of mercy is strained, it is depending on where the bottom will drop like a gentle rain from heaven."

So the word "bottom" had to be supplied at some point. Quite good, though. The original text is the opening phrase of Portia's speech in Merchant of Venice:

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heav'n upon the place beneath." Except I put strained, drops and heaven in place of the archaisms and contractions.

I'll have to consult my Japanese wife to determine another point; in translations of works such as Shakespeare's, do they translate into modern Japanese, or into late pre-Edo period Japanese? I've been told that Japanese is less volatile than English, and that anyone who can read Japanese can quite comfortably read 500-year-old texts. In English, that is not quite so. I am pretty well educated, but I cannot read Shakespeare quickly, and as for Chaucer (late 1300's), I'm pretty lost.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Can we still call it a job?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, work, futuristics

Three trends of twenty:
  • CEO's job description will include "avid blogger".
  • Lifelong learning will be a requirement to get and keep a job.
  • You will elect your leader(s).
Five generations of workers:
  • Traditionalists: Those old enough to be a WW2 veteran.
  • Boomers: Their children.
  • X Generation: Those who came of age after Woodstock.
  • Millennials: Graduated high school in 2000 or after.
  • 2020 Generation: That's when they'll be entering the work force.
By the year 2020, there will still be a few Traditionalists at work; they'll be age 75 or older. My father finally retired at age 75, so people like him who stay healthy into advanced age, and enjoy their work, will have little desire to enter the rocking-chair brigades.

Every day, about 10,000 Boomers reach age 65. This number will grow. Every day, about 7,000 Boomers retire. This number may not grow much. The gap between these numbers shows that some Boomers will work even longer than their elders.

Generation X is in mid-career now: settled enough to be putting kids through college or trade school, lots of them own homes. They are becoming "in charge" as Boomers retire.

Millennials have hit the job market like a ton of bricks. Their preferences drive companies like Google and W.L. Gore. The job market needs to absorb tens of millions of them in the next decade.

The youngest generation, 2020, is composed of those in Middle School (Jr Hi) or younger. Those that take up a trade will begin working in 5-8 years, and those who attend college will begin graduating in large numbers by 2018.

The message of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today, by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd, brings all these ingredients together to advise companies large and small about the kinds of people they'll have working for them by the end of the decade, and what they'll need to do to stay competitive, both as a company and as an employer.

A few trends are evident:
  • The younger the worker, the more he or she lives amidst technology, but the smaller physical footprint that technology takes up. For many of the very young, a smart phone may be the only device they feel a need for.
  • Older workers tend to be more loyal to a company, a particular manager, or a brand. Each successive generation is more likely to job shop and hop.
  • Younger workers are more likely to "put their money where their mouth is" about the integrity and morality of the company they work for, and pass up lucrative "Enron" opportunities for lower-paying but more sustainably-based enterprises.
The book uses a definition of the five generations listed above based on Bureau of Labor Statistics publications, but to me they are fatally flawed. Cutoffs of 1945, 1964, 1976, and 1997 produce three middle "generations" that cover 19, 12, and 21 years. That produces a skewed view of the Millennials, which it seems to me, ought to cover more than twelve years. I prefer cutoffs of 1945, 1964, 1982, and 2000, for generations of 19, 18, and 18 years. This accords better with the population pyramid, such that the X Generation is smaller than both the Boomers and the Millennials; the 2020 Generation started with a few years of lower numbers, but promises to outnumber the Millennials.

It is not only our under-30 set that is highly tech-savvy or über-connected. The lady in the next office has a father like mine: both men are about 90, both love using Skype to video chat with their offspring and friends both near and far, both read a few blogs and news feeds, both use lots of e-mail and know how to manage their Spam filters, and at least my father has asked me to show him how to start a blog. They aren't on FaceBook, but I am, as is my manager and his manager. I am 63, and the managers are late 40s, on the cusp between Boomer and Gen X. We are also all three on LinkedIn.

What is the fastest-growing tool for recruiting new employees? Second Life, closely followed by Twitter. My son got his most recent job from Craigslist. I'm on the search committee for a nonprofit looking for a new director; I've put out a call for suggestions on FaceBook and LinkedIn. I don't Tweet, 'cause I haven't the time. All my cousins do, though, plus their children and a grandchild or two.

One trend discussed by the authors that really resonated with me is that "reputation capital" will become increasingly important, and a big facet of that will be the quality, more than the quantity, of one's FaceBook Friend list.

But now it is wet-blanket time. Much small retailing, skilled and semi-skilled trades, and factory floors seem to be exempt from all this. Yeah, when my plumber shows up, he (or she) prints the estimate or receipt from a laptop, only getting out a pen for my signature. But recruiting for the job continues as it has since the apprentice-journeyman system was set up about the time piping was invented. One of my good friends works in a steel-making plant. He has about as much need for a smart phone in his workplace as the average giraffe. The only concession to 2010-era technology is that the plant recruits via a web site (last updated in 2006) when "putting out the word" among the workers fails to scare up any job seekers.

Not everyone goes to college. In my son's high school class, 65% of freshmen went on to graduate, about 60% of the graduates started college, and about 40% of those graduated. That is just over 15%, or less than 60 out of 380+ who started with him. The advice in 2020 Workplace is directed an those 60 and the companies that will seek to employ them. What do we do for the rest? How will they make a living? My brother in California informed me that the state has closed all the public vocational schools. They simply dropped support for programs that helped more than half their young people qualify for non-college jobs.

When my son graduated from Rutgers a few months ago, we heard Toni Morrison, the keynote speaker, say, "100 years from now … will people ask, 'Is it true that you had to pay your own way through the process of becoming a skilled, useful citizen?'?" She asked when people would realize that an educated populace is a productive populace, and that supporting education at every level ensures the prosperity of society. Of course, for that to happen, we'll have to end the practice of paying a "tenured" professor a quarter million dollars a year to teach one class per semester. If you want to know why college tuition is growing at five times the inflation rate, look no further, but that's grist for another rant.

The central theme of the book is clear, however: the expectations of the generation now growing up are going to drive the way companies do business, recruit workers, and care for their careers throughout their working life. When continuous education becomes the requirement for keeping a job, it will soon become "company supported life-long learning", for workers will flock to the companies that first adopt this as a perk. By 2020 this may be no perk, but an expected benefit, even if company-paid health care has been given over to a Federal program.

My generation and the next need to keep our wits about us! The Millennials and their children are coming!! The slogan of the 80's was Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. Retro!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bright beetles

kw: observations, insects

I lived west of the Rockies until I was thirteen. Then we moved to Ohio and my brothers and I first saw fireflies. We were enchanted. We found them easy to catch, but staying out during "firefly hour" required that we brave the mosquitoes, a fearsome prospect. DEET hadn't been invented yet, so bug sprays were rather ineffective.

I've noticed little kids in our neighborhood at dusk, the three and four year olds, very excitedly chasing fireflies. By ten or twelve they are pretty jaded and seem to prefer staying in with video games. I guess it was the newness; I stayed out as long as I could stand it, just watching and watching.

This picture, which is all over the web, is from a guy named Steve Irvine, in Ontario, Canada. It is apparently a one-hour time exposure, capturing most of the 90-minute activity period for the local fireflies.

I suppose the streaky flashes that fill the scene are the flying males, and the band of dots in the background was made by the stationary females. My Dad tells me that when he was growing up, the females were called glowworms, because the local species in Missouri has flightless females that look more like caterpillars than the beetles that they actually are.

When my wife and I take a walk, we usually go at dusk this time of year to avoid the heat earlier in the day, so we usually see fireflies. Tonight, at first we didn't see any, and I wondered if they'd perished in the extreme heat we have been having. But soon we began to see them, and it made our walk a little happier. The little stream that runs past the end of the street is nearly out of water, but there is sufficient for the needs of small creatures such as these. I don't know what fireflies eat, though I've heard they eat mosquitoes. There are very few of those this year, but I reckon they have other prey, for they have been as plentiful as ever throughout June, and there are still quite a lot of them. Seeing fireflies is one of the things that make it worth taking an evening walk in the summertime.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pathological parallax

kw: politics, dissension, geometry

You may not know the word parallax, but you know the principle: your left and right eyes work together to produce a 3D view. One eye alone cannot reliably determine depth. Each eye sees the world a little differently, but the combination of their views is more accurate. As a political principle, it is a good metaphor of the way diverse political views can work together to guide national policy. This is better than if only one view prevails; that is like trying to drive with one eye closed. It is risky.

There is a second danger. In metaphor it is like this: my brother likes doing stereo photography, and he does it by taking pictures of a static scene from two places, usually a few inches apart. But if the scene is larger or farther away, he will use wider spacing. There is a knack to this, and sometimes the results can be rather odd. A recent stereo pair he sent me, of a cave in Mexico, is an example of taking the two pictures from points that were too far apart. It is nearly impossible to "fuse" them to one image with 3D depth visible. It usually just looks like a confused mess. It is like looking at the tip of your nose with crossed eyes; it just isn't a clear view.

This kind of cross-eyed view has become the norm in modern politics. One side tries to close the other side's eye, because they have become so polarized that no combined view is possible. Many conservatives almost deify Ronald Reagan, who is famous for saying, "When the car of State has gone off the road into the ditch on the left side, it takes a truck on the right side to pull it back onto the road." I, too, prefer Reagan politics to the kind we have had under Obama. Most forget that, as much as Reagan and Tip O'Neill scrapped in public about policy, they worked together to accomplish almost all the facets of "Reaganomics" that led to the prosperity of the 1990s.

Can common ground be found now? I think it will take a sweeping "vote-em-all-out" election next November, to bring in a Congress that can take proper account of the fused vision of all the "eyes" along the political spectrum. Political eyes-crossed posturing simply damages the country.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

RIP Shuttle

kw: space flight, shuttle, requiem

Thus ends an era. The 135th and last mission of the NASA Shuttle program landed this morning. This CNET News article has more details. Now it is official. The United States has no means of sending astronauts off earth. We must rely on "partners" to ferry personnel to and from the International Space Station.

Growing up as a Cold War Kid, I'd never have dreamed that we'd be in such a position: We must rent space on Russian rockets to continue our manned space program. I remember at age ten, going outside every evening with binoculars and the newspaper orbit listings, trying to see Sputnik (too small for binoculars), and later the various Explorers and Echo's, and also various Russian satellites. We feared the Russians in the 1950s and '60s. They had The Bomb, and Stalin was crazy enough to use it. Khrushchev was even crazier, but fortunately, we learned later, less murderous of his own citizens.

Twelve years after the Ham operators picked up the "beep . . . beep" from Sputnik I, we had a man on the moon. Boy, were we proud! We'd grown up reading about going to the moon, but not one of my boyhood books predicted that America would watch that "small step" on color TV! In less than four years, it was all over; we had only sent men there six times. Anybody under the age of thirty-nine was born after we quit going to the moon!!

Forty years hence, will the U.S. manned space program be equally a thing of the past; will there be eighty-year-olds who have never known the thrill of seeing someone walk on another world? What happened?

Money happened. Without a significant technological breakthrough, it will continue to cost about $10,000 per kilogram to inject payloads into low Earth orbit (LEO). Medium Earth orbit (MEO), higher than 1,000km, costs about twice as much. The current estimate for a lunar mission is around $100 Million per kilogram that makes the round trip. The brick wall that stopped progress is called Specific Impulse.

Specific Impulse is measured in Seconds. In other words, it is the number of seconds that an engine can produce a kilogram of thrust using a kilogram of fuel. The Shuttle, and the Saturn V and Saturn Ib before it, had engines with a SI of around 500 seconds. That sounds impressive, but you have to thrust against a rather deep gravity well to get off Earth, and it takes about 15 kg of fuel to put 1 kg of stuff into orbit. If SI could be raised to about 6,000 seconds, you'd be pretty close to the much more economical goal of using a kilogram of fuel per kilogram of payload. (Any reader who has more accurate figures is welcome to comment; these were back-of-envelope figuration, and my calculus is getting rusty.) Until much higher SI is achieved, putting people into orbit, even littler ones that weigh no more than 50kg each, will be a very costly proposition.

In the middle of an economic meltdown, with belt-tightening everywhere but between our President's ears, the current NASA proposal for spending around $160 Billion to return to the Moon is DoA. I wonder if I should take bets on how many countries get to the moon before the U.S. does… Goodbye, Shuttle program. You were beautiful, but you were a very expensive date.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

As the continent fills

kw: census records, population, trends

I've been waiting for the results from the 2010 U.S. Census to be compiled. Some are ready now, but my wait is still not over for county-by-county data, as only 945 counties are completed. I have begun to learn to use the Census Factfinder. At least state data are ready, so I can do basic analysis. Chart 1 shows the total population by state (including D.C. and Puerto Rico), in a lognormal distribution.

The total U.S. population counted was 312,471,327. More than a tenth of these are in California; the top four populated states (millions) are California (37.3), Texas (25.1), New York (19.4) and Florida (18.8). The bottom four are Wyoming (0.56), D.C. (0.60), Vermont (0.63) and North Dakota (0.67). California is having both water and electricity supply problems, and Texas is perennially short of water. This will have worrisome implications in the future.

Chart 2 shows percent change in population, analyzed as a normal distribution.

Both this and the following chart, which shows numeric change, reveal trends we need to watch. The top four percent growth states are Nevada (+35%), Arizona (+25%), Utah (+24%) and Idaho (21%). The four with the most loss or the least growth are Puerto Rico (-2.2%), Michigan (-0.6%), Rhode Island (+0.4%) and Louisiana (+1.4%). Compare with the national total percent change of 10.0%.

Nevada is a small state; the relatively huge percent growth represents less than a million people. But it shows the continued popularity of Las Vegas and Reno, plus an influx of retirees that are picking the drier climate, since Arizona now has so many watered lawns. The growth of Utah has a similar cause. Xeriscaping in Arizona could change this and shift the trend back their way. Idaho is strongly recruiting retirees also. The losses in Puerto Rico and Michigan are job-related. Whoever can afford to move away is doing so. For Louisiana, the low growth is a lingering effect of the hurricane six years ago. Rhode Island? I don't know.

Chart 3 shows the change in numerical population, shown as the lognormal distribution of the data with a threshold subtracted; subtracting -110,100 means adding 110,100 to bring all values above zero so logarithmic analysis can work.

On the growth side, it is worth looking at the top six: Texas (+5.18), California (+3.73), Florida (+3.31), Georgia (+1.77), North Carolina (+1.76) and Arizona (+1.57). The bottom four are Puerto Rico (-0.082 = -82,000), Michigan (-0.059), Rhode Island (+0.004) and Vermont (+0.018). It is again worrisome that the top two growth states have serious water supply problems, as does Arizona. The loss or lowest-growth states would be good places to move to, climate-wise, but there are job shortages. I consider the growth in Georgia to be job-related, and in North Carolina and Florida to be retiree-related.

The two biggest trends in the country are first, the continued retirement of Baby Boomers (my generation); this has slowed some since the crash of 2008-9, which worsens the second trend, which is the frustrated job aspirations of the X and Y generations. Most of the Y generation, those who graduated from high school after 1999, meaning those born after 1981, are also called the Millennial generation. If the retirement rate of Baby Boomers had not scaled back by some 30%, there would be more jobs opening up nationwide. But the loss of a couple trillion dollars held in IRA's and 401-K's has led many people, including me, to conclude it is better to work a few more years.

This has placed a big bottleneck on the jobs available to younger people. But it is helping the Social Security picture. The longer a Boomer works, at a typically higher pay rate than a younger worker, the more money gets sent into the SSA budget, and the less it taken out (temporarily). But as slowly as the economy is recovering, the Millennial generation is going to have to field more entrepreneurs, because existing businesses are simply not adding enough jobs to satisfy the demand for employment.

Businesses that hire across generations will do the best. The youngest ones are the most tech-savvy, living in a FaceBook and LinkedIn world. Although I use both FB and LI, I know I don't take advantage of them to the extent that the Millennials do. But the Gen Xers and Boomers aren't going anywhere just yet, and we add balance to an enterprise. We typically have better BS detectors, for example. The oldest Millennials are starting to produce offspring, so they need jobs. Their kids were once expected to be called Gen Z, but are now more likely to inherit the moniker Post-Millennial, because most of them were born after 2000. They'll hit the job market in eight to ten years. Will it be ready for them?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't diss them, just 'cause they're dead

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, occupations, mortuaries

When the discussion turned to the dissection of a well-rotted, 560-pound man, I had to close the book until I'd completed breakfast. Over the past few days I have read Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician, by Michelle Williams. I quickly learned the limits to the steadiness of my stomach.

Ms Williams, now a Mortuary Manager in Cheltenham, England, began a career among the non-breathing at the age of thirty, when she was hired at a trainee MTO (Medical Technical Officer), now called APT (Anatomical Pathology Technician), at least in Britain. On this side the pond, the only title I find in the job ads is Mortuary Technician.

What does an MTO/APT do? Typically, keep track of the body of a deceased person and preserve it between the time of death and its transfer to the undertakers for burial or cremation. In one-third of cases, perhaps more, the cause of death must be investigated. Then a PM, a Post-Mortem dissection and investigation, is performed. The technician is usually responsible to remove the organs from the chest and abdomen—which are typically separated into two large stainless steel bowls—and the brain, which goes into a smaller bowl. The pathologist examines the body and the innards and the brain to determine cause of death.

On occasion, the death is a problem occasion: A questionable accident, a murder, or a few other causes trigger a forensic PM, which a forensic pathologist will usually perform, unless he or she decides to simply direct the dissection by a technician.

There are a lot of ways to die, and most of them are unpleasant. Things that happen to a body after death, particularly if too much time passes, make matters even more unpleasant. The author was endowed with a curiosity that overcame her distaste and fear. She repeats several times throughout the book how impressed she was by the profound respect and care for the dead that she saw in her mentors, Clive and Graham. This kept her going, this and seeing how crucial the work was to proper care for both the dead person and his or her family.

A major aspect of the work was arranging for family viewing, frequently for identification purposes. She describes some of the tricks of the trade needed to make a body presentable after PM; how the eyes are kept closed, for example, or how one hides the slice behind the head where the brain is removed. In one case, a man had been crushed by a combine. His head looked more like a flounder. One of the men took great care reshaping the head and making it presentable, and arranging the whole body, badly damaged as it was, so that viewing by family members could be allowed.

I read nearly all of this with equanimity. But, I have to admit, the obese man got to me. He was too big for the cooler, so he sat for a few days at "room temperature", and was green and slimy when they got the go-ahead for a PM. This was not a case of a "big-boned" individual, as so many fat people claim they are. Ms Williams writes that it was a very small man who'd clearly struggled against suffocating under hundreds of pounds of fat. Just getting to the body cavity was a major excavation. The entire crew needed a few stiff ones afterward.

It is one thing to get well set into a career working with the dead. Before long, one has seen it all, and gets inured to experiences that few of us would wish to have. A person also sees every kind of reaction by the next of kin, all of whom mourn, but who also feel remorse, or fury, or dread, or all of that. And, as her first year of the work drew to a close, it was the author's turn to be "next of kin" when her beloved grandfather died. It is one thing to watch others fall apart. It is another to be the one falling apart.

We have become insulated from death. I think its very unfamiliarity underlies much of the fear of death. I confess, I've seen only one dead person who was not nicely arranged and made up in a pretty coffin in a funeral parlor. Seeing someone suddenly die made me realize how fragile life is. I don't think I'd have the steadiness to do the work of an MTO. I'm glad there are people who can do that, and I'm glad for this window into their world.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Long s - a victim of efficiency

kw: typography, history

During genealogical researches, I've been reading a lot of old books and letters. I got more interested in the way the long s (often shown as ⌠) was eliminated in printed versus handwritten documents. Even quite late in the 19th Century, you can see letters and manuscripts with words that look like wi⌠h (wish). Also, wi⌠e and wife used in the same document can cause a bit of cognitive dissonance, particularly when trying to read quickly!

I just had to dig into things a bit. At first, I thought it might be a linguistic trend, in other words, primarily a matter of fashion. While there were linguistic fashions involved, I realized there was a societal evolutionary trend also at work. For a great summary of the linguistic trends, see The Regency: So Long, Long S: It outlines the dropping of typographic ligatures and the long s during the Regency period. But there was a reason for this.

In printed books, the crossover occurred early, beginning in 1780 and being essentially complete by 1820. This period reflects the time it takes to wear out a set of metal type. The most popular typefaces of the very late 18th Century tended not to include the long s or any of its ligature forms, and the reasons were primarily economic. Lord Scott has written, "The Regency era bridged the gap between the old slow-paced order of the 'Georgian' 18th century and the new, faster, industrialized world of the 'Victorian' 19th" (We Make History: Regency Primer).

The watchword of the Georgian era was Manners; that of the Victorian era was Efficiency. Faster steam trains and steamboats, the growth of standardized manufacture, and particularly, continued innovations in printing technology all contributed to the "get more done more quickly" social trend.

English typography can get along quite well with 26 minuscule and 26 majuscule letters, 10 digits and about 10 punctuation marks. The long s required two more letters, and the ligatures in which it participated required at least four more minuscule letter forms. This sample of Caslon ligatures is from a modern font file. Computer font files are cheap to produce, compared to metal type, so there is growing interest in the elegance of older-looking documents using traditionalist type faces. There are seven "f" ligatures, and five with the long "s". The short s does not participate in ligatures, so dropping the long s and its ligatures sped up the process of setting type by hand. Almost simultaneously, the f ligatures were also mostly dropped.

I remember once asking why cartoon characters only have three fingers. My father, who had aspired to be a cartoonist when he was a teen, said, "If you have to draw the character a thousand times for one minute of action, skipping one finger can save you a lot of time." In the same way, dropping all those ligatures reduced the number of type pieces in a font by 15%, and if you can save 10-15% of a compositor's time, you can set the type for a novel several days sooner.

By the 1880s when practical typewriters were developed, quickly followed by the Linotype®, there was no question of having more than 26 keys for letters, though punctuation marks had grown in number to about twenty (the original Linotype® keyboard had separate keys for minuscule and majuscule letters, but no 1 or 0, using small L and large O for them). This was the death knell for retaining long s in handwritten manuscripts. You can hardly find a document written after 1880 that uses it.

Will it ever make a comeback? It could. Modern technology makes leisure pursuits more economical. The inclusion of ⌠ and its ligatures, along with the f ligatures in modern typefaces, and the inclusion of codes for them in Unicode, certainly makes it technically feasible. Perhaps one day a version of Word or another writing tool will include an option for converting s to ⌠ according to the original rules, adopted from Greek, which still uses two forms of small sigma. The nostalgia crazes among those who are now middle aged—younger baby boomers and older GenXers—could lead to whole books being published that bear a Georgian or older aspect. If it is "cool", people will do it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

When Franklin blew it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, vaccination, variolation, religion

Before the discovery of vaccination, there was variolation. The Variola virus causes smallpox, the most dreaded disease of antiquity. The Vaccinia virus causes the related zoonosis cowpox. Someone who survives infection by either virus is thereafter immune to both.

Centuries before Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids were immune to smallpox, it had been observed in Asia that people who caught smallpox by direct contact with someone who was mildly infected were much more likely to survive their infection. They also became immune to future infection. Asians developed the practice of infecting people with smallpox and caring for them during their illness. By 1700 the practice had spread to Africa and the Mideast. In 1716 in England and America, this became known to two people with the intelligence to understand its implications, and the influence to initiate the practice. In England, the proponent was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and in America, specifically Boston, it was Cotton Mather.

Lady Montagu's story is told elsewhere. The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America's Destiny by Tony Williams tells of Cotton Mather and the "inoculation" controversy that sundered the Boston polity in 1721, created a turning point in the acceptance of the scientific method, and broke the power of the century-old Puritan Covenant.

Early in 1621, Cotton Mather had just turned 58 years old, and was at the peak of his powers as a Puritan preacher of great influence, both civil and religious, and also as a scientist—he was elected to the British Royal Society in 1713. He is often considered the finest mind of his generation in colonial America. He had been told by an African slave boy about the African method of preventing smallpox by making cuts in the skin and rubbing in pus from the pustules of a smallpox victim. The person thus inoculated would suffer a fever and break out with a relatively small number of pustules, and recover, now immune to smallpox infection.

Mather searched for earlier accounts of this practice, and soon found them. He might have saved himself a world of trouble by immediately discussing this with his British colleagues and the local physicians and scientists and fellow-ministers, but he kept the matter close for five years, expecting a smallpox epidemic to occur, as they did about once per generation; then he could reveal the matter and instigate a program to save the population from a severe plague.

There was a bit of vanity in this view, and he was blinded by simplistic thinking. When a smallpox epidemic began early in 1721, brought by the ship Seahorse from Barbados, Mather wrote a letter to all the local doctors explaining inoculation and referencing the literature (he knew better than to quote a slave). There was no reply. He waited, prayed, waited, and finally wrote again, and this time there was a response. One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, responded favorably, by beginning to perform inoculations. He experimented with a small number and saw how they were only mildly affected, in contrast to longer fevers, greater pains, and a 30% death rate among those who acquired smallpox the ordinary way.

Shortly after this, the other doctors responded, with fierce opposition. They stirred the Selectmen to prohibit inoculation. Mather and Boylston took the fateful decision to quietly defy the authorities. Possibly due to the stature of Mather and Boylston, the authorities did not arrest them, but dithered. A withering flurry of publications ensued, primarily of the doctors of Boston against inoculation. Soon another pair of actors entered the fray. James Franklin and his young apprentice, his 16-year-old brother Benjamin, began to print the New England Courant, a weekly paper in which they pushed the limits of attacking convention, authority, and religion in particular. This paper quickly became the focus of anti-inoculation fervor.

The drama took months to play out, and in the main, the disease ran its course until it had infected nearly everyone who was not already immune. Among the immune were those who were inoculated. By the end of the epidemic, it was found that nearly 900 Bostonians had died of smallpox, of about 5,000 who were infected. This doesn't quite square with the 25% and 30% death rates quoted throughout the book, but 18% is still terrifying odds. By contrast, of 242 persons inoculated, only six died, a death rate of 2½%. This was enough for Mather and others to publish a tract showing statistically that inoculation was superior to letting nature run its course.

Curiously, within nine years, Benjamin Franklin became a proponent of inoculation. After the epidemic burned itself out, in 1722 Mather had extended an invitation to young Franklin, author of so many diatribes against him, to visit him at his home. It is not known what they discussed, but Franklin subsequently became, scientifically at least, a man much like Cotton Mather: very well-read, with wide scientific interests, and a keen desire not just to win an argument but to win over an opponent. Though Franklin as a youth was on the wrong side of history, as he matured he had the flexibility of mind to learn where he had been wrong and correct his course.

While science took a great step in the West at this time, the change in religious polity was equally profound. From 1630 to 1721 the Puritan Covenant in Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony had prevailed, and the people were generally in agreement with the spiritual rigors it entailed, and with the hegemony of religion in civil affairs. Dissension and heresy were censured, and in a few cases, dissidents were hanged. By the early 1700s this Covenant seemed to be weakening as "worldly" influences became stronger, but the intense opposition directed primarily at Mather in 1721 broke the back of the Covenant.

Some years earlier the Crown had mandated religious tolerance in the Colonies, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. This hardly weakened the committed Puritans, and their ministers continued to be held in very high esteem, much the way Catholics today esteem Archbishops and Cardinals. This was shaken in 1721-1722, and came to an end by the time of the American Revolution. The powerful sermons of Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s were pretty much the last gasp of Puritan influence, although even in the mid-20th Century "banned in Boston" was a common joke.

There is something we can learn from Cotton Mather, however. He risked everything for a scientific principle, as all his life he had risked everything for the sake of his faith. He saw "natural philosophy" and "natural theology" as handmaidens to one another. He understood the scientific method as well as any of his day, and believed that understanding the glories of nature and the worship of God went hand-in-hand. In contrast to the modern view of science and faith, best expressed by Steven Jay Gould as "non-overlapping magisteria", the Puritans embraced both. Without this embrace of science by the chief Puritan of his day, among those 242 inoculated Bostonians, another forty might have died.

Cotton Mather had dreams of saving the whole of Boston from the epidemic. He could save only a handful, but to that handful, that made all the difference. And indirectly, he brought in a turn toward a better attitude toward the men and women of God among us; that they are after all human, and deserve common respect, but are much better served by that alone than by the inflated esteem the "clergy" are often accorded. We would do well today to learn this of the Puritans: science and faith can work together. For myself and many others who are both scientists and people of faith, the "magisteria" overlap quite a bit.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Trust fund, where art thou?

kw: finance, politics, criminal activity

The President warns (threatens) that on August third, Social Security checks might not be sent out. Just a few days ago I attended a seminar at which the speaker used materials prepared by the Social Security Administration. One point he made was that the Social Security "trust fund" is solvent until at least 2037, after which benefits must be reduced an estimated 22%, and some more figures followed, but I suffered a cognitive dissonance at that point. If the trust fund is solvent, that means there is money in it, and isn't that what the SSA will used to pay recipients?

Not so fast. While Social Security taxes are used to buy treasury bonds, and those bonds are counted as assets to the "trust fund", they are counted as a debt owed by the federal government, on the federal budget side. (See this Washington Examiner editorial for a more complete analysis.)

For the first three decades that Social Security existed, this accounting fiction was actually adhered to. Under President Lyndon Johnson, however, a number of laws were changed to make it easier to simply spend the assets of the fictional fund; they were effectively rolled into the general budget. After all, he had a war to fight.

Well, we are still at war (we haven't had a genuinely war-free year since 1811). And perish the thought that the military might miss a payday! What will happen to their paychecks on August third? Hmmmm? Our esteemed President hasn't whispered a word about that, now has he?

The entire budget debate is being conducted dishonestly by every single practitioner. The specter of missed payments by Social Security is balanced by bombast and gloom from the "Republican" opposition. Positions continue to get more rigid, and more fragile. Remember this, folks, a year from now, when national elections and primaries are gearing up. It doesn't matter what party or position an officeholder supports. If the Federal government were a business, all its leadership would have been jailed long ago. So whatever you do, don't vote for incumbents. Whether the incumbent is Democrat, Republican, Independent, Tea Party, Socialist, Libertarian, vote for someone else.

There is little likelihood that a new President and new bunch of Congresspersons will be any better, but it is hard to imagine a fresh bunch doing any worse. There is the hope that, just by accident, they'll do a few things better. We can only hope.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Do you prefer having to being?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, materialism, clutter, hoarding, collecting

More than thirty years ago we moved cross-country so I could start graduate school. We had friends in the town we were going to, who offered to put us up for a couple of weeks while we got a house or apartment. It turned into a rough two weeks. They are very nice people, but they never put anything away. They had a lot of clothing for a family of four, and none of it was in the closets. It was about half-knee-deep everywhere in the house. It was like wading through shallow water to move about the house. They could sit there, having a conversation or watching TV, and seemingly not notice that there was nearly no carpet visible. As it happens, this was a rather mild case of hoarding.

I have a relative who is a more difficult case. Until recently, his house was filled with (fortunately neat) stacks of books and of boxes of genuinely valuable artifacts (he is an archaeologist). He managed to keep a portion of the living room clear enough so we could sit together and talk, but it took sideways walking to navigate most of the house. This was just what was on hand. He had three storage units filled to the ceiling with stuff. With the help of a therapist, after an intervention by his father, he has been giving away or selling things, and even throwing some stuff away.

Stuff! What a word!! There is even a saying, "Whoever dies with the most stuff wins." I've seen it on a No Fear t-shirt; and on another, "Whoever dies with the most stuff still dies." It seems the first proverb has been taken to heart by about two percent of us, according to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Two percent; that is one in fifty. Most of us know at least fifty people well, meaning almost everybody knows a hoarder.

Of course, not all hoarders are equally afflicted with the compulsion to hoard. It is a spectrum that begins at the deep end of enthusiastic collecting. Stuff opens with a brief description of the Collyer Mansion and the events surrounding the deaths of the Collyer brothers and the cleanup that had to follow. It is not the absolute worst case of hoarding ever, but it may be close. Among the 170 tons of stuff removed from the 12-room house in 1945 were a dozen grand pianos in various states of disrepair (one was playable), huge amounts of newspapers, and quite a number of booby traps set by one of the brothers, who died when he tripped one of them. His brother, whom he'd taken care of for years, blind and paralyzed, died soon after. The fact that they didn't live to see the enforced cleanup of the building probably means they were happier than the pathological hoarders who are the subject of court-ordered cleanups.

Randy Frost originated the professional study of hoarders and hoarding about two decades ago. He is also an expert on pathological perfectionism, which often underlies hoarding. Gail Steketee studies the phenomenon from a sociological perspective. They started these studies with the given perspective of the 1990s, that hoarding was a variety of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). While it is related, it turns out to be, if anything, inversely related. OCD compulsions tend to be based on fear of contamination of the self, while hoarding is most frequently related to insulating the self from discomfort. The things collected and hoarded are seen as having been rescued from loss, destruction or contamination "out there".

This image illustrates an early stage of hoarding, where you can recognize the phenomenon, but it hasn't gone to the level that it is dangerous to the hoarder. This is often called "excessive clutter", though someone with an experienced eye can notice that the majority of the things are either of no intrinsic value or just do not belong where they are. The computer under this stuff has become unusable. In a few months or years it could vanish from view.

While not all hoarders are perfectionists, those that are can be quite difficult to work with. Hoarders in general have very good memories, and they have a story (or several) related to each object, coupled with the conviction that it has to be seen to be remembered. The perfectionists can't stand to have anything removed, moved, or even slightly shifted. They'll notice the difference, and will frequently throw a tantrum.

As the authors came to better understanding of hoarders, they have developed effective therapies to help them learn to let go of things. This is difficult, very slow, and trying for both therapist and client, because hoarders often feel physical pain if they must discard something. This makes court-ordered cleanups of really dangerous or unhygienic cases particularly difficult, even traumatic, because as one hoarder said, these things were what he was; losing them was like losing himself.

This points up one big divide in people's attitudes. Some people's sense of self and self-worth are based on what they have; for others, it is on what they are. I was looking for the authors to write of success in getting having people to change to being people. I didn't find it. I wonder if it is possible.

The person who took this picture is a self-described hoarder, but the orderliness of the objects indicates to me that we have an enthusiastic collector here. He or she may be on the verge of hoarding, but has not yet crossed that line. A friend of my father's has collected sea shells all his life, quite obsessively. He owns a big house with a full basement, which is full of cabinets in which the shells are kept, all labeled and in order. It is a better collection than you'll find in some natural history museums. But it is a collection, a well-curated one. It just takes up around 2,000 square feet of living space. Fortunately, the fellow can afford it.

What is a museum curator? From this perspective, a person with a strong collecting tendency who has the self-discipline to impose order on the collection(s). Some of the hoards described in Stuff consisted primarily of museum-quality artifacts, but they were piled helter-skelter, gradually being damaged by humidity and possibly insect and rat infestations, or even being tripped over (I cringe at the thought of someone tripping over a valuable 18th Century painting and putting a foot through it).

What is to be done with hoarders? They range widely in sociability; some being quite extroverted while others are secretive and antisocial. But nearly all share this characteristic: they don't entertain at home. Most are secretly ashamed of their home, at least when they are not there, surrounded by the comfort of their possessions…possessions which have taken possession of them!

In a few cases, mandated cleanup is appropriate. For example, the homes of animal hoarders frequently become dangerously unsanitary. Even as they feel they are "rescuing" animals, they are making them sick instead. In other cases, the piles of stuff become physically dangerous due to their height and weight; there have been cases of floors collapsing. And then some people go so far as never throwing out used food wrappers or leftovers, and the house becomes a roach heaven. Such homes have to be cleaned out, and possibly burned down. But the authorities very rarely take the next step, which is to enforce therapy. After enduring the trauma, the hoarders become even more inveterate hoarders, and the cycle repeats.

For less damaging cases, I say, let 'em hoard. Sure, it is hard to attract a lover or spouse. For those that want a social life, it simply has to take place outside the home. When they die, then you bring in the professional junk removers. For one fee, they'll just landfill everything. For a little higher fee, they'll present the heirs, if any, with a couple of piles that didn't get landfilled: stuff that might be valuable, and things like photo albums that may have sentimental value to following generations.

There is one statement in the book I found intriguing: The book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, based on a PBS show, states that there are twice as many shopping malls in the US as there are high schools. There is a societal side of hoarding, and many hoarders have really poor resistance to advertising. There are few hoarders in poor places! May you be blessed to be a being person.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Expanding spaces

kw: technical trends, collecting, collections

What is the difference between an accumulation and a collection? Curation! There is a neat tool for visualizing the contents of a hard drive, which I find useful for file curation. It is called SequoiaView.

It images files as blocks that look like little pillows, and you can optionally show them with colors that give a hint to their contents. This shows the 2,900+ files in the My Documents folder and its 87 subfolders on the PC at my workplace. These are the files I consider my own. Many are copies from the larger store of files in my computer at home. I keep project files for my work on a shared drive (7.6 Gby, 6,300+ files). Firstly, to parse this image, the file types by color are:
  • Pink and Red - Image files (jpg, png, gif, bmp, etc.)
  • Dark Blue - Excel and Word
  • Green - Music, mostly mp3
  • Cyan - Program files (exe)
  • Purple - Zip files
  • Gray - All others; most here are ppt, pdf and a few wma videos
The pink mass on the left is my wallpaper collection (I run a picture gallery screen saver so I can see groups of these on a rotating basis). The mostly pink mass at lower right is the image collection for this blog. Above that are the miscellaneous files that are not in subfolders, including some rather large pdf files. Then up the middle: the cyan and gray area below is the Downloads folder, mostly setup and install files; the green at the top is mp3 music; the darker gray below that is other kinds of music files; and the lighter gray next below is a lot of pdf's about income taxes. The big purple block is a single zip file of install binaries for a product I need at work (which means it belongs elsewhere), and the slim area just to its left is all the smaller folders in My Documents. The total disk space taken is 2.29 Gby.

I've been gathering this stuff a long time. I first got a desktop computer in 1981, and a very few files date back that far, but most of those are at home. My current home machine has a 500 Gby disk, which is only a few percent full, and an external 120 Gby disk a few years older (from the prior system, now in a closet) that I use for archives. That's close to 1/3 full.

The beauty of looking at a visualization like this is that I can see where files are out of place. Then I just have to get up the gumption to reorganize. If only there were a similar tool for cleaning up the closets at home! Now that our son has effectively moved out, my wife and I are de-cluttering the less used rooms of the house (he has to do his own!), which tended to be the dumping ground for things we hadn't yet decided to discard, and storage for the larger collections. My physically largest collections are, in order by weight:
  • Books, about 2,000, filling shelves in one shelf-filled bedroom and the finished room in the basement.
  • Rocks, including petrified wood, minerals and fossils. Those not on display are in crates in the garage.
  • Family letters, concentrated in the early 1900s and the WW2 years. These are curated in acetate holders in binders in two crates.
  • Photo albums, perhaps 15 large binders, dated on their spines (I have about 8,000 digital photo files; these are just what I've printed. For older pix I have a large folder of negatives in sleeves).
  • Stamps, seven binders of mostly well-labeled stock sheets, plus two crates of duplicates and a small box of "material to check".
  • Coins, two rather heavy binders, one US, one Worldwide, all in labeled holders.
  • Genealogy, one crate of materials gathered by my mother and brother, then sent to me a few years ago. I keep all new records online. My "ancestor collection" numbers about 1,100.
Then there are smaller amounts of insects, pinned in a couple show boxes, and seashells, which are not curated at all except by date collected. At the moment our son and his cousins are all in their late teens and early-to-mid twenties. Over the next few years I expect some of them to settle down enough to have an appreciation for history, and if they develop an interest in any of the collections, I can pass them along. The rocks will be the hardest to get rid of. I'll probably have to give them to local rock and mineral hobbyists.

These days, the acquisition of "stuff" has little allure. Perhaps this is the normal course of life. I was once an avid collector of all kinds of things in addition to the above. Now I confine my collecting to digital things, although I still print the best of my photography and put the prints in the photo albums. This blog is a kind of collection, a collection of ideas that so far covers six years of my life. I wonder what will become of it a few decades down the road. The other collections need to be gradually divested, to those who will appreciate them. Time will tell.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An open letter to the US Government

kw: politics

Dear Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives,

Please consider yourselves lame ducks, one and all. Your chances for re-election in 2012 are now effectively nil no matter what you do in the coming two weeks. You have become free agents, beholden to nobody.

If you drive this country into default by failing to pass an increase in the debt ceiling, the resulting economic troubles will make you wish you'd never held office. You will have no chance of winning re-election because each one of you will be blamed, and rightly so.

If you reach an "agreement" that raises taxes on anybody, that will anger a sufficient number of voters to ensure that you are voted out of office next time 'round.

If the "agreement" focuses instead on cost-cutting, and citizens at or near retirement age—in other words, the most consistent voters—feel their future is threatened, we will vote for anybody rather than the incumbents.

I don't expect every one of you to have common sense, but I think most of you know in your hearts that a little of both is required. Now is the time to do what is genuinely best for the United States of America, "the greatest good for the greatest number." Remember, it takes one or two business cycles for even the best economic plan to take hold, and by then, all of you will be out of office. So forget your re-election. Make your decisions for the best the U.S.A. can be, and stick to it.

We may even forgive you for it.

A voter

Monday, July 11, 2011

Latin lives on

kw: analysis, words, history

As I wrote some text for a planning meeting I was pondering whether to pluralize "curriculum" as "curriculums" or "curricula". I prefer the latter, but I was wondering which my audience would prefer. I did a Google search of both spellings, and it was hands down for the Latin plural, by 48 million to 5.2 million, an 8:1 ratio. I then had two thoughts. One was, I wonder what the history of this is, whether there is a changeover to Anglicized pluralization going on, and whether similar words would have the same history.

When I went to the Google Labs Ngram Viewer, the first pair I tried was "addendums" vs "addenda". This first chart shows the result. The Latin plural is in red, and is the clear winner, for all of the past 208 years I plotted. You can click on these charts for a double size version.

That done, I plotted "curriculums" and "curricula". This chart shows that, while there was some support for the Anglicized plural from 1920 to 1980, it has largely vanished.

Here is a pair for which the drama has yet to play out in full: "referendums" and "referenda". While the Anglicized plural is rapidly gaining ground, and the spell checker here at Blogger tells me it doesn't like "refereda", the Latin plural is still ahead as of 2008. I hope Google Labs updates their database soon. I'd like to see the 2009 and 2010 results.

Also, the plural of "vacuum" has had a strange history. "Vacua" was preferred until 1960, then underwent a precipitous drop in popularity, while "vacuums" had been slowly gaining popularity since 1920 or thereabouts. I expect "vacua" to vanish over the next 20-40 years.

One word of Greek origin has three plurals because many think it is from Latin. The Latin plural of "octopus" is "octopi" and was once preferred, but then was overtaken by "octopuses" after 1920. About 1940 some language purists proposed the proper Greek plural "octopodes", but as you can see, it never caught on. It is effectively defunct. "Octopuses" now reigns.

Finally, there is the strange case of the false Latin plural of "rhinoceros". This word ends in "-os", not "-us", yet I have heard well educated people say "rhinoceri". As this chart shows, this term has very rarely made it into print. "Rhinoceroses" has always been the appropriate plural, because the term was not taken into English from another language, but was compounded of two Greek roots as an English word about 1740 (I ran a different chart to discern this date). This and "octopus" illustrate the mental tricks we have to overcome because we have so many words from both Greek and Latin in our language.

It is fascinating, the products of modern analysis tools when you have mountains of data to work with.

It is not just the lamps

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, light, lighting, technology, infrastructure

When I began to read Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox, I was first prompted to consider the various technologies that have been used to light our homes and environment, from campfires to oil lamps to kerosene/mantle lamps to the electric filament bulb to fluorescents and LEDs. And what is next? Thinking about these things, and the continuing quest to produce more light and less heat, was behind this post of a couple days ago.

Ms Brox's book does indeed outline the progress of technologies used to create light, but I realized there is much more involved. There are three basic stages of light production, and each has been supported by a particular infrastructure, without which the light-producing device itself is of comparatively little use.

First, consider the technology of oil lamps, which are basically bowls with a wick and some melted or meltable oily substance. During the thousands (millions?) of years that this technology prevailed, there were the parallel technologies of oil/fat production and rendering, of producing the wicks, of passing the fire from place to place, and of starting the fire if yours has gone out and no near neighbor has any. This last was usually accomplished using a twirled hardwood rod, a dimple or hole in a piece of pine or other softwood, and some tinder.

When more volatile fuels such as light whale oil, kerosene and later coal gas came into use, primarily in Europe and America, there was a parallel development of chemical knowledge. Thus, while a technology for distributing fuels grew until it culminated in the neighborhood gas house and the piping systems that brought gaslight to homes and street corners, strikable matches and flint/steel strikers were also developed to make it easier to light one's lamps.

Finally, although the first incandescent electric light was energized in 1802 by Humphrey Davy, it took another 77 years of experimentation by many, including Edison's technicians, for a practical lamp to be produced. We give Edison credit for the bulb, but forget that his greater accomplishment was the infrastructure that made the bulb practical. The batteries of the day could only energize one of his bulbs for a short time, perhaps a few hours. Keeping that first bulb lit for fourteen hours until its glass envelope cracked was no mean feat, requiring the swapping of batteries in relays.

Thomas Edison envisioned a system of dynamos and underground, shielded wiring that would take care of the needs of a neighborhood at a time. His preference (almost a mania) for DC rather than AC current eventually led to his system being eclipsed by an AC infrastructure developed by George Westinghouse, based on Edison's but with the addition of transforming equipment so that power sent over a longer distance could be boosted to a higher voltage, reducing resistive losses in the wiring.

One characteristic of each successive infrastructure system has been increasing fragility. Thus, a few late chapters in the book cover the great blackout of 1965 and subsequent blackout events, and the efforts that are still being made to make "the grid" ever more robust and reliable. To meet the needs of the later 21st Century in America and Europe, at the very least, new trunk lines and newer switching equipment needs to be set up. It won't be cheap, but not doing it will eventually be hugely more costly. China, India and other major developing countries in Asia and Africa are watching our progress, so they can get their infrastructure right the first time.

With many business places lit entirely by fluorescent light, lighting consumes less than 8% of our energy budget. With many middle class homes using more and more CFL lamps, and a switch to LED's just beginning, this amount will decrease even more. But our use of light is the most visible manifestation of our electrical society. As we learn to make more light while using less energy to produce it, we also need to improve the efficiency of all our uses of energy.

I am reminded of something I learned forty years ago. AC power has this characteristic, that its use is less efficient if the voltage and current get out of phase. "Inductive" loads, such as electric motors, cause current to lag the voltage. "Capacitive" loads, and there are no simple examples, cause the current to lead instead. There are nearly no large electricity consuming devices that are capacitive, meaning that most industry operates with lagging current and its inherent inefficiencies. As it turns out, a type of electric motor called a synchronous motor acts as a large capacitive load. I don't understand the physics of it, so I can't explain why. Anyway, the primary market for large synchronous motors is major industrial plants that install them and keep them running just to balance the phase of their electricity, which significantly reduces their electric bill! I wonder if this would work at the house level. If I look at the transformers on the power poles up the street, I can see that some are accompanied by large capacitors, almost the size of the transformers, that the power company has installed to keep their own system in balance. Maybe there is a way to add a large capacitor or a synchronous motor in parallel with my furnace fan (the largest motor in the house). Don't hold your breath, but I do plan to look into this. Haven't given the matter any thought since 1970 until today!

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the loss of dark skies as we have gone to more and more street and exterior lighting. Not only is it inefficient, there is growing concern that it doesn't do as much as we thought to reduce crime. Perhaps just a little light is better than too much, while still being better than none at all. On my last visit to Japan, while my father-in-law was still living, I was told that he had installed most of the neighborhood's walkway lights. They were a series of single-tube fluorescent fixtures, and while they were nowhere near as bright as the lighting in my neighborhood, they were quite adequate for finding one's way around after dark. It was also easier to see the stars in the sky, which I much enjoy. His lights are probably very close to the amount of light we genuinely need, and a lot more economical than the way most American cities are lighted at present. Thanks to the author of Brilliant for such a thought-provoking book!

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Turn over a rock and...

kw: genealogy, writing

For the first time since writing a dissertation, I spent the whole day writing. I was composing mini-biographies of selected ancestors, going into the production of a book-length document. In most cases, once I got into each person's records, there was a conundrum or two to solve. In one case, a few sources indicated a certain wife and mother, but the dates were funny: she was 20 years older than her purported husband, and supposedly gave birth at ages between 55 and 70. Even if you shift the birth date by twenty years, having children at age 50 was pretty darn rare in the 1600s. Women who tried, mostly died. Also, the records indicate the man's wife was widowed while the children were somewhat young, but she was in no way feeble. I had to conclude that I do not know the name or dates of the woman. In another case, nearly every account cobbles together events from the lives of a father and his son to produce one generation where it seems certain there were two.

This kind of work is interesting and gratifying. The day went by like nothing.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Light and heat in the front room

kw: analysis, light, technology

The way to make light, that is, to create photons, is to accelerate electrons. The oldest technology for doing this is to burn something. The hot carbon atoms in a candle flame emit light because the molecular collisions due to the heat knock electrons about. Also, carbon particles in the same flame emit light because the heat energy in the particles is carried by electron interactions, some of which produces "incandescent" photons. Neither process is particularly efficient, which is why lighting a room with candles, kerosene lamps, or gaslight creates a lot of heat. All the technologies of making light are driven by the need to do so at lower cost in power consumed, that is, in heat emitted.

I got to wondering how little heat I can produce while producing the light I want in my front room, by means of various technologies. There are two scenarios: (1) I am reading by myself; (2) We have guests. In the first case, I do quite nicely with one 18-watt CFL in a lamp that used to have a 75-watt tungsten bulb. The amount of light is equivalent, about 1100 lumens. The bulb's efficiency can be expressed as about 15 lumens per watt; the CFL's is about 62 lm/w.

In the second case, we add a stand light that has three 13-watt CFL's and a torchiere fitted with a screw fixture and a 23-watt CFL. That total of 80 watts of CFL's at 62 lm/w produces about 4,950 lumens. The same amount of light once needed 330 watts of incandescent bulbs.

But what if I had to use gaslight or candlelight? The former produces about 0.6 lm/w, the latter about half that. These watts are now counted as heat of burning. At 0.6 lm/w, 4,950 lumens requires more than 8,000 watts of heat. And candles? 16,000 watts seems an inconceivable amount! A heat pump type furnace consumes 3,000 watts to produce 10,000 watts of heat transfer. Even in winter, you'd drive everyone from the room in short order. This is why in the days of combustion-type lighting, the parlors were lit quite a bit more dimly than they are today.

And what of the future? Will LED's do better? The present state-of-the-art LED (so far only in the lab) produces 90 lm/w. I could light my room with 55 watts. That is a little better than today's 80 watts. LED's produce light by more cleverly accelerating electrons within certain semiconductor materials. The "white" ones in LED flashlights use a blue LED and a yellow wideband phosphor that converts part of the blue to green, yellow and red.

The theoretical maximum efficiency for an LED, using multi-colored emitters rather than fluorescent conversion, is either 200 or 250 lm/w, depending on the color mix, whether "flat white" or "center-hump". At 250 lm/w, I could produce 4,950 lumens using only 20 watts. Now, that's a goal worth shooting for.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A stern chase is long

kw: games

About three hundred games ago, my standing in Spider Solitaire was 29%. I found that the calculation is truncated, but dividing the wins by the total games, it was still below 29.5% I entertained hopes of raising it to 30% or higher. Two friends have both said that whenever their cumulative percentage drops below 30%, they delete the stats and start over. I thought I'd find out if I can win at a rate sufficiently higher than 30%, to raise the average "the hard way".

As this screen shot shows, I've won 349 out of 1121 games since getting this computer, for an average of 31.13%. Calculating the marginal win rate, I've won about 35% of the past 300 games to get here.

If I continue to win at a 35% rate, I will need to play another 324 games to reach 32%, 1,047 games to reach 33%, and 3,214 games to reach 34%. I'll never reach a long-term average of 35% unless I learn to play better. I suspect that no more than 40% to 50% of Spider Solitaire games are winnable by any strategy. Some contend that all could be won with the right strategy, but this is not so: The drop of the cards in a deal can shut you out from all possible moves, and if that occurs on the last deal, the game is guaranteed a no-win. I'm pretty pleased with 31%.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Emerson said it best

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animal rights, sociology, psychology

In Frederik Pohl's novel Homegoing a space-faring race called the hakh'hli carry a herd of dedicated meat animals, the hoo'hik (pl. hoo'hiki, I think). They are a bit brighter than the average chimp, so every infant hoo'hik is "pithed" shortly after birth. This involves destroying the higher centers of the brain so the critter will never reach self-awareness. Hakh'hli scientists have been trying for centuries to breed a hoo'hik that is much less intelligent, but, they report, "It always ruins the taste." Imagine if we had to do that to our cattle…

Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." A former boss had this guideline for writing research reports: "Consistency over truth." To paraphrase Ayn Rand (so wrong in so many other ways), be careful how you pick your premises. For example, some folks think all animals have the same rights. Take their premises to the logical conclusion and you realize that yon nest of termites must be allowed to devour your house, without fear of being poisoned or otherwise discouraged or hindered.

Along any spectrum we find a series of "stations", and when it comes to animals and animal rights, there is more than one spectrum. If we were truly consistent, our station along each of them would be similar, but this is seldom true. Hal Herzog has written on just this quandary in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals.

Consider the species Rattus rattus. A little smaller than a gray squirrel, they weigh ten times as much as a mouse. While most people will lay out snap traps for mice, fewer will do so for rats. Then there are the pet store rats (same species, but inbred so they are light brown or white); lots of people keep rats as pets, yet a wild rat outside is likely to be trapped or poisoned.

In these parts there are groundhogs, often called "whistle pigs." A friend tells of getting a live-catch trap, trapping a groundhog in her yard, and taking it across a river a couple miles from her home. She'd do this two or three times per summer. Once, taking a walk in a parkway on "her" side of the river, she saw a man letting a groundhog loose from a similar trap. She strolled over and made his acquaintance. He lived on the other side of the river. They concluded they'd been trading the same groundhog, or perhaps a family of them, for years.

A groundhog is big, bigger than a Chihuahua. Some people cheerfully kill them, but most won't, so they try the same trap-and-transport method my friend was using. These are various stations on the "How bad do you hate it?" spectrum. Nearly all of us swat mosquitoes, flies and especially biting flies; most will use a termite service to "treat" the foundation of our house if we get an invasion; how many of us will use deadly force against the rabbit that gets into our bulb garden? So there is some kind of line we draw. Rabbits, and perhaps groundhogs, are on "this" side of it.

I have almost always had a pet cat or two (right now it is one, a spayed calico). At one time our family had four or five adult cats and there was usually a litter or two of kittens about, waiting for us to find homes for them. In a rural area, there are usually plenty of takers for "good mousers". In spite of that many cats, we kept the place clean, and made sure they had basic veterinary care. But the occasional "cat lady" might have 50, 100, or more cats in a house, with cat pee and poop everywhere, and even one or two dead ones being eaten by the others. Does an animal hoarder really "love" the cats? I would say, No, but I can't presume to understand what she is really thinking or feeling. Most of us understand she has crossed some kind of line, but of what kind? It is hard to define.

Two spectra of animal issues are political hot potatoes these days: Meat and Research. I am a committed carnivore. I don't hunt, but it's mainly because I am a poor shot. I have carved up a few deer, rabbits and a pig or two with friends who were trading butchery for cuts of meat. I'm a little farther out this spectrum than the average. My former piano teacher is a vegetarian. When we have had her over, we cooked nutrient-rich non-meat dishes for her. She claimed to not be bothered by the meat dishes we ate ourselves. She is a "health" vegetarian, not an "it's wrong to eat animals" vegetarian. I don't claim to have any vegan friends, because there is no common ground. I don't try to "convert" them when I run across one, and I simply withdraw from efforts to "convert" me.

As to animal research, I take a careful stance. I was a subject of human experimentation, during the clinical trials of the Polio vaccines in the 1950s. My name was in the newspaper, along with about 50,000 other kids. But before kids were involved, there were trials with thousands or even millions of mice and other animals. I am glad there is a safe and effective vaccine for polio. To me it is worth it. On the other hand, I am totally against putting cosmetics in rabbit or hamster eyes to see if they are "irritating". Use human eyes, and pay the humans well. There are a number of cases of substances that pass the rabbit test, but still irritate human eyes, so let's use the appropriate eyes from the get-go!

Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology, and he studies how people relate to animals. He has visited cockfights (called "derbies"), volunteered at a no-kill sanctuary in Utah, gone along on turtle-nest-counting runs, and he and his wife have a cat named Tilly. He concludes that it is impossible for us to be totally consistent about animals. "Cute" animals, the ones that resemble human newborns, will always tug at our heartstrings. "Ugly" animals and those that compete with us for food or shelter will always get no respect. The tasty ones will always find people lined up to shorten their lives in favor of a filling meal.

Here is a statistic that, for me, summarized the dilemmas:
We kill 200 food animals for every animal used in a scientific experiment, 2,000 for every dog euthanized in an animal shelter, and 40,000 for every baby harp seal bludgeoned to death on a Canadian ice floe. (p. 176)
Millions travel to Yellowstone Park and other national parks every year, hoping to see bison, moose, elk, other deer, and the same Canada geese that crap all over the lakeside grass in our county parks. If citified Pigeons are "rats with feathers", I think of geese as "groundhogs with feathers." We all encompass such a variety of attitudes. We are like the Red Queen, who told Alice, "I make it a practice to believe seven impossible things before breakfast."

There either is a human world, or there isn't. As long as there is, there will be a variety of ways that animals are allowed to impact it. I do not accept that animals have "rights" on a level with humans. It cannot be so, or chaos results. If all animals have total civil rights (will they ever get the vote?), there is no human world. That is our dilemma, and as the only animal species with the organization and power to set those boundaries, it is up to us to endeavor to set them wisely, no matter how "inconsistent" some of them may seem.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

An apple rainbow

kw: fruits

I awoke this morning out of a dream in which I was a contestant in a quiz show. The question had been to name three varieties of apple and state the color of each. I was thinking over my answer when I woke up. I got to thinking, as I went about my morning routine, what is the best answer?

I concluded that the best answer is, Red Delicious = Red, Golden Delicious = Yellow, Granny Smith = Green. But along the way I was cataloging other varieties. The list below is just a memory exercise:
  • Red Delicious – the classic Red apple, though the color is often shaded from purplish red to a lighter shade, and there are always numerous small, pale spots. Usually considered the sweetest apple.
  • Mackintosh – also a Red apple, but usually with a greenish side, and red/green striping. Mildly tart.
  • Jonathan – the classic Red/Green "yin-yang" apple, distinguished by the best mix of sweet and tart, in my opinion.
  • Golden Delicious – the classic Yellow apple, always with small greener dots, and often a reddish blush on one side, depending on sun exposure. Sweet, but different than Red Delicious.
  • Jonagold – a more modern variety, Yellow with more Red than a Golden Delicious, and a tarter taste.
  • Fuji – looks like a Jonathan, perhaps more stripey, and tastes sweeter, but with a fine tart/sweet mix.
  • Stayman/Winesap – very similar to Mackintosh, both sweeter and tarter. The second-most-Red apple.
  • Granny Smith – solid green, with almost no mottling or variation. Very sweet, but has to be quite ripe (you have to smell it) or it is bland and sour. Very firm until totally overripe.
Not too bad a list for off-the-cuff, but only a tiny fraction of the 7,000 or 8,000 varieties known. And the best pie apple? Jonathan!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Versatility Personified

kw: music, performers

Flash bulletin! We stayed in this 4th of July, so we have been watching "A Capitol Fourth" on PBS. A short while ago, Steve Martin and his band performed several bluegrass numbers, including one he wrote about Paul Revere's horse. I noticed in that tune that, rather than the three-finger picking he is famous for, he was frailing (AKA claw hammer style).

I know of very few banjo players who have mastered both three-finger picking and frailing. Frailing is the more difficult skill—I know, I've tried. Can't say I've totally mastered 3-finger either, but I have that down a whole lot better than claw hammer.

Hats off to Steve Martin! Sure, he has a day job as a comedian, but he's simply one of the best musicians out there, to boot.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Triple browser trial

kw: product testing, reviewing

I started this post using Google Chrome version 12.0.742.112. I use it rarely, but I'm checking out how it works for making Blogger posts. I first prepared the labels and copied them to the "kw" line in the Compose screen. That worked fine (In an older version of Chrome the copy came with some HTML tags that changed the font).

The other features I'll test are paragraphing and font styles. Looking in the Edit Html screen at this point, I find that paragraphs are delimited with "div" tags. I haven't figured out how to trick Chrome into showing the arrow brackets, so we'll have to live with the quote as a substitute. To put the extra line between paragraphs, it uses two sets of "div" tags and a return between.

Next, this text is italicized and this text is bolded. The tags Chrome used are "i" and "b". So far so good. Now I'll switch browsers and continue.
I am continuing with MS Internet Explorer version 9.0.8112.16421. One thing I noticed right away is that the paragraphs left by Chrome now have an extra line between them in Compose mode. Older versions of IE liked to use "p" tags between paragraphs. Another is, that when I use the down arrow on the last line of text, the cursor goes to the end in Chrome, but not in IE.
This begins a new paragraph. Checking… OK, IE is continuing the "div" tags but not adding a return between them. Font styles:
The italic and bold text tags IE uses are "em" and "strong". Now I'll check two more features in a fresh post and return with results. Here we go: Firstly, if I put a label in the labels window and try to copy it into the post, it will not paste. That's one negative mark for IE (This works in FF). Secondly, typing a few paragraphs into an empty post resulted in the paragraphs being separated by returns, not tags. While this is a violation of HTML protocol, it is shared by Firefox.
At this point I'll switch browsers once again.

Now I am using Mozilla Firefox version 5.0. (No long version numbers here!) I first went to the test post that I'd put "p" tags into. Firefox continues them. This one still has the two ways of using "div" tags, and FF has responded as Chrome would have, by showing a double space only if there is an extra set of "div" tags. Depending on the browser you are using, the IE section above may look all jammed together.

Looking in the Edit Html screen, I see that, inside the last "div" section left by IE, FF is simply putting double returns between my paragraphs. Finally, I know FF uses the most doctrinaire font style tagging: the italic and bold tags are "span" tags with a "style" modifier inside:

span style="font-style: italic;"
span style="font-style: bold;"

inside the arrow brackets. While the three browsers try to produce the same look, I suspect this post, with its mixed styles, will not look uniform in any browser!