the blog eclectic

All the world's a blog
And all the men and women merely bloggers.....
--As You Like It, Act II Scene 7
by Neil Stephenson
(Buy this at Amazon)
The Emperor's Codes
by Michael Smith
(Buy this at Amazon)

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Walk Through the Blogs

I've been taking the same route through the sites I read. Up till now, I open the next one through the control-O dialog box, and let IE fill in the URL from the first few characters.

Recently, it seemed that there ought to be a better way, especially since I missed a few of Chris Muir's Day by Day. Not that catching up isn't all that bad.

I put together a small HTML file with a bit of JavaScript, to make the process easier. It shows a window with one button, labelled "Next", along with the URL it links to. In the script, there's a list of a dozen or so blogs and other pages I like to run through. Each time you press the button, the next web page shows up in a separate window. Each new one overlays the last one, so you won't end up with a screen full of windows. When you've seen the last one, "Next" takes you back to the first, and you get to start all over again.

One nice feature is that you can follow a trail from any of the sites, as far as you like, then go back to the Walkthrough window and pick up where you left off.

The way I run it is to move the Walkthrough window towards the bottom of the screen, so that the button is visible, and have the new window open up at the top. With a 17" screen, there's plenty of room.

There's a link to a demo page at the bottom of this one.

I keep the HTML file on my local drive - it's a lot easier to make changes, such as adding new URLs, or changing the order of the list. If you're going to be on the road, just upload it to your site.

When you get to the demo page, you can do a "View Source", save the file on your disk, and make whatever changes you want. The demo page includes a complete explanation of the script. Because it's so simple, I put it in the public domain, for anyone to use any way they want. Needless to say, fortune will smile upon you and your descendants if you leave in the "written by" line.

There's an almost irresistable temptation to programmers to add "just one more thing" to a project. I've allowed only one thing past the original concept: showing the list of URLs. When you click one of them, it opens up in the new window. The script doesn't know about that, so pressing "Next" takes you to either the first URL, or picks up where you left off. A natural expansion would be to turn it into a Java applet, so you could add new URLs with a click, or maybe rearrange the list on-screen. I'm resisting, though. So many blogs, so little time.

Here's the demo page. It will open in a new window.

posted by Mike 17:00

Monday, February 4, 2003

Identifying a Character in "Cryptonomicon"

If you've read Neil Stephenson's grand, sprawling, gargantuan novel, you know that there are some real people in the story - Alan Turing, for example. There are also characters based more or less loosely on real people. This note identifies one of them, and gives a bit of the history of the man, one who played a significant part in the history of World War II that runs through the novel.

Even if you haven't read it - and if you haven't, the connection here won't mean much - I think you'll be fascinated by his story, and by the glimpse into a little-known aspect of World War II: how U. S. Navy cryptologists broke a Japanese naval code, and in the process, helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Let's start by picking up the thread in Cryptonomicon where he first appears. There are actually two threads that come together here: the first is one of the main characters, L. P. Waterhouse. He is a naive young man who turns out to be a mathematical genius, and who enlists in the Navy at the beginning of World War II. We first see our subject in the book through his eyes, and he provides a few of the details that tie this all together.

When he took the Navy intelligence test, Waterhouse saw such interesting possibilities in one of the questions that he made a significant advance in an obscure area of math, one that led to his getting a paper published in a European journal. But because he didn't finish the rest of the test, the Navy concluded that he must be pretty dim. They assigned him to a Navy band unit. (Present and former Naval people will probably recognize this sort of thing. It happens now and again in the military.)

A short time later, he's on deck, at Pearl Harbor, on a sunny Sunday morning in 1941, in the band, practicing, playing the glockenspiel. (I think Stephenson just liked the sound of that word.)

After the attack, the need for navy bandsmen had somewhat dwindled, and the need for clerks, typists and filers had appreciably increased. Waterhouse and his fellow bandsmen found themselves transferred to a new unit.

It is here that he met the object of our interest, the second thread in this story. This second thread is the man loosely based on an actual Navy Commander. Here's how L. P. Waterhouse first sees him, in Cryptonomicon:

"...he sees that the officer (if he even is an officer) is out of uniform. Way out of uniform. He's wearing a bathrobe and smoking a pipe. The bathrobe is extrordinarily worn... The thing hasn't been laundered in a long time, but boy has it seen some use. The elbows are worn out and the bottom of the right sleeve is ashy grey and slippery with graphite from being dragged back and forth, tens of thousands of times, across sheets of paper dense with number-two pencil work.
Some other fellow ... introduces bathrobe man as Commander Schoen..."

Stephenson, "Cryptonomicon", p. 67

Those are our two threads: a sailor pulled out of a band unit into a codes and signals unit, and the Commander of that unit, who wears a bathrobe and slippers, smokes a pipe, and looks a little disheveled.

The Commander could be a product of Stephenon's wild imagination, but he isn't. At least, not entirely.

People who have studied the history of U. S. Naval cryptography would probably recognize "Commander Schoen" as an exaggeration of Commander Joe Rochefort, USN. (Apparently Rochefort appears "in several disguises" throughout the book, but this is the only one I've found so far.) For the rest of us, though - and I found this story only recently - here are the details about the real-life inspiration for the character.

There's a fine book by Michael Smith, The Emperor's Codes: The Breaking of Japan's Secret Ciphers, from which we can pull out the thread that is Rochefort. In a way, his story is an example of the adage that "no good deed goes unpunished" (another thing that may strike a familiar chord with present and former Naval personnel).

Smith picks up the story of Cmdr Rochefort. He was born in Dayton, OH, in 1898. He enlisted in the navy in 1918 and was later commissioned as an officer. In 1925, he was head of the US Navy cryptologic section. He took over the Pearl Harbor crypto unit in June 1941.

There's a photo of Cmdr Rochefort in the center section of the book. The photo is credited to the NSA. You can find that same photo here.

"...for...3 months Rochefort rarely left the office. He slept there, ate there, kept going by US Navy-issue amphetamines, and even when working was invariably seen wearing a silk smoking jacket and slippers."

[Rochefort] said

"I ... put in 20 or 22 hours per day ... for about 48 hours at a stretch... I started to wear a smoking jacket over the uniform... it [kept] me warm... it had pockets where I could keep my pouch and pipe. Then my feet got sore from the concrete floor... So I started wearing slippers because the shoes hurt my feet."

Smith, pp108-109

One more detail:

"So urgent was the need for reinforcements, Rochefort recalled having to recruit navy bandsmen to operate his punched-card machines..."

Smith, p123

So there's our man: Cmdr Joseph J. Rochefort, USN. Smoking jacket, pipe, and slippers. Recruited navy bandsmen - like Waterhouse - into his crypto unit.

What happened next?

For the next few years, Rochefort's unit intercepted and decoded thousands of Japanese navy messages. Perhaps the high point of the unit was in June of 1942, just before the Battle of Midway.

Rochefort was sure, based on the messages he processed, that the Japaese fleet would attack at Midway. The admirals in Washington were convinced that it would be somewhere else, either Alaska, Hawaii, or even the West Coast. He managed to convince Admiral Nimitz, who sent the fleet to Midway. The Pacific Fleet won that decisive battle, one of the most important of the war. The admirals in Washington were sore losers, particularly the Redmon brothers:

"Safford had been replaced as head of OP-20-G [The Naval Cryptography division, of which Rochefort's unit was a part] ... by Cmdr John Redman, brother of Director of Naval Communications, Rear Admiral Joseph Redman. The Redman brothers were determined to ensure that communications experts were in charge of naval codebreaking. John Redman also appears to have resented being made to feel foolish by Rochefort over the Midway disagreement. Word began to spread within the naval hierarchy ... that the naval intelligence center in Hawaii was not working well and Rochefort was to blame. The esoteric codebreaker with a penchant for wearing a silk smoking jacket over his uniform was never likely to go over well with the tub-thumping Redman brothers. ... John Redman complained to his superiors that the Hawaii codebreaking operation was in the hands of a man who was merely "an ex-Japanese-language student".

Rochefort was replaced and sent back to San Francisco where he was put in charge of a new dry dock. Philip Jacobsen wrote, "What a waste of priceless talent for a political payback. Nimitz's recommendation for the Distinguished Service Medal was twice denied, but given to political cronies of the Redmans in Washington."

Smith, pp143-4

"The Pearl Harbor codebreaking operation that Rochefort put in place was one of the most efficient operating anywhere,... the breaking of Yamamoto's operational orders prior to the Battle of Midway was a truly spectacular success.

Rochefort, who retired from the navy in 1953, never did receive the Distinguished Service Medal that Admiral Nimitz had recommended him for in the wake of Midway, but it was belatedly awarded to him posthumously in 1986.

Smith, p227

He died in 1976. According to the NSA site, the award was the President's National Defense Service Medal, the highest military award during peacetime.

Starting points for further exploration

There are, of course, thousands of references and books about the subjects of cryptography and war. These few are the ones I came across in searching out this story. I'll add more later.

Philip H. Jacobsen, LCDR, USN, (Ret.) has an excellent site, (The Codebreakers). The section about Cmdr Rochefort is here.

Lord, Walter, "Incredible Victory" (Classics of War)
I haven't read this one, but the reviews on amazon are all very positive.

There is an association of US Navy cryptologic veterans, which has a journal, "Cryptolog, the Journal of the US Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association"
Smith got a lot of his information from this site. Click on their link "Fetaures" to read a set of naval interviews with Rochefort, done in 1969.

posted by Mike 10:45

Thursday, Sept 19, 2002

Democrats attack space

A lively little site,, which bills itself as The aggressive progressives, takes time out from its usual Bush-bashing to take on the non-military uses of space.

One wonders, since they're opposed to the non-military (in other words, commercial) uses of space, if they must necessarily support the military ones.

The subject of intense scrutiny from these progressives (for the meaning of "progressive", see here, here here, and especially here) is TransOrbital, a company which has just won approval to explore and land on the Moon. (I leave it to others to debate why somebody needs government approval to go to the Moon.)

Their first launch is scheduled for June 2003. It will be a lunar orbiter, to take photographs and make maps of the Moon's surface. After that, it will land on the Moon. (I suspect it will be a very hard landing.)

Part of Transorbital's mission statement says:

We want to do for the Moon what Jacques Cousteau did for marine exploration, to go, to see, sell the images as content and repeat it again and again. In the process, we hope to have some fun as well as helping to open up a new world for humankind.
I don't remember anyone getting upset and claiming that "we're giving the oceans away to France" when Costeau was exploring, mapping, and researching.

What claims

[Bush] has turned the moon over to a private, for-profit corporation called TransOrbital that has a far-reaching, frigthening agenda for the corporate domination of space.
They don't say what they think the "frigthening agenda" might be. Easier to shovel innuendo than to risk wasting facts that might be challenged. And we note the usual socialist dread of anything resembling "profit".
Bush simply acted as if the moon were his to give away.
Most of us missed the part about the deed to the Moon being handed over to TransOrbital. Costeau doesn't have the deed to the oceans, either.
The TransOrbital venture could be disastrous for the globe - no scientist today could predict yet how adding mass to the moon via human infrastructure or removing mass, via mining, will impact the delicate gravitational interplay between Earth and its only satellite.
That's the trouble with scientists - ask them a question and they give you a truthful answer. That's assuming, of course, that actually bothered to ask a scientist about that. A reputable scientist will only answer with what he knows is fact - because he's done the experiment - or what he can infer from available data. I suspect that any reputable scientist - and I mean here, astrophysicist, that being the area of expertise - would have to conclude that the amount of material that we could either carry away or add, would be negligible compared to the mass of the Moon - approximately 0.07349*1024 kg, equivalent to 8.08*1019 tons. These people have evidently been watching the recent Time Machine movie, in which the Moon disintegrates because we've been building resort colonies on it. Consider also that it still costs about $6,000 to move one pound of material to the International Space Station.

Over time - millions of years - considerable mass has already been added to the Moon - and to the Earth as well. Every one of those craters you see up there was caused by a meteor crashing at high speed onto the Moon's surface. The largest crater is about 200 km (about 125 miles) across. I leave it to you to consider what a 125-mile wide meteor, travelling at thousands of miles per second, might do to the Moon's surface, or to its orbit. It would certainly have been a grand sight, from the Earth. But the "delicate gravitational interplay" they worry about is just another charming fiction they've dreamed up. charges blindly on, heedless of fact:

Check out this home page: - notice the ad at the top of the page, where the company brags that it will make it possible to display commercial messages on the surface of the moon.
Since they haven't figured out yet how to make inline links, here's TransOrbital, once again.

Now let's try to find the part about "displaying commercial messages on the surface of the moon". Makes you think of giant flashing lights, perhaps spelling out

Preparation H

(If you're in MSIE you're missing the delightful blinking effect.)

Here's what TransOrbital really says:

A specially hardened time capsule in TrailBlazer containing messages and memorabilia will remain on the Moon's surface as a permanent message to the future. Join us by sending your thoughts, dreams, and images to the Moon.
Back to
Now check this site out for the Artemis Society - the group that is behind TransOrbital. It reminds us of those rghtwing front sites that lead to multiple front sites and nothing is what it seems. You'll notice that their web host calls itself the "Illuminati" and is based in Texas.
More innuendo. Since they didn't give the Artemis Society link, there it is.

First, they get the web host wrong: Artemis says

Illuminati Online provided web hosting services and electronic mail hosts for the Society for several years. The Society has since moved on to a much larger, faster server with multiple T3 connections one step off two Internet backbone providers, but we fondly remember and appreciate the excellent support and extensive resources that IO provided while we resided on their servers.
They even get the Artemis/TransOrbital connection wrong - they have it backwards. From the TransOrbital site:
A group dedicated to constructing the first commercial lunar base, and supporting commercial space work. TransOrbital's roots began here and we are a proud supporter of The Artemis Project.
As for the name, Illuminati, that comes from the famous role-playing game developed about 1981 by Steve Jackson. The owner of the ISP and Steve Jackson are brothers.

So, what does this "rghtwing front site", Artemis, tell us?

For one thing, the founder is Gregory Bennett. A reasonably thorough Google search fails to turn up any sinister right-wing connections. Or left, for that matter. He's a busy man. He's a VP at Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company specializing in the commercial development of space travel. He also owns Budget Suites of America. He's a science-fiction writer. And he's been in the aerospace industry for about 30 years.

Artemis is connected with The Moon Society. Once again, no right-wing connections. These people just want to put Man back on the Moon. We've been away now for about 30 years. It's time we went back.

I haven't read all of the rest of What I have read makes my head hurt. Their writing is not that good. It reminds me of a first-year journalism course. They rely more on character assassination and innuendo than on logical argument. Since they're so wrong about TransOrbital, I can only conclude that the rest of their site is a farrago of jejune babblement.

These ill-informed luddites really ought to take a look at China's space program. There's no doubt that the Chinese are going there, and that their aims are primarily military - see here and here.

posted by Mike 15:38

Tuesday, Sept 17, 2002

Aldrin biffs bozo

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel, in Beverly Hills, CA, on Sept 11. He just finished an interview with a Japanese TV crew (or may have been lured there under false pretenses). The bozo in question, one Mr Bart Sibrel, accosted him and asked him to swear on a Bible that he really did walk on the Moon. Sibrel also told Aldrin that he was a thief because he was taking money for an interview about something he didn't do.

Sibrel is 37, and hails from Tennessee. Down there they have some sort of old saying about catching flies more easily with honey than insults, but Mr Sibrel apparently hasn't heard of it. According to the news report, Sibrel is 6' 2", 250 pounds. Probably not all muscle, though. Aldrin is 5' 10", 150.

After considering Mr Sibrel's request, Aldrin gave Sibrel a good left jab.

Sibrel evidently makes a hobby of this sort of thing. He's made that same gambit to as many other astronauts as he can get close to. He's even pulled that one on Aldrin before.

Aldrin is 72 (born January 20, 1930). His mother's maiden name was Marian Moon. His father was a student of Robert Goddard. In 1951, Aldrin graduated 3rd in his class at West Point. He flew Sabre jets in the Korean War.

After that he attended MIT, earning a PhD in astronautics with his thesis, "Guidance for Manned Orbital Rendezvous." This work became the basis for the techniques NASA now uses for spacecraft to hook up while in orbit.

On July 20, 1969, he and Neil Armstrong landed on, and walked on, the Moon, in the Apollo XI flight.

After retiring from NASA, he took command of the Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California, from 1971 until 1972, when he retired from the Air Force.

Evidently Mr Sibrel makes his living trying to convince people that the Moon program never happened, that it was all an elaborate hoax by NASA to cover up the fact that they just couldn't do it.

Mr Sibrel is considering suing Aldrin. I hope it goes to court. Can you imagine a jury deciding against Buzz Aldrin?

The evidence against Sibrel

Some people give Sibrel the benefit of the doubt, saying that he really believes this nonsense, and is just a man with a cause.

I think I've found something that negates that argument.

According to his own site, Sibrel has

...awards from the American Motion Picture Society includ[ing] Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and two Top Ten awards.

Now look at one of his claims: The photos taken on the Moon didn't show stars in the dark sky.

That's the clincher. Here's a guy who is an expert videographer, and therefore understands how light and video - and film - work. He knows full well that stars will not show up in a fast shutter speed photograph.

The photo of Aldrin or Armstrong in a space suit on the Moon is a photo of an object in direct sunlight. Any first year photo student will tell you that the standard exposure for such an object is f/16 at a shutter speed of 1/(ASA of the film).

They were using a special Kodak Ektachrome film, most likely with an ASA of 25, to get the finest detail possible. 1/25 second is a little long for a steady hand-held exposure (the cameras were actually fixed to the space suits), so we convert that to 3 stops faster, 1/125 (the closest to 1/100 on the camera), and adjust the aperture accordingly, to f/8.

At 1/125 second, you don't get stars, even in a dark night sky. And Sibrel knows that. Therefore, it must be Sibrel, not Aldrin, who is (to paraphrase Sibrel)

...a thief for taking money to [to sell] something [he knows is a lie]"

Is Sibrel a plagiarist?

Sibrel's video is titled A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Moon.

This site tells of a report from 1997, titled A Funny Thing Happened On Our Way to the Moon, by Ralph Rene, described as "a brilliant lay physicist".

This site tells of Bill Kaysing, "head of a technical presentations unit at Rocketdyne's propulsion fuel laboratory in Los Angeles from 1956 to 1963". Kaysing wrote a book titled We Never Went To the Moon, America's $30 Billion Swindle

Both these people put forth the same types of argument that Sibrel does. The difference is that their conclusions are more or less freely available; Sibrel wants $19.95 for his video.

There seems to be a small, but thriving, cottage industry in the Moon-hoax sector.

More background

The camera was a Hasselblad, the Rolls-Royce of cameras. One of those cameras is still up there (they left it behind to save weight for the take-off). Quite a souvenir, if anybody finds it.

That camera site is the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. It's a treasure-chest of history and images from the Apollo programs (Apollo 11 through 17).

Transterrestrial Musings has a hard-hitting expose debunking the Aldrin-Simbel punchout - it's a hoax!! It's definitely worth reading.

There's at least one site that does a thorough fact-checking of the hoaxer's claims. If you're interested in the hoaxer's backgrounds, in the sorts of things they claim, and how every one of their misconceptions is turned to dust - Moon-dust - take a long look at the excellent Moon Base Clavius site.

There are quite a few people besides Sibrel who think it was all a fake. The Hare Krishnas are another group. According to their site,

It is now common knowledge throughout the world that the Apollo Moon landings were faked by NASA back in the 60's, although many gullible people still accept NASA's claim of landing men on the Moon, without bothering to carry out any research, or investigation, to see if NASA are indeed telling the truth.

They outdo Simbrel. They don't even bother to resort to science:

By it's own admission Nasa agreed the temperature on the moon to be 200 degrees below zero- *no human body could withstand that temperature even with 1969 technology.

The moon's surface according to Vedic conclusion, common sense, and scientific reasoning is made of a reflective substance; why then are there shadows in the video?

...we have information from a very reliable source, the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures, that the astronauts never actually went to the moon.
The Vedic account of our planetary system is already researched, concluded, and perfect. The Vedas state that the moon is 800,000 miles farther from the earth than the sun.
...according to the Vedas, each planet has its particular standard of living and atmosphere, and no one can transfer from one planet to another without becoming properly qualified. This means that if someone wants to go to Mars, for instance, he has to give up his present gross material body and acquire another one suitable for life on that particular planet.
...they cannot go to the moon planet, which the Vedas describe not as a lifeless desert but as a heavenly planet of extraordinary material pleasures. Where the astronauts actually went, or how this fabrication of lunar visitation will one day be exposed to people in general, are not part of our present discussion. But the Vedic teachings warn us that the manned moon landing is certainly an empty bluff.

The effects of strongly-held, unquestioned beliefs are strange indeed.

A thousand years from now, when the Moon is a thriving colony and jumping-off point for Mars and beyond, the Vedas will still say that the Moon is further from the Earth than the Sun. That's the difference between revealed religion and science. Science is revised whenever new facts contradict old theories. Religion almost never changes its holy texts.

posted by Mike 15:38

Monday, Aug 19, 2002

The Keystone Mullahs

A small, radical Islamist group in London decided to hold a press conference to publicize their fatwa to Muslims in Britain.

When the press arrived, they found out that the group wanted to charge them admission.

Things went downhill from there. ...more

posted by Mike 4:38 PM

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Aristotle's Law at Berkeley

A performance artist in Berkeley thinks the city ought to put one of Aristotle's laws on the books.

He thinks it oughtta be a law that "everything is identical to itself".

Well, of course, you can see the problems that they have probably been having to deal with, without such a law:

"No, that's not a banana, that's a three-toed sloth."

posted by Mike 2:00 PM

Lawsuits and Healthcare Costs

A recent article in the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger helps explain, among other things, the high costs of healthcare.

Background: Dr Kirk Kooyer came to the Mississippi Delta in 1994. That's a poor area. A doctor doesn't go there to get rich and camp out on golf courses.

He managed to do a lot for the community:

The community's success prompted the National Perinatal Association to honor Kooyer in 2000 with its Individual Recognition Award for improving the health of mothers and infants.

Soon after he got there, he ran into the System::

Within two years of his arrival in Mississippi, Kooyer was sued in a wrongful death case after a patient died of a rapidly advancing infection. Although Kooyer felt he did nothing wrong, the case was settled rather than risk a verdict because his insurance company had gone bankrupt, he said.

Doctors aren't miracle workers.

Last fall, he was sued again, for prescribing Propulsid (heartburn medicine, linked to 80 deaths nationwide).

A woman "read the drug might cause harm" and stopped taking it.

"Actually, I didn't get hurt by Propulsid," Norton, who had the drug prescribed for her heartburn, said.

But because she had taken the drug, she said she thought she could join a class-action lawsuit "and I might get a couple of thousand dollars."

The last thing she intended, Norton said, was for Kooyer to be sued.

Anybody want to guess where she "read about it" and how she found out about the class-action lawsuit? (Hint: think "lawyers advertising".)

She said she intended for the drug company to be sued, but that lawyers told her it would be better for her case to sue Kooyer in order to keep the case in Mississippi.

Plain and simple case of lawyers looking for easy money.

He [Kooyer] recalled an overweight patient coming to him several years ago for the diet drug combination fen-phen. He said he warned her the drugs were deadly.

She went instead to an Arkansas physician, who gave her the drugs, and she was given $125,000 in a lawsuit settlement for alleged heart damage, he said.

The patient came by his office and showed him the check, he said.

"I told you about the damage, and you decided to get the drugs anyway. It doesn't seem fair for you to be accepting that check," he said he told her.

A different fen-phen patient was also paid even though she had nothing wrong with her, he said. "She called her settlement a blessing."

There is no right or wrong for some - for far too many - people. It's just a matter of "my lawyer can beat your lawyer".

Meanwhile, doctors are leaving Mississippi:

Kooyer is among about 100 physicians who are leaving or have left the state within the past year, according to the Mississippi State Medical Association. The association doesn't have a figure on how many are specifically leaving because of litigation risks and insurance premiums.

Kooyer sums it up:

"What we have is a crisis of character. At the root of this, the problem we have is individuals as well as legal and medical professionals have forgotten their sense of responsibility."

posted by Mike 9:00 AM

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Friends don't let friends...

This is the canonical list of things that friends don't let friends do.

Apparently, the first duty of a friend is to keep his friends from "falling into error".

This note digs out from among Google's 21,000 hits on the term "friends don't let friends" and takes a look at the most widespread, from the earliest (" drunk") to the most obscure ("...drink and su(1)"). ...more

posted by Mike 5:38 PM

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Speaking of Words:

Someone proposed a rule to cover the "I before E" (or vice versa) thing:

I before E, except when it's not.

That should completely eliminate any confusion.

posted by Mike 6:58 PM

Monday, April 08, 2002


Words are the bricks and mortar with which we build our sites. The key thing about people who like to write is, that they like to write. If Hougton-Mifflin won't buy their work, and the New Yorker won't print it, that's OK - they'll write anyway, and put it up on this, the world's biggest town square bulletin board.

As in all human endeavors, some are better than others. In this corner, I'll try to point out what I think is "good writing". This is partly a subjective issue - there's no one standard of "good writing", at least not as far as the words themselves, taken individually, like links on a chain.

What sets good writing apart from the rest, is the expression of ideas, the construction and layout of a good, convincing argument, the marshalling of facts to support a stance. When good ideas are handicapped by bad grammar and spelling, there's a problem. Readers have to trip over debris to get at the ideas.


There may be a count of active blogs; I'd guess somewhere around 100,000. A Google search for "blog" shows 823,000; "weblog", 992,000. MIT's Blogdex shows 14,214 sites and 1,092,797 links. (In proofreading, a day later, the Google "blog" count went up to 859,000; 'weblog", to 1,050,000. I'll check back in a week or so.)

Probably not more than a handful of us read all of them. There's probably a parallel between blogs and specialty-interest magazines. The last time I looked, there were about 10,000 specialty-interest magazines, most with small circulations and dedicated readers. Many great bloggers go for months with fewer than 100 readers. More than once or twice recently, I've read bloggers write, "Wow! Where did all those hits come from?". In at least one case, he followed up and found out: The Tipping Blog.

There seems to be a dozen or so people now whose blogs have attracted significant attention (and that number is most likely off by a factor of 10 or so (which isn't at all bad in cosmology)). You know who you are; you know who they are. I'll put in links, and I'll tell why I think they're good writers. (I don't want people to get the idea that I'm linking to good sites so I can bask in their sunshine, and pull in a few links myself.) If I don't mention somebody's site, it's just because I haven't seen it yet, or haven't read enough to make a call. (As if anybody would be depressed if this uppity newcomer didn't gush over their site.)

Some, like Andrew Sullivan and John Derbyshire, are working journalists whose business - and life - is writing. Others, like asparagirl and The Last Page work in other fields. (IT seems to be a good source of bloggers.) But they all write, most because they want to, a few because they're driven to.

My first example of "good writing" comes from John Derbyshire. This appeared in his NRO review of The Time Machine:

The best reason to watch this latest version of The Time Machine is 19-year-old Zambian-Irish (no kidding) pop-tart Samantha Mumba, who is exceptionally easy on the eye.
I like that one because in an imaginative use of a single word, a single image (pop-tart: breakfast-food concoction by Kellogg, designed to be popped out of a toaster, from "tart: n. A pastry shell with shallow sides, no top crust, and any of various fillings"), he categorizes a popular singer/actress. (I'm certain Ms Mumba would not be amused by that label, but it is the sort of thing that goes with the territory.) At least, JD doesn't stoop to the despicable levels of Chrstopher Hitchens - the Oscar Wilde-turned-Darth Maul.

posted by Mike 3:04 PM

Sunday, April 07, 2002


WSJ 4/5/02

Korean Airlines flight crews get Tasers. They've already gone through martial arts training. UAL is said to have bought 1300 Tasers, but the FAA hasn't approved their use.

Washington Post 4/5/02

Argenbright is out of almost all US airports. In the Washington area, they're replaced by Globe Aviation Services. We can all feel safer now - except that almost all of Argenbright's laid-off screeners are applying for jobs at Globe.

Washington Post 4/5/02

The air space around the White House, the Capitol Building and the Naval Observatory [note 1] is a Prohibited Area for all aircraft. Since 9/11, airplanes have drifted into this space almost 600 times - about 3 times a day.

[Note 1: The Naval Observatory is the traditional home of the Vice President. There are 4 other areas: 2) The Bush ranch in Texas 3) the Bush home in Maine 4) the nuclear plant in Amarillo, TX (thanks, guys - it's nice to finally know where that one is), and 5) George Washington's home in Mt. Vernon. (Well, maybe it's hard for him to sleep with all that noise).

Reuters 4/4/02

China's space program: Shenzhou III launched March 2002; astronauts early this century (by 2005); a manned space station soon; Beijing builds a space industry, aiming for a manned moon mission.

Times of London 4/4/02

The EU imposes a "green tax" of up to 50 pounds ($65) on London-LAX flights. Norway imposes a CO2 tax on all their flights.

Houston Chronicle 3/15/02

Russia pumps up the space tourism industry: They're aiming for 2005. Trips are expected to cost about $98,000, which buys you a 60 to 90 minute flight that gets you 63 miles up (probably a conversion of the Russian's 100 km), where for about 5 minutes you'll be weightless and extremely airsick.

posted by Mike 8:23 PM

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Since the term "illegal alien" has been replaced by "undocumented worker", I don't think we should stop there. Let's keep going, and make these substitutions:

"thief" or "robber" will be "undocumented property transfer agent"

"car thief" will be "undocumented automobile repossessor"

"murderer" will be "undocumented mortician".

posted by Mike 9:24 PM

(Today's a good day for news.)

Reported in today's WSJ. It's not online; here's a summary.

After Mad-Cow Scare, German Pigs, Farmers 'Enjoy' More Quality Time

The government of North Rhine-Westphalia is trying to counter the mad-cow scare. They figure that farmers can improve the quality of their pork by improving their quality of life.

In typical German fashion, they proclaimed a decree (not just a guideline)which says, in part:

A pig should get one square meter of stall space and a straw or soft rubber mat for napping. When it's time to play, the pigs must have chains or chewy toys on hand. "Balls also can be made available to the pigs for activity material," the edict states. Each pig should get at least eight hours of daylight. During the darker, shorter days of winter, farmers must compensate with lamps. ... A farmer or farmhand must spend at least 20 seconds looking at each pig each day -- and back up the loving care with paperwork showing he has enough pighands to provide quality time.

Needless to say, the farmers are Not Amused.

Later on in the story we see the source of this Great Plan:

For farmers, two women personify the threat: local agricultural minister Baerbel Hoehn, who drafted the edict, and her fellow Green Party member, Renate Kuenast, a spike-haired former lawyer who runs Germany's national ministry for consumer protection, food and agriculture. The Greens, who run the state and federal governments in coalition with the Social Democrats, devised the local rules and have attracted the farmers' ire. At a recent farmers' forum, bodyguards stood by with umbrellas to shield the two ministers in the event of flying produce.

Gotta watch out for those Social Democrats.

At a state-sponsored agricultural center, one engineer seems to have a faint grip on reality:

"We can make all the rules in the world," he says. "But the pigs sort out what they like for themselves."

posted by Mike 10:49 AM

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

Election day in CA. More later.

posted by Mike 10:26 PM

First post. "Hello, World!"

posted by Mike 10:03 PM