Sunday, January 30, 2005

The intranet at work

For the last few months I've been deploying new programs on the intranet at work, trying to find ways to improve imformation flows. I'm to present a 20-minute overview of this work at a meeting of the federal intranet group this week. The things I've been attempting are common enough in the library community and the web world at large, but apparently scarce or non-existent among us feds.

I'm going to explain that we in the Library (capital "L" Library, that's us) are comfortable with technology. We took to computers way back in the 60's and were early-adopters of email communication in the 80's. In the next decade, worrying about the volume of messages arriving daily, we started using usenet newsgroups (a pre-web technology) for making documents available, things like minutes of meetings, monthly and annual reports, and policy statements. The documents might still show up in the email system, but recipients didn't feel pressured to deal with them there and then since they could be accessed when desired in the newsgroup.

In the 90's, We got our intranet site going - staff home page as we call it. This proved popular as a repository for documents (like the newsgroup) and much else. The current version of the page has some useful services: weather info and quick lookups for the staff directory and our catalog. It has lots of forms that can be filled in online.

Here is a screenshot of the staff home page as it is today. Click to enlarge.

The newsgroup became less important once we had the intranet site, but still proved valuable as a collection point for current-awareness sources opening out to the world beyond our campus. Examples include online newsletters and digests of internet discussions relating to our work.

Although the intranet site has evolved, it's original design has held up well; we periodically ask ourselves whether to change its look and so far haven't found any reason to sacrifice the familiarity it has acheived. It gets about 300 hits a day, which suggests it's doing its job well.

Last fall we replaced the newsgroup with a weblog. The blog does just about everything the newsgroup could do plus quite a bit more, including images, text formatting, searchable archives, and ability to group contents into meaningful categories. We haven't got an alert service set up for it yet (a feed reader as they are called), but we have our request in for one.

Here is a screenshot of the weblog as it is today. Click to enlarge.

More recently we've added wikis to the mix of communications technologies we're using. Wikis are just web pages with behind-the-scenes conversion software that permits just about anyone to create and edit basic web pages. This convenience and ease of use makes wikis good for collaborative projects. So far we've set one up for the use of a committee that's working to improve our statistical reporting system, for work group leaders who have responsibility for carrying out objectives in our strategic plan, and for a couple of the cataloging divisions.

The one for the statistical committee contains notes of meetings, an archive of previous efforts in this area, some guidelines for handling statistics in the current system, and the like. Three committee members run the wiki, though the whole committee can add and edit documents if they wish.

Here is a screenshot of the stastics wiki.Click to enlarge.

The strategic planning one has the plan itself with links to the work plans that leaders are preparing for each of its objectives. All the leaders have access to the wiki to create and edit documents.

Here is a screenshot of the wiki that contains the strategic planning documents.

This screenshot shows the strategic planning top page.

The wikis for the divisions have documents, reminders, and news about the divisions as well as calendars and staff directories. The one for my division also has links to other useful sites, a list of phone numbers for obtaining services (such as replacing overhead lights when they burn out), a guide for orienting new employees, and things of that nature. The division wikis are run by office staff (automation specialists, administrative assistants, and managers).

This screenshot shows the wiki for my division.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bird photography article (for Chris)

On - Bird Photography by Kris Butler(Part 1 – Equipment and Range - Part 2 not yet available)

Raptors among us

Today's Washington Post has a short article about eagles that have improbably occupied a desolate island in the Potomac south of DC. There's a good photo too. Here's the citation and first paragraphs:
Eagles Have Landed -- Among Us
Rallying Species Finds Urban Haven on Potomac

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A01

Rosilie Island, a spit of land in the Potomac River where bald eagles roost, has a good claim to being the most unlikely wildlife refuge in the Washington area.

It's not a natural island, or even an island at all. Instead, it's an old sand and gravel dump, where enough dirt was piled over the years to create a ragged peninsula.

Then there's the noise and bustle of the huge National Harbor construction project, being built on the island's doorstep. And the small matter of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Tiny Rosilie holds up the Maryland end of this roaring monstrosity, with 200,000 cars passing every day and more lanes under construction.

But somehow, the bald eagles don't seem to mind. As many as two dozen now perch here at any given time, including one nesting pair and a number of transient eagles who use the island as a "loafing ground" in winter.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Hallmarks of Felinity

Hallmarks of Felinity is an interesting site devoted to the interaction of cats and their (female) human companions. As Marylaine says: "A comic treat for those who love and put up with cats." The artist is Brooke McEldowney. Dennis Osborne has collected the cartoons; his home page contains some other interesting stuff. Here's a sample. Also, the home page has this interesting picture.

Acknowledgement: Marylaine Block's NeatNewStuff


This photo comes from a photoblog. Not surprisingly there are a huge number of photoblogs on the internet, and, of course, sites about photoblogs. If you're interested, here's a good starting point: Notice that it gives lists of popular sites (as rated by readers), of sites from many different countries and in many different languages. The author says Photoblog.orgs currently lists 7,795 photoblogs. Exploring those blogs could fill our idle time for quite a while.

The photoblog with the geese photo is A Walk Through Durham Township, Pennsylvania. The photographer, Kathleen Connally, has a gallery of some of her best work here. I can't resist reproducing small versions of some:

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Creationism as "an unconstitutional endorsement of religion"

Not long ago, in a post on book banning, I mentioned creationism stickers in text books. Here are excerpts from an AP article updating the story:
Judge nixes evolution textbook stickers
Disclaimer questioning theory ruled unconstitutional

The Cobb County Board of Education required these stickers to be pasted into biology textbooks, saying that evolution "is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. The material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

The Associated Press
Updated: 7:27 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2005

ATLANTA - A federal judge Thursday ordered a suburban Atlanta school system to remove stickers from its high school biology textbooks that call evolution “a theory, not a fact,” saying the disclaimers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

“By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories,” U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said.

The stickers were put inside the books’ front covers by public school officials in Cobb County in 2002. They read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

The judge also said: “While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.”

The case is one of several battles waged around the country in recent years over what role evolution should play in the teaching of science.

Last year, Georgia’s education chief proposed a science curriculum that dropped the word “evolution” in favor of “changes over time.” The idea was dropped amid protests from teachers.

A school district in Dover, Pa., has been locked in a dispute over a requirement that science students be told about “intelligent design” — the concept that the universe is so complex it must have been created by some higher power.

Officials in Alabama said they do not think Thursday’s ruling affects the several-paragraph evolution disclaimer in the front of that state’s science books.

Hannibal and his elephants

This image accompanies a book review in the Christian Science Monitor. Here's the citation and intro paragraph:
Maybe Hannibal wasn't so horrible
Hannibal swarmed over the Alps with elephants, assembled a rainbow coalition of enemies against Rome, and almost overwhelmed the world's only superpower.
By Ron Charles

The brief prologue to David Durham's new novel inspires all the faith needed to march through the next 500 pages. We meet a reluctant young warrior whose division is laying siege to the city of Arbocala (now Tordesillas, Spain) in the 3rd century BC When the wall finally collapses, he mounts the rubble in time to take an arrow through his palm and get trampled by the soldiers following behind, but he survives. That evening, a humbly dressed officer enters the soldier's tent and commends his bravery with a lavish tribute. For one of ancient history's forgotten millions, it's a moment filled with awe. For us, it's an introduction to the benevolent side of the world's most formidable warrior: Hannibal.

A sixteenth-century naturalist

A nice image from the blog, Giornale Nuovo. Click here to see the full-size scan; it's worth the time it takes to load. There are more excellent images on the Giornale Nuovo blog. The artist was Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). The blog author says, "Aldrovandi’s magnum opus, only partially realised during his lifetime, was to be an encyclopædic publication encompassing everything that was then known about natural history. The work’s illustrations were to be drawn from the hundreds of watercolour paintings that Aldrovandi had commissioned from a number of artists, over a period of some thirty years. As part of their on-line presentation of Aldrovandi’s work, the University of Bologna have scanned a large number of these watercolours, a few of which I have selected for display here."

Unprovable truths (The Edge Question for 2005)

There's been some reporting about The Edge Annual Question for 2005. Though some articles assume that everyone knows about The Edge Annual Question, I hadn't previously encountered it myself. The question is an interesting one but there are far too many responses; more, anyway, than I wish to read. I did find one I particularly liked, however, so here is a citation for the The Edge Annual Question and a copy of one response. At bottom of this post I've put extracts from a review of a book about intuition, a tool used by many who responded to the Edge question.
"Big, deep and ambitious questions....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center." — New Scientist

The Edge Annual Question—2005


Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the "esprit de divination"). What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

The 2005 Edge Question has generated many eye-opening responses from a "who's who" of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers. The 120 contributions comprise a document of 60,000 words.

This year's Edge Question was suggested by Nicholas Humphrey.

(120 contributors; 60,000 words:)

Response from
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, Author, A Primate's Memoir

Well, of course, it is tempting to go for something like, "That the wheel, agriculture, and the Macarena were all actually invented by yetis." Or to do the sophomoric pseudo-ironic logic twist of, "That every truth can eventually be proven." Or to get up my hackles, draw up to my full height and intone, "Sir, we scientists believe in nothing that cannot be proven by the whetstone of science, verily our faith is our lack of faith," and then go off in a lab coat and a huff.

The first two aren't worth the words, and the third just isn't so. No matter how many times we read Arrowsmith, scientists are subjective humans operating in an ostensibly objective business, so there 's probably lots of things we take on faith.

So mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an unjustifiable belief, namely that there is no god(s) or such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined of the right persuasion mean by that word). I'm very impressed, moved, by one approach of people on the other side of the fence. These are the believers who argue that it would be a disaster, would be the very work of Beelzebub, for it to be proven that god exists. What good would religiosity be if it came with a transparently clear contract, instead of requiring the leap of faith into an unknowable void?

So I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only can, but should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to not believe without requiring proof. Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is no god. Some might view this as a potential public health problem, given the number of people who would then run damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage of folks running amok thanks to their belief. So that wouldn 't be a problem and, all things considered, such a proof would be a relief—many physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.

Finally, just to undo any semblance of logic here, I might even continue to believe there is no god, even if it was proven that there is one. A religious friend of mine once said to me that the concept of god is very useful, so that you can berate god during the bad times. But it is clear to me that I don't need to believe that there is a god in order to berate him.


From The New York Sun January 11, 2005 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters
You Can Judge This Book by Its Cover

January 11, 2005

excerpts from this review:

Malcolm Gladwell has penned an absolutely delightful summary of all the important research in the study of intuition. His title, "Blink," is apt, for we humans have a remarkable - and heretofore unproven - capacity for making judgments in the metaphorical blink of an eye that are often superior to those we might have made had we taken the time to assess all possible variables.

Evaluating whether someone is trustworthy or not, or whether someone is lying or telling the truth, is more accurately done by intuitive "feel" in a brief interaction than by subjecting them to a polygraph test.

We are especially good at snap judgments when it comes to human relations, because we evolved as a social primate species living in small tribes in which social relations were extremely important. We needed (and still need) to know whom we can trust and whom we cannot trust; in the prehistoric world of our Paleolithic environment we had only our wits and intuitions, the "sense" or "feeling" we had for someone's trustworthiness, to rely on.

Mr. Gladwell has the ability to synthesize a large body of scientific data into a highly readable, page-turning narrative, and to convert the raw numbers of research and statistics into meaningful facts for our personal lives. I thought he did this brilliantly with "The Tipping Point," and I think he does it even better in "Blink." For this feat all of us in the scientific community should be grateful, because the craft of writing good science is just as important as the skill of producing good science.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Mozart : young-old

Here's an item from the Discovery Channel site about discovery of this portrait, showing Mozart the year before he died.
New Mozart Portrait Shows Worn Prodigy
By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Jan. 12, 2005 — At the age of 34, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a chubby, greying man with heavy bags under tired eyes, according to a painting which has been authenticated this week by German art experts.

Painted by the German artist Johann Georg Edlinger in 1790, a year before Mozart's death in Vienna, the picture lay anonymously in the warehouse of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie until Wolfgang Seiller, an authority on the composer, spotted strong similarities between the person in the painting and Mozart.

WHFS all Latino all the time

From the Washington Post:
WHFS Changes Its Tune to Spanish Alternative Rock Pioneer Targets Latino Audience

By Teresa Wiltz and Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A01

WHFS-FM, the Washington area radio station that was a pioneering purveyor of alternative rock to generations of young music fans, did a programming U-turn yesterday by ditching the genre for a Spanish-language, pop-music format that transforms it into the largest Spanish-language station on the local dial.

In an instant, the station abandoned the likes of the White Stripes, Green Day and Jet for middle-of-the-road superstars such as Marc Anthony, Juan Luis Guerra and Victor Manuelle.

Read the rest on the WP site.

One for Nick!

Sheet music for Super Mario Brothers

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A good long article on sleep

There's a good post on sleep on a blog called circadiana. Here's the link and excerpts from the post:
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sleep (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

Until not long ago, just about until electricity became ubiquitous, humans used to have a sleep pattern quite different from what we consider "normal" today. At dusk you go to sleep, at some point in the middle of the night you wake up for an hour or two, then fall asleep again until dawn. Thus there are two events of falling asleep and two events of waking up every night (plus, perhaps, a short nap in the afternoon). As indigenous people today, as well as people in non-electrified rural areas of the world, still follow this pattern, it is likely that our ancestors did, too.The bimodal sleep pattern was first seen in laboratory animals (various birds, lizards and mammals) in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, i.e, before everyone moved their research to mice and rats who have erratic (un-consolidated) sleep patterns. The research on humans kept in constant conditions, as well as field work in primitive communities (including non-electrified rural places in what is otherwise considered the First World) confirmed the bimodality of sleep in humans, particularly in winter.

One thing I noticed upon arriving to the States is that nobody here seems to have any notion of "sleep manners". I have seen (and experienced) many times people barging into the room containing a sleeping person, switching on the lights and TV, talking, even talking to the sleeping person, all the while not being even aware that this is a Big No-No, very inconsiderate, and extremely rude. When confronted, the response is usually very defensive, stressing the person's individual right to do whatever he/she wants and not bother about being considerate about some lazy bum who is sleeping at an inappropriate time. Whoa! Stop right there!

It has been known for a while that adolescents are quite extreme "owls" no matter what their chronotype may be earlier and later in life (and fortunately, school districts are starting to recognize this). This has been attributed to the surge of sex hormones in early adolescence. Responsiveness of the circadian clock to sex hormones has not been studied much (virtually not at all, though I should be able to publish my data within a year or so, sorry for not being able to divulge more detailed information yet), yet most people in the field believe this to be the case, even if no details are available yet.

There is a continuum of individual sleep patterns ranging from extreme "larks" who fall asleep at the first inkling of dusk but wake up before dawn, all the way to the extreme "owls" who stay up quite late and wake up once the day is in full swing, and of course everything in between. No matter where you are on this continuum, you tend to sleep more during the winter long nights than during the short summer nights.

Failures of 1948 echoed in Iraq?

One of the contributors to Cliopatria is blogging from the annual conference of the American Historical Association in Seattle. Here's part of one of his posts:
JONATHAN DRESNER: AHA Day Three: Oligarchs and Patriarchs

I also went to the Marshall Lecture by Ronald Spector: normally I'm not much for military history, but this was about the post-1945 occupations and demobilization of Japanese territories. This was a huge and complex challenge, as the Japanese Empire had been huge and complex, complicated by the fact that we went into the job with too few troops and no clue about most of the societies we were occupying. Spector didn't make direct comparisons to Iraq, but he did say that we could draw our own conclusions.....

One of the fundamental problems faced by US military authorities is that they had a variety of what Spector described as contradictory jobs to accomplish:

* disarm Japanese soldiers and repatriate military and civilian Japanese to their homeland
* maintaining law and order in liberated territories
* locate and release Allied POWs
* reestablish civil governments, including colonial rules
* avoiding conflict with local nationalist movements
* another priority he listed elsewhere in the talk was the Cold War priority of resisting local communist movements.

Anyway, it's worth noting that, for a variety of reasons including

* our failures of planning and resources
* our belief that we were acting as apolitical neutrals when we were in fact taking sides
* using Japanese as anti-communist forces and regional experts, which belied our role as liberators and their role as defeated and demobilized
* British and French colonial beliefs that their former subjects would be sufficiently tired of Japanese rule that previous masters would be welcomed back with open arms.

by 1948, every territory released from Japanese rule was at war, mostly some form of civil war. The occupations of Japan and Germany, though successful, were only a part of a world-wide project which included some spectacular failures and ongoing challenges.


In the news: CBS reports of more grandstanding by US politicians. This account comes from Cliopatria:
Nice to see that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has his priorities straight: on a "fact-finding" mission to Sri Lanka, he and his staff took up two of the five military helicopters available for relief efforts; he then concluded his visit by having staffers photo him, with the following advice: "Get some devastation in the back."

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Wasps, poets, and errant Christians

Four good entries from today's edition of Arts & Letters Daily:
“The Wasps haven’t waned,” argues Louis Auchincloss, with intensity and conviction. “They’ve just lost their monopoly”... more»

Best American poetry? Come on, there’s no such thing as “bestness.” These days, everybody gets a gold star... more»

Most “Christians” commit treason daily against their religion. They claim Jesus is Lord, but they show allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment... more»

Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s lover, offered herself to the charming Camus. He turned her down. To Sartre, his refusal was maybe more disturbing than her offer... more»

Some interesting web sites - Yahoo Picks of '04

Everyone has their picks of the year, Yahoo included. Here's a post from the Yahoo Search Blog on the subject. My recommentations follow.
Yahoo! Picks of the Year

There's a closely guarded secret here at Yahoo!. Erik Gunther (our Buzz Index Editor) freely admits to it, but some Yahoo! editors strive to conceal it or at least feign indifference to it. But truth be told, the editors at Yahoo! are just like the rest of the Yahoo! Search community when it comes to pop culture. We share your fascination with the rising and falling stars of stage, screen, and DVD. And once a year we unashamedly reveal our preferences for the obscure, the unusual, and the sensational in Yahoo! Picks of the Year.

Since we first started the feature in 1996, our Picks of the Year shows that we're just as attracted to the A- and B-listers as everyone else who hits the Search box for the latest on trends and trendsetters. But we don't just look for the same old fawning celeb web sites. We scour the Internet to discover fresh, fun, or funky creations to spotlight every day as Yahoo! Picks. Over the course of the year, we feature hundreds of sites, from fascinating photo blogs to sophomoric stunts to intriguing innovations -- as an eclectic a mix as the Web itself.

So, while you may have joined the ranks searching for Britney, Atkins, or breaking news stories, we offer a daily dose of the sites you didn't search for -- the humble and human side of the Web as well as the famous and fantastic.

You can find Yahoo! Picks at or subscribe to daily or weekly email. Or click Add to My Yahoo!to add Picks to My Yahoo!.

Laura Varteressian
Yahoo! Picks Editor
My favorite picks are the following three. The first one is especially cool since the conference room in my division office now has subway maps for a couple dozen cities. The second one is nice because the train tunnels in New York are inherently interesting and I particularly like Grand Central Station. The third one is an extreme redecoration on a theme developed by Kelly House at Earlham. The descriptions are from from the Yahoo picks page.

Animals on the Underground
Animals on the Underground
The screenshotanimals were first seen on the London's Underground approximately 15 years ago. Paul Middlewick spotted the first one, an elephant, while staring at a map of the tube, making it the first animal to be found in the underground animal kingdom. Since that fateful day, several other animals have been seen lurking around -- a dog, pig, whale, fish, and stag can all be found in the wilds of the Underground. These days, animals are constantly being spotted in the tube. To be one of the first to learn when a new animal has been discovered, join the Animals on the Underground mailing list. We recommend you visit this "tube zoo" before it's overrun with tourists.
If screenshotyou think you've seen everything New York City has to offer, photographer Steve Duncan might suggest you dig a little deeper. Coining himself "a guerrilla historian in Gotham," Duncan takes his camera underground and to unknown sites in New York and captures them in this celebration of the city. In the photos section, explore the haunting tunnels of Atlantic Avenue and East New York, delve into the underbelly of Grand Central Station, or witness the site of the 1964 World's Fair as it is today. If the visuals don't fascinate you, the stories and research will. They provide facets of history and essays about the city, as well as tips and tricks on how to experience your own urban adventure. Take a peek at Duncan's covert work, for as he states, what good is a secret unless you share it?

Project Foil
From Yahoo Picks
Project Foil
So, screenshotthese three dudes are sitting around their dorm room, facing four days with nothing to do. They're bored. When suddenly, it hits them. The perfect project to pull them out of their ennui -- cover their roommates' room with foil. They would wrap everything -- from the furniture to the teensiest items on it, under it, and over it. The ceiling, walls, even one victim's guitars and guitar picks were encased in the shiny stuff. A mere 1500 square feet of aluminum foil and four days later, the dedicated trio of students completed the task. In meticulously chronicling Project Foil, Sam Holton shows us the focus, hard work, and creativity that epitomize students in America's institutions of higher learning. Their parents must be so proud.

Here's a list of the other picks:

70s Live Action Kid Vid March 12, 2004
Signs of Life March 20, 2004
Ian's Shoelace Site April 16, 2004
Who Is That With Jeremy? April 19, 2004
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Sharks April 28, 2004
Jay Maynard's TRON costume June 4, 2004
Double-Tongued Word Wrester June 10, 2004
David Hasselhoff Online June 14, 2004
The Scribbler June 18, 2004
Hungry Girl June 23, 2004
Polapolapolapola... July 27, 2004
WordCount August 1, 2004
The Illustrated Smiths August 4, 2004
Transportation Futuristics August 9, 2004
Good Plastic Surgery September 26, 2004
The Online Guide to Whistling Records November 4, 2004
Kite Aerial Photography November 8, 2004
1 year performance video November 15, 2004
Crazy Kent November 18, 2004
Painting the Weather November 24, 2004
Postcards from the Attic

Horatio Alger and all that

There's an interesting article in The Economist about meritocracy in America. Here's a link and some quotes:
Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend
Dec 29th 2004 | WASHINGTON, DC

"Whatever happened to the belief that any American could get to the top? THE United States likes to think of itself as the very embodiment of meritocracy: a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections. The original colonies were settled by refugees from a Europe in which the restrictions on social mobility were woven into the fabric of the state, and the American revolution was partly a revolt against feudalism. From the outset, Americans believed that equality of opportunity gave them an edge over the Old World, freeing them from debilitating snobberies and at the same time enabling everyone to benefit from the abilities of the entire population. They still do.

"To be sure, America has often betrayed its fine ideals. The Founding Fathers did not admit women or blacks to their meritocratic republic. The country's elites have repeatedly flirted with the aristocratic principle, whether among the brahmins of Boston or, more flagrantly, the rural ruling class in the South. Yet America has repeatedly succeeded in living up to its best self, and today most Americans believe that their country still does a reasonable job of providing opportunities for everybody, including blacks and women. In Europe, majorities of people in every country except Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia believe that forces beyond their personal control determine their success. In America only 32% take such a fatalistic view.

"But are they right? A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."

Vonnegut's Golden Arm

Julia got many Vonnegut novels for Christmas. So.... Here's a link to a review by him in the Guardian showing his appreciation for Nelson Algren. {The image at left is of Algren, not Vonnegut.}
Funny side of the street

Saturday January 1, 2005
The Guardian

"According to the diary of my wife Jill Krementz, the photographer, the young British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie came to our house in Sagaponack, Long Island, for lunch on May 9, 1981. His excellent novel Midnight's Children had just been published in the United States, and he told us that the most intelligent review had been written by Nelson Algren, a man he would like to meet. I replied that we knew Algren, since Jill had photographed him several times and he and I had been teachers at the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa back in 1965, when we were both dead broke and I was 43 and he was 56. I said, too, that Algren was one of the few writers I knew who was really funny in conversation."

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Unexpected events

Like the chicken who trusts in the benevolence of the farmer, I don't expect tomorrow to be too much different from today. This is rational; inductive reasoning works. Still, it yields up probabilities, not certainties, and it's as valid as the evidence on which it's based. Yet an unwarranted optimism may lead us to assume that something which is unlikely to occur simply won't.

This is true, if trivially, about the weather. During the cold snap that preceded Christmas I bundled up for my morning ride to work. Checking the internet to see what measure of cold I'd suffered, I noticed some of the record high temperatures in time past. On a day last month when it was a meager 18 deg. f. I noticed that the record max temp had been 74 in 1924. I couldn't imagine a winter day that warm. Two weeks later, New Year's Day, I took off for a sunny ride in record-breaking 69 degree weather and, checking just now, see that the min temp for that day was minus 14 in 1881.

Naïve optimism can have tragic results when we've too much of the grasshopper in us and too little of the ant. We're beginning to find out that many lives could have been saved in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other coastal areas that were inundated by the tsunami. Seismic sensors had detected the earthquake early enough for people on distant coasts to be warned, but there were many reasons why the warnings did not come in time to help, prominent among them the sense that an event of this magnitude could not really be occuring. There are many news reports of this hesitancy. See, for example, these accounts:
LA Times
Khaleej Times (India)
And this one about a 10-year-old British girl who was able to save the lives of other tourists because she had learned about tsunamis in school a couple of weeks before her family went to Thailand on vacation.

tsunami photos - Swedish vacationers survive

There are three shots of the first tsunami approaching the beach in Thailand. You can see them at this site. They show swimmers running away from the onrushing waves, with one exception: a woman is seen dashing out to sea. She's trying to alert her sons who have not seen the approaching wave. On the web site of a Swedish newspaper there are three copies of the photos marked to show her progress. The marked photos on on this site. It's in Swedish. click on "Bild-Special: Herregud . . . ," and forward through the three photos in the pop-up.

Later news accounts say that the woman and her sons survived. Here's one account which says, "All were caught in the tsunami and tossed around underwater. But one by one they managed to get to their feet and make it to higher ground. An hour after the first wave hit, the family members, including Ms Svaerd's husband and sister, who were sunbathing on the beach, had managed to locate each other."

Here is the third of the three marked photos:

What will be essential in 2020?

This week's Outlook Section in the Washington Post has an interesting article on What Will Be Essential in 2020?. The intro is particularly well written. In it, the author, Philip Kennicott, says, "If you're one of those people who use this season to clean up and throw out the accumulated baggage of another year, just take stock of how deeply a basic optimism pervades the house. In the kitchen, a little bit of desiccated saffron waits for the proverbial blue moon when you decide to color a pot of rice. On the bookshelf, Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" still inhabits its two inches of precious space, waiting for a long, undistracted summer to be given its due. In the closet, your youth hangs in between old winter coats and forlorn ties, waiting for the new you that will emerge from the gym and a regimen built on tofu and greens." He goes on:

There is an optimism so fundamental to life that we hardly notice its presence, an optimism of essentials: We hoard and we plan and we muddle on regardless of a world that gives us little reassurance about our future. Our world is constructed of ephemera -- technology and entertainment and celebrities -- that we know will come and go. And often it feels full of dreadful omens. But before the mind darkens contemplating that glass -- half full, or half empty? -- the body thirsts, simply, essentially. So the glass and the water precede the philosophical messiness of the human condition. And it is comforting, and chastening, from time to time, to work backward, from the anxieties and ambiguous portents of daily life to the basics. What is essential? What will remain essential in . . . oh, let us say 15 years?

Accompanying the article is a list of "bare essentials" contributed by a pretty broad cross-section of Americans.

Here are a few of the contributions:

• Print. If for the past 400 years we'd been getting all of our info electronically, and somebody invented a way to put it on paper and deliver it to our doorsteps so we could read it in the back yard or bath or bus, people would say this new print technology is so wonderful it will replace the Internet.
-- Walter Isaacson,
president, Aspen Institute

• As we develop "affective" computers, remembering that simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is not feeling, simulated love is never love.
-- Sherry Turkle,
director of the Initiative
on Technology and Self, MIT

• The great privacy of sleep; ambiguous, haunting images that come to us in the night; warm beds.
-- Colm Toibin,
author of "The Master"

• The "Oxford Book of English Verse" and sunblock.
-- Thomas Mallon,
novelist and critic

• Sunscreen, strong encryption, noise-canceling earphones.
-- Edward Tenner,
author of "Why Things Bite Back"

• Sunscreen and a dictionary; everything else for a good life will be optional.
-- Rami G. Khouri,
executive editor, the Daily Star, Beirut

• Solar power and backyard vegetable gardens.
-- Jeanne DuPrau,
author of "The City of Ember"

• An understanding heart.
-- Julia Alvarez,
author of "Finding Miracles"

• Solitude.
-- Bill Joy,
co-founder and former chief scientist, Sun Microsystems

• Basic knowledge of the Chinese language and history.
-- Minxin Pei,
director, China Program,
the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace

Tim Bray's Pictures of Nothing

Tim Bray has a good year-end post. Give it a look. He's a programmer with a strong interest in photography and a lot of other things (music, politics,...) The photos that accompany this post of his are particularly interesting.

Here are a couple of his predictions for 2004:

• China Will Be Interesting It’s so big that anything happening has import and impact. But its economy is starting to be central to everything, and its political structure is increasingly unsustainable. Here’s my one specific prediction: the biggest news story of 2005 will be out of China.

• Dubya Will Have a Bad Year There are just too many big problems, on the fiscal and foreign-policy fronts. The current administration’s main virtue—ruthlessly staying on-message—isn’t going to be enough to do the job.