Monday, August 30, 2010

OED going all digital?

Here's a careless bit of writing:

The Oxford English Dictionary, as legendary as it is heavy, is facing a bleak future as there's not much of a market these days for a reference book that weighs 130 pounds.

The dictionary's publisher, Oxford University Press, said that the OED's online version gets two million hits a month. And that's from users who pay $295 a year to be able to access the exhaustive word list.
The point, of course -- and the article does get this right, despite those poorly-paired paragraphs -- is that the OED is doing just fine. In fact, it might be doing even better now that its clumsy technological limitations have been overcome. People are using the OED.

That $295/year, by the way, is the subscription rate for individuals and I expect most of those 2 million hits are coming from academic institutions who pay more, but provide most of the users. It's true that the OED online will never inspire the same awe as the rows and rows of hardbound volumes did -- but dammit, now everyone can use the thing!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday photo

Civil War reenactment, Raymond, Mississippi. November 13, 2004.

I stumbled across this event while road tripping through the South a few years ago, tracking some of the movements of my ol' great-grandpa Burke and his 47th Indiana Infantry regiment1. My planned destination was the battlefield at Vicksburg, but when I got there I saw the announcement of this event that very afternoon in nearby Raymond. A quick change of plans, a pat on the back for my lucky timing, and a half-hour drive got me to the scene just in time for the reenactment. I did my Vicksburg tour the next day.

The historic battle took place in a tangled woods, not the recently-harvested cornfield you see in the photo, but that wouldn't have made a good show for the spectators. It also happened in May, not November, but the farmer who owns said cornfield probably wouldn't care for several dozen men trampling his newly-planted crop. And a few dozen men is all there were to reproduce the battle, so your imagination did have to do some of the work. But it was a good reenactment, and when the shock wave from a 12-lb cannon passes through your body from half a mile away, your imagination has something to build on.

The battle of Raymond was a relatively small affair in itself, but the larger campaign against Vicksburg was crucial. Suffering under a naval blockade, the Confederacy badly needed the produce from its western half. But by spring of 1863, the Union army had captured the entire Mississippi River both downriver from Illinois and upriver from New Orleans, except for Vicksburg. If it fell, the rest of the Confederate states would be even poorer and hungrier.

Sitting atop a high bluff and overlooking a tight bend in the river, Vicksburg was unassailable from the West, unapproachable from the North, and unpassable via the river due its heavy artillery. So formidable it was, that General Grant had his engineers try to dig a channel and reroute the river so as to cut off the loop that Vicksburg commanded, leaving the city literally high and dry; the effort failed.2 Finally, a handful of gunboats and transports made a dangerous, but successful, dash past the guns in the dead of night. Once downstream, they established a ferry point across the river; the rest of the army then marched south past the city, and crossed over the river. Now Grant could march back north and approach the city from the east and, with the river now at the city's back instead of its front, lay siege and starve out the defenders. Which is exactly what happened.

The Battle of Raymond occurred when the Confederates attempted to stop one of Grant's columns on its march north from the ferry point. Outnumbered 12,000:4,000, they made a good showing, but had little chance of stopping the Federals. Four or five hundred men were killed or wounded on each side in several hours of fighting, before the Rebs were finally driven out of the way.

I haven't been able to find an exact length of time for the battle, but if it did last four or five hours, that works out to a hundred casualties per side per hour, or about one man going down on either side every forty seconds. That's quite a bit slower than you'll see in the movies, but it also seems to have been pretty typical of a Civil War battle: despite the horrific casualties, the rate of killing during the actual fighting is surprisingly slow.

Paddy Griffith, in his book Battle Tactics of the Civil War, crunches some numbers and, by comparing the amount of ammunition to the number of casualties, concludes that armies usually fired 75-100 bullets for every man they actually hit. What's most remarkable about that figures is that, while many history books speak of the deadly accuracy and long range of the rifles in this period, Civil War infantry didn't fight at long range. Instead, they marched forward until they were less than 100 yards from the enemy, frequently to within 30 yards, and then they started blazing away, hoping that a large mass of men at close range could blow away the enemy before they were themselves blown away. The defenders generally waited until the attackers were under that 100 yard range before they fired their first shots. It was all about massed firepower at short range.

Given those tactics, how incredible is it that so many shots missed? We're being asked to believe that two lines of men could stand 30-50 yards apart, packed almost elbow to elbow, and miss each other almost 99% of the time. But the numbers seem to bear it out. What could account for such futility? And if the shooting was that bad, how did so many men get killed?

Several factors are probably to blame. First, many of them didn't know how to shoot, because they never got to practice.3 Second, and more importantly, they were scared shitless. Those bastards were shooting back and no doubt the overwhelming impulse was to try to match the volume of fire that as coming from the enemy. So our man was probably trying to fire back as quickly as possible and not taking time to aim (and as close as 50 yards sounds, it's fairly easy to aim a little too high or low to hit a 6'-high target at that range). Yes, he'd been instructed to aim carefully, but c'mon -- that's asking a lot from a guy whose heart rate is probably well over 150.

A final consideration, which Griffith doesn't discuss, is evident in the photo above: gunsmoke. Black powder produces an amazing amount of smoke and even the general with a great vantage point would easily lose track of the action because he couldn't see what was happening on the battlefield, other than that there was a whole lot o' shootin' goin' on. Likewise for the men on the front lines. I can imagine that many soldiers blazed away at the smoke on the other side, thinking it better to send a large volume of bullets the other way, rather than waiting for a good target to become visible.

According to the written accounts, many battles were fought this in just this way, with men blazing away at almost point blank range for half an hour, or even two or three hours, with minimal effect. The casualties mounted not because the weaponry was used effectively, but just because the firefight went on so long; with neither side pressing to a conclusion. According to Griffith, this was the great error in American military thinking during the Civil War: they would close to firing range, but then stop and rely on firepower rather than pressing home the charge in order to disorganize and defeat the enemy. Battle were often inconclusive, and even when a side won a clear victory, it was rarely decisive. Despite the gradually mounting casualties, both sides could remain in fairly good order and just keep on fighting. So the war dragged on and on, a slow and brutal exercise in attrition, battle after battle. Had a few battles been bloodier still, but more decisively won, perhaps the war would have ended sooner.

1. You might be surprised that it's only one "great," but that's the truth. My dad was nearly 40 when I was born, his mother was 33, and she was born to 48-year-old veteran William Anderson Burke - who promptly died just a year later. Perhaps combat was less stressful than raising seven children.

2. This isn't as silly as it might sound, as the Federals had already used this tactic to successfully bypass some fortified islands upriver. As it turns out, had they been willing to wait a century or so, nature did some of the work for them: the Mississippi itself no longer makes such a long loop and doesn't run directly under the high part of the city any more.

3. Ammunition seems to have been too expensive to waste on target practice , so while they were well-drilled on marching and loading their weapons, soldiers who didn't already know how to shoot well weren't going to learn after joining the army. That's a major reason why units didn't fire at long range, despite the capabilities of their weapons. Commanders just didn't think their men could hit anything at less than point blank range and they probably weren't wrong.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fire tornado

Really. A tornado made of fire:

At The Telegraph, via Bad Astronomy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Friday photo

Sequoia trees, Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park, California. June 2005.

I spoke of the great age of the giant sequoia trees in an earlier post about the bristlecone pines, which are older yet. The oldest known sequoia is a mere 3500 years old, which puts its sprouting somewhere after the pyramids but before the Israelite monarchy. Okay, that's pretty old, even if it isn't record-setting.

Now, here's an insight into the "efficiency" of nature. An average sequoia disperses over a quarter million seeds every year. A successful sequoia - let's say it's 2000 years old - has dropped something like a half billion seeds in its lifetime and might just have another millennium to live. In order to sustain itself, each adult tree needs to reproduce itself once. A billion seeds, just to get two or three more adult trees, and yet there weren't very many of them even before the loggers arrived. It doesn't help that sequoia seeds don't do well in the shade and their parent provides lots - I mean lots - of shade.

In the meantime, the tree needs to survive everything the world has to throw at it - and in 2000 years, that can be a lot. Fire is the most common and in the photo above you can see an enormous fire scar on the tree in the foreground. All the big trees have these and some have been severely hollowed out and are barely alive, with only a thin strip of bark still connecting crown and root. Nature isn't efficient, but it is tenacious.

I became familiar with the sequoias during the two months I worked in Sequoia National Park in the autumn of 1988 (having been chased out of Yellowstone by some forest fires that proved inconvenient to tourists). I hated living and working there, but loved the park nonetheless. I didn't mange to return until 2005, after the lodge and gift shop I worked in had long been removed to protect the Giant Forest area from overtrampling. So instead of browsing the gift shop, I tramp(l)ed through the Giant Forest trails just like I used to and had a wonderful time. Seventeen years seemed like a long time - almost 0.5% of the lifetime of some of these trees. If they could remember me, I doubt they'd even have noticed I was gone.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Ahead stop"

This has always annoyed me:

Via XKCD, of course. Those Automatic Caution Doors annoy me, too:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hallowed ground

Baseball and 7-Eleven, symbols of American cultural imperialism at the site of the world's first nuclear assault. McDonald's, by contrast, maintains a discreet 2000' distance across the river.

Friday, August 13, 2010

More historic photo-mashups

At Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, Ed Darrell has found a new set of photographs that relocate historical photographs and then blend them using Photoshop. I've done a little of that myself around UM.

These are especially haunting, as the historic scenes come from WWII Leningrad, a horrific experience that Americans really can't relate to. For example:

Some of his photos seem to blend still-existing buildings perfectly, and I suspect Mr. Larenkov has had to do a small amount of Photoshop fudging to make that work. In my own experiments, I found that just leaning my upper body from side to side or stepping forward or backward could noticeably change angle to the vanishing points. Tricky work.

Friday photo

Lonestar Cutoff Trail, Yellowstone National Park. December 2002.

It's been 90 degrees and sultry all week, with the occasional thunderstorm to maintain the humidity levels. All I want is winter, now.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Atomic bombing anniversary

I notice a number of liberal bloggers referencing the Hiroshima bombing this past week. I'll just point to my review of Gar Alparovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb for my views on the topic.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday photo

Cardiovascular Center from Catherine Street.
University of Michigan, August 2010.

Following up on last week's photo, here's a view that didn't exist a couple weeks ago. It's still a rubble field behind that fence, of course, but it already feels like a park. Interestingly, the CVC itself (the building in the photo) only opened in 2007, right on the site of the previous University Hospital, itself a monstrously large structure that was over twice the CVC's height.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Playing Battleground God

I just earned a perfect score on Battleground God*, which puts me in the 92nd percentile on logical consistency, earns a (virtual) TPM Medal of Honour, and seems to come with no cash prize whatsoever.

The secret to my success? I consistently denied that any being who deserves to be called "God" must ipso facto be able to perform the impossible.

Unsurprising news to librarians

From Inside Higher Ed:

“The digital divide used to be about the hardware haves and have-nots,” she [Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas] said. “What we’re seeing now is that it’s less about who has hardware, but who has access to information; who has those problem-solving skills. And that’s going to be the digital divide that we’re going to see in the future … the ability to deal with information.”

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

And from the New York Times:

A new study coming out of Northwestern University, discovered that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results.

Young people today use technology, but it doesn't mean they understand what they're doing, anymore than driving a car makes me an auto mechanic (and it doesn't, not one bit). But it may be unfair to pick on the youngsters: their elders once trusted Walter Cronkite and now they give that same uncritical allegiance to Rush Limbaugh. Information assessment is a crying need ... and I'm seeing librarians, knowing they can't survive as curators of books, eager to take on this task that almost no one else wants to do.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Big Rock Candy Mountain

I composed these lyrics a few years ago, but since Republicans make such a virtue of their inability to learn, the words still fit.*

Big Rock Candy Mountain (Republican Version)

On a summer day in the month of May
I met a Republican drivin'.
He was going down from his hometown
‘Cause the riffraff were arrivin'.
As he drove along he sang a song
Of a land of milk and honey,
Where a man can’t stay a single day
If he don’t have any money.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain you never pay no tax
And all the schemes of government get stopped right in their tracks.
The market keeps on rising and the bubble never pops.
The stocks stay high and the wages low;
Your portfolio just grows and grows
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain the poor stay out of sight.
They just show up for work each day and disappear at night.
They never ask for raises, short hours, or minimum wage.
They’ll do their task and never ask
For a bigger share than you care to spare
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain you always have a maid
Who’s working far too hard to pause and say she's underpaid.
Your nanny works on weekends and your gardener takes no breaks.
They’re never seen, but your house is clean;
It looks just like a picture in a magazine
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain they attend church every day.
There’s a Bible in each classroom and they stop each hour to pray.
They don’t allow no atheists and the Darwinists get hung.
They'll slit the wrists of the scientists
Who deny the Earth its recent birth
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain there’s a cop by every door,
And every prison cell is full and they’re willing to build more.
You’ll never see treehuggers, no hippies, French, or gays.
Oh, I want to be where they look like me,
Where the weirdoes know that they shouldn’t go,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

*Admittedly, the French have fallen off the radar lately.