Thursday, January 31, 2013

The reference shelf gets longer

kw: books, dictionaries, references

I mentioned about a week ago that I would be bringing home a few more dictionaries and other reference books as I clean out my office. My last day actually at the office has come and gone, I got home early, and I've been rearranging the shelves in my home office ever since.

As you can see, the big Webster's New 20th Century (unabridged) sits below where the shelf space is high enough. All the others are above. I count 9 English dictionaries among a number of other reference works. The white tag on the newest CRC Handbook indicates it was a library discard when they got a newer edition – fortunately this library doesn't tear the covers off its discards!

These aren't the only shelves I've been working on; I have two 6-shelf built-ins and a number of other shelving units in this room. About a third of the total space still needs attention. I took a couple of boxes of lesser-used books to my son's old bedroom. He can sort through them and keep or discard as he likes. Is it really possible to de-clutter a whole house during one's natural lifetime?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Getting busier and better

kw: retirement

A number of retirees have said they have so much to do they don't know how they ever had time to work. I think I understand. My last in-office day is at the end of this week, and the carried-over vacation days will then fill out my tenure. I have already been in contact with a couple organizations at which I hope to volunteer. I also plan to take the real estate course, not necessarily to become a realtor (though a lot of retirees do so), but so I'll be a much more knowledgeable seller whenever we decide to move elsewhere. Then there is the growing "honey-do list". A friend was told by his wife, "I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch." My wife doesn't mind having lunch with me, as long as I have been knocking off items in the job jar. But I do plan to get out of the house a few days a week.

At the retiree reception earlier today I was one of 14 leaving the company. From the announcements that were e-mailed out yesterday, I count a total of 483 years of service at this company; some folks had a prior career as I did. The average is 483/14 = 34.5. I've been here nearly the shortest at 27 years, and one man has 24. One woman worked here 50 years, and is retiring only reluctantly! That isn't a record; a colleague retired a few years ago after 60 years with the company. He started as a groundskeeper at age 18, and likes to tell the story of nearly getting fired his first day for driving his mower over a shrub and whacking it to the ground.

One transition I will not make is to end this blog. I am as interested as ever in all kinds of things, and continue to read voraciously. My continuing readership of about 150 daily "hits" indicates that at least a few people share some of my interests. That probably makes me something like the two-millionth most popular blog. That's OK. I write this for myself, and you are welcome to eavesdrop on this ongoing conversation among me, myself and I. I am reading an enigmatic space opera just now, so stay tuned!

Monday, January 28, 2013

A measure of civilization's loss

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, bird language

We learn the best what we must know to live. A definition of "civilization" is the increasing specialization of work. Once "civilized" people achieved agriculture, particularly livestock ranching, there has been less and less perceived need for people to understand the (non-agricultural and non-urban) natural world. Those who are well attuned to nature, primarily societies that live by hunting and gathering, are looked down upon as "primitive" or even "uncivilized". People such as the San Bushmen of southern Africa or the Dani of New Guinea have a deep knowledge of the ways of all the animals (birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and also many invertebrates) of their landscapes. Do not think them stupid or ignorant. A "civilized" New Yorker or Londoner or Muscovite would be hard put to obtain a meal in the wild, and would be the stupid, ignorant one there.

A very few Westerners have retained, or re-attained, the bush skills of tracking and deep observation. As we read in What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young, we are surrounded by animal communication, but hardly ever notice. Sure, we might pause at times to enjoy a bird's singing. To awaken early on a spring morning and step outside is to be treated to the exuberant, joyous "dawn chorus" of songbirds. The songs are not mainly territorial bluster. They are a happy "Here I am!" to the world around.

Many a scientist would chastise me for that word "happy", calling it "anthropomorphic". Let's consider that. "Anthropomorphism" means to impute to animals feelings and thoughts similar to our own. Many consider it a mistake to "imagine" that animals are like us. In a sense, we could say that is true, because the actual case is that we are like the animals! We can feel happiness because our ape ancestors felt happiness, and the primates before them, and probably back along the evolutionary trail to the mini-brained lancelet. Not only so, but every pet owner knows when their dog or cat or canary, or perhaps even python, is happy, and when it is angry.

Now, when we take a walk in the woods or a park on a warm day, what do we see and hear? A lot depends on how we walk. Some people can pass through a patch of forest, well populated with birds, deer, mice, weasels and snakes, and see none of them; maybe a few birds at some distance in a tree. Others (fewer in number) will see birds feeding all around, and may catch a glimpse of the mammals and reptiles also.

Most people entering the woods have a purpose in mind, and are intent in going from point A to point B. Some may be willing to go a little slower, to look around as they go, but they don't realize that the energy of their purpose is felt by the birds, which get out of the way, and issue alarms that alert all the nearby birds and non-birds to get out of the way. Jon Young calls this phenomenon the Bird Plow. He writes that it takes most people quite a while and much practice to learn to tread lightly, to develop a "routine of invisibility". This doesn't mean that the birds won't see you. It means that your respectful presence is tolerated and largely ignored once they perceive that you are no threat to them.

A Bird Plow is a panic response, and the fear underlying it is second only to the birds' fear of a Cooper's Hawk or other bird hawk. If you forge ahead through a forest like you own it, the birds will assume that you mean business, and give you a wide berth. A feeding deer, hearing the birds' alarm calls, will stop feeding and fade into the brush; a fox will turn aside or even circle around behind you; every living thing larger than a housefly will spread away to a distance of 20-50 yards to either side. And the birds you do see high in the trees? They are sentinels, watching you, at the closest distance they deem safe.

Young dwells much on learning the baseline behavior of the birds in your area. He recommends having a Sit Spot, a place you visit as frequently as you can; daily if possible. Each day you approach your Sit Spot from a different angle, so you don't wear a path. You need to spend 30-40 minutes there, because the disturbance of your arrival takes at least 20 minutes to subside. Only then will you observe baseline behavior, and only if you don't fidget. You want the birds to think, Nothing to see here. This one is just looking around. Learn to make notes in your notebook calmly (your penmanship may improve), and not too frequently (10-min intervals are good). Quick, purposeful motions simply cause alarm. You want to appear calm; curious of course, but not sharply focused.

The sad fact brought out, over and over again, is that of all animals, only we "civilized folk" have lost the knowledge of animal language. The common robin, like most songbirds, has four kinds of baseline vocalization: Songs, Companion Calls, Territorial Aggression, and the Begging of chicks for food. These are all maintenance behaviors, and indicate "everything normal". All the other sounds are various kinds of Alarms, a broad "bucket" category with many entries, because the robin distinguishes human from dog from cat from weasel from bird hawk from large hawk (the kind that seldom prey on birds) and so forth. The Robin language has a lot of words! It takes time and careful note-taking to learn many of them. Then there is Cardinal, and Chickadee, and Junco and so forth. Some Alarm "calls" are simply silence. When a cardinal and his mate have been contentedly picking through the leaf litter, calling a quiet Chip! to one another, if one doesn't answer, the other is immediately on alert, may make another CHIP! or two, but is then equally likely to freeze in silence while looking and listening for the reason.

Birds are high-energy creatures. They usually live on the edge of starvation. If alarmed too frequently, they may decamp, looking for a better territory, because responding to an alarm is costly. In an extreme case, should you happen to spot a resting chickadee of a midwinter evening, keep your distance. It is all fluffed up, holding a little bubble of warm air in its feathers. Scare it into flying away, and it loses that bubble because it must flatten its feathers to fly. Having lost the energy it took to warm that bubble, and having expended further energy in panicked flight, it is now likely to die before morning. If they can, birds respond in a measured way. It saves energy to fade sideways into a leafy bower rather than to fly to the top of a tall tree. A stalking cat merits a hook-shaped flight to a branch 5-6 feet up, but no more than that. Even the sound of an approaching Bird Plow will cause a measured response. Gently fluttering 20 yards to the side (and sounding the appropriate alarm) expends less energy than high-speed flight, if there is time to do so; and the Bird Plow is commonly detected about 2 minutes ahead of arrival. If you learn to detect a Bird Plow approaching, rare indeed will be the person who can sneak up on you!

There is a great, great deal to learn about bird behavior and bird language, and how the birds listen to each other, including all other species in the vicinity; and how non-birds listen in also. Of course, the predators are also listening. A Bird Plow is a fine opportunity for a bird hawk to take advantage of the distraction and catch a songbird unawares. Certain birds are well known to follow large animals as they move about, catching insects—or other birds—disturbed by their passage.

Throughout the book, Young advises listening to certain calls on audio files found at This would be a great book to convert to iPad format, including the audio files with it attached to clickable links in the text. If there are videos of the alarm "shapes" discussed in Chapter 7 ("A Shape for Every Occasion"), they'd fit right in also.

I know the author is hoping more people will make the time to learn the quiet ways of fitting in to the natural landscape, and thus learn more about what the birds and other animals are doing and "saying". I suppose approaching retirement is as good a chance as any, to have the time for such an endeavor. Being 65 or so isn't too late to learn something new. Knowing myself, I am pretty fidgety. It'll be hard, learning the discipline of a Sit Spot. It can't hurt to try.

Friday, January 25, 2013

CW - still useful after all these years

kw: amateur radio, hobbies

In 1978 I began graduate school. My major professor was Dr. Wm. Roggenthen, fresh off the boat, so to speak: he had spent a few months of 1977 on Leg 54 of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, aboard the Glomar Challenger. At a bull session one day, I mentioned that I was a ham radio operator, working on my Morse Code skills so I could upgrade my license. A discussion ensued about the requirement for Code, and whether it was still useful. Bill told this story:
The ship was a few days out of port, and it was time to order supplies to be loaded when they arrived. There was a major solar flare that day, and a magnetic storm had nearly shut down radio communications. Bill happened to be present when the radio operator opened a drawer, took out a "speed key", and proceeded to make contact and transmit the entire shopping list via Code. He said CW (a radioman's nickname for Morse Code) could get through when nothing else could.
The end of 2012 marked 100 years of amateur radio licensing. For 95 of those years, CW skills were required for most licenses. The standard progression when I was licensed in the 1970s was
  • Novice Class, requiring 5 word per minute (wpm) CW hearing ("copying") and transmitting, plus a written test mainly about regulations.
  • General Class, requiring 13 wpm CW and a written test about both regulations, some math, and radio theory and practice.
  • Advanced Class, also 13 wpm (you didn't have to take the CW test again), and a tougher written test.
  • Extra Class, requiring 18 wpm CW and a very demanding written test, including special regulations regarding satellite transmissions (Extra operators were, and probably are, allowed to own satellites. They just have to get someone to launch them).
There was also a Technician Class that didn't require any code. There were no Tech privileges for using the bands below 30 MHz. For me, that's where all the fun is. During about two active decades, I used MF (medium frequency, 0.3-3.0 MHz, and for a ham, the 1.8 MHz band, or 160 meters) and HF (3-30 MHz, or all the ham bands from 3.5-28 MHz), exclusively. 160m is a fun band if you have room for a 80m-long dipole (some 270 feet, too long to fit on most suburban lots)...or you are creative with loading shorter antennas. I actually spent most of my time on 15m and 10m, which are best during periods of high solar activity, except during magnetic storms.

Solar Cycle 21 (1979-88) was a great time to be a new ham. It was an intense cycle, noteworthy in a century-long period still called the Modern Maximum. I lived in South Dakota most of those years, and aurorae were frequent. On a couple of occasions, a strong aurora seemed to form a solid sheet in the sky that lasted for hours. That sheet could bounce a radio signal. Those nights, 10m (28-29.7 MHz) was "open" on aurora-hop throughout the continent. Normally, 10m is a day only band.

During the year I was a Novice, of course I used only CW. That was considered part of necessary training. Once I earned General and then Advanced Class licenses, I naturally spent most of my air time on the microphone. But I have a fondness for CW. The club I belonged to for several years liked to work certain on-air contests. We had a few members who could cook along at 25-30 wpm, so they operated during contests. They'd listen to a signal and answer at the speed the remote station was using, usually in the 15-20 wpm range. I found after a half day listening in, that I could follow along and get nearly everything, "copying by ear" (CW station operators write everything down as it comes, called "copying". Few people can write faster than 20 wpm, so faster operators copy using a typewriter or keyboard. Nowadays, they copy right into their laptop. Lots of CW enthusiasts have hardware that sends and receives/recognizes CW for them, but it's considered cheating to do that in a contest).

Most folks don't realize the low signal strength most amateurs use. My transceiver produces 120 watts PEP (peak envelope power) for voice, and about 80 watts CW. Amateurs are allowed to use amplifiers up to a maximum of 1,500w PEP or 1,000w CW. A typical AM radio station uses 5,000-15,000 watts. The big "clear channel" stations use a maximum of 50,000w PEP. FM stations can use much more power, and 250,000w is common. Even in a good year with a quiet sun, only clear channel AM stations can be easily heard over large areas of several states, or even nationwide when there is skip. Radio frequency (RF) noise in the upper atmosphere drowns out faraway stations. FM stations use much higher frequencies that very rarely skip, so even with a lot of power, they are seldom heard more than 100 miles (160 km) away. The reason they use so much power is to overcome solar noise, and they can be heard even during most magnetic storms.

When conditions are good, or even moderate, a 120w transmitter can send a signal anywhere on Earth. When they are very good, you don't even need that. I've talked to hams in Europe and Japan using 5w. But when a magnetic storm hits after a solar flare, most of the bands shut down for a day or so.

We are presently in Solar Cycle 24 (2008-2019, estimated). Cycle 23 was only about half as active as Cycles 21 or 22, in terms of solar flares and magnetic storms. We have become used to radio that is more reliable than it was in the peak years in prior Cycles. The peak years of this Cycle will probably be 2013-2015. I wonder what will ensue? You can't always rely on cell phone or satellite phone communications when an X-class solar flare hits. Amateurs don't need to know CW any more. I hope commercial operators do. I hope ships at sea still carry radio operators who can send a shopping list—or a Mayday!—by CW if needed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Raising the post-apocalyptic bar

kw: book reviews, science fiction, future fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction

If Slow Apocalypse by John Varley were shorter and more technically focused, I suppose it would be called high concept. Certainly the scene setting is simple enough to state, and the author does so in very few pages. In short, a microbe is developed that rapidly converts all the petroleum in an oilfield into something like coal or asphalt, releasing most of the hydrogen in the hydrocarbons, causing enormous explosions and fires. The microbe, engineered to be mobile only in liquids, mutates such that a variety can survive being blown about from oil field to oil field. It doesn't take long—a few months—for all the world's petroleum to be solidified.

This is the starting point. The story Varley tells is the more human story of what people do about it. A Hollywood screenwriter named Dave Marshall gets advance warning during an interview. The following day, not knowing what to believe, he is shown evidence that convinces him. He makes preparations for his family. But there is only so much a fellow can do, living in the Hollywood Hills. He lays in food, water, guns and ammo, and as much gasoline in as many cans as he can buy (the microbe doesn't affect refined products, only crude oil. The story would get too complicated if the author allowed the bug to mutate again!).

A little over half the book takes place mostly in the Marshalls' neighborhood north of the intersection of Doheny Drive and Sunset Blvd, and covers a month or two. At one point, the "big one", a 9+ earthquake occurs, triggered by the disturbances in the oil reservoirs deep beneath the Los Angeles basin. Not long after that, a wildfire comes roaring out of the hills above Doheny Drive, and they load up whatever they can carry and abandon their home, joining another family that has invited them to migrate with them out of the LA area. One of the men has converted two large vehicles to burn wood chips. I presume he also knows how to convert the wood chipper they take along to burn wood chips.

The fire burns about half the whole basin to the ground. Ironically, once the ground cools, the burned-out area is the best place to drive. No (living) humans, though it is hard to tell which street goes where, with all the street signs burned up. Their trek as refugees takes up the rest of the book, up to an Epilog. I have to pick a nit: near Anaheim, they pass by the Watts Towers. Last time I was there, the WT were 25 miles northwest of Anaheim, not within sight as the narrative implies.

Varley has given a lot of thought to the way a continent—or a county—can Balkanize after such a thorough disaster. The full range of human good and evil is on display, and at one point the Marshalls and their fellows are attacked by a gang that numbers 15; road-hardened and ready, they kill most of them. This makes them a lot more welcome in the town downhill of the gang's hideout.

The premise is worth thinking about. Take away petroleum, and what will happen? Can the earth support 7 billions when there is no way to make chemical fertilizers, nor a way to transport them, or the food produced? Prior to the 1880s, a large number of farmers and farm workers supported a much smaller work force of blacksmiths, wagoners, carpenters, millers and others. Such an agrarian economy is the natural state of a petroleum-free planet.

Is there a way to have a high-energy economy without petroleum? There isn't enough wood. Coal (and newly coalified petroleum) will only support a medium-energy economy, and conversion would take a long time. Solar and wind energy are just barely efficient enough that you could use solar energy to produce more solar panels, or wind energy to make more windmills, before the originals break down and have to be replaced with what you just made. You get very little surplus energy out of the process. I call a wind turbine a high-tech way to turn hydro-power into aluminum and then back into about the same amount of electric energy you started with. A truck full of aluminum windmill parts goes by, and I say, "There goes another few million KWh!"

John Varley makes you believe things could really happen this way. Amidst a global tragedy, some will triumph, and not just the most greedy. People will get things going again, as long as there are people. You have to gun down the occasional greedy gang to get there, and good people might have nightmares after doing so, but that won't stop them.

The scale of the aftermath is kept out of view; most likely, fewer than one fifth of the world population would remain after the first year. Varley's focus is narrower than this. LA is truly where the greatest problems would arise, a desert kept green by billions of acre-feet of imported water. In a post-petroleum world, no more than a few thousand people could live there. Los Angeles County, New York City (all 5 boroughs), and all the megalopolises would empty; they would have to. A very thought-provoking book, and we can always use more of those.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Boomers can't leave well enough alone

kw: aging gracefully, scams, medicine

Nobody really likes growing old. Of course, we like the occasional sign of respect, or at least a hint of deference, just because we have more experience. Senior discounts at restaurants and some stores are also nice. But the aging body? That's another matter!

Of course, people have attempted to reverse the clock since the genus Homo discovered mortality, probably 100,000 years ago. Ponce de León sought the fountain of youth in Florida 500 years ago; he needed it more than most, as he lived only 47 years. Fifteen centuries earlier, Cleopatra used a king's ransom in cosmetics and poultices in a vain attempt to retain a youthful appearance.

In my mother's generation, they thought they had "the answer" for women: estrogen or progesterone pills, a weak variety of birth control pills. They did help stave off the worst effects of menopause, but came with their own baggage, such as increased cancer risk. And there was nothing for men.

These days, youth faddists promote HGH (human growth hormone), which has to be injected, or GHR (growth hormone releaser) in pill form. I have an ad before me in the current issue of Smithsonian, that declares, "Grow Young With HGH". It actually promotes a GHR pill. How nice; if only it would work. It doesn't.

I dug around to find out more. Every reputable web site (this is too new to be in the print libraries) says the same thing. HGH injections, by prescription only, can mitigate certain symptoms suffered by people with a hormone deficiency. But tests with otherwise healthy, older adults showed only one "benefit": a small increase in muscle mass, without any measurable increase in muscle strength. The side effect list is rather daunting:
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Swelling in the arms and legs
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • For men, enlargement of breast tissue (gynecomastia
See this Mayo Clinic article for more. Hmm. I have carpal tunnel syndrome already, from a lifetime of typing. I don't like the idea of growing a bust. The other effects don't interest me either.

I would have expected some effect on cancer, either promotion or reduction in cancer risk, but nobody has reported on that either way. But further, nobody has demonstrated that any GHR formulation actually "releases" any HGH, whatever that may mean.

My generation's panic at getting older is certainly causing large masses of moolah to transfer to the promoters of alternative medicine ($30 billion last year). Some of the alternatives may work. HGH and GHR don't. Sorry.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Words of motion, words of wonder

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, words, writing

Not every sentence needs them. Nearly every sentence has them. Some languages almost dispense with them. Others lavish attention on them with inflection after inflection. A Romanian friend who speaks several languages told me, "French grammar is endless!" She was referring particularly to the conjugations of verbs. When I was learning French, my fellow students and I joked that French had a hundred verb conjugations, each of which had a different way to spell the inflection, but nearly all were pronounced "-ee".

Ah, Verbs! Even in English, which is considered a language having minimal inflection—it usually uses helper words instead—many verbs have as many as six forms. Consider swim. As a child I learned, "Today I swim, yesterday I swam, and I have swum many times in the past." Then there is, "I am swimming," and, "He swims fast," and finally, the noun made from swim: "I am a swimmer."

Such verbs are called irregular today. The regular verbs simply add -ed for the past tense and past participle, though they still add -ing for present progressive, -s for third person singular present, and -er for the related noun (when one exists). Thus, spill, spilled, have spilled, spilling, spills and spiller (it exists, but is darn rare). Then we have niceties such as doubling certain final consonants and using -es rather than -s for final sibilants. This all makes learning English tricky for a foreigner (but not as tricky as French!).

Fortunately, only about a ninth (some say an eighth or even a seventh) of English words are verbs. More than half are nouns. As there are at least 14 ways to forma noun's plural (including nouns that have no plural), nouns bedevil language learners the most. But verbs come a close second; in our speech, we seldom create a sentence without using a verb, or several.

The most common verbless sentence is the admonition intended to stop a child in his tracks: "John!" This monosyllable typically implies a lot: "John, what are you doing? You stop that!" Two verbs, one including the helper are; a proper noun and four pronouns; all wrapped up in one exclamation. So even when we don't speak a verb, it comes right along anyway.

Over many years I gathered words and word forms from many sources. Then I classified them, producing a reference with nearly 61,800 words and all their forms: nouns and noun plurals, verbs with their 4 or 5 inflections, adjectives with their comparative and superlative forms, and all the common adverbs, connectives (AKA conjunctions), exclamations or interjections, prepositions and pronouns. The nouns number just over 6,750 or 11% of the lot. Adverbs outnumber verbs a little, adjectives number about 10,500, and the nouns dominate: more than 31,600 (most with plural forms).

But if you add up the kinds of words used in everyday speech and ordinary writing (not creative or formal prose, and certainly not poetry), verbs don't quite dominate, but make up about a sixth of the words used, and as the stage directors of every sentence, form a structure that would fall apart without them. Here is the prior sentence with all verbs removed:
But if you the kinds of words in everyday speech and ordinary writing [a gerund not a verb] (not creative or formal prose, and certainly not poetry), verbs don't quite, but about a sixth of the words, and as the stage directors of every sentence, a structure that without them.
Rather hard to follow, what? So when we have, as the inmate said in Cool Hand Luke, "a failure to communicate", the blame belongs to verb use, whether sloppy or pathological. (When President Clinton said, "That depends on what the definition of 'is' is.", that was pathological.) Part of the problem is the rules we probably all learned in grade school. Some rules are useful, such as those for recognizing when a verb takes a direct or indirect object. But other rules of "grammar" are misleading or simply wrong, because they are based on Latin as it was spoken by Cicero and Pliny. For example, do you remember being told not to split an infinitive? Miss Thistlebottom in your third-grade class would deplore, "To boldly go where no man has gone before." An assignment would be returned with the emendation, "Boldly to go…", but the writer of the Star Trek motto made a few millions off that phrase! In fact, in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive, because Latin doesn't use to; Latin infinitives are single words, but every English infinitive is two or more words. English infinitives practically invite spitting! So go ahead, when you need to really split one, split away!!

The twelve chapters of Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale, take on the remnants of our faulty education. Ms Hale hopes to make us all better writers as we learn how verbs really work, and how they can make our writing better understood (or make it foggier, if that is our aim). The four verbs of the title form the structure of each chapter. After some intro, the Vex section discusses/exposes a problem, the Hex section propounds a curse upon the ensuing misunderstanding, then the author Smashes and pillories sundry blunders that made it into print, and finally she offers a Smooch to the writers whose writing keeps us reading, particularly illustrating the right way to tackle that chapter's conundrum.

This doesn't mean there are twelve classes of rules needing correction. The first four chapters are historical, outlining the development of English over the past 15 centuries into the growing, effervescing brew we now enjoy. With the right perspective we can enjoy using its capabilities fully. Thus the eight following chapters help us understand tenses and voices and moods and so forth. I particularly like the author's take on the passive voice. We can't write well without it, so the pronouncements of some to "eliminate" or "avoid" or even "eschew" using passive constructions constrain us either to overactive, hyped prose or to vapid "activese".

I think of the passive voice as akin to dietary fat. We need some, just not too much. About one-eighth of our food, by weight, can be fat. Similarly, if you scan the verbs in good writing you'll find that about one sentence in eight is some kind of passive construction. Let's see, the sentence above that begins "About one-eighth…" uses a passive construction. What would I have to do to "activize" it? How about "Fat can weigh in at one-eighth of our food," or "We can healthily consume food containing up to 1/8th fat." I think the way I originally wrote it simply scans better, and matches a common mode of speech.

Near the end a chapter is devoted to "phrasal verbs", constructions such as make up, chase down, put off and look up to. These powerful verbs need thoughtful use in our writing. They easily become clichés, and some such as meet up with (just use meet) should be avoided. Phrasal verbs often lead to sentences that end in prepositions. Thus, we find a simple, straightforward question: "Did the plant shut down?" (Dear Miss Thistlebottom, this is also a passive construction. So there!). Unless you know who shut it down, it would be incorrect to ask, "Did you shut down the plant?", even though the voice is now active and the final preposition has been "moved inward". The original question implies further investigation will follow, as it ought to (another final prep.). A goodly number of examples are discussed, and either their fallacy is explained, or they pass muster. An appendix goes into further detail.

Ah, the appendices! The six appendices do not quite set a record. Each is a short chapter (without the Vex, etc.), and well worth reading. Appendix Three in particular recommends several dictionaries. It is good to have a few. A quick look around shows that I have four English dictionaries in this room, and two bilingual ones. In the next few days as I finish clearing out my office (8 "work" days until retirement!), I'll bring home four more, including a 20-pound Unabridged (New 20th Century something-or-other), plus a Larousse's French/English for my son. I also have a couple rhyming dictionaries. I will leave behind the dictionaries of Geography and of Physics terms for my colleagues, who have been visiting to use them anyway.

This book could have been larger, I suppose, but it serves well for its aim. When we write, we usually wish to be understood. Gaining a better command of verbs will strengthen our writing. Finally, a book about English usage that isn't about "Grammar" (which really means "the way of Latin usage before it killed off the Romans")!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Who pays the most income tax?

kw: income taxes, analysis

In the past I wrote about Warren Buffet's outrageous statement, that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary. I look into it more deeply here. To set this up, we need to understand marginal tax rates, a subject many folks don't comprehend at all. Many, many people believe if they make a higher income, and get pushed into a higher tax bracket, that all their income is taxed at the higher rate. Not so. Here is how it works for Federal Income Tax:
  1. Only your Taxable Income (TI) is taxed, after subtracting Exemptions and a few other items such as Itemized Deductions or the Standard Deduction from Adjusted Gross Income (AGI).
  2. Your first dollar of TI is taxed at the lowest bracket rate, which is 10% for 2012, no matter how much you make.
  3. If you are Married Filing Jointly, for example, the first $17,400 is taxed at this 10% rate.
  4. A couple whose TI is $17,401 is taxed at the next rate (15% in 2012) only on that last dollar. A married couple has to have a TI of $70,700 to reach the next bracket (25%).
  5. There are six brackets. The top bracket, currently starting at TI of $388,350, is 35%. By the way, the "one percent" earn $380,000 or more, so this bracket is for the one percenters. But their first $388,350 of TI is taxed at all five lower rates, which averages out to 27% for that money. From dollar 388,351 and up, the tax is 35%.
I hope that is clear enough. Now, if Warren Buffet has any ordinary income, he is taxed the same as anyone else. If that income is large, he pays somewhere between 27% and 35% of his total Taxable Income. However, I recall reading that he takes only a $1 "salary" from his company, and his income is from dividends.

There are two kinds of dividends. Qualified Dividends are taxed at 15%. Ordinary Dividends are taxed at the rate corresponding to your tax bracket, and dividends are used in calculating AGI and TI. So Buffet is taxed between 15% and 35% on his TI, depending on the proportion of Qualified Dividends in his portfolio. You'll have to look up what QD's are versus OD's; we won't go into that here.

Now let's look into this more deeply. I used the Tax Estimator at HR Block to examine five scenarios:
  1. An entry-level Clerk at the Snarfle Corp. named Philip Elton. He is single, earns $36,000, uses the Standard Deduction, and ignores the company's 401K, in spite of the matching provision.
  2. An Administrative Assistant at Snarfle named Anne Weston. She is 60 and widowed, with a dependent son still at home. She earns $60,000—at the high end for "secretaries", so she may resemble Buffet's secretary—and puts 3% into the 401K to get the company match. She rents and gives a little to charity, but uses the Standard Deduction. She files as Head of Household.
  3. A Manager, Anne's boss, 45-year-old Charles Bingley earns a $120,000 salary and $10,000 in ordinary dividends. He puts 15% into the 401K, owns a home, and deducts $12,000 in mortgage interest, $4,000 in property taxes, and $10,000 in charitable giving. He is divorced, and there were no children, so he files as Single. His wife is a lawyer and makes more than he, so he avoided paying alimony by suing her for alimony, then settling for "no fault, no foul" terms with no money changing hands.
  4. The Snarfle Corp. CEO, Emma Woodhouse, is 60 and married. Her husband is retired. There are no dependents. Her salary is $12 million. Their total income is $13.5 million, including $500,000 in QD's. She puts $23,000 into the 401K, another $5,000 into an IRA. The couple deducts $48,000 for mortgage interest, $15,000 in property taxes, and $50,000 in charitable giving.
  5. John Willoughby, 60, is a major stockholder in Snarfle and a few other companies. His primary income is from dividends, $12 million. Half of that is QD's. He takes a "salary" of $1 from another company as an executive "emeritus". He is married. His wife has never worked. There are no dependents. He uses annuities to defer taxes on $100,000 of income yearly, deducts $150,000 in mortgage interest, $30,000 in property taxes, and $500,000 in charitable giving.
What income taxes do they pay, and more importantly, what percent of their income is taxed?
  1. Philip Elton pays $3,503 in Federal Income Tax (FIT) on TI of $26,250. The tax is 13.3% of TI and 9.7% of Gross Income (GI).
  2. Anne Weston pays $5,665 in FIT on TI of $41,900. She is in the 15% bracket. The tax is 13.5% of TI and 9.4% of GI.
  3. Charles Bingley pays $16,580 in FIT on TI of $82,200. He is in the 25% bracket. The tax is 20.1% of TI and 12.8% of GI.
  4. Emma Woodhouse pays $4,404,850 on TI of $12,851,400. She is in the top bracket, being a one percenter; the tax is 34.3% of TI and 32.6% of GI.
  5. The plutocrat John Willoughby pays $1,981,450 on TI of $7,212,401. The tax is 27.5% of TI and 16.5% of GI.
Compare #5 with #2. Who paid the higher percent? Number 5! Either way you figure it. I am sure Mr. Buffet knows this. He has staff who can figure these things out in more detail than we have here. But the one who paid the most is CEO Woodhouse. Current tax law favors passive income over active income, so she pays twice as much tax as John Willoughby, even counted as a percent of GI.

I must conclude that Mr. Buffet's statement was entirely false, and further, that he is either a liar or a fool.

P.S. This post is my 1700th.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

To Coventry

kw: firearms, opinion, exile, sensibility

I intended to write this about eight hours ago. No matter. The President has announced his proposals for curbing gun violence, I don't yet know what they are, and I don't really care anyway. I wrote a few days ago of my beliefs regarding the ownership of guns. Larger issues are at stake here.

Let us first recall that Timothy McVeigh did not need a gun to destroy the Murrah Building in OKC, killing 168 people, including 19 small children, and injuring 800 or more, including 450 children. Thus, while we need to address problems with pathological gun ownership and use, we need even more to address human psychology in very practical ways. As I see it, there are three kinds of persons whose presence society cannot safely abide.

Firstly, consider why we do not permit 6-year-olds to carry pistols. There would be carnage aplenty, in schools and homes both. Six-year-olds have too little impulse control. A 20- or 30-year-old with the impulse control of a normal 6-year-old must be prevented from even handling a weapon. Period…at least in civil society.

But Tim McVeigh had, and Adam Lanza has, good impulse control. Neither one flew off the handle, nor fell prey to some instant rage. What they did required intelligence and planning. In another setting, either one would have been a good project manager. They both were under the influence of ideas we call deranged. For their sake, as for that of private assassins in general, the problem is the ideas. This is a second kind of person: patient and thoughtful, yet influenced by an intolerable idea—as intolerable to them as it is to us, but in different ways. They exemplify the proverb: Beware the wrath of a patient man.

The third kind is the most starkly evil, yet the hardest to deal with: People who unshakingly believe they have the right to decide for others. In particular, they believe they must decide for others, at the expense of the others' right to decide. This is my definition of a psychopath. It also happens to aptly define nearly all members of Congress (both houses and all parties) after a term or two in office, if not from the very start. This is the best reason there is for having term limits! It also describes many preachers, pastors, and church officials from Popes down to the lowliest priest. To my observation, the only Pope not afflicted with this deadly curse was John Paul II. It describes bullying classroom teachers. It describes a great many people in authority, those who exemplify "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely". Of American Presidents, only George Washington was clear on this principle and took steps to escape its influence. In the pre-Medieval church, no man could be confirmed as an Elder who was known to desire it. Church leaders in some places would go so far as to ask a talented brother if he wished to be an Elder. Only if he refused, three times on three successive occasions, would they practically force him into eldership (of course there were ways to game the system, but it was better then letting every ambitious bully run the churches). There is a caveat here. Restricting guns from these evil ones will have no effect. They do not need guns to destroy lives. Society in general would be better off without their presence. I call these the Controllers.

Even if we agree to deal with all three kinds of persons, what are we to do? None of them fits the moniker "mentally ill". No provision that the President or Congress is likely to propose touches any of them. Yet they are the clearest and most present dangers. Yet they are very hard to identify.

Lack of impulse control is the easiest to detect. Just watch how a person deals with frustration. Give someone just the tiniest bit of deadline pressure, and see what they do. Road rage is a classic symptom. My father tells of a fighter pilot he knew. He says the man was constantly on hair trigger. He could snatch flies from the air. No enemy fighter even got close to shooting him down. But if you surprised him, he'd snatch your hand so quickly you didn't see him move. Then, with an effort, he would usually quiet himself to ask what was going on. Usually. Sometimes he'd knock you out instead. Dad wonders what became of him after the war. He was totally unfit for civil society. But he was very, very useful in wartime! Such people need careful management and to be directed into vocations that need their particular talents.

The planners are tougher to detect, maybe impossible, at present. In the future, who knows? Our poorest science is psychology. Will it become better? Genuinely effective "profiling" may one day help. Even harder: determining a planner's obsession and then effectively replacing it with a more constructive one (Oh, they're still gonna be obsessed. That's what makes a good project manager).

Toughest of all: What do we do with Controllers? Do they have a use we can take advantage of? Can their energies be directed in less destructive directions? I firmly believe they must be kept from the reins of power. Yet, doesn't that make me a kind of Controller also? And Controllers require power to be happy. That is why so many work their way into positions of authority, over businesses, churches, schools, and governments. Do we have a right to deny their right to the pursuit of happiness?

I have an analogy. In the film Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauran Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson, the hero says to the villain Rocko, "I know what you want." Rocko replies, "Oh, yeah? What??" "More. You want more." Rocko exclaims, "Yeah! I want MORE." He is already rich, but he wants more. Our genuine needs may be rather modest, but our wants are infinite. Why is America a consumer culture? Because of the universal desire for more, More, MORE! Finite Nature conspires to deny us complete fulfillment of our infinite desires.

Controllers are those who want something, but in getting it they injure the rights of others. This want must be denied, but how? I suggest setting up a Coventry. To what does Coventry refer? In the English civil war, royalist prisoners of war were sent to the town of Coventry, which was rather remote, making the prisoners easy to hold with a small force. During a rather short period, the prisoners pretty much governed themselves. Over time, this idea led to the notion of exile as "being sent to Coventry". A short time later certain prisoners were "transported" to the American colonies (an ancestor of mine among them), and two centuries later Australia was used for a similar purpose. But the byword is not "sent to Australia" but "sent to Coventry".

We need a Coventry for Controllers. Let them strive to control one another. Use a few of them to control the borders! The hardest task will be keeping those on the outside who must interact with the "Coventry Border Authority" from becoming covert Controllers themselves. It will have to be a rotating job. If we ever develop really smart robots, and can ensure that the robots are incorruptible, they might be the best at this.

There is a danger, of course. It was explored in a few episodes of Star Trek, culminating in the film The Wrath of Khan. You can't run a Coventry on autopilot. It will be an endless burr under society's saddle. But I believe it must be done. Trouble, is, who will do it? Only the Controllers have the will and the ruthlessness. Society will be plagued by the depredations of Controllers for generations to come. We must ponder the implications of this, and consider how we can prepare our offspring, and their offspring, how to deal with it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Driving to be obsolete?


In a story I read about 40 years ago, a suburban family has recently bought a new car. One weekend they decide to "take a drive", and the in-car navigation system directs them onto an ultrahighway. Once they enter the on-ramp, a system called Replectric takes over, an extra set of restraints grabs everyone, and the car smoothly accelerates to 300 mph. Panicked—this their first time on an ultrahighway—the father tries one thing after another to disengage the system and regain control, but can only do so once the navigator ramps them off the ultrahighway. They pull into the first car lot they see, sell the car for next to nothing, and pay a premium price for an older car. As they drive off, to take "surface streets" home, one salesman remarks to a newer colleague, "We see one every few days. A lotta folks have no idea what the newer cars can do."

The in-car navigation system became a reality just under 20 years ago. In another 10 years, or even less, will the car be able to drive itself? Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn thinks so, as reported in this article in Forbes by Dan Bigman. I wonder, though, will we want the car to drive itself?

We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Oklahoma City with friends. On the way to a downtown appointment, we turned onto Highway 40, which runs left-to-right in the middle of this image. After we crossed May Avenue, seen left of center, the GPS navigator got lost. Starting in 2008, the highway was moved. At the upper right, you can see a graded area where the old road was.

The GPS database doesn't have the new highway in it yet, so it showed us driving across empty ground, and kept imploring us to "take the next left". There are no left turns off of 40, not for miles. The image above is from August 2012. The image below from May 2008 shows the old highway and the excavations just beginning for the new one. And I had downloaded the latest map just before we left (we took our own GPS navigator with us)!

Fortunately, the Google Maps database is more up-to-date. Being a confirmed paranoid, and also a map lover, I had made a set of paper maps before we went. We reverted to the paper to get to our destination.

By 2020 or so, will the navigator companies (TomTom, Garmin, Magellan et al) have solved their data lag? About 14,000 new miles of road were built last year. It sounds like a lot, but compared to the 4 million existing miles it is tiny, a third of a percent. From a data standpoint, though, it is a lot. Some new roads are many miles long, but others may be only a block or two. Thousands of database updates are required. That's why your GPS company wants you to pay $50-$100 yearly for map updates. They are paying a lot of people to keep up.

For a nation of driverless cars to work, we'll need nationwide cooperation between all the highway authorities and the navigation venders. You don't want hundreds of cars getting lost in the middle of OKC at 70 mph!

A second, more crucial element will be roadway recognition. The new Highway 40 in OKC is easy. The lane markings are very distinct, and the roadway has concrete sidewalls. A car with radar can at least orient itself by the sidewalls, and a vision system could follow the lane markings. But we've all been on roads that are hard for us to follow. It will be a long, long time before computer vision systems with automatic recognition (robot vision) get better than human abilities.

I foresee a long transition. Probably by 2020 a few pricey cars will have partial autopilot features, but in deference to aircraft, there will be a different name for it (probably not replectric!). A car might be able to do all the driving, but at first the "take me there" system will be engaged mainly on clearly-marked highways, until people learn to trust them. Such changes take a generation to work out. Children born in the next few years will grow up with cars that can take over much of the driving, and by the time they are drivers, they will think nothing of entering their destination into the navigation system, pushing the Go button, and falling asleep or doing FaceBook updates. I suspect a larger proportion of my generation will never get used to that, and will strive to maintain control. But by the time I am 80, in 2027, perhaps I'll have to use a self-driving car just to be allowed to have my own transportation. Some European countries already do not allow anyone over 70 to drive. My father gave up driving at the age of 89, and he is in better shape than most 80-year-olds.

Over a decade or two, highway fatalities will probably decrease. If they decrease a lot, that may motivate legislators to favor driverless cars, or even require their use after some changeover date. Some folks won't like that, but if the stats back it up, it will be inevitable. Enjoy driving while you still can!

Monday, January 14, 2013

The colors knocked our socks off

kw: history, color, printing

The color maps we used to get on paper were easy on the eyes. This scan of a 1932 map shows what they all looked like (the original map is for sale at Etsy by VintageInclination - see the watermark?). My brothers and I loved the maps we gathered from gas stations along any road trip. We once wallpapered our clubhouse with old maps.

Considering what happened when computerized color printing became affordable, I wonder if at one time Rand McNally and others made really bright maps.

I first saw print-on-demand color in 1986, when I joined an oil company as a systems analyst. They had the money for large color printers that were used to make their geological maps and other graphics. At that time, nearly all their maps used the full gamut of saturated ink colors available. They almost hurt your eyes. There was some amount of "because we can", but the lack of easy shade control was a bigger reason. So a U.S. map would be more likely to look like this:

Curiously, this is a very recent production, by I guess there is still some taste for saturated colors. You won't find me wallpapering any room with maps this bright! I prefer pastels, and I'd be more likely to hang up a map toned down to this level:

The colors are still rather strong, but don't make me want to close my eyes.

I got to thinking about these things while watching Saturday's broadcast of The Lawrence Welk Show, a show recorded in the early 1970s. Color TV was pretty new in 1972. My family first bought a color set in 1968, when less than half the shows were in color. On Saturday, my wife and I both remarked that the costumes and the stage backdrop were very brightly colored. The band wore scarlet suits. In one number the singers were all wearing a blazing pumpkin color. Lawrence's suit was a more conservative color, but only by comparison! The later years of the show, the colors were more muted, though still distinct.

By the same token, early GPS systems like the Magellan unit I first used on a rental car in about 1999 had bright colors. Navigators, plus Google Maps and MapQuest and all the others, are more pastelized now. Only the route is shown in a strong color. The map printing business is also returning to more muted colors, such as this classroom map for sale at World Maps Online:

It is a little brighter than the 1932 map, but doesn't blast the eyes or make you forget why you were looking at the map in the first place.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Owned by cats

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, pets, cats, humor

They are so appealing when they are little. We had a cat for 18 years, but she'd been dead 10 years when our son insisted we get another. He brought home a 2-month-old calico he'd named Dora (for the TV character). Here she is at age 3 months.

Contrary to my childhood, when we typically had 3-15 cats (depending on recent litters born), my wife has insisted on no more than one cat at a time. One cat can be more than enough!

Humorist Bob Torte chronicles how his household cat population grew from two to six in Kitty Cornered: How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of our House and Made it Their Home. I suspect in his mind, the word "their" is in the boldest font imaginable. In another book (Enslaved by Ducks), we find that the cats are the least of it: fifty or so birds are to be found inside Torte Manor and outside in the yard, barn or coop. So how do you keep a passel of cats from eating your avian stock?

Just luck, in most cases. Bob and wife Linda adopted cats that are either intimidated by parrots, ducks and chickens, or is too lazy to give pursuit. When the star of the book, Frannie, a tiny stray, gradually and ever-so-reluctantly consents to being fed, and even petted (particularly during feeding), she ignores the birds of yard and house as beneath contempt. She's been living off rodents and songbirds, and only little flitty birds are worth the chase and the consuming.

But the book is not just about Frannie. Agnes, Moobie, Tina, Lucy and Mabel round out the group. Their personalities are more than simply different: They could be from different galaxies. One is a cuddler, one meows very loudly the entire time he's not being petted, and one bites every petting hand and often gives a scratch for good measure. Frannie is the most outdoorsy, and Lucy will go outside, but lean against the house while looking around (or sleeping), as though reluctant to part ways with it.

For a chapter or so some of the cats have to get treated for dietary problems and need special food. When it is just one, it is possible to feed the special food to all. But when two cats need different special food, and the whole houseful is accustomed to stealing food from everyone else's bowls, the mere humans on the scene are run ragged.

Midway through the book Frannie is run over or otherwise crushed, and gets a fractured pelvis and leg. She and Bob bond more deeply during her recovery, which is surprisingly fast and complete. We learn that a pelvis doesn't really heal; cats are light and their muscles form a "false joint", getting along without the real one.

I can't pass up the humor. This isn't just a chronicle. The author uses a combination of self-deprecation and studied exaggeration. It took me a little while to get used to it. An example, from the time the lower yard flooded and mice began moving inside: "Ponds filled the low spots in our woods, and I could hear the slam of tiny suitcases as grumbling mice abandoned their holes and headed for our basement." Another, while he is trying to set up an answer phone: "As I squinted at a folded slip of tissue paper that masqueraded as the user's manual…" Cute, and it makes the book more enjoyable. I wasn't ready for it to end. A good author leaves you wanting more.

Kittens don't stay kittens. Here is Dora just a month ago, being fed a treat by my wife. Dora is atop a climbing stand. She's now an 11-pounder, and insists on clawing the carpet. It's getting pretty ragged.

Dora is less affectionate than our former cat, a 5-pound silver tabby that liked laps. Dora has sat on my wife's lap half a dozen times in 2½ years, and never on mine. She usually tolerates petting well as long as she is standing on something. She doesn't like being picked up, but will now lie still in my arms for at least ten seconds before going berserk.

If anything, different cats are more different than different people. They keep you guessing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My trees were as surprised as I was

kw: family events, yard maintenance

We were just taking care of business on a day I took off from work, and just about to make lunch, when the doorbell rang. It was the tree guy. I'd contracted with his boss for some tree work to be done "in early January". But I had been expecting a phone call to schedule the work. Instead, 8 men had arrived, in 3 trucks ready to work. I said, "Go ahead."

I got our cars out of the driveway, so they could use their bucket truck. In the past, we've only had rope climbers work on our trees. The bucket rider could only reach one of our three big trees with any effectiveness, so they still had to do rope work in the other two trees.

With a crew of 8, clearing out the dead wood and "round topping" our very eccentric maple tree took only about 3 hours. A few years ago the same company sent a crew of 3 to remove an 80-foot sweet gum tree that had begun to lean. They were there about 7 hours.

I got a further surprise when the bucket rider was at full height. The ground man told me he was up 75 feet. There was a lot of tree above him. I had thought our oak trees were some 60 feet tall, but they are clearly 90 feet or more. They were planted in 1961, according to our next door neighbor, so they are just over 50 years old. When an oak tree is small, it can grow up to two feet in a year. I hadn't thought that they just keep going at that rate!

After the trimming, the maple is now a symmetrical, round-topped 40-footer. A branch that was reaching for the roof is gone. The oaks are sparser; they had a lot of dead wood, which is pretty ordinary. We are lucky they are all still standing after storm Sandy's eye went right over us this Fall. Now they are more ready for the next wind storm.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More reasons to blog

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, blogging, advice

For generations people have kept diaries and written journals. Those who were more ambitious also kept "commonplace books" into which they copied text from books that interested them and notes of all sorts. Those of an experimental bent kept laboratory notebooks (and professional scientists are often required to do so). Today, we have blogs, formerly and very briefly known as web logs or weblogs.

The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci would make a fine blog. He diligently kept track of ideas, experiments, and sayings, and took notes alongside trial sketches for his paintings and other artworks. The fact that they are in mirror writing shows he wanted to keep some secrecy. In the blogging world, you don't have to make your blog public, but nearly blogger does.

As a pre-teen, I kept two journals, one in clear text that I was OK with others reading, and one in a kind of code similar to the one in Dr. Hudson's Secret Journal by Lloyd C. Douglas. Now, I blog for the public and keep more private writing in Google Docs.

I got into blogging after reading about how easy it is (very!) in a book that just devoted a chapter to it. My focus has been 50% book reviews and 50% anything else that interests me, though I very seldom mention religion or politics. I have no interest in making it a business, but I couldn't pass up the chance to read Blog, Inc.: Blogging for Passion, Profit and to Create Community by Joy Deangdeelert Cho. One never knows.

With nearly half a billion English-language blogs already running, and millions more in many, many languages, blogging is clearly something nearly anyone can do. If you are on the verge, Blog Inc. will help you over the hump. In 7 chapters that include 18 interviews with successful bloggers, Ms Cho helps a beginning blogger get started, find a subject and voice and viewpoint, understand blogging etiquette (like honoring copyrights), and for those so inclined, turning it into a business or a business driver.

The book is heavily focused on design blogs, and 16 of the 18 interviews are with women. I got a little green when reading how quickly most of them attained readership of thousands daily. The Polymath-at-Large blog receives from 4,000-8,000 page views monthly, so I am clearly not even close to their league…and I suspect most of my page views last a second or two.

The key piece of advice: Follow your passion. If you are excited about something, your writing is more likely to connect with others who share your passion. Like any other type of writing, expect to learn as you go. I would also advise you to make it your first goal to produce a million words. That is usually enough to bring some polish to your writing style. A million words takes about 400 hours for a 40 wpm typist. (I have written 1,700 posts with an average 500 words, so I am getting close). The first 100,000 words (40 hours at the keyboard) will make a significant difference, and you will keep getting better.

I might have done a few things differently had I had this book available seven years ago. But in the main, it is common sense, and reading the book will confirm that you are not that different from others, so if they can blog, so can you. What is different about each one of us is a unique viewpoint that nobody else has. Share it, and find out who else likes what you have to say.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Poor old Fiddle!

kw: poems, ditties

Here is my all-time favorite Limerick, as told by my mother when I was very small:

A Divinity student named Fiddle
Refused to accept his degree.
 "Not I", said the man,
 "It's enough to be Fiddle,
Without being Fiddle, D.D. !"

Even though it breaks the accepted rhyming pattern, it is recognizably a Limerick. Of possibly even more aged lineage, my next-most favorite probably arose shortly after 1905:

A speedy young lady named Bright
Could travel much faster than light.
 She took off one day
 In a Relative way
And came back the preceding night.

Finally, as a child I found this delightfully disgusting:

A gentleman dining at Crewe
Found quite a large mouse in his stew.
 Said the waiter, "Don't shout,
 And don't wave it about,
Or the rest will be wanting one, too!"

I do like to credit sources, but the authorship of these seems to have vanished into the mists of time. While Limericks are "supposed" to be lusciously lascivious, I really prefer the clean ones.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Filling the sky

kw: trends, transportation

I received the January 2013 issue of Scientific American two weeks ago, and immediately read their feature article (several short pieces), "50 100 150 Years in the Future". Two pages of graphics begin on page 26, but the substance begins on page 28: "A Drone in Every Driveway", by Mary Cummings. Her prediction is that millions of us will have small airplanes within 50 years. To avoid a traffic control nightmare these planes will be required to fly themselves. This presumes some kind of radar control grid they can all detect. The article's closing sentence is, "The George Jetson of 50 years from now will be riding a drone."

Now, depending on season and time of day, as many as 12,000 planes are aloft above the U.S. Can you imagine 12,000 planes aloft above just one town of 50,000 during rush hour? So, I got the point. But I was thinking, "What is Ms Cummings thinking?" So what if we do solve the problem of keeping 100 million airplanes from crashing into one another? How much extra fuel is this going to require?

The mileage of the current crop of small to midsize autos is about 25 mpg in town, and 30 or more on the highway. The President has urged automakers to strive for 50 mpg (highway) within 12-20 years. By contrast, the most economical small 1- and 2-seat airplanes achieve 15-22 mpg at cruising speed (75% of full throttle). Does anyone expect a "driveway aircraft" to hit 40 mpg, even in 50 years? I don't, and here is why. Slipping through the air, while maintaining enough lift to stay up, requires a certain minimum power expenditure that depends in a complex way on velocity. Go too slow, approaching stall speed, and drag increases; go too fast above the "sweet spot" of 100-150 knots for a small craft, and drag also increases. The sweet spot for big jets is 450 knots or so because they fly above 80% of the atmosphere. A driveway airplane won't fly much above 5000 feet, and seldom that high (I remember when you couldn't fly a Piper Cub to Denver because it couldn't fly above 4,500 feet).

I have an alternate prediction for 2063: Flying car-type automatic drones are very likely to be developed, but will remain the plaything of a rich few who can afford a vehicle that gets somewhere 2-3 times as fast as a road car, even if it uses twice the fuel (at $20-$30 per gallon) getting there.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Using time well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help

"Jack of all trades, master of none" has been morphed among my siblings and me into "Jack of all trades, master of several." We also sometimes say, "Talent on loan from God? Never felt the need to borrow any." Not that these are true, of course, but a little creative arrogance can do wonders to bolster optimism. However, there are very real problems with spreading effort into too many directions.

Item: When I started college, I thought, "Why do I have to pick a major? I want to major in everything!" That has a lot to do with it taking me seven years to finish a BS, with three minors. I eventually learned to focus, which led to a good career. The three minors came in useful much later, once I had mastered one field sufficiently.

Item: A friend once told me that the ideal house would have room for 10-20 long tables on which he could keep all the "stuff" needed for all of his hobbies, out and ready for use. That way, when he got tired or hit a snag with one endeavor, he could just find another project to work on for a while. This may explain why he never really finished anything.

On a different note, a famous pianist met a woman at a reception, who gushed, "Oh, I'd give my life to play like you do!" He replied, "I did." The message here is similar to a saying attributed to Arnold Schwarznegger: "Nobody likes to exercise. Everybody wants to 'have exercised'!"

I tell beginning guitar students, "With 10 hours of practice, you'll become comfortable with a chord or two. With 100 hours, you'll be able to play a number of tunes, and change chords easily. With 1,000 hours, you'll begin to focus on the music, more than on the instrument. With 10,000 hours, you'll be able to play anything in the styles you have been learning, and well enough to get paying gigs if you like."

In Robert Greene's new book Mastery, that notion is fleshed out with examples and exhortation intended to convince any lazybones who wants easy success, that there are no shortcuts. Greene first mentions the 10,000 hour threshold, then goes on to state that genuine mastery, sufficient to mentor others, often requires 20,000 hours. It takes a lot of passion for a subject to give it 10-20,000 hours of your time.

What does 10,000 hours represent? Working at a job 40 hours a week, with no vacations, yields 2,080 hours. Of course, nobody is "on task" for a full 8-hour day. Project planning in a technical discipline usually takes account of 35-36 "on-task weeks" in a work year, which accounts for vacations, illness, meetings, and even "pit stops". That comes to about 1,500 hours of "experience". In 5 years, then, one gains 7,500 hours, and can be expected to attain a total of 10,000 within the next 2-3 years. That is what is behind the statement found on many job descriptions, "5 years' experience required."

The Table of Contents of Mastery takes up 10 pages, with sufficient detail that you can use it for a cheat sheet after reading the book. Perhaps that is the point. The author makes heavy use of mini-biographies of masters in their field, from Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein to Henry Ford to John Keats to Temple Grandin. In all cases, he emphasizes the long and strenuous preparation, the apprenticeship, whether formal or not (usually not), that each underwent. To many Americans, the Beatles came out of nowhere and took the nation by storm. Very few knew of their many 8-hour days (or mainly nights) of performing in the 7 years prior to 1964. I used to think of a 2-hour gig as a hard day's work! (Greene doesn't mention the band, but I know their history.) Few know of Einstein's long years of preparation for the insights that would lead to his theories of Special and General Relativity (plus elucidation of the photoelectric effect, which is what won him the Nobel Prize).

Time is not the only factor. A book like Ben Hamper's Rivethead shows that putting in the time on a hated task may make you very skilled, but doesn't lead to any world-shaking masterwork. In fact, Hamper is known because he labored to perfect a different skill, writing, in addition to putting a few million rivets into truck bumpers. Thus, one must have a passion, a feeling that something is your Life's Work. In addition, it takes some added skills and traits to produce a genuine Master: persistence in your search, humility to learn from mentors, social intelligence to help you slip around roadblocks, and willingness to look where others aren't willing to look. As to that last: I am most proud of a publication of mine, reporting a numerical modeling technique that combines astronomical and civil-engineering methods. Getting it published was harder than making the discovery because it was so outré. Luckily I had a good mentor to help me mollify the editor (I still need work on mollification skills).

This brings me back to the opening proverb. A true fanatic may be able to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice in a chosen discipline in less than 5 years, but to become a real "Jack of all trades, and master of all of them" isn't possible. Let's see: 50 years, perhaps 10 "masteries"? Unlikely. Even the proverbial Renaissance Man seldom excelled in more than 4-5 fields. However, you do need to develop more than your chosen passion. Greene holds up Ben Franklin as an example of one who studied the people around him as carefully as any biologist studies a favorite genus of moths or wasps. He didn't want a lack of social skill to hamper the effectiveness of his scientific or diplomatic endeavors. And the childlike attitude that leads to great creativity must be cultivated. Rare indeed is someone who comes by it naturally, and perhaps nobody does.

I came to the book thinking that the hype on the jacket blurb portended "You can move the Sun with your thoughts" sort of blather. I was pleasantly surprised. The book is well done, with useful examples and a demeanor much less preachy than most self help books. Its message is well thought out and presented in a useful order that accords with experience. Greene stresses again and again that there are no shortcuts. A Bluesman will say, "To play the Blues, you gotta pay your dues." True in any worthwhile field.

Friday, January 04, 2013

More linguistic maundering

kw: programming, languages

I sometimes joke that I've written a mile of computer code in my career. Someone challenged that, so I decided to figure it out. To avoid being too nit-picky, I'll mostly confine myself to the period during which I programmed all day, every day, and sometimes into the night like any good hacker (when "hacker" was an honorable term).

Definitions and standards:
  • A "line" takes up 1/6 inch on a line printer listing (what else would a programmer print on?).
  • One foot of printout (ignore margins) contains 72 lines; one mile is 72x5,280 = 380,160 lines. That is my goal.
  • There are 260 weekdays per year, but we must subtract 10 holidays and 10 days of vacation, and also allow 10% of the rest for meetings and administrivia. The balance is 215 productive days per year.

I learned FORTRAN II early in 1968. I was soon doing nothing but writing programs, doing my own card punching. I typed slowly in that period, but I could produce about 20 code lines daily. In FORTRAN, using cards, that means an average of about 30 characters. "Lines" include comment lines that consist of more than the comment character. This continued until very late in 1970, so let's consider it to be 2.5 work years. 215 days times 20 lines is 4,300 lines per year, or 10,750 lines. The machines I used were an IBM 1130, a CDC 3100, and a Xerox Sigma 7. During this period I was sent to a class to learn the "executive system" (an early version of OS360) and FAP, an assembly programming language that worked with FORTRAN II. I wrote too little FAP to count.

I did a little programming here and there in the next few years, while finishing a BS degree, but not enough to count. My next heavy programming gig began in 1975, and lasted 3 years. I improved both my thinking and my typing, with the help of a good mentor, and my production was 30 usable lines of FORTRAN IV daily, on a CDC 3600. No card punch now, but terminal input. 3x215x30 = 19,350 lines. Total to this point: 30,100.

I started graduate school and, while studying engineering, worked for the computer science department, first tutoring and then teaching, starting at the beginning of 1979. This lasted five years. The first summer I worked hard on my touch typing, getting my speed up to 50 wpm. My programming rate also went from 40 lines/day in 1979 to an average 75 lines/day thereafter, when I was writing FORTRAN (IV and then 77). This was in addition to full time class work! My wife sometimes called herself a "computer widow". This was all on small CDC Cyber machines, 720, 825 and 835. One year at 40 lpd = 8,600 lines; 4y at 75 lpd = 64,500 lines. Total: 94,600. That's a quarter mile, minus 440 lines.

At the beginning of the next period I learned the COMPASS assembly languages; there are two, one for the CPU and another for PPU's the peripheral processors. I became a system analyst at the university while finishing my engineering degree. For the following three years I wrote 1/3 FORTRAN 77 and 2/3 CPU COMPASS, but very little PPU COMPASS. Assembly languages are harder and require more think time. My COMPASS productivity did not exceed 50 lpd. Thus I wrote about 16,125 lines of FORTRAN 77 and about 21,500 lines of COMPASS, a total of 37,625 lines for a total of 132,225. It's just past 1/3 mile…

I got work at an oil company in 1986 as a systems analyst. I wrote only COMPASS for the first year: 16,125 lines. The machine was a CYBER 860. Then I wrote mostly FORTRAN 77 on DEC VAXes for a few "skunk works" programming groups until mid 1995. Here I hit my stride, averaging 100 lines per day, but now I'd worked long enough to have another week of vacation each year, so there were about 210 days in those work years. It comes to 7.5 years, or 157,500 lines. Total: 289,725 lines or a little over 3/4 mile.

I am closing in on the goal, but there is little programming left. I transferred to the parent company in Delaware, where I now work (and will retire in a few weeks). They needed me to lead a database project. I used FORTRAN in a more ancillary mode, for no more than a quarter of my time for the next four years. Lines produced: 21,000 for a total of 310,725.

The company quite using FORTRAN altogether in 2000. I learned Perl with the help of a colleague (who is presently my supervisor). Since that time I have written very little, all in Perl, not for web pages but for file conversion and text processing. It totals no more than another half year out of the past 12 years, or at best, 9,500 lines, since I am a little slower in Perl than in FORTRAN (I have to look stuff up).

Thus my lifetime total is about 320,000 lines, maybe a little more, in all languages I have used. I suppose I could add in a little VBA for a couple of Excel macros I wrote as Functions, but let's ignore that, and conclude that I didn't quite make my mile. It totals 0.84 mile of code, if printed out at 6 lines per inch. But, hey, this is a metric world: I comes to 1.36 km!

The average "line" is about 30 characters. 9.6 million characters, or less than 10 MBytes, represents about 22.5 years of full time computer programming! (over a 40-yar span) In space taken, it is equal to three JPEG files from my digital camera. Sic transit gloria mundi! On the other hand, those programs kept a lot of scientists very busy for decades.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

A conservative for fewer firearms

kw: politics, firearms, opinion, sensibility

I have had about enough of NRA posturing. They still talk about the right to "hunt", while defending the collecting of huge numbers of weapons whose only possible use is mass murder, by some of the most unstable elements of society. The actual position of many in NRA was most clearly stated by Rush Limbaugh a number of years ago (and probably on several occasions): "The Second Amendment is there in case the government won't keep the First Amendment."

Such a statement advocates armed insurgency against government. How many ways can you spell "Treason"? If it really comes to that, does anyone really expect to come out ahead in a conflict with a government that has at its disposal a military organization of five branches (plus 50 national guard units), each of which can afford to spend millions or even billions in a matter of days?

Hey you, there, you reading this: Did you learn to read after 1993? If so, maybe you never heard of Ruby Ridge, Idaho or Waco, Texas. Look 'em up, or look up Randy Weaver and David Koresh. But maybe you are the defiant type. Maybe you are one of those fellows who say, "They'll only get my gun by prying it out of my cold, dead fingers." Really? There are some entirely humorless fellows out there who are totally up to that challenge. If they think that's what is needed, they'll accomplish it without breaking a sweat.

Not only that. In a martial arts class I was taking half a century ago, a student asked, "What if we are attacked by someone with a dangerous weapon?" The instructor said, "There are no dangerous weapons, just dangerous men. Learn well, and you can neutralize anything." Account for the times; at present I know some dangerous women also. Some people I know wouldn't have to pry the gun out of your "cold, dead fingers", because they'd remove the fingers and the hand before you could squeeze the trigger. And you'd probably not even set eyes on them.

So let's be sensible. There is no legitimate reason for private citizens to own mass murder weapons, period. A weapon for self-defense is one thing. The kind of weapons used by the killer in the Connecticut school, or the one Colorado movie theater, must be eliminated. I equate such weapons with hand grenades. There is a reason you can't get a live hand grenade on eBay or Craigslist. There a similar reason you need a special permit to obtain C-4 or dynamite. We can't have a "hobbyist" accidentally blowing up a city block.

Oh, did you say you like to collect guns? They are not stamps! In my view, weapon collecting ought only to be allowed if the weapons are permanently disabled.

And yes, I am a conservative. I vote about 85% Republican (because about 15% of conservatives are Democrats. I observe deeds, not ideologies). I am the kind of old-fashioned conservative who remembers that environmentalism began as a Republican ideal: conserving a portion of the wilderness; the kind who knows that Liberal used to mean "in favor of more liberty" and used to be a part of the conservative agenda; the kind who thinks the Bible meant it when it said, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword", just update "sword" a couple millennia; and the kind who thinks the "insanity defense" should not exist, because of course the killer was probably insane, but we want that kind of insanity eliminated from the gene pool anyway. Now, there's a mixed bag of political ideas, but they used to define "conservative".

I am in favor of a law that allows law enforcement officers who see anything that looks like a mass murder weapon, to confiscate it immediately, with deadly force if necessary. Oh, yeah, outlaw toys that look like that, also. We don't want a cop to take a kid's plastic toy, now, do we?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

3 gets 11

kw: vacations, career

You know your vacation was long enough when you return to work and can't remember all the daily routines. This year, taking the last "week" off was a no-brainer. With both Christmas and New Year's Day on Tuesdays, and also having Monday off both weeks as company holidays, by taking Dec. 26-28th as vacation days, I got 11 days in a row of staycation (I did take a short driving trip). Most of my colleagues did the same.

I decided to retire at the end of this month. I and my managers agreed to all that a month ago. I'll be taking off a couple of days also, so today was the first of 20 days I have left to "work". Actually, I completed my work in December, and I am passing on knowledge and information to a couple of colleagues so they can continue certain projects I was involved in. Mostly, I have a lot of sorting and donating to do. I have only a few books I'll be bringing home. Most need to be passed on to colleagues who can make use of them. A lot of notebooks full of things like old viewgraphs (from the days before Framework or PowerPoint) will just be tossed out. I also have a large horizontal file (the equivalent of two filing cabinets) full of stuff:
  • Master copies of all my publications (no need to keep, they are in print, and I have those, too)
  • A 40-year collection of algorithms and analyses (maybe I'll send them to the programmers in India, where they still write technical software)
  • More than 3 years of the Sunday comics pages from a newspaper, that contain the last 3+ years of Calvin and Hobbes (though I have them in book form also)
  • Nearly a full drawer of pages photocopied from articles of (former) interest (out they go)
  • A full drawer of project files, of completed projects (out... unless someone wants the records)
That is the bulk of it. One accumulates a lot of stuff over a career, and I have had three. Time to lighten the load. The more stuff I get rid of now, the less for my heirs to throw out later.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


kw: evaluation

► 2012 (266)
► 2011 (279)
► 2010 (293)
► 2009 (280)
► 2008 (158)
► 2007 (177)
► 2006 (136)
► 2005 (97)

The above is copied from the "Blog Archive" section below. Early in 2009, but not on New Year's Day, I decided to post almost every day, at least every week day. I did pretty well, considering that a year has 252 or 253 week days. Before that I seldom posted if I wasn't reviewing a book. That is how this blog started. Out of nearly 1,700 posts, more than 850 are book reviews, so that is just over half. The first 3½ years, more than 80% of the posts are book reviews.

I suppose it ought to have been a New Year's resolution. It would have been the only one I've kept! And with that record, I haven't made a resolution in many years. Why set myself up to fail? I just do my best to do what has to be done, when it has to be done.

2012 was pretty good for me. I hope 2013 is even better. Wishing you all a better year than the last!