August 30, 2004

Not a Blog

The Tangled Bank aims to be a weekly Carnival highlighting the best of the week's blogosphere action in the sciences.

Plus, they link to so-called Carnivals in a number of other categories, as well.

Posted by mill1974 at 5:27 PM

Voter Intimidation

Link via ACT: PDF report from the NAACP documenting recent instances of voter intimidation, misdirection, etc., aimed at suppressing the minority vote, with invariably pro-Republican results.

We've all heard the recent, high-profile examples: the supposed "election fraud" investigation targetting the Orlando black population, right on the heels of the latest felon purge list in Florida. But the things happening at a more local level are really egregious.

  • This summer, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge (R-Troy) was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."
  • In 2002 in Louisiana, flyers were distributed in African American communities telling voters they could go to the polls on Tuesday, December 10th three days after a Senate runoff election was actually held.
  • In 2003 in Philadelphia, voters in African American areas were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.

And that's why I'm spending my remaining free weekends in this hemisphere doing get-out-the-vote canvassing.

Posted by mill1974 at 3:53 PM

August 29, 2004


Just a useful link that could help with Crystal's multiple-computer syndrome.

Synergy2 works on Win32, X11, and OSX, lets you move mouse and keyboard functions between computers a-la virtual desktops. One system runs a server, and events are tunnelled over the network. Slick.

Posted by mill1974 at 2:51 PM

August 27, 2004

Done for the Day

End brain dump.

Clearly I should have done this some time ago. It's handy to have a place to stick random thoughts, in a more scattered (and network-aware) format than my generally literary journals.

Posted by mill1974 at 8:23 PM

Annoying Proprietary Software

Mostly, I use free software. Not just because I'm a cheapskate -- this would be a poor reason since, as a student, most of my software is given to me, anyway. I like that it works well, that it has a tendancy to interoperate well, and that I can see its innards and twiddle them as needed.

There are, however, a few proprietary packages that my work requires that I use. To varying degrees, this is annoying the crap out of me.

To wit, and in rough order of annoyance:

A "rich man's" mathematical data analysis language, for people who like the idea of Matlab but were really more comfortable with Fortran back in the 70s.

Gigantic function library, but I can do most anything it can, often faster, and usually with superior (in terms of control and flexibility) results, with some combination of Perl, PDL, and graphics kits like XMGrace or Gnuplot. Since I'm too lazy to grab links for all those, feel free to Google them.

Plus the fact that half the time when I start it up, I can't actually use it, because the license server says that too many people are using it already, really drives home the un-freedom of the whole thing. I shudder to think how much of our group's experience is tied up in IDL code.


Free student version of an extremely powerful physical optics package. The full thing costs $40,000 and change, so I don't see us springing for it in the immediate future.

Trouble is, the free version has some distinct limitations designed to induce you to open the wallet (or more likely, purchase order folder). For instance, models are artificially limited to two reflecting/scattering surfaces. Also, it only generally helps with our work, since it doesn't do refraction at all. Since our telescopes have lenses, this makes us somewhat uncomfortable. On a totally unrelated note, its data formats really show the Fortran under the hood, too.

I think it should be possible to implement the physical optics engine using PDL, so I printed out (and bound -- yes, I'm a freak, see below) the technical manual to learn how. If I have a really slow weekend in Israel, I may give it a try.


Ray optics package.

I have mostly praise for this thing, actually. It works quite well, once you get to know it, has powerful features arranged in a way that suggests a modicum of thought may have been involved in their planning, and provides an amazingly complete palette of functionality for designing and analyzing an optical system.

The drawback. Only runs on Windows. I kid you not. Used to be a UNIX version, but they killed it for reasons that baffle me, considering that nearly every scientific shop on the planet is mostly *nix workstations. So I'm stuck either remotely logging into a Microsoft box, or, as I will be in Israel, running one in emulation inside my own system. The cryptographic hardware key is just icing on the cake, there.

But the fact that I'm not actively thinking about how to reimplement this one using free technologies is evidence of just how good it is, otherwise.

Posted by mill1974 at 7:41 PM

Reading at Risk

The NEA just released a study entitled "Reading at Risk" which empirically demonstrates the disturbing but obvious fact of our times that, suprise! -- people are reading less.

Steve Bennett of the San Antonio Express-News is writing this up, and sent out the following email:

"Bennett, Steve" wrote:

> hola all,this is a mass message trying to get some feedback for a
> story i'm working on the recent NEA study "Reading at Risk."Basically,
> the 20-year study says that while there remains a huge audience of
> readers in the country (122,000 new titles in 2000, with sales of 2.5
> billion books), the number of people reading literature -- fiction,
> short stories, plays, poetry -- is declining. It's off 15 percent from
> 1982, with the steepest slide in the 18-24 age group (28 percent
> decline). reasons given are electronic media, video games, etc. men,
> for some reason, don't read novels. i wonder if you are familiar with
> the report and have any thoughts to share on the subject. as NEA chief
> Dana Gioia notes: "More than reading is at stake. As this report
> unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved
> role in their communities. The decline in reading therefore parallels
> a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life."the
> report goes on to state that, "Indeed, at the current rate of loss,
> literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in
> half a century."pretty alarming stuff. is this, finally, the beginning
> of the "death of the novel"? do your students read literature for
> pleasure (without you having to assign it and then pound them over the
> head)? have you noticed a change in attitudes toward literature? what
> does this mean for our society? and what, if anything, can be done?i'd
> really appreciate your feedback for publication in the story/column
> i'm planning for upcoming national literacy day. of course, my
> deadline is yesterday. thanks so much.steve p.s. if you have any
> students who'd be willing to talk to a reporter on the record about
> their reading habits of lack of, please let me know.

In response to this my father composed this essay:

Response to the "Reading at Risk" NEA study from Bryce Milligan

As both a "literary" publisher and a writer, the NEA's findings are
horrifying, yet they come as no surprise. Publishing has become such a
huge business that all too often the creative sparks that generate
literary flames can be trampled into non-flamable dust. Literary
authors, once so doused by the major houses, may then turn to the
smaller regional presses where they know that their creative vision will
be honored and transmuted into a printed form that is intended for the
thoughtful reader rather than skewed to meet some imagined mass market.
These smaller regional presses struggle to get the attention of the more
important review outlets, but are basically outbid for review space by
the advertising budgets of the major houses. Thus most literary titles
published in the US today never even reach the awareness threshold of
most readers.

And that is only one scenario of the dozens that have been advanced to
explain the drop in the popularity of literary fiction and poetry. But
it explains a lot. Serious readers haunt bookstores, for the most part,
not websites. If new literary works are not on the shelves, how are
these potential readers to learn of their existence? This is like asking
why a certain plant no longer thrives in nutrient-depleted soil. But
this is merely a pragmatic explanation of a problem, the threads of
which run -- as the NEA study attempts to explain -- throughout the
fabric of post-World War II American culture. The thrust of all those
multiple explanations comes down to the fact that the world we inhabit
is no longer conducive to leisure reading.

No doubt, the pace of contemporary life has speeded up, driven by the
increased speed with which our tools allow us to accomplish work. To
take a single example from the trade itself: As a book designer, it was
only a few years ago that it took a full month or more to typeset and
lay out a book, taking it from the author's manuscript to a product
ready to be printed. I can do the same job now in a single day, and do
it "better" and more accurately. So what was lost? A month of creative
thought -- the kind of intense yet reflective rumination that goes into
the creation of any work of art. So the speed of the machines that allow
this 30-to-1 collapse of time in turn mandate the reduction of human
creative input by a similar ratio. Thus one struggles with one's tools
not to master their usage, but to make up for that loss of purely
creative time. Philosophically speaking, the worker who is engaged in
with a struggle with his tools simply cannot produce the best work of
which either is capable.

But again, this is one simple, pragmatic explanation to a complex
problem which may in fact not allow for a satisfactory solution. What if
our tools -- our computers and cell phones and all the rest -- have
created a world in which leisure reading is simply not possible? An
answer has been proposed by science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov
and Frank Herbert: revolution against the machines. We are not anywhere
near that point, it seems to me, but I do know that as a publisher, I
increasingly meet "writers" who do not read. This sad oxymoronic
character is an accidental victim of his or her arrival in the world --
gifted with creative genius -- at a time when there is no time to hone
their craft.

The bards and poets of antiquity were expected to know by heart most of
the important texts of their time before they were even permitted to
produce their own creative works. The literary authors of the past
several centuries were expected to be well read in many topics, from
literature to science to philosophy to history. Neither writers nor
readers can be expected to leap fully formed from the brow of Zeus. If
they are today so deceived by the illusion of our accelerated world as
to imagine that reading is a mere luxury, then we are in fact fated to
endure George Santayana's dictum that those who do not know the past are
doomed to repeat its failures. More to the point in today's political
environment, those who do not know the past have no way of knowing when
the prevailing political powers decide to reinvent the past to justify
their actions. One of the best things that a book has over a computer
screen is that you can be 100% certain that what the book says today is
the same thing it said yesterday. In an ever-changing world, that is an
element of certainty that is not lightly waived.

-- Bryce Milligan

Posted by mill1974 at 7:12 PM

Media and Software

Software is seductive. It has such potential to be useful.

Downhill Battle is an outfit looking to rewrite the rules of media culture, with the record label cartel particularly in their sights. The Labs will try to do this with software, by integrating the distributed collaborative nature of blog-like phenomena with new media distribution technology.

The AllAfrica Blogs is an aggregator of Africa-based blogs, in an attempt to inject the developing world into that of the predominantly wealthy, Caucasian digerati. Probably more on this another time.

And the banal (and tangentially related): the kernel hacker in charge of the PWC driver that runs Phillips webcams has thrown a hissy fit over kernel binary module policy and withdrawn his driver. While it is evidently his intention to take the ball home, the practical effect is simply that a new maintainer is needed (looks like the guys using Lava Lamps as RNGs are stepping up on that). Behold the world's easiest entry to Linux kernel developer status.

Posted by mill1974 at 7:06 PM