Archive for August, 2010

Phil Plait’s video on not being a dick, part 2

August 28, 2010 2 comments

I like Phil Plait a lot, but he’s recently been on a thing about “Not Being A Dick” and his recent video is supposed to be a clarification of that position. 

This reminds me of the scene in nearly every cop show where they take a fuzzy picture and apply enhancement software to it, and see a reflection of the killer’s face on a chrome-plated lugnut.  There’s only so much you can clarify a position that is fuzzy to begin with.

Mind you, I try to be fair-minded and respectful but those are adjectives, which means they are difficult to quantify, like “fast” or “cold”.  In other words, they take on their meaning by contrast to the context in which they are found. 

Phil has said that it’s all right to argue with passion, and that satire and name-calling are OK.  Which is a good thing, because if I couldn’t call Ken Ham an idiot, or Ted Haggard a hypocrite, then we might as well just talk about the weather. 

Perhaps I should have been more clear on what I mean by being a dick. I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion. I wouldn’t include satire in that category, or comedic work, or even necessarily using insults; tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, “What a dick”? I don’t; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Y’know. Being a dick.

Gee, Phil, thanks for clearing that up.  What, specifically, are you trying to say?  Is it wrong to use profanity?  Why and in what context?  I hardly ever use profanity online but that’s me, not a prescription for you.

Is it wrong to perform symbolic actions?  This seems to be the one that most angers traditionalists.  Draw a picture of Mohammad, or stick a nail through a cracker, and you are making a point about the value of those symbols outside the context of their community of adherents.  Yes it might be painful for someone within a belief system (not the same as a value system) to see such actions, but they’re symbolic.  Usually, they are performed in the context of a response to non-symbolic actions, like violence or oppression.

The meaning is almost always argued outside of its context, but it is context that gives meaning.

One thing I have learned is that what is normal to one person may be horribly offensive to another.  And I’ve also picked up on the fact that not everyone has the same goal.  Plait again:

Others took issue with my initial question, asking how many people were “converted” to skepticism by having a skeptic yelling at them and insulting them. In fact, at least one person said that method does work and worked on them. That’s good for them, but given what we know about the way people argue and change their views on issues, the vast majority of people will become further entrenched when confronted in that way.

Phil could be asking the wrong question here, or addressing the wrong audience.  Maybe the yelling, insulting person isn’t trying to convert the Kirk Camerons of the world; maybe they recognize that is impossible.  It could be that their goal is to show them as the laughable idiots they really are – to make space for others to escape the cultural trap of “respecting” that which deserves no respect. 

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Can this be right?  Am I missing something?

August 23, 2010 4 comments

A professor asked to borrow a couple punch cards to pass around in class.  I recently saw an ad for a 1tb drive for eighty bucks, and got to thinking; how high of a stack of punch cards is that?

1,099,511,627,776 bytes, or 1tb
divided by 80 bytes per card =
13,743,895,347 punch cards, times .007 inches, the thickness of a punch card =
96,207,267 inches, divided by 12 inches per foot =
8,017,272 feet, divided by 5,280 feet in a mile =
1,518 mile-high stack of punch cards to equal 1tb.

Really?  It just sounds impossible, like I missed a bunch of decimal points somewhere, or made some massive error in logic.

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At the grocery store

August 23, 2010 Comments off

I bet there won’t be any mosquito larvae in that water…

From my photo album, Notes
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Waiting on the world to change…

August 23, 2010 Comments off

(h/t Ed Brayton)

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Paper or plastic? The book versus eBook conundrum

August 21, 2010 8 comments

***Dave has another one of his great think-pieces out, this time about the reader’s experience of a book printed on paper vs. one downloaded to a Kindle or some other reader.

4. A book is a single-tasking device.

I.e., it doesn’t tempt you with email or Twittering, it doesn’t browse the Internet.  It doesn’t act as an alarm clock or RSS reader.  Whether we’re talking an eReader that has some online abilities, or an iPad that’s a tablet computer that you can read on, electronic devices for reading are not, purely, about reading.

A book is a book.  It lets you read. That’s all it does, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

He explores the concept of book ownership, including the intellectual sense of having physical evidence (in the form of wear and tear) of having read the book and how many times.  He notes that you can loan a physical book, you can keep the book, and it’s a tactile experience. 

All valid, all true.  As actual bookstores begin to die (Barnes & Noble is up for sale, for example), we may find ourselves without anyplace to handle a book before buying it.  And it’s a pretty short couple of steps from there to rusty printing presses in abandoned buildings.

I am trying to get my library down from its one-time peak of several thousand books, to maybe just 500.  The nature of the books I plan to keep until they become somebody else’s problem when I die, can be used to discuss what should be plastic, and what belongs on permanent paper.

Books I’m getting rid of:

Books about software and computer hardware have very short lives anyway; they belong on some kind of reader.  The tactile experience isn’t all that important but searchability is, and I’d be gladly rid of the tonnage.  This is a depressingly large number of books in my house and I’ve been throwing as many of them out as I can without exceeding the weight limit on our garbage can.  Let’s face it: nobody wants my old copy of Windows 2000 System Administration or my 1109-page Using HTML 4 from QUE press, let alone Microsoft Guide to Managing Memory in DOS 5

Also goodbye to books that were sort-of-interesting but turned out to be utter bollicks: The Oxygen Revolution or that book about how the fillings in your teeth are killing you.  That’s also a depressingly large number of books.  Nobody can accuse me of not giving the woo a fair shot, but they’re goin’ in the can.

I’m also discarding deep, scholarly volumes from my college career, about church history, biblical commentaries, and ancient culture.  I’m unlikely to need them again and if I do, I’ll download something.

Goodbye to books on darkroom technology and chemistry – that’s a lot of volumes – with a specific exception to be noted below.

I threw out my Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a few volumes a week.  It was a 1976 edition, and it had been three years since the last time I looked up anything in it.  Not that I’ve stopped being an information junkie, but the computer is faster, lighter, and more portable.  The tactile experience of heavy Brittanica volumes on arthritic fingers just isn’t worth getting nostalgic over.

So what am I keeping?

Most of my science nonfiction, like Asimov and Dawkins and Sagan and Clarke and Dennett and Eisley and Cousteau and Carson and countless other authors on space, Earth, materials science, environmental science, epidemiology, human-caused disasters and related technology history, etc.  The tactile reading experience isn’t that great but I am likely to read the books again and there’s no hope of being able to download most of them.  So paper it is.

Science fiction too, at least by the holy trinity of Clarke, Asimov & Heinlein; and some anthologies. 

3 signed volumes by Edward Tufte.  My books by Ansel Adams – even the ones about technologies I no longer use.  Books on skepticism and the scientific method.  Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience, and a lot of other philosophical/scientific books by him.  Graphic novels.  It will be a long time before that reading experience can be matched on a screen.

Some landmark books on education, like John Holt’s How Children Fail, Banesh Hoffman’s The Tyranny of Testing, Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency.  Dennet’s Mismeasure Of Man

Books I specifically plan to download:

Certainly any very heavy books, and this could modify the “keep” list.  Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, or Asimov’s Physics.  And books that I plan to read once, like Francis Wellman’s The Art of Cross-Examination.

Clearly, this could go on all night, and it’s time for bed.  It looks like reference materials and books on current technology can go “plastic”; I won’t be reading today’s software books in ten years.  Conversely, books that I’d read for intellectual pleasure or just entertainment, or which I might not be able to download, I’m keeping in paper form.  But some books will cross those lines.  In any case I’m discarding about twenty books a month these days.  It might taper off as the decisions get harder.

Most of the people I know are bibliophiles.  What will your future library look like?

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One aspect of it, anyway…

August 21, 2010 1 comment

I want to try and get at this problem using an example that is non-religious and somewhat less political than what’s been in the news lately, so I’ll use bicycle accidents.

Now that newspapers have comment threads in their online sections, we can find out what a broader section of their readers really think, as opposed to just the narrow slice that made it into their editorial section back in the dead-tree days.  And being a cyclist, (my in-group) I read stories about bicycle accidents.  They are all too predictable.

It usually goes like this: some cyclist is hit by a car and killed.  He isn’t around to tell his story, so the motorist reports what happened from his perspective.  The Economist portrays the American motorist’s perspective like this:

LIVING in California mainly means driving, or sitting in traffic in hope thereof. This is boring. So what is one to do? For a start, there are billboards everywhere, many of them digital and flashing, lest drivers get distracted by traffic signs, pedestrians or other cars. Most drivers, however, focus on texting, e-mailing and talking on their mobile phones.

Anyway, there’s the story in the newspaper’s website, waiting for readers to dispense their common wisdom.  And it doesn’t take long before you realize that many motorists don’t just dislike cyclists, don’t limit themselves to finding cyclists a distraction from all the texting and cell-phone and such… they actively HATE bicyclists, as a class.

I’m not using hyperbole here; the vitriol is stunning, and only begins with generalizations.  The first cyclist who leaves a comment will be physically (and illogically) threatened by motorists: “If you tangle with me, you will be street pizza”, and then it starts to get kind of nasty.  There’s clearly more going on than just well-considered commentary on traffic safety.

Of course, some cyclists are jerks, and so are some motorists.  But the commenters spewing their hatred on the two-wheeled set don’t hate other motorists as a class.  They yell at individual motorists who cut them off, while a bicyclist who does the same thing seems to represent the whole class of those who brave the traffic under muscle power.

That’s a cognitive filter at work.  Essentially a cognitive filter excludes contrary information, and it doesn’t take long for the resulting body of mental evidence to prove incontrovertibly that the original assumption was right.

See, that’s not a prejudice at all; it’s a conclusion drawn from evidence!  And we’ve just arrived at the reason that bigots almost never admit to being prejudiced.  As they understand the issue, they aren’t, and why do you keep insisting that they are?

Take the hypothetical cyclist-hating motorist, Ralph.  He never notices the cyclist who is attentive, careful and courteous on the road; he notices the one who cut him off at a stopsign.  It begins to bother him that cyclists have more freedom of movement than he does.  (Cyclist can see and hear better than he can too, but he doesn’t know that).

Ralph doesn’t hate motorists; he is one.  He isn’t inclined to remember the times he has made some other driver slam on the brakes and when another motorist does it to him, he doesn’t ascribe the behavior to his whole group.

Some of this filtering is done for him.  Newspapers don’t run articles that say; “Man rides bicycle as carefully as possible” because that would be a boring article.  Even if they do occasionally run an article like that, Ralphie won’t read it.

Of course the newspaper runs countless articles about terrible accidents between car drivers, but he won’t make a case against car drivers as a class from those articles.  Drivers are in the majority, and so is he, and that’s that.

Similar filtering is done for him by office chatter: the self-reinforcing conversation of in-groups does not encourage the telling of stories that contradict the accepted narrative.

How long before Ralph makes an account with the newspaper website and starts typing angry, hateful comments about cyclists?

OK, forget about cyclists now, if you can.  Substitute other minority groups: gays, Latinos, blacks, motorcyclists, Catholics, skateboarders, Socialists, Cubs fans, Muslims, Greens, Segway riders, Mormons…  Did you feel your Personal Irritation meter needle twitching up and down as you read through that list?  That’s your brain activating its cognitive filters.

Here’s the bad news: nobody is without cognitive filters.  There are external filters that we can’t get rid of, and internal filters that are deeply ingrained by our culture.  About the best we can hope to do is be aware of them and make course corrections.  It isn’t an exact process, but we should damn well try.  The alternative is for our personal contributions to society to be more injustice, prejudice, and violence or support for violence.


  • Bicycles are hardly non-political, just like cars or trains or streets.  But curiously as more cyclists are on the road, cyclist deaths are dropping.  It’s a very good sign!

  • My apologies if your name is Ralph…
  • The bigger the offensive act, the more powerfully it generalizes to the whole group.
  • We Americans aren’t famous for our global perspective, but the fact is, we’re a cultural minority… just a very powerful (because we’re rich) minority.  People in other countries run this filter on us, triggered by Ugly American behavior.
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Movie Review: Micmacs

August 14, 2010 Comments off

MrsDoF and I went to the Historic Normal Theatre this evening to watch the French fantasy-comedy Micmacs this evening.  This is from the same twisted mind that created Amelie, and if laughter is any indication, everyone in the theater enjoyed it. 

Here’s the setup: Bazil’s father is killed by a land mine.  Years later in a drive-by shooting, Bazil takes a bullet to the brain – though he survives (after a fashion), becoming homeless and unemployed.  He learns that the two companies that made the land mine that killed his father, and the bullet he carries in his brain, are right in Paris and across the street from each other.  He takes up residence with some of the most creative people in Paris – who live in a junkyard and scavenge all their gear from the cast-offs of the city.  Together they cook up a whimsical con…

Hilarious pranks and scams and some rather large explosions artfully rendered too.  On the walk home, we each thought of movies that Micmacs reminded us of.  It might be a mix of The Sting and Iron Man, as envisaged by outcast junk scavengers…

UPDATE: Here’s the International trailer, with longer scenes from the movie.  You’ll see the Characters – and that’s with a capital “C” – a little better:

It’s interesting that neither trailer gets the plot right.  Bazil runs his con by playing two arms manufacturers against each other, and neither trailer mentions his father or the one that made the land mine that killed him.


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Ending the silver

August 14, 2010 4 comments

This post will probably make one of my good friends weep, but here we go.

Before there were digital cameras, photography was done by exposing silver halide emulsions to light, developing them in chemicals, then projecting light through the resulting negative onto similarly treated paper, then developing the paper in chemicals and drying the resulting print.  It was back then – up until about 15 years ago – that I was professionally involved in traditional photography.  I did camera repair, and did industrial and archival photography on the side.

What a lot of people who had a photo course in high school or college don’t realize is just how technical this craft could become.  Behind the Ansel Adams print they admire, for example, is a lot of science, and many of his books are masterpieces of technical writing as well as of art and even English prose.  To control the process you have to do controlled experiments and I did – calibrating the combinations of film, light, developing, enlarger, paper, and chemicals to get the result that I wanted.  By the time I sold any prints from a given brand of film or paper, I’d already explored how it behaved with shadows and highlights, at what contrast, and with what chemicals, and recorded the findings in my notebooks for future reference.

Well the camera repair business tanked when cameras became too sophisticated to repair in a small shop, and I wasn’t making enough in photography to pay the bills.  So I dove into computers and started studying at a furious rate.  It’s resulted in a string of jobs that have worked out well for me.

From my photo album; On Digital Photography

But my darkroom sat, for fifteen years.  Gradually I got rid of most of the heavy equipment – cameras and enlargers and print washers and dryers.  I still have some enlarging easels and beautiful Honeywell/Nikor film developing reels, and no idea what to do with them.  But I am cleaning out that room.  I don’t want to leave it for my kids to deal with.

And my “paper safe” – a specially constructed cabinet designed to keep out light and to be self-closing, was full of fine photographic paper: Mitsubishi Gekko, Agfa, Ilford, Arista, Kodak, even some East German Orwo.

This is expensive stuff and as you can see from the picture, there was a lot of it.  Last night I opened the paper safe – with the lights on – , and methodically emptied the boxes into a single large box for the next county toxic-waste pickup.  The empty boxes, I threw away. 

It was a strange feeling, and commemorates the end, I suppose, of my involvement with traditional photography a decade and a half ago.  I’ve been through quite a few digital cameras, and they’re just now beginning to catch up to film quality at a price point that I (no longer making a living with my camera) can afford.  I’ll soon purchase a Sony NEX-5 to compliment my Canon G11, and be approximately back where I was when I had Yashica medium format and Olympus OM-1’s and OM-2’s.

And I do mean; “approximately” because damn, those Olympus SLR’s were awesome cameras.  The Olympus slogan was; “Match your skills to ours” and they were an absolute joy to use.


  • It is true that some of the photo paper, still sealed, might still have been usable.  But professional-quality printing requires careful standardization, and 15-year-old paper would require a whole new set of tests to establish performance.

  • I wondered if the Barry Lategan image on one of the Ilford boxes would constitute child porn today.  We live in different times…
  • If you have never read a book by Ansel Adams, start with his autobiography; it is non-technical and a quite wonderful view into an amazing artistic and scientific life, and into the development of photography as a recognized art form.  (Also his description of Ronald Reagan was quite a hoot.)  Then read The Making of 40 Photographs and if you’re still going, read his classic trilogy;The Camera, The Negative,and The Print.
  • Check out this image of The first digital camera
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Dismayed to incoherence

August 10, 2010 24 comments

For days now I’ve been trying to say something meaningful about the Republican campaign against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”.  But even though I go on for endless, impassioned paragraphs, I just can’t seem to get beyond; “how can people be taken in by something so stupid and un-American?”

Fortunately, I can just post a picture of a feather that I took this morning, and direct you to two articles that said what I wasn’t able to.  I suppose it’s the equivalent of buying a Hallmark card, only I’m sending you to the very best.

***Dave confronts The Party of Hate.

“Rather than E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One,” their motto seems to be, “Out of Many, There’s Us vs. Them, So We Better Get Them Before They Get Us.  Oh, and Send Us Money, Too.”

The Economist says Build That Mosque.

“WHAT makes a Muslim in Britain or America wake up and decide that he is no longer a Briton or American but an Islamic “soldier” fighting a holy war against the infidel? Part of it must be pull: the lure of jihadism. Part is presumably push: a feeling that he no longer belongs to the place where he lives…

Thank you, that is all.  (And no, the feather isn’t symbolic of anything.  It’s just something I saw this morning that I thought was nifty.)

Here’s an essay by another thoughtful Christian on the controversy: Michael Kinnamon on Cordoba House and mosque at Ground Zero

… His family lived with the onus of suspicion for six months until Salman’s body was identified. He was found near the North Tower with his EMT bag beside him, situated where he could help people in need.  The point of this now famous story is simple. Not every Muslim at Ground Zero was a terrorist, and not every Muslim was a hero. The vast majority were like thousands of others on September 11: victims of one of the most heinous events of our times. But for the family of Salman Hamdani and millions of innocent Muslims, the tragedy has been exacerbated by the fact that so many of the rest of us have formed our opinions about them out of prejudice and ignorance of the Muslim faith…

And here’s The Daily Show on the Manhattan Island Islamic Center

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I think I might be married to Julia Roberts

August 8, 2010 6 comments

Well, metaphorically speaking…

Diane found herself in the role of organizing a huge funeral dinner at church last week.  The deceased, a beloved personality, had requested that everyone have a full-press sit-down dinner with ham, turkey, potatoes, veggies, pie, the works.  So organize she did, by Facebook and email, and people signed up to bring food, and she applied her extensive professional knowledge of food service, and it was a big success, but not only for those reasons.  One friend was heard to remark; “Everyone wants to make Diane happy!”

It’s true, and there’s a reason.  They want to see this:

(Jeez, she looks about 30 in that picture.  Joy is a time machine…)

I read somewhere that the plot of every Julia Roberts movie is the same: she smiles and the audience is happy.  Then something bad happens and she stops smiling, and the audience is unhappy, and therein lies the dramatic tension until something good happens and she looks at the camera and smiles again, and all is right with the world.  Roll credits!


  • The funeral was for Earl Kaufman, a free-thinking person equally at home in secular or church context.  His elegy, written by his cousin, is well worth the read.  Early in his life he sojourned in the Unitarian church and even (gasp!) became a Democrat.  When I met him, he had returned to the Mennonite church where he remained an anomaly all his life.  Lest you think Mennonites are all stuffy and anti-technological, he was an amateur pilot and gave MrsDoF her first airplane ride.

  • I swiped the elegy from The Normalite newspaper because they don’t seem to have permanent links for individual articles.
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