« January 2008 |
| March 2008 »
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
The “You know” Report: Ohio Democratic Presidential Debate
As a follow-up to last week's report
, here is the tally of how many times the candidates interjected “you know” in the course of last night's Democratic presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio.
| “You know”s
Whatever their electoral prospects, Obama is rapidly catching up in the “you know” sweepstakes. While Clinton held about steady: 38 instead of 40 last time, Obama is closing the lead, advancing from 19 before to 27 on this outing. There is one response near the end where he works five “you know”s into a single reply to a question.
No, I certainly didn't listen to another hour and a half of this prattle. This time I made the count from the New York Times transcript
of the event.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Reading List: Coincidentally
- Rutler, George William.
New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's
essays on historical coincidences originally published
Each explores coincidences around a general theme.
“Coincidence” is defined rather loosely and generously.
Consider (p. 160),
“Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was
dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England's poet laureate,
Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844,
multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the
Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware
Here is paragraph from p. 138 which illustrates what's
in store for you in these essays.
Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a
little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy
Flecker (1884–1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the
dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts me too,
especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the
loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this:
the United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (in H. L. Mencken's
estimation “The National Tear-Duct”) officially
protested the ship's sinking on May 13, 1915 which was
the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage of the Duke
of Suffolk to Mary, the widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry
VIII, after she had spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles.
There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set
the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown
(1842–1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “… the
place of the slaying of Itylus / The feast of Daulis, the Thracian
sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that
Swinburne did not end up in it.
I noted several factual errors. For example, on p. 169, Chuck Yeager is
said to have flown a “B-51 Mustang” in World War II (the correct
P-51). Such lapses
make you wonder about the reliability of other details, which are far
more arcane and difficult to verify.
The author is opinionated and not at all hesitant to share his acerbic
perspective: on p. 94 he calls Richard Wagner a
“master of Nazi elevator music”. The vocabulary will send
almost all readers other than William F. Buckley (who contributed a
cover blurb to the book) to the dictionary from time to time. This is
not a book you'll want to read straight through—your head will
end up spinning with all the details and everything will dissolve into
a blur. I found a chapter or two a day about right. I'd sum it up
with Abraham Lincoln's observation “Well, for those who like
that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing
they would like.”
Friday, February 22, 2008
The “You know” Report: Texas Democratic Presidential Debate
Due to the incessant worldwide coverage
of the presidential campaign in the United States, I happened recently to hear some clips from a recent “debate” between the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination. Letting, as usual, the platitudes, demagoguery, and policy nostrums slide right past my ears, what struck me is just how inarticulate
these people are, especially considering that they are graduates of the two top-ranked law schools
in the United States, members of the so-called “world's greatest deliberative body”, and one of whom is celebrated for his silver-tongued eloquence. In particular, I noted that both Clinton's and Obama's extemporaneous speech were afflicted by that characteristic verbal tic of the boomer and subsequent generations, the incessant injection of “you know” into statements which, presumably, the speaker is making because the audience doesn't know
what's about to be said.
I wouldn't be an engineer if I didn't immediately want to quantify an observation like this, so I set up my VCR to tape the debate held on February 21st, 2008 in Austin, Texas. (It started at 2 A.M.
the following day in my time zone.) Playing back the tape (while getting some actually productive work done at the same time), I counted the number of times each candidate interjected “you know” in each of the four segments of the encounter. (Now don't say I'm unwilling to endure pain to bring items like this to you!)
Between the two, they hurled fifty-nine content-free “you know”s at the audience, or about one every 90 seconds. Obama occasionally seems to say “ya”, as if he's about to spout a “you know” but leaves it at that—I did not count those.
Also, what's with Clinton clapping for herself when the audience is applauding the candidates at the start and end of the debate? That's something I always associated with the Soviet gerontocracy lined up on Lenin's tomb reviewing the May Day parade.
I think Obama also did it occasionally at the beginning (the shot was from behind, and it was difficult to tell), but not at the end.
I shall now resume ignoring this tawdry business. Perhaps we will someday recall the present as an epoch of lucidity; when the generation who posts comments on YouTube slouches onto the public stage, we may have to endure OMG, LOL, and gratuitous obscenities as well.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Reading List: The Twelve Cæsars
Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus].
The Twelve Cæsars.
Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity
is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book.
Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became
director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and
then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage
of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the
history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded
him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in
A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was
Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is
like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became
apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his
employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market
venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has
not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred
from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous
Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical
Defects of Mankind.
Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially
Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a
PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short
and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the
epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right
into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and
sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of
Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series
“Rome” was over the top, if
Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.
Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some
dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly
savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon
the historical record in the interest of titillation.
He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams
as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious
as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical
events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the
people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often,
before they became bored and left it to run unattended.
But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since
this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and
Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been
lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the
decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to
Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.
This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16
minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton
Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's
(August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in
B.C. and A.D. along
with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text.
Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available.
The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Monkeying with the Mainstream Media
Legacy “mainstream” media outlets engage in numerous forms
of bias to advance their assorted agendas. One of the most subtle is
the selective use of “trigger words” which, due to
indoctrination and repetition, evoke an emotional response in the
audience which short-cuts rational judgement. Users of the
install these two
(which require the Greasemonkey
cross-platform add-on) to
highlight trigger words in documents they read on the
Web, and automatically translate politically correct and slanted
bafflegab to plain talk.
I've just posted a new version which restricts the transformations of both scripts to documents with MIME types of HTML and XHTML. The original version would apply the transformations to other document types, for example text/plain
, which could corrupt program source code or other text not intended to be read by humans. To update, simply revisit the script home page
and click the installation links for the script(s). (2008-02-18 23:36 UTC)
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Apple/iTunes: Audio Problem Fixed (At Least for Me)
On January 31st, I wrote here
about a disastrous problem in the Apple QuickTime 7.4 release which accompanied iTunes 126.96.36.199 that caused all video content purchased from the iTunes Store to play without audio. According to the Apple support forum thread I cited in that item, the problem was first reported on January 15th, 2008. Well, almost a month later, they seem to have gotten around to fixing it. Last night I downloaded the QuickTime 7.4.1 update (note that “Check for updates” within iTunes will not notify you of this update—you need to launch QuickTime separately and use its own check for updates menu item) and all of the previously-purchased video has once again entered the age of the talkies.
I originally stumbled into this cesspit of customer contempt when I tried to rent a movie from the iTunes Store. I have not verified that the QuickTime update properly plays rented movies and, given the bitter taste this experience has left in my mouth, it'll probably be some time before I buy anything else from Apple.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Reading List: Legacy of Ashes
- Weiner, Tim.
Legacy of Ashes.
New York: Doubleday, 2007.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which
paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue,
subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from
infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion
into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook,
however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is
a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that
long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations
in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and
ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor
Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially
one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to
bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually
able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual
choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of
similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its
menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about
the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting
stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about
the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's
sources and methods be disclosed.
This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer
prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years,
most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth
of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the
latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with
every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other
agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the
CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty
Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own
sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present
senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy,
from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of
ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological
warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too
often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of
those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders
of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order
covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits
and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders
and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for
those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon
the present-day world.
While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks
and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary
intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to
such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever
of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that
conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the
Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the
Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more.
The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing
a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak
and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)
Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light
onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on
the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many
of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century
including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past
and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes
everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material
which has become available since then provides the first clear
look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154
pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which
expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass
them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to
read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.
Monday, February 4, 2008
An Unseemly Caesarism
If you occasionally consult U.S.-based media for news and
information, it's astonishing the extent to which the
coverage is dominated by the eternal presidential campaign underway
there. For more than a year, with more than nine months to
go until the election, Topic A has been the horserace
between this and that candidate, or dissecting the consequences
of the innumerable “debates” organised by
legacy media among contenders for the office.
What the heck is going on here? Karl Hess
, in his Playboy
interview in July 1976 (I'm paraphrasing from memory
because I don't have the magazine and can't find a transcript
online—should any of you folks who have one in the attic [I know,
you only bought it for the fiction and articles about cars], please
send me a scan so I can get this right), “If I were walking
down Pennsylvania Avenue and suddenly wondered, ‘God damn!
Should we go to war with Denmark?’ then I might want to talk
to the president of the United States. Otherwise, why should the
president have anything to do with my life?”
Indeed…. Why, in a civil society, where the myriad voluntary
interactions among citizens form its foundation, should the
choice of an executive charged solely with administering laws and commanding
armed forces used only in external conflicts occupy such mind share
among so large a population (or at least be assumed to, or
promoted as such by the legacy media aimed at them)?
And this obsession doesn't stop at the porous borders of the United
States. Here in Europe, we're constantly bombarded with news of
the latest ups and downs in the race to select the next Leader
of the Free World (which still, thankfully, elicits chuckles and the occasional guffaw
among European audiences).
What explains this total obsession with the choice of a person to
occupy an office which is constitutionally charged only
with commanding the armed forces and
executing laws enacted by the legislative branch of government?
I'd call it Cæsarism
, and it's unseemly and unworthy of a republic.
The Roman Republic prided itself, over more than four centuries of history,
of having no need of kings—indeed, any magistrate who
pretended to authority beyond his mandate was reproached for
seeking powers unbefitting a Roman citizen. And yet, within
a few Cæsars after Julius and Augustus, the entire focus of
Rome was on “who shall be Cæsar” and what shall
he do to or for us. Such are the wages of empire. Nobody seems to
have asked, “Gee, we got along just fine for 450
years without any Cæsars at all (albeit the odd dictator
). Why, exactly, does it matter
now who we choose to pick our pockets and send us off to die in foreign
Now maybe I've been spending too much time with
but it seems to me that this obsession with the person at the top of
the pyramid is not just unseemly but dangerous—it's corrosive of
republican virtue in favour of worship of authority, and that always
ends badly. Does a country of nearly a third of a billion people confronted
with a multitude of challenges seriously believe that the
choice of a single person to “lead them” is the most
important question they face, to the exclusion of a multitude of
policy issues in trade, taxes, energy, immigration, culture,
demographics, and others which, under their constitution, should be addressed by their elected legislative representatives at the local, state, and federal levels? If so, I pity them.
Perhaps if the American electorate really wishes to be ruled
, they should vote for the one candidate
who promises that without any ambiguity!
Sunday, February 3, 2008
The Hacker's Diet Online: 3000+ Accounts Open, 1000+ Active, 350+ Public
It's been a while since I recapped the status of The Hacker's Diet Online
, so I thought I'd do so today, it being kind of, almost, near the start of a month.
The Hacker's Diet Online
Web application now has 3083 open
accounts with 1035 active (defined as one or more log entries in the last 30 days).
Among active accounts, 60% have made a log entry in the last 3 days.
The mean weight loss for all active accounts is 0.41 kg/week, equivalent
to a deficit of 447 calories per day. (Since the user
population includes people such as myself and many of the early adopters
who have long ago stabilised their weight and are maintaining an
equilibrium weight, this is somewhat less than the figure for those reducing
their weight. The recommended daily calorie deficit in the book
is 500, and the online user community appears to be converging upon this figure as the weight-maintenance population
becomes a minority next to those just beginning the reduction phase of their respective diets.)
Of the 1035 users with active accounts, 383 have opted to make their logs and charts available publicly under a pseudonym, and 151 have enabled generation of a “Web badge” which allows displaying their progress on a public Web page.
Friday, February 1, 2008
It Was Fifty Years Ago Today. . .
On February 1st, 1958 at 03:48 UTC, Explorer I
, the United States' first Earth satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a Juno I
rocket. (The launch occurred at 22:48 local time on January 31st at the launch site, so the anniversary is often commemorated on that date; since satellite ephemerides are recorded in Universal Time, I'll use that convention.)
Here are four videos
showing contemporary film of the development of the satellite and its launch, and here is another from the Army's The Big Picture
(remember seeing these on tee-vee in the Fifties?). Note that back then they counted down to “X” instead of “T”—I suppose there were, indeed, a lot more unknowns in a rocket launch of that epoch. Also, zero was the time when the firing signal was given, which initiated tank pressurisation and the ignition sequence, not the time of liftoff, which was about 16 seconds later. Of course, Redstone-class rockets simply sat on a launch table; there were no hold-downs, so there wasn't the concept of “launch commit” as on fancier boosters.
In all of these videos, the launch vehicle is referred to as a Jupiter-C
. This is how I recall it being described at the time, but this is not strictly correct: the rocket was renamed Juno I
, perhaps to obscure its derivation from the Jupiter-C, a testbed for nosecone technology for the Jupiter
medium-range ballistic missile. Although the first stages of the Jupiter-C and Juno I (which were identical—the launchers differed only in their solid fuel upper stages) were derived from and bore a strong resemblance to the Redstone
, there were significant differences, The propellant tanks were stretched, and the Jupiter-C and Juno used a higher energy fuel: a mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and diethylenetriamine instead of the ethanol/water mixture used in the Redstone.
Explorer I remained in orbit until March 31st, 1970, by which time four humans had walked on the Moon.