Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday photo

Kitten at the window. Monroeville, Indiana, Christmas 2010.

'Cause it's just too pwecious, idn't it?

A few years ago, my Mom and her neighbors were feeding three or four cats. Now there are a dozen of them, because cats aren't all that different from birds and bees. I have it on good academic authority that this cannot end well.

Questions that arose while offline

I'm back from the finals of the Great Lakes Invitational hockey tournament in Detroit, where the University of Michigan bested Colorado College 6-5 in a sloppy, but dramatic, game. UM scored the first goal just half a minute into the game and later went up 2-0, then let Colorado College tie the game by the end of the first period. Trailing the Wolverines 4-3 entering the third period, the Tigers scored two goals to take a 5-4 lead and make the home fans squirm in their seats. But fickle Fortuna gave Michigan a pair of late goals, with six and four minutes left in the game, reversing the outcome and filling Joe Louis Arena with great joy and relief. Sports are such a strain on the soul.

While watching the game, several questions came up in conversation and no answers were available until I could get home and access the invaluable Wikipedia. So here, for no particular reason, are answers relating to a pair of random hockey questions:

* The Joe Louis Arena was constructed in 1979 and seats 20,000 spectators.

* We all know that the Original Six hockey teams in the NHL are the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. The next six? The Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland Seals, and St. Louis Blues, who all joined for the 1967-68 season.

* The first indoor hockey game was played in -- are you ready for this? -- 1875, in Montreal. In one crucial respect, it was even the first true hockey game: the puck was invented just for this match! Hockey was still played with a ball, but there were concerns over spectator safety. So the ball was replaced by a flat block of wood that, it was reasoned, would stay down on the ice (on Thursday night, one puck flew high enough to clear the tall net at the end of the rink, to the complete astonishment of a young first-time spectator behind me).

Also surprising is learning that, while popular in New England, hockey wasn't much known in Canada at the time. Who would guess such a thing? And curling was invented in Scotland - all the great Canadian games turn out to be imports!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Too funny

Via Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

Hooray for True Grit!

I don't do movie reviews and I don't consider myself anything of a movie critic. I don't know movies, but I know what I like and I don't even know what I like. I know what I hate, though, which often turns out to be historical fiction. They never get it right, never resemble anything but modern day folks in outdated clothing. How often do you see someone spend millions of dollars researching and recreating, say, a ship from a century ago, but fail to create a single character who seems to belong in that era. Or present me with Roman senators pining for democracy.* Or not even try that hard, ending up with a Western that does ... ugh, this.

The dialogue is usually the worst offender. Inevitably, 'historic' characters will speak in modern colloquialisms, as grating to me as if a crew member walked in front of the camera and no one yelled "Cut".** Producers spend millions researching costumes, but almost never pay a historian to review the script and say, "No, stop, they just didn't talk like this in the 19th Century. Read some books and speeches from the time period and get an idea of how people spoke then."

Generally, the best way to capture a previous time period is to use a contemporary book. It's why adaptations of Jane Austen always conjure up their period better than anything written by a modern screenwriter. Modern writers just don't realize that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

However, I thoroughly enjoyed the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. Not a modern coinage to be heard! The early scenes in Fort Smith are really one of the best representation of 19th Century westerners that I've ever seen. The actors all delivered their lines with an admirable naturalism that had me thinking, I'm really in Arkansas in the 1880's. The only fault is the impression that English speakers used no contractions a hundred years ago; they did. But if the dialogue sometimes seems slightly forced, it's never laid on so thick as the North Dakota dialect in Fargo.

The character actors populating Fort Smith actually outshine the big money stars in this regard. Jeff Bridges performs well, but gets some assistance from his character's gruff mannerisms; it works for him to sound a little stiff and self-aware. Matt Damon, unfortunately, never does manage to sound like he's doing aught but reading lines, and Josh Brolin does only slightly better. Hailee Steinfeld is amazing. Like Bridges, she gains an advantage from Mattie Ross's cold determination, so that it's appropriate if she never sounds entirely at ease. Nonetheless, I could easily believe she grew up speaking the way her character does. This film was a treat for the ears.

* I saw Gladiator for entertainment relief after driving 2 hours to Bozeman for a dental appointment on my only day off during a two-week stretch. One of the worst days of my life.

** One of the all time worst: a 14th Century bishop saying, "I believe in miracles. It's part of my job."

That's snow!

Seventeen meters of snow in the mountains on Honshu:

Via Why Evolution is True

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday photo, Christmas Eve edition

Scott the Drummer Boy. Fort Wayne, Indiana, December 25, 1964.

Awesome Christmas! A huge drum and a sand-bucket helmet! I bet your haul isn't half as good, but have a Merry Christmas nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Imitators of Pilate?

At Slate, Kathryn Schulz interviews Josh Stieber, a man who entered the military as a militaristic Christian and became a conscientious objector. What his conscience objected to was actions like this:

There's really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around. The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists.

Stieber is far from abandoning his Christian values. He takes them seriously, so seriously that he can't ignore or rationalize the contradictions between military action and Christian ethics. That makes Stieber a rare bird. One of his hometown buddies, in the same unit in Iraq, shocked him by describing the abuse he wanted to perpetrate on an Iraqi prisoner. When Stieber challenged him on the the contradiction to American principles, his friend replied, "No, he's Iraqi, he's part of the problem, he's guilty," and reaffirmed his desire to torture the man. Stieber escalated his critique - what about the Christian values of loving one's enemy and returning good for evil? "My friend said, 'I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.' "

It's as fine an example of cognitive dissonance as you'll ever see. Jesus, who allowed himself to be arrested, rebuked the disciple who tried to defend him, offered no defense during his trial, and allowed himself to be crucified even though innocent*, is now a tough guy who'll show a little token patience and then deliver the hammer. Yes, it's easier to redefine Jesus and contradict his clear representation in the Bible than to admit that you're contradicting your (stated, not felt) morality. Even if you have to turn Jesus into a Pontius Pilate. Alas, Stieber is the exception and his friend is the rule, as he discovered when he explained himself to his family:

I think a lot of what I've done has been a manifestation of those values, and to see the people who taught them to me enact them in such different ways, or at times it seems other things have taken priority over those values -- that can be challenging. Of all the people in the world who should see things the same way I do, who should be passionate about the same things I am and offended by the same things I am, it would make sense that it would be the people who taught me to think this way. When that's not the case, that can be very hard.

To their credit, his family accepted Stieber's decision, but they don't understand it -- even though it's the logical, perhaps inevitable, consequence of taking New Testament ethics seriously. For a certain strain of Christian, imitating Christ is literally incomprehensible. Fortunately, there are a few serious people like Josh Stieber who take ethics seriously, who understand morality as something to govern their own actions and not as just a club to compel obedience from others.

* Innocent by our lights, anyhow. By the standards of the Roman Empire, Jesus had indeed committed a capital offense: he was a no-account yokel who was disturbing respectable folks. Which makes him somewhat comparable to, say, illegal immigrants or Muslims in certain American municipalities today.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Interesting documents

[While I'm cleaning up my unpublished posts....]

Even the underworld needs accountants:

Via BoingBoing

Copyrighting T-Rex?

Here's an interesting case I started to write about, and then forgot to finish. But I'm still going to keep an eye on it. The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research is a private company in South Dakota that specializes in selling prepared fossils and casts. They claim that they loaned some Tyrannosaur bone casts to a Montana company called Fort Peck Paleontology, who never returned them and has been selling their own copies of these casts. BHIGR is suing.

Now I don't know what the terms of the loan were, and since BHIGR is a professional and commercial operation, you'd think they would write these restrictions into any contract they made. If they didn't, that's their mistake. But what intrigues me is that the lawsuit is claiming copyright infringement, not breach of contract. They are claiming they own a copyright on these bone casts.

As a general rule, you can't copyright a fact. The landmark case here is Feist v. Rural (1991), where the US Supreme Court held that a company could not claim copyright of its list of names and phone numbers. The particular medium, method of presentation, any commentary or editing - those can all be copyrighted as creative work. But the bare facts - the list of numbers - could not.

So can BHIGR claim that their bone casts are original, creative works? The president of the company, David Larson, claims that making dinosaur bone casts requires "a blend of scientific and artistic creativity," but otherwise emphasizes the amount of time and effort that they require. That smacks of the "sweat of the brow doctrine," which claims that amount of sheer labor that went into a production justifies the creator's monopoly over the product. That's an attractive, seemingly even a common sense, doctrine, especially to producers. But since Feist v. Rural, it's not the law in the US.

The pitfall for BHIGR is that the creativity lies mainly in their methods, not in the finished product. In fact, it's hard to imagine that they could be successful selling products they claimed were artistic representations of a dinosaur bone, rather than faithful and exacting reproductions of the original. Their website emphasizes, on the one hand, that "Perhaps the most important factors required in making fine molds and cast replicas are ingenuity and creativity." On the other hand, they also boast that they "have successfully developed new methods and materials for molding fossil specimens and producing cast replicas that retain the look and feel of the original fossils." That makes it sound like the value of the casts is not in their artistry, but in their adherence to fact.

I might be looking at this wrong. Perhaps the best example is a photograph of a building: you can still copyright the photograph, even though it's a representation of an uncopyrightable fact. If so, I look forward to the ruling setting me straight.

[Post script] It occurs to me that another comparison that might work in BHIGR's favor would be translations of old texts, which are original works for copyright purposes. Thus the New International Version translation of the Bible is under full copyright, despite the great age of the Bible itself. The 400-year-old King James Version, of course, is in the public domain.]

Why tonight?

We're expecting snow tonight, which should have me in great cheer, snow-lover that I am and all. Yet ... yet ... it's the first lunar eclipse to fall on the winter solstice in some 500 years and it's not likely that I'll get to see any of it. But I don't have to work tomorrow so I just might stay up until 3:00, just in case.

(The good folks at the BBC will surely be embarrassed to realize they've called the winter solstice the longest day of the year. That would be the longest night of the year, of course, with the exception of Christmas Eve for children.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday photo

Snow on pines near Midway Geyser Basin. Yellowstone National Park, January 2004.

Whee! Winter has arrived in southeast Michigan, snowy and cold as God intended it. Now if we can only get still more snow, and maybe have steam rising out of the ground to coat the trees with ice, it would look as wintry as Yellowstone.

Where have all the colors gone?

Finals are over and it's slow on the desk, so I'm playing with Google's latest toy: the Google Books Ngram Viewer. You can graph the usage of words found in Google's collection of scanned books, one at a time, or comparing one phrase against another. It's quite addictive.

But here's a weird trend that I found. If you search for simple words, there's a tendency for their frequency to drop somewhere around 1950, and then begin rising again in the 1990's. Here's a graph of the words blue, red, green, and yellow between 1900 and 2008. Each of them shows this same patter. (I've cleverly arranged for each word to show up in its proper color so that you don't have to read the tiny text)

Other common words show the same thing. For example, man, boy, and girl show that same dip and recovery. Woman appears to start down the same path, and then gets a sudden boost in the mid-1960's. (Damn you, Betty Friedan, for messing with my data!)

Recall that the y-axis represents the frequency of these words compared to other words appearing in print. Did postwar publishing trend away from simpler terms (I mean, "eschew monosyllabary")? And what about the recent trend back upwards? There's been a boom in children's and young adult literature in the past decade or more, but would it make up such a large proportion of publishing as to explain why simpler words are becoming more common again? That's the best guess I have, but I'm none too confident in it. Ideas?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Peculiar Institution - the South

Here's an interesting article in the NYT about a map showing slave populations in the South, compiled from the 1860 Census data - the high water mark for American slavery. And the last time a Census could even compile information on that particular demographic. Historian Susan Schulten notes,

The map uses what was then a new technique in statistical cartography: Each county not only displays its slave population numerically, but is shaded (the darker the shading, the higher the number of slaves) to visualize the concentration of slavery across the region. The counties along the Mississippi River and in coastal South Carolina are almost black, while Kentucky and the Appalachians are nearly white.

Translating numerical data into visual representations is one of the most powerful communication techniques available. The patterns just pop out at you. No wonder people were so taken with this map.

The presence of slavery, and (after 1865) large populations of African-Americans, wasn't the only thing peculiar about the South, though. There was a remarkable absence of foreign-born whites as well. Recently I was poring through the Statistical Atlas from the 12th Census of the United States -- that's from 1900, just to save you the arithmetic -- and came across this fascinating chart.

Click on the "Go to source" button to see it. The chart shows a breakdown of each state's population by race and origin. Four races are listed: Indians, Chinese & Japanese, Negro, and White (corresponding to the "Red and yellow, black and white" that I learned singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" 'way back in Sunday School*). For whites, there are three further subdivisions: native white of native parents (baby blue), native white of foreign parents (pink), and foreign-born white (green). These were the categories that mattered in 1900.

Notice the states with the longest black lines - those are the Old South, the slave-holding South before the end of the Civil War, and the states that still held the majority of the nation's black population before the Great Migration. And in 1900, a period of intense immigration, most of those states had little to negligible pink and green in their bars. In other words, almost everyone who wasn't black was a white of at least the second generation. In a nation of immigrants, the South drew almost no immigrants.

According to the next couple of Censuses, little changed during the next 20 years. Bear in mind that this is one of the most immigration-heavy periods in US history. Yet the South missed it. They first developed enough of a separate identity to secede from the rest of the country, then learned to resent outsiders all the more intensely -- as you would, too, if you'd suffered invasion, defeat, and military occupation for a dozen years. And then they had the privilege, if privilege it is, of remaining insular while the rest of the country went through the wrenching experience of assimilating people who were as foreign as could be imagined (not only Chinese and Japanese, but Irish, Italians, Greeks, and so forth).

In respect to immigration and Americanism, it was even uglier 100 years ago than it is today. The "hyphenated American" (e.g., German-American) was no American at all, said Theodore Roosevelt, while Woodrow Wilson compared the hyphen to "a dagger that [the immigrant] is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic." The 1924 National Origins Act represented an unabashed attempt to keep the US not just white, but lily-white, by limiting the number of immigrants from unpopular nations.

The South didn't need the help, though. Aside from a few Yankee carpetbaggers, unwanted immigration wasn't part of their experience. Other people's families had been there just as long as yours and their brand of religion was probably the same as yours. No one had to accommodate diversity, when there were only two ethnic groups and their status was legally defined.

If it seems at times that Southern culture is especially prone to creating parochial mindsets, and people who steadfastly refuse to accept that not everyone thinks the same as they do -- and that is how Southern culture often comes across to me, at least as expressed in politics and the culture wars -- then maybe this is part of the reason why: no other region in the country was allowed to remain so culturally insular for so long a time.

* Which dates from about the same era, interestingly enough. This piano rendition renders the tune in fine 19th Century style.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday photo

Doublet Pool. Yellowstone National Park, November 2004.

Doublet Pool is one of the most attractive thermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin, if you find it - it's tucked away on Geyser Hill, across the Firehole River from the lodges, stores, and benches for viewing Old Faithful. I don't mean that it's really hidden away, but just that the folks who don't bother walking through the basin won't get to see it.

Doublet has been known to erupt slightly with a bit of bubbling, and on rare occasion even throw some water a couple feet in the air. Usually, though, it's just another of the steaming hot pools, with that clear blue (bacteria-free) water that the hottest pools have, and the red bacteria mats in the shallow areas where the water is merely warm and can sustain thermophilic life. It's called Doublet because there are two small pools connected by the narrow channel that you see in the photograph.

I don't entirely understand how the scalloped edges form. Silica is precipitating out of the water, slowly building up the mass on the sides of the pool. But why the round scallops? There's no sign of water draining into the pool and cutting channels; those would look like gullies instead of scallops, anyway. My best guess is that the edges begin jagged and random, but as the silica accumulates, it does so at equal distances around any pointed surface (recall that a circle is defined as the set of points equidistant from a given point). The tendency would be to grow the rounded scallops out from the edges of the wall and ever farther into the pool; pointy edges can't help being a passing phase. Or maybe there's some entirely different reason for that shape.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday photo

Lodgepole pine. Fern Cascades trail, Yellowstone National Park, January 2004.

Two weeks ago I posted a photo of the Old Faithful Inn, whose railings and faux supports are made of bare lodgepole pine logs. These were originally put in place with their bark intact, but the logs were "peeled" in 1940. Lo and behold, it was discovered that Nature had already decorated the beams with an intricate grooved tracery, courtesy of countless pine bark beetles. No one knew.

Similarly, the tree above has been scoured by beetles, whose action would have been invisible until the tree was killed during the 1988 North Fork fire. I have to admit, I don't understand why the outlines of the beetle trails are darkened, but not the interior or the rest of the tree. But it's an attractive arrangement nonetheless. Nature is an artist.

I doubt the patterns have as much mathematical structure as has been claimed for Jackson Pollock paintings (purportedly an intuitive application of fractal patterning), but that section to the left looks to me almost like a form of writing, perhaps the sort of thing that Mayan glyphs might have evolved into over time.

By the way, leaning into a tree while standing on a 30-degree slope on skis is not the easiest way to get a sharp photograph. So I'm a bit proud of that.