Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cedar Rapids public library flooding

Library Journal interviews Marie DeVries of the Cedar Rapids Public Library. There's some good discussion of how one deals with a disaster like this.

"How’s it going?" "This is all fluid" was, I think, entirely unself-conscious.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Guantanamo (yet) again

"US asks to rewrite detainee evidence"

"The government has stood behind the evidence for years. Military review boards relied on it to justify holding hundreds of prisoners indefinitely without charge. Justice Department attorneys said it was thoroughly and fairly reviewed.

Now that federal judges are about to review the evidence, however, the government says it needs to make changes."

No, not to redact potentially sensitive information, but to make the case more convincing than it was going to be if reviewed by military tribunals. Is anyone surprised?

Guarding guns

This is an interesting photo:

I was struck by the effort that someone has gone to keep all these weapons in neat rows and columns, rather than throw them into a compact pile. I may be missing something, but the only reason for it that comes to mind is the need to guard against black market trading. With everything in a neat row, it's harder for the guards or anyone else to snatch a few weapons without it being noticeable. A practical example of how our perception works: no one would notice a hundred rifles missing from a big messy pile, but if you mess up a nice row & column pattern, the gap would be too obvious to overlook.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lincoln Museum closing in Fort Wayne

Somewhat old news that I haven't commented on: The old Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne will close and the Lincoln Financial Foundation will seek new quarters for the collection, which happens to be the largest privately-owned collection of Lincoln materials in the world. The folks in Fort Wayne are no happier than you might expect them to be and are trying to find a way to keep the collection in Indiana at least.

If you discount the importance of Hoosier prestige, though, it's hard to see why the Lincoln Museum needs to stay in Indiana. The ACPL is probably one of the few community libraries that could actually take on such a project, but I don't think they have facilities and personnel already in place for this type of thing. I'm sure the ACPL and Indiana State Museum can do the job, but when Springfield or the Smithsonian already have high-level Lincoln collections, it'll be hard to compete. It's also hard to see a winning argument in the claim that keeping Lincoln materials geographically scattered is some kind of aid to researchers (although it is a defense against floods, fires, and the like).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mechanical computers

I've been spending a bit more time than I can justify playing Silent Hunter III, a PC game that simulates WWII U-boat warfare. I'm enjoying a chance to relearn some of the trigonometry that I know, but forget I know. For example, "Ship sighted!" I'm headed due east, the target's on bearing 330 from me (ahead left), but I'm viewing them from an angle of 135 degrees on the starboard side (behind right, from their perspective). I need to get ahead of them, so what course do I command in order to run parallel to the ship while I overtake her? "Jawohl, Herr Kaleun! New course einz - null - fuenf!" Once I reach attack position, I need to be able to calculate an interception course of about 90 degrees for optimum firing position.

But you don't have to be lined up perfectly, although it's easier that way. You just have to make the torpedo travel on an angle that will intercept a moving target. What I never appreciated from watching Das Boot is that the submarine carried a sophisticated mechanical computer for aiming the computers. Remember how the commander always calls out the target's course, speed, and range? One of his crew is setting those numbers into the TDC - Torpedo Data Computer. But that's not quite enough information. We know what the target is doing now, but we haven't told the crewman whether the target is to the left, the right, dead ahead, or just where. Ah, we don't have to! The TDC knows because it has a connection to the periscope and knows which way it's turned (relative to the sub's bow). So once you've entered the target's range, course, and speed, the TDC will recalculate the firing solution as it detects the periscope's angle changing; the commander can now aim just by pointing the periscope at his target, regardless of which way his submarine is pointing. The TDC has been updating the setting of a gyroscope in the torpedo itself. Once the torpedo is launched, the gyroscope will keep the torpedo turning until it feels itself lined up with the angle the TDC wanted for it.

The fascinating part of this is that it was all done mechanically; this is years before ENIAC, let alone Commodore. For a sense of what it took to create a mechanical calculator like this, take a look at the American Mark 3 from the same era:

Pretty complicated, huh? All analog and, needless to say, highly classified. No doubt it was extremely expensive, too. This one could even track the target's movements (and compensate for the submarine's motion) in real time, which made it even more advanced than the German computer. And those poor guys in WWI had to do the same thing with a slide rule.

Speaking of which, there are some really hard core sub gamers out there who love doing things the hard way. They want to calculate the target's course manually, measure the angle to the mast to determine the range (have to know what ship you're looking at, so you know how tall the mast actually is), and use a stopwatch to determine the ship's speed. And they just love trying to recreate old targeting aids like this:

It's kind of like a WWII version of SCA - where else do you find guys eager to learn how a slide rule is used?

The Gitmo detainees again

John Yoo opines in the Wall Street Journal:

In World War II, no civilian court reviewed the thousands of German prisoners housed in the U.S. Federal judges never heard cases from the Confederate prisoners of war held during the Civil War. In a trilogy of cases decided at the end of World War II, the Supreme Court agreed that the writ did not benefit enemy aliens held outside the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, we in the Justice Department relied on the Supreme Court's word when we evaluated Guantanamo Bay as a place to hold al Qaeda terrorists.
Again repeating the fiction (that's the polite word for bald-faced lie) that the Bush Administration has simply been following precedent with its treatment of terrorist suspects. Nothing could be less true - Yoo was part of an effort to deliberately create a legal black hole where no precedents or legal constraints applied and rules could be made up on the fly as convenient. They had a choice of saying, "We're going to treat these people as POW's" or "We're going to treat these people as violent criminals," in which case none of this mess would exist.

It's always a "power-grab" when someone expects a Bushie to obey the law.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Once upon a time in Ann Arbor

"Free John Sinclair!"

Flexible behavior without sophisticated cognition

Children Learn Smart Behaviors Without Knowing What They Know

"Children learn implicitly. They don’t need complex conceptual knowledge to show evidence of smart, flexible behavior."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Living in a puzzle

An architectural designer builds a mystery into a Manhattan apartment

Roman d20

So what's Latin for Dungeons & Dragons? I thought 20-sided dice were a rather recent innovation but, no, here's one from 1800 years ago. The lot notes at Christie's say

Several polyhedra in various materials with similar symbols are known from the Roman period. Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.
I have to wonder if they were used for games, for fortune-telling, or both?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Teach the controversy

Ooh, this is tempting:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

That's how the law works?

John McCain, on the Guantanamo ruling:

We are now going to have the courts flooded with so-called … habeas corpus suits against the government, whether it be about the diet, whether it be about the reading material. And we are going to be bollixed up in a way that is terribly unfortunate because we need to go ahead and adjudicate these cases.

You can invoke habeus corpus over food and magazines? I'd have thought such suits would be more common ....

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Rights" for Gitmo detainees

As I sit here searching databases for info on rare medical textbooks, I'm listening to the Diane Rehm show and getting increasingly annoyed. Matthew Continetti, the associate editor for "The Weekly Standard," keeps comparing the Guantanamo detainees to prisoners of war, who can be held indefinitely until hostilities are over. Has he forgotten that the Bush Administration explicitly refused to consider these prisoners to be POW's, because they didn't intend to observe the Geneva Conventions? Not POW's, so we're allowed to abuse them; not criminals, so they have no rights in court; not in the US, so no American due process can touch them; not anything at all for which anyone has ever defined any rules that we would rather not follow.

This is the fundamental dishonesty in all these arguments about the SCOTUS overreaching - any sensible treatment would have worked withing the framework of existing law, instead of going through such contortions to move the issue into legal no-man's-land. It's a lie to pretend that it's the Court that is departing from previous practice. Rather, they're trying to restore it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Quote of the week

From Ed Brayton:

Here's a simple rule I find useful: if you belong to a religious group that has a "compound," things are not going to end well.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Alexander Hamilton house is moved

I hadn't heard about this before, but Alexander Hamilton's house was just moved down the street into Harlem's St. Nicholas Park. Back in the day, it was a quiet country home. Now ... seems Harlem has changed a little over the years. Moving the house to the park will restore a little hint of its original character.

The article mentions the project being fought in court. This article explains that it's just a dispute over which way the house should face, not an attempt to halt the move altogether. This NYT article also contains more information.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Who's afraid of a verdant Mars?

I'd never heard of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, but my first encounter was none too encouraging. The Institute's director, Nick Bostrom, in this article, hopes that the Phoenix lander doesn't find any signs of life on Mars. Because if it does, our chances of making it to Talos IV just took a big hit.

The article works by turning a small observation into the foundation of a huge conclusion that the observation just can't support. It goes like this: star trekking civilizations appear to be rare - in fact, we don't know of even one. So there is a Something that makes it hard for creatures to evolve to Star Trek levels of civilization. This Something goes by the name of the Great Filter.* What is it that makes it so hard to develop that far? We don't know - small sample size and all. If we're lucky, it's just that life itself is so darned hard to evolve, because then we can look at ourselves and say, "Hard part's over."

On the other hand, if it turns out that microbes are a dime a dozen, then maybe the big challenge - the Great Filter - still lies ahead of us. Yike! The end is near! Or there's a good chance that it's nearer than we hoped.

Given that examining Mars won't increase our sample size very much, and given that the extreme distances in space make it plausible that civilizations might never contact one another, that's way too much to conclude. In this case, Bostrom's entire argument hinges on absence of evidence, but that absence is rather easily explained. I think I'll root for those microbes anyway.

*which, paradoxically, arises in any swamp patch that is not sufficiently sincere.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why I love PZ Meyers

Because the guy keys in on just the right word or image:

Even worse, how can we sense this evidence? We need to use a special instrument.
That instrument is the heart. "It is the heart which perceives God, and not the reason". "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know". Pascal's reasons of the heart are meant to take over from an intellect that operates on hard evidence but has run out of it. "The heart has its order, the mind has its own, which uses principles and demonstrations. The heart has a different one".
It's all fluff and nonsense. Tingley doesn't have a skeptical or scientific neuron in his head, and it shows that he's trying to think with a muscle.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Identified photographs

I might have mentioned, while discussing who bears responsibility for ensuring the accurate identification of photographs in a repository, that the Library of Congress created a Flickr account which, when I checked today, had 3715 digitized photos. That's not so many, since LOC is trying to publish only the ones that are in the public domain. But they're also hoping that the general public can provide more information on the content of the pictures, too. In most cases, LOC already knows a lot, but they never know everything about even their own collection.