Halfway toward understanding the world

Posted on August 31, 2007 by Steve

Years ago I discovered a list of ten books recommended for those who wish to "understand the world." I had read and enjoyed three of them, so I decided to pursue the rest of the list. To date I've read five:

  • Douglas R. Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
  • Richard Feynman: Safecracker Suite
  • Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct
  • J. E. Gordon: The New Science of Strong Materials (1968) (but not yet the also-recommended Structures)
  • Stuart Sutherland: Irrationality

    Still to go:

  • Marcus Chown: The Magic Furnace
  • Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker
  • Graham Cairns-Smith: Seven Clues to the Origin of Life
  • D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson: On Growth and Form
  • Jamie James: The Music of the Spheres

    As far as understanding the world goes, I think I got the most out of Gordon's explanation of what makes stuff tough and Pinker's presentation of Chomskyan language theory. Hofstadter was mind-expanding and abstract, Feynman was fun and inspiring, and Sutherland was interesting but sometimes shallow.

    If I had to recommend a single book to meet this lofty goal, without hesitation I would suggest Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (here's an excerpt). Not especially rigorous (in fact, somewhat erroneous), it presents a quite readable and illuminating Big Picture. He aims to capture the current state of scientific knowledge and, often amusingly, relate the stories behind the people who figured things out. His sense of wonder is infectious, and the reader is left with a sense of how little we do understand the world.
  • Respek

    Posted on August 30, 2007 by Steve

    The only cure I know for addiction is overindulgence. It might not be a good idea for substance abusers, but binge-induced-nausea helped me beat get over Audrey Tautou and, recently, the characters of Sacha Baron Cohen. I was dimly aware of his work when a less-than-damning review convinced me to take the plunge and watch "Borat."

    Later, I noticed a few episodes of "Da Ali G Show" in the inflight entertainment system of our last trip. Such was our mirth that we had to stop watching a few times to avoid disturbing other passengers. On coming home, we found our video store carried the DVD and, in our haste, we grabbed a travesty as well. The shows were great, the movie sucked, and I was cured. The scripted movie was missing the essential ingredient of earnest personalities somehow getting connived into taking a complete idiot seriously.

    Some favorite clips:
    Buzz Aldrin
    "Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali"
    Andy Rooney
    a hapless farmer

    Book: In a Sunburned Country

    Posted on August 29, 2007 by Steve

    Bill Bryson is a delightful travel writer. Unfailingly cheerful, he brings a childlike wonder to out-of-the-way places, of which there are many in Australia. In addition to sharing his impressions, he relates quite a bit of the background and significance of his destinations. With a bibliography of over sixty titles at the end, it's clear he was doing some research for his later book on the sciences. Much attention is given to the many ways one can die or be maimed by Australian wildlife.

    Anecdotes from his traveling experience -- immense road trips dodging road trains, looking for food in rough bars, and "singularly execrable" accommodations -- prove the wisdom of Cervantes: El camino es siempre mejor que la posada.

    Telegram quiz

    Posted on August 28, 2007 by Steve

    The following telegram was read to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1884:

    MONOTREMES OVIPAROUS, OVUM MEROBLASTIC

    It was described as "the most important message in a scientific sense that had ever passed through the submarine cables."

    What was it about?

    (a) A species of coral.

    (b) A tribe of jungle-dwellers.

    (c) Evidence of microscopic meteorites.

    (d) The nature of the platypus.

    Hemingway quiz answers

    Posted on August 27, 2007 by Steve

    Here are the quotes from the Hemingway Quiz, matched to their sources.

    ...as a child one really knew too much about Spain and China, and France was interesting while Spain and China were familiar, and daily. France was not daily it just came up again and again.
    It came up first in such different books, Jules Verne and Alfred de Vigny and it came up in my mother's clothes and the gloves and the sealskin caps and muffs and the boxes they came in.
    There was the smell of Paris in that.
    Paris France, Gertrude Stein
    (all entries correct)

    "I cannot stand this life here. If you want to hold on to me, we must leave and go somewhere else, to southern France, or to Spain." "I cannot go abroad... I came here in order to stay here. I will stay here." And in a contradiction he didn't bother to explain, he added as if speaking to himself: "Now what could have attracted me to this desolate land other than the desire to stay?"
    The Castle, Franz Kafka
    (RWH and Eric correct)

    It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.
    The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
    (all entries correct)

    No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed.
    Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
    (all entries correct)

    The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. It was a "Dream City" of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once.
    The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
    (RWH correct)

    To the westward, the northward, and the southward, as far as I could see, lay a boundless sheet of apparently unruffled ocean, which every moment gained a deeper and deeper tint of blue. At a vast distance to the eastward, although perfectly discernable, extended the islands of Great Britain, the entire Atlantic coasts of France and Spain, with a small portion of the northern part of the continent of Africa. Of individual edifices not a trace could be discovered, and the proudest cities of mankind had utterly faded away from the face of the earth.
    "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall", Edgar Allan Poe
    (RWH and Eric correct)

    We shall remember something of pleasant France; and something also of Paris, though it flashed upon us a splendid meteor, and was gone again, we hardly knew how or where. We shall remember, always, how we saw majestic Gibraltar glorified with the rich coloring of a Spanish sunset and swimming in a sea of rainbows.
    The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
    (none correct)

    When the war ended, the young rakehell of the Rumfoord family, Remington Rumfoord, IV, proposed to sail his steam yacht, the Scheherazade, around the world, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, and Japan. He invited Johnson to accompany him as first mate, and Johnson agreed.
    Johnson saw many wonders of the world on the voyage.
    Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
    (Eric and Team Gareth correct)

    Is the Hemingway sentence distinctive? Among these small samples, he does stand out in a calculation of the average number of words per sentence:
    12.0 Hemingway
    12.5 Kafka
    19.0 Vonnegut
    20.0 Stein
    21.0 Rand
    27.5 Twain
    29.0 Orwell
    31.7 Poe

    And Papa's average word length is the second shortest:
    3.88 Kafka
    3.98 Hemingway
    4.08 Stein
    4.19 Orwell
    4.54 Rand
    4.60 Twain
    4.69 Poe
    4.86 Vonnegut

    Congratulations to RWH and Eric for 6/8 entries and thanks to all contributors!

    Physics quiz answers

    Posted on August 26, 2007 by Steve

    Here are the answers to the quiz:

    True statements:
  • The mass of an object is not related to the rate at which it falls.
  • Electricity is the result of electrons moving through a conductor.
  • Ponds form a skin of ice on their surface because ice is less dense than fluid water.
  • Ignoring air resistance, an object dropped into a tunnel through the center of the earth would oscillate from end to end indefinitely.

    Misconceptions:
  • Light coming from the sun is parallel.
  • An aircraft wing creates lift because air has to travel farther over the top surface than the bottom.
  • Sound travels better through solids.
  • A lemon can be used to light a flashlight bulb.
  • Infrared light is a form of heat.
  • Re-entering spacecraft are heated by friction with the air.

    It should be recognized that some of the misconceptions are partly true -- such as that there do exist parallel paths of light between the sun and Earth. And they may be false in ways that are obvious to a casual student of physics.

    I created the true statements and tried to make them as unambiguous as possible, but my definition of electricity could be better.

    Here is the debunking of the misconceptions that inspired the quiz.
  • Re: 0-1

    Posted on August 25, 2007 by Steve

    Today marks 30 consecutive daily posts on the Hecat Original Blog, thanks to a brazen challenge from the estimable Unblahg. The HOB is now ahead by one, thanks to the Unblahg author's comfy couch. There will be no resting on laurels, however, as I've come to enjoy the mental stimulation and challenge of coming up with something potentially interesting each day. I've not yet managed to badger anyone into starting their own, but I still hope to inspire/guilt readers (you know who you are) into sharing their wit, if only in the comments section.

    Anyway, ad-in.

    Trip Report: Venice

    Posted on August 24, 2007 by Steve

    We set a personal record for last-hour travel planning this time around. We settled on Venice late Saturday afternoon, seeing that flights were unusually open for August. The weather forecast called for some rain, but it was too late to be picky. The method we've worked out for finding hotels involves sorting the listings on tripadvisor by rating, then trying to book the ones that fit in our budget. We couldn't book anything that night, even after putting The Negotiator on the case. We e-mailed a few bed and breakfasts and went to bed. In the morning, we had two responses but still no rooms. I tried calling a few places and got nowhere. One proprietor was kind enough to give me the cell phone number of a friend who apparently had a spare room, but I didn't take her up on it. We finally booked three nights at a hotel near the bus station for about $165 a night via Expedia. We had to ditch plans to grab a travel guide on the way to the airport for lack of time, but at least we weren't going to show up homeless.

    Venice is the poster city for car haters, and it is indeed pleasant to walk everywhere for days without dodging traffic. I was amazed at how we could find ourselves in an utterly silent aisle after turning a few corners from the cacophony of St. Mark's Square. Dogs benefit as well, most of them trotting leashless some distance from their masters. Cats, on the other hand, were in short supply.

    Water taxis and personal watercraft are the rule for getting around quickly, but we managed to explore on foot as much of the city as appeared interesting, and only boarded a gondola for a requisite photo op and glide around. (Here's a sample of my cinematography and YouTube skills.)

    Food was pretty expensive, and mostly oriented toward pizza & spaghetti, but three days was not long enough to tire of good pizza. Surprisingly, places started closing down around ten. We got a bit of old-fashioned Eurotude when we sat down at a pizzeria named Gino's at 11:30 one night. The waiter made it very clear that they were closing at midnight, then refused to replace a flat Coke, insisting that it couldn't be flat because he had just served one to another table. We got the bill without ordering food and shorted them half a euro of the automatic 12% service charge. I tried to make a point of it when he picked it up but he wasn't very interested.

    Another fun moment was the chance encounter with a bit of graffiti that had been spotted by a friend years earlier.

    The quickening

    Posted on August 23, 2007 by Steve

    It took us six years to decide about having a youngster, and even then we weren't sure we knew what we were getting into. But nine months is a long time to adjust to an idea, and we're getting excited. We bought the fateful shoes, as well as a rack of tot-sized clothes destined to be outgrown faster than they are soiled. Most of the larger items we picked up cheap, so we decided to splurge a bit on the stroller, and got a deal on a used Bugaboo.

    Living with a gravida hasn't been nearly as bad as the guys at the office made it sound. And I wouldn't have guessed how fascinating it is to get a nightly performance like this.

    Dvorak time test

    Posted on August 22, 2007 by Steve

    0:00 This post is bein 1:00 g typed in Dvorak. It has been a while since I had any practice s 2:00 o I am still doing a fair amount of hunt-and-pecking. After I trained 3:00 myself several years ago I took a timed test every day for a few 4:00 weeks and eventually got up around 50 wpm. With 5:00 qwerty I can probably test in the 70s so I never made the switch 6:00 permanent. The fact that I never know when I'll need to use a qwerty 7:00 keyboard makes it hard to give up. I bet I can bang out a few 8:00 canned sentences pretty quick though. Let's see.

    The quick brown fox 9:00 jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quic 10:00 k brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick brown fox 11:00 jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quic 12:00 k brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy d 13:00 og.
    The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The 14:00 quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
    The quick 15:00

    Maybe not.

    Mitch Feigenbaum

    Posted on August 21, 2007 by Steve

    From Chaos:

    In the spring of 1976 he entered a mode of existence more intense than any he had lived through. He would concentrate as if in a trance, programming furiously, scribbling with his pencil, programming again. He could not call C division for help, because that would mean signing off the computer to use the telephone, and reconnection was chancy. He could not stop for more than five minutes' thought, because the computer would automatically disconnect his line. Every so often the computer would go down anyway, leaving him shaking with adrenaline. He worked for two months without pause. His functional day was twenty-two hours. He would try to go to sleep in a kind of buzz, and awaken two hours later with his thoughts exactly where he had left them. His diet was strictly coffee. (Even when healthy and at peace, Feigenbaum subsisted exclusively on the reddest possible meat, coffee, and red wine. His friends speculated that he must be getting his vitamins from cigarettes.)
    In the end, a doctor called it off. He prescribed a modest regimen of Valium and an enforced vacation. But by then Feigenbaum had created a universal theory.


    This quote still comes to mind on the rare occasions when I am both busy and doing something I enjoy. I read the book in college, where my idea of keeping busy was to stay up late coding QBasic on a computer that I had obtained in trade for large bag of pistachios. I tried to write a Mandelbrot Set generator, but had to wait until the evening of the following day for enough to be rendered to show that my algorithm was faulty. Eventually, I got it working in Visual Basic.

    The Old Man and the Sentence

    Posted on August 20, 2007 by Steve

    One can hardly overstate the influence Hemingway had on modern style. Condensed to an extreme in his six-word story, his terse prose is immediately recognizable. Isn't it? Here are eight excerpts from eight well-known authors; see if you can match them up.

    authors:
    Ernest Hemingway
    Franz Kafka
    George Orwell
    Edgar Allan Poe
    Ayn Rand
    Gertrude Stein
    Mark Twain
    Kurt Vonnegut

    excerpts:
    (1)
    ...as a child one really knew too much about Spain and China, and France was interesting while Spain and China were familiar, and daily. France was not daily it just came up again and again.
    It came up first in such different books, Jules Verne and Alfred de Vigny and it came up in my mother's clothes and the gloves and the sealskin caps and muffs and the boxes they came in.
    There was the smell of Paris in that.

    (2)
    "I cannot stand this life here. If you want to hold on to me, we must leave and go somewhere else, to southern France, or to Spain." "I cannot go abroad... I came here in order to stay here. I will stay here." And in a contradiction he didn't bother to explain, he added as if speaking to himself: "Now what could have attracted me to this desolate land other than the desire to stay?"

    (3)
    It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.

    (4)
    No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed.

    (5)
    The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. It was a "Dream City" of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once.

    (6)
    To the westward, the northward, and the southward, as far as I could see, lay a boundless sheet of apparently unruffled ocean, which every moment gained a deeper and deeper tint of blue. At a vast distance to the eastward, although perfectly discernable, extended the islands of Great Britain, the entire Atlantic coasts of France and Spain, with a small portion of the northern part of the continent of Africa. Of individual edifices not a trace could be discovered, and the proudest cities of mankind had utterly faded away from the face of the earth.

    (7)
    We shall remember something of pleasant France; and something also of Paris, though it flashed upon us a splendid meteor, and was gone again, we hardly knew how or where. We shall remember, always, how we saw majestic Gibraltar glorified with the rich coloring of a Spanish sunset and swimming in a sea of rainbows.

    (8)
    When the war ended, the young rakehell of the Rumfoord family, Remington Rumfoord, IV, proposed to sail his steam yacht, the Scheherazade, around the world, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, and Japan. He invited Johnson to accompany him as first mate, and Johnson agreed.
    Johnson saw many wonders of the world on the voyage.

    On vacation

    Posted on August 19, 2007 by Steve

    We're taking a typically planned-at-the-last-minute vacation this week. Flights to Italy were looking good, but the weather is looking wet. Prague is a backup option.

    The blog has been seeded with content for the next few days, scheduled to appear with the Nucleus postdated draft option.

    2007 Vocabulary Challenge

    Posted on August 18, 2007 by Steve

    Three weeks ago, veterans of the Letter Pair Grid were invited to take part in a vocabulary challenge. A section of a large word list (AGID) containing 1125 words, 1% of the total, served as the master list. Participants had to list as many words as they could think of that might appear on the list, which contained words alphabetically between "lunate" and "marauder."

    Three submissions were received, Ray's a last-minute effort arriving a bit late. With one point awarded for each master list word a participant submitted that no one else thought of, here are the scores:
    Eric, submitting 526 words, wins with 153 unique matches.
    Steve, submitting 430 words, found 56.
    Ray, submitting 82 words, found 2.

    The complete entries are here.

    Physics foibles

    Posted on August 18, 2007 by Steve

    When Richard Feynman was asked to review textbooks for the California Board of Education, he was continually incensed by the errors he found:

    Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

    Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.


    Has physics education improved since then? Test yourself with the following statements. Which are true, and which are oft-repeated misconceptions?

    1. Beams of light coming from the sun are parallel.
    2. An aircraft wing creates lift because air has to travel farther over the top surface than the bottom.
    3. Sound travels better through solids.
    4. The mass of an object is not related to the rate at which it falls.
    5. Electricity is the result of electrons moving through a conductor.
    6. Ponds form a skin of ice on their surface because ice is less dense than fluid water.
    7. Ignoring air resistance, an object dropped into a tunnel through the center of the earth would oscillate from end to end indefinitely.
    8. A lemon and metal strips can be used to light a flashlight bulb.
    9. Infrared light is a form of heat.
    10. Re-entering spacecraft are heated by friction with the air.

    Ubuntu install report

    Posted on August 17, 2007 by Steve

    The promise was a Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP server install in about 15 minutes. The reality, on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM, wasn't bad at all. Here are my notes:


    21:40 choose 'Install a command-line system' from alternate install CD
    21:41 detect keyboard by hunting for foreign letter keys - fun!
    21:42 scanning CD
    21:44 pause to bid on stroller parts on eBay
    21:46 enter hostname
    21:47 partioning
    21:49 choose timezone
    21:50 add user steve
    21:51 'installing base system'
    22:02 'select and install software' (automatic)
    21:08 GRUB boot loader install (automatic)
    21:09 'finishing install'
    21:10 reboot, smoke test
    21:14 stuck at 'Running local boot scripts'
    21:18 google suggests hitting enter; it works; login prompt appears
    21:21 sudo apt-get install openssh-server
    21:36 adduser beowulf pwpwpwpw
          adduser ray pwpwpwpw
    23:15 copied legacy /etc/shadow lines for users, hoping to restore old passwords
          sudo aptitude update
          sudo aptitude upgrade [lots of security updates]
          sudo passwd root pwpwpwpwpwpwpwpwpw


    So in half an hour I had a running server. I still had to install several server components, but it couldn't be easier with this aptitude thing. When I mistakenly tried to blog when not logged in with my blogging account, it even told me how and what to install:


    root@hecat:/home/steve/nano# nb -u all
    The program 'nb' is currently not installed. You can install it by typing:
    apt-get install nanoblogger
    Make sure you have the 'universe' component enabled


    With no graphical software installed, df reports under a gig used on /dev/hda1, discounting my bloated homedir.

    HOB 3.0

    Posted on August 17, 2007 by Steve

    Begun in 2003, converted from blosxom to nanoblogger in 2006, the Hecat Original Blog now runs Nucleus.

    What's spam coming to?

    Posted on August 16, 2007 by Steve

    The day after an attempted install of Red Hat Linux failed, I found an e-mail with this subject in my inbox: "For Red Hat Linux, this problem occurs if the server machine has the Linux kernel patch installed for aliasing the loopback device." It's a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I thought since the box was hooked up to the internet, maybe there was some weird automated troubleshooting service. I opened it.

    It was like no spam I'd ever seen.


    From: "anhyeuvn shipman" <anhyeuvn-shipman@lq1media.com>
    To: ramanujan@geocities.com
    Date: Tue, 14 Aug 2007 09:34:18 +0200

    H.u g'e N e'w s To Im_pact C-Y_T-V
    Chin.a Y_ouTV C-o r+p..
    Symb,ol: C'Y_T_V
    We h,a'v*e alrea-dy s'e e'n CY*TV's ma rket im+pact bef+ore climb in*g to o+v_e,r $2.0-0 w-i+t*h n-e'w-s,.

    P.ress Relea se:
    Ch.ina YouTV 's C nBoo W_e*b S,i't'e Ra,nks N'o,.'1 on Mic_r+osoft L*i.v+e Searc*h Eng*ine
    CnBo+o Traffi'c Increas.e-s 4.9-% O v'e_r T*w-o Mon*ths
    R*e a*d t*h'e news-, th.ink abo'ut t h_e imp-act, and
    j,u_m+p on t+h-i.s fi'rst th.ing Tomor.-row morni_ng_! $ 0.4_2 is a g,i+f t at t,h-i,s price ...,..
    Do y_o,u,r h-omewor.k a*n'd w*atch t'h_i*s tr*ade Mo-nday mornin*g.
    Luc ius, a_l.l ha+il, Rome'+s gra_c ious g,ov+ernor.
    EJclC_-ounterError St.a rtCount St.opCou-nt T.Jcl_Counter.
    Oth'er Sis'ters al-ways m-a+d e an attem*pt to l.o,o,k as d.r.a_b as t*h'e m.e_n so as to go l,e s-s n*oticed a+n+d be l.e+s s des_*irable.

    T'h*e Rewr+iteLo g d,_irective s e*t*s t_h-e n*a-m_e of t*h,e f,i*l*e to whic_h t-h*e serve*r l+o g,s a_n,y r-ew,riting action s it p_erfor+ms.
    E.L O - T_i,m+e - Tr,ack08.


    I've seen spam-filter-defeating obfuscated subject lines like "v.i@.gra," but in this case the message itself was almost unreadable, and there were no links or images. Was it an encoded Botnet call to arms? A freak error from a script kiddie? I was able to make out enough of the message to determine that it was some kind of stock shill, but it's so scrambled I can't be sure what stock it's for.

    Oddly, that obscurity and the coincidental subject made it the only spam I've opened and read for years.

    2007 Vocabulary Challenge

    Posted on August 15, 2007 by Steve

    Three weeks ago, veterans of the Letter Pair Grid were invited to take part in a vocabulary challenge. A section of a large word list (AGID) containing 1125 words, 1% of the total, served as the master list. Participants had to list as many words as they could think of that might appear on the list, which contained words alphabetically between "lunate" and "marauder."

    Three submissions were received, Ray's a last-minute effort arriving a bit late. With one point awarded for each master list word a participant submitted that no one else thought of, here are the scores:

    Eric, submitting 526 words, wins with 153 unique matches.
    Steve, submitting 430 words, found 56.
    Ray, submitting 82 words, found 2.

    The complete entries are here.

    Or no rebuild

    Posted on August 15, 2007 by Steve

    The Fedora Live CD promised a small download (smaller than three CDs anyway) with the option to install over the net. It booted up fine, but meagre system resources rendered it unusably slow. I double-clicked the "Install to hard disk" icon and the CD started merrily spinning, and went on spinning all night. Come morning I had to do a hard reset and was relieved to see the old Mandrake system come online.

    Plan B is now in the works. I grabbed the "alternate" CD, which permits a barebones install that needs only 128 MB of RAM. We shall see if one can really turn on a LAMP in around 15 minutes.

    Rebuild

    Posted on August 14, 2007 by Steve

    It's been over two years since the last major housekeeping was done on this server, and the time is right for another rebuild. With any luck Hecat will be online again tonight, if only in skeletal format, with a brand new OS.

    "Getting shot hurts"

    Posted on August 13, 2007 by Steve

    This and other insights can be found in the Reagan diaries. Turns out the guy was ripping one-liners nonstop after getting shot.

    To the doctor about to operate on him: "I hope you're a Republican."
    To his wife: "Honey, I forgot to duck" (quoting Jack Dempsey).
    To a nurse: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" (W. C. Fields).

    Worst travel dining

    Posted on August 12, 2007 by Steve

    San Francisco cowboy bar mistake
    Perhaps not as bad as the title makes it sound. Near the end of our trip, we went to some fancy restaurant/lounge that had been recommended. They wanted a $10 cover, and we decided it was too swanky for us. So we got back in the rental and drove around and eventually ended up in some Western-themed joint near that awful Fisherman's Wharf. There was no cover, but the food was not as cheap as it tasted, the music was a nuisance, and I would have paid to stay hungry.

    Canard solitaire
    As told elsewhere.

    McDonald's in New York City
    Not a bad dining experience, but it was a rather poor judgment to suggest getting supersized while we were still dating. As I remember it, we couldn't decide on anything else, and there may have been some toilet-related urgency. We don't pass by McDonald's in New York too often, but whenever we do, I get a little reminder of my cheapskate past.

    Gouged in Barcelona
    Ah, but traveling only got better once we were married. On this trip, I was supposed to make vacation plans for the first time, but I just hit a few websites the day before we left. It didn't help that I packed a bunch of socks and no pants. By the third day we were wandering around wearing beach clothes and unable to find the beach, leading naturally to a fight that evening.

    After an awkward dinner, we found an internet shop and booked train tickets to an outlying town for the following day. Still a bit sullen, we walked back up Las Ramblas toward the hotel. We stopped at one of the many cafes and I ordered two Cokes. The waiter brought out two giant jugs, together at least a gallon of cola. On another day that might have been welcome change from the usual half-pint glass with an ice cube or two, but it was after midnight and I just sipped at mine, trying weakly to make conversation. The bill arrived. Later I would regret not having documented the evidence, for a blinding rage prevented me from making a clear note of the amount. I recall it being 22 euros. The waiter had gone into hiding, so I threw what vitriol as I could translate at some employee, who presently brought out a bill half as large.

    Best travel dining

    Posted on August 11, 2007 by Steve

    While not all that much of a gourmand, like anyone else I enjoy eating. My favorite memories of food on the road combine memorable locales with tasty repasts. Here are my top five.

    Dessert in St. Maarten
    There was a humble and disarmingly charming little French cafe just down the street from our resort with its typically passable buffet fare. All we had was a single plate of something dense with chocolate and a couple of coffees, but with the exquisite presentation it seemed almost a shame to consume it.
    location

    Tomatoes, basil and mozzarella in Rio
    After making the not-to-be-missed sunset visit to Pão de Açúcar, we took the cable car down to look for some grub. There was an establishment right on the beach, but we were scared off by signs which seemed to indicate that it was some kind of military facility. A passing tourist assured us that we could eat there, so we walked in and got a table on the patio. The gibbous moon rising over the water and a miracle of geology looming overhead made it a magical evening. We had a plate of sliced tomatoes topped with slices of mozzarella, basil and olive oil, a dish that helped cure me of a childhood hatred of tomato.

    Later, we had pizza on the balcony of a casual restaurant in the Botafogo Praia shopping mall, by nearby Botafogo Beach. It was tasty enough, and the view over the water with Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance was like something out of a dream.
    location

    Marriott Grand Marquis
    Not particularly exotic, but I was quite taken in by the hotel's dizzingly cavernous lobby and the view from the top floor revolving lounge, where I had some cocktail or other.


    [Edit]
    Midye Dolma in Istanbul
    I neglected a favorite memory, more relevant to this post than some fancy hotel. On an early visit to Istanbul, we took a ferry across the Bosphorus and I stepped into Asia. My first act on that continent was to walk up to one of many guys selling stuffed mussels. The pictures in this recipe make my mouth water. These are the ingredients:

    large mussels
    olive oil
    dried onion
    rice
    dried mint
    tomato paste
    dill
    a sugar cube
    salt and pepper
    hot water

    The vendor would grab a mussel, scissor half of the shell around to serve as a spoon and squeeze a lemon half over the morsel inside. His practiced hand was just efficient enough to keep up with the two of us greedily shoveling bivalves down like candy. When we were finally satisfied, we asked to settle up but the guy had apparently neglected to keep count. We had to tot up the shells in our trash bag to calculate the bill, which in those days was in the millions but worth every lira.

    Tossa del Mar hotel balcony lunch
    This economical DIY snack from the grocery store across the street was more enjoyable than any expensive meal I've had.
    photos are a nice touch
    low-res approximate location

    Any old beef in Buenos Aires
    My standard order at any restaurant is whatever comes in chicken without bones. I made that mistake on our first day in Argentina, but after tasting my wife's lomo, I didn't order anything but beef for the rest of the trip. Wherever we went we got a slab of red meat the size of a boot sole for the equivalent of a few dollars, the meat tasty enough to tempt a vegan.

    location of a sidewalk restaurant on the corner of Córdoba and Florida that we happened to visit twice.

    AFI top 100 movies

    Posted on August 10, 2007 by Steve

    Another Top 100 list from a self-appointed authority: the American Film Institute's choices for the best films of all time. To see their PDF list, use the bugmenot credentials moviebuff100/hundred or check the Washington Post's copy.

    I've seen 37 of these titles; three of them were assigned viewing in school ("Apocalypse Now," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "To Kill A Mockingbird"). Only ten of them impressed me enough that I am reliably drawn in when they come on TV.

    Top marks:
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    A Clockwork Orange
    Apocalypse Now
    Blade Runner
    Casablanca
    Citizen Kane
    The Godfather
    Pulp Fiction
    Saving Private Ryan
    The Shawshank Redemption

    Okay:
    Chinatown
    Dr. Strangelove
    Easy Rider
    Forrest Gump
    The Godfather Part II
    The Graduate
    Jaws
    King Kong
    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
    Platoon
    Psycho
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Rear Window
    Rocky
    Schindler's List
    The Silence of the Lambs
    The Sixth Sense
    Spartacus
    Star Wars
    Titanic
    To Kill A Mockingbird

    Enh:
    Annie Hall
    E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
    The Maltese Falcon
    Tootsie
    Vertigo
    The Wizard of Oz

    Swaptree report

    Posted on August 09, 2007 by Steve

    My first trade on Swaptree was just realized. I've listed 20 books I would like to have, and a dozen books and CDs which I would be willing to give up. Last week I shipped a beat-up copy of Harry Potter to someone in California, who shipped something to someone in New York, who shipped me a book by Bill Bryson (here's the first chapter).

    This week I added a "Metropolis" DVD to my "have" list, and was informed that someone might give me another Bryson book for it. I've proposed the trade and am waiting to hear back.

    So I'll probably not be getting The Complete Calvin and Hobbes anytime soon, but meanwhile I can reduce shelf clutter and get some new reading material for the cost of postage.

    Logo loco

    Posted on August 08, 2007 by Steve

    But with major pop culture icons, the assumption has to be that the great majority of people who see your Bart-bedecked paraphernalia are already familiar with the dude. So why drop jack on a Cartman plush doll? --RWH

    Couldn't the reason be as simple as that the Mr. T aficionado likes to see Mr. T, that seeing Mr. T makes him happy, therefore he surrounds himself with images of Mr. T? True, there's no need for these displays to be public; a private shrine should do the trick. Perhaps the admen have calculated that they'll get more mileage from their kitsch if they license products more likely to be seen in public, like T-shirts. Bumper stickers, in particular, aren't designed to be seen by their owners. I think they've tapped into something primal and profitable:

    Ha-ha, it's a Bart sticker! Bart's funny. I like Bart, therefore I like this Bart sticker. I can buy this Bart sticker, therefore I will buy this Bart sticker.

    One could argue which of those two "therefores" is more irrational. The first one seems to follow this logic: "Oh look, they make labels that adhere to motorized conveyances. And this one has my favorite cartoon character on it, so it must be the one for me." Pretty crazy. The second one is hard to believe too, but studies have demonstrated that the mere fact that something is available to purchase makes it more desirable to purchase.

    Modern Library top 100

    Posted on August 07, 2007 by Steve

    I have willingly read seven of the Modern Library Top 100 Novels. Six more were pressed upon me by various teachers over the years. And I got through sixty pages of The Golden Bowl before quitting when I ran into this sentence: "He edited for their general economy the play of her mind, just as he edited, savingy, with the stump of a pencil, her redundant telegrams." (By that point I had no idea what the relationships between the characters were. Most of the time I didn't even know who was speaking -- or meditating, more often. The back cover promised some kind of adultery, but if there's a sex scene I can only imagine it's an orgy of dry observations, a ménage à tedium.)

    Read for fun:
    A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
    A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Howards End by E. M. Forster
    A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

    Assigned:
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
    Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    1984 by George Orwell
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    From this list, I would be willing to reread at least ten, while I'm disappointed by around half of the books I read that aren't on any fancy lists. Maybe I should take some advice from Random House.

    Hot metal

    Posted on August 06, 2007 by Steve

    Metals are the latest trend in thievery -- not gold or silver, but copper and lead. California farmers are dealing with irrigation systems stripped of their wires; Johannesburg is facing power outages due to stolen cables; London churches are losing their roofs; and someone hacked off the arms of a statue of Pelé in Brazil. If David Copperfield could really make off with the Statue of Liberty, he could net a quarter of a million for its 62,000 pounds of copper. Apparently the construction boom in China and UAE has caused a spike in the prices of raw materials.

    It made me wonder if the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager would have turned out differently with a time scale other than 1980 to 1990. An analysis from last year suggests that if the bet had extended 25 years, ending in 2005, Ehrlich would still have been out a bundle. Even a fifty-year bet starting in 1955 would have been a win for Simon.

    New passport

    Posted on August 05, 2007 by Steve

    I got caught up in the Great Passport Backlog of '07 when I sent off my ten-year-old passport to Philadelphia on May 8. I thought I might have it back in time for an island trip in late June, but I had to take advantage of the relaxed re-entry requirements and use a birth certificate. Come mid-July, we were making plans for an August getaway, and the State Department application status page was still making vague promises of a 10-12 week turnaround. The help desk hotline was helpless, so I signed up for e-mail notification and before long was informed that my new passport had shipped. It arrived on August 2, after about 12 weeks, and is one of the new models with who-knows-what biometric data encoded in its covers and a spooky hologram of George Washington across from my photo.

    Watch this space for updates as I sail through immigration checks and have my identity stolen faster than ever.

    Pins and needles bend and break

    Posted on August 04, 2007 by Steve

    USA Today is not likely to get a lot of dissent from this op-ed:
    'A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down'

    Unfortunately, bridges do fall down. In his epic history of bridge builders and bridge failures, Henry Petroski described research published in 1977 showing an eerie pattern of catastrophic bridge disasters roughly every thirty years:

    1847 Dee Bridge
    1879 Tay Bridge
    1907 Quebec Bridge
    1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge

    The researchers, Paul Sibly and Alastair C. Walker, found two failures of bridges under construction in 1970, both using a new style of construction known as a box girder. In fact, each of the earlier disasters struck a bridge using a new construction method -- trussed girder, truss, cantilever, suspension, and then box girder. Petroski suggested that engineers behind a new design were more conservative, and later builders had more confidence and took greater risks, until a failure occurred. He warned that a catastrophic failure of a new style of bridge -- perhaps the beautiful and daring cable-stayed bridge -- could occur around the turn of the millennium. So far it hasn't happened, and one can hope that great projects like the Millau Viaduct will be around for a long time.

    Apple recap

    Posted on August 03, 2007 by Steve

    Two years ago, in this space I described the newest member of our family, an iBook. There was an initial period of adjustment and doubt, and many hours spent patiently encouraging the iBook's siblings to share their peripherals, but it is now a fixture in the household and frequently joins us on outings to school, coffee shops, and vacations. I am still using the iPod mini to audit music scraped from blogs.

    At the risk of adding to the many lists of annoyances in OS X, I will mention a few gripes. I still have to go to my happy place after trying to maximize a window, failing, and then having to use the teeny-tiny target on the bottom right corner to resize. Here's a look at the file picker as I tediously root around the library of mediocre iPhoto, looking for an image to attach to an e-mail.

    wee little window

    That little scuff in the corner is the only resize handle, and the cursor doesn't change to let you know when you're over it.

    It also bugs me that most (but not all) applications fail to close when you close their only open window. These apps (and any minimized apps) appear in the "Alt-tab" sequence but nothing opens when you switch to them. If I exit from Terminal, Terminal should die. If I switch to a minimized application, that application should pop open. Any questions? Overall, I grind my teeth about as often using OS X as I do using Windows.

    But it's easy to criticize. Here are a few things Apple got right.

  • Slot CD drive -- why do we still put up with flimsy plastic trays?
  • There's a four-level LED charge indicator on the battery, which works when the computer is off or the battery is disconnected, and even when the battery is charging.
  • The power plug glows orange when you connect it to the computer, then green when charging is complete, whether the computer is on or off. (The power adapter alone is a credit to Apple's designers. To reduce weight and clutter, you can remove the wall cable and plug the brick -- more like a deck of cards -- right into the wall outlet. It has collapsible hooks for winding up the cord. And it cools off, presumably not drawing power, once the computer is fully charged.)
  • Restart from hibernation -- actually it doesn't seem to hibernate. We close the lid when we're done working, then open it to resume where we left off. There's a beat or two as the hard drive spins up, but I never feel like I'm kept waiting. A newer Sony laptop wakes up with a black screen and a crude progress bar, reminding me that standing up an operating system and restoring a session from a cold start is actually a lot of work.
  • Remaining battery life is shown in hours and minutes.
  • Hardware design: it is sleek. And patching in more RAM was easy -- fold down the keyboard, remove a shield (the four tiny screws stay attached to the shield), and snap in the module. Oh, another complaint: the laptops on display in the Apple stores always seem to have more RAM than the descriptions on the price tags indicate.

    Just in time for this review, the iBook froze up a few times recently, requiring that we touch the power button for the first time. I suspect a recent update to Firefox, which has always been open at the time of the freeze. Stay tuned for an update in 2009.
  • A bit of stand-up

    Posted on August 02, 2007 by Steve

    Some comedy in the mix this time.

    Patton Oswalt went to my high school's rival, Broad Run High, and got a liberal arts degree from the College of William and Mary. He shares a bit of the experience in Physics for Poets.

    Stewart Lee starts off weak, but gets a few laughs talking about his endoscopy procedure. Maybe it's only funny with the accent.

    Back to the music ...

    Rolling Stone said it better than I could have: "Tepee-living hippies craft gauzy, pretty stoner rock."
    Brightback Morning Light, Star Blanket River Child.

    I was going to skip this when I saw who sang it, but I found I didn't hate Kelly Clarkson's Irvine at all.

    How rich are you?

    Posted on August 01, 2007 by Steve

    Find out at the Global Rich List. It's run by an English marketing company with the stated mission of "Teaching the world to burp," so there's no worry about having a guilt trip laid on.

    Most people I know land in the same percentile with me. What does it mean? I got to thinking about what it meant to be rich in times past. Being able to acquire a lot of stuff and a nice home has always been a part of it, but having one or more factotums around to do your bidding was the real mark of having arrived. But maintaining servants, and their quarters, and having to provide for their needs presented a real burden for the nobleman. Today we enjoy the benefits without the burden. Grady the butler is waiting on every corner to meet our needs, only to disappear into the crowds once we are finished with him.

    "Grady, be a dear and fix me up some lunch. There's a fine man! Here's five for you."

    "Bring round the carriage, Grady, I must be in town directly! Here's something for your trouble."

    "Tea would be nice about now. And cake! Awfully good of you, Grady. Take this, I insist."

    "Grady, here's money enough to pay for gas for the past month. Be so kind as to run to Grady at the bank and have this sent to the account of Grady Gas Works. Be quick about it, here's 41 cents for you!"