Electronic Miscommerce

It has been raining, not hard, but steadily, since dusk yesterday. I just got back from visiting the Yankee government postal office here in Greater Metropolitan Arab. I waited this late to (a) get there after the postal boxes have been serviced, and (b) a bit later to get past the rush caused by the former.

As it was I was under guidance from FD SCP to purchase additional first class postage so I also had to go into the sales area and queue up. The queue was short and jerky. As I got to the front of the queue I discovered why. A large but ad hoc sign announced that the credit/debit card server was off line due to weather. The largeness was such that one had no problem reading the sign from the front of the queue but not from the back. Hence a lot of folks were getting to the front, seeing the sign, and stomping out in disgust, not a few with words that could get them criminal charges for profanity. [1]

Anyway, my purpose is not to complain about poor administrative practice; this is, after all, the post office. My purpose is to note that this is supposedly the era when we are ceasing to use paper and metal images of discorporated caucasian politicians and transacting money conveyance for goods and services via electronic means. Except when the means don’t work because of the weather. So much for eCommerce! At least in Greater Metropolitan Arab! Or any place in the hinterland!

I stepped to the sales desk. announced my requirement, and presented portraiture. Then gather my box mail, and motored back here chuckling under my breath all the way.

[1] Yes, I know. As a manager working for the Yankee government I had to know about such things. It’s not just the post office, its any Yankee government location. It’s not enforced often; the last time I noticed was in one of the national parks when there was some gathering of boy scouts and it was necessary to maintain good order and decorum.

Not Santa’s

It has become clear that holidays are Bosons, otherwise how would we have what is patently a Bose-Einstein condensate of holidays – Halloween, Armistice Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Quanza, Winter Solstice, Chanukah, and New Year’s Day. And I probably left a couple out that have escaped my drooling brain’s grasp. But they all seem to be collapsed together while retaining a bit of independent identity.

Unfortunately, that identity is already getting ugly as we close on the Solstice. Much of that ugliness has to do with christmas, as the adherents of that holiday demand that it is somehow transcendent, not just first among equals mind you, transcendent above all other holidays, and the adherents of the other holidays assert in response that their holiday is as good, if not better, than a misdated anniversary. And all of them are contending with the righteous forces of divine capitalism over whether the holiday is secular and hence commercial, or spiritual and hence simonical.

As I sat about yesterday trying to recover sovereignty of my alimentary canal from the bonds of social ingestion, I had occasion to review the articles in the feeds that had accumulated while I was distracted by the holiday as well as the backlog of emails. Chiefest among my discoveries, or better, rediscoveries, was the stentorian announcement by various organizations, most capitalist, of THE LIST OF NECESSARY GEAR TO GIVE/RECEIVE FOR YOUR PARTICULAR MOST IMPORTANT HOLIDAY. The comparison to the holiday period itself is unmistakable; innumerable self-important nonentities loudly announcing that their list of stuff to be bought or obtained is the most important.

I was particularly taken by a list from WIRED. [Link] One thing that distinguishes (extinguishes?) this list is its length. Most are ten items in length, a few are twenty (two times ten) but this one is one hundred (ten times ten? ten squared?) in length. All are too long to be retained in active human memory. All focus on gadgets. And the telling thing, to me at least, is that they boldly illustrate a difference between geeks and nerds. [1]

That difference is fundamental, the difference of doing. As those who sadistically inflict this blog on their minds well recognize, geeks talk but do not, nerds talk a bit but do. That is, nerds are about accomplishing things whether engineers building something that functions, or scientists who achieve some new understanding of reality, or any of the others that qualify by their knowledge, skills, and temperament as nerds.

Part of that talk but not do is gadgets. Geeks display their appearance of nerdery by having gadgets, preferably ones that are shiny and perhaps make hamster noises. If a gadget is popular, or promulgated by innumerable self-important nonentities as popular, then it is a necessity comparable to those Moses had on tablets that they have that gadget. It is irrelevant whether the gadget serves any purpose or function, or that the geek can exercise the gadget to perform that purpose or function. Conspicuous possession is sufficient. And entire.

Nerds on the other hand view any item that is possessed by others to lack independence and thereby to lack worth UNLESS it may be used to achieve some end – to do! For the nerd purpose and function of gadget are preliminary requirements; the penultimate requirement is that it will contribute manifestly to doing. And once the doing is complete, the gadget may be retired, discarded, or stored away until its function is needed again.

This difference can be summarized succinctly but somewhat turgidly as: for geeks perception of possession of gadget is paramount; for nerds possession for perception is paramount. Now, isn’t that adamantinely clear?

One may ask how this differs from the possession of gadget by bogs. That is rather less simple since bogs purchase gadgets, either for themselves or as gifts, in the perception that the gadget is popular among bogs but not among geeks. Popularity among bogs and popularity among geeks is almost always and totally immiscible. Gadgets possessed by bogs are either simple enough that they can be understood and used by bogs, or are completely beyond their understanding and are immediately exchanged for defunct gift cards or lingerie. If they are unable to execute the latter then the gadget is a subject of persistent complaint of dysfunction. This inability to distinguish between deficient gadget and deficient human is one of the strongest indications of bogdom.

[1] They may also illustrate differences from bogs as well but I am not sure what those differences are. So far as I can tell bog gift patterns seem to run to gift cards that are supposed to rot before they can be redeemed and items of male and female lingerie, although not always gender matched to the recipient.

Ask, then Answer

My colleagues, especially the academic ones, are often rather critical of ‘popular’ science writings. On the one hand they all espouse the current politically correct fad that more and better writing about science is needed to illuminate the ever increasing fraction of the population that is ignorant of science. On the other hand they are very critical, fearful in some cases, of the wranglings of journalists and mediasts in their presentation of science. And on the third hand, as Pournelle has given us, is criticism that the popular science writings in their own and related disciplines are inaccurate and inadequate.

The third hand is patently lesser and can be ameliorated by noting that when one has a reasonable approximation of mastery of a discipline or field, then popular writings will be inadequate and inaccurate just because they cannot be too overwhelming. Aside from the obvious hypocrisy of these good people, few ever attempt to write for the non-specialist, much less learn how to do so; most write some paragraphs, which are simplified only in the theaters of their own minds, and then hand the paragraphs over to the public affairs people and then bitch and groan at how their incomprehensible maunderings were polluted and distorted. But more crucially, they quite miss or dismiss the idea that no amount of writing or speaking is going to have any benefit or effect if the communication is not closed. In effect, the bottleneck in expounding science to the great ‘unwashed’ masses is that the latter have to have an interest: they have to question; they have to listen; they have to cogitate. Otherwise we are little better than tourists shouting into an echo canyon and no more constructive.

I was reminded of this rather pleasantly yesterday. One of my family’s new traditions is a Post Dinosaur Day breakfast at a rustic location – a decidedly not-chain-restaurant where food is still food and not just manufactured goods. Such places are not as common as they were in my youth, sadly, and so we had to venture out into the boonies where parking lots are dignified with gravel but not concrete or asphalt and roads are poorly mis-maintained by venial county governments. The saving grace of these is that the decor to deliciousness ratio is about 0.1 as compared to 10 at a chain restaurant and the tenor is survival rather than convenience.

Following this overabundant, both in quality and quantity, repast, happily so intense that familial conversational blather guttered out and never returned, FD SCP drug me off to Scottsborough for a bit of Schwartz Freitag at the unclaimed baggage emporium and then the Hammers, one of the few remaining of authentic junkiness. As I was queued up to exchange portraiture of dead caucasian politicians for other peoples’ lost items, I came to have one of those spontaneous queue conversations with people who were most obviously a military family: the husband had the stoic steady grace of a centurion; the wife the enduring independence of a deployment widow; the children, somewhat too young for the couple had that strange childish perfection of disciplined manners peppered with occasional endearing bursts of boisterousness.

The conversation developed and continued through several meandering scatterings until I was asked the question “Since you are a rocket science, what is it?” I was immediately stunned with the epiphany of the responsibility of explaining matters scientifical to others and awed with the difficulty. Laboriously, not very glibly, I tried to explain that rocket science is not about understanding alone but also doing. That there are two types of understanding, the things you understand can be done or are by reading or other information exchange, and those things you understand from inside your head and thereby understand that something can be done that has not been done before. That latter is what rocket science is all about, doing something that has not been done before based on your own understanding of reality.

My fumbling attempts at communications amidst swirling thongs (for Scottsborough) of pactiophilic [1] shoppers evidently was successful. A couple of derivative questions, indicative of concept grasp, followed and then both content with the interchange we returned to our consumerist pursuits. My insights on the necessity of the question being asked before it can be answered for communicating science to non-scientists were validated. Indeed, in a sense this was rocket science for not only had I understood that I could communicate with a new human, one I had not communicated with before, but the communication was accomplished. And we were enriched by it, the two of us and any other humans we may later communicate with.

That breakfast looks like a good new tradition after all.

[1] pactiophilic – bargain loving

Resonant Verbage

Ran across this lovely cartoon yesterday while catching up on missed information access in the course of maintaining existence. [Link]

I am moved to offer that I will disperse all monies I obtain from blogging equally among commentators. With suitable charges for shipping and handling.

Since I have to date realized zero income from blogging I would not encourage those few who comment to anticipate riches beyond compare, or even tax tokens.

Obligatory Dinosaur Day Message – Belated – One Each

It seems that in the relief of not having to go to anyone’s house and partake of their cooking, or even endure relatives (have to do that this morning,) I inadvertantly missed the expected ‘what I am thankful for’ blot.


I am thankful for not having to go to other people’s houses, partake of their cookage, make socially nice, and exchange irrelevant and boring conversation.

I am thankful that I can think. That may sound a bit whacked but I lost a very considerable capacity to do so in the aftermath of the physicians mucking with my corpus following heart attack. Evidently the anesthetic they used had a very detrimental and long lasting effect on my cognitive faculties. Of course, this is only something that a nerd would be thankful for as bogs are thankful that they cannot and do not.

Media Mulch

What with a boondoggle to the campus of the Black Warrior to abuse large children Lecture graduate students, [1] and the early observation of Dinosaur Day to accommodate the complexity of obligations among family members, [2] I didn;t get an opportunity to collect up the articles of note that had accumulated over the week.

So much for the fiction that Sol has set on the English Empire, [3] in the wake of that English politician mouthing off about giving up meat, now an Asiaindian [4] politician has announced [Link]

“The single most important cause of (carbon) emissions is eating beef. My formula is stop eating beef. This would stop the emission of methane, Beef leads to emission of methane which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide,”

Of course asiaindians have all sorts of religious beliefs about eating meat so no hardship for them. All I can observe of this is that we are approaching statistical significance of anecdotal evidence of the validity of the theory that human intelligence is directly related to the digestion of animal protein.

Next, [Link] some interesting information from a survey [5] of the hedonistic behaviors of students residing in coeducational [6] dorms. A summary:

“university students in coed housing are 2.5 times more likely to binge drink every week, likely to have more sexual partners, and, pornography use was higher.”

But what was telling is the statement:

“that doesn’t put coed housing on par with fraternity and sorority houses”

Seems like the real hedonists are the Greeks. So if your child belongs to a fraternity or sorority you know they are not getting either an education or career training. Not that this is any different from when I was an undergraduate. So perhaps this is just another fine downlieing (as opposed to upstanding) American tradition?

In a spasm (orgasm?) of journalistic analysis, I am appraised that the Sony and Barnes and Noble eReaders are sold out for the Winter Solstice season, leaving the field open to the Amazon eReader. [Link] The intriguing component here is the conclusion that this is the result of some brilliance on the part of Amazon. One has to rather suspect that the journalists had help here, probably from economists or Wall Street financial experts, if not both. Last I checked there are several other eReaders out there; indeed, most of the ads I receive daily for eReaders are other brands.

Second, and perhaps most telling, is that Sony and B&N have sold out and Amazon has not. Could this have something to do with the desirability of these two former eReaders compared to the latter? I am instantly minded of the recent All Hallows Eve season that we recently endured. The particular is candy. Has anyone ever tried to to buy Halloween candy late? The choices are rather strange

One has to wonder if the two situations are the same? Not that I was going to run out and purchase. The Nook does look a lot more intriguing with its improvements, injecting some constructive improvements into the fray, but there is still far to go to equal the resolution of the printed paper page. And the selection? Still abysmal, get some real nerd book, like Gradshteyn and Rhyzik’s integral tables, or Stegun and Abramowitz.

[1] If they’re still in shul then they’re still children aren’t they? Sort of like the Trobriand Islanders’ definition that babies aren’t really human until they’re weaned, about age three because of the contraceptive effects, which rather puts all the arguments against abortion in a dismal illumination.

[2] Makes me rather glad that FD SCP and I are way-out-in-the-tails-of-the-distribution introverts and don;t even like going to the family thing, much less other social nonsense.

[3] Which happily we disattached ourselves from two hundred plus years ago are the point of a bayonet. Of course we still have to put up with them as allies and general nuisances, largely because of the fiction of a shared language. Anyone who has tried to converse with an Englisher knows there is nothing shared in speech.

[4] How to tell asian indians from american indians? Neither is strictly native as claimed since all humans originated in Africa (some debate there depending on when you start calling hominids human.) My new world archaeology professor used to call the asian variety ‘injians’ but he had spent the Second Great War in the China-Burma-India theatre, mostly the latter, and was given to eating a broiled onion daily at luncheon in a habit learned there to ‘control the intestinal parasites.’ My academically unctuous (that’s new speak for politically correct) colleagues refer to american indians as Amerindians so the others must be Asiaindians?

[5] Horribly small sample size, a population of 500 spread over five campuses. That makes the confidence on the estimates of something like 0.1 or so. But it is entertaining and undoubtedly made great use of bail out monies and kept several graduate students employed.

[6] As a parent and former college student, I have my doubts of the educational aspect of the term. Is hedonism educational? If so, it would seem that a more economical path would be to drink, drug, and congress at home. Isn’t that why we have automobiles?

[7] Aha! You though I would use the “I” word didn’t you?

Going to the Dogs

My recent visit to the campus of the Black Warrior has provoked some consideration of accidental (?) correlations. Two in particular have been of high density in these: hush puppies; and food.

I quite recognize that the average Southron will admonish that hush puppies are food and one of its highest forms, for both humans and their most stalwart of allies, canines. My reference however is not to these wonder morsels of fry bread, but rather to footwear. Back in my undergraduate days at the campus of the Black Warrior, my wanted footwear were gray split pigskin loafers with composition soles. The latter were claimed to be ‘non slip’ but that claim was specious, especially on newly mopped linoleum floors. Slippage was not an issue on the rough, bare concrete floors of the student laboratories.

The origin of this consideration is two-fold, arising from my purchase a couple of months ago, after a period of several decades, of a pair of hush puppies. I could not get those split pigskin loafers of my undergraduate days because despite my foot having broadened in width from its then “A” (slender) to its current “B” (narrow), the company has diminished its scope of production of the shoe. As a result I had to settle for what I mentally categorize as ‘an old flatulence shoe’.

Nonetheless, the shoe is a hush puppy, made on a last that is different from those used by any other manufacturer of my experience. After many years of wearing Allen Edmonds in the office, and Clarks since retirement, it took a couple of weeks for me to accommodate myself to the differences of the shoes. This evinced memories of the same process when I was a freshman and new to both the split pigskin loafers – recommended by a helpful shoe clerk in Huntsville to my parents as ideal for the college student – and the intense walking required of freshman in college. The latter would diminish somewhat in later years but never to the benign levels of high shul.

Those memories resurfaced Thursday as I walked from the new chemistry building to the stately general library, and then back by way of Lloyd and Galilee halls to my accommodations. The day was crisp, albeit warmer then near Frank Miller time than it had been when I arrived on campus. Nonetheless, one of the thoughts that surfaced was that this was about the time during my undergraduate days that I would begin the process of buying a new pair of shoes.

In those days, my hush puppies wore out from one of two causes. Either the soles eroded, and the shoe repair gurus did not know how to renew them then, or drops of chemical solutions, mostly acidic, would burn little holes near the toes that would eventually work through the leather. As my standing became more senior over the years, the mode gradually shifted from the former to the latter so that by the time I was a junior, and about this time of the year, usually after thanksgiving holiday, I would begin to feel a bit of breeze on the toes of one or both feet and know that during the christmas holiday I would have to go purchase a new pair. Not that these shoes are thin, either on top or bottom. Much has been learned about soles and I deal little with strong acids and bases these days, more with fountain pen ink and paper and computers. But the thought was there, the memory of good days past.

The other thought that came had to do with foodstuffs. During my first two years at the campus of the Black Warrior I resided in dorm and had a meals contract, wither 20 or 14 meals per week, running Monday breakfast through either Sunday or Friday lunch. Once I moved off to an apartment off campus, that ceased and food was less structured. Nonetheless, I recall the nature of that food: mostly unappealing, and definitely unspiced. There were exceptions but they were few. Such is the nature of institutional food.

This memory resurfaced when I ate in the hotel on campus. This is a nice facility well cared for (superficially) with pleasant staff. Unfortunately it operates the heating and air conditioning as if it were a dormitory so unexpected cold or heat waves must be endured rather than abided with either shivering or perspiration. The other institutional aspect of the hostelry was its food. Definitely dorm food, somewhere between insipid and abysmal. In fact, the coffee on this trip was that way regardless of where I had it. I suppose I am spoiled by Rooster’s Coffee Barn.

Anyway, I did find something to be thankful for which is a boon given the season.


As a younger man I was a devotee of the action television program “McGyver”. One of the thematic cornerstones of this program was that the protagonist would haul out his Swiss Army knife, one of the simpler ones, and perform some necessary task to accomplish a technological nexus. This was one of the less believable metaphors of the program, albeit relatively easily suspended, because of my fundamental mistrust of multiple purpose tools.

Back when Ubuntu 9.10 emerged earlier I first tried to install it on my Itty Bitty Lap Top (netbook for the bogs) and it malfunctioned mid way through leaving me with a piece of fragile matter but no longer a tool. Reinstalling Ubuntu 9.04 was a relative snap with none of the machinations I had to go through originally with adding Ubuntu and by now I was more than willing to dispense with the wasted space on the hard drive that was SLED. Admittedly I did lose a bit off the box but nothing of abiding value.

What I did not get to do was reinstall all the pieces of software I needed to make use of the box, partly because of other demands and partly from inadequate memory. This was not worrisome since I knew I could install later when I realized the want.

Since I had uncertainty on time and connection on my immediately concluded boondoggle to the campus of the Black Warrior, I took the IBLT along in lieu of three times the volume and mass of a full up laptop. My uncertainties about connection and time proved to be accurate once I could collapse the wave function. The hotel I was using had a relatively whacked wireless network that required one to log on using a browser. The folks who put the system together made the usual brain dead assumption that everyone who would use it was a MegaHard serf and sure enough the system choked a couple of times with Linux alienation. Luckily the adaptations were within my limited IT capabilities since I knew that hotel staff are worse than bogs when it comes to matters computer, although I will give them points for being pleasant in expressing their ignorance and disinterest.

More accurate was my projections of time and so I was largely limited to evenings, in lieu of the intellectually banal wasteland that is American television, and mornings during the interval when the early riser mutation got me out of bed and when the late riser normals (?) actually were conscious.

Having bored with the usual snivelous complaints, I will get to the meat. I repeated found I needed something in the way of a client to do various things. And all I had to do in most cases was install that client from one of the standard repositories; in a few cases I had to add a repository. The delays had a small but not oppressive impact on work rhythm but that was all. Driving back yesterday it occurred, I think just past Trussville where FD SCP and I had stopped to ingest mass, how different this had been than if I was using MegaHard Windows. What repositories? Clients could be gotten online but only with detailed transactions, lengthy inefficient downloads (built into Windows) and problematic idiosyncratic installs. Definitely major speed bumps if not actual barricades.

Epiphany repeated. Wars are won by the forces you have at the right time and place, not hordes over yonder tomorrow. The same holds for computers.

On Hallowed (?) Ground

Wonderful day yesterday, both exhausting and exhilarating. S tarted the day driving across the campus of the Black Warrior to the new chemistry facility. Its entrance is a stately three story rotunda lacking only a proper statue of its benefactor and namesake, probably something on the order of that Romanesque statue of George Washington that resides in the Smithsonian, properly sidelined from impressionable children and like minded bogs except standing since the rotunda is a bit skinny to give the proper celestial majesty. Certainly the brow of the benefactor is suited to a laurel wreath.

But as is often the case with the Potempkinish intentions of humans, especially politicians, the real impressiveness is inside, the facilities and the temper of the place. It is obvious where the gilded dreams of immortality have succumbed to the realities of teaching and doing chemistry and these spots shine trough the tawdry gilt like something ethereal. The academics who strive here have good heads for both, the labs functional and practical, the curriculum constructive and strong, much more than I have seen at other colleges. Despite its appearance as a party schul there is metal underneath.

Frm there by a wonderful walk whose path inclosed the old quadrange and in a day much more temperate than the near lower phase point of dihydrogen oxide of my arrival on campus, to the stately central library, the base of the new quadrange. There a full two hours and more of interaction with graduate students on the informational temperaments and behaviors of scienctists and engineers. Too few questions but the students of today seem to lack both the interest and the chutzpah of my time. Or perhaps it is that library science students are just more polite?

Then I was free to play tourist. Off first to the site of the old observatory and muse amidst the bustle of the pangs of war and the goodness of humans. None of this will get the mirror back but that would be a vindication somehow. Still, the overbuilt Topsyesque tenor of the present campus bitterly reminds that its discovery is even less probably.

Next, back along my path to pace what was science row when I was an undergraduate. The buildings seemed little changed without but within was another matter. Lloyd, the old chemistry building is being transgendered into classrooms and that work is still apace. I could glimpse my senior year research area through a basement window after withstanding challenge of presence from one of the infamous Quad squirrels. Surviving this challenge with a sob story of nostalgia I was permitted to gaze through the window – gather the photons emerging from that room via the window – and see that at some point since my departure 40 years ago the room had been finished and painted a far cry from the irregular concrete floor and bare cinder block walls of my day. This had been my oasis between classes my senior year, a place to do some studying but mostly working on the content and expression of my senior research thesis. Poor quarters even then but in many of the ways that count better quarters than any office since.

Next, Galilee Hall, the seat of physics here on the campus, now far removed from the other components of science as the chemistry and biology and maths have moved over the years. The interior is much changed. Blackboards and arm desks alike are long gone and the paint scheme is somehow oppressive. But the people inside radiate the thoughts and demeanor of physicists and the air has the aroma of physics, more heady than frankensense or myrhh. Seeing this I can now leave content. Despite the distressing ministrations of administration, the depravity of athletics, and the hedonism of rednecks, there is still a core of value on this campus vindicating all the other evil and waste.

, , ,