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Tuesday, January 30, 2007
A Quarter Century Ago Today
Twenty-five years ago today, January 30th, 1982, the initial meeting to organise
what became Autodesk, Inc. was held in my house in Mill Valley, California, then galactic headquarters
of Marinchip Systems, Ltd. The working paper
, mailed two weeks earlier, laid out the plans for the company, such as they were, and served as an invitation to the organisational meeting.
The working name was “Marin Software Partners” in this paper. We
showed prototypes of AutoCAD and Autodesk at the West Coast Computer Faire
on March, 19th, 1982 (using a booth which Marinchip had already reserved and paid for).
The brochure we handed out
at the Computer Faire was
the first time “Autodesk” (the product) was publicly mentioned.
By then we were calling the company “Desktop Solutions” which, along with several
, was rejected by the California Secretary of State.
We ended up falling back to the name of which Dan Drake wrote in Information
“At the March 16 meeting we reached a pseudo-consensus on an
unsatisfactory name for the corporation (Autodesk Inc.), …”
Other twenty-fifth anniversaries this year are:
|April 26 || Incorporation of Autodesk, Inc.
|November 24–26 ||AutoCAD launch at COMDEX in Las Vegas
The latter dates are my inference from the AutoCAD-80 development
, which shows the midnight fix to make the SUBDIV sample drawing
regenerate in less time than it would take to actually build the subdivision
as having been made on 1982-11-23, the Tuesday of that week, and
my recollection that COMDEX stomped on Thanksgiving that year.
But I haven't been able to confirm the precise dates.
The first copies of AutoCAD-80 were shipped in December 1982, but I
have no record of the exact date. I think it was in the first two
weeks, since there's a gap in the AutoCAD-80 development log
between COMDEX and the first work on version 1.3
on 1982-12-16, and I
distinctly recall only getting back to development work after the first
copies were shipped.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Movable Type: XHTML 1.0 Compliant Popup Image Template
I recently updated the Fourmilab Movable Type
installation to the 3.34 release. Whenever I install a new release, I modify a few representative pages and pass them through the W3C markup validator
to make sure the generated documents remain compliant with the XHTML 1.0 (Transitional) standard. One potentially confusing thing about updating Movable Type is that the process of installing an update does not
automatically apply any updates to the templates used by a Web log (there are gimmicky ways to set things up with templates linked to files in the default_templates
directory of the distribution which can achieve this, but that has its own risks and, besides, hardly anybody does that). This is a good thing, since if you've modified one or more of the templates used to generate your Web log, you wouldn't want your changes blindly overwritten when you installed the update. But it does mean that it's wise to review the changes in the default templates between the old and new releases because there may be fixes you should integrate into your own templates.
When you upload an image file, create a thumbnail for it, and specify “Popup” presentation, Movable Type creates HTML to embed a thumbnail image in the item which, when clicked, will pop up a new window that displays the full size image. This is done by linking to a little HTML document, placed in the directory with the image and thumbnail, which simply includes the image. In the process of testing such a document updated with the new release, I discovered that the rudimentary HTML which wraps the full size image fails validation with 8 errors
among which are the absence of a character set specification, missing DOCTYPE,
absence of a “<head>” section, no “alt=” specification for the image, and browser-specific margin specifications in the “<body>” tag. I initially assumed this was due to an obsolete template being used for these documents but when I checked, it turned out that the default template in question, “default_templates/uploaded_image_popup_template.tmpl
” in the Movable Type 3.34 distribution, still prescribed the generation of such documents.
I created a new template which generates XHTML 1.0 compliant popup image documents which the validator accepts without errors or warnings. If you'd like to implement this fix on your Movable Type installation, download the zipped archive
, extract the file fourmilab_uploaded_image_popup_template.tmpl
, and replace your current “Uploaded Image Popup Template” (found under the System tab of the Templates configuration page) with the contents of this file. After saving the changed template, be sure to try uploading a popup image with a thumbnail and make sure everything is working properly. If you wish to revert to the standard configuration, you can replace the modified template with the contents of the default_templates/uploaded_image_popup_template.tmpl
Note that installing this template will only affect images you subsequently upload; if you have existing popup image documents which you wish to pass validation, you'll need to manually modify them individually. Unlike a change to an Index or Archive template, which can be applied to all documents simply by rebuilding the site, this System template only runs once when you actually upload the image.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Reading List: Empire
- Card, Orson Scott.
New York: Tor, 2006.
I first heard of this novel in an
podcast interview with the author, with whom I was familiar,
having read and admired Ender's Game when
it first appeared in 1977 as a novelette in Analog (it was later expanded
and published as a novel in 1985) and several of his books since then. I'd
always pigeonholed him as a science fictioneer, so I was somewhat surprised
to learn that his latest effort was a techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy vein,
with the flabbergasting premise of a near future American civil war
pitting the conservative “red states” against the liberal “blue
states”. The interview, which largely stayed away from the book, was
interesting and since I'd never felt let down by any of Card's previous work (although
none of it that I'd read seemed to come up to the level of Ender's Game,
but then I've read only a fraction of his prolific output), I decided to give
it a try.
Call me picky—“You're picky!”—feel
better now?—but I just cannot let this go unremarked. On
p. 248, one character likens another to Hari Seldon in
novels. But it's spelt “Hari Selden”, and it's
not a typo because the name is given the same wrong way three
times on the same page! Now I'd excuse such a goof by a thriller
scribbler recalling science fiction he'd read as a kid, but this guy is
a distinguished science fiction writer who has won the
Hugo Award—four times,
and this book is published by
the pre-eminent specialist science fiction press; don't they have an
editor on staff who's familiar with one of the universally
acknowledged classics of the genre and winner of the unique Hugo
for Best All-Time Series?
One becomes accustomed to low expectations for science fiction
novel cover art, but expects a slightly higher standard for
techno-thrillers. The image on the dust jacket has
absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any scene
in the book. It looks like a re-mix of several
thriller covers chosen at random.
It is only on p. 341, in the afterword, that we learn this
novel was commissioned as part of a project to create an
“entertainment franchise”, and on p. 349, in
the acknowledgements, that this is, in fact, the scenario of
a video game already under development when the author
joined the team. Frankly, it shows. As befits the founding
document of an “entertainment franchise” the story
ends setting the stage for the sequel, although at least to
this reader, the plot for the first third of that work
seems transparently obvious, but then Card is a master of
the gob smack switcheroo, as the present work demonstrates.
In any case, what we have here appears to be Volume One of
a series of alternative future political/military novels
like Allen Drury's
Advise and Consent series.
While that novel won a Pulitzer Prize, the sequels rapidly degenerated
into shrill right-wing screeds. In Empire Card is
reasonably even-handed, although his heterodox personal views are
apparent. I hope the inevitable sequels come up to that standard, but I
doubt I'll be reading them.
The story is set in the very near future: a Republican president detested
by the left and reviled in the media is in the White House, the Republican
nomination for his successor is a toss-up, and a ruthless woman is the
Democratic front-runner. In fact, unless this is an alternative
universe with a different
, we can identify the year as 2008,
since that's the only presidential election year on which June 13th
falls on a Friday until 2036, by which date it's unlikely Bill O'Reilly
will still be on the air.
The book starts out with a bang and proceeds as a tautly-plotted,
edge of the seat thriller which I found more compelling than
any of Clancy's recent doorstop specials. Then, halfway
through chapter 11, things go all weird
. It's like the author
was holding his breath and chanting the mantra “no
science fiction—no science fiction” and then
just couldn't take it any more, explosively exhaled, drew a
deep breath, and furiously started pounding the keys. (This is not, in
fact, what happened, but we don't find that out until the end
material, which I'll describe below.) Anyway, everything is
developing as a near-future thriller combined with a “who
do you trust” story of intrigue, and then suddenly,
on p. 157, our heroes run into two-legged robotic
on the streets
of Manhattan and, before long, storm troopers in space helmets
and body armour, death rays that shoot down fighter jets, and later,
We eventually end up at a Bond villain redoubt in Washington State
built by a mad collectivist billionaire clearly patterned on George
Soros, for a final battle in which a small band of former Special Ops
heroes take on all of the villains and their futuristic weaponry by
grit and guile. If you like this kind of stuff, you'll probably like
this. The author lost me with the imperial walkers, and it has
nothing to do with my last name, or my
May we do a little physics here? Let's take a closer look at the
lair of the evil genius, hidden under a reservoir formed by a
boondoggle hydroelectric dam
Highway 12 between Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier
” (p. 350).
We're told (p. 282) that the entry to the facility is hidden beneath the surface
of the lake formed in a canyon behind a dam, and access to it is provided by
pumping water from the lake to another, smaller lake in an adjacent canyon.
The smaller lake is said to be two miles long, and exposing the entrance to
the rebels' headquarters causes the water to rise fifteen feet in that lake.
The width of the smaller lake is never given, but most of the natural lakes
in that region seem to be long and skinny, so let's guess it's only a
tenth as wide as it is long, or about 300 yards wide. The smaller lake
is said to be above the lake which conceals the entrance, so to
expose the door would require pumping a chunk of water we can roughly estimate
(assuming the canyon is rectangular) at 2 miles by 300 yards by fifteen
feet. Transforming all of these imperial (there's that word again!) measures
into something comprehensible, we can compute the volume of water as
about 4 million cubic metres or, as the boots on the ground would
probably put it, about a billion gallons. This is a lot of water.
A cubic metre of water weighs 1000 kg, or a metric ton, so in order to
expose the door, the villains would have to pump 4 billion kilograms
of water uphill at least 15 feet (because the smaller lake is sufficiently above
the facility to allow it to be flooded [p. 308] it would almost
certainly be much more, but let's be conservative)—call it 5 metres.
Now the energy required to raise this quantity of water 5 metres
against the Earth's gravitation is just the product of
the mass (4 billion kilograms), the distance (5 metres), and
gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s², which works out to
about 200 billion joules, or 54 megawatt-hours. If the height difference
were double our estimate, double these numbers. Now to pump all of
that water uphill in, say, half an hour (which seems longer than the
interval in which it happens on pp. 288–308) will require
about 100 megawatts of power, and that's assuming the pumps are
100% efficient and there are no frictional losses in the pipes.
Where does the power come from?
It can't come from the
hydroelectric dam, since in order to generate the power to pump the
water, you'd need to run a comparable amount of water through the
dam's turbines (less because the drop would be greater, but then
you have to figure in the efficiency of the turbines and generators,
which is about 80%), and we've already been told that dumping the
water over the dam would flood communities in the valley floor.
If they could store the energy from letting the water back into the
lower lake, then they could re-use it (less losses) to pump it back
uphill again, but there's no way to store anything like that
kind of energy—in fact, pumping water uphill and releasing it
through turbines is the only practical way to store large quantities
of electricity, and once the water is in the lower lake, there's no
place to put the power. We've already established that there are
no heavy duty power lines running to the area, as that would be
immediately suspicious (of course, it's also suspicious that there
aren't high tension lines running from
what's supposed to
be a hydroelectric dam, but that's another matter). And if the
evil genius had
invented a way to efficiently store and
release power on that scale, he wouldn't need to start a civil
war—he could just about buy
the government with the
proceeds from such an invention.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Reading List: Time to Emigrate?
- Walden, George.
Time to Emigrate?
London: Gibson Square, 2006.
Readers of Theodore Dalrymple's
Life at the Bottom
Culture, What's Left of It may have thought his dire
view of the state of civilisation in Britain to have been unduly
influenced by his perspective as a prison and public hospital
physician in one of the toughest areas of Birmingham, England. Here
we have, if not the “view from the top”, a brutally candid
evaluation written by a former Minister of Higher Education in the
Thatcher government and Conservative member of the House of Commons
from 1983 until his retirement in 1997, and it is, if anything, more
The author says of himself (p. 219), “My life
began unpromisingly, but everything's always got better. …
In other words, in personal terms I've absolutely no complaints.”
But he is deeply worried about whether his grown children and their
children can have the same expectations in the Britain of today
and tomorrow. The book is written in the form of a long (224 page)
and somewhat rambling letter to a fictional son and his wife
who are pondering emigrating from Britain after their young son was beaten
into unconsciousness by immigrants within sight
of their house in London. He describes his estimation of the culture,
politics, and economy of Britain as much like the work of a house
surveyor: trying to anticipate the problems which may befall those
who choose to live there. Wherever he looks: immigration, multiculturalism,
education, transportation, the increasingly debt-supported consumer
economy, public health services, mass media, and the state of
political discourse, he finds much to fret about. But this does
not come across as the sputtering of an ageing Tory, but rather a
thoroughly documented account of how most of the things which
the British have traditionally valued (and have attracted immigrants to
their shores) have eroded during his lifetime, to such an extent that
he can no longer believe that his children and grandchildren will
have the same opportunities he had as a lower middle class boy
born twelve days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.
The curious thing about emigration from the British Isles today is that it's the
middle class that is bailing out. Over most of history, it was the
lower classes seeking opportunity (or in the case of my Irish
ancestors, simply survival) on foreign shores, and the surplus
sons of the privileged classes hoping to found their own dynasties
in the colonies. But now, it's the middle that's being squeezed
out, and it's because the collectivist state is squeezing them
for all they're worth. The inexorably growing native underclass and
immigrants benefit from government services and either don't have
the option to leave or else consider their lot in life in Britain
far better than whence they came. The upper classes can opt out of
the sordid shoddiness and endless grey queues of socialism; on p. 153
the author works out the cost: for a notional family of two parents
and two children, “going private” for health care, education
for the kids, transportation, and moving to a “safe neighbourhood”
would roughly require doubling income from what such a
typical family brings home.
Is it any wonder we have so many billionaire collectivists (Buffett,
Gates, Soros, etc.)? They don't have to experience the sordid
consequences of their policies, but by advocating them, they can
recruit the underclass (who benefit from them and are eventually made
dependent and unable to escape from helotry) to vote them into power
and keep them there. And they can exult in virtue as their noble
policies crush those who might aspire to their own exalted station. The middle
class, who pay for all of this, forced into minority, retains only the
franchise which is exercised through shoe leather on pavement, and
begins to get out while the property market remains booming and the
doors are still open.
The author is anything but a doctrinaire Tory; he has, in fact, quit
the party, and savages its present “100% Feck-Free” (my term)
leader, David Cameron as, among other things, a “transexualised
[Princess] Diana” (p. 218). As an emigrant myself, albeit from
a different country, I think his conclusion and final recommendation
couldn't be wiser (and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler, but if you're
considering such a course you should read this book cover to cover
anyway): go live somewhere else (I'd say, anywhere else) and see how
you like it. You may discover that you're obsessed with what you miss
and join the “International Club” (which usually means
the place they speak the language of the Old Country), or you may
find that after struggling with language, customs, and how things are done,
you fit in rather well and, after a while, find most of your nightmares
are about things in the place you left instead of the one you worried
about moving to. There's no way to know—it could go either
way. I think the author, as many people, may have put somewhat more
weight on the question of emigration that it deserves. I've always looked
at countries like any other product. I've never accepted that because I
happened to be born within the borders of some state to whose creation and legitimacy I never
personally consented, that I owe it any obligation whatsoever
apart from those in compensation for services provided directly to
me with my assent. Quitting Tyrania to live in Freedonia is
something anybody should be able do to, assuming the residents of Freedonia
welcome you, and it shouldn't occasion any more soul-searching on the
part of the emigrant than somebody choosing to trade in their VW bus for
a Nissan econobox because the 1972 bus was a shoddy crapwagon. Yes, you should worry and
even lose sleep over all the changes you'll have to make, but there's no
reason to gum up an already difficult decision process by cranking all kinds
of guilt into it. Nobody (well, nobody remotely sane) gets all consumed by
questions of allegiance, loyalty, or heritage when deciding whether
their next computer will run Windows, MacOS, Linux, or FreeBSD. It seems to
me that once you step back from the flags and anthems and monuments and kings
and presidents and prime ministers and all of the other atavistic baggage
of the coercive state, it's wisest to look at your polity like an operating system;
it's something that you have to deal with (increasingly, as the incessant
collectivist ratchet tightens the garrote around individuality and productivity),
but you still have a choice among them, and given how short is our tenure on this planet,
we shouldn't waste a moment of it living somewhere that callously exploits our labours
in the interest of others. And, the more productive people exercise that choice,
the greater the incentive is for the self-styled rulers of the various states to create an
environment which will attract people like ourselves.
Many of the same issues are discussed, from a broader European
Alone. To fend off queries, I emigrated from what many consider
the immigration magnet of the world in 1991 and have never looked back
and rarely even visited the old country except for business and family
obligations. But then I suspect, as the author notes on p. 197,
I am one of those D4-7 allele people (look it up!) who thrive on risk
and novelty; I'm not remotely claiming that this is better—Heaven knows
we DRD4 7-repeat folk have caused more than our cohort's proportion
of chaos and mayhem, but we just can't give it
up—this is who we are.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Reading List: Gunpowder
- Ponting, Clive.
London: Pimlico, 2005.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had
been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan
monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western
science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder,
but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the
applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the
more clever Europeans quickly devised.
H. G. Wells
remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through
the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the
origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.
It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder,
which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed
to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention
with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th
by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an
elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder
continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries
thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of
gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to
weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented
essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which
Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a
supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT,
but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of
combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in
the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat
can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of
gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets.
The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of
saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons
such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and
incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the
Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive
bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long
before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not
appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).
From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world,
where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to
the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge
of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with
the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European
document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title
Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes
translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of
Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number
of untranslated Arabic words.
Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but
crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited
their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone
projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon
designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege
warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the
consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.
The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part
in the emergence of the modern European state, because the
infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder
weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies
required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and
regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were
in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was
able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of
previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another
such “gunpowder state”.
Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans
to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually
impose their will on China, where centuries of political
stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by
comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.
It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives
and propellants discovered by European chemists brought
the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder
shaped human history as have few other inventions. This
excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's
accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by
even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on
a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with
which so much of it was created.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Your Sky Updated
I have just put a new version of Your Sky
into production. This release includes all of the Unix process fork optimisation and security improvements earlier implemented in Earth and Moon Viewer
and Solar System Live
, and upgrades the documentation to use Unicode text elements for opening and closing quotes, dashes, and minus signs. A consistent CSS style sheet is now applied to all of the documents, which remain XHTML 1.0 (Transitional) compliant.
This release should be 100% compatible with existing URLs which reference it; if you find one that's broken, please let me know with the Feedback button. I'll be keeping an eye on the Apache error log for the next few days to look for gross pratfalls, but if you spot more subtle goofs I'd very much appreciate your pointing them out. Thanks in advance.
If you do have direct links on your site to Your Sky
result pages or dynamic image requests
, consider removing the now-unnecessary (but harmless) “/uncgi
” from the URLs; eliminating this step reduces the load on the server and (probably imperceptibly) speeds up response to the request.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Reading List: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog
- Florey, Kitty Burns.
Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog.
Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2006.
In 1877, Alonzo Reed and and Brainerd Kellogg published Higher
Lessons in English, which introduced their system for the
grammatical diagramming of English sentences. For example, the
sentence “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord
will take me up” (an example from Lesson 63 of their book)
would be diagrammed as:
by Bruce D. Despain.
in the Reed and Kellogg system.
The idea was to make the grammatical structure of the
sentence immediately evident, sharpening students' skills
in parsing sentences and rendering grammatical errors
apparent. This seems to have been one of those cases
when an idea springs upon a world which has, without
knowing it, been waiting for just such a thing.
Sentence diagramming spread through U.S. schools like
wildfire—within a few years Higher Lessons
and the five other books on which Reed and Kellogg
collaborated were selling at the astonishing rate of half
a million copies a year, and diagramming was firmly established
in the English classes of children across the country and
remained so until the 1960s, when it evaporated almost as
rapidly as it had appeared.
The author and I are both members of the last generation who were
taught sentence diagramming at school. She remembers it as having
been “fun” (p. 15), something which was not otherwise
much in evidence in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade classroom. I
learnt diagramming in the seventh grade, and it's the only
part of English class that I recall having enjoyed. (Gertrude
Stein once said [p. 73], “I really do not know
anything that has ever been more exciting than diagramming
sentences.” I don't think I'd go quite that far myself.) In
retrospect, it seems an odd part of the curriculum: we spent about a
month furiously parsing and diagramming, then dropped the whole thing
and never took it up again that year or afterwards; I can't recall ever
diagramming a sentence since.
This book, written by an author and professional copy editor,
charmingly recounts the origin, practice, curiosities,
and decline of sentence diagramming, and introduces the
reader to stalwarts who are keeping it alive today. There are
a wealth of examples from literature, including the 93 word
concluding sentence of Proust's
which appears as a two-page spread (pp. 94–95).
(The author describes seeing a poster from the 1970s which
diagrams a 958 word Proust sentence without an
Does diagramming make one a better writer? The general
consensus, which the author shares, is that it doesn't,
which may explain why it is rarely taught today. While
a diagram shows the grammatical structure of a sentence,
you already have to understand the rules of grammar in order
to diagram it, and you can make perfectly fine looking diagrams
of barbarisms such as “Me and him gone out.”
Also, as a programmer, it disturbs me
that one cannot always unambiguously recover the word order
of the original sentence from a diagram; this is not a problem
used by linguists today. But something doesn't have to be useful to
be fun (even if not, as it was to Gertrude Stein, exciting), and the
structure of a complex sentence graphically elucidated on a page is
marvellous to behold and rewarding to create. I'm sure some may
disdain those of us who find entertainment in such arcane
intellectual endeavours; after all, the first name of the co-inventor of
diagramming, Brainerd Kellogg, includes both the words
“brain” and “nerd”!
The author's remark on p. 120, “…I must
confess that I like editing my own work more than I do
writing it. I find first drafts painful; what I love is to
revise and polish. Sometimes I think I write simply to have
the fun of editing what I've written.” is one I share,
as Gertrude Stein put it (p. 76), “completely
entirely completely”—and it's a sentiment I don't
ever recall seeing in print before. I think the fact that
students aren't taught that a first draft is simply the
raw material of a cogent, comprehensible document is why
we encounter so many
hideously poorly written
documents on the Web.
The complete text of the 1896 Revised Edition of Reed and
Kellogg's Higher Lessons in English
from Project Gutenberg; the diagrams are rendered as
ASCII art and a little difficult to read until you get
used to them.
Eugene R. Moutoux,
who constructed the diagrams for the complicated sentences
in Florey's book has a
information about sentence diagramming on his Web site,
including diagrams of
first-page sentences from literature such as
from Nathaniel Hawthorne's
The Scarlet Letter.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Two Pineapple Grenades
You know how it goes: you're making dinner and suddenly discover you're missing some essential ingredient you always
have plenty of. You start frantically searching the top and bottom shelves of the pantry, all the way to the back, mumbling to yourself, “We just can't
have run out of pickled pig snouts!”
And then you see it. Not what you were looking for, to be sure, but it
, that item that's been sitting there for so long you've completely forgotten when you bought it or why. You look at the “best by” date and suddenly it comes home to you that you're getting old and have lived in one place for what would have seemed a lifetime in your youth. And then you wonder if it's still good.
Well, in this case, the answer to that last question is pretty obvious. In fact, I was a little hesitant to pick this one up to check the expiration date for fear it would blow up in my hand.
The Mk II fragmentation hand grenade
used by the U.S. military from World War II through the start of the Vietnam War was often called a “pineapple grenade” due to its shape and the grooves moulded into its surface. Well, here, right on my pantry shelf, was a real
According to the stamp on the lid (which you can read if you click the image to enlarge it), the contents of this can would be “best if eaten by” December 1999. Given the shelf life claimed for such canned products, it's probably been sitting on that shelf for about a decade. I haven't seen anything quite so scary-looking around the house since I extracted the grotesquely distended
batteries from a UPS which was in the midst of melting down.
The frag at the left is an inert training grenade which, unlike the can of pineapple, is at no risk of exploding. Now, all I need is to get some decade-old cottage cheese to mix with the pineapple—yum!
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Reading List: Unknown Quantity
- Derbyshire, John.
Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.
After exploring a renowned mathematical conundrum (the
Hypothesis) in all its profundity in
Prime Obsession, in this book the author recounts
the history of algebra—an intellectual quest sprawling
over most of recorded human history and occupying some
of the greatest minds our species has produced.
Babylonian cuneiform tablets
dating from the time of
Hammurabi, about 3800 years ago,
demonstrate solving quadratic equations, extracting square
roots, and finding
triples. (The methods in the Babylonian texts are recognisably
algebraic but are expressed as “word problems” instead of
about 2000 years later, was the first to write equations in
a symbolic form, but this was promptly forgotten. In fact,
twenty-six centuries after the Babylonians were solving quadratic
equations expressed in word problems,
(the word “algebra” is derived from the title of his
al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala,
and “algorithm” from his name) was
solving quadratic equations in word problems.
It wasn't until around 1600 that anything resembling
the literal symbolism of modern algebra came into use, and
it took an intellect of the calibre of
to perfect it. Finally, equipped with an expressive notation,
rules for symbolic manipulation, and the slowly dawning realisation
that this, not numbers or geometric figures, is ultimately
what mathematics is about, mathematicians embarked on a
spiral of abstraction, discovery, and generalisation which has never ceased to
accelerate in the centuries since. As more and more mathematics
was discovered (or, if you're an anti-Platonist, invented), deep
and unexpected connections were found among topics once considered
unrelated, and this is a large part of the story told here, as
algebra has “infiltrated” geometry, topology,
number theory, and a host of other mathematical fields while,
in the form of algebraic geometry and group theory, providing the
foundation upon which the most fundamental theories of modern
physics are built.
With all of these connections, there's a strong temptation for an
author to wander off into fields not generally considered part of
algebra (for example, analysis or set theory); Derbyshire is admirable
in his ability to stay on topic, while not shortchanging the reader
where important cross-overs occur. In a book of this kind, especially
one covering such a long span of history and a topic so broad, it is
difficult to strike the right balance between explaining the
mathematics and sketching the lives of the people who did it, and
between a historical narrative and one which follows the evolution of
specific ideas over time. In the opinion of this reader, Derbyshire's
judgement on these matters is impeccable. As implausible as it may
seem to some that a book about algebra could aspire to such a
distinction, I found this one of the more compelling page-turners I've
read in recent months.
Six “math primers” interspersed in the text provide the
fundamentals the reader needs to understand the chapters which
follow. While excellent refreshers, readers who have never
encountered these concepts before may find the primers difficult to
comprehend (but then, they probably won't be reading a history of
algebra in the first place). Thirty pages of end notes not only cite
sources but expand, sometimes at substantial length, upon the main
text; readers should not deprive themselves this valuable lagniappe.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The Relativity of Simultaneity Posted
I have just posted a little project I've had in mind for some time, The Relativity of Simultaneity
, which demonstrates how observers separated in space, even if not moving with respect to one another, may perceive events to occur in a different order; simultaneity depends upon your vantage point.
It takes light more than a second and a quarter to traverse the distance between the Earth and the Moon, which means that when you listen to recordings of Apollo Moon mission communications made on Earth, you're hearing transmissions from the Earth as they were sent, but the audio received from the Moon with a substantial delay; what the astronauts on board heard was different. In this document, I've taken a recording of the Apollo 11
Moon landing, extracted transmissions from the Earth and Moon onto separate audio tracks, and time-shifted the Earth transmissions so they occur as heard on the Moon
. In addition, I have mixed in a few remarks during the landing sequence by Neil Armstrong which were captured by an on-board tape recorder in the lunar module but not transmitted to Earth. The result is an approximation of what the astronauts heard in the cabin during the descent and landing, and provides an insight into the cadence of Armstrong's first radio transmission after the touchdown.
The animation in this document was created by a Perl program invoking various Netpbm
utilities, then assembled into an animated GIF with Gifsicle
. In the process of making the illustration, I ran into a bug in the Netpbm program ppmdraw
, present at least since version 10.35.05 (the current release for the Fedora Core 6 Linux distribution) which caused it to crash due to a reference through a pointer in a previously released buffer when the script contained two or more commands. I have fixed this problem and submitted a patch to the Netpbm developers, but if you need the patch you can get it here
Saturday, January 6, 2007
Reading List: Before The Dawn
- Wade, Nicholas.
Before The Dawn.
New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
Modern human beings, physically very similar to people alive
today, with spoken language and social institutions including
religion, trade, and warfare, had evolved by 50,000 years ago,
yet written historical records go back only about 5,000 years.
Ninety percent of human history, then, is “prehistory”
which paleoanthropologists have attempted to decipher from
meagre artefacts and rare discoveries of human remains.
The degree of inference and the latitude for interpretation of
this material has rendered conclusions drawn from it highly
speculative and tentative. But in the last decade this has
begun to change.
While humans only began to write the history of their species
in the last 10% of their presence on the planet, the DNA
that makes them human has been patiently recording their history
in a robust molecular medium which only recently, with the
ability to determine the sequence of the genome, humans have
learnt to read. This has provided a new, largely objective,
window on human history and origins, and has both confirmed
results teased out of the archæological record over the centuries,
and yielded a series of stunning surprises which are probably
only the first of many to come.
Each individual's genome is a mix of genes inherited from their
father and mother, plus a few random changes (mutations) due
to errors in the process of transcription. The separate
genome of the mitochondria (energy producing organelles) in their
cells is inherited exclusively from the mother, and in males, the
Y chromosome (except for the very tips) is inherited directly
from the father, unmodified except for mutations. In an isolated
population whose members breed mostly with one another, members
of the group will come to share a genetic signature which reflects
natural selection for reproductive success in the environment
they inhabit (climate, sources of food, endemic diseases,
competition with other populations, etc.) and the effects of random
drift” which acts to reduce genetic diversity,
particularly in small, isolated populations. Random mutations
appear in certain parts of the genome at a reasonably constant
rate, which allows them to be used as a
clock” to estimate the time elapsed since two
related populations diverged from their last common ancestor.
(This is biology, so naturally the details are fantastically
complicated, messy, subtle, and difficult to apply in practice,
but the general outline is as described above.)
Even without access to the genomes of long-dead ancestors
(which are difficult in the extreme to obtain and fraught
with potential sources of error), the genomes of current populations
provide a record of their ancestry, geographical origin, migrations,
conquests and subjugations, isolation or intermarriage, diseases
and disasters, population booms and busts, sources of food, and,
by inference, language, social structure, and technologies.
This book provides a look at the current state of research
in the rapidly expanding field of genetic anthropology, and
it makes for an absolutely compelling narrative of the human
adventure. Obviously, in a work where the overwhelming majority
of source citations are to work published in the last decade, this is
a description of work in progress and most of the deductions
made should be considered tentative pending further results.
Genomic investigation has shed light on puzzles as
varied as the size of the initial population of modern
humans who left Africa (almost certainly less than 1000,
and possibly a single hunter-gatherer band of about 150),
the date when wolves were domesticated into dogs and
where it happened, the origin of wheat and rice farming, the
domestication of cattle, the origin of surnames in England,
and the genetic heritage of the randiest conqueror in human
history, Genghis Khan, who, based on Y chromosome analysis,
appears to have about 16 million living male descendants
Some of the results from molecular anthropology run the risk of
being so at variance with the politically correct ideology of
academic soft science that the author, a New York Times
reporter, tiptoes around them with the mastery of prose which on
other topics he deploys toward their elucidation. Chief among
these is the discussion of the
genes on pp. 97–99. (Note that genes
are often named based on syndromes which result from
deleterious mutations within them, and hence bear names
opposite to their function in the normal organism. For
example, the gene which triggers the cascade of eye formation
in Drosophila is named eyeless.)
Both of these genes appear to regulate brain size and, in
particular, the development of the cerebral cortex, which is
the site of higher intelligence in mammals. Specific
alleles of these genes are of recent origin, and
are unequally distributed geographically among the
human population. Haplogroup D of Microcephalin appeared
in the human population around 37,000 years ago (all
of these estimates have a large margin of error); which is
just about the time when quintessentially modern human
behaviour such as cave painting appeared in Europe.
Today, about 70% of the population of Europe and East Asia carry
this allele, but its incidence in populations in sub-Saharan
Africa ranges from 0 to 25%. The ASPM gene exists in two
forms: a “new” allele which arose only about
5800 years ago (coincidentally[?] just about the time
when cities, agriculture, and written language appeared),
and an “old” form which predates this period.
Today, the new allele occurs in about 50% of the population
of the Middle East and Europe, but hardly at all in sub-Saharan
Africa. Draw your own conclusions from this about the potential
impact on human history when germline gene therapy becomes
possible, and why opposition to it may not be the obvious
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Google PageRank Query Utility
I have just posted PageRank
, a Perl program which allows the Google™ PageRank™
of Web pages to be queried, either from the command line or via an HTML query form submitted to a CGI application installed on a Web server. In addition, the program can generate a graphical page rank meter showing the ranking of the page containing it or that of an arbitrary page specified by URL. Here, for example, is the current page rank of the www.fourmilab.ch
This program is a wrapper for Yuri Karaban's WWW::Google::PageRank
Perl module, which does all the heavy lifting. If you install this utility on your Web server, a variety of security options are available to restrict requests by user, referring page, and/or URL whose rank is being queried. These, properly chosen for your application, can prevent freeloaders from piling onto your server to obtain page rank meters for their own pages.