Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

From Chiron Beta Prime!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

FoxNews: Scientists Clone Fluorescent Cats

This just in from FoxNews:

How useful! I don't know how often I've been groping for a little pussy in the dark, thinking that things would be so much easier if only it were fluorescent.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I bought a new phone

I used to have a phone I liked a lot. It was a Nokia. One of these, as it happens:

I was quite happy with it, though it was old and had no multimedia capability. It made phone calls. It was extremely durable. It lasted years. However, one of the keys wore out recently, and as it was the key that unlocked the phone I was sort of stuck replacing it.

So now I've got this sexy new Nokia 6555. I didn't know exactly how new it was until I went looking for images to accompany this blog post. Well, I have one and I'm not terribly impressed. Sure, it's got a lot of stuff, but that's the point. With bloody few exceptions, I don't want the stuff they put on it. In some cases, they put stuff on it that I want, but can't access due to poor design; and in other cases there's just poor design. But lest you think that everything is gloomy, here's what's good about the phone:
  1. Bluetooth. Most phones have it these days, so does this. That's great, and expected. I'm sick of headphones with cords. When I drive, Bluetooth is just the thing. If your laptop is Bluetooth-enabled then you can use the phone as your modem.
  2. A micro-SD RAM slot. Good idea, but it's in the wrong place, which puts this feature on both lists.
  3. Hands-free dialing. Another nice feature. Damned if I can get it to work without Bluetooth, though, and WITH Bluetooth it is horribly inept at choosing the right number to dial. If I ask for "Everett" it's just as likely to offer to dial "Alice" or "Dave". Really. Out of desperation I renamed "Home" to "Leigh2Enterprise"... that is long enough to always be recognized.
  4. It has a USB port. In fact, it's one reason I bought the phone.
  5. Built in camera. Decent resolution (1.3 megapixels), nice picture. Has "night mode" and can take short videos.
  6. Built-in sound recorder. Nice for simply recording memos.
  7. The usual PIM apps. A decent calculator; calendar, and alarm clock. Especially the alarm clock... it will wake you up without jarring you.
  8. IM presence on AIM, MSN, or Yahoo instant messenger. I won't use it, but it's nice for those that need it.
  9. A email-to-text gateway. You can send an email to the phone and it arrives as a text message. OK, just about any phone allows this... even the old model I had. The point is that it's a good feature. This phone allows you to access more robust webmail, too, but I don't want that (though If I really wanted to do that I'd use my laptop ... I just want the ability to get quick messages from anybody).
  10. MP3 player. Yes, it's dross, but it saves having another gadget in the pocket. Podcasts are everywhere; if you're going to take them with you anyway, you may as well save pocket space.
Now, here's what ticks me off.
  1. As a certified geek, I have just about every USB adapter known to Man. Except one: the one that's included on this phone. AT&T doesn't carry the cable, either. Ridiculous, you say? So did I. The kind folks at the AT&T store suggested I might find the cable on Ebay. Yes, yes... they're so brilliant they haven't figured out that if you're not going to carry the accessories you really have no business carrying the phone. You ESPECIALLY have no business carrying a phone that has purportedly ben engineered for your network and yours alone. I found the cable on CellularOutfitter.com for $8.
  2. There are a number of demo games included. Not one full game is included. No matter; I don't want the games anyway, so I tried to delete them. After all, they're completely worthless demos. But they can't be deleted. They claim to be system files. That's right, Boys and Girls, in the AT&T universe, completely worthless demo GAMES are "system files".
  3. Cellular Video (CV). Don't want it, don't need it. If I chose to actually use this highly touted (by no one but AT&T) feature then at this moment I could see a couple of minutes of CNN News or ESPN sports; I could watch a funny holiday clip from South Park (Mr. Garrison directs the Christmas play); or two whole minutes (wheee!) of NBC Heroes. Yes, they charge for this. Yes, retards and children actually pay for it. Adults would rather reprogram the key. But guess what? You CAN'T!
  4. MEdia Net. More worthless fluff... not a useful thing on it, and I don't want it. But if I did I could "Follow Monday Night Football!"; I could find out what the weather is currently like where I'm standing; or I could download hot ringtones or games (to add to the demo crap that I can't delete). Did you know that ringtones are a billion-dollar business? We could feed every poverty-stricken man, woman, and child in Africa for what we spend on ringtones every year, so I choose to send the dollar elsewhere. You have no idea how much it pains me that I can't reprogram THAT key either. Together with CV, it's a complete waste of two keys.
  5. Push-to-Talk (PTT). This is one of the most inconsiderate, dumb-assed features ever conceived for a cellular network. You press a single button and talk and interrupt any conversation conducted by or in the immediate vicinity of the person you're calling; instantly labeling you as a rude shithead who should never be allowed within speaking distance. Before responding to this post to defend PTT, keep in mind that in making any such attempt you label yourself accordingly. PTT sucks every egg in the crate. And here's what's worse: the PTT button is on the outside of the flip-phone clamshell. This means that if you store your phone in your pocket or poketbook, you can and most assuredly WILL trigger it constantly, repeatedly, and unwantedly. Over and over and over again. You'll most certainly want to disable that key even if you use the service. But... though you can assign the PTT functioality to another key, you can neither disable nor reprogram this incredibly stupid engineering blunder. AT&T would love to charge you for this service, to the point of selling you a phone that is deliberately engineered to maximize the chance of those "accidental" charges. I say "deliberately" because no engineer qualified to put so much as two Lego blocks together could possibly create this steaming pile of stupidity by accident. The end result is that almost every time I pick up the phone I have to dismiss a dialog box that says "PTT charges will apply. Initialize PTT?" "Don't ask again" is NOT an option. However, it's exactly what you'll be shouting at the phone after you've used it.
  6. The microSD RAM slot. Yes, it's a good thing. But guess where it is? If you said, "in the basement in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door that says, 'Beware of the Leopard'" you wouldn't be far off. You have to disassemble the phone to get to it. Remove the back cover. Remove the battery. Pull it back. Flip up the little cage and Bob's your uncle. They could have put a slot in the side of the phone. Really, they could.
OK, so that's a lot of ascerbic complaints. Don't get me wrong: the phone itself is really nice. It does what phones are supposed to do, and a number of things besides. Where I've got complaints it's generally with the additional crap that AT&T piled onto this device.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My back is killing me.

I've been laid up for the last couple of days. Here's the cause of my pain:
Cute, isn't she, sitting there with her little cracker. Her name is Cuddles. She's not mine, but belongs to a houseguest. Cuddles was down in the basement screaming her head off last Sunday, and I thought, "The poor thing is lonely. I'll bring her upstairs so she can sit on her perch and have some company." Pretty damned nice of me. Sadly, my wife's idiot dog was a little too happy to see the bird; the bird became agitated; bit a hole in the knuckle of my right index finger and then sliced through the artery in my left thumb. I dropped the bird, which sent the dog running, and the very agitated cockatoo began to bite at my toes. Naturally I wound up falling over, just trying to avoid kicking and killing an animal worth about $1500. This injured my spine (I've already got a bulging disk and it doesn't take much effort to mess it up.)

I left Cuddles on the floor and went off to lock the dog away and staunch the flow of my blood. Then I assembled a large cage that we'd had on the back porch (it was prepared for painting, but I needed it immediately. Returning with leather gloves, I managed to get the still agitated cockatoo into the cage, but not before she took another bite out of my right forearm.

So there she is, locked away. She sidles up to the bars, cocks her head at me and says, "I love you!"

Now, none of this was the bird's fault. It was an exhuberant dog that got her agitated and fearful. Nevertheless, an hour or so later my back started to swell and I spent the next three days on my back. Well, I tried to work on-site Monday, but that was really, really stupid. Bottom line... I'm behind schedule.

OH, YEAH, I should mention that Cuddles is for sale (and not because of this incident... her owner just needs the cash). Cuddles is normally quite nice. She's got a really good vocabulary, including the usual, "Hello", "I love you", and "Pow, Pow, shoot that cat!" She loves company and is happiest in a room filled with talking people. But you do have to be careful of what you say... she's been known to pick up a word after hearing it once.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Sundowner

Good Lord, it's been since September since I posted anything here! Good thing this isn't intended to be done on a schedule. How about today I reminisce instead of ruminate? This promises to be convoluted, but bear with it, please.

In what seems to be another life I was in the US Air Force. My first (and last) posting outside the U.S. was at RAF Croughton, near Bicester, Oxfordshire, England. On the day I arrived at Heathrow airport there were two feet of snow on the ground. The weather was so bad that the bus that was sent from the base to welcome us left early. That was our welcome... being stuck at the airport with no transportation. ("Our" meaning me and my good friend Bob Wells).

No worries. We hired a taxi to drive us the 60+ miles to RAF Upper Heyford. It was freezing, so along the way we stopped at a pub. The first pub I'd ever visited.

Now, at the time, my preferred drink was a Whiskey Sour, and that's what I ordered. That's when I found out that pubs don't serve cocktails (at least that one didn't). But the bartender was a really good sport and was really intrigued that I wanted a "sour whiskey," so he asked me what was in one. Hell if I know. All I knew was that it had whiskey in it, and some kind of citrus.

"Some kind of citrus," he mused. He then took out a shot glass, filled it with whiskey, reached under the bar and pulled out a lemon. Slicing the lemon deftly in two, he then squeezed it firmly into the shot glass and pushed the thing smartly across the bar toward me. "Try that!"

Well, I did. And my lips puckered and curled and drew back over my skull until my cranium looked like a bony golf ball sitting atop a fleshy tee. WAAAYYY too tart.

It took a little experimentation, but I finally settled on whiskey, grapefruit juice, and grenadine. Mixed a bit like a tequila sunrise, with a somewhat muddier look. That's what I drank for the next five years. I didn't name it. To Mike (all the bartenders at the RAF Croughton All Ranks Club were named "Mike") it was "my usual."

Then I went TDY (temporary duty) to write technical manuals in Sacramento, California. I taught the bartender at the hotel how to make these things for me, and she refused to let it sit without a name. I suggested that if she wanted it to have a name, she should name it. She called it a "Sundowner", and that's what it is. My drink; her name.

Not quite the end of the story. As I said, I was in England for five years. (A normal "long" tour of duty was one year, so I was the old man by that time.) On my last day at RAF Crouton. I went to the All Ranks club and Irish Mike was behind the bar. I walked up and asked for "my usual" and Mike mixed it, just as he had done hundreds of times over the previous half-decade.

A new patron was sitting at the other end of the bar, watching. When Mike was done, the newbie motioned to my drink and asked, "What is that?" In his inimitable brogue, Mike replied:

"A waste of good whiskey."

UPDATE: I've recently come across the same ingredients used in a drink called "the Blinker". TheKitchn.com describes it as "a cocktail dating back to the 1930s calling for a mix of rye, grapefruit, and grenadine. Three ingredients and some ice and you'll be sipping this vibrant, sophisticated drink in no time."

Yup, that's close, and it differs from the Sundowner in only two important respects: the ice and the shaking.  Whereas the Blinker is a uniform pink resembling some form of anti-freeze, the Sundowner has a smooth grade between deep red at the bottom to pale pinkish-yellow at the top. And of course, the Sundowner is made with pre-chilled ingredients and requires no ice. It's the difference between tacos and nachos. Much as nachos are simply failed tacos, the Blinker is a failed Sundowner.

That's my opinion, and I'm stickin' to it. :)

RECIPE: It occurs to me I've never told you how to make the thing properly. Didn't think I had to, as "like a Tequila Sunrise" should have done it. But here it is:

  • 1.5 oz chilled whiskey (I like Johnny Walker Red)
  • 3/4 cup chilled grapefruit juice (fresh squeezed if you have it)
  • 1/2 (1.5 fluid ounce) jigger grenadine (more or less to personal taste)

Combine the whiskey and grapefruit juice in a highball glass. Carefully pour in the grenadine... it won't mix, but will sink to the bottom. Give it one stir with a swizzle stick; just enough to give it a good color grade. Don't garnish it. Really... just don't.

Drink it.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

International Range Bowling Day

As I announced last week, today is International Range Bowling Day. I spent the day with family and friends playing the Next Olympic Sport. Over 200 Crayola ® rounds were expended, and at the end of the day I didn't win a single game. I placed last in the first game (which D.W. won), and second in the last game. (The last game was won by my brother's girlfriend, who had never fired a gun in her life).

As we played, it occurred to me that to the general public its origins are clouded in mystery. This is the story of how it was developed to become the phenomenon it is today.

First, a word...

I rarely mention Range Bowling without being accosted by somebody about how terrible it is that we're promoting weapons, we're encouraging killing, yada, yada, yada. To those people I say, “Get a life, you ignorant putz.” Football doesn't encourage mugging, though quarterbacks get sacked; baseball doesn't encourage stealing, though bases are stolen; Range Bowling doesn't encourage killing, though shots are fired.
First of all, we have extensively tested the equipment. It is safer than a pellet gun. One look at the pins after using pellet guns tells the story. The pins struck by crayons are always and invariably undamaged. Those struck by pellets are dented. Those struck by BBs are punctured.
We use a real gun in part because the irony of using a weapon for entertainment isn't lost on us. It's ludicrous, and fun. But it's also safer than the “safe” alternatives I mention above. Finally – and importantly – it gives us an opportunity to teach gun safety with real guns. We treat the guns at all times as if they are loaded with live ammunition, though live ammunition is banned from the premises. There are penalties if you fail to follow gun safety rules (namely, you're ejected from the game). We wear eye protection. We use the safeties on the guns. All this for wax pellets fired without a charge. You probably stand a better chance of getting injured playing catch in the front yard.
As a result of all of this, Range Bowling isn't just fun; it's educational. Our kids are responsible around weapons. They're not fearful, ignorant, or frivolous.

The History

I've always had a habit of opening my house to strays, strangers, and temporary guests. The “guest” at this time, around 1994-1995, was my brother Robert. One of Robert's skills is reloading ammunition, so when he moved in he brought his reloading equipment with him. Basically, this sort of thing consists of casings (the stuff you put the powder in; primers (the thing that blows up when the hammer hits it, causing the powder to ignite; bullets (the lead part that kills or injures); and a press mechanism for putting this stuff together.
Also at that time my son William was about 8 or 9 years old, and like most young kids he owned crayons. He had a tendency to leave them around the house.
One day I idly picked up a casing while talking to Robert. In my other hand I had a Crayola ® crayon that had been left on the floor. Noticing that they were about the same size, I casually slipped the crayon into the empty casing and broke it off flush with the end of the casing. When I wondered aloud whether the wax pellet could be used as a bullet, Robert surmised that the charge would most likely melt it completely, but that the primer alone should expel it from the barrel of the pistol. He proceeded to load the casing I was holding into his .38 revolver and fired it at a corrugated cardboard box across the room.
It bounced harmlessly off the cardboard. From about 3 feet away a crayon fired at the box penetrated the first layer of the box, but did not penetrate the corrugation. As it turned out, this is pretty safe, so long as you don't point it at somebody's eyes. In fact, it's safer than a BB gun or even a plastic pellet gun. The wax doesn't damage the revolver either, though you most assuredly should clean your gun before putting it away. It was safe enough that we could envision an indoor shooting range.
The next order of business was finding appropriate targets. The crayon won't travel more than 40 feet, and has such a low velocity that paper targets are invulnerable at that range. William had some plastic bowling pins, though, and they did fall over when struck properly.
From there it was a short step from target practice to actually bowling for point.

Why now?

It's time, that's why.
Actually, this is the best time of year to introduce people to the sport. I live in South Carolina, so my rules of weather apply, but barring the occasional hurricane, this is the least blustery time of year. That makes it a lot easier to play outdoors, if firing crayons in the house makes you way too nervous.
Secondly, it's the best time to get the proper equipment. Those plastic bowling pins are pretty much seasonal items. At the end of September the stores have put away their Back To School specials and have started to put out Christmas merchandise. The decorations may be for Halloween, but the seasonal aisles in Wal-Mart are starting to fill with toys, toys, toys... including plastic bowling pins Don't worry if you can't find the pins. Just use ten empty 2-litre soda bottles. Just get some pins when you get the chance... they're better.
Sadly, this year I couldn't find the pins! I had given away the set I used previously, thinking they'd be easily replaced, and then I couldn't find a set to save my life. So, it was the Dr. Pepper company to the rescue. I sucked down ten Diet Dr. Peppers over the last couple of days, and spray-painted them With the caps on you get a lot of pin action, so set them a little bit further apart than you would place bowling pins.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Navy loses spine: capitulates to morons

Today on FoxNews.com the following headline appeared:

Navy to Modify Barracks Complex that Resembles a Swastika From Air

This one's worthy of comment, so I'm quoting the entire story (don't have a cow... it's Fair Use). It leads off with a startling photo of a barracks complex at the Coronado Naval Air Station in San Diego, California.

CORONADO, Calif. — The Navy will spend as much as $600,000 to modify a 40-year-old barracks complex that resembles a swastika from the air, a gaffe that went largely unnoticed before satellite images became easily accessible on the Internet.

This wasn't a “gaffe”... it was a design feature, and a damned good one, as I'll point out in a moment.

The Navy said officials noted the buildings' shape after the groundbreaking in 1967 but decided against changing it at the time because it wasn't obvious from the ground. Aerial photos made available on Google Earth in recent years have since revealed the buildings' shape to a wide audience.

Ooooh, look at the phrasing. Makes it sound like just an unfortunate accident, doesn't it? Except that it was neither unfortunate, nor an accident. It's a swastika, alright. But ironically, here, in this context, it's not a symbol of hate. Keep reading and all will be revealed.

The Navy approved the money to change the walkways, landscaping and rooftop solar panels of the four L-shaped barracks, used by members of the Naval Construction Force at the Navy's amphibious base at Coronado, near San Diego.
"We don't want to be associated with something as symbolic and hateful as a swastika," Scott Sutherland, deputy public affairs officer for Navy Region Southwest, told the Los Angeles Times.

Gee, you should have thought about that before taking on the Germans in WWII.

Listen, folks, it's OK to be “associated” with a symbol of hate, so long as the association is clear that you are an enemy of those that the symbol represents. It's OK to be the enemy of Nazis, the enemy of the Ku Klux Klan, the enemy of terrorists. If you're in the military, and you're not readily identifiable as an enemy of our nation's enemies -- if that association is not clear -- then you're not doing your job, plain and simple. It's part of the oath. In fact, it's how the oath begins: “I... do solemnly swear, (or affirm), that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic... At least that's how it went when I took it.

Online commentators remarked widely about the buildings' resemblance to the Nazi symbol.

Yep. The 1:1 “resemblance”.

Dave vonKleist, host of "The Power Hour," a Missouri-based radio-talk show, said he wrote to military officials calling for action.
"I'm concerned about symbolism," he said. "This is not the type of message America needs to be sending to the world."

Looks like Dave vonKleist has a very narrow outlook. Otherwise he'd have broadened his view to see the Big Picture:

Yep. What you see coming from the SouthWest are two Allied bombers approaching the symbol of Nazi aggression and hate. Beyond the swastika you also see the aftermath: a ballfield tended so as to resemble a bombed out field. This isn't a symbol of hate in this context. Rather, it is a commemoration of past accomplishments and a promise for the future.

But according to Dave vonKleist, America doesn't need to send the message that the enemies of freedom will be met with deadly force. Does vonKleist has a soft spot in his heart for der Feuhrer, or does he just have a soft spot in his head?

The Navy decided to alter the buildings' shape following requests this year by Anti-Defamation League regional director Morris Casuto and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis.
"I don't ascribe any intentionally evil motives to this," Casuto said of the design. "It just happened. The Navy has been very good about recognizing the problem. The issue is over."

Yep. No evil motives. Only the purest motives of defense against tyranny. Of course, Casuto and Davis don't see that because they didn't look at the big picture either. Or perhaps this California Democrat just didn't want to see the big picture. By taking the image out of context, she found herself a very convenient way to target the military. While she votes for spending in her district (the NAS is a major presence in the 53 rd district, on broader issues she tends to vote against the military.

Out-of-control political correctness aside, there's nothing wrong with the swastika as it's portrayed here: a target of the defenders of justice. It was designed and erected by patriots, not sympathizers. However, the United States Navy, in a fit of mamby-pamby back-pedaling, characterizes this noble patriotism as “the problem.” It's a good damned thing our parents fought in WWII and not the present generation.

On the other hand, the issue IS over. These people are idiots. Case closed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Next Sunday is Range Bowling Day!

Range Bowling is one of my contributions to the world of mindful entertainment*. It's been a while since I mentioned it, so I'm declaring next Sunday (September 30th). Official Range Bowling Day. I'll see if I can organize something and post some pics.

If you're wondering what it is... it's the most fun you can have with a set of plastic bowling pins, a table, a box of empty cartridges, and .38 calibre revolver. Follow the link at the top of this post for more details.

* others include Jedi Chess, my Qui-Vive implementation and the unpublished game of BaseFire!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Test of OpenOffice.org Weblog Extension

Last night I upgraded to OpenOffice.org 2.3 and noticed that there's now a Weblog extension. So I'm testing it here. Don't expect much in the way of pithy comment.

The way this works is that you simply install the extension by double-clicking on it. Then when you open Writer you'll notice a new Weblog menu. Edit your settings by choosing the type of blog and entering your username and password. The extension publishes to Blogger, Roller, Wordpress, Atom Publishing Protocol API, and MetaWebLog API, and you can have multiple blogs.

Then just use your word processor to compose the post, complete with all of the nifty features. There's no need to title the work as you'll be asked for a title later.

When you're satisfied, click on “Send to Weblog”. In the dialog box that pops up, select your blog then enter the title, and a category, and select whether you want it saved as a draft or published. Click OK and you're done.

Seems to work.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Cul-de-sacs are Evil? Way too simplistic.

In a recent blog, Dana Blankenhorn contends that cul-de-sacs are evil. I kind of hope he's just kidding, because the conclusions he draws from his lack of evidence are are practically jaw-dropping. So I'm going to pretend that he means what he says in this discussion. Please keep in mind that I'm not arguing for cul-de-sacs -- I can't think of a reason why I'd care -- I'm arguing against the silly conclusion Dana's drawn. Namely:

Cul de sacs are the symbol of what's wrong with America. But they have become so ubiquitous that no one can imagine building cities any other way.
Well, now. If only life were so easy that we could blame all of society's ills on the prevalence of dead-end streets. Sadly, Dana's hyperbolic analysis defies not only reason, but fact as well. Let's look at his points (though they're interwoven and not clearly delineated. Since he rambled, I don't feel bad about rambling, too).
1. The cul de sac makes the War Against Oil nearly impossible to win, by guaranteeing that people of every age have only one way to get around -- the automobile. As cul de sac developments grow this dependence increases.
It depends a lot on the cul-de-sac. I used to live in a gated apartment complex in Coral Springs, FL. In fact, it was exactly here. If you zoom out a level or two you'll see that there's shopping right across main drag, to the East. Within walking distance to the North is a Publix grocery store. Oh, and right beside the entrance to the cul-de-sac is a bus stop. That's right... public transportation. In fact, controlled access to gated communities makes it easier to plan public transportation, and to use it to lessen our dependence on oil. Most people don't even think about it, though.

Dana's observation is not limited to cul-de-sacs, and it's not even new. Look at this neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. It was planned... oh, about 50 years ago. Very few dead-ends here, and also very few shops of any kind. Of course, that didn't stop my parents from sending me out on my bike to pick up this-or-that from the A&P several miles away. They just had to wait an hour or more to get it. But in general, it's not the number of outlets, it's the distance from the store that puts people's butts in their cars. So why are the cul-de-sacs evil and traditional residential neighborhoods not?

Since living in Coral Springs I've since moved several times, most recently to a wide-open rural community. Now that I live in the county, I have to drive to the store, and it's inconvenient, so I do it when I'm out for other purposes. If I'm missing an essential ingredient for a recipe, I cook something else. Frankly, even when I lived in Coral Springs most of my shopping was done mostly on the way home from work. The change in location and convenience hasn't really changed the shopping pattern.

It's not living on a cul-de-sac that makes us dependent on automobiles, its lack of adequate public transportation. Though... the urban planning in Coral Springs shows that this is easily fixed in suburban areas. Rural areas simply can't adequately solve this particular problem. (But surprisingly, they're not evil, either.) But multi-purposing your trips -- such as shopping on your way home from work -- will most certainly cut down on your use of oil. This is true whether you live on a cul-de-sac or a thoroughfare or a two-lane highway in the county.

Conclusion: it ain't the urban plan that's a problem. It's the failure of people to buy into it and work with it. To encourage public transportation we have to use it. To use it, it has to be there.

2. Cul de sacs make you fat. They make you lazy. They give you the illusion of security, but there's plenty of crime in the cul de sacs. Crooks have cars, and they know that there's little traffic inside the cul de sac. Drive up, smash, grab, drive away -- chances are great no one will see you.

There are two arguments here: they make you fat, and they're not safe.

The first one is adequately answered thus: lack of exercise and too much food makes you fat. Not the kind of street you live on. Neighborhoods can be designed for security and convenience, and they can put walking trails and bike trails there for you. But that alone won't make you healthy; you have to actually use that stuff.

The second one is not true either. The question isn't whether crime exists at all, it's how it compares proportionally to other types of residential plans. In many cul-de-sacs, the houses face each other (on thoroughfares they're typically end-to-end). The families know each other. And there are Neighborhood Watch programs in place. More preventative 911 calls are made by neighbors who know that something's unusual, not casual drivers who have no idea that the intruder doesn't actually live in the house. The lack of traffic is not a problem, it's a boon: few people visit except those that live there; therefore everything else is unusual. The residents know that. So do the crooks.

National statistics show that crime is lower in cul-de-sacs. Robbers, especially those in cars, prefer targets that are on main roads, preferably with multiple routes. Preferably no dead-ends, no narrow lanes, and enough choices so that they're not likely to be blocked or their route anticipated. This isn't limited to residential areas, as a study from Raleigh, NC has revealed (PDF. The link is to a US Dept. of Justice police guide concerning bank robbery).

Here's one of the many I found: It's a paper called "Designing Out Crime: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" presented by the Australian Institute of Criminology. It describes an actual case study in Hartford, Connecticut... a redesign of a deteriorating neighborhood called Asylum Hill:

Three major physical design changes were made in Asylum Hill: cul-de-sacs were created to stop through traffic; outside motor traffic was diverted to define neighbourhoods better; and residents were encouraged to put up fences. And to promote a sense of territoriality and control in the area, residents were encouraged to use the area more while outside pedestrians were discouraged.
The results?

Beside revealing a substantial drop in crime and fear of crime, an evaluation of the project (Fowler et al. 1979) concluded that the three components of the project - changes in physical design, police operations and community responses to crime - were essential in producing the positive results, but that the physical design changes were crucial in making the other crime prevention strategies work.
But you don't have to trust me or references I supply. Simply Google for "crime statistics robberies in cul-de-sacs".

Conclusion: Dana is just flat wrong, according to multiple studies by multiple agencies in multiple municipalities across the globe.

3. And if anyone thinks being part of a "gated community" with a gatehouse protects the residents of a cul de sac from crime, think again. There's crime there too. And much of it is never solved, again because there are no witnesses.

There are references that support this conclusion, such as this paper by Blakely & Snyder cited by Wikipedia. Frankly, Wikipedia is not widely regarded for its accuracy, nor am I impressed by this paper at all: where it gives hard numbers, they are given as a percentage of change, not as per-capita crime rates. In areas where the objective level of crime may be lower to start with, they provide neither evidence nor reasoning to support why we should expect the rate of change to differ from the outside areas. In other words, it appears their conclusion is a result of poor methodology. Neither does their conclusion match with their case studies, as with the case of Potomac Gardens in Washington, DC, where "The measures did dramatically reduce drug dealing and vandalism, however, and the majority of tenants came to support 'the fence' within a few months."

Not all gated communities are equal. Some are more densely populated than others. Some may contain single-family homes; others, apartment buildings. "Stately homes" (wherever they are located!) are more isolated than bungalows or apartments. Some are just residential neighborhoods; but some are entire communities. And the idea that crime is less prevalent in a gated community necessarily presumes that the criminal element does not live there in the first place.

Crime prevention isn't done on a macro scale. We could easily (within a week) control access to Manhattan Island. It would in every sense of the word be a gated community, but the crime rate wouldn't significantly change. Clearly, as we scale up we can expect diminishing results. Small areas, with neighborhood associations and clearly defined territories having restricted access does in fact work. Trying to scale this up to an entire community is over-ambitious, and frankly irrelevant to the discussion of cul-de-sacs.

That said, having lived in a gated apartment complex with a security guard on each gate, a regular patrol, and neighbors, I simply have to conclude--on that scale, at least--that Dana's just plain wrong.

Conclusion: cul-de-sacs are still more secure than thoroughfares; gated communities are irrelevant to that discussion.

He actually makes some other arguments; that traffic in cities increases with the adoption of cul-de-sacs there, though the public transportation and population remain unchanged. He wildly extends this to widening streets and gridlock without even considering alternatives such as improved public transportation to accompany the change in street plan (and he has the chutzpah to state that no one else can imagine building cities any other way! Pot, meet kettle.) These are unwarranted, unreasoned, and we can ignore them.

So let's get past Dana's overly-simplistic and hyperbolic conclusion (that cul-de-sacs are evil) and perhaps focus on what a message that he should have intended to say. It has nothing to do with dead-end streets.

Healthwise, it's being sedentary that's bad, not living on a dead-end street. No matter where you live you need to exercise. I know it's the Liberal modus-operandi to blame everything bad in your life on somebody else, but enough is enough. The city planners didn't give you a gut, you big baby. Drop the fork.

Crime prevention-wise, being involved through community watch programs really and truly works. Take part. It's easier if you live in a neighborhood with controlled access. If you have even the slightest smidgen of common sense you know that if you're on a thoroughfare then you can't depend on total strangers passing by at 40 mph to notice odd happenings in your home in the 3 to 5 second window of opportunity they have. So you're going to have a harder time of it than the guy on the cul-de-sac.

Winning the War Against Oil. What should we do?

Well, first, drop the rhetoric. "War Against Oil" is a slogan, not a plan. For one thing, it makes it difficult to identify the goal. If it's a war against foreign oil dependence, then it's not a war against oil at all. If it's an environmental statement, then as Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, says, "The war against climate change is not a war against oil. It's a war against emissions." In this case, "War Against Oil" is flatly insufficient, as it should encompass other hydrocarbon fuels. If it's just a oil use, period, without any practical environmental, economic, or health goal, then it's just irrational.

I prefer to think in terms of a balance between ecological stewardship and political and economic independence. Drive down the burning of oil here so that we're not only not less dependent on it economically, but to improve the environment and quality of life here. It will not be cheap at first, and the oil we don't use will be burned by developing countries, making the overall global effect most probably negligible. But we can use our economic power to come up with workable technologies to replace the use of oil in those developing countries bootstrap a cleaner world.
  • Government:
    • Better suburban planning, for starters. Cul-de-sacs aren't evil. They do in fact lower crime, and they make it easier to plan bus routes. It would be nice to have more affordable, community shops and fewer mega-stores. But since mega-stores are so damned cheap to run, make sure the bus routes go there on convenient schedules.
    • Don't zone aesthetics so tightly that people can't use solar panels, for instance. Make it illegal for homeowners associations to forbid them, too.
    • You want people to use alternative fuels? Set an example: buy buses that use 'em.
    • Approach the problem realistically. If we use less oil, we won't extend the planet's reserves at all, as other countries will take advantage of falling prices to use more. So we need to promote alternatives on realistic economic grounds.
    • Promote and maintain your hydroelectric plants.
    • Promote nuclear energy. It's clean, it's reliable, it's cheap, and the residue is less energetic than than the uranium that was taken out of the environment in the first place. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? Use nuclear energy.
    • Discourage new coal and oil electric plants. Encourage replacement of those we have.
    • Stop thinking mainly in macro terms for energy alternatives. Encourage individuals to use efficient, cheap methods that work and make immediate economic sense.
      • Wind energy need not be generated in huge farms when you can put a generator on your rooftop to charge batteries.
      • Likewise for solar energy. The most effective use of solar energy isn't to make electricity, it's to harness the sun's heat to heat water or oil. This can be directly used for water heaters and radiators. That's a lot better than using photovoltaic cells at 15% efficiency to generate electricity to use for that purpose. Pipes on the roof can pay for themselves quickly.
    • Come up with a consistent national energy policy, PLEASE. We're pretty sick of wondering whether this or that energy-saving home improvement will get us what tax credits in what states. It's a simple concept: reducing our dependence on the government infrastructure should reduce our obligation to pay for it. It doesn't even need to be proportional, but we do need to eliminate the guesswork.
  • Individuals:
    • Better use of public facilities. The city plans, but they can't make you use the stuff. It's up to you to use trains and buses and your feet.
    • In rural areas you have more options with regard to self-sufficiency. For instance, stupid zoning laws that value aesthetics over function may prevent you from using solar panels in a suburban area. In a rural area you rarely have those kinds of restrictions. So use windmills, solar panels, and other creative supplements to your energy needs.
    • Conserve processed water by using gray water or groundwater for watering the lawn or washing the car. Some municipalities (like Cary, NC) offer separate lines for this.
    • Telecommute when possible. I live 60+ miles away from each of three major population centers, so this is a big one for me. My gas use is cut in half by working from home 2-3 days a week.
    • Multi-purpose trips. When you have to drive, do more than one thing at a time. If you need some incidental, put off getting it until you need to do something else. Avoid instant gratification... keep a list instead.
    • Buy better cars that use less petroleum. Bicycle when you can. Carpool.
    • Encourage alternative sources of energy. Getting over your irrational fear of nuclear power is a great step. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? USE NUCLEAR ENERGY.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Good LORD! That's GOOD!

I just saw the best episode of Star Trek ever made.

Desilu didn't make it. Paramount didn't make it. It didn't appear on CBS, NBC, the Sci-Fi channel, or even in a theater near you. It's a fan production, on the Web, called World Enough and Time (WEAT). It's one of the excellent fan productions on the Star Trek New Voyages website. And this is no accident. My previous favorite Star Trek episode was also a STNV fan production, called "To Serve All My Days" (TSAMD).

(UPDATE: Yes, I know the website says "coming soon". New Voyages is a victim of its own success. The servers crashed under the strain of trying to serve the episode to 40,000 people when another 70,000 showed up. Even so, it's possible to download the episode with BitTorrent. Do sign up for the streaming event, though, so that New Voyages can provide accurate viewer stats to the studios.)

Don't let that "fan production" label fool you. These are entirely professional productions... it's just that for copyright reasons they can't make money from them, so these are produced out of sheer love of the material. But I won't go on about it... the STNV folks can explain themselves just fine. To give you some idea of the quality, this started purely as fans. But more and more professionals are involved. TSAMD starred Walter Koenig ("Pavel Chekov" from the original series). In the course of the series, other guest stars have included Grace Lee Whitney ("Yeoman Janice Rand"), Denise Crosby (Next Generation's "Tasha Yar"), William Windom ("Commodore Decker"), Majel Barrett Rodenberry ("Nurse Chapel", "Lwaxana Troi", and the Computer Voice in all five of the TV series). Mrs. Rodenberry returns as the computer voice in WEAT. Not just actors: Gene Roddenberry's son is a consulting producer. Marc Scott Zicree directs WEAT. David Gerrold ("Trouble With Tribbles") wrote the upcoming episode, "Blood and Fire", in which Denise Crosby will guest star. Rick Sternbach has won an Emmy, and he's doing work for New Voyages. You get the idea.

That brings me back to this episode. George Takei (the original series' "Hikaru Sulu") guest stars as... Sulu. And he does an amazing job of it, on the Enterprise, the Excelsior, and... well, you've gotta see it. Here's the website's teaser:
A Romulan weapons test goes awry and snares the Enterprise in an inter-dimensional trap. Lt. Commander Sulu returns to find himself 30 years out of place and the key to saving the crew of the Enterprise as the precarious grasp on their own dimension begins to slip. Guest starring George Takei, who returns to the role of Hikaru Sulu, which he played on television in Star Trek (TOS) and in Star Trek: Voyager, as well as in the six feature Star Trek films. Written by Michael Reaves and Marc Scott Zicree. Directed by Marc Scott Zicree.
What they don't tell you here (but you get from the trailer) is that Sulu has a daughter in those 30 years. What they really don't tell you is that the actress playing the part (Christina Moses) can act. and I don't mean a little bit either. If this were a broadcast episode she would have won an Emmy, and I don't mean maybe. As TV Guide reports it,
The daughter whom Sulu gains when he’s marooned for thirty years on an alien planet is such a tour-de-force for Christina Moses that the Oscar-winning producer of “Ordinary People” and showrunner on Medium, Ron Schwary, said upon seeing her performance, "That's a star. She's a star right there." Marc testified further that, “It's an amazing performance, a phenomenal performance, and the audience is moved to tears every time we show it. And I am, too.”
Me, too, baby. Me too.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yes, I read it.
If you have not read it, go away now.

For the rest of you, Somebody, please try to explain what seems to me to be a glaring plot hole:
  • At one point in the action, a weapon is lost at Gringott's. Traded, you might say, to the original owners, and so done by Harry, who was arguably the rightful owner.
  • Much later, that self-same weapon is used in the final battle.
Where did it come from? Yes, it was pulled "out of the hat" as it were, but didn't the Goblins have it? Were they not the rightful owners, both under their own traditions and by virtue of the fact that Harry gave it to them? Was it not Harry's to give? Or was the need so great and the valour so strong that its enchantment overrode these other considerations?


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I took my kids to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix today. I've read reviews that say that it's not a film for small children, and no, it's not. That's what the earlier films are for. Let's be clear: this is the fifth of a series. Unlike the early books, this is dark, it's moody, it's violent in places. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was written about an 11 year-old, at a reading level appropriate for 11 year olds. This was written about a 16-year-old and an appropriate reading level. That said, my own 11 year-old children enjoyed the movie, and were quite well prepared for the darkness of the film by virtue of having read the book first.

If you want to get full enjoyment out of this film you really have to read the book first. My older brother (who went with us) had not. He found it to be disjointed and confusing. I can certainly see his point. Nevertheless, when you've got a limited amount of screen time, and 4 years of backstory you can't be expected to get the audience up to speed. Watch the other movies, read the other books, then see this film.

The rest of this post is for people who've read the book. If you haven't then it won't make sense. Stop reading now.

For the most part I was satisfied with what they chose to keep and leave out. As I said, they've got a limited amount of screen time. This was a big book. And it's so full of good moments that it's easy to get caught up in all the things that were not in the movie. For instance, I wish that Fred and George Weasley's exit had been a bit more like the book: as a result of a confrontation with Umbridge, rather than just out of the blue. I miss the swamp. I miss Peeves. The movie version of their departure seemed... insufficient. I wish Tonks had more screen time. I wish Kingley Shacklebolt had more than one line. I miss the Sorting Hat's new song. But the movie was long enough and we can't have everything.

On the other hand, the moments that were included were well done in themselves, even if somewhat clumsily stitched together. Harry's speech to the prospective members of "Dumbledore's Army" in the Hog's Head tavern was absolutely riveting. And I believe director David Yates was extremely effective in getting across the message that Harry is the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher these kids have ever had. That's what I watched the movie for in the first place... that and the death of Sirius Black, and Dumbledore's confrontation with You-Know-Who... all nicely done.

The casting was superb. Delores Umbridge was exactly as described by the book, and just as sweet and hateful. Luna Lovegood was exceptionally well cast (she was played by a rare newcomer in this cast of notables. And thinking of casting... when was the last time you saw a movie with such an incredible cast of notable actors, some of whom only got a minute or two on the screen? C'mon now... Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Bonham-Carter... a tremendous torrent of thespian talent.

The one real complaint I have was that (in my theatre, at least) the movie was too dark. Not the themes or mood... there wasn't enough light on the screen to make out details that should have been visible. Sadly, at this moment I don't know if it's the director's fault or the projectionist's.

Summing up, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is definitely worth seeing, but only if you've got the backstory. Read the books or watch the preceding films, then watch this.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

I got a new chair

Here's the thing about having kids; stuff in your house mysteriously breaks. I have an older son who's rarely in the house proper, and twin 11-year olds. With the twins, things break more often and nobody -- and I mean nobody -- ever cops to having done the breaking.

So it was with my office chair. I spent a day at work and came home to find that my chair had gone wubbly. You heard me... wubbly. The seat, which should have been firmly planted on the pedestal, was just sort of balancing precariously like a plate on a rod held by one of those Chinese circus performers. Not only that, but the pneumatic pedestal sort of stopped working so it's constantly in the up position when you get up, and sinks rapidly to the floor when you sit in it. According to the entire family, "it was just like that" without any action on their part. Sigh. I'm not looking to blame anybody; I just want to know wtf happened to the chair. It's not too much to ask.

So I bought a new chair. I went to where I bought my old one (Sam's Club), but no dice. The chair had been discontinued. So I bought this instead. I've really only got one major criterion for a chair, and that's that the armrests must attach firmly to both the seat and the back. It strengthens the whole thing. I looked at a bunch of chairs. This upscale model was rather nice (Despite the fact that the website says it's available on-line only, it actually was in the Spartanburg store). It's nice, but not nice enough to recommend it over the one I bought. I also didn't like the fact that the wood made it quite a bit more heavy. I also looked at a nice leather version of the same one I bought, which, for only $15 more than I eventually paid is a steal. However, the micro-fiber chair I got was simply more comfortable, and it doesn't make you sweat like the leather does.

I'm having to get used to the fact that it's a little narrower than my old seat, but now that I have been sitting in it a couple of days, I can tell you it's just a really, really good chair. Ahhhh.

Friday, June 29, 2007

How to Build a Pyramid

[9 Oct 2011: I originally wrote this article in 2007 and it was on its own web page. Recently I saw another television special about the pyramids, and my frustration with the astounding ignorance of the Ph.D. who wrote it moved me to re-post it here, update it and fix the formatting.]

How to Build a Pyramid - Giza Style
by David F. Leigh

"Architect! Build me a monument! It must be 280 cubits high and outlast the ages!"
So the Pharoah has appointed you to build his next pyramid. Whe're to start? You live in the Bronze Age, in the year 2580 B.C. Is it even possible to carry out the order with great precision given the tools that you have available to you? Let's find out. We'll start with an inventory.

Your resources 
  • Aproximately 20,000 highly motivated manual laborers, stonecutters, foremen, and and support staff. 
  • Adequate food and shelter for these workers (money is no object, since it doesn't exist anyway) 
  • The natural resources of the land on which you live, and those of surrounding countries for which you can trade. 
  • Your intelligence and common sense 

Your tools 
  • Wooden mallets 
  • Measuring rods and ropes in cubits (about the length of you elbow to your outstretched fingertip) 
  • Bronze, copper, and stone chisels, adzes, axes, choppers and pounders. 
  • Wooden Levers 
  • Rope. Lots of rope 
  • Wooden sledges 
  • Oil and water. 
  • Whatever you can dream up that doesn't involve steam, motors, iron, plastic, or other modern materials. Copper, bronze, stone, wood, leather, papyrus reed, ivory, bone, rope, lead, glue, and shell are all acceptable materials. 
  • You can use techniques whose discovery is credited to people living centuries later, so long as they are simply accomplished with Bronze Age technology. For instance, you can bisect an angle with a compass and straightedge. After all, improper assignment of credit happens all the time, even today. 

Making a blueprint 
There are plenty of reasons for selecting a pyramid to be our monument. First, Pharoah's father and grandfather built pyramids.... it's a family tradition. And pyramids echo the timelessness of mountains. And with its sloping sides, a pyramid looks much taller to someone standing at its base than it really is.

But there are practical reasons, too. Two hundred eighty cubits is really, really tall. So tall that we're not going to be able to build an obelisk that high. It would fall over or break with the stress of trying to raise it. We can't build in clay or brick either, since that will crack and buckle under the weight that's placed on it. Besides, bricks crumble over time. So we're going to be building in stone. And we're going to need a wide base. A pyramid is extremely stable.

Nonetheless, we have some limits. Build it too steep and the weight will crack the base. Too shallow and it won't be impressive. This needs to be extremely well built and precise, both because we take pride in our work and to celebrate the perfection of nature and our faith in the infallibility of our ruler.

So we start with an architect's drawing on papyrus. This will be a scale drawing we'll use to get approval from Pharoah, and it will be important for other reasons to be seen later. We start with our height: two hundred eighty cubits. That's what Pharoah ordered, that's what we'll deliver.
[The height here is completely arbitrary. We could have as easily said that we're going to fill up a certain area, and the calculations will work out exactly the same. However, there's no actual problem with the fact that it's arbitrary: the Pharoah wants something bigger than has ever been built before, and it should be divisible by two for the simple reason that we want, in this early age, to avoid fractions. As you'll see, even though the value of pi will be inherent in the pyramid, all of the numbers we'll manipulate are integers.]
Now for the base. We know that it'll be big, big, big, so we're going to need to be able to measure it exactly when we scale it up. Measuring with rope is no good... it stretches. Measuring rods have to many opportunities for slippage. Pacing it off is a joke. I choose to roll a wheel because an odometer is the best low-tech way of measuring the long distance exactly. So, in laying out my blueprint, I measure the base with a wheel, a little scaled-down odometer, one unit in diameter. It looks a little like a pizza cutter. As it happens, 140 turns of the wheel gives us a pretty pleasing shape, just shy of 440 cubits wide at the base. The pyramid is broad but imposing. It's stable, with a slope that's not too steep or shallow. And the math is pretty easy, too. All integers. I'll be able to pace off 70 turns in either direction from the center to find the edges.

I have no intention of sticking with just a papyrus blueprint. We'll build a number of scale models of wood or stone. Heck, we'll build a limestone model for Pharoah to gaze upon while we're building the real thing.
[Now, with a real pyramid we'd include a bunch of other features... a gallery, tombs, conduits... I'll describe those at a later date. But for right now, for the purposes of this web page, I'm building a featureless mountain.] 
Our project plan is to finish the work in about 20 years, before Pharoah dies. To do this we're going to have to shift over 2 million stone blocks into place. Working 360 days a year for 20 years (I'm leaving off a few days for contingency and festivals, or whatever), we're going to need to move about 300 blocks per day. With an average of maybe 2.5 tons per block we're going to need teams of 20 to 25 men per block.... let's say 25. That means 7,500 unskilled men at a time on the gangs if each gang only delivered one block per day. More likely you'd be able to shift a number of blocks per day. Add rampbuilders, quarrymen, and more workers to place the stones, then some masons to finish the blocks. I'm going to estimate 15,000 people working on the pyramid at any one time, but I'll call it 20,000 to include support workers... cooks, potters, doctors, etc. And I think that's conservative. This is doable. We don't have hundreds of thousands of mouths to feed, and given our population, we can do it with part-time conscripted labor.... sort of like a term in the army. At least we won't need slaves. And we can scale up or back for certain portions of the construction.
[Just after I first wrote this I saw a TV special about the Pyramids on the National Geographic channel, narrated by Avery Brooks (talk about timing!). They came to the same reckoning regarding total personnel, but for different reasons. The producers figured that 2,000 laborers would be sufficient to the task. If so, they'd each be shifting an awful lot of blocks each day. As I've personally engaged in labor, and I calculate the length that these blocks would be pulled, I conclude that you'd be doing good to walk the distance in the time allotted per day, much less pull a 2.5 ton weight. I think we'd need at least double the number of laborers they're suggesting. Likewise, there are too many support staff. People worked harder and longer... we're not talking about a 40-hour week with weekends off. I think they were extremely light on common labor and extremely heavy on support staff, but their total figure of 25,000 was reasonably close to mine.] 

Selecting a location 
The criteria for the location our monument are going to be critical. We're going to need a sturdy, level rock base, near a river and limestone quarry. We need limestone instead of granite because we're using Bronze Age tools, and granite's too hard for us to work. The quarry will be the source of our raw materials, but the river will bring us wood and supplies, and (very importantly) and unlimited supply of water. Proximity to the river means we'll have farmland on which to grow the food for our workers. Good climate is a plus so we can get in as much work as possible per year. Look at this satellite image of the Giza Plateau (29°58'51"N 31°09'00"E). Zoom out and see how it meets every one of our requirements. It's a limestone plateau on the edge of a fertile river valley cutting through a desert with a stable climate. Furthermore, we already own it. Isn't that a great location? We'll use it.

Leveling the foundation 
This is a fun task! How do we level a rock the size of many professional football fields? Well, I'd do it with a bucket of water.

Have you ever poured water on a concrete floor? It fills every dip and shows off every bump. So we're going to take some of that awesome manpower we have and splash buckets of water all over the plateau. Then it's scrape... level... scrape with our adzes, gavels, and granite blocks until the water doesn't run or pool. It's just a lot of hard work. However, there's nothing technically challenging to a Bronze Age engineer. I think the scrubbed and level plateau would have been one heck of a sight, impressive in its own right.
[The TV dramatization had the Pharoah pounding a stake into the thick sand to indicate True North, as he's surrounded by scrub and creosote bushes, or whatever it is that grows in Egypt. It's a wonder they could they didn't trip over all the plants. The Architect dangled a pendulum from his outstretched hand to site the circumpolar stars as the pendulum swayed to and fro. Why lay a stake that's going to be swept away when the site is subsequently cleared? Or did they simply plan on dropping multi-ton rocks on the plants and dunes, squashing them flat? I don't ask for perfection, just common sense.]

Measuring the base 
This is where we use our full-size odometer one unit (a cubit) in diameter. first we do some gross measurement to figure roughly the center of the plateau. Then we mark off right-angle centerlines North/South and East/West. The North/South line was easy to determine, as we have the clear desert air to help sight the North Star. There are a number of low-tech ways to determine a perfect right angle. The easiest is probably the compass method you learned in high school. Our "compass" is going to be pretty big, though... we can use a length of very stout rope for it. We would not use it to mark the long sides of the structure since it would stretch, but the shorter length we'll use here can be accurate enough.
[My survey would look entirely different from the TV dramatization. Imagine the site completely cleared of scrub and sand . Only bare limestone remains. This might resemble a huge deserted Air Force concrete paved storage field for B-52 bombers. There's no point in pinning down True North until the ground has been prepared to this degree. Very small people in the midst of this vast stone dance floor would survey the centerline to True North. The plumb bob would be suspended from a wooden armature and shielded from the wind. These are professionals.] 

Getting the angles right 
One of the most important things we're able to derive from the blueprint is the angles at the base. In fact, we're going to use the drawing to create some tools to help us in building. Namely, our angle gauge. It's basically like a crude protractor with a plumb bob. There are a number of variations of this tool that would work. We'll make some similar T-shaped or A-shaped tools to make sure our blocks are level.

During building we can put this thing against the side of the pyramid at any time and sight along it to ensure that our angles are proper. It doesn't matter what the angle actually is in degrees or radians... all that matters is that we exactly match the drawing. If it does, then all four sides will meet at the exact center at exactly the right height, assuming we measured the base correctly. There's no need for us to devise a method of measuring the height during building, since it's necessarily determined.

Ramping up ** (see update) 
[Cutting stone blocks isn't something that's generally disputed in a discussion of pyramid building, so we're going to take it as a given that our experienced Bronze age quarry workers can actually do the job we know they did. At a later date I'll discuss the how we determined the size of the blocks we're to use.] 
We're using a ramp to get our blocks up to the plateau and to hoist them onto the structure. Yep, that's it. No hoists, no cranes. See, there are three things we have plenty of as a result of our quarrying and location: sand, limestone rubble, and water. This ramp is going to be huge, and we really don't care, because there are far too many advantages to the ramp to give it up. First, there's ease of transportation. With a big enough ramp with a shallow enough slope, we have the the energy-saving benefits of an inclined plane. Trying to lift the blocks vertically will take far too much effort and will be much slower by comparison. Second, we can get more workers on the task of moving each block. You can't crowd very many people around a crane. Third, there's safety. There are no cranes to collapse. The block is never off of the surface; if a rope breaks, it won't fall on someone. And the shallow slope prevents a block from sliding back very far or fast. Finally, we can depend on unskilled labor to do the work. The architects may be professionals, but the laborers are just citizens doing community service. When they've done their time they'll go back to farming or fishing or herding goats.

A good portion of our crew will be engaged in a never-ending road paving project. As we build up each level of the pyramid, the ramp is extended to the next level. It becomes longer, and longer as it gets higher. At the end of the project, this ramp will be completely dismantled. We might use the material for other construction projects, roads or paving, or we might just use it to back-fill the quarry.

We're going to be moving our large stone blocks with ropes, wooden sledges, and brute force provided by gangs of workers who drag them up the ramp. We could use some other clever techniques, such as attaching rockers to the sides of a block to turn the block into a wheel. The problem here is with safety. Pushing a wheel up the ramp is ironically tougher than moving the block on a sledge. Why? Because with the sledge friction isn't just your enemy; it's your friend. You can rest, change crews, etc without expending a lot of energy to keep the sledge stationary. If a rope breaks it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. To overcome friction you'll be using water or oil on the sledge runners. With the wheel rockers, you'd have to expend a great deal of energy just to keep it stationary. It means constant tension on the ropes at all times. And it means that a rope breaking could be a devastating event as two tons of rock goes careening down the ramp, killing workers as it goes, causing them to release their ropes on their blocks, which go careening down... you get the picture. Ironically, for our construction purposes, dragging is the superior technique.

The work goes something like this: some workers build the ramp up. At the same time lots of quarrying is going on and stones are awaiting transport. When the ramp is finished, then the ramp-builders lay off or are reassigned while stones are dragged up. When the level is completed, it's the same thing all over again. The number of workers available for quarrying varies depending on how many are needed for transporting the stones or working on the ramp at any particular time.

** UPDATE 8/20/2013: It's unlikely that the actual pyramid had a huge external ramp. A new theory, which has plenty of credibility as it makes testable predictions, is that the pyramid contains an internal spiral ramp. This is well-thought out, and explains a number of features of the great pyramid that are otherwise puzzling (to say the least). In addition to requiring very little additional material (a ramp would only be used for the bottom third of the pyramid), it explains the "grand gallery" as a channel for a counter-weighted sledge used to hoist the granite slabs used for the roof of the King's Chamber. Also, this technique agrees with my assumption that safety is a major concern, and describes how the limestone cladding would have been placed first, back-filled with the sandstone blocks. As you can read below, I have always maintained that the cladding would have been placed as the construction progressed rather than separately, but Houdin's theory not only ups the safety, but makes construction much easier. Click on the cover of Archaeology to read more about it. The major point here is that neither magic, divine intervention, nor super-science is in any way ever required for construction of this impressive structure.

Casing the Joint 
Some people might consider cladding the pyramid with casing stones after the main structure is built. I prefer to plan the cladding as each level is done. Again, this is a safety issue. The casing stones are smooth. How would you possibly plan to put the stones there after the fact? You really don't want to wind up sliding on an unstoppable path to the plateau floor to be crushed by a falling casing stone. Cladding as we go keeps it safe, and allows us to better track our angle as we move up the structure. It also allows us to build and dismantle our ramp only once.

Capping it off 
The capstone ("pyramidium") is the last thing we'll add. Prior to putting it in place the architect and each team leader might sign or mark the base. After all, this is something to be truly proud of. The Pharoah has a surprise for us... he's provided specialists to apply gold leaf to the capstone. The reflection of the sun can be seen for miles!

Cleaning up 
Goodbye ramp. It's dismantled and hauled away by the millions of bucketloads.. The white limestone casing is washed and polished on the way down. The polishing is done by scrubbing the casing with large flat stones, using the ever-present sand as an abrasive.

What Did We Just Build? Math and Wonder in Hindsight. 
Isn't this an amazing structure? And though the construction took sweat and determination, the design itself was dead simple, requiring only integer math, a wheel, and some plumb bobs and string. But it was only simple because we looked at the problem through the eyes of a Bronze Age engineer. Imagine we show the finished product to a mathematician who had no experience with the engineering challenges that faced us. What does he see?
  • The ratio of the base to the height is pi/2. 
Comment: Sure it is! We used half the number of turns of the odometer wheel as the number of cubits in height we'd planned. Since each full turn is of length pi, then the ratio of the base to height is one-half pi, or 1.570796326795. Our design is theoretically exact. Using the values of height and base from Wikipedia ( b=440, h=280), the calculated ratio for the actual Great Pyramid is approximately 1.571428571429. The difference isn't worth stressing over.
  • The perimeter of the base equals the circumference of a circle whose radius is equal to the height of the pyramid. 
Comment: Naturally! The circumference of a circle is 2 * pi * the radius. We'll just call the height "one unit", so it simplifies to 2*pi. Since each side is to the ratio pi/2 (above), and we have four sides, then the perimeter is 2*pi. It couldn't possibly be otherwise. Of course, that's true for ours, but the actual Great Pyramid is an approximation. 
  • The stones at the base are placed with high accuracy. The variance of the length of each side is on the order of scant inches. 
Comment: This is a result of using an odometer to do the measuring. On the actual Great Pyramid, the length of the sides vary by as much as 8 inches, which is fantastically good for a structure of this size, but hardly supernatural.
  • The angles are 51°45'27" 
Comment: Well, of course. This is because we took great care to build our angle surveying equipment (the angles and plumb bobs we used to sight with) from the original blueprints, which were created with a scale of our circular odometer. Using the measurments, 200 cubits of height and 100 turns of the cubit wheel at the bottom, we can calculate the angle as follows: 
base angle = ASIN((1/2 * base)/ height)
base angle = ASIN ((1/2 * 140 cubits * pi) / 280 cubits) = 51.75751851602 degrees = 51°45'27"
This is purely determined by the ratio of the height to the base. If it weren't this, then the height/base ratio we noticed above wouldn't be accurate. Again, our design is theoretically exact. Interestingly, the numbers given for the real Great Pyramid vary according to the source. Wikipedia gives it as 51°50'40". However, if we took the reported height (280 cubits) and width (440 cubits) values as accurate, then the calculated value should be 51°47'12.4" . Various sources give the value as any of these, plus a dozen more. Some are the result of approximation, poor observation, or are simply calculated using whatever values for height and width strike the fancy of the observer. 
Remember that the top of the Great Pyramid is missing and has to be calculated. so either the base/height ratio is off or the angle is. So much for supernatural accuracy.
  • The geographical location is the "center of balance" of the landmass of the Earth. 
Comment: We had some requirements for the location, none of which involved surveying the entire Earth. Besides, we live where we live. It's not like we migrated to Egypt just to build this one pyramid. Go back to Wikimapia.org and look at the location again. How many other locations in Egypt match our requirements as well as this one? None. That's why so much of this megalithic work is centered at Giza. And there is no bloody "center of balance" for our globe, unless you count the center of gravity in the core. What's described by this observation is an artifact of the map projection being used. 
  • The coup de grace: The sides bow inward ever so slightly. In fact, the arc of the bow is equal to the curvature of the Earth! Surely this couldn't possibly be a coincidence! 
Comment: If it were noticeable, this would be such an amazing effect that it's tempting to claim you actually were cleverly encoding your "astounding knowledge" of the exact curvature of the Earth. The reality is much more mundane. Our technique for leveling the plateau involved the flow of water under the influence of gravity. It ensured that all points on the plateau were equidistant from the center of the Earth. On the other hand, our method of measuring the sides (measuring out from a centerline), is valid only for plane geometry. On a curved surface like the Earth, though, the best definition of a "line" is a Great Circle route. Try this experiment yourself. Cut a perfectly square piece of paper. Then place it on a globe and pin down the corners. What happens to the sides? They appear to bow inward, to a degree that mirrors the curvature of the surface of the globe! So this "encoding" has nothing whatsoever to do with actual knowledge of the curvature of the Earth... rather, it's evidence that the engineer didn't even take it into account (and probably is totally ignorant of it!) This would be noticeable only in a monument of stupendous size. 
Update: OK, I've been asked to explain this one further, so I'm including a graphic to help folks visualize this: Start at the center and measure a line North/South, and another East/West. Now lay out a grid, starting from those center lines and working outward in both directions, making sure that all of the N/S lines are parallel to the original N/S line. Likewise, all the E/W lines are parallel to the original one (like lines of latitude on both sides of the Equator. When you look at the result you'll see that only the center lines trace Great Circle routes. The lines on the edges are bowed compared to a Great Circle route when viewed from above, just like lines of latitude. An azimuthal stereographic map projection illustrates this perfectly (think the Pan Am logo).
Compare this to Great Circle routes, which is what you'd get if you measured your straight lines with a line or surveying equipment. Great Circle routes are straight as you get on a globe, but appear to bow outward, like lines of longitude converging at the poles and spreading at the equator. Now, measuring with a wheel from a centerline might not be how the Pyramids were actually laid out, but it explains so much so easily that I double-dog-dare you to find a more elegant approach that matches the actual geometry of the Great Pyramid.

Closing Thoughts 
Prior to writing this page I looked up the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, and but pretty much discarded everything except the height in designing my building approach. Happily, the approach then pretty closely matched what was actually built for the Pharoah Khufu. Though they didn't have our advantage of 5,000 years of accumulated technology, the Pharoah's builders were no less intelligent than modern engineers. And if I can figure this out on my own, they could, too.

I didn't do any particular archeological research before writing this How-To. It wasn't necessary. My goal here isn't to tell you how the Egyptians did build the Great Pyramid, but to show that it could have been done with the technology of the time. And it absolutely could. No advanced technology, no alien visitors, no divine intervention need apply. In fact, the argument that the Egyptians conceived and built it themselves is so conclusive that to refute it you'd have to actually produce a witness to the intervention. Good luck.

That said, the building of such a structure is an astounding feat. And the coincidental relationships of its measurements, driven as they were by necessity, truly interesting. I don't care if somebody reads whatever meaning they want into them, and uses them to illustrate whatever message they have to give. Understand, though, that this is an exercise in retcon -- retroactively assigning intent where there was none by the builders. There's no evidence that the builders intended to encode anything beyond what we know of their culture... at all.

Postscript (2007): 
I think I ought to explain that, since this page has been online for half a day and I'm getting multiple feedback from multiple directions.

I think that, coincidental or not, such numerical relationships can be used in an instructive way, much as St. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock to explain the Trinity or Richard Middleton used a deck of playing cards as a prayer aid. Our ability to use patterns in this way does not provide evidence that this is the purpose of the object we're using as illustration. For instance, we are a race of people that see bunny rabbits in the clouds, yet we don't imagine that clouds were designed to display images of bunny rabbits. That said, the fact that something is used to illustrate a message in no way diminishes the message itself. The illustration should help you to understand the message; it is not the message itself.

Of course, just because there's no evidence of something doesn't necessarily mean it's not so, either. But it's always good to be clear about what we can and can't prove. In the case of the Pyramids, we can reasonably expect them to designed with the symbology of their culture in mind (and the same would hold true for structures built in Mesoamerica, or China, or anywhere else). I don't think it's necessary to ascribe to the builders of these objects an understanding of concepts that are foreign to what we know about their culture, anymore than we can reasonably say they were incapable of work that can clearly be demonstrated as possible using (again) what we know about their culture and technology.
  • Must the Egyptians have known the exact value of pi? NO.  
  • Must they have had help from aliens? NO
  • Is it valid to use the Great Pyramid to illustrate the joining of the finite to the infinite? Definitely. Illustrate whatever you like. Just don't confuse your analogy with the builders' intent.
  • Is the technique I describe sufficient to disprove that space aliens built it? Unless you introduce me to a space alien, I'll take that as my working assumption: YES. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Postscript (2011)
On Hulu now is a miniseries entitled "The Pyramid Code". Although there is mixed in here some facts and a few valid conjectures, In my opinion this is, in aggregate, a huge honking sack of bovine excrement. In it is postulated all sorts of magical thinking under the very thinnest veneer of scientific language. This does a grave disservice to the ancients by taking their very real accomplishments, dismissing them as impossible, and replacing them with rainbow unicorn fantasies of resonant crystals and 'subtle energies'. Yes, it was written by a Ph.D, Carmen Boulter, and that's a very sad thing for her university.

Copyright 2007-2011 by David F. Leigh

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I've been bleached

It's been a long time since I last posted. I've been swamped with work for a number of clients, which means that my workday typically lasts from early morning to between 11pm and 1am daily. Recently I've been approaching the end of a project, so I was looking forward to some time to devote to improvements to VIC CRM.

Not yet. I got a call from Boogaloo. They needed someone to fill in for an injured actor for a part in their latest production, In Good Company. Since the part is for a much older person, it would require getting gray. Well, since I am, as I said, really busy right now, I can't afford the time to make it look good between the end of work and the beginning of each show. So I thought I'd go ahead and get my hair greyed at the hair salon. If only it were that easy.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? You get your hair bleached white, then add color back in to make it grey. Now, like many guys, I've never actually had that done before. Here's the process. They wrap your head in shrink-wrap cellophane like a head of lettuce. Then they use a crochet hook to pull bits of your hair through the plastic. Then they apply toxic waste to your head, cover it with more plastic so you don't cause collateral damage to the eyeballs of innocent bystanders, and you sit there looking like a burn victim for 15 minutes (or in my case, an hour). The idea here is that the plastic will protect your scalp from the ammonia and other noxious chemicals they apply to bleach your head. In actuality, I think it's to prolong the torture. The process of having the hair pulled through the plastic feels not at all unlike having your head punctured several hundred times. And having tufts of hair yanked from your head several hundred times as well.

As you can tell from my picture, I have really dark hair, though, so it doesn't quite work that way for me. We couldn't get it white. Go figure. Halle Berry can have white hair, but not me. Even with three times the normal amount of chemicals and all the time in the world, the best we could do was bright yellow. In fact, the more we bleached it, the yellower it got. I don't mean blond, either. I'm talking about traffic light yellow. Pacman yellow. The kind of yellow you mix with blue to make green. And despite all the precautions I mentioned earlier, some of this stuff seeps through to the scalp and burns so badly that machismo prevents mentioning it at all. Thank God for Lanacane.

So at some point you have to admit defeat and just move along. So we had to add the color back in on the yellow. Silver toned it down a little, but the result was still yellow. Grey just made it a slightly darker yellow. Turns out it's as hard to put color into my hair as it is to take it out. Finally we resorted to slate... a LOT of slate... which just made the hair on my head the same reddish color my beard used to be before it went naturally grey. And there it is.

Fortunately, what wouldn't have worked with dark hair does work with this lighter color. A head full of powder (which just looks stupid and fake over my natural color) simulates a nice head of grey. In the meantime, I get to live with this for the next three weeks.

The interesting bit is that if your hair is short like mine you never actually see it and can't tell the difference (once the Lanacane is on). But I can tell you this: the old saying is a lie. Unless they're natural, blondes don't have any fun at all.