Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Knowing" vs. "Knowing how to"

I've been a little stuck on what to write the last couple of weeks because most of what I've been doing is crafts.  But I figure I can just as well share some "how to" posts.

Today's installment:  Finger loop braiding!

This is about the coolest, fastest braiding I've ever done (and I really did learn it in the last couple of weeks so this isn't cheating at all).  Basically, instead of holding individual thread ends and braiding, you hold loops (two threads tied together or one long actual loop) and work them two at a time by passing the loops around and through each other.  It makes the movements easy and instinctive and it goes more than twice as fast because you're working with multiple threads at each motion.

I'm still trying to get the hang of getting the final color patterns to come out right; unless I'm looking right at the diagram I can't intuit how the colors ought to go.  But there are tons of patterns and instructions at and the other sites they link to.

Since I quit my job, a number of people are going to be getting handmade gifts this year, and I have a sneaking suspicion that finger loop bracelets and necklaces, or even belts, may be much in attendance.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The end of the long silence

50,165, bitch!

In all seriousness, this is the most I have ever written for a single project.  Now it's just a case of getting to the actual end of the story, since this 50,000 is only a bit more than halfway there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Classic Scifi Authors

I'm trying to teach my coworkers at a used bookstore which scifi/fantasy (mostly scifi) books we need to accept for trade. Right now they're using the standard age/condition rules; no more than about ten years old, no spine breakage, no cover damage.  That results in missing a lot of old classics and passing on current fabulous books because of condition issues.

So!  Here is my tentative list, massively shortened to be relatively easy to remember for those who don't read scifi much.  Feel free to chime in if I'm missing anything major.  I tried to keep my personal bias to a minimum here... but who can really do that, with scifi?  I also tried to keep it at 5 per category, but obviously that didn't work out so well.

Old stuff:
anything published before 1930 that isn't falling apart
  • Robert E. Howard (Conan but also other stuff)
  • HP Lovecraft (may also go in Horror or Classics)
  • HG Wells (may also go in Classics)
  • Jules Vern (may also go in Classics)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs (Esp. Tarzan, Barsoom/John Carter, but also other stuff)

"Golden Age": (1930s-1960)
most anything before 1960 if it's in pretty good shape
  • Robert Heinlein (lots of YAish books, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc.)
  • Isaac Asimov (lots of short stories like "I, Robot", the Foundation series - but only the ones that are by him, there are a lot of other authors that expanded his short stories into novels and mostly they're terrible)
  • Ray Bradbury (may also go in classics) (Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, etc.)
  • Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/aka Bladrunner, etc)
  • Frank Herbert (Dune series)

Modern: (newer than 1960)
use normal age/condition standards except for these authors

  • Ursula K. Leguin (The Left Hand of Darkness, etc)
  • Harlan Ellison (lots of short stories like "I have No Mouth and I Must Scream", etc.)
  • Andre Norton (Witchworld series, etc.)
  • Roger Zelazny  (Amber series, etc.)
  • Orson Scott Card (Ender series, Alvin Maker series, etc.)
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover series)
  • William Gibson (Neuromancer, The Difference Engine, etc.)

Current hot authors:
take anything that doesn't actually have pages missing

  • Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book (YA), American Gods, Good Omens, etc.)
  • Cory Doctorow (Little Brother (YA), Makers, etc.)
  • Terry Pratchett (Discworld, obviously)
  • Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Anathem, etc.)

For more resources:'s bestsellers in the scifi/fantasy category
The Hugo Award nominee List
Nebula Awards nominee list and Suggested Reading list
The Nebula Grand Master list

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Maybe this is cheating?   I think I saw a Dresden Codak comic entitled "Dungeons and Discourse" a while back, but I just found their "Advanced Dungeons and Discourse".  And double-cheating, because I only found it hilarious due to knowing all the references.

Except!  I did not know what Laplace's demon was!  It is a theoretical intellect that can know everything about every piece of matter in the universe, and thus knows the future and the past by simple extrapolation from mechanical laws (Newton's laws originally, but it works with gravity and stuff too, so.)  Dresden Codak also has a comic specifically about Laplace's Demon but I didn't like it as much.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The American Health Care Debate

I have a serious brain-crush on Ira Glass of This American Life fame.  I was thrilled by the show they did last year about the causes and effects of the housing crisis that snowballed into the global financial crisis, The Giant Pool of Money (and an update a year later).

Today I came across their two-part series on the American health care - and health insurance - situation and how it got that way.  It's a complicated mess, in short, but not because anyone is clearly to blame.  It's mostly due to a series of historical accidents that, taken together, mean that no one sees the whole picture.  Including, apparently, President Obama, whose public speeches on the subject seem remarkably naive after listening to this two-hour presentation for laymen.

The patients want the best care possible, which to the average person means more care.  But more is not always better, and more procedures not only have health risks (like CAT scans that use a lot of radiation) but they raise everyone else's health care premiums because the cost gets spread around.

Doctors  like to think all they are worrying about is optimal patient care, but there are financial considerations, too.  There are a lot of doctors and a limited number of patients.  For doctors to rake in the money they expect, they have to do more procedures on their existing patients, or pull in new patients who may not need the care at all.  And, you know, they want to be helping people.  They want to be busy.

Insurance companies want to provide the cheapest care to the most people.  But they're not necessarily evil; they really do want people to get care, because it's cheaper in the long run to catch problems early.  But patients are totally divorced from the cost of things they want, especially medication.  They don't know the cost-benefit analysis, and neither do the doctors, because that's not their job.  To use a particularly apt metaphor for health insurance and why it's not a good plan;  imagine you had a grocery plan with your local supermarket.  Every time you go in, you pay your $20 copay and take whatever you need.  If everything is the same price, why get hot dogs when you could have steak?  Everyone takes what they like best with no regard for cost.  The premiums of everyone in the plan go up, and the prices in the supermarket go up because the customers with the plan don't care about the real cost, and soon people who aren't on the plan can't afford groceries.

Drug companies... well, I haven't heard a real humanizing story for their business model yet.  They make drugs and market them aggressively to doctors and patients both.  They constantly twist drugs very slightly to remove them from generic status and get a brand-name out there for six times the price.

I want to forward this to everyone I know.  I want to make my mom, a Registered Nurse, listen to it.  I want to make my friend who rants about how terrible Democrats are listen to it.  I want to make the President listen to it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Osprey Publishing

I was just thinking I needed a book about sailing ships and another about really big metal ships - and check out Osprey Publishing, your source for military history. Not only do they have info about sailing ships around 1900, they have separate books about American and British ships.  They have exactly what I need, but I can't afford it right now.  Maybe I can work out a deal with the bookstore.

Edit: (10/19/09) Also!  I added a bunch of stuff to the entry on Qadosh because I came across a reference to the etymology of the English word "holy" in A Natural History of the Senses today.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Public Service Announcement: New woks are not user-ready

Turns out if you just put it out there on the stove, what you will get is a terrifying smell of metal burning and a blackened bottom.  Also, fear.

There are several ways to "cure" a new wok.  One step not mentioned on that page is that you also have to wash it really good first because many woks are coated with, I don't know, a plastic coating of some kind.  That may be the source of the terrifying burning smell.

I plan to use the Oven Seasoning Method from the above link, allegedly endorsed by an authoritative-sounding source, The Wok Shop in San Francisco.  If there is, indeed, such a place, I would imagine they would know, right?

First, wash the wok thoroughly and dry over heat. Next, coat the wok, inside only, with cooking oil. Bake in the oven at 450° for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool, wash (scour) and dry over heat again. Repeat this process three or four times. Your wok should look bronze in color when seasoned this way. Note: If your wok has a wooden or plastic handle that cannot be removed, cover the handle with a damp dishcloth then cover the dishcloth with foil before baking. This will keep the wood or plastic from getting scorched or melting.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Crazy origami

I went through a brief origami phase in middle school, and I knew that some people do crazy complex origami.  But check this guy out: Robert J. Lang is a master  His profile for Reflections/Projections 2009 lists him as a "pioneer in computational origami."

Computational origami!  With engineering applications!  I guess I had heard that origami principles are used to ensure parachutes open quickly and safely.  And the Mythbusters used origami to make a lead balloon, which I have to admit was totally sweet.  That ComputerWorld article up there srom 2004 says that Robert Lang wants to use computational origami to understand protein folding, but I wonder why he thinks it will require more than a petaflop of data processing power?  That article is from 2004, so I wonder if he's had the chance to use a research supercomputer yet?

I had no idea there were origami controversies, competing schools, and assorted other politics. I suppose it makes sense, though- get any group of dedicated individuals together and they'll find something to fight about.  To be dedicated you have to get your emotions involved, and once emotions are involved, there are points of pride... and once you've got both emotions and pride on the line, vociferous disagreements will always arise.  Maybe this is overly cynical- overall the origami community seems pretty civilized.  We're unlikely to have riots or lynch mobs like you get with football.

Okay, seriously, check out this koi.  That is one uncut square, with all those scales!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ancient medicine and burn care

I'm doing a bunch of research about low-tech medical care for a "novel" I'm working on, because it annoys me when doctors in pre-industrial times are portrayed like medieval European barber/butchers, without sanitation or any real idea what they're doing.   The history of medical care is actually really interesting, because it's a story of increases in knowledge intermixed with periods of regression, and an obvious interaction between science, technology, and medicine.

Periodic bans on surgery and human dissection certainly haven't helped, and there has been a lot of trouble with blindly following experts who were wrong, from Hippocrates and Aristotle on down.  Maybe the most famous example, Galen came up with a lot of surgical techniques that really worked, but he also claimed that suppuration was an essential part of the healing process.

So what low-tech treatments really do work?  Meaning anything that doesn't require IVs, a chemistry lab, electricity, or powerful microscopes.  I'm specifically focusing on burns and chemical burns for plot purposes.

Most medical literature deals with low-tech treatments only in the contexts of first aid, before paramedics arrive, or disaster scenarios where there may not be enough medical personnel to provide adequate treatment.

(As a sidenote, I love the sort of passive-aggressive condescension in a lot of this medical literature:
"When a violent fire breaks out, there is an initial moment of psychological paralysis, generally followed by total incapacity for logical thought, and this leads to instinctive behavioural reactions whose one aim is to save oneself and all that is most dear, and reach safety. 6
This sequence of actions not infrequently serves only to worsen the extent of damage caused and to create an even more dramatic and tragic situation. In animals this may indeed be the only reaction possible, which is purely instinctive, but in man there is another option which at first sight may seem almost paradoxical: to keep calm and take rational decisions."

LOLOL  "The options are panic or keeping calm and making rational decisions", no shit you guys.  And this is from the 1990s!)

Anyway.  It seems likely that the most important low-tech first aid for first and second degree burns is cooling the burn with cool water.  The "ten-to-fifteen" rule states that you should cool the burn within 10-15 minutes by trickling cold water (10-15 Celsius) over the skin from 10-15cm for 10-15 minutes.  On the other hand, other sources say that soaking in water can be harmful, because it can cause hypothermia and hypoperfusion/ ischemia, especially in children.  Perhaps the important thing is to keep the rest of the patient dry, as the first one suggests.  I don't understand how flushing the burn with  cool water could possibly cause ischemia; Wikipedia says it takes "Localized extreme cold, such as by frostbite, ice, or improper Cold compression therapy".

Otherwise, it is important to monitor the lungs for extra damage and provide oxygen.  ( should find out if there are any simple ways to distill oxygen for use with damaged lungs.) You have to reduce direct contact between the burn and air, but usually not with tight bandages or fluffy cotton pads, because they can stick to the skin.  If the burn is large or severe, skin grafting may be necessary.

This is clearly a really complex subject.  I wish I had an actual book about it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

RCA, RFU, Stereo AV, S-Video, Component Video...

What the crap, you guys. So I have this big old TV, like 27" maybe, but all it has on the back is a coax port - or RF maybe? Whatever, the round one where it doesn't matter which way you put the cable on it. I also have a PS2, which is my DVD player.

About half my DVDs make a horrifying buzzing noise some or all of the time they are playing; most often when there are subtitles on the screen, but not only then. For example, it wouldn't let me watch Sense and Sensibility last night.

The guy at Radio Shack was super nice and very helpful, but they didn't have any of the bits I needed.  He suggested buying a new PS2 cable, and if that didn't help, to ground the cable by putting a wire from the connector into the tv to a ground in a wall socket or a cold water pipe.  As exciting as that sounds, I'm not an electrician.

So I went to Best Buy with the intention of purchasing cables such that the picture could go to the TV while the audio goes to my stereo, which has much better sound quality anyway. The advice I got was to get an RFU converter and a PS2 cable with Stero AV or S-Video connectors, then also a coax cable to go from the RFU converter to the TV and more red and white cables, whatever they're called, to go from the RFU converter to the stereo. All in all, a $65 investment at Best Buy.

My shitty old TV is not worth $60. I'm going to buy a $35 TV on craigslist that has component video ports and buy a new PS2 cable to match for $20. Then for $55 I have a better TV AND better sound.

But will it fix the buzzing? Now that is the real question.

And let me take this opportunity to extend a special "thank you" to this IGN article from 2000 about the different PS2 cable options.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interesting facts

It's like this blog in miniature... only, you know, funny and interesting:
I presume that you, like me, also yearn a great deal. Thus, as a means of sharing some of my wisdom and making you a better person, I have prepared a pleasing bulleted list of empirical facts. Commit them to memory at your earliest possible convenience.
  • The average human being spends at least one year of life exploring virtual caves and sewers.
  • It is better to have owned a boat and lost it to pirates than to have never owned a boat at all.
  • ...
  • All notaries are also licensed coroners. However, not all coroners are licensed notaries. Keep that in mind when trying to kill two birds with one stone.
- Something Awful

I am now a bit worried about my notary license; although it is current, I am not a licensed coroner. Does this void my notarial act?

Monday, September 21, 2009


The Hebrew word most often translated as "holy" originally meant, and still has a secondary meaning of, "set apart." Sacredness is simply separation from the common.  "[C]ontact and contamination are at the heart of impurity"

(Also, Hebrew has a really interesting structure!)

Edit: (10/19/09) turns out lots of words meaning or related to "holy" have really interesting etymologies: the OED (not that one) has a relevant list.   The pre-Christian meaning of Old English "holy"
was probably "that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated," and connected with O.E. hal (see health) and O.H.G. heil "health, happiness, good luck."
"That which must be preserved whole" is a fairly different root meaning than "that which is set apart."  They are almost opposite, in fact - wholeness against that which is divided.  And then again the Latin "sacred" (maybe) comes
from O.L. saceres, which Tucker connects to base *saq- "bind, restrict, enclose, protect," explaining that "words for both 'oath' & 'curse' are regularly words of 'binding.'

Which again is different.

That which is set apart, that which is whole, that which is bound.  I guess the meaning to complete the set would be something like, that which is freed.  And though I can't put a single word to it, I know that Buddhism's goal is nirvana, being set free of the wheel of existence.  "Nirvana" is actually a negative word in the Sanscrit,  I understand, meaning something like, "no wind blows." So that's clearly not quite it.  But something like it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mushrooms in tunnels

I knew, of course, that mushrooms can be grown indoors, or otherwise under human cultivation. But I never considered the possibilities of disused transit tunnels.

Apparently different types of mushrooms prefer different temperatures, which makes sense. This one tunnel houses soil-based white button mushrooms, Cremini, Shimeji, Wood-ear, Shiitake, and Oyster mushrooms. But King Brown and Chestnut mushrooms require higher temperatures, so they are raised separately.

BLDBLOG has some interesting ideas about the subway tunnels under London, but the only subways I've used are in other countries, so I can't offer too much insight there.  It seems like some kinds of abandoned buildings might be able to be used in similar fashion, though.  Perhaps something could be done with some of those buildings in Detroit

Incidentally, shiitake mushrooms originate in China, despite the fact that we use the Japanese name. I had no idea "black forest mushroom" was just a synonym for "shiitake" either.

Ramping up to calculus

So a while back I was trying to decide whether to take a stupid liberal-arts course called "Survey of Calculus" since they didn't offer Trig as an evening class. I decided not to, but instead I've set up some appointments with a(n adorable) math tutor to run through the Trig so I can take the placement test at the local university. Hopefully I'll be able to start off with Calculus in the spring, then.

In the meantime, yesterday I (re-)learned:

1) The acronym SOH CAH TOA for sin, cosin, and tangent. Each of these three functions give a ratio of two of the sides of the triangle, for a given angle in degrees. sin(X)=(opposite/hypotenuse), cos(X)=(adjacent/hypotenuse), and tan(X)=(opposite/adjacent). (Interactive "triangle-solver" using these ratios.)

2) If you have the ratio but not the angle, you can reverse-engineer the angle by using the inverse functions sin^(-1) etc. These are applied in the same way that division is the inverse operation to multiplication. So tan^(-1)(3/4)=37 [I'm not looking up the stupid math symbols in html right now] degrees.  (An interactive diagram of a 3:4:5 triangle)

3) Radians are just another unit for measuring angles. Instead of dividing a circle into 360 of the arbitrary units degrees, we divide the circle into 2(pi) of the arbitrary units radians. You convert between them just like you convert between inches and centimeters or any other two units. (This was something I never did properly understand in high school.) (Degree-radian converter, diagram of commonly used angles)

And lastly, I really need to remember that there are 360 degrees in a circle, not 365. Dammit. There was more as well, I'm sure, but that's what I recall without looking at my notes, so I'm gonna go ahead and say that's what I really learned.  We'll see what it looks like after I do some review on my lunch break.

Edit:  The Euler line really is new to me.  I had heard of the Centroid before, but not the Circumcenter or Orthocenter.  Hidden patters are so cool!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


There's a really neat service that hooks you up with random people to chat with anonymously:

Unfortunately, 7 out of 9 people just want to cyber.   Some of the others are cool though!  A lot of people seem to be ESL, who have a really amusing and interesting collection of chatspeak and terrible English grammar.

Friday, September 11, 2009


At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The good old O.E.D.

I've been reading The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (no relation).  The Oxford English Dictionary took 70 years to complete!  And it was spearheaded by some of the most eccentric scholars I've ever heard tell of.

Dr. W.C. Minor was a surgeon who went insane following his service in the US Civil War, murdered a man in London, and was confined for the rest of his life in an English asylum.  He was also perhaps the single greatest volunteer contributor to the Dictionary.

Professor James Murray was an autodidact (hah!) who spoke dozens of languages and spearheaded the renewal of the OED project after its first stutters.

Earlier English dictionaries were in general the work of a single man and varied in length, vocabulary selection, organization, and general helpfulness.  There were popular pamphlets (!) explaining the use of various "difficult" words, intended to make your diction suitable for discourse with academia, nobility, and the clergy.  The best available general dictionary before the OED was compiled by Samuel Johnson and published in 1755.  It was serviceable (allegedly "charming" also) but not particularly complete or objective. (Not its stated aims anyway, so whatever, right?)

Professor Murray took on the OED in 1878, and the first edition was published in 1921; it ran 12 (!) volumes and had over 400,000 entries.  Part of the mission of the creators of the OED was in express opposition to organizations such as L'Académie française, which sought to "fix" the form of the French language by strictly setting out what was and was not French (as it still does, in fact).  In contrast, the OED was to be a neutral POV recording of English "as she was," a mere historical record of the actual usage of the words.

Also, The Professor and the Madman is surprisingly entertaining for a book about a dictionary.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Of IP and DHCP

To find your IP address and DHCP server on a PC, you bring up the Command Prompt and type "ipconfig".

To find your IP address and DHCP server on a Mac, you bring up the Terminal and type "ipconfig getpacket en0" (number 0).  There is not, so far as I can tell, any other way to make the Mac tell you the DHCP server address; although there are three different places to go for network-related information, none of them have this information.  Also, if you have manually entered an IP address for the computer to use, this command will not give you any information at all.

If you are accessing the internet across a LAN, your IP address is assigned locally, behind (?) the subnet mask, which almost always has an address of for whatever reason.  The whole network shares one IP address it gives out to the rest of the internet, which address is (obviously, probably) not the same as the one your computer spits out when you type the above commands.

Local IP addresses are assigned by your local DHCP server, which is a network application that runs on a local computer.  Which computer runs it appears to be arbitrary, and I admit I have no idea how to change that if I wanted to.  (There is a box on Macs in the Network Preferences where you can manually type in your DNS server but so far as I can tell not one for your DHCP server.  A shame since I think being able to change this might fix the network problems we're having.)

For the record, knowing this stuff probably isn't going to let you fix the problem, but it may give you an idea what the problem is so you know what to ask the real IT guys without looking dumb.  It's not going to help you explain the problem to you co-workers or boss, though, so you may still look dumb to them.

Brought to you by your local front-line tech support guru, discovered while flailing around at random because our IT contractors are out of town.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Marx & religious states

I picked up a book of Karl Marx's Selected Writings on a whim for some light lunch reading today. The very first essay pretty much blew my mind. It's "On the Jewish Question", a scathing critique of the Christian Kingdom of Germany's attitude towards Jews in the 1840s. But the thing that brought me up short is that the whole article is an argument about a problem I never even realized existed:

The Jewish question acquires a different form depending on the state in which the Jew lives. In Germany, where there is no political state, no state as such, the Jewish question is a purely theological one. The Jew finds himself in religious opposition to the state, which recognizes Christianity as its basis. This state is a theologian ex professo. Criticism here is criticism of theology, a double-edged criticism – criticism of Christian theology and of Jewish theology. Hence, we continue to operate in the sphere of theology, however much we may operate critically within it.

In France, a constitutional state, the Jewish question is a question of constitutionalism, the question of the incompleteness of political emancipation. Since the semblance of a state religion is retained here, although in a meaningless and self-contradictory formula, that of a religion of the majority, the relation of the Jew to the state retains the semblance of a religious, theological opposition.

Only in the North American states – at least, in some of them – does the Jewish question lose its theological significance and become a really secular question. Only where the political state exists in its completely developed form can the relation of the Jew, and of the religious man in general, to the political state, and therefore the relation of religion to the state, show itself in its specific character, in its purity. The criticism of this relation ceases to be theological criticism as soon as the state ceases to adopt a theological attitude toward religion, as soon as it behaves towards religion as a state – i.e., politically. Criticism, then, becomes criticism of the political state. At this point, where the question ceases to be theological, Bauer’s criticism ceases to be critical.

I knew that Jews were persecuted throughout Europe for not being Christian. But it literally had never occurred to me that in a country with a national religion, members of another religion are not simply disadvantaged or persecuted. They are not even part of the country/state/political life (I'm not 100% clear on the technical definitions of these terms as Marx is using them). They have no rights and only those privileges expressly granted to them.

As a concrete example, I never thought about a state religion requiring church attendance on the Sabbath as a civic duty. So naturally, exempting Jews from this requirement draws resentment, and every privilege so granted marks them out even more conspicuously. The same with other minority religions, I suppose, though Jews have been the largest minority religion in Europe for like a thousand years (maybe? as far as I know, and not counting the Moors in Spain who weren't the minority while they ruled there). Marx quotes liberally from Bruno Bauer, whose argument he was refuting. One of Bauer's points was that

Just as M. Martin du Nord saw the proposal to omit mention of Sunday in the law as a motion to declare that Christianity has ceased to exist, with equal reason (and this reason is very well founded) the declaration that the law of the Sabbath is no longer binding on the Jew would be a proclamation abolishing Judaism.

Wow. That is so far from my experience of religion... it's tough to see it from here. Which I suppose proves that Marx was right in this case. So right that the very question is foreign to a citizen of a modern nation. I am so firmly moored in the secular world and the secular mode of civic life, it seems absurd to contend that removing a law regarding religious practice would hurt religion, much less that it could extinguish the religion altogether. Bauer seems to regard this as part of the definition of "religion." ... Bizarre.

I also found a fascinating discussion of the different words for "Citizen" used in this article. That's one of the tricky bits of any German philosophy or politics... the words are similar, but the nuances are often very different.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pittsburgh & Japan

Apparently Pittsburgh and Japan share a couple of linguistic markers. Well, not so much share. They are completely different, technically. But they function the same way, which is so cool.

Okay, so in "Pittsburgh English", there is a linguistic marker, "n'at." It is a contraction of "and that", and is commonly appended to many types of sentences. It means something like

"along with some other stuff," "the previous was just an example of more general case..."
Which is very much like the Japanese constructions たり。。。たり (tari... tari) and し。。。し (shi...shi). The "tari" construction is used for verbs/actions and the "shi" construction is used for nouns and descriptions. They are both used to list items in a longer list... or just one item in a longer list. In other words, exactly the same as "n'at". (Although I think the Japanese is a bit more formal and is "proper Japanese", while the Pittsburghese is more slangy.)

Similarly, it is common in Pittsburgh to use a falling question intonation when you are nearly certain of the answer.

Example: "Are you painting your garage?" (with pitch rising in intonation up to just before the last syllable and then falling precipitously).
Further explanation: Speakers who use this intonation pattern do not do so categorically, but instead also end many questions with a rising pitch (Fasold 1980). Such speakers typically use falling pitch for yes/no questions for which they already are quite sure of the answer. So, a speaker uttering the above example is simply confirming what they think they already know, that yes, the person they’re talking to is painting his/her garage.
This is quite similar to the Japanese use of の (no) in a question to indicate that you think you know the answer to the question... or sort of that given the context, it is clear that you have a reason for asking and that has given you an idea of the answer.

The example we got in class was, I think, that you are studying with your friend, who gets up and turns the heat up in the middle of your study session. You could ask, "寒いですか?” (samui desu ka?), "are you cold?" But you have a reason for thinking your friend is cold, so you think you know the answer. And you're sort of more asking to confirm why she got up to adjust the heater, maybe. So it sounds more natural to ask, "寒いのですか?" (samui no desu ka?), which is something like, "is it that you're cold?" or "is it because you're cold?" You already know the answer, probably, but you're double-checking.

If I'm way off-base here, native Pittsburghians or Japanese, feel free to correct me!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The sky is pretty neat

There are like fifteen different kinds of light artifacts visible in the sky at different times, not counting rainbows! I'm going to be looking for light haloes every day at lunch this next week.


I was looking at last night to help my parents pack and somewhere in there I came across this amazing shoelace site, which I have just finished investigating further.

I knew two ways to tie the standard shoelace knot (the "around-the-tree" and "double-loop" methods), and I had seen two or three different lacing strategies... But holy crap, you guys, this is crazy. I'm going to tie my boots in a zipper style immediately.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I had no idea nanotech was so far along! The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is admittedly not exactly an unbiased source, but they predict workable molecular manufacturing in the next twenty years.

This sort of thing freaks me out, in my gut where I can't reason with it. A side effect of too much science fiction? But often the best way to deal with that feeling is to move in closer until I understand it and can deal with it, instead of living with the low-grade worry that comes standard. Cory Doctorow is excellent at thinking about these problems in human terms, as in the story After the Siege (scroll down to view a selection of formats for downloading purposes).

I want to go to space. Perhaps I could get there through a combination of architecture and nanotech expertise. I wonder how many years of intense schooling I would need for that? Two years for the architecture, perhaps. Three for the physics/engineering/chemistry necessary for nanotech research? Some of the necessary math and engineering may overlap, and I'm sure many courses could be taken simultaneously. On the other hand, this sample engineering major requirement list indicates a need for a minimum of three or four years of high school science classes including physics and chemistry, in addition to college math through Calculus and Calculus-based Physics. So probably I would need at least a year of intensive preparatory classes in addition to the five of real classes. Hmm.

Designing structures for humans to live in space using nanotech would be interesting, and important, and maybe even useful. Maybe I wouldn't feel so much like I'm wasting my time. The kind of materials engineering possible through nanotech might be able to mitigate the radiation hazards and seriously reduce the mass of vehicles and cargoes going into space, thus decreasing fuel needs and making the undertaking cheaper all around. Although it occurs to me that for example a nanotech air filtration system would be much more difficult to repair on the fly than a traditional mechanical one. Or would it? A personal nanofactory might be able to churn one out in seconds.

The last thing I need to hear is that this is too ambitious. But is it ambitious in the right direction?

Monday, August 31, 2009


I was having an argument with a friend about presidential vacation time. He was upset that President Obama took a vacation during such a complicated political situation; the health care debate, the terrible state of the election in Afghanistan, etc.

Today I found the statistics showing I wasn't full of bullshit when I defended him. Apparently, President W. Bush took rather more vacation time than Mr. Obama: more than a third of his time in office. Although to be fair, it sounds like it was maybe less vacation, more telecommute.

I wish I had those kind of benefits. Presidents probably get health insurance, too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Lemon & ginger

If something is stuck in your esophagus that prevents you from swallowing but allows you to breathe, you can relax your throat muscles with warm, weak lemon tea. When the throat muscles relax, this often opens enough space to allow the obstruction to be swallowed.

Lemon tea:
Heat water to "very warm" - keep it comfortable to drink
Add juice of a generous slice of fresh lemon

If you have had a serious throat obstruction (and/or been Heimliched), you may have trouble swallowing next time you try to eat. To avoid this problem, drink some lemon-ginger tea five minutes before trying to eat.

Lemon-ginger tea:
Cut a slice of fresh ginger about the shape of a dime
Put the ginger and some water in the microwave and heat to "very warm"
Add juice of a generous slice of fresh lemon

I got this info from a paramedic half an hour ago and it totally worked. No one even had to go for an ambulance ride.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Real Estate Deeds

Today I learned that if you are drafting a Quitclaim Deed (or any other kind probably), it is extremely important that the Grantor's name exactly match the Grantee's name on the previous Deed. For example, if the current owner's name is "John Michael Smith," and when he got the property the Deed called him "John M. Smith," then when he passes the property on his name damn well better read "John M. Smith" and not "John Smith" or "John Michael Smith" or "J M Smith" or any other variant.

If you are so unlucky as to draft a Deed with the incorrect name, the County Clerk and Recorder's office will still file it and all you'll have done is cloud the title to the property until you can execute a Correction Deed. Every time you file something with the County Clerk and Recorder's Office it takes an average of 30 days to get it back with the recording information.

If at all possible, try not to make this mistake while dealing with an Estate or Trust as either the Grantor or Grantee, because Personal Representatives' Deeds and Trustees' Deeds are a whole separate pain in the ass.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Julie & Julia

I saw this movie with my mom this afternoon. It's about a modern woman named Julie who learns to cook by doing every recipe in Julia Child's book Master the Art of French Cooking, all in one year.

I had heard the name Julia Child, but I've never actually seen an episode of her (apparently) iconic television show. The movie was seriously entertaining and a major dose of the warm fuzzies even without any existing knowledge, but I do wonder if I was missing some nuances there. And I had no idea that the titular Julie is a real person.

I was really pleased that it passed the rule without even trying. It issn't a feminist movie, it isn't going out of its way to make a point about the issue... it is simply, quietly, a movie about two women who really like to cook, and who have female friends as well as husbands. In fact, it almost didn't pass the reverse test- as far as I can remember, there is only a single scene where two guys talk about something other than a woman - and that is a guy getting questioned by Senator McCarthy's goons about whether or not he's homosexual.

They totally dumped on The Joy of Cooking in the movie, which I found kind of hilarious, since in my head the two books are, essentially, the same thing. But then, my cooking bible is Recipes for a Lady or a Man.

Among the things I learned from this movie: there were no French cookbooks in English before Julia Child published her book in 1961. It was a labor of love that took three women more than ten years to complete, and the original draft featured more than seven hundred pages just on sauces and poultry. They must have cut it down some for the final draft?

Julia Child learned French cooking in the late 1940s (1949?) from a class for American GIs to learn to be professional French chefs. It appeared in the movie that the GIs' tuition at the cooking school was being paid by the government, which surprised me. I guess that counts as vocational training. But I wonder if you could get the Army to spring for it today.

I really want to make chocolate mousse and boeuf bourguignon. Also: deboned ducks and aspic are freaky. Freaky and yucky.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I could have been sleeping

I fell asleep on the couch at 7 but I got kicked off at 8. I could have been sleeping ever since then, but instead this ate my evening. You see, I posted a random comment on this post with the partial text of a Starfleet explanatory pamphlet. Turns out, it wouldn't leave me alone. Here is the full version. Sorry, I don't think this counts as educational. But on the other hand, I bet you didn't know that Maria Vasquez had a really tough tour of duty back in 2209-2213.


Don't panic! It can happen to anyone. Marriage customs vary enormously, even considering only humanoid pairings; non-humanoid and polyamorous arrangements can be even more complex. However, we do require that any Starfleet personnel who have been accidentally married undergo a xeno-cultural awareness seminar within six months of the marriage, regardless of whether they choose to stay married. The seminar and accompanying workbook may be completed as a distance learning course if you assigned to an extended mission.

1) If your new spouse is a fellow member of Starfleet and/or a coworker aboard your ship, go to 2. If your new spouse is a guest of the ship and/or a resident of a planet you were visiting, go to 3.

2) If your new spouse is in your chain of command, go to 4. If your new spouse is not in your chain of command, congratulations! You may remain married with no additional action on your part, although we encourage you to register the marriage with Personnel. If you do not wish to be married after all, you may simply get a divorce under Federation Code 14-10-129.5; forms are available at no charge from the main computer and may be submitted via normal communication channels.

3) If your new spouse is a non-Starfleet citizen of the Federation or a neutral world, go to 5. If your new spouse is a member of an enemy planet/race/political group/etc., go to 6. If you met your new spouse during a First Contact situation as defined by Federation Code 11-156-7(e), STOP READING THIS FORM! Report the situation to your commanding officer IMMEDIATELY.

This is very important: TRY NOT TO LOOK AT OR HAVE SEX WITH ANYTHING. (Unless you feel that your life is in imminent danger under Federation Code 11-156-532, in which case the diplomatic restrictions on bodily contact under Federation Code 11-156-1 are no longer binding.) TRY NOT TO VIOLATE THE PRIME DIRECTIVE. (This isn't waived by imminent danger, actually, you may remember that before you embarked, we made you swear to die rather than violate the Prime Directive.)

Failure to report a conception that occurred during a First Contact situation may be cause for a formal reprimand pursuant to Federation v. Vasquez, 354 F.Supp.52d 555 (2210)(cert. denied).

4) You must file an Affidavit with Personnel regarding Federation Code 14-10-550, which prohibits "legal contracts, oaths, or other binding commitments coerced from a subordinate by a superior officer," which has included "marriages or life-bondings performed outside the normal territorial jurisdiction of the Federation High Council" since Vasquez v. Archer, 355 F.Supp.52d 110 (2211)(cert. denied). The affidavit must indicate whether a) you were coerced into the marriage either by the other partner(s) or by a third party (e.g. a priest or leader of an unfamiliar culture), b) you were aware that you were being married at the time of the ceremony, and c) whether you wish to remain married or void the marriage. It is unlawful to retaliate against an indivudual reporting coercion by a superior officer, under Federation Code 12-2-2(a). If you wish to remain married you may apply for an exemption under Federation Code 14-10-550(b). Affidavit and exemption forms are available at no charge from the main computer and may be submitted via normal communication channels.

5) It is vital to determine whether your new spouse has previous marital commitments; before your ship departs the planet, have your new spouse complete Form VVVa, available in most Federation languages at no charge from the main computer. This form includes questions about existing spouses, line and/or group marriage obligations, lines of succession, parental rights, etc. These questions are invaluable in determing how to allocate your pension benefits and any child support or spousal maintenance while you are on active duty, as well as determining which procedure to follow should you wish to obtain a divorce. Most Federation worlds recognize divorces performed under Federation Code 14-10-129.5 (see #2 above); for a complete list see Starfleet Legal Education Pamphlet 291 (SO YOU NEED TO DIVORCE THIS ALIEN CHICK (OR DUDE) LIKE, IMMEDIATELY, OKAY?). Watch out especially for planets on which all assets of both partners become communal automatically upon consumation of the marriage (e.g. Betelgeuse V) and planets on which one spouse automatically becomes the property of the other (e.g. Orion II, Goringen, etc.).

6) The Federation does not recognize marriages across enemy lines under Federation Code 14-10-130, and does not enforce child support obligations across enemy lines either, pursuant to Vasquez v. Chkrnzkl, in re: the interests of CEV, 2 F.Supp.53d 270 (2213)(cert. denied). However, be aware that should the Federation conclude a peace treaty with the enemy group to which your new spouse belongs, either you or your spouse may file a child support enforcement action at that time under Federation Code 14-10-150 as applied in in re: the interests of CEV, 2 F.Supp.270 at 298. If you are currently being held prisoner by your new spouse's people (including nominal captivity in which you are held in comfort but are simply unable to leave), go to 7. If you (or your ship) are currently holding your new spouse captive, go to 8. If you are no longer in contact with your new spouse, keep detailed records of your time together in your personal log; we recommend that you add any relevant information to your Medical Record.

7) How the hell did you get ahold of this pamphlet anyway? If you're thinking of escape, don't you have bigger things to be worrying about? (By the way, if you're in Romulan space, you might try emergency subspace frequencey 251 alpha, we've got some listening ears scattered around, especially near the borders; you never know.) And if you'd prefer to stay with your new spouse, honestly Starfleet best practices aren't super relevant to you anymore. (But be aware you may be prosecuted for treason in your absence under Federation Code 1-10-300.)

8) Try not to get pregnant or kidnapped by your new spouse during an escape attempt. IF YOU RELEASE YOUR NEW SPOUSE YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED FOR TREASON UNDER FEDERATION CODE 1-10-300! DON'T DO IT! Nobody cares if it was all a misunderstanding or they are really a good person underneath or whatever. You are automatically excused from security, interrogation, medical, and communications duties that have anything to do with your new spouse. No one is going to enforce the marriage (see #6). Take a nice hot bath and stay out of the way.

Technical difficulties?

When I use this account to sign in to other OpenID sites, it shows my username as the whole URL, "". How do I make it show my display name, "autodidact"?

Edit: Turns out I just needed to configure it on Dreamwidth's own network because my OpenID settings don't carry through. Can I count this as what I learned today?

Edit:I can't figure this shit out, WTF. I do think it's probably a Dreamwidth thing rather than an OpenID thing so I'm gonna quit whining about it here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Atonal Music


I didn't really learn much today, I worked and went to the doctor and made cookies and screwed around online. So I'm turning to An Incomplete Education for a dose of trivia. Apparently, Arnold Schoenberg wrote "perhaps the first really atonal work" in 1899. His two biggest pupils stole all his thunder and he died alone and bitter in 1951. Awesome.

I've never been a big fan of atonality, although it does add some spice when used in moderation. We played too much Bartok in high school orchestra. You don't know atonal til you've heard an atonal piece played by a terrible freshman violinist.

See, this is why night classes suck

Last fall semester I took College Algebra as a night class after work. So far so good.

I actually hadn't taken a math class since my Junior year of high school, during which I took one semester of Trig and essentially said, "fuck it, I don't need this shit." Not because it was hard, really; it was just kind of boring and two hours of homework every night. And that was (Jesus) seven years ago WTF.

So. With College Algebra under my belt and a nice long break from taking night classes, I want to take College Trig. There are three colleges within a reasonable distance of my home and work. I have exactly one other caveat: I can't go to class on Wednesdays, I have other commitments. All three colleges have exactly one section of Trig that meets in the evening. All three are MW approx. 7-9:30.

Don't these places talk to each other? And who wants to do Trig until 9:30 at night anyway?

Now the question is, am I willing to take Survey of Calculus instead? You don't need Trig for it, it's not a prereq for anything else, and it's billed as 'for liberal arts majors,' so it's pretty clear it's dumbed-down. Is some math better than no math? And why do I care, I can't pretend I'm not a liberal arts major.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't know enough about string theory

Today I learned that I lack the background physics knowledge to actually learn about String Theory. I hate not knowing enough to learn. Do I hate enough to make an emoticon face? Yes.


Boingboing featured this video about visualizing ten dimensions, which I found really cool but, upon second watching, maybe not thoroughly-argued - particularly the transitions around 6-7-8 dimensions leave something to be desired. I checked out the comments on boingboing and found that lots of people thought the video was total crap. So I decided to see what Wikipedia has to say about it (hello again, my first-but-never-last-stop research friend!)

Three paragraphs in, it became obvious I need to know what the holographic principle is. The first sentence of that article rather heavily implies that I need to know what the black hole information paradox is. Now the key concept here appears to be Hawking radiation, which I actually am vaguely familiar with, in a liberal-arts major sort of way, so that's a place to start. Hawking radiation is the idea that when pairs of particles randomly come in to existence (?) they might be right on the edge of the event horizon of a black hole, so that one particle might go in and the other out, thus appearing to "emanate" from the black hole.

Okay, so I can start in on that information paradox. But, passing a couple of named theorems that probably would help me understand the issue, the very next major point is something to do with entangled states... one of the ideas repeatedly ridiculed by those boingboing commentors as new age bullshit (although it was not actually mentioned in the original video!). Great.

Someday when I have a couple of hours to put into it, I'm going to watch this other video about dimensions that was recommended by boingboingers who thought the first one was crap, and then read that entire friggin' Wikipedia article, and every subsidiary article I need to figure out the gist. I may need more math; I've been considering doing some self-study trig to work myself up to calculus. I'm sure there's a pop-science book out there that could help me out too... but we'll see how long I care.

But I guess I need to actually do some work at work for now. Picture me sighing.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dying Detroit

I'm a little late to the "OMFG Detroit is doomed!" party, but I just saw this map of how much Detroit has shrunk (via Quiet Babylon). I knew the city was in trouble, but I had no idea it was this bad.

Do I get to have an opinion about a city I've never visited? It seems reasonable to me to bulldoze the outlying regions and concentrate everybody in a more reasonably-sized area. I think a lot of cities could benefit from razing suburbs, actually, even in mostly-healthy areas - suburban sprawl is contributing to many of our social and ecological problems.

But what about the people still living in those areas of Detroit? There are some, according to the maps. Do they want to keep living where they are, or would they rather be consolidated? Many (or most?) of the people still living there are desperately poor, too poor to relocate or perfectly content squatting rent-free where they are. Does that change the value of their opinions?

I'm glad the town I live in is doing pretty well. There's a growing amount of empty retail space but the downtown is still busy and there's a growing area out by the highway. I've been wanting to break out of the status quo of my awful job for a while now, but I'm terrified that I won't be able to find another one, or at least not another one with health insurance. Reading about a place like Detroit pulls at me, though. Both ways. I am ambivilant. I want to cut all ties to my safe, sane existence and head out there and visit before they find a solution, see that post-apocalyptic insanity. I want to buckle back down and make sure I never have to visit that post-apocalyptic insanity, make a safe and secure haven for myself right here where I am and pitch in to keep this community going strong.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Maya Hieroglyphs

This weekend, I'm working on An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus Grimwold Morley. ( Isn't that a fantastic name? Seriously, it sounds like a D&D wizard rolled up by a 13-year-old.) It was originally published in 1915 but reprinted in the 70s.

The first couple of chapters about the Maya civilization are really interesting, but somewhat limited. At least in part that's because the whole area was in political chaos from the late 1300s to when the Spanish showed up in the 1500s, and after a couple of tries the Spanish succeeded in taking control of the area. So the earliest and theoretically most reliable sources of information about the Mayan culture are Spanish missionaries writing two or three hundred years after the fall of a great civilization. The main guy Morley cites is Bishop Landa, one of the first missionaries in the region, who wrote a history and description of the Maya in 1565. Landa was also a crazy asshole who tortured lots of people and burned all the native books, thus ensuring his own was the most authoritative source - though I doubt that was his primary reason.

Morley's analysis of the Mayan culture has apparently been superceded by more more recent, thorough research, according to Wikipedia. I suspected as much even while I was reading it, especially when it talks about the Maya in comparison to Greece, with a "golden age" of sculpture and culture followed by decline. He's also got a lot of "noble savage" ideas that bleed through when he makes generalizations about the hospitality, attractiveness, and level of "civilization" of the Maya. He's really condescending in general, both about the Mayans and to the reader. He says things like, "[t]hough a problem of first importance, the analysis of the simple elements is far too complex for presentation to the beginner..." (p. 26)

Also according to Wikipedia, most of Morley's ideas about the Mayan writing system have also been rendered obsolete by further research... which makes me wish I were looking at a better book, I suppose. But this book is almost exclusively about the calendar and date symbols, and Wikipedia seems to think those bits are probably okay. And this is the one I've got. So whatever, I'll go with this.

So a Mayan week, a "uinal", has twenty days ("k'in"). Most of the days have more than one symbol. The first day is Imix and the last is Ahua, and Ahua is the most important day of the week, the one that is most often used to count to or from something. Days aren't just called by their name, though, they're always preceded by a number, 1-13. So for example a day might be 3 Ahua or 12 Akbal. It takes 260 days for the day-number pairs to repeat, and this 260 day cycle is the basis of the Mayan sacred year. Apparently Morley doesn't know the name of the 260 day cycle in Mayan, but he says the Aztec name for this unit is "Tonalamatl". Wikipedia claims scholars use "Tzolk'in".

The calendar year started in July and was divided into 18 "months" of 20 days, for a total of 360 days, (called a "tun") plus 5 sacred days at the end of the year. The 5 extra days, called "wayeb" , were apparently not a happy year-end celebration, but instead a time when no one did anything or went anywhere for fear of evil spirits. The Maya were aware of the extra day every four years that we correct with a leap year to bring the calendar year into line with the solar year, but they didn't correct for it because that would mess up the counting cycle of uinals and tuns. Instead they did insanely complicated calculations to figure out the equinox, etc.

The "Calendar Round" is 52 years, which is the time for the tonalamatl to meet up with the 365-day calendar year (though not the solar year, nor yet the tun). A "ka'tun" is 20 tun, or about 9.7 years. The next division is the "Long Count," the one that people are so freaked out about supposedly ending in 2012. One B'ak'tun is 20 Ka'tun, or about 395 years.

So you can see that their calendar system requires a bit of knowledge of symbols but an enormous amount of math, not only to calculate which day would fall when but also to bring the calendar year into harmony with the actual solar year. But I suppose our weeks of seven days and months of 28, 30, or 31 days is not really any simpler.

Mayan writing reminds me a lot of Japanese. Maybe that's because Japanese is the only language I've studied that didn't use the English alphabet. But there are recurring elements in the figures, which can have either a phonetic or a semantic content. The same elements can have their form altered to fit more harmoniously in the figure, and they may in fact be completely unrecognizable at the end. Etc. According to Wikipedia, the Maya also had a complete syllabery, like Japanese. The whole thing gives me tremendous sympathy for the people trying to figure this stuff out- Japanese is hard enough when I've got a textbook sitting right there telling me how to figure out what it means.

I'm only fifty pages in and planning to work all the way through to the end; if I learn anything else cool I'll post it here, but I think this is a pretty solid summary of the actual information in the book. The rest appears to be application; actually learning to read and use the Mayan symbols.