Categories
Blogosphere

If you read xkcd…

If you read xkcd (and if not, why not?), you’ll probably enjoy Abstruse Goose. Today’s comic had me searching Wikipedia for articles on group theory, which I think is a good thing…..

Categories
Art

Harvard art at the Sackler

More photos.

Monet: The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a train (1877)
Monet: "The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a train" (1877)
Harvard University has embarked on a major renovation of its art museums, particularly the Fogg Museum on Quincy Street. During the reconstruction, they’ve consolidated some of their pieces in the smaller Sackler Museum on Broadway. On a beautiful (but chilly) morning, we decided to take the #66 bus over to Harvard Yard and see what the resulting exhibitions were like. Photography is (mostly) allowed, and the results can be found here. Yes, the first picture is of the Memorial Hall, not of the Sackler, but MemHall is always photogenic.
The high points: the extraordinary multimedia installation by Leonardo Drew; the Monet shown at the right, and a carved stone panel that matches a series of rubbings that Merry has had for years.
(I have to say that I’m really enjoying this Panasonic DMC-TZ4. 8.1MP is ample, and I rarely have to venture out of “iA” automation mode to get the picture I want. It’s a delight to use; the only design flaw is that the microphone is on the top surface, on the left, so sometimes I’ll block it when I’m shooting video.)

Categories
Politics

Doonesbury's brilliant today

As you can see here. Which reminds me: where’s Riverbend?

Categories
Family

For family and friends

I’m in Brookline, Massachusetts for a week, and yesterday we went up to Lynn to see my daughter, her husband, and the two grandchildren. Normally at the end of December Lynn would be deep in snow, but yesterday the temperature reached 64F, and when we arrived the kids were playing in the yard. I took lots of pictures (posted here) as well as some nice video clips.

In the evening, Merry and I went for a walk by the Leverett Pond. I had brought my camera, but the light was failing and there seemed to be nothing much worth capturing. And then Merry saw a flash of white in the reeds: a heron. I tried full optical zoom (10x) on my Panasonic Lumix, but it was still rather small. I had always been told that electronic zoom wasn’t worth using, but I decided to try the “E-Zoom” feature to get up to 15.9x. I was impressed with how well the image stabilization worked at that level. You can see the results starting here. In the final shot the heron is actually taking off, which it was hard to capture with a 1/15 sec. exposure!

Categories
Seattle

"Snow packed" by design – FAIL!

I’ve only been up to work a couple of times since the snow and ice first settled on Seattle. Even though I simply have to walk across the street from my apartment and take a shuttle bus up the hill, it’s a risky and stressful business. To someone from Boston, familiar with how urban snow removal is supposed to work, the scene is bizarre. The streets are covered in thick, deeply rutted ice. The sidewalks are mostly patches of slick ice and piled snow. Riding on the shuttle bus is a series of spine-jarring bumps, interspersed with barely-controlled sprints across the ice. And the reason? No salt. From the Seattle Times:

To hear the city’s spin, Seattle’s road crews are making “great progress” in clearing the ice-caked streets. But it turns out “plowed streets” in Seattle actually means “snow-packed,” as in there’s snow and ice left on major arterials by design.

“We’e trying to create a hard-packed surface,” said Alex Wiggins, chief of staff for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “It doesn’t look like anything you’d find in Chicago or New York.”

Damn right. Any DPW chief in the north-east who did such a shitty job of clearing the streets would be fired on the spot.

The city’s approach means crews clear the roads enough for all-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles, or those with front-wheel drive cars as long as they are using chains, Wiggins said.

The icy streets are the result of Seattle’s refusal to use salt, an effective ice-buster used by the state Department of Transportation and cities accustomed to dealing with heavy winter snows.

Fearing the environmental impact of salt, Seattle is relying on sanding instead. The trouble is that if you put enough sand down to actually make a difference, it clogs storm drains and creates nasty dust in the spring. The result: Seattle uses such a small amount of sand that it makes almost no difference. And they couldn’t really lay down very much sand (or salt) anyway: while Boston has 700 snow plows, Seattle has just 27.
By the way, Seattle’s police cars are all rear-wheel drive. Even with chains, they have difficulty getting along on major arteries, and most secondary streets are impassable to them. Let’s hope that the bad guys aren’t smart enough to buy AWD vehicles….
UPDATE: Responding to Jon’s comment: I do not wish to imply that Seattle should run out and acquire 700 snow plows and thousands of tons of salt to cope with a once-every-20-year event. That would be dumb. What I’m saying is that (a) the city should be honest about this reality, and (b) that it should use established best practices in using the limited resources that it does have available. Using sand without salt is just bad practice: the sand blocks storm drains, and pollutes. Salt – at least in the quantities that Seattle can afford! – is not going to be an environmental hazard.
Claiming that “we’re trying to create a hard-packed surface,” and “we decided not to utilize salt because it’s not a healthy addition to Puget Sound” is either dishonest, or stupid, or both.

Categories
Religion

More stupidity from back home in the UK

Not only is religion being co-opted by politicians in the UK (or is it the other way round?); it appears that creationism is making inroads. As The Bad Astronomer reports

A survey in the UK shows that about 1/3 of the teachers in England and Wales think creationism should be taught in science. About half think it shouldn’t be (one assumes the rest have no opinion), while 2/3 of the teachers think it should at least be discussed.

70% of science teachers think creationism should not be taught, which sounds good until you realize that means 30% of science teachers think it should be.

This story also provides a great example of how the same facts can be presented in diametrically opposite ways. The headline in The Daily Express read “THIRD OF TEACHERS WANT CREATIONISM”, while the Ipsos MORI report of the actual study was titled “Teachers Dismiss Calls For Creationism To Be Taught In School Science Lessons”.

Categories
Atheism

Religious pandering back home

Oh bugger. One might hope that one of the most non-religious countries in the world would reject this nonsense, but apparently not:

True, it is embarrassing to be the only western democracy that has theocracy built into its legislature. The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life.

Labour has encouraged the power of the religions to a remarkable degree, consulting them on endless committees. To be an atheist is now unacceptable in a political leader: when Nick Clegg confessed his non-belief, he had to recant and re-define himself as an “agnostic”. The BBC is increasing religious broadcasting; Radio 4 already does 200 hours. Is this by popular demand? No. An Ofcom survey put religion last in the public’s interests.

(From Polly Toynbee in Comment is free; emphasis mine.)

Categories
Books

Historical oddities

I’ve been digging into my American family roots, and came up with a couple of amusing nuggets. My father was American, and his mother was named Kate Denig. This seemed like a fairly easy name to trace, so we worked back through the US Census records at Ancestry.com. There was one significant element of confusion, of which more anon, but eventually I reached my great great great great grandfather, Ludwig Denig, b. 1755. There’s a fair amount of documentary material available: he was a shoemaker, and later an apothecary, in Pennsylvania. He was also a leading light in his local church, and an amateur artist, and I was delighted to discover that a facsimile of a book of his was available: The Picture Bible of Ludwig Denig: A Pennsylvania German Emblem Book. I ordered a copy through Amazon, and it just arrived (from Powells in Portland). It’s in perfect, and beautiful condition.

The Picture Bible of Ludwig Denig: A Pennsylvania German Emblem Book
The Picture Bible of Ludwig Denig: A Pennsylvania German Emblem Book

And the bit of confusion? As we searched the census records for Ohio and Wisconsin, we kept coming across references to members of the “McDenig” family. This seemed odd: I’d never seen a hybrid German-Scottish name before. Eventually light dawned. One of Ludwig’s sons was George Denig, a physician. He married an Eliza McClintock, and their children all took the names of both parents. The next family member in my lineage was his son, Robert McClintock Denig, born in 1813, and a physician like his father. When the census taker recorded his family information, he wrote Robert’s name as “Robert Mc. Denig”. And 150 years later, whoever computerized the census records dutifully transcribed the family name as “McDenig”.
Thus history is made and remade….

Categories
Amazon

A year with the Kindle

Last November, I became one of the first people to acquire an Amazon Kindle ebook reader. A year later, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on a year of living with the device. I’m doing this purely on my own behalf; even though I work for Amazon, I don’t need to pump up demand for the Kindle. Oprah has done this very nicely; indeed, she was so effective that the Kindle is sold out until next year.
So what’s it been like? I’ve used it more than I expected, but less than I wanted to, and the experience has been mostly great, with a few niggling defects. I haven’t used it as consistently as I expected, in part because of my involvement in the Vine program. (If only Vine would deliver content on the Kindle – hint!) And I’ve still bought plenty of paper books, because although Amazon has managed to get over 200,000 titles on the Kindle, there are still plenty of publishers who aren’t on board.
What do I have on my Kindle? Let’s take a look. In the order that I purchased them, I have:
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes.
Takeover by Charlie Savage.
The Complete Poems of John Milton by John Milton.
Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method by Penelope Maddy.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran.
The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson.
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi.
The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson.
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy by Douglas A. Anderson.
The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby.
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes) by Edward Gibbon.
Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.
Chess Strategy by Edward Lasker.
The Necessity of Atheism by David Marshall Brooks.
Red Moon by David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton.
Spirit House by Christopher G. Moore.
The Dark Side by Jane Mayer.
Illegal Action by Stella Rimington.
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi.
Sexus by Henry Miller.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
The Iron Heel by Jack London.
The World Is Curved by David Smick.
What On Earth Have I Done? by Robert Fulghum.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.
Nation by Terry Pratchett.
Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham.
At one point I subscribed to the The New York Times, but I found the content quite inconsistent. I now have two subscriptions on my Kindle:
The Independent, which I use to keep up with British news and politics
This blog(!), which I set up to check out the blog publication system.
The Kindle book of the year was clearly Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Like Alan Jacobs, I found that the Kindle was the perfect way to become absorbed in the story without being distracted by Stephenson’s neologisms and asides. The most expensive item was Penelope Maddy’s philosophy text, which was $63.50. (It’s since come down to $40.) The cheapest? Well, there’s a “long tail” in the Kindle catalog: it’s amusing to search for books sorted by “Price: Low to high”. (Caveat emptor: some deals are too good to be true.)
Things I haven’t tried yet: having the MP3 player supply me with music while I’m reading, and using the Kindle as an Audible.com audiobook player.
Weaknesses? Just a few. Occasionally I will go for several days without reading the Kindle, and when I return to it I find that I need to individually delete back issues of my subscription content. It would be nice to be able to configure an expiration date for ephemeral items. And I’d like to be able to compose book reviews, using text clippings as part of the review. The lack of built-in lighting was occasionally inconvenient (when I’m on a plane where everyone else is asleep, I feel guilty about turning on my overhead light), but I’ve recently solved this with a replacement case for the Kindle from Periscope It has a built in LED lamp, as well as a notepad, and it works pretty well. (It would be nice if the light was dimmable, but never mind.)
The bottom line: I love it. For frequent travellers, it’s an absolute “must have”. During the next year, I’m going to add a few more “dipping into” books; poetry, short stories, etc.

Categories
Clever

On the toe liberation front….

Inspired by a colleague of mine, I just acquired a pair of Vibram Fivefingers KSO shoes. Vibram Fivefingers KSO A couple of years ago I spent most of the summer in some really thin “river runner” style shoes, and it was the closest thing I’d found to having the freedom of going barefoot while still providing some basic protection. So the prospect of taking the next step and liberating all five ten toes was intriguing.
After years of being cooped up next to each other, my toes aren’t really used to the idea of independent existence, so it took a few minutes to put the shoes on, get each toe into its own pocket, and adjust the straps. Within a couple of minutes I found that the shoes felt very comfortable, and I wore them for a couple of hours around the apartment, with no obvious ill-effects. Obviously today isn’t the day to try them out and about(!), but come the spring…