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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Reading List: The Party of Death

Ponnuru, Ramesh. The Party of Death. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-59698-004-4.
One party government is not a pretty thing. Just as competition in the marketplace reins in the excesses of would-be commercial predators (while monopoly encourages them to do their worst), long-term political dominance by a single party inevitably leads to corruption, disconnection of the ruling elites from their constituents, and unsustainable policy decisions which are destructive in the long term; this is precisely what has eventually precipitated the collapse of most empires. In recent years the federal government of the United States has been dominated by the Republican party, with all three branches of government and both houses of the congress in Republican hands. Chapter 18 of this fact-packed book cites a statistic which provides a stunning insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the decline of the Democratic party. In 1978, Democrats held 292 seats in the House of Representatives: an overwhelming super-majority of more than two thirds. Of these Democrats, 125, more than 40%, were identified as “pro-life”—opposed to abortion on demand and federal funding of abortion. But by 2004, only 35 Democrats in the House were identified as pro-life: fewer than 18%, and the total number of Democrats had shrunk to only 203, a minority of less than 47%. It is striking to observe that over a period of 26 years the number of pro-life Democrats has dropped by 90, almost identical to the party's total loss of 89 seats.

Now, the Democratic decline is more complicated than any single issue, but as the author documents, the Democratic activist base and large financial contributors are far more radical on issues of human life: unrestricted and subsidised abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research which destroys human embryos, and human cloning for therapeutic purposes, than the American public at large. (The often deceptive questions used to manipulate the results of public opinion polls and the way they are spun in the overwhelmingly pro-abortion legacy media are discussed at length.) The activists and moneybags make the Democratic party a hostile environment for pro-life politicians and has, over the decades, selected them out, applying an often explicit litmus test to potential candidates, who are not allowed to deviate from absolutist positions. Their adherence to views not shared by most voters then makes them vulnerable in the general election.

Apart from the political consequences, the author examines the curious flirtation of the American left with death in all its forms—a strange alliance for a political philosophy which traditionally stressed protecting the weak and vulnerable: in the words of Hubert Humphrey (who was pro-life), “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” (p. 131).

The author argues against the panoply of pro-death policies exclusively from a human rights standpoint. Religion is not mentioned except to refute the claim that pro-life policies are an attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on a secular society. The human rights argument could not be simpler to grasp: if you believe that human beings have inherent, unalienable rights, simply by being human, then what human right could conceivably be more fundamental than the right not to be killed. If one accepts this (and the paucity of explicitly pro-murder voters would seem to indicate the view is broadly shared), then the only way one can embrace policies which permit the destruction of a living human organism is to define criteria which distinguish a “person” who cannot be killed, from those who are not persons and therefore can. Thus one hears the human embryo or fetus (which has the potential of developing into an adult human) described as a “potential human”, and medical patients in a persistent vegetative state as having no personhood. Professor Peter Singer, bioethicist at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University argues (p. 176), “[T]he concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”

But the problem with drawing lines that divide unarguably living human beings into classes of persons and nonpersons is that the distinctions are rarely clear-cut. If a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is a nonperson, then what changes on the first day of the fourth month to confer personhood on the continuously developing baby? Why not five months, or six? And if a woman in the U.S. has a constitutionally protected right to have her child killed right up until the very last part of its body emerges from the birth canal (as is, in fact, the regime in effect today in the United States, notwithstanding media dissimulation of this reality), then what's so different about killing a newborn baby if, for example, it was found to have a birth defect which was not detected in utero. Professor Singer has no problem with this at all; he enumerates a variety of prerequisites for personhood: “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”, and then concludes “Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

It's tempting to dismiss Singer as another of the many intellectual Looney Tunes which decorate the American academy, but Ponnuru defends him for having the intellectual integrity to follow the premises he shares with many absolutists on these issues all the way to their logical conclusions, which lead Singer to conclude (p. 186), “[d]uring the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse…. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” Doesn't that sound like a wonderful world, especially for those of us who expect to live out our declining years as that brave new era dawns, at least for those suitably qualified “persons” permitted to live long enough to get there?

Many contend that such worries are simply “the old slippery slope argument”, thinking that settles the matter. But the problem is that the old slippery slope argument is often right, and in this case there is substantial evidence that it very much applies. The enlightened Dutch seem to have slid further and faster than others in the West, permitting both assisted suicide for the ill and euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants at the parents' request—in theory. In fact, it is estimated that five percent of of all deaths in The Netherlands are the result of euthanasia by doctors without request (which is nominally illegal), and that five percent of infanticide occurs without the request or consent of the parents, and it is seldom noted in the media that the guidelines which permit these “infanticides” actually apply to children up to the age of twelve. Perhaps that's why the Dutch are so polite—young hellions run the risk not only of a paddling but also of “post-natal abortion”. The literally murderous combination of an aging population supported by a shrinking number of working-age people, state-sanctioned euthanasia, and socialised medicine is fearful to contemplate.

These are difficult issues, and the political arena has become so polarised into camps of extremists on both sides that rational discussion and compromise seem almost impossible. This book, while taking a pro-life perspective, eschews rhetoric in favour of rational argumentation grounded in the principles of human rights which date to the Enlightenment. One advantage of applying human rights to all humans is that it's simple and easy to understand. History is rich in examples which show that once a society starts sorting people into persons and nonpersons, things generally start to go South pretty rapidly. Like it or not, these are issues which modern society is going to have to face: advances in medical technologies create situations that call for judgements people never had to make before. For those who haven't adopted one extreme position or another, and are inclined to let the messy democratic process of decision making sort this out, ideally leaving as much discretion as possible to the individuals involved, as opposed to absolutist “rights” discovered in constitutional law and imposed by judicial diktat, this unsettling book is a valuable contribution to the debate. Democratic party stalwarts are unlikely in the extreme to read it, but they ignore this message at their peril.

The book is not very well-edited. There are a number of typographical errors and on two occasions (pp.  94 and 145), the author's interpolations in the middle of extended quotations are set as if they were part of the quotation. It is well documented; there are thirty-four pages of source citations.

Posted at 20:30 Permalink

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Windows Screen Savers: Slide Show Updated

The Slide Show screen saver has been updated, with Release 2.0 posted today. The previous 1.3 release, dating from February 2003, already supported dual screen configurations on Windows XP; the new release saves its settings in the Windows registry, so each user on a machine may have their own personal settings, and administrator privilege is no longer required to save settings.

The randomisation of images and sound files in “shuffle play” mode has been improved. Previously, it suffered from the flaw discussed in section 10.8 of Ferguson and Schneier's Practical Cryptography: when generating pseudorandom integers between zero and an upper bound which is not a power of two minus one, taking numbers between zero and a large power of two minus one modulo the upper bound creates a bias toward values in the lower part of the range. The degree of the bias depends upon the difference between the upper bound and the next greater power of two. The simplest solution to this problem is to generate pseudorandom numbers between zero and the next power of two greater than the upper bound, and if the result exceeds the upper bound, simply discard it and try again. This wastes some time (in the worst case, you may generate, on average, twice as many pseudorandom values as you require), but it eliminates the bias. That is the approach I took here, since I'm only generating permutation samples for the Moses/Oakford/Durstenfeld shuffling algorithm (Algorithm P in section 3.4.2 of Knuth's Seminumerical Algorithms), and only do this once for each traversal of the entire list of images and sound files, the additional overhead is negligible—much less than painting a single image on the screen.

A completely new feature in Release 2.0 is support for “Internet shortcuts” (.url files). One of the more obscure features of Windows is the ability to create a shortcut not just to a local or workgroup shared file (like a Unix symbolic link), but also to a URL on the Web. Clicking one of these shortcuts should display the page it links to in your browser. The Slide Show screen saver now looks for these Internet shortcuts in your designated slide directory and, if your machine is connected to the Internet when the screen saver starts, displays the images and sound files they designate. This allows you to include dynamic Web imagery in your slide show such as the Earth from the Sun, Moon from the Earth, Sun from the Earth-Sun L1 point, current cloud cover for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, a view from the North Pole Web Camera, and real-time audio information like the Fourmilab text-to-speech toys I cobbled together with Perl and the Festival Speech Synthesis System which make your computer say the current Universal Time, Julian Day, or quotes for stock market indices. (What happens when you click these audio links depends upon how your browser is configured to handle downloads of .wav audio files; even if they don't play, or your browser wants to save them to a file, the screen saver should still play them correctly.)

Downloading of image and sound files from the Internet is mediated by the cache mechanism used by Internet Explorer and other Internet-aware Windows applications. Repeated requests for files which have not changed since the last time they were retrieved will generate minimal Internet traffic.

I should note one little gotcha I ran into whilst testing this screen saver on Windows 2000 (I don't know if this also affects Windows XP—it may). The screen saver's configuration dialogue contains two buttons which display “Internet help” by pointing the user's Web browser to relevant Web pages, using the facilities in the urlmon.dll API. “The buttons, they do nothing!”, however, if I have the default browser configured to something other than Internet Explorer. (The HlinkNavigateString call returns the informative error code E_FAIL to elucidate the precise circumstances of the difficulty.) Since in these days of persistent broadband Internet connectivity more and more applications assume they can pop up Web pages at will, users who find themselves deprived of this boon might try reconfiguring Internet Explorer as the default browser and seeing what happens. (This is not a recommendation to use Internet Explorer—just an observation about another possible attempt to deter users from choosing something better. As soon as I was done testing the screen saver, I reset my default browser to a proper one.)

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Monday, July 24, 2006

Windows Screen Savers: Bullets Updated

So call me Johnny one-note. It's too doggone hot  to do any ambitious development work, so I'm swooping (sometimes, when supporting a long list of software, you just gotta swoop) through the screen savers, rebuilding them with libraries which support adjacent screen configurations on recent versions of Windows, and moving their settings into the (gasp) registry, which permits multiple users on the same machine to have their own individual settings for each screen saver and, more importantly, allows users without administrator privilege to save their settings.

Today's “new and improved” screen saver is the venerable Bullets, which was originally released in May of 1996 to celebrate my contemporary decision to abandon Windows software development. Well, I've suffered a few relapses since then, but for the most part I've sworn off investing my limited time on this planet into developing software which is not, as on competently implemented platforms, intellectual capital, but rather a wasting asset, kind of like an option with a two-year-out strike date which is at the mercy of the irresponsible and undisciplined Kode Kiddies of Redmond.

Deep breath…much better now. Working with this crap just does this to me—sorry. In any case, there are four more screen savers to go until all have been rebuilt and transmogrified into registry twiddlers. I'll announce them here when they're posted, and try assiduously to eschew philippics like the present in subsequent scribblings.

Posted at 23:32 Permalink

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Windows Screen Savers: Craters, Earth, and Sky Updated

The Craters, Earth, and Sky screen savers have been updated to be compatible with dual-screen configurations on Windows XP and store their settings in the registry under HKEY_CURRENT_USER, which allows different users of the same machine to have their own individual preferences for the same screen saver (and, more importantly, users without administrative privileges to save their preferences).

All of these screen savers have been re-built with Microsoft Visual C 7.0 (Visual Studio .NET) and dual screen operation verified on my development machine. I ran into a curious problem in the Craters screen saver, which is “legacy code” originally written for 16-bit Windows 3.1. It used GetWindowRect(GetDesktopWindow(),…) to determine the size of the screen. In fact, on Windows XP Professional, this call returns only the horizontal dimension of the first configured monitor; I have no idea what vertical dimension it returns if two displays with different heights are configured. Programs which care about the dimensions of the actual composite screen should call GetClientRect with the handle to the window passed to the screen saver's WindowProc, which returns the true dimensions of the adjacent screens.

Update: I have added the Sky screen saver to the list of those updated as I found the time today to integrate the registry settings code and I didn't want to burden those who follow RSS updates with an announcement of such a minor event. (2006-07-23 21:47 UTC).

Update: I've rewritten the second paragraph of this item to clarify that the problem which caused the Craters screen saver to paint only the first of a dual monitor configuration was that it called GetWindowRect to determine the screen dimensions, not that it obtained the handle of the desktop window with GetDesktopWindow . (2006-07-24 13:32 UTC).

Posted at 23:47 Permalink

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Puzzle: What the Sam Hill?

L. Neil Smith and Scott Bieser are releasing their new libertarian parallel universe comic book graphic novel Roswell, Texas in serial form on the Web, for free. New pages are posted every Friday until the story is complete. The artwork is so gorgeous that I'm sure everybody who enjoys stories of this kind will be sure to buy a printed copy even though they've already read the story on-line.

The events in the last few weeks' installments take place in the vicinity of Sam Hill, a Mount Rushmore-like monument in the desert (please click the link and see for yourself—that page contains no spoilers for the story). Now the fellow on the right is obviously Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and it's a fair bet one of the others is Sam Houston, but if, like me, your memory for faces isn't all that great, you might not be able to immediately identify the others and figure out who's who…at least I couldn't, and it bugged me. Can you identify all the faces?

Posted at 16:06 Permalink

Friday, July 21, 2006

Reading List: Programming the Universe

Lloyd, Seth. Programming the Universe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-4092-2.
The author has devoted his professional career to exploring the deep connections between information processing and the quantum mechanical foundations of the universe. Although his doctorate is in physics, he is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, which I suppose makes him an honest to God quantum mechanic. A pioneer in the field of quantum computation, he suggested the first physically realisable quantum computational device, and is author of the landmark papers which evaluated the computational power of the “ultimate laptop”computer which, if its one kilogram of mass and one litre of volume crunched any faster, would collapse into a black hole; estimated the computational capacity of the entire visible universe; and explored how gravitation and spacetime could be emergent properties of a universal quantum computation.

In this book, he presents these concepts to a popular audience, beginning by explaining the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and the principles of quantum computation, before moving on to the argument that the universe as a whole is a universal quantum computer whose future cannot be predicted by any simulation less complicated than the universe as a whole, nor any faster than the future actually evolves (a concept reminiscent of Stephen Wolfram's argument in A New Kind of Science, but phrased in quantum mechanical rather than classical terms). He argues that all of the complexity we observe in the universe is the result of the universe performing a computation whose input is the random fluctuations created by quantum mechanics. But, unlike the proverbial monkeys banging on typewriters, the quantum mechanical primate fingers are, in effect, typing on the keys of a quantum computer which, like the cellular automata of Wolfram's book, has the capacity to generate extremely complex structures from very simple inputs. Why was the universe so simple shortly after the big bang? Because it hadn't had the time to compute very much structure. Why is the universe so complicated today? Because it's had sufficient time to perform 10122 logical operations up to the present.

I found this book, on the whole, a disappointment. Having read the technical papers cited above before opening it, I didn't expect to learn any additional details from a popularisation, but I did hope the author would provide a sense for how the field evolved and get a sense of where he saw this research programme going in the future and how it might (or might not) fit with other approaches to the unification of quantum mechanics and gravitation. There are some interesting anecdotes about the discovery of the links between quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory, and the personalities involved in that work, but one leaves the book without any sense for where future research might be going, nor how these theories might be tested by experiment in the near or even distant future. The level of the intended audience is difficult to discern. Unlike some popularisers of science, Lloyd does not shrink from using equations where they clarify physical relationships and even introduces and uses Dirac's “bra-ket” notation (for example, <φ|ψ>), yet almost everywhere he writes a number in scientific notation, he also gives it in the utterly meaningless form of (p. 165) “100 billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion” (OK, I've done that myself, on one occasion, but I was having fun at the expense of a competitor). And finally, I find it dismaying that a popular science book by a prominent researcher published by a house as respectable as Knopf at a cover price of USD26 lacks an index—this is a fundamental added value that the reader deserves when parting with this much money (especially for a book of only 220 pages). If you know nothing about these topics, this volume will probably leave you only more confused, and possibly over-optimistic about the state of quantum computation. If you've followed the field reasonably closely, the author's professional publications (most available on-line), which are lucidly written and accessible to the non-specialist, may be more rewarding.

I remain dubious about grandiose claims for quantum computation, and nothing in this book dispelled my scepticism. From Democritus all the way to the present day, every single scientific theory which assumed the existence of a continuum has been proved wrong when experiments looked more closely at what was really going on. Yet quantum mechanics, albeit a statistical theory at the level of measurement, is completely deterministic and linear in the evolution of the wave function, with amplitudes given by continuous complex values which embody, theoretically, an infinite amount of information. Where is all this information stored? The Bekenstein bound gives an upper limit on the amount of information which can be represented in a given volume of spacetime, and that implies that even if the quantum state were stored nonlocally in the entire causally connected universe, the amount of information would be (albeit enormous), still finite. Extreme claims for quantum computation assume you can linearly superpose any number of wave functions and thus encode as much information as you like in a single computation. The entire history of science, and of quantum mechanics itself makes me doubt that this is so—I'll bet that we eventually find some inherent granularity in the precision of the wave function (perhaps round-off errors in the simulation we're living within, but let's not revisit that). This is not to say, nor do I mean to imply, that quantum computation will not work; indeed, it has already been demonstrated in proof of concept laboratory experiments, and it may well hold the potential of extending the growth of computational power after the pure scaling of classical computers runs into physical limits. But just as shrinking semiconductor devices is fundamentally constrained by the size of atoms, quantum computation may be limited by the ultimate precision of the discrete computational substrate of the universe which behaves, on the large scale, like a continuous wave function.

Posted at 23:32 Permalink

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fourmilab Beats Google in Google's Accessible Search

Google Labs have launched Google Accessible Search, a variant of Google's search engine which gives a higher rank to pages which are accessible to blind (or, in the PC-speak in vogue at collectivist hard-left Google, “Visually Challenged”) individuals, many of whom use text-based screen reader programs when accessing Web pages.

The 1999 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium are an excellent place to learn how to make your Web pages accessible to the blind. Most of these are quite obvious, but may be easily overlooked by a sighted person: for example, never rely exclusively on an image map as a means of navigation; always provide meaningful “alt=” descriptions for images; and never use just colour to express semantic information. I had a head start in learning Web page accessibility because Speak Freely, as one of the first Internet telephone applications which actually worked, attracted a large number of blind users who pointed out where I stumbled in making both the application and the Web pages which supported it usable to them.

Ever since, I've tried to make every page I create accessible to the blind. An excellent way to test your own pages for accessibility is simply to view them with a text-only browser such as Lynx; if you can understand the content of your pages and navigate among them with Lynx, blind users probably won't have any problems visiting your site.

The new Google Accessible Search provides a useful report card on how your site ranks in accessibility among its peers. Google Blogoscoped have set up a comparison page where you can see the results for a given Google query in the regular and accessible searches side by side. For several of the words for which Fourmilab is a heavy hitter, the results are quite interesting. The table gives the rank in search results that Fourmilab's top-ranked page has on the regular Google search compared to its rank in the Accessible search.

Query Normal Accessible
Earth 4 2
Moon 7 3
Diet 12 4
Autodesk 12 5
Solar System 15 6

Amusingly, in the searches for “Earth” and “Moon” (how topical on Moon Day!), Google Earth and Google Moon, respectively, come in first in the regular searches but are beaten by Fourmilab and other sites in the Accessible search for each term. Note that Google search results are notoriously difficult to repeat; I am reporting results from my own queries via the comparison page cited above: your results may differ.

Posted at 22:43 Permalink

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Hacker's Diet: Beta Blockers and Persistent Weight Gain

I wrote The Hacker's Diet in the latter half of 1990, about two years after I completed the 1988 diet in which I developed and used the techniques described in the book. After two years of stable weight following the end of the diet, I was reasonably confident that the mechanism I'd discovered for long-term weight maintenance was not only workable (which follows from the laws of control theory and thermodynamics) but something I could live with on an ongoing basis and not backslide from because it was too onerous. Indeed, by 1991 I had already pretty much arrived at the state described near the end of the “Perfect Weight Forever” chapter where I no longer felt the need to plan meals and count calories because having done so had taught me the portion sizes of various foods that balanced the calorie budget. (And since I continued to monitor my weight and compute the trend, any error in estimation would show up in the charts long before it became difficult to correct.)

In most of the fifteen years since I finished the book, that's been the situation; I continue to monitor daily weight and compute the trend (now using the Palm handheld software I developed in 2002), but don't bother to plan meals and count calories because experience has taught me how much to eat. For the last year, however, I've observed a consistent upward tendency in my weight, roughly equivalent to a daily excess of about 200 calories. Now, this has not resulted in my packing on weight, because each time I “bump the band”—observe the trend to rise more than two kilograms above my weight target—I apply the brakes and bring it back down by deliberately cutting about 500 calories a day from my intake, which is unpleasant, but hardly onerous. It would certainly be better, to be sure, to avoid this process and return to the effortless balance I'd maintained in the preceding years, and even more, as an engineer, to understand the cause, especially as I have made no substantial change in what I eat, portion sizes, frequency of meals, nor level of physical activity compared to earlier years. I've turned over this puzzle quite a bit in my mind over the last few months.

Then, today, I figured it out. Ever since that speech I didn't give on Friday the Thirteenth of May 2005, I have been taking a daily dose of a beta blocker (to be precise, 142.5 mg/day of the β1 antagonist metoprolol succinate) as part of a regime to manage the life-long high blood pressure I inherited. Beta blockers also act to stabilise cardiac arrythmias, something in which I've taken an intense interest since that day in May. But, as with most pharmaceuticals, that isn't all they do. The most obvious effect of beta blocker treatment is a reduction in the resting pulse rate. In my case, this ran around 72 beats per minute before, but now averages around 60 and often falls into the mid-50s. Further, the heart rate doesn't “come off the peg” as quickly when you exercise or perform strenuous work: endurance doesn't seem to be affected, but the ability to quickly transition from sitting down to briskly hiking up a steep hill certainly does.

This is just part of a general reduction in the basal metabolic rate—the rate at which the body consumes energy (and thus burns calories) which amounts to about 10% for a typical person. Before starting on the beta blocker, my daily burn rate was about 2200 calories, and if you take 10% of that, you come up with 220 fewer calories a day burned when the metabolic rate was reduced (actually, somewhat less, since calories burned during exercise and other non-resting activities are not reduced as much). Well, there's the 200 calorie discrepancy—amazing, isn't it, how utterly obvious something like this always seems once you've twigged to what's actually going on!

While this was news to me, the connection between beta blockers and weight gain has been observed in clinical trials as far back as the 1980s. This 2004 paper (registration required) provides an overview and cites other, more subtle effects which may also lead to weight gain, including suppression of the breakdown of fat. A 1995 paper, of which only the abstract appears to be available on-line, argues that exercise may mitigate these effects, so those looking for yet another reason to lengthen their lives by getting off the couch have one more if they're taking these pills.

The bottom line is that beta blocker treatment will probably cut your daily calorie burn a tad less than 10%—the more active you are, the less the percent reduction, and, absent a change in activity, you're probably going to have to cut your daily calorie intake by the same fraction to avoid an upward creep in weight. The good news is that those who follow the weight monitoring and management program from The Hacker's Diet won't be blindsided when this happens. They may, as I was, be puzzled for some time as to the cause, but the automatic adjustment of calorie intake will keep them within the tolerance band around their desired weight. Reducing calorie intake shouldn't result in hunger, since you're only matching your intake to burn, which was the status quo ante; the smaller portion size may not look as satisfying on the plate, but it meets your now-reduced calorie requirement just as well.

And, just to stave off questions from concerned readers, I couldn't feel better. The beta blockers and other medicinal molecules have stomped my previously skull-shattering blood pressure right back into the middle of the green zone, and I'm perfectly willing to eat a little less every day to maintain this result. Also, as the author of The Hacker's Diet, it's reassuring to know that the weight management scheme I designed more than fifteen years ago worked when put to the test of an unidentified input it took me more than a year to understand; this means that even when something is going on that you haven't figured out (like the “Chef Bubba” example in the “Losing Weight” chapter of the book), you still won't lose control of your weight until you do manage to identify the cause. Despite being based upon my own experience, this is not a narrow issue: according to a recent newspaper report, fully one in six people in the United States takes beta blockers, which are the fifth most frequently prescribed drug there. Given the prevalence of obesity in the United States, this connection is something to keep in mind.

Posted at 23:23 Permalink

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Reading List: Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West

Reasoner, James. Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West. New York: Berkley, 2003. ISBN 0-425-19193-1.
The author is best known as a novelist, author of a bookshelf full of yarns, mostly set in the Wild West, but also of the War Between the States and World War II. In this, his first work of nonfiction after twenty-five years as a writer, he sketches in 31 short chapters (of less than ten pages average length, with a number including pictures) the careers and climactic (and often career-ending) conflicts of the best known gunslingers of the Old West, as well as many lesser-known figures, some of which were just as deadly and, in their own time, notorious. Here are tales of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Dalton Gang, Bat Masterson, Bill Doolin, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok; but also Jim Levy, the Jewish immigrant from Ireland who was considered by both Earp and Masterson to be one of the deadliest gunfighters in the West; Henry Starr, who robbed banks from the 1890s until his death in a shoot-out in 1921, pausing in mid-career to write, direct, and star in a silent movie about his exploits, A Debtor to the Law; and Ben Thompson, who Bat Masterson judged to be the fastest gun in the West, who was, at various times, an Indian fighter, Confederate cavalryman, mercenary for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, gambler, gunfighter,…and chief of police of Austin, Texas. Many of the characters who figure here worked both sides of the law, in some cases concurrently.

The author does not succumb to the temptation to glamorise these mostly despicable figures, nor the tawdry circumstances in which so many met their ends. (Many, but not all: Bat Masterson survived a career as deputy sheriff in Dodge City, sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, Marshal of Trinidad, Colorado, and as itinerant gambler in the wildest towns of the West, to live the last twenty years of his life in New York City, working as sports editor and columnist for a Manhattan newspaper.) Reasoner does, however, attempt to spice up the narrative with frontier lingo (whether genuine or bogus, I know not): lawmen and “owlhoots” (outlaws) are forever slappin' leather, loosing or dodging hails of lead, getting thrown in the hoosegow, or seeking the comfort of the soiled doves who plied their trade above the saloons. This can become tedious if you read the book straight through; it's better enjoyed a chapter at a time spread out over an extended period. The chapters are completely independent of one other (although there are a few cross-references), and may be read in any order. In fact, they read like a collection of magazine columns, but there is no indication in the book they were ever previously published. There is a ten page bibliography citing sources for each chapter but no index—this is a substantial shortcoming since many of the chapter titles do not name the principals in the events they describe, and since the paths of the most famous gunfighters crossed frequently, their stories are spread over a number of chapters.

Posted at 22:35 Permalink

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Reading List: The Origins of Larvae

Williamson, Donald I. The Origins of Larvae. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003. ISBN 1-4020-1514-3.
I am increasingly beginning to suspect that we are living through an era which, in retrospect, will be seen, like the early years of the twentieth century, as the final days preceding revolutions in a variety of scientific fields. Precision experiments and the opening of new channels of information about the universe as diverse as the sequencing of genomes, the imminent detection of gravitational waves, and detailed measurement of the cosmic background radiation are amassing more and more discrepant data which causes scientific journeymen to further complicate their already messy “standard models”, and the more imaginative among them to think that maybe there are simple, fundamental things which we're totally missing. Certainly, when the scientific consensus is that everything we see and know about comprises less than 5% of the universe, and a majority of the last generation of theorists in high energy physics have been working on a theory which only makes sense in a universe with ten, or maybe eleven, or maybe twenty-six dimensions, there would seem to be a lot of room for an Einstein-like conceptual leap which would make everybody slap their foreheads and exclaim, “How could we have missed that!

But still we have Darwin, don't we? If the stargazers and particle smashers are puzzled by what they see, certainly the more down-to-earth folk who look at creatures that inhabit our planet still stand on a firm foundation, don't they? Well…maybe not. Perhaps, as this book argues, not only is the conventional view of the “tree of life” deeply flawed, the very concept of a tree, where progenitor species always fork into descendants, but there is never any interaction between the ramified branches, is incorrect. (Just to clarify in advance: the author does not question the fundamental mechanism of Darwinian evolution by natural selection of inherited random variations, nor argue for some other explanation for the origin of the diversity in species on Earth. His argument is that this mechanism may not be the sole explanation for the characteristics of the many species with larval forms or discordant embryonic morphology, and that the assumption made by Darwin and his successors that evolution is a pure process of diversification [or forking of species from a common ancestor, as if companies only developed by spin-offs, and never did mergers and acquisitions] may be a simplification that, while it makes the taxonomist's job easier, is not warranted by the evidence.)

Many forms of life on Earth are not born from the egg as small versions of their adult form. Instead, they are born as larvae, which are often radically different in form from the adult. The best known example is moths and butterflies, which hatch as caterpillars, and subsequently reassemble themselves into the winged insects which mate and produce eggs that hatch into the next generation of caterpillars. Larvae are not restricted to arthropoda and other icky phyla: frogs and toads are born as tadpoles and live in one body form, then transform into quite different adults. Even species, humans included, which are born as little adults, go through intermediate stages as developing embryos which have the characteristics of other, quite different species.

Now, when you look closely at this, (and many will be deterred because a great deal of larvae and the species they mature into are rather dreadful), you'll find a long list of curious things which have puzzled naturalists all the way back to Darwin and before. There are numerous examples of species which closely resemble one another and are classified by taxonomists in the same genus which have larvae which are entirely different from one another—so much so that if the larvae were classified by themselves, they would probably be put into different classes or phyla. There are almost identical larvae which develop into species only distantly related. Closely related species include those with one or more larval forms, and others which develop directly: hatching as small individuals already with the adult form. And there are animals which, in their adult form, closely resemble the larvae of other species.

What a mess—but then biology is usually messy! The author, an expert on marine invertebrates (from which the vast majority of examples in this book are drawn), argues that there is a simple explanation for all of these discrepancies and anomalies, one which, if you aren't a biologist yourself, may have already occurred to you—that larvae (and embryonic forms) are the result of a hybridisation or merger of two unrelated species, with the result being a composite which hatches in one form and then subsequently transforms into the other. The principle of natural selection would continue to operate on these inter-specific mergers, of course: complicating or extending the development process of an animal before it could reproduce would probably be selected out, but, on the other hand, adding a free-floating or swimming larval form to an animal whose adult crawls on the ocean bottom or remains fixed to a given location like a clam or barnacle could confer a huge selective advantage on the hybrid, and equip it to ride out mass extinction events because the larval form permitted the species to spread to marginal habitats where it could survive the extinction event.

The acquisition of a larva by successful hybridisation could spread among the original species with no larval form not purely by differential selection but like a sexually transmitted disease—in other words, like wildfire. Note that many marine invertebrates reproduce simply by releasing their eggs and sperm into the sea and letting nature sort it out; consequently, the entire ocean is a kind of of promiscuous pan-specific singles bar where every pelagic and benthic creature is trying to mate, utterly indiscriminately, with every other at the whim of the wave and current. Most times, as in singles bars, it doesn't work out, but suppose sometimes it does?

You have to assume a lot of improbable things for this to make sense, the most difficult of which is that you can combine the sperm and egg of vastly different creatures and (on extremely rare occasions) end up with a hybrid which is born in the form of one and then, at some point, spontaneously transforms into the other. But ruling this out (or deciding it's plausible) requires understanding the “meta-program” of embryonic development—until we do, there's always the possibility we'll slap our foreheads when we realise how straightforward the mechanism is which makes this work.

One thing is clear: this is real science; the author makes unambiguous predictions about biology which can be tested in a variety of ways: laboratory experiments in hybridisation (on p. 213–214 he advises those interested in how to persuade various species to release their eggs and sperm), analysis of genomes (which ought to show evidence of hybridisation in the past), and detailed comparison of adult species which are possible progenitors of larval forms with larvae of those with which they may have hybridised.

If you're insufficiently immersed in the utter weirdness of life forms on this little sphere we inhabit, there is plenty here to astound you. Did you know, for example, about Owenia fusiformis (p. 72), which undergoes “cataclysmic metamorphosis”, which puts the chest-burster of Alien to shame: the larva develops an emerging juvenile worm which, in less than thirty seconds, turns itself inside-out and swallows the larva, which it devours in fifteen minutes. The larva does not “develop into” the juvenile, as is often said; it is like the first stage of a rocket which is discarded after it has done its job. How could this have evolved smoothly by small, continuous changes? For sheer brrrr factor, it's hard to beat the nemertean worms, which develop from tiny larvae into adults some of which exceed thirty metres in length (p. 87).

The author is an expert, and writes for his peers. There are many paragraphs like the following (p. 189), which will send you to the glossary at the end of the text (don't overlook it—otherwise you'll spend lots of time looking up things on the Web).

Adult mantis shrimp (Stomatapoda) live in burrows. The five anterior thoracic appendages are subchelate maxillipeds, and the abdomen bears pleopods and uropods. Some hatch as antizoeas: planktonic larvae that swim with five pairs of biramous thoracic appendages. These larvae gradually change into pseudozoeas, with subchelate maxillipeds and with four or five pairs of natatory pleopods. Other stomatopods hatch as pseudozoeas. There are no uropods in the larval stages. The lack of uropods and the form of the other appendages contrasts with the condition in decapod larvae. It seems improbable that stomatopod larvae could have evolved from ancestral forms corresponding to zoeas and megalopas, and I suggest that the Decapoda and the Stomatopoda acquired their larvae from different foreign sources.
In addition to the zoö-jargon, another deterrent to reading this book is the cost: a list price of USD 109, quoted at Amazon.com at this writing at USD 85, which is a lot of money for a 260 page monograph, however superbly produced and notwithstanding its small potential audience; so fascinating and potentially significant is the content that one would happily part with USD 15 to read a PDF, but at prices like this one's curiosity becomes constrained by the countervailing virtue of parsimony. Still, if Williamson is right, some of the fundamental assumptions underlying our understanding of life on Earth for the last century and a half may be dead wrong, and if his conjecture stands the test of experiment, we may have at hand an understanding of mysteries such as the Cambrian explosion of animal body forms and the apparent “punctuated equilibria” in the fossil record. There is a Nobel Prize here for somebody who confirms that this supposition is correct. Lynn Margulis, whose own theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells by the incorporation of previously free-living organisms as endosymbionts, which is now becoming the consensus view, co-authors a foreword which endorses Williamson's somewhat similar view of larvae.

Posted at 01:03 Permalink

Monday, July 10, 2006

Perl: goto vs. Pattern Match Variables

If you're not a Perl programmer, the following will make no sense whatsoever and you should stop reading now. Still with me? All right, away we go.

I've been programming in Perl for almost fifteen years, but there's always something in there to surprise you. Here's one that doesn't involve any of the fancy new stuff such as Unicode, threads, objects, or even modules: just classic Perl constructs which have been around since Perl 4.0 was released in 1991.

In keeping with the tradition of programming puzzles, I'll frame the issue as the question: “What does the following program print?”

    use strict;
    use warnings;
    my $s = "one,two,three";    
    $s =~ m/^(\w*),(\w*),(\w*)$/;    
    print("($1) ($2) ($3)\n");    
    if (1) {
    	goto heck;
    print("Let's not go there.\n");    
    print("($1) ($2) ($3)\n");
That seems pretty simple, doesn't it? And you'd probably guess it prints:
(one) (two) (three)
(one) (two) (three)
…but it doesn't. In fact, the output from this program is:
(one) (two) (three)
Use of uninitialized value in
    concatenation (.) or string at line 12.
Use of uninitialized value in
    concatenation (.) or string at line 12.
Use of uninitialized value in
    concatenation (.) or string at line 12.
() () ()
Now that's odd, isn't it? The only thing we did between the print statement which worked and the one that reported the pattern match variables undefined was the goto, but it was a goto from the nested scope within the if statement back to the global scope in which the pattern match occurred and the match variables were set. You'd expect them to be undefined if you jumped to a scope outside that in which they were set, but not on a jump back to their own scope.

But that's how it works! If you comment out the if statement and closing bracket:

    use strict;
    use warnings;
    my $s = "one,two,three";    
    $s =~ m/^(\w*),(\w*),(\w*)$/;    
    print("($1) ($2) ($3)\n");    
#    if (1) {
    	goto heck;
#    }
    print("Let's not go there.\n");    
    print("($1) ($2) ($3)\n");
then there are no warning messages and the program prints the match variables twice as you'd expect.

It appears that a goto from one scope to another causes the pattern match variables to be undefined, even if the goto is to the same scope in which they were set. This seems counterintuitive to me, but there may be a perfectly good reason for it. Of course, purists will argue that simply using a goto statement in a program puts one in a state of sin, and I have much sympathy for this view. In this case, I was coding a quick-reject function for the Gardol denial of service attack mitigation tool, and since the code in question gets executed for every HTTP access to the Web site, which is more than half a million times a day, I wanted to minimise the amount of code which would be executed after determining that a given request was malign. Also, the goto was never explicitly coded, but used inside a literate programming macro, so a reader of the code at that level would never see it, but rather:
      <Deem request malign and banish client>

The undefining of pattern match variables occurs only on recent versions of Perl: I discovered it on Perl version 5.8.6 as supplied with the Fedora Core 4 Linux distribution [perl-5.8.6-24 i386-linux-thread-multi], but it does not happen with Perl 4.036 or Perl 5.004 on the sun4-solaris architecture (with the source code modified to remove features absent in those versions, which I have highlighted in brown type in the program listings). I do not know in which release between 5.004 and 5.8.6 the present behaviour first manifested itself.

The issue which causes the loss of the match variable definitions appears to be the change in scope, not the conditional goto; if you replace the if clause with the construction “goto heck if 1;” then the definitions are not lost even on Perl 5.8.6.

Posted at 00:27 Permalink

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Mini-Plant Arrives at Fourmilab

After discovering the mini-plants of which I wrote a couple of days ago, you're darned right I couldn't resist getting one of my own, and indeed I ordered one shortly after posting the item a few minutes after midnight on Friday. Saturday morning, there it was in the boîte aux lettres, in a small bubble-pack envelope within which the tube enclosing the plant was wrapped in plastic foam.

I opted for the “Minibocho”, Haworthia cooperi var. truncata, a species Mini-plant (Haworthia cooperi var. truncata) with USB and RJ-45 connectors for scale known for its small size, hardiness, and shade tolerance, all of which make it ideal for this “application”. This picture (which you may click to view an enlargement) was taken a few hours after I gave the cactus its first monthly sip of water. Five holes in the bottom of the tube allow water to enter when you place it in a saucer with a little water, and the bell-shaped fixture at the top which allows the attachment ring to swivel freely doesn't fit tightly, permitting air to enter. The cactus is planted in a soil of indeterminate composition which visibly darkens as it absorbs water. I photographed the mini-plant sitting on the touchpad of my Dell “laptop” development machine, with USB and RJ-45 network connectors adjacent to provide a sense of scale.

Here is the crontab entry I added to remind me to water the plant on the 8th of every month:
      0 13 8 * * echo Water mini-plant | Mail -s "Water mini-plant" root@localhost
This statement may be displayed on multiple lines depending on the width of your browser window; it must appear on one line in the crontab.

Posted at 00:23 Permalink

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Animal Magnetism: Mollusc Mountaineer

The cotoneaster hedge which surrounds Fourmilab is home to a large number of medium-sized snails which come out and slime their way across the driveway whenever it rains in the summer. Usually, they return to the shade and shelter of the hedge when the sun comes out and the pavement dries, but if they're “caught out” with insufficient slime to make it back (and heaven knows how they navigate, anyway), they'll “cement” themselves to whatever surface they happen to be upon. This does two things: first of all, it creates a vapour barrier which prevents further loss of their internal moisture which, in the 30+°C temperatures and direct sunlight common here in the summer, would otherwise rapidly dessicate them. Second, it protects them from the abundant ants (this is Fourmilab, after all!) which patrol this area. If a snail is accidentally dislodged from its cemented position and not returned to shelter, ants will quickly attack and devour the vulnerable soft-bodied mollusc within the shell—not a pretty thing to contemplate, but that's “nature, red in tooth and claw” (or, at least the equivalent arthropod body parts) for you.

I don't know how snails navigate, but whatever the mechanism, it doesn't always work very well, because every now and then you'll find a snail which has climbed vertically, high up the wall of a building and glued itself on when Fourmilab, with "mollusc mountaineer" under the East eave the rain stopped. Usually, they go away after a day or two—I don't know what becomes of them: whether they come back down when rain or fog permits them to move again, or they eventually drop off, back into the hedge. (Given how small and light they are, and the relative strength of the shell due to the cube-square law, I doubt such a fall would damage them.) On Friday, July 7th, 2006, I observed the most extreme example of mollusc mountaineering I've seen to date. After two days of off-and-on rain with the occasional thunderstorm, a snail had managed to climb the west wall of Fourmilab, a distance of about four metres if the path was straight up, which is not the way to bet, turn the corner onto the eave outside the computer lab window, and then glue itself to the painted wood surface there. In the picture, I've indicated the location of the snail with the red arrow; if you click the picture to display an enlargement, you can just make out the snail as a dark spot near the arrowhead. "Mollusc mountaineer" under the East eave of Fourmilab A zoom in on this location shows the snail, along with a few insects caught in a spider-web (the light emanating from the windows of the computer lab as Fourmilab programming projects stretch late into the night makes it prime hunting grounds for the local arachnid population), on the horizontal eave, with the vertical wall below. Clicking the picture will show you a view at the same scale, with more surrounding context.

I don't know what will become of this mollusc mountaineer; it is far enough from the ground and distant from the window that I'd find it difficult to intervene even if it weren't my inclination to let nature take its course in such things: think of it as evolution in action. I will, to be sure, add this episode to the Animal Magnetism collection eventually. (Update: By the time I got around to posting this, about 24 hours after I took the pictures above, the snail—I think it's the same one, anyway—had moved from the position where I first spotted it all the way over to the wall just below the eave next to the “chimney”, which is actually an exhaust stack for diesel generators, but that's a different story for another time.)

Posted at 15:59 Permalink

Friday, July 7, 2006

From Switzerland: Itty-Bitty Plants for Your Keychain

The latest fad in South Korea is minuscule cactus plants enclosed in plexiglas tubes with a ring on the top and cord which can be attached to a mobile phone or keychain. Mini-plant in enclosure (In North Korea, the principal fads appear to be famine, atomic bombs, and rockets, which are nowhere near as adorable.) A Swiss woman, Véronique Demierre, has launched a home-based business to sell these little living things worldwide through a Web-based store, with English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish editions available.

Sixteen different kinds of succulent plants are currently available, some of which Asians associate with virtues such as prosperity, friendship, strength, and luck. Well, maybe, but in any case they are indisputably cool, and delightfully Mini-plant and hand low maintenance: all you have to do is place the bottom of the capsule in water for two or three minutes once a month, and that's that. The plants are apparently sufficiently hardy (being small helps, of course), to withstand the knocking around they'll receive being carried in a pocket or purse. In three to six months, depending on the species and how much water and light it receives, the plant will grow to fill up the capsule, at which time it can be transplanted to a pot; some varieties will flower at maturity, one to four years later.

Mini-plants can be shipped worldwide via Swiss Post, and you can pay by credit or debit card in four currencies: CHF, USD, GBP, and EUR. This is, incidentally, the first site I recall encountering in the “.biz” top-level domain which isn't sleazy or peddling something disreputable. I discovered the site in an article in the July 6th issue of L'Hebdo, which is not available on-line.

Posted at 00:11 Permalink

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Christine Peterson Visits Fourmilab

Between speaking engagements in Moscow and outside Zürich, Christine Peterson, founder of the Foresight Institute and go-to person on Christine Peterson visits Fourmilab nanotechnology and social policy consequent to that emerging technology, popped by Fourmilab for a visit and chat about where we are, and how folks should position themselves, individually and together, to ride out the impending singularity .

In this picture, Christine draws attention to the “Fourmilab welcome mat”, which more morose folk translate as our “danger of death” sign—this is the traditional picture for visitors to Fourmilab, and entirely unjustified by the risks posed by our Large Neutrino Collider or other, soul-shiveringly hazardous entirely benign initiatives, none of which involve nanotechnology (so far)—just kidding—heh.

Posted at 00:59 Permalink

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Reading List: Menace in Europe

Berlinski, Claire. Menace in Europe. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-9768-1.
This is a scary book. The author, who writes with a broad and deep comprehension of European history and its cultural roots, and a vocabulary which reminds one of William F. Buckley, argues that the deep divide which has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the cold war, and particularly in the last few years, is not a matter of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity on the part of the U.S., or the personnel, policies, and style of the Bush administration, but deeply rooted in structural problems in Europe which are getting worse, not better. (That's not to say that there aren't dire problems in the U.S. as well, but that isn't the topic here.)

Surveying the contemporary scene in the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and tracing the roots of nationalism, peasant revolts (of which “anti-globalisation” is the current manifestation), and anti-Semitism back through the centuries, she shows that what is happening in Europe today is simply Europe—the continent of too many kings and too many wars—being Europe, adapted to present-day circumstances. The impression you're left with is that Europe isn't just the “sick man of the world”, but rather a continent afflicted with half a dozen or more separate diseases, all terminal: a large, un-assimilated immigrant population concentrated in ghettos; an unsustainable welfare state; a sclerotic economy weighed down by social charges, high taxes, and ubiquitous and counterproductive regulation; a collapsing birth rate and aging population; a “culture crash” (my term), where the religions and ideologies which have structured the lives of Europeans for millennia have evaporated, leaving nothing in their place; a near-total disconnect between elites and the general population on the disastrous project of European integration, most recently manifested in the controversy over the so-called European constitution; and signs that the rabid nationalism which plunged Europe into two disastrous wars in the last century and dozens, if not hundreds of wars in the centuries before, is seeping back up through the cracks in the foundation of the dystopian, ill-conceived European Union.

In some regards, the author does seem to overstate the case, or generalise from evidence so narrow it lacks persuasiveness. The most egregious example is chapter 8, which infers an emerging nihilist neo-Nazi nationalism in Germany almost entirely based on the popularity of the band Rammstein. Well, yes, but whatever the lyrics, the message of the music, and the subliminal message of the music videos, there is a lot more going on in Germany, a nation of more than 80 million people, than the antics of a single heavy metal band, however atavistic.

U.S. readers inclined to gloat over the woes of the old continent should keep in mind the author's observation, a conclusion I had come to long before I ever opened this book, that the U.S. is heading directly for the same confluence of catastrophes as Europe, and, absent a fundamental change of course, will simply arrive at the scene of the accident somewhat later; and that's only taking into account the problems they have in common; the European economy, unlike the American, is able to function without borrowing on the order of two billion dollars a day from China and Japan.

If you live in Europe, as I have for the last fifteen years (thankfully outside, although now encircled by, the would-be empire that sprouted from Brussels), you'll probably find little here that's new, but you may get a better sense of how the problems interact with one another to make a real crisis somewhere in the future a genuine possibility. The target audience in the U.S., which is so often lectured by their elite that Europe is so much more sophisticated, nuanced, socially and environmentally aware, and rational, may find this book an eye opener; 344,955 American soldiers perished in European wars in the last century, and while it may be satisfying to say, “To Hell with Europe!”, the lesson of history is that saying so is most unwise.

An Instapundit podcast interview with the author is freely available on-line.

Posted at 23:28 Permalink

Monday, July 3, 2006

Books on-line: Herrmann's Book of Magic

When you were a kid, did your grandfather ever pull a coin from his pocket, clap his hands together and make it disappear, then “find” it behind your ear, sending you off to the Popsicle truck for a summer evening treat? If so, and you're now grandparent age yourself, Herrmann's Book of Magic may be where he learned that trick. Alexander Herrmann was a prominent stage magician in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this 1903 book, he reveals many of the secrets of the conjuror, from the fundamental sleight of hand skills of palming objects and vanishing and producing them, to the operation of famous illusions such as the disembodied head which speaks. This on-line edition, available both in HTML and Plain ASCII formats, is a complete reproduction of the book, including (in the HTML edition) all the illustrations.

Posted at 23:43 Permalink

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Imaginary Weapons: Carl Collins Responds

Prof. Carl Collins, who performed the original hafnium triggering experiment which eventually resulted in the DARPA funding of hafnium weapon research chronicled in the book Imaginary Weapons, responded to my recent review in the following E-mail received at 13:19 UTC on July 1st, 2006. I have edited this message only to make the URLs cited by Prof. Collins clickable links.

Dear John,

Lotsa mistakes in your blog about Imaginary Weapons. Of course we did null experiments. Also, the results were completely reproduced in some independent but black experiments. I would guess that it is very convenient for those liking secrets that you and others are winning the game for them.

I understand that you have a dog in this fight as we say, but why not take a bit more balanced approach? I have given one interview since Ms. Weinbergers fantasy appeared and you might want to share it with your readers in the intent of appearing somewhat open-minded. Anyway, it too is lotsa fun and explains why the Guys at Argonne did not ever get a positive results.


You might also try taking a look at a few of the peer reviewed publications available through




Posted at 16:57 Permalink