Friday, January 14, 2011

What to do after your period*

I can't tell you the number of times I've participated in The Great Post-Sentence Debate with a co-worker who was sure that placing a single space after the period was wrong-wrong-wrong:
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.
Told ya so.

Fortunately, the two-space specification will die out when the last people who remember using typewriters do the same...unlike the standard alphanumeric keyboard configuration, which will likely live on well past the point that advancing technology or an improvement in a specification should have made it obsolete (we write more clearly than we speak, and I can't yet see how voice recognition software will change that). People do have trouble with the process of change, though. That's why - unfortunately - I have to tools in both metric- and English-measurements and have to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit when talking about the weather with colleagues overseas.

But it's not just a resistance to change that powers the persistence of our specifications; it's the fact that the technology and systems of tomorrow build on what is available today...which stands on the shoulders of yesterday. My favorite example of this involves the internet meme about the width of the Space Shuttle's booster rockets:
Well, there's an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railroad from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was originally determined by the width of a horse's ass.
Of course, Snopes has some issues with the specifics, but the broad idea that today's advanced transportation** is based on the limits of  yesterday's technology still holds.

So what's the moral of the story? If anything, it's more proof that we are limited: 1) by our own habits, 2) by the necessity of having to base our reaction to what's coming tomorrow on the modified, re-purposed thought and technology available today...and 3) that an awareness of why things are the way they are - knowledge of history - helps us to better understand the present (not to mention winning points of dispute with fellow co-workers).

*I couldn't resist; apologies if you were expecting something different...then again, it's your fault for thinking that in the first place, isn't it?
** or, that of the 1980's

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Housing fitting the times

I think that this odd-looking shape designed by Alexander Remizov is a rather interesting idea for a housing structure, reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House, of which one of the two that were made is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit:

 No, they don't look alike. The resemblance* has to do with purpose of structure and the time for which it was/is intended to be built. Remizov's 'Ark' is built from available materials after (presumably) a post-climate catastrophe, with the ability to fulfill its occupants' needs using non-consumable energy sources and large amounts of interior green space.Fuller's Dymaxion house was built from aluminum and re-purposed aircraft parts as an attempt to leverage spare post-WWII manufacturing capacity to provide a source of cheap, resource-efficient housing.

What a contrast to the big footprint homes built in the US over the past two decades.

*Although the central design of each structure does take some inspiration from the 'Siberian grain-silo house' noted in the linked Wikipedia article.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"A collective action problem"

The greatest threat to our national security is our unwillingness to address issues until they become catastrophic problems...and even then...
...detecting disease outbreaks remains a challenge, particularly in impoverished areas where medical care and modern communications systems are absent. A serious outbreak could soon overwhelm local governments and spur mass migration of infected victims across international borders.

"There are no international contingency plans for such an occurrence, nor are even the basic information systems in place to link (disease reporting) to potential response mechanisms like the U.N. Security Council or NATO," the National Intelligence Council concluded in a report it released two months ago.

Health officials question whether even the United States is prepared to handle the unpredictable impacts of climate change. Many local health systems lack trained health technicians who can diagnose new diseases, and the right epidemiological equipment.

They note that diseases once considered rare in the United States, such as dengue fever and West Nile virus, are no longer uncommon. West Nile virus, which was reintroduced to the United States in 1994, is now present in 44 states, while the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever are found in counties where 173.5 million Americans live.[...]

What role politics will play in the United States' ability to prepare for a climate-related health catastrophe in the new Republican-led House remains to be seen. In 2007, the administration of President George W. Bush deleted six pages from the prepared congressional testimony of then-CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding that detailed the human health impacts of climate change.[...]

"We're making progress, but it's a slower progress than it needs to be," [Former director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, now the dean of the University of Washington's School of Public Health Howard] Frumkin said. Climate change "is advancing far faster than has been forecast. We need to be ready not in 20 years or in 30 years, but relatively soon."

Most problems have a solution. I can't come up with one for a lack of political and social will.

Dear God

With all this talk about the Tucson slayings, there's been ample consideration - and denial - of the role ideology, belief, and rhetoric (violent or non-) play in influencing to a person's actions. I don't agree with the deniers, as there's too many instances of things like this occurring:
An Ohio science teacher accused of burning the image of a cross on students' arms has officially been fired.

The Mount Vernon school board voted 4-1 Monday night to accept a state hearing officer's recommendation to terminate John Freshwater. The Columbus Dispatch reports the firing took effect a few hours later, at midnight.

Freshwater had appealed his earlier firing by the board. An internal investigation found he had preached Christian beliefs in class. He also was accused of using a scientific device to mark several students with a cross and of keeping a Bible on his desk.
Aside from a reaction of "what the hell", I'm scratching my head as to how an avid follower of Christ can wander so far from His teachings as to think that branding His symbol into the arms of children is acceptable.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What happens when a once-great city slowly dies

I was in a store yesterday which was running a temporary display of framed old-timey pictures of Detroit in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's. One was of the Michigan Central Station, which in its heyday, was a grand structure:

"Designed by the renowned architects Warren & Wetmore and engineers Reed and Stem, that also designed the Grand Central Station in New York City, the Michigan Central Station opened in 1913 with a final price tag of $15 million and consisted of a 3 story train station with an 18 story office tower. The building contained 7,000 tons of structural steel, 125,000 cubic feet of stone, and 7 million bricks.

As one would enter off Roosevelt Park, they would walk into the buildings center piece, the main waiting room. The 54.5 feet tall waiting room modeled after a roman bath, stretches the length of the building and is decorated with Guastavino arches, columns, and three arched 21 by 40 feet windows flanked by four smaller windows. Beyond the waiting room, you could buy your ticket from one of the many ornate ticket counters, or walk down the 28 feet tall arcade to visit a newsstand, drugstore, cigar shop, or barbershop.

In addition to the arcade and waiting room, the station featured a restaurant with vaulted ceilings, a main concourse with a copper skylight,and a lunch counter."
Today, I find a heartbreaking pictorial from the UK's Guardian/Observer. Slides 6 and 16 in the photo set show the Michigan Central terminal in a sadly dilapidated state. A Google search returns even more decay, such as this image of the terminal's rail bed:

We've lost so much.

Kind of a bee-g deal

That Einstein quote about mankind dying out within four years if bees join the dinosaurs and dodos may be bogus, but there's a reason why it sounds as if it's true...from the UK's Guardian:
The abundance of four common species of bumblebees in the US has dropped by 96% in just the past few decades, according to the most comprehensive national census of the insects. Scientists said the alarming decline, which could have devastating implications for the pollination of both wild and farmed plants, was likely to be a result of disease and inbreeding.[...]

Insects such as bees, moths and hoverflies pollinate around a third of the agricultural crops grown worldwide. If all of the UK's insect pollinators were wiped out, the drop in crop production would cost the UK economy up to £440m a year, equivalent to around 13% of the UK's income from farming.

The collapse in the global bee population is a major threat to crops.

It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon pollination by bees, which means they contribute some £26bn to the global economy.
Of course the right thing to do is wait until it becomes a crisis, as it's then and only then that the Free Market Fairy will appear and gloriously innovate our way out of $50 loaves of bread and mass starvation.

Monday, January 03, 2011

"Tea Party Wants To Ease Restrictions, Monitoring Of Loose Nuclear Materials"

(I know...but that's what the bottom-of-the-screen news ticker would have shown on Fox News Channel if liberals and progressives would have expressed anger at the Senate's passage of New START.)

Off Hiatus

Back from the holidays, had to go pay homage to the mom-age and smack myself in the face repeatedly for overbuying presents for the kids; presents that I had to spend three days assembling...

I did get one cool gift from the wifey; one of those newish Nookcolor devices. It's basically a tablet PC (with an Android OS?) that functions similarly to a supersize IPod Touch or IPad, only without as much of a capability for apps (so far). Integration with the B&N website is good, purchasing is simple enough, setup wasn't a pain...for the most part, it's been a good experience except for its integration with my PC. I had to tinker a bit in order to get the XP OS I'm running on my older home system to recognize the Nookcolor as an external drive. Something about the device having to be in 'active' mode in order be seen...and with a default 2-minute timeout before the Nookcolor hibernates, there's a settings change that needed to occur. User guide material is light as well, especially concerning the aforementioned PC integration...

Nice thing is that I have now have Zeppelin and Radiohead (and Thom Yorke's solo effort) on my Nookie. I also brought over a few free US-copyright-expired classic eBooks from Project Gutenberg, as the Nookie reads .epub format files. I'm currently working my way through Frazier's Golden Bough again and taking time out from that to read from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. For anyone who's interested, I've included a link to the Project Gutenberg e-library over in the 'Tools and Such" section on your left. Please support that initiative with either your time, money, and/or publicity.

With that, I hope your holidays went smoothly and pleasantly. Welcome to a new year.