Saturday, November 23, 2002

Kids' books

Back in grade school the teachers used to read to us. I'm not sure, but I think it continued into 4th grade. Is that still done?

We heard several Marguerite Henry and Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" books. There were some interesting singletons too, like "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle, and of course "Charlotte's Web".

Did this reading get kids interested in books? I think so. I know I read about everything I could get my hands on, and not just because we didn't have cable TV in those days (I still have forearms like Popeye from turning that !@#$! mechanical TV tuner). Much of it was the public domain books that were bundled with a set of encyclopedias (remember those?).

Often the books I liked were part of a series. Encyclopedia Brown was one - there have been dozens of books in this series by now. I just bought a mess of those for assorted rugrat relatives.

Then there were the Danny Dunn books, by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. (Actually Abrashkin conceived the stuff, but he was almost completely paralyzed - he survived to work on the first 5 books). Danny lived with a professor and had all sorts of adventures that were high-tech by 50's/60's standards. Technology has a short shelf life, so it's no surprise that these are out of print.

Oh yes, there were the "Happy Hollisters". I thought they were great at the time - I was offended when I found that these were ground out by the yard by the Stratemeyer syndicate (Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, etc.). All of the HH books appear to be out of print.

On my own I found some others, like Albert Payson Terhune's dog stories like "Lad, A Dog" - the style of writing is dated and the author worries about then-current issues like vivisection, but animal lovers might still enjoy them. Once in a while Aesop's fables would show up in English books, and I sought out others - it's hard to imagine anything pithier. Of course there was Ayn Rand's Satan, Robin Hood, who I prefer to think of as robbing the govt to give to the taxpayers. All of them were about old-fashioned virtues that often are seen as utterly cornball now.

So what are kids reading today? Well, I investigated Harry Potter to see what the fuss is about, and unless you have some sort of religious issues IMO they're terrific books. What little I've seen of other series like "Captain Underpants" and "Bailey School Kids" seems harmless enough, and about anything is fair to get the kids to read.

But let's keep on pushing the older stuff too, such as "The Children's Book of Virtues" and the new release from National Review, "Treasury of Classic Children's Literature". I'm convinced that it did me a world of good.

Harry Potter and the Delay of the Publication

I'll admit it - not only have I read all of the Harry Potter books, I've reread them and enjoyed them. And I'm waiting for the next one like a kid.

It will be a while yet though. Apparently the author, J. K. Rowling, is having a hard time with some of it. Among other things, she has to deal with 15 year old witches and wizards, who presumably are as horny as we Muggles are.

Another complication has been a lawsuit alleging that Rowling stole some of the characters. That has been settled in Rowling's favor, but it's just one more thing on top of a marriage and a pregnancy to make things harder.

But when she delivers the book, watch out. The last one had so much impact on book sales that Borders and Barnes and Noble mentioned it on their annual reports. Maybe there's a stock market play in this.

You know you've lived in St. Louis when...

You know what a billiken is.
Your pizza crust is thin like a cracker and cut into squares, and covered with a gummy cheeselike substances that locals claim is "Provel".
You bleed blue.
You know how to get to the Hill, Soulard, Laclede's Landing and Ted Drewe's, and why you want to.
You hear the name "Schlafly" and you think of beer.
You've heard of bands like Head East, Shooting Star, Colony, and Dr. Zhivegas.
You know you can go to Washington University without going to Washington.

A native might have done a better job, but that's a start. Maybe some of the usual suspects can help. Or how about that St. Louis expatriate known as VodkaPundit, or globetrotting recent visitor Tim Blair?

Addendum: How could I forget the Dirt Cheap tobacco and liquor stores? Ya gotta love a place that advertises that "the more she drinks, the better you look".

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Football and management

So why do I and innumerable others watch professional football?

There are many fashionable explanations. Reliving youth. It's easier than going into the woods and banging a drum. It has commercials with great babes, and don't forget the cheerleaders. It's an established ritual. It's one more thing to gamble on. And so on.

But it does offer appeal north of the brain stem. For me at least, the major attraction is a chance to second-guess the players, coaches and management. In games you get to see a rapid succession of decisions and their outcomes. The rest of the time you can watch how the capital is used to get an optimum combination of competitiveness, profitability and return on investment.

Of course most of the fan's attention is focused on the players and coaches. But players can only do their assignments, and coaches can only use the players they have. Assembling the whole works is a challenge of its own which is developing into a discipline of sorts. Give the right general manager the authority and funding he needs and you can have a powerhouse.

Is managing a professional football franchise fundamentally different from running other businesses? There is a theory that a good manager can manage anything - is professional football an exception?

Consider Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. He has spent a lot of money and intervened many times since he showed up about 3 years ago. Is the franchise better for his efforts?

It's up to him to round up the right personnel. How well has he done?

We'll leave discussion of the players to the rotisserie leaguers, I'll talk about the head coaches. Snyder has had 3. I didn't have an opinion about Norv Turner, but he had a gem last year with Marty Schottenheimer. Then he dumped Marty after one season for Steve Spurrier, a controversial coach who had never been in the pros. The results? The Redskins will do well to match last year's record, and Marty has revived the San Diego Chargers.

Snyder was going to establish a winning team to Washington. It seems safe to say that if winning is the measure of success, so far he has not been successful as a football executive.

Dare we infer anything broader about his talents as a businessman?

External combustion engines

It has come to my attention that some of you have never taken classes in thermodynamics. And in this day and age...

Thermodynamics covers a very broad array of topics, but the central idea is accounting for energy and how to make various types of "transactions" with it. This is important because often we find that the kind of energy we have isn't the kind we want. So we swap the chemical energy in gasoline for mechanical energy in our cars, or nuclear energy in uranium et al for electrical energy at our wall sockets.

There are various major laws of thermodynamics - a couple of them have been popularized as 1) you can't win (energy is conserved), and 2) you can't break even (entropy is always increasing). Futurists warn us of waning energy supplies and that entropy thing, leading to an eventual "heat death" of the universe. And you thought economics was the 'dismal science'.

But there's good news. There are ways to use existing energy supplies more effectively, even the dirtiest of them. One of those ways is something called a Stirling engine.

The Stirling engine is called an external combustion engine for an obvious reason - it typically uses the energy of combustion to drive it, but the combustion occurs on the outside. You don't have to atomize the fuel, and you can't foul the engine internals no matter how dirty the fuel is. In fact, you don't need combustion at all - this company will sell you a small demonstration Stirling engine that runs off the heat of your hands.

Here is an exposition on Stirling engines by HowStuffWorks, complete with animations.

This site also has a working model of a Stirling engine and a bunch of other neat stuff for your inner geek.

Tom Swifties!

The canonical list.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002


I didn't post anything all day yesterday or today, and my traffic is up noticeably.

You guys are trying to tell me something...

Democratizing technology

A minute ago I saw a segment on CNBC showing some measures US troops will be taking to deal with Saddam and his potentially dangerous chemical weapon or other facilities. There's no end to ingenuity, such as bombs designed to incinerate or neutralize chemical or biological weapons where they are stored without human intervention.

What really caught my eye was a special purpose robot. It appeared to be about 18" square, maybe 6" deep, and was light enough to be carried and thrown by a technician. It had treads like a tank on each side, various sensors and remote controls and could be fitted for auxiliaries such as a shotgun. And it's amphibious - it "swam" right across a stream at a decent pace.

For the demo, someone threw it in a window, breaking the glass. The robot righted itself and proceeded to crawl over debris, up stairs and around various obstacles under remote control. If I remember right it runs about $40K.

That's the kind of stuff I went to engineering school to work with. As it was, we only had one real industrial robot that I recall, a Cincinnati Milacron T3 robot arm that only grad students and profs got to play with. Nowadays some !$@$ kids can put together BattleBots that blow away anything I ever got to work with.

And the computers! My first programming class was Fortran using punched cards (or if I was lucky, an actual teletype that was slower than a typist and loud enough to make your teeth rattle). Underclassmen couldn't use CRTs, and the command languages available made today's mainframes look friendly. Computers were such an utter PITA to use that I never ever considered computer science as a major. Little did I suspect that I'd be making a living with them not so many years later.

Calculators? Less than 30 years ago a four function calculator would set you back on the order of $100, and was slow, so I learned how to use a slide rule (a tolerable 10" plastic log-log decimal trig model could be had at a drugstore for about $5). People made fun of those of us who wore calculators on our belts, but the slide rule kind like a TI SR-50 was well over $100 in its heyday in the late 70's. An HP-65, which could read and write mag cards, ran about $700.

Oh yeah, there's CAD/CAM. I learned little rules for figuring out optimal ways to configure NAND gates to implement logic, or to design a mold for a casting to prevent solidification before the mold was full, or suchlike odds and ends. Engineering drawings were rendered with T-squares by students or by drafting machines and arms. But now software does all of it far faster and more accurately, and can even drive machine tools or other devices to fabricate items with little if any human intervention.

So here it is, two decades plus after engineering school. I have stayed reasonably current, but much of what I was taught that went much beyond the fundamentals is utterly obsolete. Talented amateurs can use computer and robot technology that was the envy of engineering schools not so long ago. Technical fields have been "democratized", and the results are fascinating.

I wish this process extended further into the sciences. No matter how sharp we engineers are, we can still use more ideas and we won't recognize every valuable application of technology. Sciences can always use more observers, and amateurs can help in various ways if mobilized (such as via SETI on your screen saver).

Given these incredible widely available resources, why don't we have more amateur scientists and engineers? How did expertise or knowledge in these fields become "geeky"?

Monday, November 18, 2002

Genetics question

I understand that geneticists have ways to calculate the percentage of match of different species' genomes. Let's harness that wisdom for a straightforward calculation.

What is the percentage match between Osama bin Laden and a pig? As nice as it would be to have his carcass handy, we'll assume for purposes of analysis that he was a human being.

C'mon GC...

Sunday, November 17, 2002

A kindred spirit

After I saw it on Userland's Recently Updated Weblogs, how could I not link to "Quest for Breasts"?

Someone sent her this joke:
I have to share this wonderful joke with you:
An old tarot card reader told a young woman that her deepest desires had been answered. Her breast size would be increased. However, the increase relied on the kindness of strangers. Everytime that a stranger said the word 'Pardon' to her, her breast size would increase 1 full inch.

Walking down the street, A man asked her 'Pardon me, can you tell me the way to city hall?' To her surprise her breasts immediately grew 1 inch. This happened again when a man who had trouble hearing her said 'beg your pardon?'

The unfortunate incident that occurred was at the chinese restaurant. She ordered a number 17 and they were all out of number 17. The waiter exclaimed...

'A 1,000 pardons!'

History of Special Forces

American Heritage offers this.

Their Time Machine item is interesting too.

He's the one!

Don't miss James Rummel's series on identification systems through history. Here, here, here, and here.

He doesn't mention an ill-fated experiment by the LA DA's office to use gloves for ID.

Herbert Hoover, Father of the New Deal

An interesting post by Orrin Judd.

Incidentally, as of yesterday OJ was the #11 reviewer on