« July 2007 | Main | September 2007 »

Friday, August 31, 2007

Astronomy: Conjunction of Vesta and Jupiter

After two days of utterly foul weather, I was blessed with clear skies for the night of the closest approach of asteroid 4 Vesta to Jupiter. The picture at the right, taken around 22:15 local time (20:15 UTC) on 2007-08-30 shows Vesta at the top, with Jupiter and its moons Callisto, Io, and Europa at the bottom.

Click on the picture to see the larger image from which it was cropped, which also shows the star ω Ophiuchi. You can compare this image with the ones taken on 2007-08-25 and 2007-08-28 to observe the approach of Vesta to Jupiter.

Like the earlier pictures, this was taken with a Nikon D200 digital SLR with an 18–200mm zoom lens at the maximum of 200mm (equivalent to a 300mm lens on a 24×36mm film camera) at f/5.6 with sensitivity set to ISO 1600 and exposure time of 2 seconds.

Posted at 14:29 Permalink

Thursday, August 30, 2007

RetroPsychoKinesis experiments overhaul complete

The RetroPsychoKinesis Experiments were launched on the Web more than ten years ago: public access was opened in January of 1997. Since then a total of more than half a million experiments (practice and on-the-record; about half on-the-record) have been run by volunteer participants; you can view the results and those of control runs, updated daily.

The Web documents describing the experiments, including background such as the Introduction to Probability and Statistics, z score and Chi-square calculators, and the Probability Pipe Organ (think of it as “central limit theorem live”), while typical for those developed in the 1996–1997 period, were beginning to look somewhat quaint to contemporary eyes, so I have just posted a complete make-over of the entire document tree. All documents are now XHTML 1.0 (Transitional) and CSS 2.1 compliant, and use Unicode text entities for special characters. Images, including those of mathematical formulæ, have been re-made with higher resolution, and GIF images have been replaced with PNG throughout. The Fourmilab standard style sheet has been applied, providing consistent appearance and the ability to easily change it in the future. Form navigation has been improved, with <label> containers allowing the user to click upon field labels as well the actual controls. A number of broken off-site links have been fixed, and additional links to Web resources added.

These changes apply only to the RetroPsychoKinesis Experiments Web tree. The main RetroPsychoKinesis Project site, which is largely a collection of historical documents and related publications and abstracts, was not included in this project and remains somewhat of a period piece. I'm not sure when, if ever, I will have the time for the massive revisions it would take to bring it up to modern-day standards; all of the documents remain, however, perfectly readable for those who wish to consult them.

Posted at 21:48 Permalink

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Astronomy: Vesta Approaches Jupiter

As I mentioned recently, this week offers an excellent opportunity to view an asteroid, should that interest you and you haven't yet done so. The brightest (though not the largest) of the asteroids, 4 Vesta is within a binocular field of view with Jupiter, currently the brightest object in the evening sky (look to the southwest), and, at magnitude 7.2, a relatively easy binocular object.

I've been trying to photograph the conjunction between Jupiter and Vesta in order to assemble an animation of the event. Atmospheric conditions were hideous tonight (though I can't say they couldn't have been worse—last night I was completely clouded out): a milky haze pervaded the southern sky, which was illuminated into a pseudo-twilight by the full Moon. This is the best picture I was able to capture tonight; it shows Vesta, although barely against the bright sky. Here is a synthetic image from Your Sky

Posted at 00:37 Permalink

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reading List: America's Last Days

MacKinnon, Douglas. America's Last Days. New York: Leisure Books, 2007. ISBN 0-8439-5802-2.
There are some books which are perfect for curling up with in front of a fireplace. Then there are those which are best used, ripped apart, for kindling; this is one of the latter. The premise of the novel is that the “Sagebrush Rebellion” gets deadly serious when a secretive group funded by a billionaire nutcase CEO of a major defence contractor plots the secession of two Western U.S. states to re-found a republic on the principles of the Founders, by threatening the U.S. with catastrophe unless the government accedes to their demands. Kind of like the Free State Project, but with nukes.

To liken the characters, dialogue, and plotting of this story to a comic book would be to disparage the comics, some of which, though certainly not all, far surpass this embarrassingly amateurish effort. Although the author's biography states him to have been a former White House and Pentagon “official” (he declines to state in which capacity), he appears to have done his research on how senior government and corporate executives behave and speak from watching reruns of “24”.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Ask yourself, is it plausible that the CEO of a billion dollar defence contractor would suggest, in an audience consisting not only of other CEOs, but a senior Pentagon staffer and an analyst for the CIA, that a Presidential candidate should be assassinated? Or that the director of the FBI would tell a foreign national in the employ of the arch-villain that the FBI was about to torture one of her colleagues?
Spoilers end here.  
I'm not going to bother with the numerous typos and factual errors—any number of acronyms appear to have been rendered phonetically based upon a flawed memory. The whole book is one big howler, and picking at details is like brushing flies off a decomposing elephant carcass. The writing is formulaic: like beginners' stories in a fiction workshop, each character is introduced with a little paragraph which fingerpaints the cardboard cut-out we're about to meet. Talented writers, or even writers with less talent but more experience, weave what background we need to know seamlessly into the narrative. There is a great deal of gratuitous obscenity, much of which is uttered in contexts where I would expect decorum to prevail. After dragging along for 331 pages devoid of character development and with little action, the whole thing gets wrapped up in the the final six preposterously implausible pages. Perhaps, given the content, it's for the best that there is plenty of white space; the average chapter in this mass market paperback is less than five pages in length.

As evidence of the literary erudition and refinement of the political and media elite in the United States, this book bears laudatory blurbs from Larry King, James Carville, Bob Dole, Dee Dee Myers, and Tom Brokaw.

Posted at 21:21 Permalink

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Astronomy: Viewing Vesta

If you've never seen an asteroid, the next few days present an excellent opportunity to remedy that lacuna. Asteroid 4 Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in the main belt, but, with a more reflective surface than dwarf planet 1 Ceres, is the brightest of the asteroids—in late May and early June Vesta reached magnitude 5.4 and was visible to the unaided eye in a dark and transparent sky.

It's faded now to magnitude 7.2, which is easily visible in binoculars or a small telescope, and over the next few days will be exceptionally easy to spot because it will be gliding past brilliant Jupiter in the southwest sky at dusk for observers in the northern hemisphere. On August 30th at 4h Universal Time, Vesta will be just 24 arc-minutes from Jupiter. If you aim your binoculars at Jupiter, you'll see Jupiter, its Galilean moons, the magnitude 4.6 star ω Ophiuchi, and Vesta within the five degree field of view typical for binoculars. This page (scroll down to “August 24–31”) provides day-by-day descriptions of the encounter for observers in the U.K., which are applicable for anywhere in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere; the further south your latitude, the higher Jupiter will be in the sky and the more time you'll have before it sets.


Click image for an enlargement.

Around 22:00 local time (20:00 UTC), I easily spotted Vesta with the Vernonscope 80mm apochromatic refractor and a 40mm wide-angle eyepiece. The photo above was taken with a Nikon D200 digital SLR with an 18–200mm zoom lens at the maximum of 200mm (equivalent to a 300mm lens on a 24×36mm film camera) at f/5.6 with sensitivity set to ISO 1600. Exposure was 2 seconds, which is about as long as you can go at this focal length without noticeable star trails becoming evident. The camera was tripod mounted and the exposure was made with an electronic cable release in mirror lock-up mode to minimise vibration. Here is a computer rendering of this scene produced by the Your Sky virtual telescope.

If the weather co-operates (HAH!), I'll try to take photos each night throughout the conjunction and assemble an animation of the event. (2007-08-25 21:08 UTC)

Posted at 13:58 Permalink

Friday, August 24, 2007

Reading List: Entangled Minds

Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 1-4165-1677-8.
If you're looking to read just one book about parapsychology, written from the standpoint of a researcher who judges the accumulated evidence from laboratory investigations overwhelmingly persuasive, this is your book. (The closest runner-up, in my estimation, is the same author's The Conscious Universe from 1997.) The evidence for a broad variety of paranormal (or psi) phenomena is presented, much of it from laboratory studies from the 1990s and the present decade, including functional MRI imaging of the brain during psi experiments and the presentiment experiments of Radin and Dick Bierman. The history of parapsychology research is sketched in chapter 4, but the bulk of the text is devoted to recent, well-controlled laboratory work. Anecdotal psi phenomena are mentioned only in passing, and other paranormal mainstays such as UFOs, poltergeists, Bigfoot, and the like are not discussed at all.

For each topic, the author presents a meta-analysis of unimpeached published experimental results, controlling for quality of experimental design and estimating the maximum impact of the “file drawer effect”, calculating how many unpublished experiments with chance results would have to exist to reduce the probability of the reported results to the chance expectation. All of the effects reported are very small, but a meta-meta analysis across all the 1019 experiments studied yields odds against the results being due to chance of 1.3×10104 to 1.

Radin draws attention to the similarities between psi phenomena, where events separated in space and time appear to have a connection which can't be explained by known means of communication, and the entanglement of particles resulting in correlations measured at spacelike separated intervals in quantum mechanics, and speculates that there may be a kind of macroscopic form of entanglement in which the mind is able to perceive information in a shared consciousness field (for lack of a better term) as well as through the senses. The evidence for such a field from the Global Consciousness Project (to which I have contributed software and host two nodes) is presented in chapter 11. Forty pages of endnotes provide extensive source citations and technical details. On several occasions I thought the author was heading in the direction of the suggestion I make in my Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena, but he always veered away from it. Perhaps the full implications of the multiverse are weirder than those of psi!

There are a few goofs. On p. 215, a quote from Richard Feynman is dated from 1990, while Feynman died in 1988. Actually, the quote is from Feynman's 1985 book QED, which was reprinted in 1990. The discussion of the Quantum Zeno Effect on p. 259 states that “the act of rapidly observing a quantum system forces that system to remain in its wavelike, indeterminate state, rather than to collapse into a particular, determined state.” This is precisely backwards—rapidly repeated observations cause the system's state to repeatedly collapse, preventing its evolution. Consequently, this effect is also called the “quantum watched pot” effect, after the aphorism “a watched pot never boils”. On the other side of the balance, the discussion of Bell's theorem on pp. 227–231 is one of the clearest expositions for layman I have ever read.

I try to avoid the “Washington read”: picking up a book and immediately checking if my name appears in the index, but in the interest of candour since I am commending this book to your attention, I should note that it does here—I am mentioned on p. 195. If you'd like to experiment with this spooky stuff yourself, try Fourmilab's online RetroPsychoKinesis experiments, which celebrated their tenth anniversary on the Web in January of 2007 and to date have recorded 256,584 experiments performed by 24,862 volunteer subjects.

Posted at 22:46 Permalink

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

History Rolls Along

Whilst running errands today, what should I espy when returning to my car in the parking garage of Marin Centre in Marin-Epagnier, Switzerland (400 metres below and about 5 km southwest of Fourmilab) but this magnificent vintage Rolls-Royce (click on the image for an enlargement). The owner was nowhere in evidence, so I didn't have the opportunity to inquire from what year it dates, but they sure don't make 'em like that anymore! Note that it's right-hand drive, which has to make driving this museum piece on narrow, twisty Swiss roads a challenge.

If you owned a car like this, would you drive it to the supermarket to do your shopping and leave it in the garage unattended?

In the interest of privacy, I have blanked out the identification information on the number plate (all vehicle registration information is public here). This isn't the only curious thing I've seen in this parking garage.

Posted at 21:05 Permalink

Monday, August 20, 2007

Reading List: Constant Battles

LeBlanc, Steven A. with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. ISBN 0-312-31090-0.
Steven LeBlanc is the Director of Collections at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When he began his fieldwork career in the early 1970s, he shared the opinion of most of the archaeologists and anthropologists of his generation and present-day laymen that most traditional societies in the hunter-gatherer and tribal farming eras were mostly peaceful and lived in balance with their environments. It was, according to this view, only with the emergence of large chiefdoms and state-level societies that environmental degradation began to appear and mass conflict emerge, culminating in the industrialised slaughter of the 20th century.

But, to the author, as a dispassionate scientist, looking at the evidence on the ground or dug up from beneath it in expeditions in the American Southwest, Turkey, and Peru, and in the published literature, there were many discrepancies from this consensus narrative. In particular, why would “peaceful” farming people build hilltop walled citadels far from their fields and sources of water if not for defensibility? And why would hard-working farmers obsess upon defence were there not an active threat from their neighbours?

Further investigations argue convincingly that the human experience, inherited directly from our simian ancestors, has been one of relentless population growth beyond the carrying capacity of our local environment, degradation of the ecosystem, and the inevitable conflict with neighbouring bands over scarce resources. Ironically, many of the reports of early ethnographers which appeared to confirm perennially-wrong philosopher Rousseau's vision of the “noble savage” were based upon observations of traditional societies which had recently been impacted by contact with European civilisation: population collapse due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, and increases in carrying capacity of the land thanks to introduction of European technologies such as horses, steel tools, and domestic animals, which had temporarily eased the Malthusian pressure upon these populations and suspended resource wars. But the archaeological evidence is that such wars are the norm, not an aberration.

In fact, notwithstanding the horrific death toll of twentieth century warfare, the rate of violent death among the human population has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era. Hunter-gatherer (or, as the authors prefer to call them, “forager”) and tribal farming societies typically lose about 25% of their male population and 5% of the females to warfare with neighbouring bands. Even the worst violence of the nation-state era, averaged over a generation, has a death toll only one eighth this level.

Are present-day humans (or, more specifically, industrialised Western humans) unprecedented despoilers of our environment and aggressors against inherently peaceful native people? Nonsense argues this extensively documented book. Unsustainable population growth, resource exhaustion, environmental degradation, and lethal conflict with neighbours are as human as bipedalism and speech. Conflict is not inevitable, and civilisation, sustainable environmental policy, and yield-improving and resource-conserving technology are the best course to reducing the causes of conflict. Dreaming of a nonexistent past of peaceful people living in harmony with their environment isn't.

You can read any number of books about military history, from antiquity to the present, without ever encountering a discussion of “Why we fight”—that's the subtitle of this book, and I've never encountered a better source to begin to understand the answer to this question than you'll find here.

Posted at 14:49 Permalink

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Reading List: Where's My Jetpack?

Wilson, Daniel H. Where's My Jetpack? New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. ISBN 1-59691-136-0.
One of the best things about the past was that the future was so much cooler then! I mean, here we are, more than halfway through the first decade of the flippin' twenty-first century for heaven's sake, and there's nary a flying car, robot servant, underwater city, orbital hotel, or high-speed slidewalk anywhere in sight, and many of the joyless scolds who pass for visionaries in this timid and unimaginative age think we'd all be better off renouncing technology and going back to being hunter-gatherers—sheesh.

This book, by a technology columnist for Popular Mechanics, wryly surveys the promise and present-day reality of a variety of wonders from the golden age of boundless technological optimism. You may be surprised at the slow yet steady progress being made toward some of these visionary goals (but don't hold your breath waiting for the Star Trek transporter!). I was completely unaware, for example, of the “anti-sleeping pill” modafinil, which, based upon tests by the French Foreign Legion, the UK Ministry of Defence, and the U.S. Air Force, appears to allow maintaining complete alertness for up to 40 hours with no sleep and minimal side effects. And they said programmer productivity had reached its limits!

The book is illustrated with stylish graphics, but there are no photos of the real-world gizmos mentioned in the next, nor are there source citations or links to Web sites describing them—you're on your own following up the details. To answer the question in the title, “Where's My Jetpack?”, look here and here.

Posted at 00:21 Permalink

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Hacker's Diet Online: 600+ accounts open, 1200+ transactions processed per day

It's been about five weeks since The Hacker's Diet Online entered production. At the conclusion of the beta test phase and production launch on July 2nd, there were about 100 users. Yesterday, 2007-08-10, the threshold of 600 user accounts was crossed, and at this writing there are 607 accounts open. Users of the application have the option of granting read-only public access to their data under an automatically assigned pseudonym. More than half of the users in the beta test phase opted for this, but the fraction allowing public access (which is not the default—you have to explicitly permit it) has declined since and presently stands at 33% (206 publicly accessible accounts out of 607 total). I'm not sure why the demographics of the beta test and production user population differs on this item; it may be something as simple as the fact that the check box to grant public access is at the bottom of the account creation form and beta testers are more inclined to look at the entire form as opposed to just filling in the required fields before creating the account.

The cluster file system synchronisation continues to run smoothly. As the user base of the application continues to grow, I'm increasingly satisfied with the choice of an architecture based upon the Unix file system as opposed to a monolithic database back-end; it is wonderful to be able to use regular system administration tools to manage the application databases, and to know that each individual transaction is confined to a “sandbox” containing only the data for the user who submitted it.

As of yesterday, the server processed 1243 user transactions. Most of these were updates to users' log pages, each of which generates two transactions: one to return the updated log, and a second for the embedded chart image.

I am presently working on adding some analyses of aggregate data across all accounts, for example, a histogram of how frequently users update their logs. Once these reports are in place, I'll post some of the statistics here.

Folks interested in the meal planning component of The Hacker's Diet may find The Daily Plate Web site useful. This site has a large database of foods and allows you to create a personal food journal tracking the calories in what you eat. I have no connection with this site; I simply mention it as something you might want to check out.

Posted at 00:07 Permalink

Friday, August 10, 2007

Reading List: Universe or Multiverse?

Carr, Bernard, ed. Universe or Multiverse? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-521-84841-5.
Before embarking upon his ultimately successful quest to discover the laws of planetary motion, Johannes Kepler tried to explain the sizes of the orbits of the planets from first principles: developing a mathematical model of the orbits based upon nested Platonic solids. Since, at the time, the solar system was believed by most to be the entire universe (with the fixed stars on a sphere surrounding it), it seemed plausible that the dimensions of the solar system would be fixed by fundamental principles of science and mathematics. Even though he eventually rejected his model as inaccurate, he never completely abandoned it—it was for later generations of astronomers to conclude that there is nothing fundamental whatsoever about the structure of the solar system: it is simply a contingent product of the history of its condensation from the solar nebula, and could have been entirely different. With the discovery of planets around other stars in the late twentieth century, we now know that not only do planetary systems vary widely, many are substantially more weird than most astronomers or even science fiction writers would have guessed.

Since the completion of the Standard Model of particle physics in the 1970s, a major goal of theoretical physicists has been to derive, from first principles, the values of the more than twenty-five “free parameters” of the Standard Model (such as the masses of particles, relative strengths of forces, and mixing angles). At present, these values have to be measured experimentally and put into the theory “by hand”, and there is no accepted physical explanation for why they have the values they do. Further, many of these values appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life in the universe (or at least, life which resembles ourselves)—a tiny change, for example, in the mass ratio of the up and down quarks and the electron would result in a universe with no heavy elements or chemistry; it's hard to imagine any form of life which could be built out of just protons or neutrons. The emergence of a Standard Model of cosmology has only deepened the mystery, adding additional apparently fine-tunings to the list. Most stunning is the cosmological constant, which appears to have a nonzero value which is 124 orders of magnitude smaller than predicted from a straightforward calculation from quantum physics.

One might take these fine-tunings as evidence of a benevolent Creator (which is, indeed, discussed in chapters 25 and 26 of this book), or of our living in a simulation crafted by a clever programmer intent on optimising its complexity and degree of interestingness (chapter 27). But most physicists shy away from such deus ex machina and “we is in machina” explanations and seek purely physical reasons for the values of the parameters we measure.

Now let's return for a moment to Kepler's attempt to derive the orbits of the planets from pure geometry. The orbit of the Earth appears, in fact, fine-tuned to permit the existence of life. Were it more elliptical, or substantially closer to or farther from the Sun, persistent liquid water on the surface would not exist, as seems necessary for terrestrial life. The apparent fine-tuning can be explained, however, by the high probability that the galaxy contains a multitude of planetary systems of every possible variety, and such a large ensemble is almost certain to contain a subset (perhaps small, but not void) in which an earthlike planet is in a stable orbit within the habitable zone of its star. Since we can only have evolved and exist in such an environment, we should not be surprised to find ourselves living on one of these rare planets, even though such environments represent an infinitesimal fraction of the volume of the galaxy and universe.

As efforts to explain the particle physics and cosmological parameters have proved frustrating, and theoretical investigations into cosmic inflation and string theory have suggested that the values of the parameters may have simply been chosen at random by some process, theorists have increasingly been tempted to retrace the footsteps of Kepler and step back from trying to explain the values we observe, and instead view them, like the masses and the orbits of the planets, as the result of an historical process which could have produced very different results. The apparent fine-tuning for life is like the properties of the Earth's orbit—we can only measure the parameters of a universe which permits us to exist! If they didn't, we wouldn't be here to do the measuring.

But note that like the parallel argument for the fine-tuning of the orbit of the Earth, this only makes sense if there are a multitude of actually existing universes with different random settings of the parameters, just as only a large ensemble of planetary systems can contain a few like the one in which we find ourselves. This means that what we think of as our universe (everything we can observe or potentially observe within the Hubble volume) is just one domain in a vastly larger “multiverse”, most or all of which may remain forever beyond the scope of scientific investigation.

Now such a breathtaking concept provides plenty for physicists, cosmologists, philosophers, and theologians to chew upon, and macerate it they do in this thick (517 page), heavy (1.2 kg), and expensive (USD 85) volume, which is drawn from papers presented at conferences held between 2001 and 2005. Contributors include two Nobel laureates (Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczek), and just about everybody else prominent in the multiverse debate, including Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark, Andrei Linde, Alexander Vilenkin, Renata Kallosh, Leonard Susskind, James Hartle, Brandon Carter, Lee Smolin, George Ellis, Nick Bostrom, John Barrow, Paul Davies, and many more. The editor's goal was that the papers be written for the intelligent layman: like articles in the pre-dumbed-down Scientific American or “front of book” material in Nature or Science. In fact, the chapters vary widely in technical detail and difficulty; if you don't follow this stuff closely, your eyes may glaze over in some of the more equation-rich chapters.

This book is far from a cheering section for multiverse theories: both sides are presented and, in fact, the longest chapter is that of Lee Smolin, which deems the anthropic principle and anthropic arguments entirely nonscientific. Many of these papers are available in preliminary form for free on the arXiv preprint server; if you can obtain a list of the chapter titles and authors from the book, you can read most of the content for free. Renata Kallosh's chapter contains an excellent example of why one shouldn't blindly accept the recommendations of a spelling checker. On p. 205, she writes “…the gaugino condensate looks like a fractional instant on effect…”—that's supposed to be “instanton”!

Posted at 00:17 Permalink

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Fourmilab: Running on new leased line

The switch-over to the new leased line mentioned in yesterday's posting is now complete and Fourmilab's Internet connectivity is restored. The technician arrived a little early, so the switch was done about 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the window at 13:00 UTC. The entire service outage was only about five minutes, as opposed to the estimated fifteen—there were a few brief subsequent interruptions of a few seconds each as we moved cables to their permanent locations.

The new line is the same speed as the old: 2 Mbit/sec symmetrical, but there will be a minor performance increase since the new router runs its Ethernet port in full-duplex mode, while the one it replaced ran in half-duplex mode, resulting in collisions and the need to re-transmit packets.

Posted at 15:18 Permalink

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fourmilab: Scheduled Internet service outage 2007-08-09

Tomorrow, August 9th, 2007, Fourmilab's Internet connectivity is scheduled for a brief interruption due to a switch-over from Fourmilab's Internet Service Provider's (ISP) Point of Presence (POP) in Bern to a new, closer POP in St. Blaise. The cut-over should occur some time between 13:00 and 16:00 UTC, (15:00–18:00 local time), and is expected to be about 15 minutes in length; during the transition, packets sent to Fourmilab will disappear without a trace. E-mail and other protocols which retry failed connections should experience no loss of data, and attempts to access Web pages and applications will simply time out.

The actual change in connectivity consists simply of moving a patch cable from the old router and modem to the new ones, but the ISP must then adjust their routing tables and the change propagate around the Internet until full connectivity will be restored. If something goes wrong, the old connection remains available, and a fall-back to it can be accomplished in another 15 minutes or so. Of course, with this kind of thing you never know, but we've taken every precaution to keep the maximum outage in the worst case (barring the kind of absurdly improbable cascade of misfortune which seems to happen regularly here) to less than an hour. We'll see….

I'll post an update here when connectivity is restored, whatever the outcome of the switch-over attempt.

Posted at 20:03 Permalink

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Reading List: The Commentaries

[Audiobook] Caesar, Gaius Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Commentaries. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [ca. 52–51 B.C., ca. 45 B.C.] 2004. ISBN 1-929718-44-6.
This audiobook is an unabridged reading of English translations of Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) and Civil (Commentarii de Bello Civili) wars between 58 and 48 B.C. (The eighth book of the Gallic wars commentary, covering the minor campaigns of 51 B.C., was written by his friend Aulus Hirtius after Caesar's assassination.) The recording is based upon the rather eccentric Rex Warner translation, which is now out of print. In the original Latin text, Caesar always referred to himself in the third person, as “Caesar”. Warner rephrased the text (with the exception of the book written by Hirtius) as a first person narrative. For example, the first sentence of paragraph I.25 of The Gallic Wars:
Caesar primum suo, deinde omnium ex conspectu remotis equis, ut aequato omnium periculo spem fugae tolleret, cohortatus suos proelium commisit.
in Latin, is conventionally translated into English as something like this (from the rather stilted 1869 translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn):
Caesar, having removed out of sight first his own horse, then those of all, that he might make the danger of all equal, and do away with the hope of flight, after encouraging his men, joined battle.
but the Warner translation used here renders this as:
I first of all had my own horse taken out of the way and then the horses of other officers. I wanted the danger to be the same for everyone, and for no one to have any hope of escape by flight. Then I spoke a few words of encouragement to the men before joining battle.   [1:24:17–30]
Now, whatever violence this colloquial translation does to the authenticity of Caesar's spare and eloquent Latin, from a dramatic standpoint it works wonderfully with the animated reading of award-winning narrator Charlton Griffin; the listener has the sense of being across the table in a tavern from GJC as he regales all present with his exploits.

This is “just the facts” war reporting. Caesar viewed this work not as history, but rather the raw material for historians in the future. There is little discussion of grand strategy nor, even in the commentaries on the civil war, the political conflict which provoked the military confrontation between Caesar and Pompey. While these despatches doubtless served as propaganda on Caesar's part, he writes candidly of his own errors and the cost of the defeats they occasioned. (Of course, since these are the only extant accounts of most of these events, there's no way to be sure there isn't some Caesarian spin in his presentation, but since these commentaries were published in Rome, which received independent reports from officers and literate legionaries in Caesar's armies, it's unlikely he would have risked embellishing too much.)

Two passages of unknown length in the final book of the Civil war commentaries have been lost—these are handled by the reader stopping in mid-sentence, with another narrator explaining the gap and the historical consensus of the events in the lost text.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 16 hours and 40 minutes. That's a big investment of time in the details of battles which took place more than two thousand years ago, but I'll confess I found it fascinating, especially since some of the events described took place within sight of where I take the walks on which I listened to this recording over several weeks. An Audio CD edition is available.

Posted at 01:28 Permalink