Thursday, September 27, 2007
Reading List: Future Jihad
- Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan,  2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and
rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever
you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in
one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.
- There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
- There isn't.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Lignières: When the Cows Come Home
Thursday, September 20, 2007
SubMarie's: Taste-testing Results and New Recipes PostedI have just posted an update to the SubMarie's “open sauce” project, which seeks to reverse-engineer a recipe equivalent to Marie's® Blue Cheese salad dressing. This update, which incorporates information reported in preliminary form in this chronicle here and here, describes comparison taste-testing against the Real Thing and supplies two additional recipes which, I believe, converge more closely toward the desired flavour. As always, you're invited to experiment on your own and report the results, whether yummy or yucky, via the feedback button.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Arrrr! Be ye ready matey?(Guest post by Iron Jack Rackham) Tomorrow, September 19th, is International Talk Like A Pirate Day—are you ready? Avast the foremast! Scupper the binnacle! Belay that bilge pump! Keelhaul the captain (no—wait)! Here is a special keyboard ideal for sending messages to your buccaneer fleet, and a handy translator from English to pirate-speak. What's your pirate name?
Monday, September 17, 2007
Reading List: Degrees Kelvin
- Lindley, David. Degrees Kelvin. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2004. ISBN 0-309-09618-9.
When 17 year old William Thomson arrived at Cambridge University to
study mathematics, Britain had become a backwater of
research in science and mathematics—despite the
technologically-driven industrial revolution being in
full force, little had been done to build upon the
towering legacy of Newton, and cutting edge work had
shifted to the Continent, principally France and Germany.
Before beginning his studies at Cambridge, Thomson had already
published three research papers in the
Cambridge Mathematical Journal, one of which
introduced Fourier's mathematical theory of heat
to English speaking readers, defending it against
criticism from those opposed to the highly analytical
French style of science which Thomson found congenial
to his way of thinking.
Thus began a career which, by the end of the 19th century,
made Thomson widely regarded as the preeminent scientist
in the world: a genuine scientific celebrity.
Over his long career Thomson fused the mathematical
rigour of the Continental style of research with the
empirical British attitude and made fundamental progress
in the kinetic theory of heat, translated Michael Faraday's
intuitive view of electricity and magnetism into a mathematical
framework which set the stage for Maxwell's formal
unification of the two in electromagnetic field theory, and
calculated the age of the Earth based upon heat flow from
the interior. The latter calculation, in which he
estimated only 20 to 40 million years, proved to be wrong,
but was so because he had no way to know about radioactive
decay as the source of Earth's internal heat: he was
explicit in stating that his result assumed no then-unknown
source of heat or, as we'd now say, “no new physics”.
Such was his prestige that few biologists and geologists whose
own investigations argued for a far more ancient Earth stepped
up and said, “Fine—so start looking for the new
physics!” With Peter Tait, he wrote the
Treatise on Natural Philosophy,
the first unified exposition of what we would now call
Thomson believed that science had to be founded in observations
of phenomena, then systematised into formal mathematics and
tested by predictions and experiments. To him, understanding
the mechanism, ideally based upon a mechanical model,
was the ultimate goal. Although acknowledging that Maxwell's
equations correctly predicted electromagnetic phenomena,
he considered them incomplete because they didn't explain
how or why electricity and magnetism behaved that way. Heaven
knows what he would have thought of quantum mechanics (which was
elaborated after his death in 1907).
He'd probably have been a big fan of string theory, though. Never
afraid to add complexity to his mechanical models, he spent two
decades searching for a set of 21 parameters which would describe
the mechanical properties of the luminiferous ether—what
string “landscape” believers might call the moduli
and fluxes of the vacuum, and argued for a “vortex atom”
model in which extended vortex loops replaced pointlike billiard
ball atoms to explain spectrographic results. These speculations
proved, as they say,
not even wrong.
Thomson was not an ivory tower theorist. He viewed the occupation
of the natural philosopher (he disliked the word “physicist”)
as that of a problem solver, with the domain of problems encompassing
the practical as well as fundamental theory. He was a central
figure in the development of the first transatlantic telegraphic
cable and invented the mirror galvanometer which made telegraphy
over such long distances possible. He was instrumental in
defining the units of electricity we still use today. He invented
a mechanical analogue computer for computation of tide tables, and
a compass compensated for the magnetic distortion of iron and steel
warships which became the standard for the Royal Navy. These inventions
made him wealthy, and he indulged his love of the sea by buying
a 126 ton schooner and inviting his friends and colleagues on
In 1892, he was elevated to a peerage by Queen Victoria, made
Baron Kelvin of Largs, the first scientist ever so honoured.
(Numerous scientists, including Newton and
Thomson himself in 1866 had been knighted, but the award of a
peerage is an honour of an entirely different order.) When he
died in 1907 at age 83, he was buried in Westminster Abbey next
to the grave of Isaac Newton. For one who accomplished so much,
and was so celebrated in his lifetime, Lord Kelvin is largely
forgotten today, remembered mostly for the absolute temperature
scale named in his honour and, perhaps, for the Kelvinator company
of Detroit, Michigan which used his still-celebrated name to promote
their ice-boxes and refrigerators. While Thomson had his hand in
much of the creation of the edifice of classical physics in the
19th century, there isn't a single enduring piece of work you can
point to which is entirely his. This isn't indicative of any shortcoming
on his part, but rather of the maturation of science from rare leaps
of insight by isolated geniuses to a collective endeavour by
an international community reading each other's papers and
building a theory by the collaborative effort of many minds. Science
was growing up, and Kelvin's reputation has suffered, perhaps, not
due to any shortcomings in his contributions, but because they were
so broad, as opposed to being identified with a single discovery
which was entirely his own.
This is a delightful biography of a figure whose contributions
to our knowledge of the world we live in are little remembered. Lord
Kelvin never wavered from his belief that science consisted in
collecting the data, developing a model and theory to explain what
was observed, and following the implications of that theory to
their logical conclusions. In doing so, he was often presciently
right and occasionally spectacularly wrong, but he was always true
to science as he saw it, which is how most scientists see their
Amusingly, the chapter titles are:
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Floating Point Benchmark: Pascal Language AddedI have been intending to add Pascal to the languages in which my trigonometry-intense floating point benchmark is implemented, and the recent release of version 2.2.0 of the Free Pascal Compiler provided the impetus to get started on the project. A new release of the benchmark collection including Pascal is now available for downloading. Three different editions are available for the “Classic” Pascal (ISO 7185:1990), Extended Pascal (ISO 10206:1990), and Pascal with Borland extensions dialects of the language. Other than changes in identifier names which do not affect generated code, there are no differences whatsoever among these editions in the actual code comprising the timed benchmark; only non-timed initialisation code is affected. All editions have been compiled without errors or warnings and tested to produce the correct results on both Free Pascal Compiler 2.2.0 and GNU Pascal 2.1. The language relative performance table including results for these two Pascal compilers is as follows.
|C||1||GCC 3.2.3 -O3, Linux|
|Visual Basic .NET||0.866||All optimisations, Windows XP|
|FORTRAN||1.008||GNU Fortran (g77) 3.2.3 -O3, Linux|
|Free Pascal 2.2.0 -O3, Linux
GNU Pascal 2.1 (GCC 2.95.2) -O3, Linux
|Java||1.121||Sun JDK 1.5.0_04-b05, Linux|
|Visual Basic 6||1.132||All optimisations, Windows XP|
|Ada||1.401||GNAT/GCC 3.4.4 -O3, Linux|
|GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Compiled, Linux
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Interpreted
|Python||17.6||Python 2.3.3 -OO, Linux|
|Perl||23.6||Perl v5.8.0, Linux|
|Ruby||26.1||Ruby 1.8.3, Linux|
|Opera 8.0, Linux
Internet Explorer 6.0.2900, Windows XP
Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Linux
|QBasic||148.3||MS-DOS QBasic 1.1, Windows XP Console|
Monday, September 10, 2007
Reading List: A Tale of Two Cities
- Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks,  2005. ISBN 9-62634-359-1.
- Like many people whose high school years predated the abolition of western civilisation from the curriculum, I was compelled to read an abridgement of this work for English class, and only revisited it in this audiobook edition let's say…some years afterward. My rather dim memories of the first read was that it was one of the better novels I was forced to read, but my memory of it was tarnished by my life-long aversion to compulsion of every kind. What I only realise now, after fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of listening to this superb unabridged audio edition, is how much injury is done to the masterful prose of Dickens by abridgement. Dickens frequently uses repetition as a literary device, acting like a basso continuo to set a tone of the inexorable playing out of fate. That very repetition is the first thing to go in abridgement, along with lengthy mood-setting descriptive passages, and they are sorely missed. Having now listened to every word Dickens wrote, I don't begrudge a moment I spent doing so—it's worth it. The novel is narrated or, one might say, performed by British actor Anton Lesser, who adopts different dialects and voice pitches for each character's dialogue. It's a little odd at first to hear French paysans speaking in the accents of rustic Britons, but you quickly get accustomed to it and recognise who's speaking from the voice. The audible.com download edition is sold in two separate “volumes”: volume 1 (7 hours 17 minutes) and volume 2 (7 hours 28 minutes), each about a 100 megabyte download at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition (12 discs!) is available.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
The Hacker's Diet Online: 1000+ accounts openThe night of September 8–9, the thousandth user account on The Hacker's Diet Online was created; at this writing there are 1010 accounts open. As with many free resources on the Web, a substantial number of people create accounts, play with them a little, and then move on to something else, abandoning the account. Of the total of 1010 accounts, 583 (58%) are “active”, defined as having a weight log entry made in the last 30 days. A total of 321 accounts have opted to make their data visible to the public under an automatically-assigned pseudonym. Among these public accounts, 221, or 69% are active. More than 50% of active accounts have updated their weight log within the last seven days, and 38% within the last two days. The mean weight loss across all active accounts is 0.33 kilograms (0.73 pounds) per week, equating to a daily deficit of 359 calories. This isn't necessarily representative of people intending to reduce their weight, as the user base includes people who have already reached their chosen target weight and are using the application to maintain it, as described in the Perfect Weight Forever chapter of the book. On September 8th, the server farm processed a total of 1692 Hacker's Diet Online transactions; note that an update to a monthly log, the most common operation, generates two transactions: one for the updated log page and one for the chart image embedded in it. For the month of September to date, Hacker's Diet Online transactions are in 17th place by frequency of request to the site. The cluster file system synchronisation mechanism, after a fix for a recent hiccup, continues to run smoothly. For full details of changes to the application, visit the Development Log, which consists of extracts from the log embedded in the source code So far, only 24 users have availed themselves of the Web badge facility. This allows the user to configure a dynamically generated image showing their current weight and trend progress (over a user-selected period ranging from one week to one year), in the user's preferred weight and energy units. The badge is automatically updated whenever the user makes a log entry, and when the badge is configured the user is provided with HTML which may be pasted into a Web page or Web log to display the badge to visitors.
Friday, September 7, 2007
Reading List: The Infinite Book
- Barrow, John D. The Infinite Book. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-3224-5.
- Don't panic—despite the title, this book is only 330 pages! Having written an entire book about nothing (The Book of Nothing), I suppose it's only natural the author would take on the other end of the scale. Unlike Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind, long the standard popular work on the topic, Barrow spends only about half of the book on the mathematics of infinity. Philosophical, metaphysical, and theological views of the infinite in a variety of cultures are discussed, as well as the history of the infinite in mathematics, including a biographical portrait of the ultimately tragic life of Georg Cantor. The physics of an infinite universe (and whether we can ever determine if our own universe is infinite), the paradoxes of an infinite number of identical copies of ourselves necessarily existing in an infinite universe, the possibility of machines which perform an infinite number of tasks in finite time, whether we're living in a simulation (and how we might discover we are), and the practical and moral consequences of immortality and time travel are also explored. Mathematicians and scientists have traditionally been very wary of the infinite (indeed, the appearance of infinities is considered an indication of the limitations of theories in modern physics), and Barrow presents any number of paradoxes which illustrate that, as he titles chapter four, “infinity is not a big number”: it is fundamentally different and requires a distinct kind of intuition if nonsensical results are to be avoided. One of the most delightful examples is Zhihong Xia's five-body configuration of point masses which, under Newtonian gravitation, expands to infinite size in finite time. (Don't worry: the finite speed of light, formation of an horizon if two bodies approach too closely, and the emission of gravitational radiation keep this from working in the relativistic universe we inhabit. As the author says [p. 236], “Black holes might seem bad but, like growing old, they are really not so bad when you consider the alternatives.”) This is an enjoyable and enlightening read, but I found it didn't come up to the standard set by The Book of Nothing and The Constants of Nature. Like the latter book, this one is set in a hideously inappropriate font for a work on mathematics: the digit “1” is almost indistinguishable from the letter “I”. If you look very closely at the top serif on the “1” you'll note that it rises toward the right while the “I” has a horizontal top serif. But why go to the trouble of distinguishing the two characters and then making the two glyphs so nearly identical you can't tell them apart without a magnifying glass? In addition, the horizontal bar of the plus sign doesn't line up with the minus sign, which makes equations look awful. This isn't the author's only work on infinity; he's also written a stage play, Infinities, which was performed in Milan in 2002 and 2003.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Weather: Down-to-Earth Rainbow
Click image for an enlargement.
Monday, September 3, 2007
Fourmilab: A Botnet Comes KnockingHere in the Internet slum, you never know who or what's going to be knocking on your door. Starting on September 1st, 2007, a multi-thousand site “botnet” (collection of Microsoft Windows machines infected with software which allows them to be remote-controlled and used to send junk mail or mount distributed denial of service [DDoS] attacks against sites) has sporadically been attacking Fourmilab, to what end I haven't the slightest clue. Each attack begins suddenly, with thousands of IP addresses, distributed around the world, pumping in rapid-fire requests for the site's home page (which is just a Frameset container for the front page). They never request any other page, and the HTTP User-Agent and Referer fields in the Apache Web server log both show up as just “-”. Each individual attack lasts for about fifteen minutes, and ends as abruptly as it began, with a few straggling packets arriving up to a minute later. There have been a total of six of these attacks so far:
|Date||Start time||End time|
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Reading List: One Perfect Day
- Mead, Rebecca. One Perfect Day. New York: Penguin Press, 2007. ISBN 1-59420-088-2.
- This book does for for the wedding industry what Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death did for that equally emotion-exploiting industry which preys upon the other end of adult life. According to the American Wedding Study, published annually by the Condé Nast Bridal Group, the average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2006 was US$27,852. Now, as the author points out on p. 25, this number, without any doubt, is overstated—it is compiled by the publisher of three bridal magazines which has every incentive to show the market they reach to be as large as possible, and is based upon a survey of those already in contact in one way or another with the wedding industry; those who skip all of the theatrics and expense and simply go to City Hall or have a quiet ceremony with close family at home or at the local church are “off the radar” in a survey of this kind and would, if included, bring down the average cost. Still, it's the only figure available, and it is representative of what the wedding industry manages to extract from those who engage (if I may use the word) with it. To folks who have a sense of the time value of money, this is a stunning figure. The average age at which Americans marry has been increasing for decades and now stands at around 26 years for women and 27 years for men. So let's take US$27,000 and, instead of blowing it out on a wedding, assume the couple uses it to open an investment account at age 27, and that they simply leave the money in the account to compound, depositing nothing more until they retire at age 65. If the account has a compounded rate of return of 10% per annum (which is comparable to the long-term return of the U.S. stock market as a whole), then at age 65, that US$27,000 will have grown to just a bit over a million dollars—a pretty nice retirement nest egg as the couple embarks upon their next big change of life, especially since government Ponzi scheme retirement programs are likely to have collapsed by then. (The OpenOffice spreadsheet I used to make this calculation is available for downloading. It also allows you to forecast the alternative of opting for an inexpensive education and depositing the US$19,000 average student loan burden into an account at age 21—that ends up yielding more than 1.2 million at age 65. The idea for this analysis came from Richard Russell's “Rich Man, Poor Man”, which is the single most lucid and important document on lifetime financial planning I have ever read.) The computation assumes the wedding costs are paid in cash by the couple and/or their families. If they're funded by debt, the financial consequences are even more dire, as the couple finds itself servicing a debt in the very years where saving for retirement has the largest ultimate payoff. Ever helpful, in this book we find the Bank of America marketing home equity loans to finance wedding blow-outs. So how do you manage to spend twenty-seven thousand bucks on a one day party? Well, as the author documents, writing with a wry sense of irony which never descends into snarkiness, the resourceful wedding business makes it downright easy, and is continually inventing new ways to extract even more money from their customers. We learn the ways of the wedding planner, the bridal shop operator, the wedding media, resorts, photographers and videographers, à la carte “multi-faith” ministers, drive-through Las Vegas wedding chapels, and the bridal apparel industry, including a fascinating look inside one of the Chinese factories where “the product” is made. (Most Chinese factory workers are paid on a piecework basis. So how do you pay the person who removes the pins after lace has been sewed in place? By the weight of pins removed—US$2 per kilogram.) With a majority of U.S. couples who marry already living together, some having one or more children attending the wedding, the ceremony and celebration, which once marked a major rite of passage and change in status within the community now means…precisely what? Well, not to worry, because the wedding industry has any number of “traditions” for sale to fill the void. The author tracks down the origins of a number of them: the expensive diamond engagement ring (invented by the N. W. Ayer advertising agency in the 1930s for their client, De Beers), the Unity Candle ceremony (apparently owing its popularity to a television soap opera in the 1970s), and the “Apache Indian Prayer”, a favourite of the culturally eclectic, which was actually penned by a Hollywood screenwriter for the 1950 film Broken Arrow. The bottom line (and this book is very much about that) is that in the eyes of the wedding industry, and in the words of Condé Nast executive Peter K. Hunsinger, the bride is not so much a princess preparing for a magic day and embarking upon the lifetime adventure of matrimony, but (p. 31) “kind of the ultimate consumer, the drunken sailor. Everyone is trying to get to her.” There is an index, but no source citations; you'll have to find the background information on your own.