Thursday, March 31, 2005

McFarlane: Firefox Hacks—Getting Even More Out of the Safer Browser


With nine chapters and 10-17 "hacks" per chapter, Nigel McFarlane's Firefox Hacks provides 100 numbered tips on using this popular secure browser, for users with IT experience who are Firefox beginners, as well as those who are already open-source contributors. Since each numbered item contains much more than a single suggestion for using the Mozilla Firefox browser effectively, the book is a treasure trove for tweaking your Web interface.

Firefox Basics starts the book, with ten hacks that address using the browser itself. Language in this chapter occasionally descends into jargon. (Hack #2, for example, advises, "You can't start kiosk mode from the command line. You can start it with a call from a secure web page...) As the Hack numbers rise, so does the amount of programming required to implement the hacks! My favorite in this chapter was Hack #4, detailing "how to find stuff"—like the password you entered for a new web site three days ago.

Security covers more than just avoiding spyware and spam—in fact, many users turn to Firefox because it offers freedom from these banes of Internet Explorer access. In this chapter, McFarlane details using Firefox in Intranet single-server environments, making it automatically discover Web proxy settings, and my personal favorite, Hack #13: Stop All Secret Network Activity. Firefox may send information across the net without asking, but you can configure it to stop secret updates of itself, stop secret submissions of data (like cookie responses), and even stop the background downloading of data to inactive tab windows. Another hack tells the IT tech how to configure Firefox for safe use by neophytes.

Installation of Firefox is simplicity itself, as I discovered when I "left IE forever" on Valentine's Day this year. My love for this browser was immediately increased, though, by Hack #30, which increases Firefox's support for fonts specified by the CSS of the web pages you visit. IT managers will probably prefer items that detail how to roll-out Firefox enterprise-wide, and how to set up servers the support bonus Firefox content types.

Web Surfing Enhancements: I went to this section first, looking for the skinny on Web Search engines. One of the great strengths of Firefox is its ability to let you search on a word or a phrase from any of a menu of sites, using open-source "Mycroft" Search plug-ins. The menu that appears in the upper right corner is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Hack #36 showed me the URL to download a sweet extension called Conquery that lets me drop any highlighted word or phrase into any Search engine plug-in installed on my system. Hack #41 builds on the earlier exploration of how these Search plug-ins work by showing me how to create my own plug-in.

Power Tools for Web Developers and Power XML for Web Pages are sections I will come back to, after I have thoroughly explored the more-basic concepts. Most enticing of the Power Tools, though, is the DOM Inspector, a standard feature of Firefox. This goody lets you directly view HTML and XML code, making it simple to decipher a target web page's CSS styling. There's also Hack #55, an omnibus hack that covers "portability" debugging across JavaScript, PHP, Perl and JSP.

Hack the Chrome Ugly and Hack the Chrome Cleanly both cover modifying the Firefox installation files called the chrome. Some users ("people with no time and no patience") will hack ugly, modifying these files using quick-and-dirty methods. Others will hack cleanly, studying packages and plug-ins, and installing them properly. Either way, modifying and enhancing the Firefox browser is the "first step... to learning Mozilla application development."

My favorite chrome-hacking tip comes from the "clean-hack" chapter. Hack #90 details how to reuse bits of packages once you understand what they do—and for that, I loved Hack #84 and Hack #85, which offered a guide to understanding Firefox chrome packages and extensions. (Hack #76, from the ugly-hack section, was also valuable—it shows how to use the DOM Inspector to "spy on" chrome packages.)

Work More Closely with Firefox is the final chapter. The standard Firefox interface used by folks who've downloaded the free browser to their PCs is not the only variant; there is Firefox for Macintosh, custom variants devised for enterprises, and GNOME for Unix/Linux systems. You can run multiple variants on a single desktop (unlike IE). This chapter introduces the developer to the community of Mozilla programmers. Hack #98, my favorite in this chapter, introduces Bugzilla, the online Firefox bug database, and coaches you through the process of reading, understanding, and even submitting your own bug reports. However note:
you can lose your Bugzilla privileges if you spam or otherwise culture-jam the conversation.
I waited with bated breath for this book to finally be available. Now that it's arrived, I can't think what I ever did without it. If you yearn to take Firefox to the next level, here is your ticket!

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rawicz: The Long Walk—A Sobering Reflection on Real Torture and Deprivation


In 1939, 25-year-old Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia following a torture-induced "confession" in Moscow. In 1956, he was living peacefully in England with his English wife. The years between are detailed in The Long Walk, the classic tale of Rawicz' trek with seven others to freedom.

Rawicz tells his story from the calm, relaxed vantage of a decade's separation from the events. If anything, this detached approach lends additional power to the tale. He spends less than a chapter detailing his torture at the hands of the NKVD "specialists" in Kharkov prison, almost passively detailing his weeks-long confinement in a upright-coffin-sized kishka cell standing in his own bodily wastes, his racking and the burning of his hands with hot tar, the systematic beatings and subtler tortures. Rawicz can even praise the kishka of Lublyanka prison where he is incarcerated during his show trial, because "...this kishka was clean, and the periods I was forced to spend in it were much shorter."

Sentenced to serve in a labor camp in Siberia, Rawicz must first get there from Moscow. This trip takes him 3000 miles by train across wintry Russia, still barefoot in the buttonless cotton blouse and beltless pants which he wore in the Kharkov. He reports the death of numerous prisoners in his cattle-car, whose bodies were dumped alongside the track, after being stripped of their prison garb. "Father Stalin only loaned the poor bastard his clothes for the duration of his stay in the USSR..." When the caravan reached the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the men were chained by twos to the end of a dozen trucks, and marched to their camp. Although they were issued warmer clothes and rubber boots, 10 to 15 percent of the prisoners died on that final march.

At Camp 303, Rawicz decides to escape. He is aided in this plan by the bored wife of the Soviet commandant, who asks only that he wait until her husband is away and the camp is nominally under the command of the political officer. Rawicz chooses six other prisoners—one of whom, they discover to their surprise, is an American mining engineer who was arrested after a year's work on the Moscow subway tunnels. "Mr. Smith" is strangely fluent in Russian, and may truly be a spy, but the other five men are Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian prisoners. They collect supplies of dried bread; steal deer, sable and rabbit skins from the guards; and manage to create warmer clothing, shoes and other tools for survival before leaving the camp in mid-April, 1941.

The seven men, and an escaped Polish teen, Kristina, whom they meet on the east side of the half-frozen Lena River, had before them a daunting trek. They would need to walk more than 3000 miles south through Siberia's spring blizzards and icy rivers, Mongolia's Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Himalayas, in order to "surrender" to a British lieutenant in southern Nepal. Along the way, Rawicz lists their changing numbers almost diffidently in chapter titles: "Seven Cross the Lena River", "Eight Enter Mongolia", "Six Enter Tibet", "Five By-Pass Lhasa."

Concealed within this off-hand report of group size is nine months of grueling travel, including nearly sixty days of suffering in the Gobi Desert. "We sweated it out for about three hours in throbbing discomfort, mouths open, gasping in the warm desert air over enlarged, dust-covered tongues." And, "After a while he closed his eyes and I thought he had gone, but he was still breathing quietly... There was no spasm, no tremor, no outward sign to show that life had departed the body." And, "The heat enveloped us, sucking the moisture from our bodies, putting ankle-irons of lethargy about our legs."

This is no calm, beautiful serenity that surrounds the travelers, but a rasping deprivation they fight with every ounce of their strength. Rawicz and three of his companions would live through this self-imposed torment to reach India and freedom. Throughout their trip, all eight of the escaped prisoners fought grimly to stay alive. Why, at a time when millions were dying in a second World War and a dire Holocaust, would we celebrate the triumph of four souls over death?

In a time when the "right to die" is viciously debated in our forums, The Long Walk is a refreshing celebration of the will to live. Whether you read it as a moral fable or a true account of escape from Siberia, its focus on life is a useful contrast to the discussions of the day.
I hope The Long Walk will remain as a memorial to all those who live and die for freedom, and for all those who for many reasons could not speak for themselves. I had to tell my story as a warning to the living, and as a moral judgment for the greater good.
—Slavomir Rawicz, 1993 Introduction to The Long Walk

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Hubbell: Sea of Time—Past Perfect Paradox-Fest


WARNING: If you want to read the first book of this series (Cretaceous Sea) without a spoiler, skip this review.

After its light treatment in his first novel, Cretaceous Sea, Will Hubbell has followed with a sequel that really digs into the philosophy and paradox of time travel. Sea of Time looks at the present-day and future of an age engendered by the incidents detailed in the first novel.

Alteration of the present by the past is an important concept in the story. At the end of the first story, Constance "Con" Greighton and Rick Clements are rescued by people from the future, and taken to their own past, to gold-rush California, where Rick and Con are married. (Con thus not only founds the family fortune in a California gold mine, but also becomes her own great-great-grandmother.)

What should have been a "happily ever after" ending to the first novel instead becomes a launching point for multi-dimensional murder. The evolved homo perfectus society that created the time machine is worried about awareness of the possibility of time travel by unevolved people in their past. Con is approached by one of them who warns her.
"They may alter your reality instead... If they were to change your past," replied Sam, "from that point onward, the resulting reality would be the only one you knew. They might erase all who stand in their way, all who are precious to you."
Minutes later, Con learns that Rick has been shot to death. In the ensuing weeks, her only son also dies of cold and starvation. Having lost all she holds dear, she agrees to come to the future with the "Kynden" Sam, to work against those who supposedly arranged her husband's murder, in order to "undo" his and her son's death.

In the future, however, Con finds things not quite as Sam presented them to her. There are three groups of people in this "perfected" future world: homo perfectus or "fecs", home sapiens or "sapes", and the Kynden, who sit between the two, and want to eliminate both species from 27th-century Earth. Sapes occupy something of a plantation slavery role in this society, due to a virus-imposed addiction to kana, a drug that is only available from the fecs.

Con has an advantage in the sape camp; because she doesn't need kana, she can use her daily supply to barter for information. She learns that Rick Clements has also been snatched from 21st-century Earth, and decides to connect with him. Unfortunately, the Rick she finds is from the future determined by the death of Con's son in 1851. This Rick has never met Con.
  "Would you kiss me, Rick? I've waited so long."
  "Sure... Con. Just remember, for me, it's our first kiss."
...Con closed her eyes, lifted her chin, and puckered her lips. Then, with all his strength, Rick pushed her away. She slammed into the cornstalks and fell over backward. Before Con even hit the ground, Rick dashed into the rows of corn and disappeared.
Before Con and Rick can resolve their different pasts, they are confronted with yet another evolution of humankind, homo gaian, whose own future had been eliminated while they were harvesting food in Earth's Jurassic past. These remnants of a larger civilization have been trying to eliminate Con as the root cause of their extinction, a tool created by the Kynden Sam to redirect the powerful flow of history. The Gaians tell Con why they killed Rick in 1851, and have been trying to kill her.
  " change the shape of a river, a hand or a boulder won't do... You need a dam, Something totally unnatural... [Sam] created an entity that is largely unaffected by the forces that keep the timestream on its natural course..."
  "And I have this ability because I'm my own ancestor?"
..."You are able to change history," said Oak, "because you are your own ancestor and you are your own ancestor because you changed history."
How Rick, Con and the Gaians unravel this twisted thread of altered history to save the past and their future is fascinating reading. Hubbell has done a masterful job of presenting these confusing lines of cause and effect in a way that explores the innate paradox of travel through time. I recommend reading Cretaceous Sea first (it's not too demanding, remember), to fully enjoy the contrast and the story of the second novel.

In a fine and suitably ironic way, Sea of Time is the mature child of its juvenile parent.

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Hubbell: Cretaceous Sea—Post-Jurassic Park


What would you do if you had access to a time-travel machine? H.G. Wells had his time-traveler go far into the future, returning only for a few volumes from his library to help the growth of the society he found there. Leo Frankowski scattered generations of a world-wide time-police organization across 2000 years of history to make sure that one man (Conrad Stargard) survived in medieval Poland. And L. Sprague deCamp assumed a historian traveling to Imperial Rome would want to prevent that empire's decline and fall.

Peter Green and Ann Smyth, the lucky owners of the time-warp apparatus in Will Hubbell's Cretaceous Sea, have a better idea. They'll sell—to multi-millionaires only—the chance to vacation in the "unspoiled, pristine wilderness" of the inland sea that existed in mid-America at the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods.

The millionaire backer they've chosen, Greighton, has good reason to desire an escape from the crowds. His new (young) fianceé has a disturbing propensity for attracting young men and spending his money, and he wants a chance to solidy his relationship with her away from such distractions.

Greighton insists on bringing his spoiled teenage daughter along, however, and Smyth promises him there will be a "staff naturalist" along to keep her out of Daddy's hair. To geologist and fossil collector Rick Clements, it sounds like the perfect graduate-school job—although he's not sure he believes the machine can really take them back, he's eager for a chance to collect living specimens of the animals he's only seen immured in rock until now. And Constance Greighton, the "child" he expects to babysit, will not prevent him from making the most of this opportunity.

Perhaps Green and Smyth's skewed view of what to do with such a windfall comes from the source. They are not inventors of this technology. They stole it from the original owner, who (Green surmises) came from a future time when time-travel technology is fairly commonplace. Perhaps it is a result of the disturbing fact that only one time—the Cretaceous (K-T) boundary—and only one place can be reached with their ill-gotten transport. Fortunately for Green and Smyth, there are living quarters at their proposed resort.

Unfortunately for all of the vacationers, there's more at the destination than a convenient group of summer cottages. It's a problem of stolen technology—there's no manual, and an undocumented feature will sometimes crash the system. In their case, it leaves them stranded on the edge of the Cretaceous Sea, where they will have an excellent view of the meteor that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs.

Hubbel has written a thriller in time-travel guise that mingles just a little geologic and dinosaur fact with lots of adventure. Don't expect it to stretch your brain—this story is strictly for fun, and it succeeds very well.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Briggs: Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In—Pure Fun

Bad satirists are left alone; it only hurts when it's good.
—Stephen King, reviewing Jo Bob Brigg's movie commentary.
Before you can write a review, you need some standards by which to judge your chosen target. For Joe Bob Briggs, who admitted in 1990 to having watched "more than 23,000 drive-in movies," the standards are: Blood, Breasts and Beasts.

Using these criteria, Briggs has rated movies for The Movie Channel, the Dallas Observer, syndicated radio and newspaper columns, and in his own one-man touring show. He has put his eyes and soul on the line for us, guys, telling us the Ten Best Flicks to Get Nookie By, and why Arnold Swartzenegger is the No 1 Drive-In Actor in the World.

Briggs is not afraid to rate films highly—even when "the entire Motion Picture Industry and Critics Galore" are in opposition. Consider the 1985 remake of Bride of Frankenstein, with Sting as the eponymous Doctor, and Jennifer Beals as his creation. Briggs' bottom line for this film:
Excellent monster fu. Four breasts, but I'm gonna count em as eight, cause they're these humongous fat-lady circus breasts that are the biggest breasts in the history of breasts. One gallon blood. Two beasts. One head rolls. Midget trapeze. Gratuitous Geraldine Page. Monster hangover. Crypt. Boneyard. Haunted mansion. Stake through heart. Four dead bodies... Four stars.
You have to understand, though, that Briggs is not just a movie critic. No, Joe Bob believes in things. Things like First Amendment rights, and anti-Communist activism. He even paid—"two bucks... it was the principle of the thing"—to verify that his First Amendment rights had been violated.
Bubba looked up the First Amendment, and it said I have the "right to bare arms." A lot of people don't understand the US Constitution, and so they read that and they say, "All that means is you can wear muscle shirts to a Neal Diamond concert." These are what is known in America as stupid people... Course, you know what happens ever time a drive-in movie critic gets assassinated. Somebody starts screaming for gun control.
And lest you dismiss this as the egotist's version of political rectitude, in which only Joe Bob's rights are of concern to him, there are the multitude of Communist Alert! items in the book. An eerie echo of today's Homeland Security-driven climate is found in the costume-party faux paux of Texan Russell Scott, who showed up dressed in a turban, with road flares strapped to his chest—and this was years before 9/11.
The Travis County Sheriff's department ... arrested him while he was buttering a potato for impersonating an Arab Terrorist, ripped the road flares off his chest, cuffed him, threatened to arrest two other people who intervened, took him to jail, charged him with "possession of a hoax bomb," left him in a cell with a guy charged with pushing heroin... We're talking Retards with Badges.
No, Joe Bob Briggs continues to do us all a cardinal service by pointing out the hypocrisy and cynicism rampant in movies. And by telling us which of those movies have great views of breasts.

And the (1985) winners were...038529770X,0789308444,031213519X,0312187483,0312242646,1887893423,1900486237

For a different look at movies to rent or buy, see David Meyer's 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of.

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Fielding: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason—Pure Delight


No one can claim that Bridget Jones lacks focus. In her latest diary, she is totally focused on three things: Keeping Mark Darcy, Losing Weight, and Giving Good Advice. It's just that with all that focus, things seem to go awry on her.

For one thing, it's hard to be receptive to a good snuggle while you're trying to conceal from the other party the fact that you're wearing "really scary underpants." Bridget's struggles with her undergarments, begun in the first diary, when Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant in the movie) was strangely aroused by her "giant" beige knickers, continue in the new book, as she tries to conceal her tummy bulge with corsetry.
Cannot help but wonder if was free to rearrange own fat according to choice, would I still wish to reduce amount? Think would have huge big breasts and hips and tiny waist...
The movie substitutes Bridget's near-triumph at Trivial Pursuit during Mark's swanky Law Dinner for the book's hilarious précis of Labour vs. Tory politics. (Perhaps the movie producers thought the political discussion would be too inaccessible to US audiences.) Either way, Bridget's careening, almost-there headlong style is always capped by the final humiliating "oops!" ending, faithfully recorded in her diary under the daily record of weight, cigarettes smoked, and lies told about her diet and smoking.

Despite her obsessive focus on her Relationship With Mark Darcy, Bridget has time to obsess about other people's relationship issues, too. Her mother is off again, this time to Kenya, and Bridget believes her father's "stiff upper lip" reaction is hiding a broken heart. Her buddy Jude is starting to worry about her biological clock, but not enough to want the baby-belly and cabbage-bra issues of Magda, their "Smug Married" friend. And Sharon, or "Shaz," has abandoned her feminism for a troubling proclivity to watch soccer with the boys.

Bridget is battling work relationship issues, too. Her boss gives her assignments ("locate two Middle-England voters who are pro") and waits for her to screw them up. Meanwhile, he will put her on camera only in situations where she can display her complete incompetence (and her undergarments). Mark's office has him paired with Rebecca, who obviously has designs on him. (For some reason, the movie invents a whole other character to be the "jellyfish," whose every encounter with Bridget results in her delivering multiple verbal stings; "Bridge, how's it going with Mark? You must be really pleased to get a boyfriend at last.")

In an effort to escape the snarled cares of her life, Bridget agrees to visit Thailand with Shaz, "and NO MEN!" In fact, she gets her wish, as she winds up in a Thai women's prison. Fortunately Bridget's blithe take on life, and her thorough grounding in the religion of self-help (and Mark Darcy) come to her rescue.

The movie captures the breezy voice of Bridget Jones' diary entries perfectly, and casting is wonderfully apt. Colin Firth as Mark Darcy is especially appropriate, considering Bridget and her girlfriends' sovereign remedy for the blues is a viewing of Pride and Prejudice starring Firth as Jane Austen's mannered hero Lord Darcy. Excellent reprises by Gemma Jones as Bridget's Mom, and Jim Broadbent as her Dad also shine. Hugh Grant shows up to reveal Daniel Cleaver's middle-aged angst, and let Mark Darcy settle his hash.

But in the end, it is Bridget Jones herself, with Renée Zellweger plumping up for the role again, that carries the story. You just have to love a woman who can look at herself honestly in the mirror, and still proclaim, "I truly believe that happiness is possible... even when you're thirty-three and have a bottom the size of two bowling balls."

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Burke: The Pinball Effect—Butterflies and Billiards


James Burke, the host of TV's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, brings his view of the interconnected nature of technological change to a The Pinball Effect. With the same network of shotgunned factoids that characterize his TV essays, Burke has set out to reveal, once again, how one discovery leads to, not another, but multiple others.

Supporting this network of interconnectedness is a hyper-link-style gimmick, in which footnote numbers refer the reader to a link between the current factoid and one buried further along in the book. (I last saw this technique used in a juvenile "multiple endings" novel.) Some of the connections revealed by following these links are interesting, but others are a bit of a stretch. For example, the imposition of heavy import duties on fabrics by the Sun King's Minister of Finance, Colbert, is linked to Impressionism and the development of the RGB monitor by way of M.E. Chevreul, the head director of dyeing at the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris.

Many of the capsule essays in the book (as opposed to the wider network of connections) have made their way to TV. "Hot Pickle," which details how spices were the driving motivation for the development of smart bombs (via exploration, leading to the need for better fuel and driving engines, from there to air conditioning, Corning glass and fiberglass, and onward to lasers) has already been laid out for our enjoyment on The Learning Channel.

So the book is amusing, with a pleasing focus on progress and technological development. It fails to provide a real sense of the history involved, though. What Burke has done is provide a series of science sound-bites, carefully calculated to keep the attention of those with short spans. "See, here's a pretty fact! Look, how shiny! But now look, look, no, look here..." This cajoling approach to science history does quite well on TV, but fails to entice in book format.

The one place this book works well is the bathroom. As a short-span reader, it beats Uncle Johns' Bathroom Reader, because you get a satisfying sense of informing your brain (however shallowly) while taking care of other business.

Speaking of which, do you know:Now, that's what I call some satisfying factoids!

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Friday, March 25, 2005

Weekly BlogScan—"I am NOT GAY"

Madonna/Brittany kiss
  Madonna & Brittany swap spit.

Think about the social pressures that lead a person to feel the urge to declare publicly, "I am not gay."

This is an era when movies, main-stream media, blogs and school programs celebrate gay choice. Girl-on-girl snogging is part of prime-time TV, and gay marriage issues seem to drive national elections.

Yet you can still strike a nerve by claiming someone is gay.

Tom Cruise as Maverick shares steamy scene with Val Kilmer as Iceman
  Top Gun: "I'll share a steamy scene with you, but I'm not gay."

Celebrities have lots of problems with this issue. We have the extensive writeup on Michael Jackson, for example, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. [Caution—the Arnold page contains an artistic nude shot.]

Tom Cruise sued a publisher for $100 million for claiming he had a videotape of gay sex starring the sex-idol, and settled out of court for an apology and a promise that the man would "never say such things again." Retro-Crush has the entire skinny on Cruise's legal declarations as the default blog page.

Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart
    Braveheart: "It's not a dress, it's a kilt."

There are the shots of Mel Gibson in a kilt, from GQ in May 95, and his "deadly Scottish knife" that seem to have raised eyebrows in some places. Mel was quoted in a Spanish newspaper (El Pais): "Who might think that with this demeanor, I could be gay? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?" (Perhaps it lost some of its anger in the translation.)

Politicians have issues with being outed in error, as well. Ed Koch said nearly thirty years ago:
No, I am not a homosexual. If I were a homosexual, I would hope I would have the courage to say so. What's cruel is that you are forcing me to say I am not a homosexual. This means you are putting homosexuals down. I don't want to do that.
The following year, Oklahoma governor and U.S. Senate candidate David L. Boren had to swear an oath on a Bible that he was neither homosexual nor bisexual. Far more interesting is ex-Governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, and the WorldNetDaily article headlined, "McGreevey is not gay." Ms. Harvey's contention (no one is really gay) fits better in a blog than in an online journal. But she gets some lateral support from the Classical Values blogspot, which notes that McGreevey's ex-aide (and alleged lover) stated he himself is also not gay.

Bloggers Matier and Ross let us know that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome had to make an "I am not gay" statement in just about every interview during his gay-marriage stint last year:
...especially on national TV—Newsom emphasized that he's straight, married, moderate and Catholic. The point being that even a moderate could support gay marriage—and by way of subtext, also let the world know that Gavin is not gay.

David Bowie
    David Bowie: "Just exploring!"

Sometimes the artist who unwittingly caused a flap needs to step forward on behalf of his creation, as when Stephen Hillenburg told the Wall Street Journal that SpongeBob SquarePants was definitely not gay. Even Phillipino bloggers are with Hillenburg on this (although t0nichi gives eight reasons why the male half of Barbie-and-Ken is gay).

Too bad no one stepped forward with a similar declaration for Teletubbie Tinky Winky. (There was once a blog at Cyberwolves Hosting claiming to have evidence that the big purple Teletubbie was straight, but the site is now defunct.)

There are generic "is not gay" posts all over. Jonathan Rowe, a "libertarian lawyer and college professor", wrote about what defines a bisexual (as opposed to a homosexual), using David Bowie and Mick Jagger as examples. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi defines "non-gay homosexuals: who are they?" (Hint: to find one, look in the closet.)

On the other hand, it doesn't get much more personal than with Daniel Evans, who discovered he had to convince his daughter he is not gay! Hey, kiddo—I'm suspicious, too. Your Dad has a link on his blog to MetroDad. 'Nuff said.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Gibson: Pattern Recognition—Post-Modern Paranoia and New-Media Apophenia


William Gibson has a justly-deserved reputation as the novelist of the Internet; commencing with Neuromancer in 1984, and sustained by his latest, Pattern Recognition. Although Gibson's work has been labeled "cyberpunk," there's little punk about it. His latest novel is a mature work with all the literary prerequisites: characters, theme and ample plotting.

The core idea in the story is a film-noir which is being released, piece-meal via the Internet, one short scene-clip at a time, non-chronologically. Around this "footage" has grown an intricate community of blogs, forums, otaku geeks and tech-hack fans. Cayce Powell, a global consultant to marketing companies, is a "coolhunter"—and also a footagehead. Her job involves identifying what will be perceived as cool next month, so advertisers can connect it to their products. Her hobby (which is about to become a job of its own) is to figure out whether the footage scenes are part of a completed movie that has been hacked up, or whether they are an ongoing creation.

Gibson has made clear the link between tight-focus attention to minutiae and the "discovery" of message. Cayce's mother is a devotee of EVP (the phenomenon celebrated in last year's movie White Noise); Cayce keeps getting eMails from her Mom about messages from her father, who was associated in some way with the CIA until he disappeared in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She can ignore these messages, but then her father appears to her in a dream with cryptic advice dredged out of her subconscious.

Cayce makes her own attempts to sort signal out of noise, in her life as well as in the footage. She is driven by her need to avoid logos, but compelled to recognize the ways in which the city-scapes she inhabits are the same (even when they are subtly different.) So she calls London and Tokyo "mirror-worlds" of her comfortable New York City, and seeks out the places (Starbucks, for example) where they are most alike.

As Cayce gets closer to solving the mystery of the footage, her life gets more complicated. Is the vile Dorotea just jealous of her expensive coat; or is she a spy after something more sinister? Is the laconic Boone Chu a friend; or is he operating on a completely hostile agenda? And why does Cayce's amusingly-surnamed employer really want to contact the maker of the footage—is it because of the media buzz that has suddenly grown around what had been limited to a small fandom? Or did the marketing mogul start the buzz in the first place?

As the characters around her become more intimidating, Cayce finds more and more hidden information. In addition to the steganography uncovered in the footage by Japanese hackers, there are the buried messages in the Footage Fans' Forum that lead Cayce to Moscow, and the Muzak swirl of Frank Sinatra's voice that resolves into a life-saving message from Cayce's father.

This novel combines an intriguing mystery with outstanding use of the new media, and solidifies Gibson's claim as the authentic voice of cyberspace. (Gibson is credited with originating that term.) I guarantee you will have your own bouts of apophenia, especially if you are reading this at 3 AM, as I did.

Take my advice—before you open this novel, lay in a supply of caffeinated beverages and snacks, and change into something comfortable. Once the story gets hold of you, you won't be able to put it down until you find out what emerges when the pattern recognition is complete.

Jane Chord:Five [hours] asleep.

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Good Advice re: Identity Theft

The following is from an eMail I received today, but which appears to have originated in late 2002. Indented comments in italic are my additions, which include suggested revisions from the Urban Legends page referring to this eMail.

A corporate attorney sent the following out to the employees in his company.
  1. The next time you order checks have only your initials (instead of first name) and last name put on them. If someone takes your checkbook, they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name, but your bank will know how you sign your checks.
    Per Snopes: The vague hope the issuing bank will spot an improperly signed check is right up there with wishing bread was 39¢ a loaf. We've seen checks we'd forgotten to sign go through our accounts. If a bank fails to question blank signature lines, it's not up to the task of scrutinizing each signature to see if it matches what it remembers of how that account holder signs his name.
  2. Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put "PHOTO ID REQUIRED".
    Sign with your initials as well; otherwise there is nothing to stop the thief who has your wallet from simply using your own photo ID.
  3. When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the "For" line. Instead, just put the last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels won't have access to it.
    Per Snopes: Rather than including only the last four digits of a credit card number in the memo field of the check, a better course of action is to leave that line blank. The preprinted slip the credit card holder returns along with his payment is all the credit card issuer needs to ensure payment is allocated against the correct account.
  4. Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home phone.
    Per Snopes: No phone number needs to be included. If a merchant requires a phone number, the information can always written on the face of the check at the time of the transaction.
    If you have a PO Box use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. Never have your SS# printed on your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have it printed, anyone can get it.
  5. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. I also carry a photocopy of my passport when I travel either here or abroad. We've all heard horror stories about fraud that's committed on us in stealing a name, address, Social Security number, credit cards.
    Keep any copies of such documentation in a safe or safe deposit box. Don't leave them in a desk drawer or your wife's purse. (Of course, if you kept them in your wallet, they're already gone.)
Unfortunately, I, an attorney, have first-hand knowledge because my wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thief (or thieves) had ordered an expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a VISA credit card, got a credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN number from DMV to change my driving record information online, and more.

Here's some critical information to limit the damage in case this happens to you or someone you know:
  1. We have been told we should cancel our credit cards immediately. But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them.
    Keep them in a safe or a safety deposit box. See above.
  2. File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves to credit providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an investigation (if there ever is one).
    But here's what is perhaps most important of all: (I never even thought to do this.)
  3. Call the 3 national credit reporting organizations and the Social Security Administration immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over the Internet in my name. Posting this alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen, and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit.
By the time I was advised to do this, almost two weeks after the theft, all the damage had been done. There are records of all the credit checks initiated by the thieves' purchases, none of which I knew about before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has been done, and the thieves threw my wallet away. (This weekend someone turned it in.) It seems to have stopped them dead in their tracks.

Here are the numbers you will need to contact if your wallet or any other credit or identity information has been stolen:
  1. Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
  2. Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742
  3. Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289
  4. Social Security Administration (fraud line): 1-800-269-0271
    Per Snopes: The phone numbers given in the message above for the top three credit bureaus are correct.

We pass along jokes on the Internet; we pass along just about everything. But this information could really help someone that you care about. Pass it along!
Snopes adds: Our advice: Take some good advice.

Additional suggestions from the National Check Fraud Center:
  • Contact the post office if you suspect that an identity thief has filed a change of address form for your name, and is diverting your mail to another address.
  • Alert all utility companies that someone has been using your identity fraudulently and inform the appropriate authorities that someone may be abusing your [Social Security number] and/or driver's license number.
  • Take action to have any criminal or civil judgments against you that may have resulted from your identity thief's actions, permanently removed.
  • Keep a log of all your contacts and make copies of all documents. You may also wish to contact a privacy or consumer advocacy group.


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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sci-Fi Channel: Riverworld—A Pilot Masquerading As a Movie


Last night, the Sci-Fi Channel aired 2003's Riverworld, starring Brad Johnson (who?) and Emily Lloyd (who?), in which every human who ever died on Earth (along with at least one alien) is reincarnated under the water of a mysterious River. Released in small groups from their watery wombs, each newly reborn person emerges dripping from the River to find a silver canister and a mystery.
Where are we? Perhaps it's a spiritual realm... maybe even Heaven... or Hell!
—Captain Jeff Hale, upon his reincarnation on Riverworld.
Brad Johnson plays a US shuttle astronaut, Captain Jeff Hale, reincarnated in a group that includes Lloyd as "Alice Lidell Hargreaves". (In case you didn't know it, this was the name of the child who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland—I have to tell you, because the movie never mentions it.) Also in the group is a Roman soldier who introduces himself as "Drusus," but who is actually the once-Emperor Nero; an African seeress named Mali (Karen Holness); and a revenant from Büchenwald, Lev Ruach (Jeremy Birchall).

The group is attacked by a Neanderthal as they discover how to use their canisters to get food. This character apparently serves only to reveal Drusus' blood-thirstiness, and Alice's sweet sympathy—we never see any other evidence of Neanderthals in the movie. Before Hale and Drusus can battle for leadership of their group, they are captured by the cavalry of the Vandals, a local fiefdom led by Valdemar (Kevin Smith), who informs them that they will either become soldiers in his army, or slaves.

That night, the group is herded into several cages. The cage which holds Hale, Alice, Lev and Mali is opened at one point, and an alien from Tau Ceti (Monat, played by Brian Moore) and a child reincarnated from Earth's last human population (in 2039, in case you wanted to know when the Big One would hit) are shoved inside. The child appears to be in the movie to illustrate Alice's mothering capabilities, as the script does nothing else with this character. The alien, however, provides a reasonable source of futuristic engine for the fantastic riverboat (built by the reincarnation of Samuel Clemens) Hale will take upriver.

We barely meet the alien, when a Mysterious Stranger (played like the Ghost of Christmas Future by Lloyd Edwards) releases Hale from his cage. Hale then finds a way into the Vandal city, arriving just in time to sneak Alice, Lev, Mali, along with the alien and his human ward, out of the city. The alien then leads the group to the hidden location where Clemens is building his fantastic riverboat.

In breaking the prisoners out of the Vandal compound, Hale takes advantage of an unwitting diversion provided by Nero's emergence in the arena. It turns out that soldiering abilities in the Vandal kingdom are tested by gladitorial-style combat, and Drusus observes many of his former countrymen in the ranks of Valdemar's officers. He reveals his Imperial self after killing his opponent with the short sword, then fights Valdemar mano á mano and kills him, too. Following this assumption of rule, Nero is then focused totally on recapturing Alice, upon whom he has lustful Imperial designs, and getting revenge on Hale.

This strange distortion of the first novel in Phillip José Farmer's excellent Riverworld Saga series eliminates many of characters who made sense in the original story (Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who sought the source of the Nile and the Amazon, among them) and inanely substitutes others, seemingly at random. So we do not meet Hermann Goering, and the English-speaking Neanderthal of Farmer's novel is effaced by the grunting attacker cock-cocked by Nero in the opening scenes. The script also substitutes visions caused by Hale being speared in the head by the Mysterious Stranger while underwater for reasonable (though science-fictiony) motivations carried forward from a previous life.

In fact, this movie felt more like a cliff-hanger pilot for a series that never made it—the movie ended with so many loose threads left hanging, I felt my TV had acquired a fringe.

I can recommend Farmer's Riverworld Saga highly—these books take an intriguing sideways look at reincarnation and the purpose of life. The TV movie, however, is a wet firecracker with a broken fuse. Don't waste your time—unless you feel your TV really needs a fringe!

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Schindler re: Schiavo: Decision Summary

This is a simplified summary, with no citations or other legal language, of the court judgment to deny Terri Schiavo's parents a temporary order to have her feeding tube re-inserted. Two links are provided to photocopies of the judgment document, for those who want to examine the original or follow up on the precedents cited. All ellipses are mine unless otherwise stated.

A federal court acting upon S.686, ""An Act for the relief of the parents of Teresa Marie Schiavo," has denied the motion of Terri Schiavo's parents for a temporary order to "reestablish her nutrition and hydration."

In the judgment statement, the court pointed out that the Act of Congress "provides the jurisdiction for the US District Court to hear this petition. This was needed because
...federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, "empowered to hear only those cases... which have been entrusted to them by a jurisdictional grant authorized by Congress." [Ellipsis per original.]
The court went on to explain the circumstances under which such a temporary restraining order might be issued:
... The issue concerning the court is whether temporary injunctive relief is warranted... While there may be substantial issues concerning the constitutionality of the Act, for the purposes of considering temporary injunctive relief, the Act is presumed to be constitutional... The purpose of a temporary restraining order... is to protect against irreparable injury and preserve the status quo until the district court renders a meaningful decision on the merits... A district court may grant a preliminary injunction only if...
  1. it has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits;
  2. irreparable injury will be suffered unless the injunction issues;
  3. the threatened injury... outweighs whatever damage the proposed injunction may cause the opposing party; and
  4. if issued, the injunction would not be adverse to the public interest.
The court found that such an injunction was merited under items 2 through 4, because is apparent that Teresa Schiavo will die unless temporary injunctive relief is granted... Moreover, that threatened injury outweighs any harm the proposed injunction would cause... Finally, the court is satisfied that an injunction would not be adverse to the public interest.
Nevertheless, the court denied the order because they found the "likelihood of success on the merits," to be lacking. The court examined four arguments of merit in making this decision:
  1. Violation of Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Right to a Fair and Impartial Trial (Fair Trial)
  2. Violation of Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Rights (Procedural Due Process)
  3. Violation of Fourteenth Amendment Right to Equal Protection of the Law (Equal Protection)
  4. Violation of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Violation of First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion Clause (Freedom of Religion)
The court dismissed as "without merit" the Schindler's Fair Trial contention, which was based on [Florida State Court] Judge Greer acting as "Terri's health surrogate" while he "purported to act as an impartial trial judge in the same proceeding." (The reason given for thus summarily dismissing this argument is that the court had appointed Michael Schiavo as "plenary guardian and proxy" for Teresa, thus removing that role from Judge Greer.) Terri Schiavo's parents allege that once he
..became an advocate for Terri's death, it became impossible for Judge Greer to maintain his role as an impartial judge in order to review his own decision that Terri would want to die.
The Procedural Due Process contention was based on Judge Greer's refusal to meet Terri Schiavo personally, and to personally assess her level of cognition and responsiveness (denial of access to court); and his failure to appoint an independent attorney to represent her legal rights (guardian ad litem). The court found, not one, but three guardians ad litem had been appointed, and dismissed the "denial of access" as not applicable to Terri Schiavo's case.
..."Due process is a flexible concept that varies with the particular circumstances of each case, and to determine [its] requirements... we must apply"... the Matthews balancing test...[which] requires consideration of three distinct factors... the private interest that will be affected...; the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used...; and finally, the Government's interest...
In dismissing the third contention, Equal Protection, as without merit, the court included a supporting statement (from the cited case found in the original) that reads (to my non-lawyerly eyes) like an argument for the Schindler's cause:
"The differences between the choice made by a competent person to refuse medical treatment, and the choice made for an incompetent person by someone else to refuse medical treatment, are so obviously different that the State is warranted in establishing rigorous procedures for the latter class of cases which do not apply to the former class." [Emphasis in original.]
The Freedom of Religion argument claims that Terri's right to freely exercise her religion have been "burdened by the state court's order authorizing removal of her feeding tube..." In dismissing this final contention, the court argued that the statute's language did not allow for merit, because the statute expressly requires that
[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person... [Emphasis in original.]
Since neither Michael Schiavo nor the Hospice are "state actors," the court refused to grant any merit to this argument, citing precedent that "Use of the courts by private parties does not constitute an act under the color of state law," to excuse the third defendant, Judge Greer, from consideration as a "state actor."

Having dismissed the substantial chance of success in the federal district court on the merits of the case, the judge then denied the Schindler's motion for a temporary restraining order.

Case No. 8:05-CV-530-T-27TBM
United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division

Signed by James D. Whittemore, United States District Judge on March 22, 2005.

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Drury: Decision—Supreme Court Activism and the Power of Life and Death


When Pulitzer Prize winner Allen Drury wrote Decision, the US was deeply entrenched in the Cold War, the crime rate in the US was sky-rocketing, domestic terrorists wore peace signs, black berets and tie-dyed shirts, and the Supreme Court was already a center of "judicial activism," with decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.
Justice Douglas, you must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety per cent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections.
—The late Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes,
   quoted by Justice William O. Douglas in his autobiography.
Drury's power does not lie in elegant phrases and interesting metaphors, but in his profound understanding of how men and women in positions of power work with each other. Drury wrote of a Supreme Court under fire from both sides of the American political spectrum; a court which, although divided inside by the passions and beliefs of its associate justices, must present a united front to reach a decision.
"They can't just arbitrarily set aside one sentence and impose another!" gasped the young lady from the Des Moines Register, a new reporter at the Court. "Who says they can't?" the Washington Post responded tartly. "They're the Supreme Court of the United States, aren't they? Who's to stop them?"
Drury wrote from a conservative stance, and at the time he wrote this novel, was still willing to embody reasonable people in his more-liberal characters. So we meet new Associate Justice Taylor Barbour, coming to the court after a whirlwind confirmation by a conservative Senate, appointed by the Eisenhower-esque President for whom he had served as Secretary of Labor. Barbour has a good friend and former Yale study-partner, Moss Pomeroy, already on the court. He comes to a court that is precariously balanced between conservative and liberal. Taylor Barbour intends to embody that balance within himself, as he has all his life.

As these events transpire in Washington, DC, a shadowy figure gradually emerges into the light in Moss Pomeroy's home state, South Carolina. At first glance, Earle Holgren is a survivalist living modestly to avoid detection. But we learn of the inheritance that bankrolls his bitter fanaticism and of his plan to "make a statement" about the local nuclear power plant that has finally been completed.
...He estimated that at the time of the explosion, it would be quite dark. It would be a pretty sight against the looming mountains and trees. It would flower like a fountain. It would be a rose of death... He neared the roped-off area where uniformed guards watched impassively as a small group, some students and some leftovers like himself from an earlier age, stomped and shouted, their placards proclaiming hatred, dire prediction and fear. He stopped for a moment and watched them with contempt. What children they were...
He felt no community with them any more.
His methods were more direct.
What makes this novel echo so eerily today is the central emotional issue in the subsequent trials of Earle Holgren. Taylor Barbour's bright daughter Janie is visiting the Sarah Pomeroy on the day of the power station opening. The explosion kills Moss Pomeroy's daughter outright, but injures Jane Barbour severely, and as the trial commences, she is in a persistent vegetative state. Barbour must set these emotional reactions aside as the suspected perpetrator comes to trial.
...we are informed on the best of medical authority that our daughter Jane has permanently lost all mental capacity and for the remainder of her life will never be more than—a living corpse. A human vegetable. A nothing. A nothing!
Drury's novel brings other characters into the fray: a huge national organization named Justice NOW! that seeks to strengthen criminal penalties, including the death penalty; as well as a curious amicus curiae filed on behalf of "CBS, et al" (the alii comprise all the major TV news broadcasters of the time) that seeks a judgment from the court to allow televising the execution of Earle Holgren, once that sentence has been imposed.

Allen Drury is weirdly compelling reading these days, and of his novels, perhaps only his Pulitzer-winning Advise and Consent is more meaningful to modern thought than Decision. If your local library doesn't have them both, I'll be surprised.

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Monday, March 21, 2005

McPhee: La Place de la Concorde Suisse—Glacial Peace in a Neutral Country

Switzerland was about as neutral in those days as had been Mongolia under Genghis Khan... They were so chillingly belligerent that even if they were destroyed in battle they had been known in the same moment to win a war. One afternoon in mid-Renaissance, a few hundred Swiss who were outnumbered fifteen to one elected not to run away but to wade across a river and break into the center of their opposition, where all of them died, but not before they had slaughtered three thousand of their French enemies. The French Army was so unnerved that it struck its tents and fled.
The Swiss are wont to say, "Switzerland does not have an army. Switzerland is an army," John McPhee tells us in La Place de la Concorde Suisse. The country intermingles two cultures: the Suisse-romand are thoroughly French or Italian; while Suisse-allemand are German. Yet each partakes of the others to create that indefinable Swiss character. Perhaps, McPhee suggests, it is the defining background of each Swiss man's life, the required military service.
The knife every soldier is issued today is jacketed with quilted gray aluminum, has one blade, a can opener, a bottle opener, a hole-punch, two screwdrivers and a corkscrew. On one side is a small red shield bearing a white cross... Officers included, everyone in the Swiss Army carries a Swiss Army knife.
Women may volunteer for the Swiss Army; if they do, they serve fifteen years doing "housewife work." They drive trucks, for example, or operate radios. But men who refuse to serve (there are a small number each year) go to jail. Failure to be accepted into service is also considered shameful, and like serving time for conscientious objection, closes professional and financial doors to the disgraced party.
There is now a petition in circulation that calls for an initiative to abolish the army altogether. An initiative to abolish chocolate would stand an equal chance.
There are remarkably few graffiti in the country (although there is a famous one, Lord Byron's name in his own hand, in a dungeon where he was prisoner), and electric sensors watch parking lots, urinals and hotel mattresses; signaling availability, flushing as needed, and turning out the lights when you go to bed. "In Switzerland, everything works."

In the Swiss Alps are countless airstrips, concealed hangers, mined bridges and clear-cut fields of fire. It is often the case, McPhee informs us, that the engineer who creates a strategic structure will then be given the task of planning its destruction. The Alps are not the barrier to invasion that they once were—the Swiss Army must supply the balance now, adapting to newer technologies.

But the Alps are still formidable, particularly when supplied, valley and town, canton and city, with the ready defense of the Swiss Army.
Crystallizing and recrystallizing, the ice among the peaks collects and compacts itself into the Grosser Aletsch-gletscher, the supreme glacier of Europe, with avenues of ice coming in from six or eight directions to conjoin in ... Konkordiaplatz, La Place de la Concorde Suisse... This place that will never need defending represents what the Swiss defend.
This book assembles tiny elements, one by one, to create something as intricate and precise—and though it is over twenty years old, as timely—as a Swiss watch.

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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Eberhart: Why Things Break—Sometimes Cause Is More Important than Effect


In his delightful treatise, Why Things Break, materials theorist Mark Eberhart explores the whys of the ways in which materials fail. This is not a simple engineering question, as in "what cross-sectional area of substance x is required to sustain stresses of force y for a time period of z, under given environmental conditions." Eberhart explains,
...I usually say, "I am a quantum chemist," and my position in the pecking order is established. When I want to have fun, however, I say, "My research is concerned with the study of why things break." Usually a look of satisfaction appears on the questioner's eyes as he says, "Oh, so you are a mechanical engineer (metallurgist, ceramicist, or materials scientist)."
   Now the fun begins, as I say, "No, I study why things break, not when."
Eberhart's decision to go into the field of quantum chemistry rose out of a childhood fascination with cracks and fractures in his marble collection. Why, he wondered, were the marbles that actually entered play so ugly and pitted? Why was the beautifully crazed baked marble (a fad when he was a child) so fragile? At college in Colorado, Eberhart lost his skis to a fracture and his Kevlar kayak to disastrous delamination in a single season, and this solidified his decision to change schools.
Did you know—
  • It took more than an iceberg to sink the Titanic.
  • The Challenger disaster was predicted.
  • Unbreakable glass dinnerware had its origin in railroad lanterns.
  • A football team cannot lose momentum.
  • Mercury thermometers are prohibited on airplanes for a crucial reason.
  • Kryptonite bicycle locks are easily broken.
—from the publisher's product description.
At MIT, Eberhart would delve into the basic causes for fracture, working with Nobel-level luminaries in the new field of quantum chemistry—because we know more about what happens after materials break than we do about what happens just before they fracture. These studies would examine such disparate topics as why beating bronze and copper hardens them, why Japanese samurai swords could be hard on the edge and flexible in the shaft, what adding carbon to iron does that makes steel both harder and less brittle than wrought iron, and why the Titanic failed despite a design that should have made her able to stay afloat after the collision.
Graphite is made from carbon atoms tightly bound together into two-dimensional sheets; these sheets are then loosely bound together to form a two-dimensional crystal... graphite is said to be anisotropic, meaning it has very different properties depending on the direction in which it is "cut." When pulled in a direction that lies in the carbon sheets, graphite is very strong, making it an ideal substance from which to make tennis rackets, golf clubs and bicycles. At the other extreme, graphite is used as a lubricant because the weakly-bound sheets of atoms shear so easily.
Mark Eberhart also explores the toughness of materials, looking at where the energy of fracture goes when something breaks, at the historical quest for tougher, more-resilient materials, and the way entire scientific philosophies have grown around (and been broken by) discoveries of tougher substances. Along the way, he explains several puzzling catastrophes (the Challenger disaster and the in-flight fracture of an Aloha Airlines plane among them), and gives us some solid cause for worry whenever a man-made structure is used in a new or radically-extended way (as with hundreds-of-miles-long oil pipelines or bungee-jumping stunts.)

Eberhart makes this exploration almost painless, except the winces we share as we read of someone else's painful discovery. (The tale of a five-man bungee jump that drastically overloaded the tensile strength of the cable comes to mind.) Ranging from atomic-physics concepts to the studied attempt to break a Corelle dinner plate, this book is delightful, enlightening, and very intriguing.

Mark Eberhart is currently on the Chemistry and Geochemistry faculty at my alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines. He is also on the Faculty Senate of the Colorado Center for Advanced Ceramics.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Brin: Kiln People—This Too-Mortal Clay, and This, Too


After a decade spent exploring his Uplift Saga (with brief detours for The Postman and his contribution to the Second Foundation prequel trilogy, Foundation's Triumph), David Brin has written another stellar entry in original, thought-provoking science fiction.
"More than any writer I know, David Brin can take scary, important problems and turn them sideways, revealing wonderful opportunities. This talent shows strongly in Kiln People..."
——Vernor Vinge
In Brin's novel Kiln People, the home computer and home FAX machine have been joined by another widely-distributed technology: the home copier. It's not for copying documents onto paper, though, it's to copy your soul's "Standing Wave" onto a clay "ditto." People have become used to living multiple lives, sending their duplicates out into the world to clean their toilets, mow their lawns, work at their boring jobs——and also dance (and brawl) in their night-clubs, walk their streets and star in their porn movies, kill their enemies (in duplicate only, of course); even go home to a boring wife and bratty kids.

In the best sense of hard science fiction, Brin has explored all the implications of this technology. To start, if your soul is what is impressed on the blank clay ditto, what does that imply about people who are unable to duplicate themselves? In this society, they are shunned as "soulless." And what happens when the original, "real" person dies before his duplicate expires? His "ghost" is still embodied in the duplicate, able to revenge his murder or mourn his natural death, but unable to be copied into another ditto blank or load its memories into another person.

The soul is seen as separate from the personality, as well—people routinely create "ebony" duplicates capable of great focus and dedication to a single intellectual task, then "inload" the memories (and information) gleaned from that ditto's efforts. It is also separate from sensuality; the "ivory" ditto carries a full sensorium to allow sexual contact at one remove—you can't catch an STD if the only thing you take from an encounter is the memory! One character is so capable at imbuing her ivories with her own "smoldering sensuality" that her ivory dittos are routinely "ditnapped" by the criminal Beta.

Ditto tech has implications for warfare, too—armies are composed of thousands of duplicates of a few highly-trained and capable warriors, who set their souls into the quiescent clay, which can then be frozen and stored ready to fight when required. In a bizarre mirror of Robot Wars, would-be warriors create fighting ditto shapes and contend in an arena to "try out" for the ranks of soldiery.

For many people, ditto technology means they have no place in the working world. Instead, vast numbers are paid a "purple wage," and left to rely on their dittos for entertainment. So large parts of the city are given over to the recreation of re-creation, in which the copies of ordinary citizens can pretend to be Montagues and Capulets, or Ozzie and Harriet.

Albert Morris is lucky. His dittos rarely go "frankie," running off to live their own short-lived lives as they please. They all come supplied with his overwhelming curiosity and desire to get to the bottom of things, so he has a thriving business as a private eye. And while not all of his gray dittos get home in one piece, they manage to get back often enough that he is one of the best in the business. It's why Geneen Wannamaker, the porn ditto queen, and Aeneas Kaolin, the owner of Universal Kilns (monopoly maker of ditto blanks) have both hired copies of Morris to help them solve their problems.

Brin tells the story from the multiple first-person perspective required by this technology, weaving the disparate tales of the two gray dittos Morris has assigned to work for Wannamaker and Kaolin; his first frankie, a green ditMorris that did not want to clean toilets that day; and realMorris. A witty line at the beginning of each chapter tells us which of the Morris avatars is speaking, and Brin has warped the language in believable ways to incorporate personal duplication.

I loved this story, and especially liked the clever way Brin named his characters. Two (Kaolin and Montmorillin) are named for types of clay. Two more (to tell would be a spoiler) share names with people in the golem myths. Several others bear the names of dolls or puppets. Brin has also borrowed behaviors observed in the explosions of Internet-surfing and blogging, then applied them to his fictional technology in ways that make sense.

This is a mystery story wrapped in a roller-coaster of punning energy and technology gone right in unexpected ways. I can recommend it highly.

I first fell in love with Brin's fiction with The Practice Effect, which was also about a "new" technology. In this book, Brin explored the implications of a world where magic could happen (but only under very specific conditions). If you enjoy Kiln People, give this older novel a try as well.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

All-Irish Blogs—A St. Paddy's Day Blog Scan

Theme Blog Overview

In honor of the day, I did my blog scan a wee bit early the week, and entered into the hunt with a specific theme in mind: Irish blogs. I was not surprised to find several treasure troves.

POLITICAL: Irish politics get very heated, and 1169 and counting... has a chip that has been shoulder-sitting for centuries.
During the 1798 Rising and later during Robert Emmet's time women often acted as scouts and look-outs for the men; there were cases where they participated in the actual fighting and of course they took care of men who were wounded in the fighting ... [Emphasis sic.]
The United Irelander blog, on the other hand, lets you do a little voting of your own in a light-hearted survey that asks What Kind of Irish Person Are You? Be sure to back up to Young Irelander's home page for some facts (cough) about St. Patrick hisownself.
St. Patrick was not an Irish Republican but he may have been an Irish publican...
NEWS: Back-Seat Driver Dick O'Brien, a freelance journalist based in Dublin, Ireland, has his eye on the world of journalism.
And the [Ambiguous headline of the week] award goes to… The New York Times. "Bush Vows to Hold Course on Terror and Pushing Democracy". Will he be bringing his own teaching materials, such as a white board or hand outs? Or maybe he'll have a PowerPoint presentation?
CELEBRITY: Rosie O'Donnell has a (mostly) poetry blog; it's one of a half-dozen links off her home page. Author Diane Duane has one, too—but she doesn't always like to talk about writing. On the other hand, there's the Alternative Miss Ireland contest web site, documenting 11 years of, um, tilted Irish beauty. "Miss Twirly Chassey" introduced the concept at last year's web page:
Babies! It's me your Craic-Hoor-de-Jour! And this, this is AMI X: your tenth annual Irish beauty pageant just beyond the finish-line of culture.
THE DAY: A squint-eyed look at St. Paddy's Day is provided by letting loose with the leptard, in which PÁDRAIC Ó LEPERCOLONY (The Mental Elf) meets WINNIE-THE-PUKE in the Hundred Anarchist's Wood. And for that nosh at the pub, why not try some Irish Sushi? (I kid you not!) The Irish Times Online asks the holiday's burning question: Well, why not? Ten Good Reasons to Bring Back Snakes.

And long-time Irish blogger Sean McGrath gives us the philosophic wisdom of St. Patrick, freshly translated from the Ogham Stone, so the DeXiderata can now be read in English.
As far as possible, without surrender, accommodate the bizarre tag names and strange attribute naming conventions of others... Avoid loud style sheets and aggressive time scales, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare your schemas with others, you will become vain and bitter for there will always be schemas greater and lesser than yours—even if yours are auto-generated...
So Beannachtam na Femle Padraig! and Sláinte! to you all—check out the collection of Irish Toasts for that genuine lilt of Ireland as you lift your Pota Phadraig today.

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