Archive for April, 2008

Skeptically thinking about neat weather phenomena

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Take a gander at this list of neat weather phenomena (and while you’re there, leave a comment expressing your disgust at all of the images they’ve ripped off from other people). I especially like the Moon bow (hadn’t ever heard of it before, but it makes perfect sense), mammatus clouds (amazing!), and the fire raindbow (now that would make an excellent desktop picture). Admire this for the pictures, but don’t take it too seriously, as it was compiled by someone who doesn’t seem to have scientific training. There’s some conflation between “colored Moons” and Lunar eclipses going on, and a lack of an adequate description for either of the two.

And I’m still skeptical about non-aqueous rain and ball lightning. Ball lightning is well-known like most good urban legends, but it isn’t scientifically documented to the extent that you would expect if it was actually real (along the lines of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster). Likewise, everyone’s heard stories about “that time it rained frogs in France”, but where is the scientific proof?

I can see frogs, fish, and other creatures being lifted into the air during weather phenomena with high wind speeds such as tornadoes and hurricanes, but normal rain is created by the slow evaporation of water from the surface which then forms in clouds and falls to Earth in tiny droplets. And the process of evaporation can’t even carry something as small as a molecule of salt up into the air to fall as rain, let alone whole animals. So I might believe that it could rain frogs because of a large storm, but then it wouldn’t just be raining frogs, but also all other sorts of debris picked up from the frogs’ habitat. It would mainly be raining branches, I would suspect.

No, I don’t want to talk to cyber automatons

Friday, April 18th, 2008

As I look through my email inbox, I yearn for the net days of old. Nearly everything in it is an automated message — mailing lists, sales from various retailers, political action alerts, WheresGeorge bill found notifications, receipts for online purchases, even a notice that a Wii is (well, was) available for purchase at Toys R Us. And that’s not even including the spam, which is “stored” in a different folder, mainly thanks to my spam filter.

So, where’s all of the human email? I remember when I was first on the Internet, way back in 1995, when email was used almost exclusively as a replacement for personal correspondence via snail mail. When you got an email back then, it was meant for you, and most often it merited a response. Now my inbox is a barren wasteland of missives sent by heartless cyber automatons. I’m saddened that the majority of my online communications have moved away from email toward other methods.

I really do miss email. Email as a form of communication uniquely plays to my strengths. I love getting personal emails and thoughtfully composing responses. If you’ve ever chatted with me via instant message you’ll know I yearn for the loving confines of letters, because I refuse to yield to any of the IM conventions like abbreviating words and forsaking punctuation and capitalization. Anytime someone uses a number in place of a word my hand involuntarily twitches the mouse cursor towards the close window button and it takes conscious willpower to resist clicking the pain away.

So, please do send me an email. You’ll be making me happy, and what’s more, I promise I’ll respond. My email address is cydeweys[[AT]]gmail[[DOT]]com. What should the email be about? Anything! Just don’t tell me how to retrieve a lost Cambodian fortune (been there, done that), write to confirm my airline reservation.

And if you have GnuPG, please send the email encrypted as a big middle finger to this administration’s pervasive domestic espionage. My key’s fingerprint is 9C3DF6D23A28F6804ECA927ABC21184EFFA60567 and is available on MIT’s subkeys server.

ABC’s travesty of a debate

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Like any good patriotic American (pardon my choking) I tuned in to the Democratic debate this week. What I saw did not leave me pleased. What ABC did wasn’t just a shoddy job (having George Stephanopoulos, one of Bill Clinton’s senior staff, as “impartial” moderator? C’mon.), it was a travesty. But rather than add to the tens of thousands of outraged comments on ABC’s site, where my chance of getting noticed was rather low, I sent an email directly to some ABC bigwigs. Because I can, I’m going to republish it here and get a blog post out of it as well. Certainly it can engender some good discussion. And hey, if you want to send an email to them as well, be my guest.


Don’t you people at ABC feel just the least bit ashamed for the utter travesty of a debate that you aired last night? Not only did you focus nearly exclusively on pointless trivialities when the country as a whole is facing very real problems, but your audience called you on it! They knew they wanted to hear a much more concrete debate than that, and they expressed their displeasure by booing your sham moderators on air! If you won’t yield to common decency in apologizing for this debacle and make strong efforts to elevate political discourse in the future, at least yield to simple common financial sense.

ABC News came off looking like a pack of bumbling, elementary school fools last night. You are completely trashing any positive reputation you once had and are now heading squarely into Fox News territory. My friends and I have sworn off ABC News as a result of last night because we no longer trust you to provide us with the truth or to respect your responsibility as the fourth branch of government in appropriately handling political discourse. The American people know they want better and they demand better. You refuse to give it to them only at your imminent peril.

This madness must end.

Lunar colony nomenclature

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

So, I was musing about Lunar colonies on the commute home from work tonight, as I am often wont to do, and I came up with an apt name for humankind’s first permanent colony on Luna.

Second Basket

Think about it for a few seconds and you should get it. I know it sounds a little funny now, but then again, people living on Luna aren’t exactly going to be normal by our standards anyway, so I suspect this is exactly the kind of quirky nomenclature they will appreciate.

DreamWorks to make Ghost in the Shell live action movie

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

This could either turn out incredibly good, or incredibly bad. DreamWorks, thanks to the dealings of Stephen Spielberg (who isn’t necessarily signed on as director), has acquired the rights to make a live action 3D Ghost in the Shell movie. Ghost in the Shell is an anime and manga that follows the exploits of an elite counter-terrorism rogue government unit in the cyberpunk future. The integration of humans and technology (think “cyborg”) is a major theme in the series.

Naturally, I’ve been a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell ever since I first heard of it. I’ve watched both seasons of the Stand Alone Complex series twice over, along with both films and the made-for-TV movie. I’ve even read the manga, which is a rarity for me, since I generally don’t like comics (let the flaming begin). Ghost in the Shell is just such a unique, gritty vision of a technology-enabled future that, as a techie, I can’t help but feel enthralled by it. Ever since 3rd GIG aired on TV, though, I’ve been aching for another fix. An American-made live action movie wasn’t my preferred vehicle of choice for that fix, but if it’s actually better than nothing, I’ll take it. Here’s how it can be done well.

DreamWorks has to resist the urge to mess with the source material, thus screwing everything up. It needs to be set in Tokyo, not relocated to New York City or Los Angeles or whatever American film studios typically do. It must remain just as gritty and realistic as the original. If I see anything that looks like magic or impossible stunts with no basis in the technology of the series, I’m going to scream. Basically, if DreamWorks approaches this from the angle of “this’ll be a cool action/thriller flick”, then it’s going to suck. But if they approach it from the original angle, a philosophical exploration of the intersection of man and technology in the coming decades, then it has a fighting chance.

Bored? Try reading these computing classics

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

I get bored on occasion (as does everyone), and I sometimes find myself just refreshing the same damned blogs over and over, willing the time to disappear until a new day can begin anew. Obviously, there are better ways to handle boredom. So I’ve started reading a bit more recently. Here are some intriguing tech-themed works you should check out the next time you find yourself struggling for reading material. You’ll broaden your knowledge of the field of computing and read fascinating tales of fascinating people. Never a dull moment! They’re all pretty hefty, so you’ll find yourself bookmarking them and reading them over the course of days.

  • Free Software, Free Society (PDF) by Richard Stallman. This book is a collection of Stallman’s essays on his personal philosophies. Read it and find out where the free software movement (including everything GNU/Linux) came from. Stallman is a brilliant, insightful person whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting twice, and I can’t recommend these essays enough. His takes on copyright and patents are so different than anything you’ve likely ever heard of before, they’re like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy corporate-dominated world.
  • The Curse of Xanadu (HTML) by Gary Wolf, published in Wired. This is an incredibly in-depth novella-length examination of the rise and fall of Project Xanadu, the revolutionary software project you’ve likely never heard of that was designed to store the sum of human knowledge, decades before the World Wide Web came about. Modern computing owes so much to Project Xanadu, including the concept of related documents connected through the use of hyperlinks. As I read through it I kept finding myself thinking “Ah-hah! So that’s who invented that!” Project Xanadu had incredibly useful features designed into it as early as the 1960s, such as bi-directional links, that the World Wide Web never even came close to realizing. It’s taken the release of wiki software to finally realize most of the goals of Xanadu. Xanadu’s fatal flaw was that it was too ambitious, and many of the people involved in it were, to put it politely, unbalanced.
  • Free as in Freedom (HTML), the biography of Richard Stallman by Sam Williams. Read Free Software, Free Society to find out what Stallman believes in, then read this biography to learn about how Stallman came to be the person he is. Stallman’s life is a fascinating tale. He’s an unqualified genius with a singular passion for writing software and spreading his ideas of software freedom. He’s also an incredibly quirky person. Even if you don’t care about the free software movement at all, you’ll enjoy this portrait of a unique, colorful personality.
  • Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (HTML) by Stephen Levy. A book all about the hacker ethic, and an examination of the shifting meaning of the term over time (which has only gotten much worse in the intervening two decades since this book was published). I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s next on my list.

Lessons from Blacksburg (the one year anniversary)

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my 18th and penultimate published opinion column, Lessons from Blacksburg, originally published April 19, 2007.

On Monday morning, the Virginia Tech community witnessed the worst civilian shooting spree in United States history. One of Tech’s students, South Korean national Cho Seung-Hui, killed 32 others before turning the gun on himself. As we at this university continue to witness the horrors unfolding on television, we feel a special bond with the students of Virginia Tech. Even if we don’t know any of them personally, they too are college students, and they’ve faced an unexpected, extreme tragedy that could just as easily have happened in College Park.

There are some lessons to be taken away from the events of Monday morning, and I hope the administrations of both Virginia Tech and this university are learning them. For one, if there is a deadly homicide on the campus and the perpetrator isn’t caught, it may make sense to take drastic actions such as bringing in dozens of police officers for a manhunt or locking down the campus. One who has killed already and is still on the run is a uniquely dangerous individual, as Monday unfortunately taught us.

We also now know there was significant evidence that something just wasn’t right with Cho. His writings consistently showed signs of psychopathy; in one particular play a teenager is killed by the stepfather he falsely accuses of molesting him. He also wrote poetry so disturbing that it creeped out the majority of his poetry class, causing him eventually to be removed from it. His classmates openly questioned whether he could become a school shooter. The police were even contacted multiple times regarding his disturbing writings and the multiple times he stalked women on the campus. Clearly, all the warning signs were there; now many will live in perpetual regret that more was not done.

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Help expose Expelled

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

You too can do your part in fighting for science by linking to the Expelled Exposed website on whatever blog or personal site you happen to run. Expelled is a dishonest intelligent design creationism propaganda film, and Expelled Exposed is a site that gives the viewpoints of actual scientists (you know, the people you should look to for answers when it comes to biology). The idea, obviously, is to increase exposure to a great source debunking that film, and also to get the counter website more highly ranked in Google.

And if you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, reading up on some more background information might be in order.

Passionate writing is excellent writing

Monday, April 14th, 2008

One thing I’ve come to learn over the years that I’ve been writing is that the more passionate you are about a subject, the easier it is to write about it. Ditto for being more knowledgeable about a subject (but that is perhaps trivial). My favorite posts are those about the subjects I am most passionate about. And not only is the resultant work better, but it takes less time to write as well. I’ve spent hours laboring over works that didn’t turn out very satisfyingly, whereas for other works I sat down, wrote at a break-neck speed, and within ten minutes had something I was really proud of.

For instance, look at the post I wrote the recent death of my great-aunt Muriel. It was an obituary of sorts, covering salient points of her life, explaining why the unknowledgeable reader should care that she died. It also expressed my innermost feelings on expected deaths. I think it came out really well, and I can tell it resonated with others by the comments that were left. Yet it was incredibly easy to write, probably taking a total of less than half an hour (and it was written within a few hours of hearing of her death). I didn’t even have the time to go research how old she was, leaving a perhaps too gruff proclamation to set the tone at the beginning of the post, but I shan’t go back and edit it. That post is from-the-heart, brutally honest, and essentially unedited, yet since it was something I felt passionate about, it just flowed from my mind, through my fingers and the keyboard, and onto the screen. I swear the number of typos I was making was lower than average, even though the typing speed was higher.

My first column for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback was on a topic I am very passionate about, evolution. I’m very happy with the way that one turned out. It did take awhile to write, but only because I was completely unfamiliar with writing for the newspaper business. My later columns on similar subject matters were dashed off very quickly, yet with good results, because I am passionate about and intimately familiar with the material.

Now compare that to my column on bike theft on campus, which, frankly, was a waste of newspaper space. Being a columnist for the Diamondback was kind of limiting. We had to write about topics relevant to students and the school, and even though my column was only published twice a month, I couldn’t always find anything interesting to me to write about. Hence the column about bike theft. I’ll be honest: I don’t give a damn about bike theft. I don’t own a bike, it’s a boring topic, and nobody really cares. Yet it took me longer to write that column (over three hours, I think) than any other one I ever wrote. Why? Because I was reaching so hard just to find something to say about it. The thrust of the column boils down to one sentence: “Bike theft is bad and security measures on campus should be better,” gaining nothing in the expansion to a whopping full page of newspaper column. Yet I couldn’t come close to distilling my blog post about my great-aunt down into a smaller number of words without vastly affecting its quality.

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Footnotes the solution to my problems?

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

One of the problems I frequently have when writing (for this blog or otherwise) is my wish to convey perhaps too much information. Sometimes interesting tidbits don’t really fit in with the flow of my writing, so I add them as parenthetical asides (like this right here). In many circumstances, I guess it’s just me being lazy and avoiding somewhat extensive rewriting to get everything to fit together just so. Other times, there really is no other way to do it. Or is there?

Are footnotes the correct way to do it? Justine Larbalestier seems to think so. Just look at her recent blog post on her travels in Italy. She’s using footnotes for all of the asides that I would be using parenthetical phrases for. Does it work?

I’m not sure it does (and here’s where I contradict the title of my blog post). Writing is very much a linear medium. I don’t like jumping around to and fro between the main body of a work and appendices. I just want to go from start to finish and be done with it. So I don’t click on footnotes because they interrupt the flow of my reading, whereas I do read all parenthetical asides because they are embedded in the text. Sometimes I try reading all the footnotes after finishing up the main text, but then they often don’t make much sense out of context, and I’m too lazy to go back up and figure out what they refer to. Long story short, I don’t bother reading footnotes anymore.

Just as an aside (the non-parenthetical variety, thankfully), is there anyone out there who actually skips parenthetical asides? I know parentheses theoretically mean “optional”, but all they really mean to me is “this content could be excised without affecting the flow of the rest of the sentence, but you know you’re going to read it anyway”. Literature would be so much duller without all of those intriguing tidbits enclosed between those lovely curvy punctuation marks; how could anyone possibly skip them? (Or is there anyone who only reads the parenthetical asides and nothing else? Try it!)