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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.

  Clinton     Obama  
 “You know”s  38 27

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.

Posted at 16:53 Permalink

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reading List: Coincidentally

Rutler, George William. Coincidentally. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8245-2440-1.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's essays on historical coincidences originally published in Crisis Magazine. 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 River.”

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 designation is 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.”

Posted at 22:42 Permalink

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!)

  Clinton     Obama  
Segment 1   13 3
Segment 2 8 7
Segment 3 9 4
Segment 4 10 5
Total: 40 19

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.

Posted at 16:53 Permalink

Monday, February 18, 2008

Reading List: The Twelve Cæsars

[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cæsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
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 an adult.

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 Commentaries (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 are available online.

Posted at 23:00 Permalink

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 Firefox browser can install these two user scripts (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.

Update: 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)

Posted at 00:22 Permalink

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 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.

Posted at 22:52 Permalink

Monday, February 11, 2008

Reading List: Legacy of Ashes

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
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 picture.

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.

Posted at 23:43 Permalink

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 wars?”

Now maybe I've been spending too much time with Gibbon and Suetonius, 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!

Posted at 20:21 Permalink

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.

Posted at 23:55 Permalink

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.

Posted at 00:11 Permalink