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Ethel the Blog
Observations (and occasional brash opining) on science, computers, books, music and other shiny things that catch my mind's eye. There's a home page with ostensibly more permanent stuff. This is intended to be more functional than decorative. I neither intend nor want to surf on the bleeding edge, keep it real, redefine journalism or attract nyphomaniacal groupies (well, maybe a wee bit of the latter). The occasional cheap laugh, raised eyebrow or provocation of interest are all I'll plead guilty to in the matter of intent. Bene qui latuit bene vixit.

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Saturday, December 11, 1999

MORALITY FOR THEE BUT NOT FOR ME
"Heroes have deeply influenced my personal life. They have helped me define ideas like honor, duty, truth, honesty, compassion, self-discipline, and sacrifice. These are the ideas that are the bedrock of our society. Unfortunately, they are also ideas that we don't hear very much about these days."
These stirring words are from A Book of Heroes: Great Men and Women in American History by George Roche. It was published in 1998, yet another of many recent tracts penned by conservatives making explicit or implicit attacks against a President they loathed to the core of their beings. Until recently Roche was president of ultraconservative Hillsdale College in rural Michigan and a conservative icon, bravely upholding academic standards and freedom in the face of the evil, P.C. liberals. Roche became president of the school in 1971 and built it into a leading conservative institution, and did it without accepting a cent of government aid since he vigorously opposed all forms of affirmative action.

Then, all of a sudden, Roche and the board of regents at Hillsdale announced his mutually agreed-upon retirement on November 10 of this year. What happened? He was on a roll, becoming ever more in demand as a conservative speaker and writer and seemed just a step or two away from national reknown even amongst the liberal heathens. Things didn't start but they certainly exploded when his son's wife committed suicide on October 17. Just hours before her death, in the presence of Roche, she'd told his son of their 19-year-old affair. That's right, Dad had been slipping his son's wife more than tidbits of sage conservative advice for nearly two decades, something sonny had been suspecting since pop had divorced mom just a year before after 40 years of marriage.

The college was going to spin the suicide as just an unfortunate, inexplicable incident, but sonny raised quite a stink and didn't leave them that option. And sonny's every bit as conservative as dad. He's not some outside liberal troublemaker - he's simply furious about the abhorrent and hypocritical actions of the man he probably admired more than anyone else. Apparently quite a few folks in the conservative cadre are shocked and reeling over this, as they damned well should be. Yet another one of their leaders committing adultery after all the time and effort they've spent shrilly denouncing Clinton for that "unforgivable" crime against their supposedly precious family values.

Fooling around with his son's wife wasn't Roche's only hypocrisy. For someone who so regularly denounced political correctness he had no problem imposing his own authoritarian, P.C. regime. In 1991 four former Hillsdale professors, all members of the conservative National Association of Scholars, wrote, "For years the Hillsdale administration has neglected its academic program to pay for 'outreach' activities designed to promote Dr. Roche, maintained a curriculum that requires no appreciable knowledge of Western culture, and used every possible means, including dismissals and threats of lawsuits, to silence dissent of any kind among faculty and students." When a student wanted to publish an independent newspaper Roche - whose school's motto is "Independence for Excellence Since 1844" - banned the distribution of the paper on campus and expelled the student. One of the editorials in the banned paper had stated, "Hillsdale is a cult of personality and not of principle. Roche is the divine monarch."

One wonders just what Roche, Hyde, Gingrich and the rest of that lot are actually thinking when they make their self-righteous proclamations about the moral failings of "society", i.e. their ideological enemies and their socioeconomic inferiors. Do they really think that their ostensbile lessers are stupid enough to listen to their pious proclamations and ignore their ignominious actions?
posted by Steven Baum 12/11/1999 03:21:51 PM | link

UNABRIDGED
So what's the longest tunnel in the world? Like most other things it's primarily a matter of definition, so I'll offer a nice array of choices.
  • World's Longest Road Tunnel: The Laerdal Tunnel between Aurland and Laerdal in Norway is 24.5 km long and is the final link on a project to ease traveling between Oslo and Bergen (i.e. to eliminate ferry connections and difficult winter mountain crossings).
  • World's Longest Rail Tunnel: The Seikan Tunnel connecting Hokkaido and Honshu in Japan in 53.9 km long. It was started in 1964 and completed in 1988, at which time air travel had become nearly as economical as the over $50 fare for using the tunnel. The Channel Tunnel is a mere 50.5 km long.
    Seikan Tunnel
  • World's Longest and Largest Sewer System: The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) beneath Chicago will consist of over 131 miles of deep, large-diameter tunnels when completed.
  • Longest Uncompleted Tunnel: The Gotthard Base Tunnel, part of a planned Trans-Alpine Rail Network (NEAT), will be about 57 km long if finished as planned.
  • Longest Mostly Unknown and Perhaps Exaggerated Tunnel Network: The Great Wall Project to build tunnels in the Tai-Hai Mountains was completed in 1995, with some reports estimating a network of "thousands of kilometers of tunnels." There have also been largely unsubstantiated rumors over the years about tunnel networks big enough to hold most of the inhabitants being built beneath all the major cities. Who knows what the Americans and Soviets built during the Cold War?
  • Longest Road Tunnel Through Time: The record holders from 1882 to present.
  • Longest Dirt Road Tunnel in the World: The Homer Tunnel in Fiordland National Park in New Zealand is about a mile long.
  • Longest Subway System:: The New York City Subway System is the longest in the world at 398 km, with a top 20 list available.

posted by Steven Baum 12/11/1999 12:50:26 PM | link

Friday, December 10, 1999

YAFL
The
Engineering News-Record has created a list of the 125 Top Engineering Projects Since 1874. The most recent additions to the list include:
  • Ursa Tension-Leg Platform, an offshore oil drilling platform costing $1.45 billion and sitting in 3900 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico;
    Ursa Tension-Leg Platform
  • Tatara Bridge, a 1480 meter long, 3-span continuous cable-stayed bridge that is the longest part of the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Network connecting those parts of Japan;
    Tatara Bridge
  • Millennium Dome, the world's biggest dome built for the M-word celebration in Greenwich, England;
    Millennium Dome
  • Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the world's longest and most expensive suspension bridge when opened in 1998 with a 1990 m long main span;
    Akashi Kaikyo Bridge
  • Great Belt East Bridge, which connects the islands of Funen and Zealand in Denmark;
    Great Belt East Bridge
  • Bald Pate Platform, a drilling platform located in 1650 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico that is the first free-standing offshore compliant tower ever and the tallest free standing structure in the world;
    Bald Pate Platform

posted by Steven Baum 12/10/1999 04:33:47 PM | link

THE DREAMS OF ENGINEERS
In a recent piece about the Scientific American "Extreme Engineering" special theme issue, I told of plans to build dams across the Strait of Gibraltar and the Bering Strait. Those places are apparently especially inspiring to those with no shortage of "the vision thing" since both bridge builders and tunnelers have been dreaming about crossing those gaps for years.

T. Y. Lin - known to many as the greatest structural engineer in the world - has been involved in plans to bridge both gaps since he started a long and extremely distinguished career with a master's degree in engineering from Berkeley in 1933. He has been involved with plans for both an Intercontinental Peace Bridge

International Peace Bridge route
from Alaska to Siberia, and twin 16,000-foot U.N.-sponsored superspans linking Morocco and Spain via Gibraltar. Robert Scanlan - another famed engineer known as the "Father of Aeroelasticity" - has also proposed a super-bridge over the Straits of Gibraltar.

One of the companies involved in the design and building of the Channel Tunnel has also conducted technical and economic studies as to the feasibility of a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar. This would be 39 km long of which 28 km would be underwater. The Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group exists to promote the construction of a rail and tunnel line connecting the western and eastern hemispheres. This is not a new idea, though. In 1906 a consortium of Americans, French and Russians had raised $6 million towards the construction of such a tunnel, although the Tsar's distrust of the west and the approach of WWI scuttled interest in the project until now.

Another ambitious plan involves the International Highway Project, initiated in 1981 by none other than the Reverend Moon. This highway would go through mainland China, cross the Korean peninsula from north to south to an underwater tunnel or bridge to Japan, and move north through all the Japanese islands. The Japan-Korea tunnel - the most logistically difficult of the sections - would cross the strait separating them at its narrowest part from Tsushima Island to Koje Island in Korea.
posted by Steven Baum 12/10/1999 02:47:44 PM | link

SITINGS
The
Los Angelese GRIM Society is a collection of "individuals who share the same morbid curiosity about the less savory aspects of the history of the city of Los Angeles," with GRIM standing for Gruesome Recreation and Intentional Morbidity. The sections of the site include:
posted by Steven Baum 12/10/1999 01:49:06 PM | link

Thursday, December 09, 1999

THE EXCUSES CRUMBLE
All the excuses and propaganda trotted out by Texas A&M and its apologists about the recent bonfire collapse that killed 12 are crumbling into dust and blowing away. Today
it was announced that shifting ground did not cause the collapse as it caused a slow lean in 1994. This was fairly obvious as they'd dumped several tons of lime on the site since then and it had only rained significantly once in the month beforehand. The president of a local geotechnical engineering company announced simply that "It was not a soil failure" after his company had taken several soil borings and analyzed them. In typical mealymouthed fashion a university spokesman said that he wasn't aware that the tests had been completed. So much for the explanation that "the ground must have suddenly and randomly shifted."

They've come a long way from their assurances on the first day that full safety precautions had been taken. But, given the recent story about how two of the dead were legally drunk (apparently none of the injured or the crane operator were tested), it would take a supreme idiot to stick to the earlier propaganda about how strict anti-alcohol regulations were enforced. But it wasn't until the alcohol announcement was made that they stopped chanting the "strict safety precautions" mantra. Even while they conceded that the workers had broken one of their own rules by allowing underclassmen to work on the upper levels of the stack, they didn't say it was wrong but offered pathetic excuses about how the underclassmen were only allowed to do so if they "demonstrated ability and commitment."

Another issue involves the fact that one of the crane operators was a student. The so-called official Bonfire Safety Handbook (which, by the way, is not an official Texas A&M document) - whose mere existence was trotted out by many as proof of safety - calls for a 'professional operator,' although it says nothing about how such a thing is operationally defined. That is, it doesn't call for a licensed or certified operator. I've said it before but it bears repeating that if such a document were offered to satisfy a safety inspector at any similar construction site it would be shut down yesterday. The feds require someone to pass physical, written and drug tests as well as skills test on a crane to be considered certified. Pointing to a handbook whose contents are neither official nor apparently even followed as proof of safety makes a mockery of the subject.

And then there's the infinitely repeated chant about "tradition, pride, and special bonding" that is inevitably added to any comment about the incident by the apologists. One of the women who's been either harassed or attacked (depending on who you talk to) said the reason was that she had intruded on an inner circle only accessible to those women who'd slept with one of the redpots (i.e. the cutesy name for the students supposedly in charge because they wear red helmets). The "bonfire diaries" kept by some of these redpots have been publicly released, and they've got more than a few sexist, racist and homophobic comments. My favorite comment was "anti-bonfire = anti-God." It would be interesting to hear his take on the scriptural basis for charging sex for admission.
posted by Steven Baum 12/9/1999 09:47:22 AM | link

Wednesday, December 08, 1999

SEEDS 'N' STEMS
Hot puppies! The first seed catalog of the season's shown up. And the winner is Pinetree Garden Seeds, for both their usual fine hardcopy catalog and that fact that they're now
online. Although after several years of experimenting and finding that the limitations foisted on me by the vagaries of the local climate (e.g. a short spring season which is bollixed by drought about half the time, a regularly scheduled drought from June through September, a wholly irregular first frost date, etc.) have pruned my viable crop list down to peppers, eggplants and the odd herb or ten, I still enjoy perusing the best of the seed catalogs. Look forward to seeing more than a few reviews thereof in the coming months.

The Pinetree hardcopy catalog is 167 newsprint pages with plenty of color and black & white photos interspersed with the text. They've got about an 80/20 mixture of open pollinated and hybrid varieties, respectively, and their vegetable varieties are surpassed by only a few other catalogs. In addition to the many sections on various vegetable varieties, they've also got special sections on continental, French, Oriental, Italian, Latin American and Native American vegetables, and their herb section covers 5 pages and 51 varieties. They've also got 32 pages of flowers, various bulbs and tubers for spring and fall, garden tools, garden books and cookbooks, composting equipment, kitchen gadgets, and miscellaneous garden products.

Their prices from $0.40 to $1.00 for seed packets and their germination rate in my experience is second only to Shepherd's Garden Seeds (much more about which anon). Few pleasures top that of starting a plant from seed and seeing it through fruition, and Pinetree is following a growing and marvelous trend of featuring more open pollinated varieties than not, thus supporting our horticultural heritage over short-term stockholder value. Please do patronize this fine company.


posted by Steven Baum 12/8/1999 09:59:05 PM | link

XMAS SITINGS
A few things to put the hum back in your bug if you've been assailed (rather than properly wassailed) by one too many (i.e. one) treacly Christmas tunes.
  • Blackadder's Christmas Carol is the first seasonal video I watch. Its inversion of the traditional Dickens classic gets me in the proper mood.
  • Scrooged is the only other seasonal video I own. I'm a big Bill Murray fan and this version of the meme even does the overly sentimental stuff at the end tastefully. The only other version I'll watch is the one with Albert Finney jumping around and singing "Thank you very much, sir. Thank you very much. That's the nicest thing that anyone's every done for me." That tune pops into my head out of nowhere in mid-July.
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas just brings tears to my eyes until he gets overwhelmed with the wrong kind of holiday spirit towards the end.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas is a tale whose delightfully twisted nature fortunately survived Disney's hamfisted nicey-nice filter, and it doesn't involve the director's overDeppendence on certain annoying actors.
  • Several dozen albums of Demented Christmas Songs are available, with Mojo Nixon's Horny Holidays and Spike Jones' Let's Sing a Song of Christmas good choices.
  • This list of Alternative Christmas Music features everything from a Star Wars album from 1980 to Ren and Stimpy's "Crock O' Christmas" to Brave Combo's great Christmas album.
  • This A Cappella Christmas Albums list features reviews of several dozen such albums.
  • This Christmas Humor site has everything from holiday lists to fractured carols to poems to jokes.
  • No Christmas Puppies, Please! explains why it's just not a good idea to make a present of one of these marvelous creatures for Christmas, although it can be a very good idea at other times.
  • And if you want to go straight to hell, there's Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics Portal and the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" claymation film done by MadTV a few years ago.

posted by Steven Baum 12/8/1999 04:27:40 PM | link

SITINGS
Tired of the "Does the new millennium start on Jan. 1, 2000 or 2001?" debate? Well, there's another one making the rounds based on geography rather than time, although the implications are only important to the sort of boneheads whose primary goal in life is to chant "we're number 1!" as often and annoyingly as possible. This debate centers on where one has to be to experience the new millennium first while wearing the requisite big foam hand with the appropriate finger pointing skywards. In
Competition is on to claim millennium's first sunbeams in the 12/8/99 NYTimes, Seth Mydan points out that the first sunrise will occur near Dibble Glacier in Antarctica - located on the international date line - 21 hours before it rises in New York. But, since nobody lives there, the competition moves to the "first inhabited place to see the sunrise" category, for which several South Pacific islands, including Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati and New Zealand's Pitt Island (the choice of astronomers although chances are it will be too foggy to see the sun), are contending. Mydan writes his story from the easternmost city in New Zealand, Gisborne City, which is staking claim to the "first city to greet the new millennium" title.

Now comes the definitional jiggery-pokery, since these claimants are all using local time to stake their claims. Others, like an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, claim that since the only international standard for time is Universal Time, then the new millennium will begin when Jan. 1 starts along the Greenwich meridian. By this definition, the first land mass to see the new millennium will be Katchall Island, located in the Bay of Bengal as part of the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago.

If you want to stick to the local definition there are some other Pacific contenders, most of who've been sly boots in one way or another. In 1995 the Kiribati Archipelago arbitrarily extended the international date line 1000 miles so it's easternment island would be included, at which point they renamed it from Caroline to Millennium Island. Critics point out that nobody actually lives on that island, and that the easternment populated island of Kirabati - Christmas Island - will see the sunrise 27 minutes after Pitt Island. The Tonga Archipelago decided to institute daylight savings time this year, which coincidentally moves their clocks ahead such that their easternmost islands are 14 hours ahead of Greenwich. Fiji is being most aggressive, claiming both that the international date line is what matters most and that it is not dawn but midnight that counts. They also moved their clocks forward. Critics have pointed out - and I agree - that moving clocks forward or moving the date line around doesn't make the sun rise any earlier and that Pitt Island will still see the sunrise (or at least a faint glowing through the fog) before any of these contenders.

The first sunrise in the continental U.S. will occur at 7:04 AM at Cadillac and Porcupine Mountains in Maine, with Miami Beach being the first big city to see the dawn at 7:07 AM. Completists should be alerted that the final (local) sunset will occur in Falealupo, Samoa at 7:02 PM. If none of these definitions please then you can, of course, recognize the arbitrary nature of the international date line and define a modified line that runs right through your back yard. That's what I'm doing, although I'm going to be way too hung over to want to greet even a single photon announcing that 2000 years have passed under the numbering system arbitrarily introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century. Besides, even under his system, next year is the real new millennium.
posted by Steven Baum 12/8/1999 10:59:07 AM | link

Tuesday, December 07, 1999

SCIENCE
There's altogether too much talk about the supposed failure of the
Mars Polar Lander. Such missions push the boundaries of technology to the point where failures should be expected. Specific failures shouldn't be greeted with the sort of funereal reactions I've been seeing. This IS rocket science. With most scientific endeavors you're ecstatic if you bat .500 with your experiments (e.g. in our most recent series of climate simulations we're hitting maybe .250, although even the ostensible failures have proved enlightening), and NASA's done much better than that over the years. Various comments by those at NASA involved with this mission include:
"We have a lot to learn from this mission."

"Clearly you have to risk something to get something. We have a lot more missions more frequently. I think that is a benefit."

"What we are trying to do is difficult. The lesson is to carry on in the face of adversity."

I nominate the first part of that last quote as the understatement of the year. I once read an analogy about how difficult such missions were that's stuck with me. The logistics would be similar to designing a remotely-controlled automobile to drive across the USA (with no stops for gas) and end up in a specified parking space just as the last drop of gas was used.

If you're looking for consolation over this supposed failure, then just take a gander at the past, current, future and proposed missions. Dig around on those sites and see what real scientific advancements have been made with unmanned vehicles during the space age. They've come up with a lot more than a bunch of pretty pictures. The total cost of this mission was around $265 million. A typical space shuttle flight costs around $500 million, with quite a few of them not being terribly valuable in terms of science. And one of those missions that probably shouldn't even have been launched (recall who was planning to give a State of the Union address that evening and who his communications director was) ended in a tragedy that traumatized the entire space program for the best part of a decade, delaying the launches of satellites and unmanned probes for years.

James Van Allen - the discover of the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth - has been lobbying NASA from the start of the shuttle program to not divert so many resources away from the unmanned vehicle program, a program that produces more science per dollar. I've always agreed with him on this, but those in charge since the beginning of the shuttle program have consistently chosen the sexy people-filled shuttle over boring robots exploring the almost complete unknown. Most basic science just ain't sexy, a point constantly brought home to me by the depressing lack of groupies here in the office. Most basic science is also difficult and replete with failure, a fact perhaps difficult to swallow by a culture increasingly obsessed with the winner/loser false dichotomy.
posted by Steven Baum 12/7/1999 10:33:52 AM | link

SPELLING NUDGE
Somebody corrected me the other day and I'm passing on (now that the error is starting to annoy me) that the correct spelling is "millennium" and not "millenium."
posted by Steven Baum 12/7/1999 09:37:40 AM |
link

Monday, December 06, 1999

PRECIS
The 12/5/99 NYtimes Sunday Magazine features the winner and other entries in their
Times Capsule contest for creating a time capsule for the year 3000. Two categories were considered, i.e. a limit of $60K with current technology and the sky's the limit. The practical winner is a 3-D, polished stainless steel mandela designed by Spain's Santiago Calatrava, an internationally known designer of bridges and a sculptor. Other interesting designs include:
  • Jaron Lanier's plan to translate the contents of the 1999 Magazine into DNA language and splice that information into the introns of a cockroach, along with an interbreeding program to ensure the genetic transmission of this information.
  • Jurgen Drey's droog design for engraving information on artificial body parts like hips, pacemakers and teeth, which will be interred with the rest of the body and retrieved at the appropriate time.
  • Caples Jefferson's obelisk designed to gradually fall apart over 1000 years until a glass heart with a time capsule is revealed.
  • The Ocean Group's plan for constructing nine capsules to be airdropped onto the Antarctic shelf, to be gradually released into the oceans and tracked with a monitoring system to be based in New York.
  • Maya Lin's (who designed the Vietnam Memorial) plan to bury a granite container under a stone slab in Central Park at the heart of a spiral of English oak trees.
  • The Cooper Union's titanium sphere to be hung over a meditative labyrinth tiled in the floor of the Cathedral of St. John in upper Manhattan.
  • GK Design Group's metal "seed" capsule to be launched into an elliptical orbit around the sun calculated to return in 1000 years.
  • Ezri Tarazi's concrete shell containing enough oil to keep a memorial flame going for 1000 years.
  • Gaetanoo Pesce's plan to carve microscopic characters on the trunks of sapling sequoias which will become large and readable in 1000 years.
  • Morphosis's plan to bury a capsule and print a map on each of the 4.5 billion Coca-Cola cans produced in a single month.
  • Pentagram's plan to put a capsule in a huge earring to be hung on the statue of liberty.
A sort of related site is the Long Now Foundation, who want to construct a millennium clock that ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and has a cuckoo appear once a millennium.
posted by Steven Baum 12/6/1999 11:14:36 PM | link

YAMMERING
While perusing various instances of more space than not being spent on discussing web logs and web log rating systems, I was reminded of a Usenet post I read many years ago. In response to an announcement for a make file developed to create other make files, a respondent wondered how much farther you'd have to go before you got to the point where you were jumping in and out of your own arsehole.
posted by Steven Baum 12/6/1999 04:32:35 PM |
link

YAMMERING
We're having one of the few days that can actually be described as "cool and crisp fall weather" here in southcentral Texas, and I'm flashing back to making cider in the autumn back in Ohio. We used (and the folks still use) a combination grinder and presser made of cast iron and oak that must be at least 75 years old. I'm told that it's needed a wee bit of maintenance in recent years, but is still doing what it was designed to do in an exemplary fashion. Back when I last helped (over 15 years ago) an orchard of very old apple trees was still producing a fine crop of raw materials, although they've since died (supplying some fine meat smoking wood in the process) and been replaced as suppliers by an impressive orchard of dwarf apple trees (that were planted from 20-25 years ago by the old man in an act of superb and wise anticipation - a callow youth saw them as just another jungle of damned obstacles to avoid while mowing several acres).

I can't find anything on the web that resembles our cidermaking contraption, although there are some related sites of interest:


posted by Steven Baum 12/6/1999 03:23:25 PM | link

SCIENCE
Use of Proxies in Paleoceanography is a state-of-the-art review of methods for reconstructing the climate of the past using quantities we can measure today. The introductory chapter - "Clues to ocean history, a brief overview of proxies" - in this volume edited by Gerhard Fischer and Gerold Wefer defines a proxy variables as "measurable descriptors which stand in for desired (but unobservable) variables such as temeperature, salinity, nutrient content, oxygen content, carbon dioxide concentration, wind speed, and productivity." Each proxy is associated with a rule or equation that transforms the quantity actually measured (e.g. oxygen isotope ratio) into the desired quantity (e.g. temperature).

The most commonly and easily reconstructed past variable is temperature, with four methods used most of the time:

  • Each region of the present ocean features a different assemblage or combination of microscopic organisms. When these die their skeletal remains sink to the ocean bottom and build up over the years. So if we take a core sample at a given bottom location, successive vertical slices of the core from the top down should give us a record of the organisms dwelling in the overlying water further and further into the past. If the organisms remain the same or closely related species, then past assemblages similar to those seen today can be used to infer past temperatures. This method requires a lot of bug counting under microscopes and quite a bit of statistical number crunching, as can be seen in this classroom exercise.
  • Some microorganisms build calcareous skeletons using the calcium available in their environment. This process uses oxygen which is locked up in solid form in the skeletons. This oxygen is actually a mix of isotopes, the ratio of which depends on the temperature of the ambient water (and some other factors). If those other factors can be isolated, then the temperature effect can be isolated and past temperatures inferred from the oxygen isotope composition of individual skeletons.
  • In the organisms with calcareous skeletons there is substantial substitution of calcium by magnesium in a process dependent upon temperature. Thus correlations between the Mg/Ca ratio and temperature can be used to infer past temperatures, although the range of applicability of this technique is significantly more limited than with the previous two, i.e. the other factors are much tricker to isolate and account for.
  • Certain microorganisms called coccolithophorids produce long-chain, relatively stable organic compounds called alkenones. The ratio of two types of alkenones has been found to depend on - you guessed it - the temperature at the time of formation. The application of this method is presently even more limited than is the Mg/Ca ratio method, although it is gaining in popularity as more samples are gathered and processed.
The best part of the book for the interested amateur is the introductory chapter, with the rest of the papers being extremely detailed accounts of variations on the above and other themes for extracting specific information. The best introductory books to this topic remain the Imbries' The Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery and Hsu's The Mediterranean Was a Desert, although if you're looking for the newest and nastiest details you can plunk down the $175 needed to get this.
posted by Steven Baum 12/6/1999 02:16:14 PM | link

SCIENCE
I can't get enough of the Scientific American special Extreme Engineering issue, which has impressed more than any special millennium issue of any magazine I've seen thus far. In "Seven wonders of modern astronomy," George Musser describes the most amazing telescopes (in various categories) and how they work. They are:
  • The Sharpest: The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), whose tracking and stabilizing mechanism and position above the clouds and turbulent distortion of the Earth's atmosphere make its resolution limited only by its optics. It's currently on hiatus, waiting for the next Servicing Mission to replace all six gyroscopes, one of three guidance sensors, and the outdated main computer sometime early this month.
  • The Biggest: The Very Large Telescope (VLT) project of the European Southern Observatory consists of four 8.2 meter mirror telescopes whose power will be combined to achieve the resolving power of a 200 meter device via a technique called interferometry.
  • The Farthest Flung: The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) instrument of the NRAO consists of 10 radio dishes scattered between Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. These combine, using ultraprecise timing via an atomic clock, to act as a single 8000 km wide radio telescope.
  • The Most Extensive: The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is the most ambitious astronomical surveying project ever started, and will systematically map one-quarter of the sky to produce an image and the positions and brightnesses of over 100 million objects. The project uses only a single 2.5 meter optical telescope but it contains what may be the most complex camera ever built.
  • The Swiftest: The Robot Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) is an experimental program to search for astrophysical optical transients on time scales of a fraction of a second to a few hours, a relatively unexplored territory in astronomy. The primary goal is to find the optical counterparts of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). The latest ROTSE instrument consists of two 0.45 meter aperture telescopes operated in stereo mode, with the data acquisition system a network of PCs running Linux.
  • The Deadliest: The Large Zenith Telescope (LZT) project is a 6 meter telescope currently under construction. The deadly part involves it consisting of a pool of mercury rotating at just the right rate for optimum mirror telescope optics. The fumes are deadly, but if this is successful it will cost a couple of orders of magnitude less than a comparable glass telescope. A key component is a two-ton air bearing that had to be custom fabricated to keep the mercury stable enough for optical needs.
  • The Weirdest: The Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) is being constructed at the South Pole to observe high-energy neutrinos. It consists of strings of photomultiplier tubes placed into deep water-drilled holes in the South Polar ice cap. A nontechnical history of AMANDA called Ice fishing for neutrinos provides a nice introduction. The project also has the spiffiest logo:

    AMANDA Project Logo
The astronomy community was on the Internet like a bear on honey long before it got trendy, and as a result most of the research is well documented and nicely presented on the web.
posted by Steven Baum 12/6/1999 09:37:46 AM | link

Sunday, December 05, 1999

SITINGS/MUSIC
For over ten years I used NPR's
Morning Edition as a wake-up alarm, a tradition that stopped almost two years ago when they joined the rest of the dumbasses on the "all Monica, all the time" bandwagon. I've recently restarted that tradition, a decision that was rewarded today when I heard the latest version of director's cuts on the Sunday Weekend Edition. These are chosen by director Ned Wharton 3 or 4 times a year, and a perusal of the archives shows this to be the best batch so far. The choices include:
  • Hasidic New Wave's Kabalogy on The Knitting Factory label does strange things to traditional Jewish music - stranger things than even klezmer. This is an avant-jazz collective featuring Frank London and Greg Wall that, according to the Knitting Factory site, got busted by the NYPD for smoking a joint. Luckily they're still alive with lower intestines fully intact.
  • Slo Leak - the duo of Danny Kortchmar and Charlie Karp - combine sampled music with guitar and bass to sound like Howlin' Wolf fronting a big band on When the Clock Strikes 12.
  • Balkans Without Borders is a collection of modern music from the Balkans whose proceeds go to Doctors Without Borders, and which has liner notes by Andrei Codrescu as an added bonus.
  • With Drawn from Vibes features Brad Jones (on vibes), E. J. Rodriguez and Bill Ware (all formerly of Jazz Passenger) performing such tunes as "Keep on Truckin" and a barely recognizable "Close to You" in a group with no winds, guitar or piano.
  • The late Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba was an important precursor to much of the samba music that followed its release in 1962, and is available in both remastered and gold versions.
Although I haven't snagged any of these yet, I did grab some good stuff at the used CD shops on Saturday including:
  • Bug Music by Don Byron presents new versions of the whimsical music of Raymond Scott and the John Kirby and Duke Ellington Orchestras (with Scott having composed a lot of the music you hear in the Warner Brothers looney tunes).
  • With The Best of Louis Jordan I get a replacement for that vinyl LP I've had for 15 years by one of the founders (along with Cab Calloway) of that recently revived genre called swing.
  • Jan Garbarek's Rites is a double-disc addition to my already large collection of Garbarek, whose earlier album Dis was the first CD I ever purchased. This set has a little bit of everything, from his typical haunting saxophone tunes to his more recent experiments with electronic effects and synthesizers. I'm slowly becoming a Garbarek completist, and have thus far quelled an urge to be an ECM completist.

posted by Steven Baum 12/5/1999 06:03:31 PM | link

HOLMES LIT
A great haul of 23 books on an Austin excursion yesterday (along with the year's first taste of Anchor Christmas, their 25th anniversary edition). It contained five Sherlock Holmes-related volumes including two pastiches, a book of essays, a biography, and a psychological profile. The essay volume, called
Beyond Baker Street: A Sherlockian Anthology and edited by Michael Harrison, contains 25 essays including Isaac Asimov on Moriarty's paper "On the dynamics of an asteroid," Martin Gardner on Conan Doyle's obsession with the occult, John Gardner (author of The Return of Moriarty and The Revenge of Moriarty) on the London underworld contemporaneous with Holmes, and Nicholas Meyer (author of three pastiches including the book and movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) on "Psychological directions in Holmesian criticism." A Jacques Barzun essay offers 10 rules for serious pastiches:
  • No shilly-shallying between pastiche and parody.
  • Whether in pastiche or parody, no fancy writing; plain language is safest.
  • No recourse merely to the well-known tricks of speech and action in the original.
  • No incessant effort to squeeze comedy out of every remark or incident.
  • No gross or grotesque proper names.
  • No expressions of recent coinage, high or low (i.e. no anachronisms).
  • No technical terms thrown about needlessly.
  • No pastiche without the Holmes touch (e.g. remarks such as "My charges are upon a fixed scale; I do not alter them save when I remit them altogether.").
  • No pastiche that degrades Holmes through any piece of feeble or patently false reasoning.
  • No pastiche without at least one Sherlockismus, the equivalent of one truffle in each pate de foie gras.
The pastiches are The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower and Ten Years Beyond Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Matches Wits with the Diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu by Cay Van Ash (who's written a biography of Sax Rohmer, the author of the original Fu Manchu series). The Stashower book has Harry Houdini being framed and jailed for espionage with Holmes clearing his name and exposing a plot to blackmail the Prince of Wales.

The biography is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett (part of the Sherlock Holmes Library reprint series chosen and edited by Otto Penzler, the proprieter of The Mysterious Bookshop). This was first published in 1933 and praised by the Commissionaire of the Baker Street Irregulars as the greatest book about Sherlock Holmes ever written. It features an appendix containing two extremely difficult quizzes about the Holmes stories. The final volume is Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes by Samuel Rosenberg, called the enfant terrible of Sherlockian scholarship by Harrison. Rosenberg purports to show that Professor Moriarty is really Nietzsche, Thaddeus Sholto in "The Sign of Four" is really Oscar Wilde, and that Holmes is Conan Doyle's superego, at war with repressed sexuality and unmentionable perversions. This book is looked on with less than complete fondness by many Holmes aficionados.
posted by Steven Baum 12/5/1999 03:32:08 PM | link


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