Sunday, January 31, 2010

So That's Where Sudoku Came From!

"So you thought Sudoku came from the Land of the Rising Sun ..."
"The puzzle gripping the nation actually began at a small New York magazine"
The Observer (May 15, 2005)

"If the first week of May 2005 will be remembered for a general election, the second will go down as the week of Sudoku.

"National newspapers scrambled to advertise the puzzle on their front pages, while websites devoted to it sprang up and TV and radio stations caught the new global bug.

"Numerous articles have attributed the puzzle, which has a Japanese name, to the mysteries of the Land of the Rising Sun. But its true modern origins lie with a team of puzzle constructors in 1970s' New York, from where it set off on a 25-year journey to Tokyo, London - and back to New York.

"Scientists have identified Sudoku as a classic meme - a mental virus which spreads from person to person and sweeps across national boundaries. Dr Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, said: 'This puzzle is a fantastic study in memetics. It is using our brains to propagate itself across the world like an infectious virus.'

"Sudoku - pronounced soo-doe-koo - does not require general knowledge, linguistic ability or even mathematical skill. Dubbed the Rubik's Cube of the 21st century, it consists of a grid of 81 squares, divided into nine blocks of nine squares each. Some of the squares contain a figure. The goal is to fill in the empty squares so that the figures 1 to 9 appear just once in every row, column and individual block. The requirement is logic or, for those willing to engage in a fiendish game of trial and error, sheer patience.

"The Sudoku story began in 1783 when Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, devised 'Latin Squares', which he described as 'a new kind of magic squares'...."

I have to admit, "Sudoku" sounds a whole lot cooler than "Latin Squares" - which reminds me of a classroom on the south side of the high school I went to, back when blackboards were black, and used chalk. (Yeah: I'm that old.)

The rest of The Observer article follows Leonhard Euler's Latin Squares to Manhattan, where a savvy publisher realized that people would pay to get these puzzles, and then on to - yes, Sudoku did go through Japan on its way to world-wide fame.

It's a fairly quick read, and a pretty good introduction to the history of this global phenomenon.

By the way: I got curious about Sudoku after reading the Garfield comics. Jon, Garfield's hapless owner, has been having trouble with Sudoku this week. Lots of trouble.


Luxury Homes: Floor Plans, Photos

Luxury Home Plans

From their "About" page:

"For over twenty-five years, The Sater Group has been providing award-winning, custom residential design and has become one of the country's most recognized residential design firms. Led by Dan F. Sater II, The Sater Group has won over 450 regional and national design awards...."

This website is there mainly to sell house plans: of seriously luxurious houses. Like many other online services of this general sort, you can specify what sort of square footage you're interested in, how many bedrooms and bathrooms you want, and how many floors.

What's a bit special, besides the cost of the houses, are their interactive floor plans. They're not available for all - or even most - of the houses. The interactive plans (I'm sure that's nowhere near as elegant as whatever Luxury Home Plans calls them) are thumbnails: barely large enough to let you see what the rooms are supposed to be. But some of the rooms change color when you roll the mouse over them. Click on those, and you'll see an interior photo of that part of the house.

Impressive, very.

The non-interactive floor plans I looked at were reasonably high-resolution. You'd be hard-pressed to try building the place form them, but they're good enough to get an idea of how the house is laid out.

Cat, Finger, Caption

"My name is not"
I Can Haz Cheezburger? (February 2, 2008)

funny pictures
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

There's an explanation, sort of, for the odd spelling, in the comment/reply section.
A tip of the hat to irish_brigid, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this post.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Toyota Cars Recalled: Because of Made-in-America Parts

"Motorists Alarmed by Japanese Car Recalls, Except in Japan"
FOXNews (January 30, 2010)

"American Toyota owners are understandably alarmed about ballooning recalls over faulty gas pedals and floor mats. In Japan, the automaker's home market, where there have been no such recalls, the reaction is — also understandably — muted.

"Some of the same Toyota Motor Corp. models recalled in the U.S., Europe and China are on Japanese roads. But they use a different parts supplier than CTS Corp., the American parts-maker which has been rushing to fix the faulty parts behind the massive recalls.

"Dealers in the U.S. are being deluged with queries from worried customers. For dealers in Japan, it's basically business as usual...."

Along with probably most people in the English-speaking world, I'd heard about the Toyota recall. This article is a pretty good backgrounder on what's involved. And why Japanese Toyota owners and dealers aren't all that concerned.

Except in a neighborly way:

"...'Some of our customers express sympathy about Toyota's overseas problems,' Naeko Kawamata, a saleswoman at a Tokyo Toyota dealer, said Saturday. 'But we aren't getting queries on recalls.'..."

"Proudly Made in the USA"?!

If you live in America, you may have seen those stickers on products: saying something like "Proudly Made in the USA" - and seen "Buy American" posters or bumper stickers.

I don't have a real problem with that: I think it's good for a person to be proud of his or her work. At least, in the sense of having a sense of satisfaction from making something that's practical, durable, and doesn't cause automobile accidents.

Too bad CTS Corporation's American-made products had to be recalled.

Quality Control: Not a Bad Idea, Actually

Toyota has had a reputation for really tight quality control. Reputation's a fine thing: but it needs to be maintained. From that article, again:

"...They see Toyota's troubles as having crept up because the automaker expanded too quickly over the last several years, making it difficult to duplicate the 'Toyota Way,' known for impeccable quality controls, in places that are quite different from Japan.

" 'Toyota appears to be trying to respond with care,' said Hideaki Miyajima, a professor of business and economics at Tokyo's Waseda University.

" 'Toyota has grown to where it is now by sticking to safety standards. If it can overcome this problem, it can even make the experience a plus for its future.'..."

"Buy American!"

I remember, quite a few decade back, when Japanese automobile makers had started marketing their products here in America. American manufacturers were none too pleased: and neither were the people who worked on the assembly lines. Naturally enough.

One observer had the temerity to report on what he saw in a parking lot. At one of the plants where workers weren't happy about people not buying the cars they made, the employee parking lot was mostly filled with cars made by Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi - - -.

The point is: it you won't buy what you make, it's time to take a long, hard look at what you're making.

At Least America Has Company

It's been a few years since China's export problems were a recurring news item. Remember toxic pet food, toothpaste, seafood, cough syrup and toys? It was no joke: some people died.

My take on that situation is that some Chinese manufacturers, dealing with a new economic climate, are on a voyage of discovery in which they will discover that it's a bad idea to poison the end user. Or, in the case of Made-in-China exploding tear gas, embarrass your customer.

The survivors, anyway. The Chinese government took a really dim view of those shoddy products being sold. A disturbing number of the managers and executives involved committed suicide, as I recall. That's the official story, anyway.

Poisoned Peanut Products and Infected Sanitizers

Take a look through the "Not-quite-related posts" link list at the end of this post: there's been no dearth of major product recalls in the last few years.

It's not all bad news, though.

First of all: Those recalls are success stories, in their own way. They're cases where dangerous products were found, traced to their source, and pulled from the market. Sure, the Peanut Corporation of America shouldn't have mixed rat droppings and peanuts in the first place, and shouldn't have tried to cover up the problem. (Haven't people learned anything from Watergate?!) But the poison peanut products were found and pulled from the shelves.

And, eventually, Americans in general twigged that not all peanut products would kill them.

Secondly: Some folks have been smart.

My two examples are both from China. One's an effort to save a fading textile-making art - by creating a market for it. The other's the Chinese Shanghai Maglev.

America's role in the latter? After more than four decades, this country's getting around to considering building high-speed trains.

Well, better late than never.

Not-quite-related posts:

Tiny Rabbit, Big Coffee, Funny Caption

"Coffee iz good"
Lol Bunniez! (August 1, 2007)

(From Lol Bunniez!, used w/o permission)

Am I imagining things, or does that tiny rabbit look like it got wet, then lost an argument with a hair dryer?

Rabbits: The camera loves them.
A tip of the hat to irish_brigid, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this post.

Color, Psychology, Emotions and Mood

"The Importance of Color in Interior Design"
Luxist (January 28, 2010)

"Although there's no hard and fast science that says everyone will react in a certain way to a certain color, there is something very real about the psychology of color and no doubt that certain colors tend to elicit certain emotions, moods, and even physical feelings...."

"...Red is the most emotionally intense of all the colors and is known to raise the heart rate, increase blood pressure, and speed up breathing. It draws the eye so is often used for accents only, although because it also stimulates the appetite it can be a good choice for the walls of a formal dining room (and restaurants).

"Yellow speeds the metabolism, enhances...."

This short article isn't, by a long shot, the ultimate resource on the psychology of color. But it's a pretty good introduction or review.

Color is important, by the way. Think about it: when was the last time you saw an investment company's advertisement that was mostly red and orange? Or someone who painted the living room bright yellow: and kept it that way?

Almost-related posts:More:

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People on Facebook

"How to Suck at Facebook"
The Oatmeal (undated: you'll see why in a moment)

This page is mostly a series of pictures, illustrating how you, too, can be one of the worst people to meet on Facebook. Or any other online community, for that matter.

For example:

(from The Oatmeal, used w/o permission)

Then, there's:

(from The Oatmeal, used w/o permission)

My favorite may be this pungent commentary on Facebook quizzes, and the people who post about their results:

(from The Oatmeal, used w/o permission)

This page may not be for everyone. Some of the gags are a trifle off-color. I picked a comparatively tame selection.

On the other hand, The Oatmeal has distilled and displayed some of the more - colorful? - sorts of people you meet online. Like the Passive Aggressor.
A tip of the hat to Twitter_Tips, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this page.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Frankenmodel: Or, 'After This Job, You Die'

"Once upon a time, in a blog like this…"
Oddly Enough, Reuters blog (January 28, 2010)

(Albert Gea, via Reuters, used w/o permission)

"Blog Guy, it's me. Goldilocks. All grown up. Out here on the slag pile where fairytale characters go when they've outlived their usefulness. Wrung out, discarded like old porridge…

"Yeah, I get it. What are you doing in this sleazy dive? What happened to the three bears?

"You can't tell? They're still with me. They'll never leave. Baby Bear is now a grown-up chain-smoker with a gambling problem. All of us, wrung out, discarded, like…

"Right. Like old porridge. Take a load off and look at some fashion designs for you and your three friends...."

the rest of the post is much like others on the Oddly Enough blog. If you follow the blog, and like that sort of humor: You'll think it's funny. I do, on both counts, by the way.

Looking at that first photo, my immediate thought was that this could be a case of gene therapy gone horribly wrong.

Then, I took a look at the model's face.

I can't tell for sure, since photography hadn't been invented when some of my ancestors hacked their way into possession of Cawdor Castle,1 but I suspect that's the sort of look my great-to-some-power grandmothers may have had, before they stuck something long and sharp into an offensive person.

Manuel Bolano, creator of that - thing - she's wearing should be glad he's living in the 21st century, where skewering people for personal reasons is often frowned upon.
1 With the death of my father, I inherited a shot at being the Thane of Cawdor. But a ghastly number of people would have to die - or be killed - first, and we don't work that way anymore.

Humanity in Space: Looking at the Big Picture

"So thats more humans in space"
Forum, (discussion thread started January 27, 2010)


"NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon are dead. So are the rockets being designed to take them there — that is, if President Barack Obama gets his way.

"When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.

"There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all."


"There will be Russian and Chinese manned ships flying no matter what... And now Indians are joining the game as well:

" ... ic=19740.0

"So if NASA is left out of money and USA is no longer able to launch astronauts, others will. And eventually commercial launch providers will gain ability for manned launches, like SpaceX with its Falcon 9 / Dragon."

There's quite a bit more in the thread: but the thread's first post and reply give two major points of view which were discussed as the thread grew.

It didn't take long, by the way, for someone to directly address an implication in the first post:


"Yes the title does show a bit of bias towards our way of thinking. For sure there will be humans in space. The Russians are very able to get to space without any help from anybody else, and China will keep working on their slow but steady military program of human space flight...."

My own take on this isn't all that far from Gravity_Ray's.

I'm a bit disappointed at the prospect of the new NASA approach. A portion of my taxes were paying for NASA's projects, and I enjoyed having a small stake in the American space program. My hope is that the American government, if its leaders decide to drop human spaceflight efforts, will stay out of the way and continue to let American entrepreneurs design and built spaceships.

With due respect to massive government agencies, though, I think that outfits like Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are quite capable of competing against the national space programs of other countries. While making a profit, instead of running a deficit.

Interestingly, the Indian space program wasn't mentioned in later comments. And Japan's wasn't mentioned at all. Well, the topic was America's government space program: so maybe it's not that big an omission.

When it's Time to Build Spaceships, People Will Build Spaceships

I've written about this before. It doesn't take a massive federal bureaucracy to build spaceships. Smallish companies around the world are getting the job done right now. (check out "Background" links, below)

And there's more on the way. A lot more, as I see it.

These are exciting times.

That can be good or bad news, depending on your point of view. I think it's great: but then, I'm not all that nostalgic about the "good old days," and like the idea of people developing new technologies and exploring new frontiers.

In the Future - People will be People

I won't be around to see it, but I think something like this will be happening in, say, 2190. Give or take a few centuries:

A fact-finding task force from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, or whatever we've got by then, will be recuperating from a strenuous tour of a local shopping district.

Being serious-minded people, they'll discuss how dreadful all this runaway commercialism is. While sipping apéritifs in the Earthlight Room of a Bigelow-Hilton: high atop the Rook Mountains, overlooking beautiful, exotic Mare Orientale. Or maybe it'll be the Hotel Nikko Orientale.

Related posts:Background:"International Space Station Tour (Part I)"

NASAtelevision, YouTube (January 21, 2009)
video, 9:44

"Astronaut Mike Fincke takes you on a tour of the International Space Station."

More, on YouTube:

Egg in a Hole: What it Is, How to Make It

"Dinner Tonight: Egg in a Hole with 'Shrooms"
-Blake Royer, Serious Eats (January 28, 2010)

"Egg in a Hole-where you take a slice of bread, cut out the middle, replace it with an egg, and fry the whole thing up in butter-was the first thing I ever learned to cook. In 7th grade, my good friend at the time showed me how to choose a good skillet (non-stick), use an upside-down glass to remove the bread's center, and, the most important part, to never fear too much butter. The advice has since served me well: When it comes to eggs and toast, butter is a cook's best friend.

"So it was with serious nostalgia that I came across this Mark Bittman recipe called Egg in a Hole with 'Shrooms from his slim volume of super-fast recipes Kitchen Express...."

There's a recipe for two servings, with five ingredients (seven, if you count the optional salt and pepper), and two preparation steps. This is so easy, I should be able to do it.

Not that I will. My mouth watered, seeing the photo in the post: but egg in a hole is skimming the envelope, as far as food that I should eat these days goes.

Don't let that stop you, though. This breakfast looks delicious.
A tip of the hat to williamcooks, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this post.

Spaceport America: More Progress

"America's 1st Commercial Spaceport Blooms in the Desert" (January 28, 2010)

(from Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners, via, used w/o permission)

"New Mexico's Spaceport America is no longer the stuff of fancy graphics.

"The scene is now one of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Loads of asphalt and concrete are being spread. The initial phase of building the rambling complex within remote desert scenery is quickening.

"One could easily call it 'hard hat heaven' for those that have pushed for Spaceport America's development over many years.

"Spaceport America, billed as the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, is taking shape some 30 miles (48 km) east of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

"A critical centerpiece of Spaceport America is putting in place a runway to space. Measuring 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide that stretch of tarmac is designed to handle horizontal launch space and air operations at the spaceport...."

Coming Soon: A Spaceport Near You

What I say next may be deeply offensive and hurtful:

On the whole, I'm rather glad that I'm an American, and am very pleased that this country is building spaceports.

If I have cause emotional pain and anguish by writing that, I'm sorry.

I've learned that, in some American subcultures, Americans aren't supposed to be proud to be Americans. It makes people who aren't American feel bad, I gather.

I think that people aren't anywhere near that thin-skinned. (Oops! Is writing that a no-no, too?) But, I've been wrong before.

If you don't live in or near America, my guess is that a spaceport will be under construction in your general before much more time passes. China, Japan, and India have fairly robust space program. (October 22, 2008, and check out "Related posts" below)

And other countries have been active in the area, too. My guess is that it'll take a generation or more for everybody to get up to speed - Somalia, for example, isn't in the best shape, economically or otherwise, right now.

But as the technologies mature, costs go down, and reasons to invest in space transportation services grow: I see spaceports being as common, soon, as airports are now.

Disco's Dead: Spaceflight Isn't

I ran into this, at the end of a column in the newest Sky and & Telescope magazine. The writer was reviewing his early dreams of space travel and what enterprises like Virgin Galactic are doing today.

"...If the initial flights are successful, the price will come down, more craft will follow, and space exploration will become increasingly democratized. After these suborbital forays will come orbital craft, space hotels, and private expeditions to the Moon and beyond.Maybe I was too quick to shelve my personal vision of space travel...The dormant dreams of my youth are stirring once again."
(Cosmic Relief, David Grinspoon, Sky and Telescope, Vol. 119 No. 3, p. 18)

Related posts:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bullet Trains in America: United States Transportation Enters the 20th Century (It's About Time)

America's "bullet trains" are in the news this week. Don't rush out to buy tickets, though: that $8,000,000,000 initial investment will only go so far - and there's a lot of work to do.

This post is a bit off-format, so please bear with me.

"Bullet Trains?" That's So Sixties

Japan got the first seriously high-speed rail passenger service up and running in the sixties, with the Shinkansen. Other countries followed. Not America: but at least we made the transition from coal to diesel-electric locomotives.

China's Shanghai Maglev went into service around 2003. Indonesia's considering upgrading their rail system:

"Indonesia's Big Rail Plans"
Asia Sentinel (January 13, 2010)

The article has some interesting technical and economic details, using China's Shanghai Maglev as a real-world example.

I'd like to see America use magnetic levitation technology for rail service: but I'll settle for my country catching up with where Japan was around 1965.

What's the Big Deal With "Bullet Trains?"

It's not just that I like technology. The Interstate highway system was more than just a new bigger set of roads: it was a new kind of road system.

President Obama claimed that a new high-speed rail system would increase productivity in America. I'm inclined to believe it. I remember the "good old days," before the Interstates.

I haven't been able to verify this, but someone on the FOX News network asserted that the Interstate highway system increased America's productivity by 25 percent. I think that's plausible. I've driven on the old surface roads, and on the Interstate system. If you want to get somewhere, faster, with fewer stops and - if you drive sensibly - better mileage, you use the Interstates.

"Bullet trains" could make the same sort of difference.

High-Speed Trains in America: Finally

"Superfast Bullet Trains Are Finally Coming to the U.S."
Wired Magazine (January 25, 2010)

"Believe it: Bullet trains are coming. After decades of false starts, planners are finally beginning to make headway on what could become the largest, most complicated infrastructure project ever attempted in the US. The Obama administration got on board with an $8 billion infusion, and more cash is likely en route from Congress. It's enough for Florida and Texas to dust off some previously abandoned plans and for urban clusters in the Northeast and Midwest to pursue some long-overdue upgrades. The nation's test bed will almost certainly be California, which already has voter-approved funding and planning under way. But getting up to speed requires more than just seed money. For trains to beat planes and automobiles, the hardware needs to really fly. Officials are pushing to deploy state-of-the-art rail rockets. Next stop: the future...."

The basic assertion of the Wired article, that America is, quite late in the game, starting to look seriously at developing high-speed rail passenger service, is in the news. And, in my opinion, it's a pretty big deal.

The article also has a handy timeline, "Fast Trains: A Brief History," showing what they say are milestones in high-speed rail transportation since the 19th century.

One of them is this remarkable item:

"1897 90 mph

"Midland Railway, England
"It took almost a decade for England to regain its dominance with a record-breaking run aboard an 8-foot-long, eight-wheeled locomotive from Melton Mowbray to Nottingham."

If you're not familiar with English measurements, a foot is very roughly 1/3 of a meter.

A locomotive eight feet long would be, well, small. Let's put it this way. I'm five feet, seven inches tall (1.7 meters). I can, without stretching, reach up and touch something seven feet from the ground. Then there are the wheels. If that eight-foot-long locomotive had four pairs of wheels, they'd be an average of two feet in diameter, max - assuming that the length of the locomotive included the wheels.

That's a small locomotive.

I didn't find any reference to that little 1897 locomotive, or its speed record, except in the wired article. Which, as a researcher, makes me a little cautious about accepting the rest of the article on faith alone.

Happily, there's quite a bit about high-speed trains online: from reasonably believable sources. I'm leaning on news services here, since the American and Indonesian transportation systems' moving into the 20th century with high-speed trains is - news.

America Catching Up to the 20th Century

"President Announces Billions for High-Speed Rail"
MyFOX Phoenix (January 28, 2010)

"Promising jobs and cash, President Barack Obama came to Tampa on Thursday to unveil his plan for a series of high-speed rail projects in Florida and around the country.

"Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made the unusual joint trip to announce the awarding of stimulus funds for creation of a 'bullet train' between Tampa, Orlando, and eventually Miami.

" 'We're not only going to be providing a better way to transport people, we're going to be taking cars off congested highways, reducing carbon emissions, and saving billions of dollars in human productivity just sitting in traffic jams,' Vice President Biden explained, moments before introducing the president. 'Most important, we're creating jobs.'..."

I'm not on the same page as the current American president: but what he said about high-speed rail transport makes sense. And has, for decades.


"High-Speed Rail Approaches Station"
The Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2010)

"The iconic needle-nosed Japanese "bullet train" could speed through the swampy marshlands of central Florida if Yoshiyuki Kasai, the chairman of Central Japan Railway Co., gets his way.

"Mr. Kasai on Monday announced efforts to bring the shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, to the U.S. JR Central's push to enter the U.S. comes as Washington prepares to announce how $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed passenger-train service is carved up.

"JR Central is up against some tough competition, however. Dozens of international companies, including Germany's Siemens AG, Canada's Bombardier Inc., France's Alstom SA and General Electric Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. of the U.S. all are clamoring for a piece of the pie, which is meant in part to create U.S. jobs. The Obama administration is expected to announce as early as this week what projects will receive stimulus funds.

"The $8 billion "is oversubscribed by a factor of eight to one," said Richard Lawless, chief executive of U.S.-Japan High Speed Rail, a consulting company JR Central created to market the bullet train. 'Of all the corridors we looked at, the one that looks the most promising and immediate is Florida.'

"The proposed Florida high-speed rail would cost a total of $3.5 billion to construct, including rolling stock, JR Central said.

"Congress attached 'Buy America' provisions to the stimulus spending aimed at favoring U.S. firms. But JR Central has structured its package in the hopes of meeting those provisions. Officials from U.S.-Japan Maglev, another JR Central consulting company, said they would ask Florida companies to construct the infrastructure for the train, including the signals and track. Part of the rolling stock, or cars, would be built in the U.S. by U.S. companies.

"JR Central is marketing two types of high-speed technology: the shinkansen, which travels as fast as 330 kilometers per hour; and the magnetic-levitation, or maglev, train, which can run up to 581 kph , but is more expensive and in only limited use so far...."

That "buy American" thing is probably sensible, in the short run. But even if the whole high-speed rail service in America was built by outside contractors, let's remember: the trains would be running here in America.

That excerpt is longer than what I usually use: but I wanted some of the details in this post.

High-Speed Passenger Rail Service in the 20th Century

Here's what the rest of the world has been doing, in terms of passenger rail service, for the last four decades.
Shinkansen, Japan
"UPDATE 2-JR Tokai targets Florida bullet train deal"
Reuters (January 25, 2010)

"Central Japan Railway Co (JR Tokai) (9022.T) will join rivals in competing to develop a high-speed railway line in the U.S. state of Florida, as the former state-owned firm looks to sell its super-fast train systems overseas.

"A consulting firm hired by the company said a railway line connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami in Florida was one of the most promising targets for its Shinkansen bullet trains as the route would be exclusively used by high-speed trains.

" 'I expect competition for the contract to be fierce in Florida. We will be the last to join the bidding,' JR Tokai's Chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai told a news conference. 'But I believe our Japanese system will be the most suitable for the line.'

"Kasai did not say which other firms were competing for deal, although JR Tokai's global rivals include Canada's Bombardier (BBDb.TO), Germany's Siemens (SIEGn.DE) and France's Alstom (ALSO.PA).

"U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, the consulting firm working for JR Tokai, also said that lines between Las Vegas and Los Angeles could be candidates for the company's products...."

More about the Shinkansen, the world's first "bullet train:"

"Shinkansen History"
Japanese Lifestyle
TGV, France
"Early TGV History"

Here comes the 21st Century: Shanghai Maglev, China

Shanghai Maglev Official Website - 上海磁浮官方网站

This website - the part I linked to is in English - is geared more for people who plan to travel on the Shanghai Maglev, than for a student. Cool graphics.

"maglev train shanghai complete video presentation"

wowiejunior, YouTube (June 8, 2006)
video, 5:35

Cruising speed? 267 miles an hour. Distinctly subsonic, but for a land vehicle ("flying at zero altitude"): impressive. Particularly for a walk-around-inside passenger service.

Part of the narration: "...a city with a proud tradition, but always open to the new...." presents an idea I think Americans could seriously consider.

The video reminds me of America, before the sixties. But that's another topic.

Benjamin Franklin and the Armonica: No, It's Not a Rock Group

"Images from the Cutler Gallery | Glass Armonica, France, ca. 1785"
National Music Museum

"As the popularity of playing musical glasses increased during the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and inventor, designed a more utilitarian version of the fashionable instrument--the armonica. He had a glassblower make him a set of 36 hemispherical bowls, graduated...."

And no, "armonica" is not the same as a Cockney 'armonica.

How does an armonica work? Back to the article:

"...The player touches the glass rims with moistened fingers to create the instrument's distinctively ethereal, ringing sound...."

There's not much text on the page: but it's got a favorable fluff/content ratio. And, there are three more photos, besides the one I linked to in this post.

The glass armonica's "ethereal, ringing sound" wouldn't be a common part of western music until over two centuries later, when digital/electronic music developed from a sort of novelty act to a serious art form.

Related posts:More:

Phoebe Prince: Another Teen Hangs Herself; Cyberbullying, As Usual

"Two Massachusetts Teens Suspended in Cyber Bullying Suicide Case"
FOXNews (January 27, 2010)

"Two Mass. high school students have been suspended following the suicide of a teen girl who was allegedly bullied at school and online, the reported.

"Friends and school officials told that Phoebe Prince, 15, had been picked on since moving to Massachusetts from Ireland last fall. School bullies reportedly taunted the teen through text messages, Facebook and other social networking sites...."

"...South Hadley High Principal Daniel Smith sent out a letter to parents of students at the high school. In the letter, he called Prince 'smart, charming, and as is the case with many teenagers, complicated ... We will never know the specific reasons why she chose to take her life,"' reported...."

"...Even after her death, bullies posted disparaging messages on her Facebook memorial page. The comments had to be removed from the page...."

Well! So this young woman was "smart, charming" - no wonder some of the locals hounded her to death. Competition like that can be inconvenient.

If this news item seems familiar, it should. There are strong parallels to the Jessica Logan and Megan Meier's suicides.

The news of Phoebe Prince's suicide - what I read - doesn't go into a great deal of detail. What there is: is disgusting.

"One message sent to the teenager shortly before she took her own life read: 'Go kill yourself'...." (Mail Online)


I don't know if what was done to Phoebe Prince came from the sort of warped values modeled by Pat "blame the Haitians" Robertson, if this attack was a simple matter of jealousy, or what was involved.

In a way, it doesn't matter. Phoebe Prince is dead.

Phoebe Prince is just the latest teen whose suicide is linked to online bullying.

I wrote about another, earlier, attack, in another blog:

"Jessica Logan and the Respectable People of Cincinnati"

"First, a bit about Jessica Logan.

"Short version: Jessica Logan was born in 1990. By the end of July 2008, she had sent young man a photo of herself, from the neck down, wearing no clothes; graduated from high school, and killed herself.

"The young man passed Jessica's photo on to four other young women. After that, Jessica was hounded by the 'good,' 'respectable' people in her peer group, and rejected from parties because she had a 'reputation.'

"Spare me from such respectability...."
(A Catholic Citizen in America (December 8, 2009))

About that photo: The jerk that Jessica Logan thought was her boyfriend pressured her to take it. Then, dumped her.

That was Jessica Logan. The current news is about Phoebe Prince.

Again: I have no details of what Phoebe Prince's attackers thought they were doing.

There Oughta be A Law!

Legislators, faced with a high-profile death like this, generally talk about legislation they'll push through. It's easy to see it as - at best - a knee-jerk reaction.

Maybe there does need to be new law code drawn up, to protect people from bullies online.

Or, maybe existing laws are applicable.

I don't know.

I do know that people think better when they're not emotionally worked up. (Another War-on-Terror Blog (December 23, 2008) And I think that it's a good idea to examine an idea, before implementing it.

Like 'outlaw cyberbullying.' Sounds good, doesn't it? The trick is to define "cyberbullying" so that reasonable freedom of expression isn't affected.

I've got a personal stake in this. I'm a writer, and maintain eleven (at last count) blogs. What if a "cyberbullying" law made it illegal to post something online, if someone reads it and feels bad later?

Does that sound silly? So did quite a few "emotional pain and suffering" lawsuits: but American courts decided against the defendant in quite a few, not all that long ago.

It's a stretch, but I can imagine someone being driven to despair by my latest Easy Griller post: "From Deep in the Heart of Darkest Minnesota: A Couple of Videos From Hawaii." Either from anguished sympathy for the poor chickens that were being grilled, or all the water in the Hawaii video. Maybe both.

I don't think this will happen - at least I hope not - but an injudiciously-written "cyberbully" law could make my writing that BBQ chicken post a felony.

Think the courts would never be that daft? Check out "Dred Scott, the Slavery Compromise, and Who to Trust," A Catholic Citizen in America (February 2, 2009).

This post doesn't sound very "apathetic," does it? I've written about this blog's name before.

Related posts:In the news:

Human Faces, Emotions, and Socialization (Caution! Geeky Content!)

"Facial Expression of Emotion as a Means of Socialization"
David R. Heise, Department of Sociology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, Electronic Social Psychology (1985)

"Recent research indicates that (1) the human face is a highly sophisticated signaling system for communicating affect, and (2) affect plays a key role in the experience of social organization and in the day-by-day production of culture. This essay suggests that emotional displays—on the face especially—are a primary means of socialization, allowing a neophyte to attain knowledge of the sociocultural system rapidly and efficiently.

"An intriguing pattern of results emerged from a study of college roomrnates by Melvin Manis several decades ago (1955). Manis had friends and non-friends (i.e., high and low sociometric choices) rate themselves and each other on 24 bipolar semantic differential scales representing eight trait dimensions...."

Bottom line?

People all over the world use their faces the same way to express a few basic emotions, like fear, surprise, anger, disgust, or happiness. And, science fiction writers and serious thinkers of the early and mid 20th century were wrong about at least one thing: humanity is not evolving away from emotionality.

I'm not all that surprised. If that were the way things went, lizards would be more 'emotional' than we are. Think about it: we've got a whole lot more circuits to be emotional with.

"Trust Your Feelings, Luke" and Thinking Straight

Someone quipped that the famous Star Wars line, "trust your feelings, Luke," was the same as saying "be stupid, Luke." There's something to that.

The 'strong silent type' of man, who apparently has the emotional range of a stuffed frog, may exist: but that's not me. I love to talk - and write. And, I've been told, don't hide what I'm feeling. At all.

I don't know where the idea that being emotional was a 'primitive' characteristic came from. I've run into the notion in some 19th century stories: the wildly emotional native savage contrasted with the starched Englishman.

Anyway, it looks researchers - some of them - are coming to grips with the fact that humans are emotional creatures. And, that that's okay.

Another excerpt from that paper, and I'll end this post.

"...Among the shattered myths are that emotionality is primitive or simplistic, that facial expressions are purely idiosyncratic, and that humans are evolving away from expressivity. Instead, extensive programs of research have yielded the following facts.

"The face is our emotional signaling system. Language and talking transmit facts and schemes, and sometimes feelings, too. But language does not match the face's capacity for communicating emotions. The face is our primary channel for communicating feelings.

"Our facial expressions are uniquely human. We communicate more with our faces than any other creature. Our vocabulary of facial expressions is too large for most animals to master. Our facial musculature—offering the potential for more than a thousand appearances —is the most developed of any species, and the human face conveys messages more complex than animal faces.

"Basic emotional expressions are the same for everyone. Tribesmen in Borneo can read your emotional expressions, and you would understand theirs. People in different cultures vary in what events cause particular emotions, in how emotions are masked in specific situations, and in the extra facial expressions that are added on top of the basic emotion repertory. But there is a common visual code for expressing feelings that cuts across differences of sex, age, race, or origin. This visual system for signaling our feelings to others is universal...."

Related posts, about emotions and being human:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As an Animal That Breeds, I Resent That, Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer

"South Carolina Lt. Gov. Under Fire for Comparing Welfare Users to Stray Animals"
FOXNews (January 27, 2010)

"The lieutenant governor of South Carolina is taking heat for comparing people on government assistance to 'stray animals' and saying the government should stop 'feeding' welfare recipients who do not meet certain requirements because 'they breed.'

"Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a Republican, was arguing for fundamental changes to welfare to break the "cycle of dependency" at a town hall meeting in Fountain Inn, S.C., on Friday, when he said:

" 'My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. ...

" 'They will reproduce,' Bauer said, 'especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.'..."

I've been on public assistance. I'm an animal - a primate, specifically: species Homo sapiens sapiens.

And, I'm one of those breeding animals.

Even worse, I suppose, four of my six children are still alive.

It seems that Lieutenant Governor Bauer didn't really mean it - or, at least, that he might have expressed his idea a bit better.

Someone may have spoken to him, about those animals that don't belong to his social circle.

To a great extent, it's this arrogant sense of superiority among America's 'better sort' that helped me decide, in my youth, that I wanted no part of the system. I was revolted by the condescending attitude which many of the affluent and educated had toward 'the masses.' And, I find that I still am.

Enough said.

Related post:

Hope for Haiti: Former Haitian Prime Minister

"Former PM: Haiti 'not doomed' "
CNN (January 27, 2010)

"Although Haiti's capital is in ruins and hundreds of thousands are homeless, a former prime minister of the earthquake-ravaged country vowed 'this country is not doomed.'

"In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour in Haiti, former Haiti Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis said there must be hope for her country, especially as the world considers a massive recovery program.

" 'Port-au-Prince is destroyed, the few cities around Port-au-Prince are destroyed, but the whole country is not destroyed. It's important that life goes on in the other parts of the country,' Pierre-Louis said.

"Haiti needs to be the 'co-pilot,' along with the international community, of a major reconstruction effort after the devastating earthquake that leveled large parts of the country exactly two weeks ago, she said.

" 'People are still in dire need of support, but at the same time we want to give some hope that Haiti, which has been the country where the universality of human rights gave its true meaning in the 19th century, can be (a) global nation today.'..."

As a rule, the Lemming doesn't quote that much of an article. This time, some very important points were made, which I want you to have up front. Besides, it's a long article - which I suggest you read. Moving along, with what the former Prime Minister said:

"...'We have 9 million Haitians here that need to know what to do, mostly the 2 million that are in Port-au-Prince and around Port-au-Prince and that were the victims of that earthquake.'

"Interactive map: Where to find aid
[link is to a CNN/Google map of Haiti, showing where to find medical aid, shelter & suppies, and - of course - CNN reports]

"The January 12 earthquake killed at least 150,000 people. Some estimates go as high as 200,000. Some 194,000 people were injured. The United Nations said Tuesday that a million Haitians are in urgent need of temporary shelter before the rainy season begins in May...."

What's at the end of the article could be taken as a threat. I don't. I see it as a statement. Or, as CNN put it, a warning.

"...Pierre-Louis acknowledged the importance of institutional reforms in Haiti, particularly in the judicial system. 'The justice system has to work. We cannot live in a country with no sanctions. There is corruption in this country.'

"She also had a blunt warning for the world if it does not take action to help Haiti.

" 'If Haiti does not see how to get out of poverty, how to get out of disease, how to get out this situation that the people are living in, we are going to be trouble for the whole world," she said."

I do not think that poverty causes crime. On the other hand, I think it's a good idea to help people work their way out of poverty. (Another War-on-Terror Blog (January 7, 2010), "Experts: Bad Economies Don't Cause Crime Waves," Laura Sullivan, National Public Radio (November 20, 2008))

I don't see Haitians, a decade or so from now, electing a 21st century analog of Chancellor Hitler. On the other hand, a nation with a corrupt government and desperately poor people is not the sort of neighbor anybody would want to have.

As an American, I don't mind Haitians coming to this country. But, on the whole, I'd just as soon see affluent Haitians on vacation, spending money over here; than poor Haitians struggling to get themselves and their families out of poverty. (January 20, 2010)

"Haiti is Not Doomed!

Hats off to Former Prime Minister Pierre-Louis, for declaring that Haiti is not doomed. I think she's right. Even worst-case estimates of the death toll have nine out of ten Haitians surviving. That's still a horrendous loss of life, and there's an enormous amount of work to do, putting Haiti's major city back together.

But, the vast majority of Haitians are still alive. Given leadership, and a bit of help, I think that a hundred years from now Haitians may see the quake of 2010 the way people in the San Francisco Bay area remember the 1906 earthquake. These are disasters, but not the end of the world - or even of the city or nation.

Finally, in case you missed it at the top of this page:

A list of charities you've probably heard about already, with links and some contact information: Also a list of posts in this, and two other blogs, about Haiti.


Kenyan Music: There's More to It Than You May Think

"On the Beat - Tapping the Potential of Kenya's Music Industry"
WIPO Magazine (July 2007)

"The modern musical landscape of Kenya is one of the most diverse and vibrant of all African countries. But under-investment, ineffective management of intellectual property rights, and rampant piracy have prevented the industry from realizing its economic potential and left its artists struggling to earn a living. Following a recent visit to Nairobi by a team of WIPO's copyright and outreach experts, this article takes a look at what makes Kenya's music great, and at some of the elements which have hitherto stunted its growth.

"With more than forty different regional languages, the country's musical panorama is rich and remarkably complex. Driving through Nairobi's streets in your matatu, you will hear songs in Luhya, Luo, Kamba, and Kikuyu on every street corner. Music has traditionally been a distinctive feature of Kenyan ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic community, and the Luo people of the Lake Victoria region, who have always been particularly well known for their musical culture.

"In addition to its entertainment value, Kenyan music has always been, and is still today, a major vehicle for sharing information and educating local populations. Opondo Owenga, a traditional Benga musician, was well known during the colonial era for his use of music to convey the history of the Luo people. Such musical riches are under threat, however, since traditional music rooted in oral tradition is disappearing at an alarming rate...."

"...Despite its vibrant creativity and boom in production, the Kenyan music industry is nowhere near realizing its potential. 'Nobody knows about Kenyan music,' says Suzanna Owiyo, 'and that is because we lack proper networking in terms of distribution.'

"Paradoxically, the very diversity of Kenya's musical scene represents a key challenge to developing a sustainable industry. In particular, its linguistic diversity has fragmented the market and made it more difficult for artists to develop unique and recognizable sounds that can serve as currency for access to mainstream global markets...."

If you hadn't heard about Kenyan music before, you have now. That "diversity" is a bit of an understatement. I didn't find anything worth posting here, but it's pretty clear that, besides a still-awesome array of traditional music, there's everything from reggae and hip hop to pop being performed in Kenya.

From other sources, including my second-oldest daughter, I've learned that music being "performed" isn't all there is to music in many parts of the world - including Kenya.

Euro-Americans tend to think of music as something a musician performs, that an audience listens to. Or as something you do in the shower. That's music, but it's not all there is to music.

Music can be functional - a part of the processes of life. Europeans had sea shanties (or chantey, chanty, or sea chantey) that helped sailors coordinate their efforts. Folks at the other end of the Eurasian continent did the same sort of thing, I understand.

Anyway: the article's a pretty good introduction to Kenyan music as it is in the 21st century.


No Texting While Driving: Good Idea, But Why the Hurry?

"New rule for truck, bus drivers: No texting"
CNN (January 26, 2010)

"Drivers of commercial trucks and buses are prohibited from texting under federal guidelines that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday.

" 'We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe,' LaHood said in a statement. 'This is an important safety step, and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving.'

"The prohibition is effective immediately. Truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles may be subject to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750, the Department of Transportation said in a news release...."

"...One of the nation's largest groups representing professional truck drivers -- the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association -- expressed support for the goal but dismay at its implementation.

" 'We support where they are going, but not how they got there,' said Todd Spencer, the group's executive vice president. 'Making their action effective immediately bypasses normal regulatory rulemaking processes. Those processes allow actions to be vetted for unintended consequences as well as potential implementation and enforcement problems.

" 'We very much share in their goal, but their legal justification for taking immediate action raises many concerns.'..."

New Texting Ban: Why the Rush?

I'm not a particularly patient man. I like to get what I want, right away! But I've learned to defer gratification. Particularly when a decision involves a lot of money, or affects somebody besides myself.

America has processes for evaluating nifty-sounding feel-good new rules. Astounding as this may seem, not all Federal employees are all-wise and all-knowing. Fact is, they're human beings. And having a few people take a look at a proposal is a really good idea.

It's sort of like proofing. A writer, like me, may know perfectly well what he or she meant: and be quite confident that there aren't any typos in a document. Then the editor sends it back, blue pencils around some glaring glitches. Like "then the to twins."

This no-texting-while-driving rule seems to make sense. It may be a good rule.

But I'm not entirely pleased with how it's been put in place, without the usual evaluations. Is the threat of texting truckers really that dire?

I think part of my wariness is that, for me, truckers aren't 'those people over there.' They're my neighbor, down the street, and the guys I stand in line with at the convenience store where I get gas.

I don't know why this rule was rushed through so fast. But I get a little more attentive, when the folks who run this country start acting outside the rules. Sometimes there's a good reason. Sometimes, not.

More-or-less-related posts:

Data-Driven Art: For an 'Overwhelmed' 'Hive Mind???'

"Decode Exhibition Points Way to Data-Driven Art"
Underwire, Wired (January 25, 2010)

"The cryptic works on display at London's Decode: Digital Design Sensations exhibition manipulate raw data as a kind of virtual pigment, finding form and fun amid the sensory overload that threatens to overwhelm the 21st-century hive mind.

"Several exhibition pieces showcased at Victoria and Albert Museum depend on human presence to produce their full effect. A motion-detecting eyeball, for examples, blinks each time a visitor blinks. In another piece, a video screen enables visitors to 'paint' smears of color through the power of their gyrations...."


"Hive mind?!"

I'll get back to that.

Some of the data-driven art is - weird. That "motion-detecting eyeball," for example. Some looks like fun, like a virtual dandelion with attached hair dryer. And some is quite easy to look at, like "Flight Patterns," a video "based on 24 hours of airplane tracking data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration." The picture above is a thumbnail of a still from that video.

The Wired article explains why the Decode: Digital Design Sensations exhibition was put together:

"...'Decode is about demystifying the black art or magic of digital while showing that this work can be poetic, emotional and poignant,' show co-curator Shane R.J. Walter told in an e-mail interview. Walter, creative director for the OneDotZero digital arts site, said the exhibition pieces 'highlight issues in our everyday lives such as the overabundance of information and how we deal with this through data visualization.' The Decode artists, he writes, 'use code as a material to work with just as sculptors work with clay.'..."

Okay: That's clear enough.

But, again:
  • "Overwhelmed?"
  • "Hive mind?"
  • "Demystifying the"
    • "Black art"
    • "Magic of digital?"
    • "Overabundance of information?"

"Overwhelmed" by Data? Are You Kidding??

Sure, I've read about how we have too much data to deal with: but I haven't experienced it myself. My problem, generally, is finding enough data, fast enough.

"Overwhelmed"? Hardly. For me, it's more "frustrated" at how comparatively little there is available sometimes, even now.

Sheets of paper with ink on them was pretty close to the ultimate in random-access data storage and retrieval system when I was growing up: and the codex form of books is still a pretty good technology.

But these days I'm able to get more data, faster, than before. Sure, a lot of what's online is tripe: but so is a lot of what's been published the old-fashioned way. That's where research and analysis skills come in.

I don't mind being able to get weather information straight from the National Weather Service: not relayed by some guy on the radio. Like yesterday, when I posted this in another blog:I suppose it's like me and art. I've drawn and painted since my teens: and started working with digital art as soon as the software got down into my price range.

Granted, having the sense of touch in six of my ten fingers go offline several years ago had an effect: but I was 'going digital' before that happened.

There's so much more you can do, faster, more precisely, with software. Like the light and shade in that illustration for Halloween I did for 2007.

And no: the computer isn't making the art, any more that Rembrandt's brushes made his paintings. It's a tool.

My oldest daughter, on the other hand, only uses digital art techniques when she has to. She much prefers traditional tools. I don't think she's "overwhelmed," though.

"Hive Mind?" What Hive Mind?

I suppose it's spooky, the realization that people can communicate with each other, all over the world, providing that they speak the same language. Even that's not a strict requirement, but it helps: the automatic translation tools are helpful, but come up with gibberish fairly often. They have artificial intelligence, but not very.

Where was I? Communication. People. Spooky. Right.

This isn't the 'good old days,' where a few well-heeled people were able to travel around and gawk at the natives, and write about their experiences for the benefit of others of the better sort.

Quite a lot has changed.

Literacy isn't the rarity it was, not all that long ago. For America, about 99% of folks 16 years old and up can read and write. Not well, maybe, always,: but we can. It's 99% for Japan, too. We could do better, of course. Liechtenstein as a literacy rate of 100%.

Television was a 'threat to individuality' in my younger days. Because, I suppose, millions of people could be watching the same show at the same time.

Then came the Internet and the Web - why, these days, just about anybody can take pictures, write - and get noticed. If they've got something to say, there's a good chance that many others will notice them.

But is that a "hive mind?" Maybe not.

I see it as an opportunity for a great many people to get together and share ideas.

I'm not "overwhelmed," either.

Like I wrote, in another blog:

"Knowledge is Power: and I Like Power"

"Many of the ideas put forward online don't pass the 'stink test,' and fail in the marketplace of ideas. Others succeed.

"The great thing about the Information Age is that people can publish their ideas. Even if those ideas don't sit well with
  • "Established academics
  • "Yankee gentlemen
  • "Publishing executives
"To someone who became comfortable with the well-regulated flow of information that a previous generation experienced, today's world of blogs and uncontrolled websites must seem like chaos.

"I like it.

"I also like individual freedom.

"And I like the way that the Information Age has opened by giving 'power to the people:' the power of individuals to enter the marketplace of ideas, even if their views aren't approved by the old gatekeepers...."
(Knowledge is Power: and I Like Power, in "DC Gun Ban, Online Censorship, Individual Rights, and Power to the People," Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 27, 2008))

Data-Driven Art? Cool!

Although I don't know how many people are really "overwhelmed" by the "hive mind," Decode: Digital Design Sensations looks like a lot of fun.

And probably is a taste of what my grandchildren will think is 'the same old thing.'

The technology probably won't be quite the same, of course. Think about it: how long has it been, since you heard a theremin being played?

Related post:

Thought for the Day: Why Look to the Future?

"I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life."
George Burns, The Quotations Page

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

North American Quake and Japanese Tsunami: 1700

"Jan. 26, 1700: Northwest Quake Unleashes Trans-Pacific Tsunami"
This Day in Tech, Wired (January 25, 2010)

"1700: A massive earthquake strikes the Pacific Northwest coast, sending a tsunami racing across the ocean all the way to Japan.

"The earthquake was likely around magnitude 9 and occurred in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The oceanic crust there is being forced beneath the North American Plate along 680 miles of the coastline between Mendocino in northern California and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Subduction zones are capable of generating the largest earthquakes on Earth, including the 2004 magnitude 9.2 in Sumatra that caused the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.

"Scientists were able to pinpoint the precise date of the 1700 earthquake using tree rings in ghost forests along the coast...."

There's another large graphic with the article, showing how the wave was spreading across the Pacific.

The article quotes (in translation, happily) Japanese records of the 6-foot waves that flooded fields, caused loss of life and fires, and sank tons of rice in a shipping accident.

The Wired article should be a wake-up call for city governments from about Washington State northwards.

"...The Cascadia Subduction Zone is still active and will generate more major earthquakes in the future. Scientists have found that at least seven earthquakes around magnitude 9 have occurred over the last 3,500 years, an average of one every 500 years. But recent research has shown that many magnitude 8 quakes have shaken the area in the intervening years, bringing the average time between quakes down to 270 years...."

There hasn't been a major quake in that area for the last 300 years. Buildings in cities like Portland aren't necessarily designed to stand a major jolt. It's not hopeless: buildings can be retrofitted. But the time to do it is before the next 9.0 quake hits.

And now, a not-entirely-unrelated post:

Fashion and the Queen of the World - According to Oddly Enough

Oddly Enough, Reuters blog (January 25, 2010)

"Blog guy, please settle an argument I'm having with my friend.

"Is there such a thing as the Queen of the World? My friend says yes, but I say no.

"Of course there is. No offense, but you're obviously a cheese-eating bonehead.

"Here is a photo of Her Highness out walking among the commoners.

"What's that red thing on her head?

"There's nothing on Her Highness' head. That's a logo on the wall behind her. Probably the Royal Logo...."

I have to be careful, and not put too many Oddly Enough micro-reviews in this blog: I think they're funny, for the most part, and have to be sure I turn this into the Apathetic Lemming for Oddly Enough blog.

Anyway, the creator of Oddly Enough posted again.

This time, though, about fashion that doesn't make my eyes bleed. That outfit looks like something a woman might wear, without being paid to do so.

Robert Basler makes a bit of social commentary (or is it a gag? It's hard to tell) at the end. His 'correspondent' was dubious, because there wasn't anything about a queen of the world online.

The post ends with:

"...Ah. Fair enough. Well, give me five minutes and then check Wikipedia."

Which is why I'm really careful about checking my sources, online and otherwise. Which is another topic.

Flightless Birds Flew: A Long Time Ago

"Ancient Birds Grew Fat and Lazy"
Discovery News (January 25, 2010)

"After the dinosaurs went extinct, the ancestors of some flightless birds didn't bother leaving the ground."

"The flighted ancestor of birds such as the Australian emu and cassowary became too heavy to fly after the extinction of dinosaurs made it safer to forage for food, suggests a new study.

"The finding by Australian National University (ANU) biologist Dr Matthew Phillips and colleagues at Massey University in New Zealand also answers the mystery of how flightless birds managed to disperse across oceans.

"Their work, published in the latest Systematic Biology journal, follows on from recent work that raised uncertainty about the "single ancestor" theory of the group of flightless birds, known as ratites.

"Phillips, of the ANU's Research School of Biology, says ratites are a group of flightless birds that include the Australian emu and cassowary, African ostrich, New Zealand's kiwi and now-extinct moa, rhea from South America and the extinct elephant birds of Madagascar...."

Scientists have figured that all of today's flightless birds came from a single ancestor, which lived long before the dinosaurs went extinct about 65,000,000 years ago. The idea was that they walked across the supercontinent that existed before the current round of continental drifting.

Good idea, plausible - except that the supercontinent broke up before that ancestral bird.

Now, it looks like the flightless birds weren't, until more recently. Probably around the dinosaurs went extinct, making room for big animals on the ground.

The Discovery News article discusses research - mostly using mitochondrial DNA.

Interesting - for me, anyway. I remember when paleontology was mostly a matter of digging fossilized bones out of rocks and piecing them together.

Not-entirely-unrelated post:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Space Aliens and Killer Monster Robots - From Outer Space; or Pittsburgh

Horses aren't human.

It might be well to remember that, when imagining non-human intelligence. Space aliens, in other words.

I like the original Star Trek series, and have watched many of the series and movies that followed. With few exceptions, though, the space aliens of Star Trek didn't just look awfully human - they thought like humans, too. Sure, Klingons, Vulcans and Ferengi weren't likly to read the same books and go to the same clubs. But they weren't any more diverse than what you'd expect to find in any fair-sized sampling of Homo sapiens sapiens.

So, what will people from other worlds be like? I'm guessing that they'll be like us in some ways: curious, for starters.

They may even be pretty good at carrying on a conversation, if they're social creatures like we are. They probably even have a sense of humor. I suspect that a sense of humor keeps us from killing each other more often than we do.

Even being "social creatures, like we are" doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be all that much like us.

Take horses, for example. They're social creatures. For example, many 'how to care for your horse' manuals say that they need stablemates. In a pinch, a cat will do. But, like I wrote last month, about horses:
"...They're not human.

"Faced with danger, horses run. We're likely to do what most primates do: scream and start throwing things. (Ever see news video of a violent mob?)

"Horses like things to be quiet...."

"...Sure, on Earth the people are screaming, stuff-throwing primates: but that doesn't mean that's the only way things can work."
(Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 9, 2009)
If we do meet aliens whose minds work along equine lines, job one for any human diplomat or negotiator will probably not be their language. It'll be learning to be quiet enough to avoid scaring the living daylights out of them.

And their diplomats and negotiators will have to learn that a screaming human isn't really screaming: it's just acting, well, human. Think American businesspeople and their Japanese counterparts learning to communicate. And they'd probably be indistinguishable to an equinoid. ("I'm terribly sorry, Mister Ambassador: but to me, all humanoids look alike.")

I may have just made up that word, "equinoid." I wasn't thinking so much of aliens shaped like horses, as aliens who thought like horses. On the other hand, horses have used their lips and teeth to untie knots.

Then there's the possibility that the space aliens may be really alien.

Just How Alien Would Space Aliens be?

I found a article from last year, with some pretty good ideas. And a few all-too-familiar assumptions. Here's how it started:
"What Will Aliens Really Look Like?"
Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute (July 16, 2009)

"According to Genesis 1:27, 'God created man in His own image.' OK, but what about all the other intelligent, cosmic inhabitants? Well, Hollywood has taken care of that. It has created aliens in man's image.

"It's hardly a major revelation to point out that most movie aliens bear a strong likeness to humans...."
I've discussed the "in His own image" idea from a Catholic perspective in another post. (" 'God Created Man in His Image' wasn't Written by An American," A Catholic Citizen in America (January 25, 2010))

The writer of that article made some pretty good points. Convergent evolution, he pointed out (I know: but "Seth Shostak" would be an - unusual - name for a woman), might very well mold many or most intelligent, tool-using creatures into a form not all that much different from our own.

That may be so. The three times that vertebrates grew wings - pterosaurs, birds, and bats - the final result was pretty much the same. Forelimbs became wings. Nobody would mistake one of those creatures for either of the other two - although it turns out the pterosaurs had fur. But again, the basic plan is pretty much the same.

On the other hand, I can't see any reason why people couldn't use tools and be shaped like the bipedal dinosaurs - or squids, when it comes to that.

The first two thirds, roughly, of the article is mostly about how aliens might be shaped. The closest to a discussion of their psychology is this:
"...Their behavioral cues are familiar, and you can tell if their game plan is to be amorous or aggressive. (In most movies, these are their only options.)..."

Attack of the Killer Robots from Pittsburgh

Then, the writer made what I think is a fairly valid point. The space aliens we meet may not be organic beings. I don't mean 'silicone-based life forms.' The aliens might be machines.

That's not at all unlikely, I think. Look at how we're exploring the Solar system right now: A pair of robots on Mars, more in orbit in various places. People from elsewhere might very well take the same approach. Or, maybe, the people would be machines. That's been a science fiction staple for decades. Generations. ("Men Martians and Machines," Eric Frank Russell (1955), for example - and that built on established conventions)

So has an all-too-familiar set of assumptions. Here's how the writer leads into his discussion of machines as people.
"...Well, using our own experience as a guide, consider a human development that seems likely to take place sometime in the 21st century: we'll invent machine intelligence. Some futurists figure this dismaying development will take place before 2050. Maybe it will take twice that long. It doesn't matter. By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors...."
I don't know how old Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer, is. If he's even close to my age, he really should know better.
Artificial Intelligence is Just Around the Corner - for Decades
I was born during the Truman administration, and remember when "2001: A Space Odyssey" hit the silver screen in 1968. The HAL 9000 computer was a science fiction staple: an intelligent, sentient, self-aware computer. Who was insane. Homicidal insanity.

in 1968, the idea that there would be thinking computers in 2001 didn't seem very strange. Experts by the bushel were saying that it would only be a decade or so before we had artificial intelligence.

It's 42 years later, and now I read that we'll have devices like the HAL 9000 computer and C3PO in fifty years.

And that they'll take over.
A Person Can Learn a Lot from the Movies
I can see where the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer could get that idea. I've been watching the movies off and on for decades: and I've learned a lot.

I've learned that biological warfare and killer bees would kill us all. If the bees didn't explode a nuclear reactor near us first. Even if we survived that, we'd be a handful in an apocalyptic post-nuclear-holocaust wasteland, beset by monster frogs and mutants.

It wasn't all doom and gloom in the movies, of course. There was "Star Wars" in 1977: but that was 'merely escapist entertainment.' Not serious at all. And "Hell Comes to Frogtown" was? Never mind. I don't think anyone took that one seriously.

I don't think that the Senior Astronomer learned his science from Hollywood: but I think there's a chance that he absorbed quite a bit from popular American culture over the last few decades.

I made a list of relatively memorable science fiction movies from the mid-sixties to the present, for another blog. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space June 30, 2009) Adding a few about killer robots (and/or computers), here's an update of that list: These movies were drawing on a venerable tradition that included "Robot Monster" (1953) and "The Phantom Creeps" (1939).

A brief digression: Tales of Future Past have some decent still photos from "The Phantom Creeps." The movie was a dramatic account of a mad scientist: "With the power of a radioactive meteor he discovered, his invisibility belt, ray gun, and killer robot spiders he plans to conquer the world."

Back to the topic at hand.
HAL 9000, Skynet, and The Matrix
It's hard, sometimes, to shake the idea that a whole lot of Americans are Luddites. I don't mean 19th English workmen who broke machines: "any opponent of technological progress". (Princeton's WordNet)

I mean to say: "...By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors...."

Okay, Skynet made a pretty spooky evil mastermind for the Terminator movies. And "The Matrix" is supposed to be real intelligent. (I've yet to see the latter, by the way, in its entirety - an oversight which I intend to correct this year.)

I've not putting down any of the movies I've cited. I am not one of the folks who objects to entertainment on principle. But I try to make distinctions between what makes for a good story, and what's plausible.

I might be more concerned about robot monsters enslaving humanity, if artificial intelligence hadn't been 'just around the corner' for my entire adult life. And if the AI we have were more - intelligent.

As a Cyborg, I'm Biased

I might be more concerned about humanity's becoming machine-like, if I weren't part machine already.

I've got a few teeth that are still original equipment, but a fair portion of what I chew with is artificial. I've got metal and plastic where my hip joints used to be, a plastic mesh that held my belly together after some work was done in there, and I'm focusing on my computer's monitor through a clip-on set of lenses.

All of that's nothing unusual at all. Now.

Which is my point. I look as human as my ancestors, a thousand years back: providing I take my glasses off and keep my mouth closed. But a noticeable percentage of me is machinery of one sort or another.

Even my brain's been altered, chemically. I was diagnosed with major depression a few years ago. Thanks to medication, I don't have to constantly fight the controls to think clearly - for the first time in over 45 years.

I'm not, quite, a cyborg. Not in the sense of "a human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by electromechanical devices" (Princeton's WordNet) But partly artificial? Yes.

And I have no problem with that. My distant ancestors, some of them, might have been freaked out to learn what has been done to me: but I see being able to walk without pain, see clearly, concentrate better, chew my food, and have something that kept the insides of my abdomen where they belong - inside - as enhancements. I certainly don't see having artificial parts as being "taken over" by machinery.

The brain chips that Intel says it's coming out with in about ten years (yes, I believe them): that's a bit different. People who have an interface between their brains and prosthetic limbs will, arguably, be cyborgs. So will stroke victims whose damaged or destroyed circuits are replaced with artificial ones.

I discussed this sort of thing last month:
...Will Brain Implants Be Misused?
"What is that, a trick question? Of course they'll be misused. People misuse things. People have killed other people with rocks. That doesn't make the rocks bad.

"Direct neural interfaces are a new technology, and there'll almost certainly be an awkward period while we learn how to use them, and set up rules so that everybody's more-or-less on the same page about how they should be used. "But, I'm looking forward to the things...." (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 2, 2009))
I don't think that Science and Technology (capitalized, of course) will Solve All Our Problems. But I'm not afraid of science and technology.

Robots, Artificial Intelligence, and Fido

About 'spawning our successors?' In a way, we've been through this before.

Dogs are man's best friend, right? With a few psychotic exceptions, of course.

That shouldn't be much of a surprise. We've recently discovered that dogs are mutant wolves. Something happened to the genes of a few wolves that made their offspring just simply dote on human beings - and made them a bit less smart that your average wolf.

Yes: people were "primitive" back then. No white lab coats, no test tubes, certainly no electron microscopes. It's a bit hard, though, for me to imagine that a breed of stupid wolf 'just happened' to come along - that got along well with human beings.

I think we made dogs. "Domesticated," if you prefer. I also think that the process was a whole lot easier than it might have been, since wolf packs work roughly the same way human families do, and a wolf cub could bond with a human family, just like he or she would bond with the pack.

But I think we're the reason dogs are so, well: dog-like.

People have kept wolves as pets, but that's rare. In general, people and wolves don't mix. Dogs? Well, they're "man's best friend."

Artificial intelligence won't be like Fido. We've already got dogs - with over a hundred thousand years' worth of tweaking invested. We don't need a replacement.

But human beings replaced by AI? I think that's about as likely as the fictional C3PO plotting to take over the restored Republic.

As for human beings becoming cyborgs? That's been happening for centuries. And somehow, we're still as human as we ever were: for good or ill. Related posts: More:
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