Friday, March 30, 2007

uncertain fate of a librarian

Here are entries for two recent days from the diary of Saad Eskander, head of INLA, Iraq’s national library and archives. The British Library is making the diary available in blog format at this address:
Monday, 19 March
The snipers attacked a number of civilians from their positions in al-Fadhel. The INLA had electricity for only 40 minutes. Power-cuts began to effect our work, especially in the Computer and Micrographic Departments. I raised the issue of repairing the Generator with the engineer of the Ministry of Culture. She told me that she was doing her best to have it repaired, but some people in the Ministry were hindering the paperwork for unknown reason. Corruption and restricted regulations have prevented me from repairing the generator since mid-2006.

Around 10.50, I supervised the first phase of the election for the Managerial Council, in which 26 librarians and archivists participated. They elected three young women for the second stage.

I was surprised to receive an appreciation letter from the Minister of Culture for proving my patriotism during Al-Mutananbi gathering last week!!

I received unconfirmed information from Mrs. Ni., the head of the Catalogue Department of the Library, that yesterday the US Army arrested Mr. J., who was one of her librarians. No one knew the true reason or the circumstances. I decided to wait until Tuesday, hoping that I would receive more detailed information concerning the arrest of the librarian. During the last few weeks, several members of the INLA’s staff had their homes searched by the US army and the National Guards, especially those who live in the so-called ‘hot areas’ of Baghdad, such as al-A’dhamiyah, al-Ghazaliyah and al-Jame’ah.

Around 12.20, because of a bomb explosion a number of people were either killed or injured inside a well-known Mosque in al-Shurjah. Some people thought it was suicide attack while others thought it was a bomb planted in one the Mosque corners.

Tuesday, 20 March
We had no electricity at all. Several departments were unable to work, such as the Micrographic Laboratory, Restoration Laboratory and the Computer Department. I sent one of my staff to the local electricity distribution station. He was told that the reason for the power-cut was that the main cable was severed for unknown reasons and the repairmen would restore the power in a few days. Last year, because of a similar incident, the INLA did have electricity for more than 4 weeks. The repairmen will not work unless they get an order from their engineers; the engineers will not issue order until they receive in advance some payment; the repairmen will not execute the orders properly until they get their share from the payment. It is a vicious circle. The same fact applies to all other public services, such as telephone and water. Corruption has been the main problem since the early 1990’s. It has now become far more dangerous than terrorism.

As Wednesday is the Kurdish New Year and a public holiday, the staff received their monthly salaries on Tuesday.

Around 10.30, I supervised the second phase of the election for the Managerial Council, in which 19 librarians and archivists participated. Two people were elected for the next stage, a young woman and a young man. I had a brief meeting with the staff of the Computer Department to discuss some issues, including the new salary system, which will be applied next month. The new system will raise the salary of all those people whose grades are between 4 and 10 by 60 to 45 percent.

Mr. Q gave more information concerning the arrested librarian. He informed me that a group of armed men wearing the National Guards’ uniform went to Mr. J.’s house at 20.00. After they checked his ID card, they ordered him to go with them. He was allowed to change his clothing. Now, Mr. J’s family is worried. His wife and brother are not sure that the armed men were National Guards. One has no choice but to wait. Usually, members of organized crimes contact the family of the victim after a few days, asking for a big ransom, whereas the religious extremists will sometimes ring the family of the victim, informing it about his fate. I decided to wait until next Sunday, before I send an official letter to the Ministry of Defense to ask about the fate of my librarian.

As I strongly believe that the main ethnic groups, the Arabs and the Kurds, must share each other s’ national celebrations, I decided to give all my staff one day off on next Thursday. In this manner they will have four days break (i.e. from Wednesday to Saturday). Needless to say, everybody was over the moon by my decision and I became the most loved director, at least for a few minutes!

Before leaving the INLA to go to the Directorate of Kurdish Culture, three representatives of INLA’s al-Ferdos woman society gave me a nice present on the occasion of the Kurdish New Year. I thanked them very much for their nice gesture.

I spent one hour in the Directorate of Kurdish Culture, signing papers and reading the mails, before leaving to go to my home.

In the evening, I spent some time, answering a number of messages which I received from some of my staff and friends, congratulating me on the Kurdish New Year.

{Caption from An Iraqi man collects books from the destroyed Iraqi National Library in Baghdad, April 17, 2003. The head of a U.S. presidential panel on cultural property has resigned in protest at the failure of U.S. forces to prevent the wholesale looting of priceless treasures from Baghdad's antiquities museum. "It didn't have to happen," Martin Sullivan said of the objects that were destroyed or stolen from the Iraqi National Museum in a wave of looting that erupted as U.S.-led forces ended President Saddam Hussein's rule last week. Photo by Gleb Garanich/Reuters}

I've blogged the Eskander diary before; am cross-posting from the work blog again.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

l'air de la folie

La Folie's aria from Rameau's comic opera Platée:

I heard this on the Swedish radio station, SR Klassiskt, and, as with the ox on the roof, can't resist a brief post on it.

Here's the citation for the YouTube production:
Gala anniversaire des Musiciens du Louvre et Marc Minkowski autour de Rameau. L'air de La Folie dans l'opéra bouffe Platée exécuté par la soprano Mireille Delunsch.

Here are the SR Kassiskt details:
RAMEAU, Platée: "Air de folie"
Patrick Cohën-Akenine
Virgin Classics

street lights blaze like frozen explosions

Gobbergo has done a good poem on the dead in our lives.

As a sub-genre, zombie poetry semms pretty much confined to Halloween fantasies of horror or humor. The Poem on Zombies is more nuanced - strangers on the street, dead in life through mindless self-annihilation; the relatives we loved, now dead but ghostly-present as companions of our memories; and, as we grow older, our sense of death always by. Like Samuel Beckett, famously unable to go on, yet going on, and on, Gobbergo says "smiling a little, I shuffle forward again into the dim."

finding Time

The Library of Congress recently convened a group of information professionals at Google Headquarters for serious talk about the short comings of library catalogs and what can be done to fix them. The topic is being endlessly debated these days. See for example this recent article. What's been missing 'til now is a demonstration of what it is that needs to be fixed.

Ellysa Cahoy, a librarian at Penn State, has now taken a big step toward filling that need. Here's a video she produced showing what patrons must endure in order to track down an issue of a popular magazine -- at least in one library system.

in the complex tasks that library users must perform to locate some things – such as an article in Time Magazine.

I saw this on Lorcan Dempsey's blog. He's one of the info profs who met at GH; he says: "A funny video about a library website? Yes, it is possible …"

{This is another cross-posting from my work blog.}

Saturday, March 24, 2007

of bikes and cities

My morning commute improves as the seasons progress from the sub-20, pre-dawn hours of midwinter. As the hours of daylight grow, so grows my anticipation of the day when shorts and short-sleeve shirts are the norm. Along the way, I look forward to the spring equinox when the sun rises in my face on the distant horizon -- popping up down a broad east-west boulevard as I crest Capitol Hill. I look forward to the day the water again flows in the bronze-sculpture fountains in front of the Jefferson Building. I look forward to sufficient morning light to ride through rather than beside Rock Creek Park, free of street lights and thus too dark most of the year.

{photo sources: left, center, right. Click to enlarge. The left photo is merely reminiscent of the scene.}

Of course this year the glorious equinoctal sunrise occurred after I'd already settled in and begun my work day, Congress having moved up the switch to daylight saving time supposedly to save energy (but see this for some qualifying data).

During my decades of bike commuting street congestion has steadily increased (of course), but my early hours are still very quiet. I've seen some efforts to make bicycling easier and safer, but not many. Recently, some white paint marks out bike lanes between parked cars and the traffic on streets (very few) that are wide enough for them. The benefit of these is debatable since they appear only to quickly disappear when the street narrows and because drivers tend to ignore them. The city does have quite a few off-street bike paths, but these have lots of drawbacks and I keep off them entirely.

Washington DC, and most other US cities could do much better to entice commuters out of their cages of steel, fostering -- as they do -- this era of anomie and isolation, of road rage, pollution, global warming, and depletion fossil-fuel resources. Unlike drivers, bike riders are immersed in the environments through which they progress. In my case these are woodsy-rural, residential-urban, and bureaucratic-monumental. Like pedestrians, they're part of these environments. It's as Jane Jacobs wanted city life to be.

These pleasures come with trade-offs: the discomforts of cold and wet rides; the impoliteness and occasional scary behaviour of car-fiends; the time required to climb into and out of cycle-specific clothing. But not, in my case anyway, any loss of time. My bike commute is generally not much slower than the corresponding commute by car -- and it can be much faster when traffic conditions deteriorate, as often happens. It's always faster than my commute by public transportation (though that's convenient and easy for me). I found this to be true in London when I lived there as well.

London copes with the overcrowding of its streets by imposing a congestion charge on drivers. Now I read that Paris, imitating Lyon, will be improving urban ambience by another method, one that encourages people to use bicyles rather than discouraging them from using cars. Here are extracts from the Washington Post article on the subject:
Paris Embraces Plan to Become City of Bikes

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007; Page A10

On July 15, the day after Bastille Day, Parisians will wake up to discover thousands of low-cost rental bikes at hundreds of high-tech bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, an ambitious program to cut traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking and enhance the city's image as a greener, quieter, more relaxed place.

By the end of the year, organizers and city officials say, there should be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. Based on experience elsewhere -- particularly in Lyon, France's third-largest city, which launched a similar system two years ago -- regular users of the bikes will ride them almost for free.

Based on statistics from Lyon, officials estimate that each bicycle in Paris will be used on average 12 times a day, for a total of about 250,000 trips a day, or 91 million trips a year.

In Lyon, according to deputy mayor Touraine, the city's 3,000 rental bikes have logged about 10 million miles since the program started in May 2005, saving an estimated 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the air. Overall, vehicle traffic in the city is down 4 percent, he said, and bicycle use has tripled, not just on account of Cyclocity, but also because the program has prompted a boom in private bicycle use and sales.
The WaPo article doesn't mention it but Brussels, like Lyon, already has Cyclocity service, Dublin gets it this summer, and it's been proposed for Edinburgh. An article in The Independent gives a downside to the program: JC Decaux, the parent of Cyclocity, gets "exclusive access to several hundred billboards in the city" as part of the deal it makes to provide the bikes.

Friday, March 09, 2007

a thing not found and another found ubiquitously

I don't particularly like being in an audience listening to a speaker. So it wasn't characteristic of me to join my classmates in an outdoor auditorium to hear the college president speak to my class on its 30th reunion some years ago. It was, however, typical that I attended so as to be with friends -- going along with the flow. I heard an entertaining, informative, stimulating talk which I've almost entirely forgotten. What remains is the joke with which he broke the ice.

There was this little Quaker lady he said. Little old Quaker ladies are a staple of a certain kind of humor, he explained, Quaker humor in fact. Who knew?

This Quaker lady took a bus one rainy morning, he said. As to the rest, I can't do justice to the full humor of it. So, in precis, she sat next to a middle-aged man in a tweed sport jacket and scraggly facial hair. A true absent-minded professor, he forgot that he had not brought an umbrella of his own and grabbed her umbrella by mistake. She didn't notice until he was off the bus. That afternoon, as it happened, she returned home by bus and, as it happened, he got on and sat next to her. Also, as it happened, he, being the absent-minded type he was, (1) owned many umbrellas and (2) had managed to park them all in his office, there having been a string of rainy mornings followed by clear-skied afternoons and he, absentmindedly, having forgotten to bring any home on said afternoons. On this, likewise unrainy, afternoon he had with him his whole collection of umbrellas, it having sunk-in to his consciousness that (a) there were none at home any more and (b) it tended to rain in the morning. She, seeing him with half a dozen umbrellas in his arms and no rain in sight, and assuming that her own was among them, came to the reasonable conclusion that he was an umbrella thief. Being a proper Quaker lady, she did not make accusations, and, being a kindly Quaker lady, she, while not condoning, did not condemn what she took to be his choice of occupation - disreputable though it may be. And thus she said, with Quaker-lady charm: "Thee has done well today!"

This ranks with the dead dog in the suitcase story as a funny tale that sticks in mind. I'll get to the dog in a minute. You should know I'm one of those who believes you don't have to actually know something, remember some fact, recall some story; all you have to do is know where to find it when you need it. The web works well for that. Most of the time. It has failed me for the past decade with respect to the Quaker lady. I can find no trace of it on the internet. Maybe you can. If so, please share.

The dead dog is another matter. This little item is abundantly present. Just search the terms dead dog suitcase and you'll see what I mean. It is, you'll quickly find, a story that's often presented as true -- it happened to someone's sister or roommate's girlfriend or a best friend's cousin, something like that, and it's just as often exposed as myth: urban legend, joke. Maybe it really did happen once. I know I believed it when it first came my way, back in the 1960s -- told by a friend who said he'd read it in a news item.

Here's one version, interesting because the blogger who's relating it half believes what he's telling us and explains how he's embellished what he recalled hearing:
The other night, at a bar, I heard this story from a stranger, a friend of a friend, named Brian:
Brian's friend, we'll call her Sarah, was taking care of her friend's dog while she was away in the Bahamas. So Sarah went over to the apartment one afternoon to check on the dog. When she got to the apartment, she couldn't find the dog. She looked everywhere: she couldn't find the dog; she couldn’t find the dog; she couldn't find the dog. Finally, she found the dog. The dog was lying underneath the bed, dead.
Sarah didn't know what to do. She called a company in New York that specializes in freezing pets for up to two weeks after death. Sarah decided to take the dog to the repository until the owner came back from the Bahamas.
This proved to be problematic: how is she going to get the dog uptown to the freezing company? The dog was apparently very big and heavy, dead weight. So Sarah put the dog in a suitcase, on wheels, and dragged it to the train station.
At the train station, she was having a difficult time getting the suitcase down the stairs, as the dog was quite heavy. A man approached her and offered his assistance in bringing the suitcase down the stairs. Sarah accepted the favor and let the man help her down the stairs with the suitcase, which contained the dead dog. "This thing sure is heavy! What do you have in here?" he asked her.
Sarah didn't know what to say so she told him it contained everything she owned. The man took one look at Sarah, who was at that point quite frazzled, grabbed the suitcase and ran off into the night, dead dog in tote.

Now. The details of this story are rather hazy. It was told in a loud bar, as a second-hand account. I filled in a few of the details myself; I assigned a name to the girl who was house sitting for her friend on vacation. I don’t know the name of the dog or what kind of dog it was. Additionally, I was unable to find any such company in New York that specializes in dead pet freezing, which makes me wonder where exactly “Sarah” was going with her suitcase that contained the dead dog. What train station was “Sarah” at when her suitcase, containing the dead dog, was stolen by a man obviously strapped for cash? This story went from a second-hand (Brian) account to a third-hand (me). Now, it’s in my blog. If you (fourth-hand) were to recount the story to a friend of yours (fifth-hand), it would either lose several more details or grow completely new details. Except you read it on the Internet, from a blog no less. So does that turn this story into an urban myth?
Addendum: One summer, while maybe 19 years old, I survived on odd jobs rather than one steady one. One of them involved watching over a house whose occupants were summering in Maine. I kept a 12-foot hedge trimmed and fed some birds -- lots of birds. In fact, a third of the dining room was one huge bird cage with maybe a dozen, dozen and a half, occupants. It comes to mind because one died under my care. I disposed of it (simply, easily) and the owner was not upset. No urban legend potential there.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Les Six encore

An update to my post on Les Six.

Here's an extract from an article that appeared in La Scena Musicale, Vol. 6, No. 1, September 2000:
Les Six and Le Coq grew out of Parisian artistic revelry. Cocteau frequently dined on Saturday evening, with six young composers, all recent Conservatory graduates: Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre. They were often joined by pianists Marcelle Meyer and Juliette Meerovitch, the Russian singer Koubitsky, and painters Marie Laurencin, Irène Lagut and Valentine Gross (not yet married to Jean Hugo), as well as writers Lucien Daudet and Raymond Radiguet. After dinner the Saturday night revellers went to the Foire du Trône or the Médrano Circus to enjoy the mime shows of the Fratellini brothers. The evening would end at Darius Milhaud's or the Gaya Bar, where they listened to Jean Wiéner play "negro music." Cocteau would read his latest poems while Milhaud and Auric, joined by Arthur Rubinstein, played a six-handed version of Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le toit. This work, composed in 1920 and performed on stage with the famous Fratellini, was to become the Saturday night party piece. It was such a hit that the owner of the renowned Gaya Bar called his new restaurant on the Rue Boissy d'Anglas "Le Boeuf sur le toit." With the help of Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet, the restaurant became a fashionable meeting-place. The other signature pieces of Les Six were Georges Auric's Adieu New York and Francis Poulenc's Cocarde.

la Foire du Trône
Fratellini brothers
Médrano circus
bar Gaya
Jean Wiéner
Le Boeuf sur le Toit (the music)
Théâtre des Champs-Élysés
Le Boeuf sur le Toit (the restaurant)
Clément Doucet
Le Coq et L'Arlequin

Article source: XXth Century -- ''Les Six'', Satie, and Cocteau, by Stéphane Villemin, 1 Septembre 2000

Images: At the Médrano circus and Fratellini Brothers. Sources: left and right (click to enlarge)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

mournings, births, and dreams

Not too long ago I wrote about Darius Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit and the restaurant of the same name. Here's a little more Milhaudiana. An interesting blog called Corriente Textual recently gave this interesting group portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche:

It shows Le Groupe des Six in 1922. Milhaud is left-center. The others are, in the center, pianist Marcelle Meyer; from bottom to top left: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey; on the right: Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Jean Cocteau. says the group socialized together but didn't attempt any collective productions. A page in French on the Ballet Russe says they shared an avant-garde preference for humor, clarity, and simplicity (think Eric Satie) and credits them with a new classicism with roots in the 18th century. This page goes on to say that Satie was an honorary or more likely uncredited actual member of the group.

It says five of the six did have one common production, a ballet, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel of 1921. During this time they gathered at the Le Bœuf sur le Toit. When they separated shortly after, Cocteau summarized:
D'un ordre considéré comme une anarchie, résume l'esprit d'un météore de rires, de scandales, de prospectus, de dîners hebdomadaires, de tambours, d'alcool, de larmes, de deuils, de naissances et de songes qui étonna Paris entre 1918 et 1923.
Rough translation: "An anarchic assemblage, overflowing with laughter accompanied by scandals, manifestos, weekly feasts, drums, alcohol, tears, mournings, births and dreams which astonished Paris between 1918 and 1923."

See Daniella Thompson on this as well.

model planes that control themselves

I wrote about remote controlled gliders and power-planes the other day and referenced Chris Anderson on the subject. Now he's done an entry on his Long Tail blog about robotic model airplanes, ones that contain cameras and computer-contols so they can fly themselves.

Here's a link to his post: 3D Robotics Resources

This site has videos of self-guiding model aircraft in action.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Zizou and Georgie

Gobbergo wrote me about a documentary on Zidane to be presented during the Madison Film Festival mid-April. Wikipedia has a good article on it. You can view the trailer and clips on the film's own web site. This site gives a summary of the game during which the film was shot.

I've written a little about Zizou once or twice before. He's a type of the tragic sports hero; like Georgie Best, who was, maybe, a prototype for him, though we have to hope the one doesn't share the other's endgame. Both photogenic, prodigiously talented, volatile. Both grew up in public housing projects as members of an underclass and both achieved fame when still young. Both called the world's best player, the most gifted footballer of his generation. There are differences too, mainly in their personalities, Best's being ebullient and Zidane's reticent.

I try to imagine the way kids kicking the ball around on in urban neighborhoods in Algeria and Marseilles would try to be like Zizou.

{source - this is Lisbon}

Here are a pair of YouTube videos that give some idea of the talent of each of the two men. If you only view one item in this post, look at the first of these two.

This shot of the funeral cortege for Best shows his birthplace in the Cregagh Estate of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Wikipedia says Best played soccer on the open playing fields at the center of the estate.

{source: BBC}

This is a shot of the area where Zidane was born in a housing project in the northern suburbs of Marseille.

{source: flickr}

the false road of the righteous champion

I'm sure I've already mentioned that I like to catch up with the Crooked Timber blog on weekends. I found the rocket in flight image in a CT post by Kieran Healey. Yesterday, John Quiggin on CT pointed to a "warblogger" post by a Norwegian named Bjørn Staerk, that's worth reading (What Went Wrong?).

A self-confessed neo-con, he's writing about "Westerners who had their reality bubble pricked by people from an alien culture, and spent the next couple of years stumbling about like idiots, unable to deal rationally with this new reality that had forced itself on them."

Here are some excerpts:
Egging each other on, they predicted, interpreted, and labelled - and legislated and invaded. They saw clearly, through beautiful ideas. And they were wrong. Who were these people? They were us. "Us"? This seemed a lot clearer at the time. Us were the people who acknowledged the threat of Islamist terrorism, who had the common sense to see through the multicultural fog of words, and the moral courage to want to change the world by force. It included politicians like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it included the new European right, it included brave and honest pundits, straight-talking intellectuals in the enlightenment tradition.

There aren't many people left who believe that it was a good idea for the US, Britain and their coalition to invade Iraq in 2003. At least fifty thousand Iraqis dead, (or a hundred, or several hundred), maybe two million refugees, and who knows how many more when the Americans finally give up and leave. Supporters of the war have dropped off one by one, for different reasons. Some neo-conservative intellectuals believe that the plan was good, but that George W. Bush screwed it up. There might be something to this. With smarter people in charge, the odds might have been better. But this assumes that a smarter administration would have embraced their plan to invade Iraq in the first place. I don't think it would, and I think the blame belongs with the thinkers who pushed for war, as much as the officials who carried it out.

When a state collapses, there is no upper limit to how badly it can go. Millions of people may die. Fanatics and sadists fight their way to the top, trampling the weak down beneath them. In our vision of a liberated Baghdad, we saw the beginning of a new Eastern Europe. Now, I have nightmares of Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Uganda, Algeria, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan.

War opponents said a lot of things that were stupid, cynical and deluded. Some war supporters find comfort in this, I don't. The opponents were, on the whole, right. We were wrong, and people in Iraq will pay for this mistake for a long time.

Everyone agreed that terrorism was such a large threat that we had to give the state new powers to fight it. The most extreme examples were the cases of torture by proxy and imprisonment without trial by the US, but all over the West there has been a new wind of authority.

Trading freedom for security [is a mistake]. The security is often illusory, giving us little more than a temporary reduction of anxiety. The anxiety soon returns, and more freedom must be traded away. Just as a war frenzy can spin out of control, so can a panic for law and order in the face of terrorism. Especially so since the alternative is so depressing and counterintuitive. We were wrong about terrorism, we still are, and I suspect we always will be. At best we can hope for long periods of calm where personal freedom is allowed to reassert itself.

The "multicultural" worldview makes sense. We do need to doubt ourselves. We do need to worry at least as much about our own potential for evil as that of the foreigners. We do need to meet other cultures with some humility and respect. We do need to have mixed feelings about our own culture, admiration tempered by wariness, as with a wild animal. We do need to listen to people who believe differently, instead of just lecturing them. Not because there is no right or wrong, true or false, and not because every culture is equal, but because the alternative is so dangerous. The road of the righteous champion of the Army of Light.

wonder of flight

I was a model-plane builder when young. I had dreams of flying my own remote-controlled aircraft, whether gas-powered Piper or Super-Sabre jet. I made some balsa-wood, gas-ready models (like this), and my friend Tommy actually had the tiny gas engine they people used back then. But basically the dreams were never fulfilled.

Not long ago, riding home during one of the warm days of mid-winter, I saw a man using a remote-controlled plane in a field where dog-lovers congregate and, sometimes, kite flyers. This was the first RC-guy I'd seen. He had an electric-engined purpose-built model, something like the one shown on this page.

Immediately I recalled a time, on a visit to Los Angeles, when I saw a man with a remote-controlled glider doing what I've since learned is called slope soaring. He was using an updraft caused by on-shore breezes at Long Beach where there's a short, steep slope down from the pathway to the beach. This mini-palisade catches the breeze and lofts it. The glider, remotely-controlled with considerable expertise, traced circles and figure 8's in the updraft. I didn't stay to see how long the owner could/would keep the plane aloft; presumably his neck tired from up-viewing so long, as here:

{not taken at Long Beach; source}

This YouTube video conveys something of the experience. Note the soft landing toward the end where the plane comes to a halt mid-air next to the RC operator.

There are some other good YouTube videos of RC gliders, including this one.

These photos capture some of the fascination of the hobby:

{source of these photos: AIAA Picnic}

[Update March 5:
modern UAVs grew out of the radio-control airplane scene and the technologies that allow them to fly themselves--gyros, video and other sensors, GPS, digital radio and onboard microprocessors--are now shrinking in size and falling in price at a rapid pace. You can buy a model airplane today for less than $60 that has an onboard computer and basic sensors, Chris Anderson's Long Tail blog has a post on model aircraft that pretty much control themselves -- semiautonomous planes. He says the needed technologies, "gyros, video and other sensors, GPS, digital radio and onboard microprocessors, are now shrinking in size and falling in price at a rapid pace. You can buy a model airplane today for less than $60 that has an onboard computer and basic sensors."]

caught in flight

Kieran Healey posted this on Crooked Timber. He says there are lots more, but they're all airplanes so far as I can see and thus not quite the same.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

not a time to put head in sand

If you have a moment, go take a look at the editorial in last month's AARP Bulletin: Divided We Fail. It gives some frightening data:
The fastest-growing item in this year's $2.8 trillion federal budget is the $249 billion we pay for interest on the national debt. That figure has grown 35 percent since 2005.

The combined costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the foundations of health and economic security for older Americans — are on track to grow from $1.1 trillion in 2006 to $2.27 trillion in 2016. At that rate, funds set aside for Social Security will be exhausted in four decades—within the life span of half of today's boomers. Medicare's finances are even more precarious; the program's trust funds could vanish within a decade.

Half of our country's workers lack pensions or aren't adequately saving for retirement.

Sixteen percent of the national economy is consumed by health care. The number of people without health insurance has grown to 46.6 million.

Compared to other industrial nations, all of which have government-financed systems, the per capita health spending in the United States ($6,102) is about twice as high as in Canada ($3,165), France ($3,159), Australia ($3,120) or Great Britain ($2,508), according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet our life expectancy is lower (77.5) and our infant mortality rate is higher (6.9 per thousand births) than in these other four industrialized nations. Still, any attempt to effect change has been derailed.
In mid-February, Steven Pearlstein addressed this last issue -- the inefficiency of the US health care system. He says the reason the system has been so resistant to change is that "powerful interests do very nicely with things just the way they are." Using a recent study, Pearlstein puts a price tag on the amount of inefficiency. The pattern of spending in the US is $477 billion higher than is the pattern in 13 other advanced countries. "That staggering waste of money works out to 3.6 percent of the nation's entire economic output, or $1,645 per person, every year." The article then gives details on where the extra costs lie.

Altogether, the AARP editorial and Pearlstein's column point to the immensity of the challenges that face the newly Democratic congress and the whole of our government.

the Japan carry trade, of all things

The director of the IMF recently gave a clear and concise explanation of the Japan carry trade and how it affects global finance. He did this in a speech at the Harvard Business School alumni dinner which is available on the IMF site. To set the stage, he went over familiar ground: global growth is moderating from recent years but remains high. The decline is welcome since inflation was starting to create dangerous market instability. China and India continue to be the main engines of growth. Risk of a meltdown is slight. (As he put it, the risk of "a disorderly adjustment of global payments imbalances" is low.) However, he added, that the cost of such a meltown would be high.

Continuing to review he said global imbalances continue to be a problem. The sources of imbalance include large deficits the US and large surpluses in Asian export nations and in the oil-rich nations. He warned, as IMF has done for a long time now, that "the imbalances between the United States and the rest of the world are not sustainable over the long term." If they are not reduced gradually, a major upheaval could result. "For example, if investors become suddenly unwilling to hold U.S. financial assets at prevailing exchange rates and interest rates, this could lead to an abrupt change and could cause global financial market disruptions, as well as an economic downturn." He mentioned some small signs of progress in reducing the global imbalances, including a slightly increased exchange rate flexibility in China and slightly increased investing of surplus funds by the oil exporters.

The interesting part of his speech, as I said, concerned the Japan carry trade. Here's what he said:
Another development that gives rise to concern is the growth of the yen carry trade. As you know, this is the practice of borrowing in yen to purchase securities in other countries. The attraction is that Japanese interest rates are low. For example, investors can borrow in Japanese yen, and lend in New Zealand dollars at an interest rate spread of about 700 basis points. The effects of the carry trade can be seen in capital flows into countries like Brazil and Turkey, and in the growth of yen-dominated mortgages in countries ranging from Korea to Latvia. Partly owing to carry trades, and also because of increased international investment by Japanese residents, capital flows out of Japan have risen. As a result, despite a large current account surplus, there has been downward pressure on the yen in the short run. Indeed, in real effective terms, the yen is now at a 20-year now.

The carry trade is not a consequence of global imbalances. Rather, it reflects the globalization of financial markets and the current environment of low volatility and wide interest rate differentials. But it could lead to more entrenched exchange rate misalignments that worsen global imbalances. The depreciating yen led to an increase in the current account surplus of Japan to almost 4 percent of GDP in 2006. Moreover, both financial markets and countries are exposed to risks if there is a sudden reversal of financial flows. For example, a disruptive unwinding of carry trade positions occurred in October 1998, when the U.S. dollar fell by 15 percent against the Japanese yen in four days. Compared to 1998, there are now a greater number of currencies involved in the carry trade and more diversification in the investor base. The latter lessens the risk of an abrupt unwinding of carry trade positions. Nevertheless, I am concerned that investors and the countries into which funds are flowing are not sufficiently attentive to the risks.

There is no simple solution to this problem. The Bank of Japan increased interest rates by a quarter of one percent last week. However, with the economy only just having emerged from years of deflation and inflation still uncomfortably close to zero, it needs to be cautious in increasing rates. Moreover, the decline in home bias and demographic trends in Japan suggests that both institutional and retail flows out of Japan may persist. Therefore, substantial interest rate differentials are likely to remain. Investors will make their own decisions as to what is a safe investment, and at the moment they appear to be relatively complacent about the risks.
Just a few days after de Rato spoke, Japan released stats on its inflation rate showing that its consumer price index had fallen to zero. The account in the Financial Times and other sources point to the dangers. The Bank of Japan will now find it difficult to raise lending rates and that will make it difficult to wind down the carry trade.

Friday, March 02, 2007

big hands

Passed on to me by a music-cataloger friend here at work:

Rachmaninov had big Hands

This makes me nostalgic for Victor Borge's TV programs which I enjoyed watching when I was a kid and again as an adult with my kids.

how much is that again?

News items on the ubiquity of social networking are ubiquitous; no need to add to them here. Except the stats can be staggering. Here, from the FaceBook blog, are some numbers for just one site. My favorite: The site has 30 billion page views monthly and soaks up 1% of all time spent on the internet.
Have a taste... by Carolyn Abram

We had our first ever "Technology Tasting" this past Wednesday. It was a full house of Facebook engineers, product team members, and engineers in the area who just wanted a taste of Facebook.

We had a slide show presentation at the Tasting with some pretty cool Facebook stats that we don't normally release. However, we think they'd be interesting to a lot of people (and have seen pictures of them floating around the blogosphere), so we thought we'd give all the readers here a taste as well.

{click to enlarge}

This is our overall growth graph. You can see us moving from 7.5 million users last July to almost 18 million users now. Over half of our users log in daily.

{click to enlarge}

This is our page views graph. We're now at 30 billion page views monthly. According to comScore, we are the 6th most trafficked US site, and we account for 1% of all time spent on the internet.

Some more fast facts:
  • We have more than 1 billion photos on the site.

  • To keep up with the huge amount of data that needs to be rapidly accessed at any given time, we utilize 2 Terabytes of RAM distributed across many Memcache servers.

  • Our fleet of servers are hosted across two co-locations.

  • Our search infrastructure fields 600 million searches each month using a 200-gigabyte search index, featuring real time updates.

Carolyn, Facebook's resident blogger, was pretty delighted to refer to our servers as a "fleet"
{Crossposted from my work blog -- Friday off-topic posting.}