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Thursday, May 31, 2007
Experimental confirmation: Cows can't fly
Today's front page story in L'Express
was the freak and tragic accident which killed 14 heifers, which plunged 200 metres to their death from a cliff in their summer pasture above Buttes, Switzerland
, southwest of Fourmilab.
In order to reach the cliff, the cows had to break through the fence confining them, cross 300 metres to a second fence, break through that as well, then continue another 600 metres through the forest before arriving at the “jumping off point”. One can only speculate as to the cause; the most likely hypothesis is that the cows were chased by one or more dogs. Lynx are present in this region, but although they do attack sheep, they have never been known to stampede cows. There are no confirmed sightings of wolves in the Jura. According to a police spokesman quoted in the article, “all possibilities remain open”, so the UFO hypothesis can't be ruled out at this time. Five cows which did not jump were found wandering in the forest adjacent to the cliff; the usually placid animals were described as frightened.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
UNIVAC Memories Updated
It's been more than ten years since most of the documents in the UNIVAC Memories
archive were posted, and they'd become rather quaint by the contemporary community standards of the Web. I have just completed a revision of all of these documents, updating them to XHTML 1.0 (mostly Transitional DTD, but some Strict) using the common style sheet used by most new documents on the site. All documents have been validated for XHTML and CSS standards compliance with the W3C Markup Validation Service
. Typography has been upgraded, with Unicode character entities used for opening and closing quotes, dashes, ellipses, and special characters. Apart from correction of a few typographical errors I discovered in the process of updating the documents, the content is mostly the same, although an exterior picture, contributed by a reader, of the building which housed the computer has been added at the end of The Case 1107
Monday, May 28, 2007
Reading List: Boomsday
- Buckley, Christopher.
New York: Twelve, 2007.
Cassandra Devine is twenty-nine, an Army veteran who served in Bosnia,
a PR genius specialising in damage control for corporate malefactors,
a high-profile blogger in her spare time, and hopping mad. What's got
her Irish up (and she's Irish on both sides of the family) is the
imminent retirement of the baby boom
generation—boomsday—when seventy-seven million members of
the most self-indulgent and -absorbed generation in history will
depart the labour pool and begin to laze away their remaining decades
in their gated, golf-course retirement communities, sending the
extravagant bills to their children and grandchildren, each two of
whom can expect to support one retired boomer, adding up to an
increase in total taxes on the young between 30% and 50%.
One night, while furiously blogging, it came to her.
proposal which would, at once, render Social Security and Medicare
solvent without any tax increases, provide free medical care and
prescription drugs to the retired, permit the elderly to pass on their
estates to their heirs tax-free, and reduce the burden of care for the
elderly on the economy. There is a catch, of course, but the scheme
polls like pure electoral gold among the 18–30 “whatever
Before long, Cassandra finds herself in the middle of a
presidential campaign where the incumbent's slogan is
“He's doing his best. Really.” and the
challenger's is “No Worse Than The Others”,
with her ruthless entrepreneur father, a Vatican diplomat,
a southern media preacher, Russian hookers, a nursing home
serial killer, the North Koreans, and what's left of the
legacy media sucked into the vortex. Buckley is a master
of the modern political farce, and this is a thoroughly
delightful read which makes you wonder just how the
under-thirties will react when the bills run
up by the boomers start to come due.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Reading List: Fatal Purity
- Scurr, Ruth.
London: Vintage Books, 2006.
In May 1791, Maximilien Robespierre, not long before an obscure
provincial lawyer from Arras in northern France,
elected to the Estates General convened by Louis XVI in
1789, spoke before what had by then reconstituted itself as
the National Assembly, engaged in debating the penal code
for the new Constitution of France.
Before the Assembly were a number of proposals by a certain
Dr. Guillotin, among which the second was, “In all cases
of capital punishment (whatever the crime), it shall be of
the same kind—i.e. beheading—and it shall be
executed by means of a machine.” Robespierre argued
passionately against all forms of capital punishment: “A
conqueror that butchers his captives is called barbaric. Someone
who butchers a perverse child that he could disarm and punish
seems monstrous.” (pp. 133–136)
Just two years later, Robespierre had become synonymous not only with
the French Revolution but with the Terror it had spawned. Either at
his direction, with his sanction, or under the summary arrest and
execution without trial or appeal which he advocated, the guillotine
claimed more than 2200 lives in Paris alone, 1376 between June 10th
and July 27th of 1793, when Robespierre's power abruptly ended, along
with the Terror, with his own date with the guillotine.
How did a mild-mannered provincial lawyer who defended the indigent
and disadvantaged, amused himself by writing poetry, studied
philosophy, and was universally deemed, even by his sworn enemies, to
merit his sobriquet, “The Incorruptible”, become
an archetypal monster of the modern age, a symbol of the
darkness beneath the Enlightenment?
This lucidly written, well-argued, and meticulously documented
book traces Robespierre's life from birth through downfall and
execution at just age 36, and places his life in the context
of the upheavals which shook France and to which, in his last
few years, he contributed mightily. The author shows the direct
link between Rousseau's philosophy, Robespierre's
inflexible, whatever-the-cost commitment to implementing
it, and its horrific consequences for France. Too many
people forget that it was Rousseau who wrote in
The Social Contract,
“Now, as citizen, no man is judge any longer of the
danger to which the law requires him to expose himself, and
when the prince says to him: ‘It is expedient for the state
that you should die’, then he should die…”.
Seen in this light, the madness of Robespierre's reign is not
the work of a madman, but of a rigorously rational application
of a profoundly anti-human system of beliefs which some people
persist in taking seriously even today.
A U.S. edition is available.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Internet Explorer Bungles Ordered Lists with Width
Consider the following very simple XHTML file:
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN"
<title>Exploder Bungles Ordered Lists with Width</title>
content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1" />
You'd expect this to output a list of three numbered items, like:
But of course expectations don't count for much when it comes to users of Microsoft's lame attempt at a Web browser, “Internet Exploder”. Here is a screen shot of this file rendered with the current 7.0.5730.11 release of Internet Explorer on Windows XP.
If you remove the width
specification from the style of the list items, or replace it with margin specifications to approximate the same effect, Internet Explorer appears to remember how to count and numbers the items correctly. Here we have the flagship Web browser of the world's largest software company, with the largest installed base, failing in the task of adding one to a number
Now, we all make mistakes, and no software ever achieves a state of perfection. The real test, however, is how rapidly problems are fixed once they are identified and documented. How does Microsoft perform by this criterion? Well, about as well as you'd probably guess. It turns out that this problem was first reported
in July 2005
, almost two years ago, and is present in versions 5 and 6 of Internet Explorer, as well as the recently-released version 7, with all subsequent patches installed. Such is Microsoft's couldn't-care-less attitude to standards compliance and fundamental correctness of their products that I wouldn't expect this to be fixed any time in the foreseeable future.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera Now Online
The fourteenth episode in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera
, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.
This story is more episodic than the typical Tom Swift adventure. Tied together by an electric movie camera that Tom has invented (hey, the book was published in 1912!), our intrepid inventor-hero ventures to India, the Congo, Peru, and even Switzerland to film an elephant stampede, lion fight, avalanche, tribal battle, volcanic eruption, earthquake, and more for a movie mogul, outwitting nefarious plots by minions of a rival studio. Koku the giant, whose acquaintance we made in the last installment
, joins the expedition this time.
As usual, I have corrected typographical and formatting errors I spotted in this edition of the text, but have deferred close proofreading until I get around to reading the book on my PDA. Consequently, corrections from eagle-eyed readers are more than welcome. Please note the comments in the main Pocket Library page before reporting archaic spelling (for example, “gasolene” or “to-morrow”) as an error.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Reading List: Explaining Postmodernism
- Hicks, Stephen R. C.
Phoenix: Scholargy, 2004.
Starting more than ten years ago, with the mass pile-on to the
Internet and the advent of sites with open content and comment
posting, I have been puzzled by the extent of the anger, hatred,
and nihilism which is regularly vented in such fora. Of all the
people of my generation with whom I have associated over the
decades (excepting, of course, a few genuine nut cases), I barely
recall anybody who seemed to express such an intensively
negative outlook on life and the world, or who were so instantly
ready to impute “evil” (a word used incessantly
for the slightest difference of opinion) to those with opposing
views, or to inject ad hominem
arguments or obscenity into discussions of fact and opinion.
Further, this was not at all confined to traditionally polarising
topics; in fact, having paid little attention to most
of the hot-button issues in the 1990s, I first noticed it
in nerdy discussions of topics such as the merits of
different microprocessors, operating systems, and programming
languages—matters which would seem unlikely, and in my
experience had only rarely in the past, inspired partisans
on various sides to such passion and vituperation. After a
while, I began to notice one fairly consistent pattern: the
most inflamed in these discussions, those whose venting seemed
entirely disproportionate to the stakes in the argument, were
almost entirely those who came of age in the mid-1970s or later;
before the year 2000 I had begun to call them
but I still didn't understand why they were that way.
One can speak of “the passion of youth”, of course,
which is a real phenomenon, but this seemed something entirely
different and off the scale of what I recall my contemporaries
expressing in similar debates when we were of comparable age.
This has been one of those mysteries that's puzzled me for
some years, as the phenomenon itself seemed to be getting
worse, not better, and with little evidence that age and
experience causes the original hate kiddies to grow out of
their youthful excess. Then along comes this book which,
if it doesn't completely explain it, at least seems to point
toward one of the proximate causes: the indoctrination in
cultural relativist and “postmodern” ideology
which began during the formative years of the hate kiddies
and has now almost entirely pervaded academia apart from the physical
sciences and engineering (particularly in the United
States, whence most of the hate kiddies hail). In just two
hundred pages of main text, the author traces the origins and
development of what is now called postmodernism to the
“counter-enlightenment” launched by Rousseau and
Kant, developed by the German philosophers of the 18th and 19th
centuries, then transplanted to the U.S. in the 20th. But the
philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, which are essentially
an extreme relativism which goes as far as denying the
existence of objective truth or the meaning of texts, doesn't
explain the near monolithic adherence of its champions to the
extreme collectivist political Left. You'd expect that
philosophical relativism would lead its believers to conclude
that all political tendencies were equally right or wrong, and
that the correct political policy was as impossible to determine
as ultimate scientific truth.
Looking at the philosophy espoused by postmodernists
alongside the the policy views they advocate and teach their
students leads to the following contradictions which
are summarised on p. 184:
The author concludes that it is impossible to explain these
and other apparent paradoxes and the uniformly Left politics of
postmodernists without understanding the history and the failures
of collectivist political movements dating from Rousseau's
time. On p. 173 is an absolutely wonderful chart which
traces the mutation and consistent failure of socialism in its
various guises from Marx to the present. With each failure,
the response has been not to question the premises of collectivism
itself, but rather to redefine its justification, means, and end.
As failure has followed failure, postmodernism represents an abject
retreat from reason and objectivity itself, either using the
philosophy in a Machiavellian way to promote collectivist ideology,
or to urge acceptance of the contradictions themselves in the
hope of creating what Nietzsche called
ressentiment, which leads
directly to the “everybody is evil”, “nothing
works”, and “truth is unknowable” irrationalism
and nihilism which renders those who believe it pliable in the
hands of agenda-driven manipulators.
Based on the some of the source citations and the fact that this
work was supported in part by
The Objectivist Center,
the author appears to be a disciple of Ayn Rand, which is
confirmed by his Web site.
Although the author's commitment to rationalism and
individualism, and disdain for their adversaries, permeates the
argument, the more peculiar and eccentric aspects of the
Objectivist creed are absent. For its size, insight, and crystal
clear reasoning and exposition, I know of no better introduction to
how postmodernism came to be, and how it is being used to advance
a collectivist ideology which has been thoroughly discredited
by sordid experience. And I think I'm beginning to comprehend how
the hate kiddies got that way.
- On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the
other hand, postmodernism tells it like it
- On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving
of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely
destructive and bad.
- Values are subjective—but sexism and racism are
really evil. (There's that word!—JW)
- Technology is bad and destructive—and it is
unfair that some people have more technology than
- Tolerance is good and dominance is bad—but
when postmodernists come to power, political
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Reading List: Space Wars
- Scott, William B., Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes.
New York: Forge, 2007.
I believe it was Jerry
Pournelle who observed that a Special Forces operative
in Afghanistan on horseback is, with his GPS target designator
and satellite communications link to an F-16 above, the
closest thing in our plane of existence to an angel of
death. But, take away the space assets, and he's just a
guy on a horse.
The increasing dependence of the U.S. military on space-based
reconnaissance, signal intelligence, navigation and precision
guidance, missile warning, and communications platforms has
caused concern among strategic thinkers about the risk of
an “asymmetrical attack” against them by an
adversary. The technology needed to disable them is far
less sophisticated and easier to acquire than the space
assets, and the impact of their loss will
disproportionately impact the U.S., which has fully integrated
them into its operations. This novel, by a former chief
wargamer of the U.S. Space Command (Coumatos), the editor-in-chief
of Aviation Week and Space Technology (Scott), and
co-author Birnes, uses a near-term fictional scenario set in
2010 to explore the vulnerabilities of military space and
make the case for both active defence of these platforms and
the ability to hold at risk the space-based assets of
adversaries even if doing so gets the airheads all atwitter
about “weapons in space” (as if a GPS constellation
which lets you drop a bomb down somebody's chimney isn't a
weapon). The idea, then, was to wrap the cautionary tale and
policy advocacy in a Tom Clancy-style thriller which would reach
a wider audience than a dull Pentagon briefing presentation.
The reality, however, as embodied in the present book, is
simply a mess. I can't help but notice that the publisher,
Forge, is an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, best known
for their Tor science fiction books.
As I have observed earlier in comments about the recent
Scott Card and
and Robinson, Doherty doesn't seem to pay much attention to
copy editing and fact checking, and this book illustrates the
problem is not just confined to the Tor brand. In fact, after this
slapdash effort, I'm coming to look at Doherty as something like
Que computer books in the 1980s—the name on the spine is
enough to persuade me to leave it on the shelf.
Some of the following might be considered very mild spoilers, but
I'm not going to put them in a spoiler warning since they don't
really give away major plot elements or the ending, such as it
is. The real spoiler is knowing how sloppy the whole thing is,
and once you appreciate that, you won't want to waste your time on
it anyway. First of all, the novel is explicitly set in the month
of April 2010, and yet the “feel” and the technological
details are much further out. Basically, the technologies in place
three years from now are the same we have today, especially for
military technologies which have long procurement times and
glacial Pentagon deployment schedules. Yet we're supposed to
believe than in less than thirty-six months from today, the
Air Force will be operating a two-storey, 75,000 square foot
floor space computer containing “an array of
deeply stacked parallel nanoprocessing circuits”,
with spoken natural language programming and query capability
(pp. 80–81). On pp. 212–220 we're
told of a super weapon inspired by
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
which, having started its development as a jammer for
police radar, is able to seize control of enemy unmanned
aerial vehicles. And so protean is this weapon, its very
name changes at random from SPECTRE to SCEPTRE from paragraph
spaceplane figures in the story, described as incoherently as in
cover story in Aviation Week. On p. 226 we're
told the orbiter burns “boron-based gel fuel and
atmospheric oxygen”, then on the very next page we
hear of the “aerospike rocket engines”. Well, where
do we start? A rocket does not burn atmospheric oxygen, but
carries its own oxidiser. An aerospike is a kind of rocket engine
nozzle, entirely different from the supersonic combustion
ramjet one would expect on an spaceplane which used
atmospheric oxygen. Further, the advantage of an aerospike is
that it is efficient both at low and high altitudes, but there's no
reason to use one on an orbiter which is launched at high altitude
from a mother ship. And then on p. 334, the “aerospike”
restarts in orbit, which you'll probably agree is pretty
difficult to do when you're burning “atmospheric oxygen”,
which is famously scarce at orbital altitudes.
Techno-gibberish is everywhere, reminiscent in verisimilitude
to the dialogue in the television torture fantasy
For example, “Yo' Jaba! Got a match on our parallel port.
I am waaay cool!” (p. 247). On p. 174 a
Rooskie no-goodnik finds orbital elements for U.S. satellites
from “the American ‘space catalog’ she had
hacked into through a Texas university's server”. Why
not just go to CelesTrak,
where this information has been available worldwide since
1985? The laws of orbital mechanics here differ from those
of Newton; on p. 381, a satellite in a circular orbit
“14,674 miles above sea level” is said to be
orbiting at “17,500
In fact, at this altitude orbital velocity is 4.35 km/sec
or 9730 statute miles per hour. And astronauts in low earth
orbit who lose their electrical power quickly freeze solid,
“victims of space's hostile, unforgiving cold”.
Actually, in intense sunlight for half of every orbit and with the
warm Earth filling half the sky, getting rid of heat is
the problem in low orbit. On pp. 285–290, an
air-launched cruise missile is used to launch a blimp.
Why not just let it go and let the helium do the job all
by itself? On the political front, we're supposed to think
that a spittle-flecked mullah raving that he was the
incarnation of the Twelfth Imam, in the presence of the Supreme
Leader and President of Iran, would not only escape being
thrown in the dungeon, but walk out of the meeting with a
go-ahead to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a target in
Europe. And there is much, much more like this.
I suppose it should have been a tip-off that the
foreword was written by George Noory, who hosts the
Coast to Coast AM
radio program originally founded by
Co-author Birnes was also co-author of the
The Day After Roswell,
which claims that key technologies in the second half of
the twentieth century, including stealth aircraft and
integrated circuits, were based on reverse-engineered
alien technologies from a flying saucer which crashed in
New Mexico in 1947. As stories go,
Texas seems more plausible, and a lot
more fun, than this book.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Reading List: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1.
Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1776, 1781] 1998.
This is the first audiobook to appear in this list, for the excellent
reason that it's the first one to which I've ever listened. I've
been planning to “get around” to reading Gibbon's
Decline and Fall for about twenty-five years, and
finally concluded that the likelihood I was going to dive into that
million-word-plus opus any time soon was negligible, so why not
raise the intellectual content of my regular walks around the village
with one of the masterpieces of English prose instead of ratty old
The “Volume 1” in the title of this work refers to
the two volumes of this audio edition, which
is an abridgement of the first three volumes of Gibbon's history,
covering the reign of Augustus through the accession of the first
barbarian king, Odoacer. Volume 2 abridges
the latter three volumes, primarily covering the eastern empire
from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the
Turks in 1453. Both audio programs are almost eight hours
in length, and magnificently read by Philip Madoc, whose voice is
strongly reminiscent of Richard Burton's. The abridgements are handled
well, with a second narrator, Neville Jason, summarising the material which
is being skipped over. Brief orchestral music passages separate major
divisions in the text. The whole work is artfully done and a joy
to listen to, worthy of the majesty of Gibbon's prose, which is
everything I've always heard it to be, from solemn praise for courage
and wisdom, thundering condemnation of treason and tyranny, and
occasionally laugh-out-loud funny descriptions of foibles and folly.
I don't usually read abridged texts—I figure that if the author
thought it was worth writing, it's worth my time to read. But given
the length of this work (and the fact that most print editions are
abridged), it's understandable that the publisher opted for an
abridged edition; after all, sixteen hours is a substantial investment
of listening time. An Audio CD edition is
available. And yes, I'm currently listening to Volume 2.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
The Hacker's Diet: Obesity gene: discouraging or “just one of those things”
One of the esteemed beta testers of The Hacker's Diet Online
brought this article in The New York Times
to my attention and asked whether it was discouraging to folks deemed obese who wished to lose their excess weight and keep it off. My reaction—not at all!
I don't see this as bad news at all. This pretty much confirms what I wrote about
in the book as a “broken feedback system”. I don't recall saying that it was
probably inherited, but I've always suspected that, and around the time I
was writing the book the first obesity gene was discovered in mice,
which provided evidence in that direction.
To me, all it means that if you're one of those people with the inherited
propensity to gain weight (like me), then you need the help of feedback
to keep things from creeping out of control. So what? If you're one of
those people with an inherited propensity to high blood pressure (like me),
then you need to take pills every day to keep that under control also. As this article illustrates, the
feedback works even when the system is perturbed by an influence you
haven't yet figured out.
What is really encouraging in The New York Times article is that in the
prisoner study they found that becoming obese does not permanently
shift the body toward a propensity in that direction. (Although one
might wonder if that would happen on a longer-term basis.)
All of that said, I just do not buy that the obesity epidemic today
is entirely genetic in origin. There is no evolutionary mechanism which
could explain a gene propagating through the population as fast as the
rate of obesity has grown in the last several decades. Take a look at the
charts produced with the marvellous
WHO Global InfoBase. Now given that the populations of many of these countries with discrepant obesity rates are not all that much
different genetically, it's hard to believe that diet and lifestyle do not
play a part in the large differences between countries.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Reading List: The God Theory
- Haisch, Bernard.
The God Theory.
San Francisco: Weiser, 2006.
This is one curious book. Based on acquaintance with the author
and knowledge of his work, including the landmark paper
as a zero-point-field Lorentz force” (B. Haisch, A. Rueda &
H.E. Puthoff, Physical Review A, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 678–694 ),
I expected this to be a book about the zero-point field and its
potential to provide a limitless source of energy and Doc Smith
style inertialess propulsion. The title seemed odd, but there's
plenty of evidence that when it comes to popular physics books,
But in this case the title could not be more accurate—this book
really is a God Theory—that our universe was created,
in the sense of its laws of physics being defined and instantiated,
then allowed to run their course, by a being with infinite potential
who did so in order to experience, in the sum of the consciousness of
its inhabitants, the consequences of the creation. (Defining the laws
isn't the same as experiencing their playing out, just as writing down
the rules of chess isn't equivalent to playing all possible games.)
The reason the constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the
existence of consciousness is that there's no point in creating a
universe in which there will be no observers through which to
experience it, and the reason the universe is comprehensible to us is
that our consciousness is, in part, one with the being who defined
them. While any suggestion of this kind is enough to get what Haisch
calls adherents of “fundamentalist scientism” sputtering
if not foaming at the mouth, he quite reasonably observes that these
self-same dogmatic reductionists seem perfectly willing to admit
an infinite number of forever unobservable parallel universes
created purely at random, and to inhabit a universe which splits
into undetectable multiple histories with every quantum event, rather
than contemplate that the universe might have a purpose or that
consciousness may play a rôle in physical phenomena.
The argument presented here is reminiscent in
content, albeit entirely different in style, to that
of Scott Adams's God's Debris, a book which is often taken insufficiently
seriously because its author is the creator of
Of course, there is another possibility about which I have
which is that our universe was not created
ex nihilo by an omnipotent being
outside of space and time, but is rather a simulation created by
somebody with a computer whose power we can already envision, run not
to experience the reality within, but just to see what happens. Or,
in other words, “it isn't a universe, it's a science fair
project!” In The God Theory, your
consciousness is immortal because at death your experience
rejoins the One which created you. In the simulation view,
you live on forever on a backup tape. What's the difference?
Seriously, this is a challenging and thought-provoking
argument by a distinguished scientist who has thought deeply
on these matters and is willing to take the professional
risk of talking about them to the general public. There is
much to think about here, and integrating it with other
outlooks on these deep questions will take far more time
than it takes to read this book.
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Google/Blogger: XHTML Standards: Does Anybody Care?
Let me say at the outset that compliance with the very demanding XHTML 1.0
That said, nobody forces you to declare your pages XHTML Strict—browsers continue to render legacy HTML and earlier, less demanding, standards just fine. So, you'd think that somebody who went to the trouble to assert strict compatibility with the XHTML standard would make an effort to actually attain that happy state.
In the case of Blogger
, which is now owned by Google, you could certainly think that, but you'd be dead wrong. I recently set up a Hacker's Diet Online Development Log
journal on Blogger so participants in the beta test program of that Web application
will have real-time access to changes in the program and the ability to track them with an RSS feed.
Well, call me a nerd, but I always
look at the HTML generated by something I use to publish content, and I was impressed that Blogger declares its pages to be:
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN"
So, naturally, I immediately dispatched the page off to the W3C Markup Validation Service
—“Trust, but verify”…or maybe, in this case, verify then distrust! My humble blog came back with 131 validation errors, many of which were pure bonehead blunders such as not encoding ampersands in URL query strings as XHTML text entities. To simplify the test, I created a throw-away blog with absolutely minimal content, XHTML Standards: Does Anybody Care?
and subjected it to the scrutiny
of the W3C Validator. The verdict?…a mere 73 errors on a page with a single posting.
Nobody compelled Google/Blogger to produce XHTML 1.0 Strict pages—they voluntarily chose to assert compatibility with that standard, while other, less demanding alternatives were available. But whatever standard you choose, you should be willing to be held to it, and in this case the blogging platform used by tens of millions of people falls flat on its face. Personally, I would be stone ashamed to ship something in this state. That Google, with what amounts to unlimited funds in our talent-constrained
industry, plus the putatively smartest and certainly most smug technical staff, contents themselves with this is perhaps an indication that before expounding on issues of good and evil, one should first address the more mundane matter of competence.
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Reading List: The Abolition of Man
- Lewis, C. S.
The Abolition of Man.
New York: HarperCollins,  1947.
This short book (or long essay—the main text is but
83 pages) is subtitled “Reflections on education
with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper
forms of schools” but, in fact, is much more: one of
the pithiest and most eloquent defences of traditional values
I recall having read. Writing in the final years of World War II,
when moral relativism was just beginning to infiltrate
the secondary school curriculum, he uses as the point of
departure an English textbook he refers to as “The Green
Book” (actually The Control of Language: A critical
approach to reading and writing, by Alex King and Martin
Ketley), which he dissects as attempting to “debunk”
the development of a visceral sense of right and wrong in
students in the guise of avoiding emotionalism and sentimentality.
From his description of “The Green Book”, it seems
pretty mild compared to the postmodern, multicultural, and
politically correct propaganda aimed at present-day students,
but then perhaps it takes an observer with the acuity of a C. S. Lewis
to detect the poison in such a dilute form. He also identifies
the associated perversion of language which accompanies the subversion
of values. On p. 28 is this brilliant observation, which I only
began to notice myself more than sixty years after Lewis identified it.
“To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such
predicates as ‘necessary”, ‘progressive’,
or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be
forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’,
‘progressing toward what?’, ‘effecting what?’;
in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs
was in their opinion good for its own sake.” But of course
the “progressives” and champions of “efficiency”
don't want you to spend too much time thinking about the
end point of where they want to take you.
Although Lewis's Christianity informs much of his work, religion plays
little part in this argument. He uses the Chinese word Tao
(道) or “The Way” to describe
what he believes are a set of values shared, to some extent, by all
successful civilisations, which must be transmitted to each successive
generation if civilisation is to be preserved. To illustrate the
universality of these principles, he includes a 19 page appendix
listing the pillars of Natural Law, with illustrations taken from
texts and verbal traditions of the Ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Old
Norse, Babylonian, Hindu, Confucian, Greek, Roman, Christian,
Anglo-Saxon, American Indian, and Australian Aborigine cultures. It
seems like those bent on jettisoning these shared values are often
motivated by disdain for the frequently-claimed divine origin of such
codes of values. But their very universality suggests that,
regardless of what myths cultures invent to package them, they
represent an encoding of how human beings work and the distillation of
millennia of often tragic trial-and-error experimentation in search of
rules which allow members of our fractious species to live together
and accomplish shared goals.
edition is available, although I doubt it is authorised, as the
copyright for this work was last renewed in 1974.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Reading List: Children of the Lens
- Smith, Edward E.
Children of the Lens.
Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1947–1948, 1954] 1998.
This is the sixth and final installment of the
Second Stage Lensmen.
Children of the Lens appeared in serial form in
Astounding Science Fiction from November 1947 through
February 1948. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1954
Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the magazine edition.
(Masters of the Vortex
[originally titled The Vortex Blaster] is
set in the Lensman universe, but is not part of the
Galactic Patrol saga; it's a fine yarn, and
I look forward to re-reading it, but the main story
Twenty years have passed since the events chronicled
in Second Stage Lensmen, and the five
children—son Christopher, and the two pairs
of fraternal twin daughters Kathryn, Karen,
Camilla, and Constance—of Gray Lensman Kimball Kinnison
and his wife Clarissa, the sole female
Lens… er…person in the universe
are growing to maturity. The ultimate products of a
selective breeding program masterminded over millennia
by the super-sages of planet Arisia, they have, since
childhood, had the power to link their minds directly
even to the forbidding intelligences of the Second Stage
Despite the cataclysmic events which concluded
Second Stage Lensmen, mayhem in the
galaxies continues, and as this story progresses
it becomes clear to the Children of the Lens that
they, and the entire Galactic Patrol, have been
forged for the final battle between good and evil
which plays out in these pages. But all is not
detonations and battles of
super minds; Doc Smith leavens the story with
humour, and even has some fun at his own expense
when he has the versatile Kimball Kinnison write a
space opera potboiler,
“Its terrible xmex-like snout locked on. Its
zymolosely polydactile tongue crunched out,
crashed down, rasped across. Slurp!
Slurp! … Fools! Did they
think that the airlessness of absolute space, the
heatlessness of absolute zero, the
yieldlessness of absolute neutronium could
stop QADGOP THE MERCOTAN?” (p. 37).
This concludes my fourth lifetime traverse of this epic, and
it never, ever disappoints. Since I first read it more than
thirty years ago, I have considered Children of the
Lens one of the very best works of science fiction
ever, and this latest reading reinforces that conviction. It
is, of course, the pinnacle of a story spanning billions of
years, hundreds of billions of planets, innumerable species, a
multitude of parallel universes, absolute good and
unadulterated evil, and more than 1500 pages, so if you
jump into the story near the end, you're likely to end up
perplexed, not enthralled. It's best either to start at the
beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather
skip the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume
3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written
and can stand alone.