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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Apple/iTunes: Tiberius Time

According to Suetonius, Tiberius Cæsar “… used his left hand more readily and with more force than his right; and his joints were so strong, that he could bore a fresh, sound apple through with his finger …”. After today's experience with Apple products, I think I'm ready to start doing my special finger-flexing exercises to be able to do the same.

My DVD player died a few days ago, and as I haven't yet gotten around to replacing it (“codefree” players uncrippled by the grotesque “region code” not seeming to be as widely available as a few years ago), I decided to give the new Apple iTunes movie rental service a try in order to enjoy a highbrow classic. Well, after the usual abuse of the iTunes Store having forgotten my billing information once again, I was able to rent the movie and download the file, which took about an hour.

Now, according to the the Apple iTunes Syncing—iPod page, you can “Start watching a movie rental on your computer, sync it, and your iPod will even pick up where you left off.” Nope—didn't work: the rented movie didn't transfer to the Video iPod, even though other video programs purchased outright had copied to the iPod without any difficulties.

You see, what they don't tell you, except in a footnote at the bottom of this press release, is that movie rentals only download to “sixth-generation” iPods; owners of fifth generation video iPods are advised to consign their perfectly-working, in warranty gear, which plays all purchased video content from the iTunes Store, to the landfill and shell out another CHF399 (for the 80 Gb model) purely for privilege of watching movie rentals. And this is a company that has Al Gore on its board of directors?

Flex those fingers!

Well, OK, I thought: I'm already out the cost of the rental, and now that I've started to play it in order to download it to the iPod, which it won't do because I'm a fifth generation fossil, and I've only 24 hours before it expires and self destructs like Jim Phelps's tape recorder, at least I can watch it on the computer. It's irritating in the extreme to have to leave the machine booted into lumpen-tech Windows just to watch a movie, but whaddya you gonna do?

So, I click on the movie and a wide-screen, high-resolution QuickTime media player window opens which allows me to watch the movie. That's watch; not listen to. Despite that fact that music, audiobooks, and unprotected video files play just fine, with both audio and video, not only this rented movie but all previously outright purchased video content is utterly silent. There isn't even a piano player beneath the screen to distract the audience from the clickety-clack of the projector.

Flex those fingers!

It appears that many, if not all, Windows XP users of iTunes were gutshot and deprived of audio, not only on movie rentals and new downloads, but on their entire previously purchased video library, when they installed iTunes 7.6 (which is required to access movie rentals). Here is a discussion on an Apple support site collecting the anguished cries of Windows XP users whose video libraries have been muted since January 15th, with as yet no response from Apple. (In a silent movie, nobody can hear you scream.)

To be precise, I'm using Windows XP with all the current patches from Windows Update, iTunes, and QuickTime 7.4, the latter two of which proclaim themselves the latest versions when “Check for Updates” is clicked. (I only run this downmarket operating system for applications which don't support more competently-implemented platforms; my primary development machine spends more than 98% of its time these days running Fedora 7 Linux.)

Now, one might argue that failing to make it clear that their entire early-adopter customer base who bought into the iPod Video needs to junk their purchase and replace it with a new gizmo differentiated only (as far as I can imagine) by firmware in order to rent movies is a customer communication oversight which should have been addressed to sugar coat or at least slime over this obvious planned obsolescence aimed at a sales bump. But killing the audio of all (or at least many) of their customers on the most widely deployed operating system platform and the latest version of their own proprietary media manager package is either a staggering lapse in quality control, or a simultaneously cynical and ultimately self-destructive attempt to force users onto an Apple platform where, one presumes, such things don't happen.

Sure, Steve, force us to discard our investment in your gadget, mute all the video content we've paid for from your online store, and then expect us to spend more money on your products? Yeah, that's gonna work.

Flex those fingers!

Update: This appears to be fixed, at least for me, by the QuickTime 7.4.1 update. (2008-02-14 21:52 UTC)

Posted at 01:11 Permalink

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Now This Is Odd: Star Wars Stamps

U.S. Star Wars Stamps
© 2007 USPS. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday I received a letter posted from the United States and couldn't help but remark that it bore three stamps figuring Star Wars characters: C-3PO and two from the Three Tedious Prequels. Turns out there's a whole series of Star Wars stamps issued to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original film.

What's curious about this is that Star Wars is a commercial property, generating revenue for its owners from sales of media of the movies, books, games, and the multitudinous merchandising tie-ins of these characters. So the U.S. Postal Service is selling stamps which promote the products of a specific enterprise? Imagine the possibilities! What's next: Barbie and Big Mac stamps?

Posted at 00:03 Permalink

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reading List: Liberal Fascism

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on Amazon.com for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

Posted at 01:18 Permalink

Monday, January 28, 2008

ENT (Pseudorandom Sequence Test Program) Updated

I have just posted an update to ENT, the pseudorandom sequence test program which was one of the first pieces of software to be posted on the Fourmilab site in 1994 (updates were subsequently released in 1998 and 2006).

Among the statistics ENT computes for the sequence tested is a chi-square value comparing the sequence's distribution of values to that expected for a uniformly distributed random sequence. In addition to the chi-square value, an interpretation of it in terms of the probability of the sequence's being random was output. This probability value was obtained by a tacky table look-up, which simply yielded a rough estimate of the probability within a series of bands. This update includes numerical evaluation of actual probability from the measured chi-square value. If the computed chance probability is less than 0.01% or greater than 99.99% it is labeled as such.

The 16-bit MS-DOS executable included with earlier releases has been supplanted by a Win32 executable built with Microsoft Visual C++ 7.0; this binary does not require loading the 16-bit compatibility module on 32-bit Windows platforms (but of course only runs on the latter). This update corrects a problem which caused errors when processing data piped to standard input on Windows platforms: standard input is now set to the required binary mode.

Posted at 20:56 Permalink

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Case UNIVAC 1107 Code Cards

The ultimate fashion statement for assembly language programmers of the Case UNIVAC 1107 wasn't a pocket protector and pens of many colours but these plastic laminated cards documenting the instruction set of that fabled computer.

Special thanks to Bill Patterson, who managed to preserve this artefact of the bronze age of computing into the twenty-first century and kindly contributed scans to this archive.

Posted at 23:56 Permalink

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Saucers Over Switzerland

Click image for an enlargement.

A fine collection of lenticular clouds (altocumulus lenticularis) were visible above the Alps yesterday afternoon, 2008-01-21. These clouds are formed when moist air is forced upward by a mountain peak by wind pressure, condensing at the lower temperature of higher altitude. Unlike regular clouds, lenticular clouds stay in place over the peak(s) which cause them to form; these remained little changed over the hour I observed them.

These clouds often look like something produced by unwise use of the “clone brush” in an image editing program, but that's the way they are—this image has not been altered in any way apart from cropping and contrast adjustment. You can click the enlargement in the pop-up window to view the full resolution original in a scrollable window.

Posted at 16:31 Permalink

Monday, January 21, 2008

MIDICSV Update Posted

I have just posted version 1.1 of MIDICSV, a command line utility for both Unix-like and 32-bit Windows platforms which converts standard MIDI (musical composition) files to and from Comma-Separated Value (CSV) text files, which can easily be manipulated by programs to perform various transformations on musical works.

This release corrects an error, reported by Pete Goodeve, in which the byte order of the value field in pitch bend messages was reversed. Since the bytes were reversed in both the MIDI to CSV and CSV to MIDI utilities, transformation of MIDI to CSV and back to MIDI would not corrupt the file, but programs processing the CSV file would see nonsense values in the pitch bend field. The fix corrects the byte order and hence the problem. I've also added documentation to the MIDICSV File Format manual page which explains how to interpret the 14-bit pitch bend value.

The MIDICSV Web page has been updated to validated XHTML 1.0 using Fourmilab's standard style sheet and Unicode text entities.

Posted at 17:03 Permalink

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Documents: The Use of the Apostrophe in the English Language

Stalwart members of the Fourmilab Red (Pencil) Brigades are alerted to the posting of a new ready-to-be-savaged document, The Use of the Apostrophe in the English Language, which not only proposes five simple rules which will keep writers from stumbling over this humble punctuation mark, but also proclaims International Write Like a Moron Day to celebrate those who can't be bothered to get such simple things right.

Posted at 02:08 Permalink

Friday, January 18, 2008

Reading List: The Screwtape Letters

[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

Posted at 23:42 Permalink

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Reading List: Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians

Mashaal, Maurice. Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians. Translated by Anna Pierrehumbert. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, [2002] 2006. ISBN 978-0-8218-3967-6.
In 1934, André Weil and Henri Cartan, both young professors of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg, would frequently, when discussing the calculus courses they were teaching, deplore the textbooks available, all of which they considered antiquated and inadequate. Weil eventually suggested getting in touch with several of their fellow alumni of the École Normale Supérieure who were teaching similar courses in provincial universities around France, inviting them to collaborate on a new analysis textbook. The complete work was expected to total 1000 to 1200 pages, with the first volumes ready about six months after the project began.

Thus began one of the most flabbergasting examples of “mission creep” in human intellectual history, which set the style for much of mathematics publication and education in subsequent decades. Working collectively and publishing under the pseudonym “Nicolas Bourbaki” (after the French general in the Franco-Prussian War Charles Denis Bourbaki), the “analysis textbook” to be assembled by a small group over a few years grew into a project spanning more than six decades and ten books, most of multiple volumes, totalling more than seven thousand pages, systematising the core of mathematics in a relentlessly abstract and austere axiomatic form. Although Bourbaki introduced new terminology, some of which has become commonplace, there is no new mathematics in the work: it is a presentation of pre-existing mathematical work as a pedagogical tool and toolbox for research mathematicians. (This is not to say that the participants in the Bourbaki project did not do original work—in fact, they were among the leaders in mathematical research in their respective generations. But their work on the Bourbaki opus was a codification and grand unification of the disparate branches of mathematics into a coherent whole. In fact, so important was the idea that mathematics was a unified tree rooted in set theory that the Bourbaki group always used the word mathématique, not mathématiques.)

Criticisms of the Bourbaki approach were many: it was too abstract, emphasised structure over the content which motivated it, neglected foundational topics such as mathematical logic, excluded anything tainted with the possibility of application (including probability, automata theory, and combinatorics), and took an eccentric approach to integration, disdaining the Lebesgue integral. These criticisms are described in detail, with both sides fairly presented. While Bourbaki participants had no ambitions to reform secondary school mathematics education, it is certainly true that academics steeped in the Bourbaki approach played a part in the disastrous “New Math” episode, which is described in chapter 10.

The book is extravagantly illustrated, and has numerous boxes and marginal notes which describe details, concepts, and the dramatis personæ in this intricate story. An appendix provides English translations of documents which appear in French in the main text. There is no index.

La version fran├žaise reste disponible.

Posted at 23:43 Permalink

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Computing: MD5 Command-Line Utility Updated

I have posted an update to the MD5 command-line utility for Unix-like platforms and Win32 machines. This release, version 2.2, corrects a problem reported by Dr. Andreas Arning of IBM Germany. When the ability to compute the MD5 signature of multiple file names specified on the command line was added to the program, I neglected to close the files after computing the signature, so if you specified a large number of files, the command would fail after exhausting the system's maximum number of open file handles. The fix closes the files, and should allow computing the signature of as many files as the shell permits you to specify on the command line.

The updated distributions include both source code and a ready-to-run Win32 console application. The Web page for the application has been updated to XHTML 1.0, using the standard Fourmilab style sheet and Unicode text entities.

Posted at 23:55 Permalink

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books: Roswell, Texas Complete, On the Web for Free

The deliciously engaging alternative history libertarian graphic novel, Roswell, Texas, by L. Neil Smith, Rex F. “Baloo” May, Scott Bieser, and Jen Zach, which has been in release in serial form on the Web for a year and a half is now complete, and remains available completely free online. The work in progress has even been the subject of a puzzle posted here. Figuring out who all the characters are in our more dismal multiverse trajectory is an especial joy. If you haven't yet discovered this treat, there's no more waiting to find out how it ends! Here's L. Neil's announcement of the completion of the work. A trade paperback edition is scheduled for publication (Yee hah! Blam blam!) in June 2008. As far as I can determine, this book cannot be pre-ordered at present.

If you're already regretting the end of your weekly ration of Roswell, not to worry—the serialisation of TimePeeper starts on January 15th.

Posted at 00:30 Permalink

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Reading List: The Birth of Britain

[Audiobook] Churchill, Winston S. The Birth of Britain. (Audiobook, Unabridged). London: BBC Audiobooks, [1956] 2006. ISBN 978-0-304-36389-6.
This is the first book in Churchill's sprawling four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began work on the history in the 1930s, and by the time he set it aside to go to the Admiralty in 1939, about half a million words had been delivered to his publisher. His wartime service as Prime Minister, postwar writing of the six-volume history The Second World War, and second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955 caused the project to be postponed repeatedly, and it wasn't until 1956–1958, when Churchill was in his 80s, that the work was published. Even sections which existed as print proofs from the 1930s were substantially revised based upon scholarship in the intervening years.

The Birth of Britain covers the period from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. through Richard III's defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. This is very much history in the “kings, battles, and dates” mould; there is little about cultural, intellectual, and technological matters—the influence of the monastic movement, the establishment and growth of universities, and the emergence of guilds barely figure at all in the narrative. But what a grand narrative it is, the work of one of the greatest masters of the language spoken by those whose history he chronicles. In accounts of early periods where original sources are scanty and it isn't necessarily easy to distinguish historical accounts from epics and legends, Churchill takes pains to note this and distinguish his own conclusions from alternative interpretations.

This audiobook is distributed in seven parts, totalling 17 hours. A print edition is available in the UK.

Posted at 00:12 Permalink

Friday, January 11, 2008

Reading List: Day of Reckoning

Buchanan, Patrick J. Day of Reckoning. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-37696-3.
In the late 1980s, I decided to get out of the United States. Why? Because it seemed to me that for a multitude of reasons, many of which I had experienced directly as the founder of a job-creating company, resident of a state whose border the national government declined to defend, and investor who saw the macroeconomic realities piling up into an inevitable disaster, that the U.S. was going down, and I preferred to spend the remainder of my life somewhere which wasn't.

In 1992, the year I moved to Switzerland, Pat Buchanan mounted an insurgent challenge to George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, gaining more than three million primary votes. His platform featured protectionism, immigration restriction, and rolling back the cultural revolution mounted by judicial activism. I opposed most of his agenda. He lost.

This book can be seen as a retrospective on the 15 years since, and is particularly poignant to me, as it's a reality check on whether I was wise in getting out when I did. Bottom line: I've no regrets whatsoever, and I'd counsel any productive individual in the U.S. to get out as soon as possible, even though it's harder than when I made my exit.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?

Merle Haggard

Well, that's the way to bet. As usual, economics trumps just about everything. Just how plausible is it that a global hegemon can continue to exert its dominance when its economy is utterly dependent upon its ability to borrow two billion dollars a day from its principal rivals: China and Japan, and from these hired funds, it pumps more than three hundred billion dollars a year into the coffers of its enemies: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, and others to fund its addiction to petroleum?

The last chapter presents a set of policy prescriptions to reverse the imminent disasters facing the U.S. Even if these policies could be sold to an electorate in which two generations have been brainwashed by collectivist nostrums, it still seems like “too little, too late”—once you've shipped your manufacturing industries offshore and become dependent upon immigrants for knowledge workers, how precisely do you get back to first world status? Beats me.

Some will claim I am, along with the author, piling on recent headlines. I'd counsel taking a longer-term view, as I did when I decided to get out of the U.S. If you're into numbers, note the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar versus the Euro, and the price of gold and oil in U.S. dollars today, then compare them to the quotes five years hence. If the dollar has appreciated, then I'm wrong; if it's continuing its long-term slide into banana republic status, then maybe this rant wasn't as intemperate as you might have initially deemed it.

His detractors call Pat Buchanan a “paleoconservative”, but how many “progressives” publish manuscripts written in the future? The acknowledgements (p. 266) is dated October 2008, ten months after I read it, but then I'm cool with that.

Posted at 14:43 Permalink

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Hacker's Diet Online: Paper log generator

I have just posted an update to The Hacker's Diet Online which allows users to create paper weight and exercise logs. Many people, myself included, like to log their weight and exercise and then transfer the data to the computer later. Up to now, I've used log forms created by printing an empty Excel spreadsheet; this facility eliminates yet another need for that legacy application.

To generate paper log forms, navigate to the “Utilities” page and click the “Print paper log forms” item. A form will appear which allows you to specify the first and last month and year of the logs to be printed. When you click “Generate”, a document containing the requested log forms opens in a new window, and a print request is automatically queued a second later (allowing the document to render in the browser). (If JavaScript is disabled, you'll have to manually print the document and navigate back to the request page with the “Back” button.) The paper log form document uses a paged media style sheet to insert page breaks between each monthly log; it's up to your browser to handle this style element properly—if it doesn't, there's nothing I can do about it.

This is a small and simple project, but no task is too modest not to be torpedoed below the water line by the pathetic joke Microsoft purports to be a Web browser. The log form document displayed and printed correctly on the first try with both Mozilla Firefox ( and Opera (9.25), but with both Internet Explorer 6 and 7 the rules beneath the items in the forms did not display. This turned out to be due not to one but two bonehead blunders in “The Moron's Choice™ for Browsing the Internet”. First of all, if you don't specify the colour of a border, it's supposed to default to the foreground colour of the element to which it is applied: in this case black. So what does Microsoft do? White, of course (or transparent, or some equally idiotic choice). After all, if the document specifies a border, isn't it obvious that most page designers will want it to be invisible? But specifying a colour of black for the borders still didn't make them appear! It turns out that for another of the incomprehensible reasons which spout from Redmond like a sewage geyser, if the content of a table field is void, a border-bottom specification is ignored—that makes sense, right? (And no, the empty-cells and border-collapse properties have no influence on this idiotic behaviour.) I ended up having to fill every underlined field in the table with an “ ” which was sufficient to persuade Bobo the Bonehead Browser to draw the border beneath it.

Ever since the mid-1990s when the user experience of Microsoft products began to deteriorate at an accelerating pace, I've observed that whenever Microsoft seems to chose a default behaviour, they almost always get it precisely backward: their choice interrupts the user's work flow, requires remediation, or forces the user to do additional work to get the desired result, as if the goal were to make the experience of using a computer as irritating and intellectually brutalising as possible. As this accelerates, even in the face of user pushback (note the slow uptake of Windows Vista and Office 2007, both among the most opaque and user-hostile products ever fielded by an industry leader), one can only guess at the reasons for this, and whether it is due to incompetence or to a fundamentally flawed design philosophy entrenched among those who create these mediocre, regrettable products which, after using competently-implemented alternatives, seem increasingly like getting behind the wheel of a 1975 Chevy Vega.

Posted at 22:33 Permalink

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Books: Sequel to Prayers for the Assassin due in February

Robert Ferrigno, author of the compelling future history thriller Prayers for the Assassin (reviewed here in March 2006) writes to note that the sequel, Sins of the Assassin, the second volume of the Assassin Trilogy, will be published on February 5th, 2008. The first volume has just been released in a mass market paperback edition. I've just pre-ordered my copy of Sins.

Posted at 20:21 Permalink

Monday, January 7, 2008

Rule by Decree

“Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool.”

—Paul Begala, Clinton White House aide, quoted
in The New York Times, July 5th, 1998

Representative government in a republic is messy, tiresome, and tedious to those who believe themselves to know what must be done and willing to take the bold steps to implement the necessary policies. From Sulla to Cæsar to the corpulent caudillo of Caracas, the ever so efficient expedient of rule by executive fiat has tempted legitimately chosen leaders to flirt with, or overtly embrace authoritarianism. This temptation transcends philosophy and party, fact and fiction: it isn't just Tom Clancy who spins tales of executive power; even the Free Libertarian president in L. Neil Smith's and Aaron Zelman's novel Hope implements his agenda largely through executive orders over the opposition of Congress.

In the United States, presidents, starting with George Washington, have issued executive orders since the inception of the republic in 1789. In the early years, these orders were relatively rare and usually straightforward instructions to executive branch agencies on their operations. Until the 20th century, executive orders were not published or assigned numbers. At the start of that century, the State Department retroactively assigned numbers to all executive orders dating back to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and this numbering scheme has been continued to the present day.

Simply counting the number of executive orders is a crude measure of the exercise of executive power: an executive order may simply adjust pay rates within executive departments or be as sweeping as Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which mandated the internment of U.S. citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry. Still, the total number of orders issued and the mean number per year gives a sense of the degree of the authoritarian temptation of U.S. presidents in the last century and a half.

President Party Congress Executive
Per Year
Grant R 43–44 20 5.0
Hayes R 45–46 0 0.0
Garfield R 47 1 0.5
Arthur R 48 1 0.5
Harrison, B R 51–52 1 0.25
Cleveland D 49–50, 53–54 70 8.8
McKinley R 55–57 103 17.2
Roosevelt, T R 58–60 712 356.0
Taft R 61–62 673 168.3
Wilson D 63–66 1707 213.4
Harding R 67–68 739 184.8
Coolidge R 69–70 899 224.8
Hoover R 71–72 966 241.5
Roosevelt, F D 73–79 3833 273.8
Truman D 80–82 604 100.7
Eisenhower R 83–86 478 59.8
Kennedy D 87–88 291 72.8
Johnson D 89–90 252 63.0
Nixon R 91–93 384 64.0
Ford R 94 123 61.5
Carter D 95–96 311 77.8
Reagan R 97–100 402 50.3
Bush, G H W R 101–102 164 41.0
Clinton D 103–106 359 44.9
Bush, G W R 107–109 183 45.8
  1. Raw data are courtesy of the Table of Congressional Volumes and Presidential Issuances: 1789–1999. Any errors in transforming these data into this table are my own.
  2. When two presidents served during a two-year congressional meeting due to death or resignation of the first, orders during that meeting are arbitrarily assigned to the president in office at its start.
  3. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms in office. Orders from the first term are aggregated with those of the second and listed in sequence for his second term.
  4. Data for George W. Bush cover only the first three congressional meetings during his administration; orders issued during the 110th Congress are not included.

I was somewhat surprised by these results. I'd kind of assumed that with the growing concentration of political power in Washington, and the expansion of the authority of executive departments into all sectors of American life, that executive orders would grow apace, but this is not actually the case. Measured by executive orders per year, America's Great Dictator was none other than Teddy Roosevelt, who cranked out an average of 356 every year he spent in the White House. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover: often stereotyped as laissez-faire hands-off executives, averaged 224.8 and 241.5 executive orders per year, not far behind FDR's 273.8. Eisenhower issued only 59.8 per year, and no president since has issued as many as 80 per year. Rutherford B. Hayes was the only president since Lincoln to serve an entire four-year term without issuing a single executive order. Trivia buffs will delight in discovering that between 1873 and 2006, more than one third of all executive orders were issued by presidents named “Roosevelt”.

You can, if you wish, download an OpenOffice spreadsheet containing the raw data upon which this article is based.

Posted at 21:21 Permalink

Friday, January 4, 2008

Reading List: Making Money

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-116164-3.
Who'd have imagined that fractional reserve banking, fiat currency, and macroeconometric modelling could be so funny? When Lord Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, decides the economy needs more juice than the stodgy plutocrat-run banks provide, he immediately identifies the ideal curriculum vitæ of a central banker: confidence man, showman, and all-purpose crook. (In our world, mumbling and unparsable prose seem additional job requirements, but things are simpler on Discworld.)

Fortunately, the man for the job is right at hand when the hereditary chief of the Royal Bank goes to her reward: Moist von Lipwig, triumphant in turning around the Post Office in Going Postal, is persuaded (Lord Vetinari can be very persuasive, especially to civil servants he has already once hanged by the neck) to take the second-in-command position at the Bank, the Chairman's office having been assumed by Mr. Fusspot, a small dog who lives in the in-box on Lipwig's desk.

Moist soon finds himself introducing paper money, coping with problems in the gold vault, dealing with a model of the economy which may be more than a model (giving an entirely new meaning to “liquidity”), fending off a run on the bank, summoning the dead to gain control of a super-weapon, and finding a store of value which is better than gold. If you aren't into economics, this is a terrific Discworld novel; if you are, it's delightful on a deeper level.

The “Glooper” in the basement of the bank is based upon economist William Phillips's MONIAC hydraulic economic computer, of which a dozen or more were built. There is no evidence that fiddling with Phillips's device was able to influence the economy which it modelled, but perhaps this is because Phillips never had an assistant named “Igor”.

If you're new to Terry Pratchett and don't know where to start, here's a handy chart (home page and other language translations) which shows the main threads and their interconnections. Making Money does not appear in this map; it should be added to the right of Going Postal.

Posted at 23:47 Permalink

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reading List: The Dangerous Book for Dogs

Rex and Sparky [Garden, Joe et al.]. The Dangerous Book for Dogs. New York: Villard, 2007. ISBN 978-0-345-50370-1.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is all well and good, but what about a boy's inseparable companion in adventures great and small? This book comes to the rescue, with essential tips for the pooch who wants to experience their canine inheritance to the fullest. Packed cover to cover with practical advice on begging, swimming, picking a pill out of a ball of peanut butter, and treeing a raccoon; stories of heroic and resourceful dogs in history, from Mikmik the sabre-toothed sled dog who led the first humans to North America across the Bering Strait land bridge, to Pepper, the celebrated two-year-old Corgi who with her wits, snout, and stubby legs singlehandedly thwarted a vile conspiracy between the Sun and a rogue toaster to interfere with her nap; tips on dealing with tribulations of life such as cats, squirrels, baths, and dinner parties; and formal rules for timeless games such as “Fetch”. Given the proclivities of the species, there is a great deal more about poop here than in the books for boys and girls. I must take exception to the remarks on canine auditory performance on p. 105; dogs have superb hearing and perceive sounds well above the frequency range to which humans respond, but I've yet to meet the pooch able to hear “50,000 kHz”. Silent dog whistles notwithstanding, even the sharpest-eared cur doesn't pick up the six metre band!

Dogs who master the skills taught here will want to download the merit badges from the book's Web site and display them proudly on their collars. Dog owners (or, for those living in the moonbat caves of western North America, “guardians”) who find their pet doesn't get as much out of this book as they'd hoped may wish to consult my forthcoming monograph Why Rover Can't Read.

Posted at 21:13 Permalink

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Reading List Content Management System Updated

The home-brew Perl content management system I use to maintain the Reading List Web tree has been revised and all documents it generates updated accordingly. If you're using this program to manage your own reading list, you may wish to download and install the new release. Principal changes are:

In addition to these changes in the Web tree generation process, I have also revised all of the book entries back to the start in January 2001 to use XHTML text entities for special characters such as quotes, dashes, and ellipses, and fixed a number of typographical errors and instances of infelicitous formatting I came across in the editing process.

Starting with January 1st, 2008, and the item below posted on that date, I will cite thirteen digit ISBN-13 references (for example 978-0-375-75875-1) for all books in the reading list, even if the book was published prior to the mandate of ISBN-13 in 2007. Any ten-digit ISBN-10 can be expressed as an ISBN-13 by prefixing it with the EANBookland” prefix of 978, then recomputing the final check digit with the EAN/ISBN-13 algorithm. An ISBN-13 which begins with 978 can be transformed back to ISBN-10 by the inverse process. Note that ISBN-13s which begin with the new Bookland code of 979 cannot be expressed as ISBN-10s. Books published prior to the adoption of ISBN will continue to be cited by their Library of Congress Catalogue Number, British Library Number, or other catalogue identification.

For some incomprehensible reason, Amazon.com does not accept ISBN-13 specifications in associate links. When presented with an ISBN-13, you must convert it to an “ASIN” (Amazon Standard Identification Number) which, for a 978-prefix ISBN-13, is identical to the ISBN-10 it encodes. But since 979-prefix ISBN-13s cannot be programmatically converted, there's no alternative to looking up the book on Amazon, noting the ASIN, and manually specifying it in your link. Fortunately, almost all existing ISBN-13s are of the 978 flavour (I've yet to encounter a 979), so for the moment they can be automatically interconverted as required. I've written a little Perl program to convert back and forth between ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 values, which you're welcome to download; it preserves embedded delimiters within ISBN values and also displays them in canonical form with all delimiters removed for applications (hello, Amazon!) which require them thus.

Posted at 01:18 Permalink

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reading List: No Way to Treat a First Lady

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75875-1.
First Lady Beth MacMann knew she was in for a really bad day when she awakened to find her philandering war hero presidential husband dead in bed beside her, with the hallmark of the Paul Revere silver spittoon she'd hurled at him the night before as he'd returned from an assignation in the Lincoln Bedroom “etched, etched” upon his forehead. Before long, Beth finds herself charged with assassinating the President of the United States, and before the spectacle a breathless media are pitching as the “Trial of the Millennium” even begins, nearly convicted in the court of public opinion, with the tabloids referring to her as “Lady Bethmac”.

Enter superstar trial lawyer and fiancé Beth dumped in law school Boyce “Shameless” Baylor who, without the benefit of a courtroom dream team, mounts a defence involving “a conspiracy so vast…” that the world sits on the edge of its seats to see what will happen next. What happens next, and then, and later, and still later is side-splittingly funny even by Buckley's high standards, perhaps the most hilarious yarn ever spun around a capital murder trial. As in many of Buckley's novels, everything works out for the best (except, perhaps, for the deceased commander in chief, but he's not talking), and yet none of the characters is admirable in any way—welcome to Washington D.C.! Barbs at legacy media figures and celebrities abound, and Dan Rather's inane folksiness comes in for delicious parody on the eve of the ignominious end of his career. This is satire at its most wicked, one of the funniest of Buckley's novels I've read (Florence of Arabia [March 2006] is comparable, but a very different kind of story). This may be the last Washington farce of the “holiday from history” epoch—the author completed the acknowledgements page on September 9th, 2001.

Posted at 19:59 Permalink