Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Links 2006-05-30

Core Dump
"At first glance, technical writing and Disney don't seem to have much of a connection, but their rides are complex machines, and they do need manuals. Here's the Standard Operating Procedures for Pirates of the Caribbean from 1975. The page has links to scanned images of the manual."

Four Types in ZhurnalWiki
"Someone once told me of a military strategist's way to characterize people along the dimensions of intelligence and motivation:"

7-Zip
ZipCentral
Two freeware alternatives to winzip

No S Diet: No snacks, sweets, seconds, except on days that start with S.
"There are just three rules and one exception:
* No Snacks
* No Sweets
* No Seconds
Except (sometimes) on days that start with 'S'. That's it."
My diet of choice

Very cool illusion


Paper Sculpture - a photoset on Flickr


Erase permanent marker from your dry erase board - Lifehacker
"WikiHow has a simple method for removing permanent marker from dry erase boards:"

Birthday Calculator
Enter your birthdate, click on Submit, and then scroll down for fun statistics and your astrological data (such as your age in dog years, estimated date of conception, the BTUs produced by the candles on your next birthday cake, and so on)

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Our TIme - Faeries

From Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time newsletter on the Mythology of Faeries:

Two of the things we missed out this morning might be of interest to you. The first is related from the 13th century chronicle of Gerald of Wales. Gerald of Wales was travelling around Wales preaching the Crusades, and while he did so was chronicling encounters along his way. Fairy mythology tends to track uncertainty, to flare up around times of anxiety, and here it is accompanying the upheaval of the Crusades. Gerald records how on his travels he meets a monk called Eliodorus, who tells him that when he was a child he used to visit the fairies. They were little people (the ones he met were men), vegetarians, and they don’t live the way we do. Gerald is a man who is both very well educated and also extremely proud of this – he is not at all a credulous man, but he relates Eliodorus’ tale in good faith, he doesn’t say ‘I believe in fairies’, but he does accept Eliodorus as an honest educated Christian man relating a true personal experience.

Eliodorus told his mother, who asked him to bring back proof of their existence, to steal something from them and bring it back, so he steals a golden ball from them to take home. The fairies chase him, catch him just before he crosses the boundary to the homestead and steal the golden ball back. They disappear and he never sees them again. This is core tradition for fairy lore – the fairies symbolically are associated with the wild outside, unstructured nature and childhood – they can’t cross his mother’s threshold which represents the structured human adult world, and Eliodorus can’t take the fairy trinket into that world.

Eliodorus says it’s all for the better really that he never saw them again, they had been distracting him from his studies and after this he settled down, concentrated on his studies, and eventually became a monk. Again it is significant that the fairies were distracting him from becoming an adult, from his studies, from serious and sober Christianity.

I was very disappointed not to get round to the Cottingley Fairies. This is a fascinating story which we discussed at some length in the Green Room afterwards. However, the only satisfying way to tell it is to tell it at some length which Nicola Bown told us in preparation for the programme. The Cottingley Fairies concerned a photograph taken during the First World War by a couple of young working class girls. Nicola told me that the original picture was taken in 1917 during the war. There were poems by Rose Fileman published in Punch about fairies, the first with the line ‘there are fairies at the bottom of the garden’, and the next week ‘there used to be fairies in Germany’ – with the implication they had been driven out by the war.

The family of the girls who took the pictures took Punch, so it’s likely the girls were influenced by these. The older girl, Elsie, was working in a photographic studio, so she had the techniques to take the pictures and develop them. She made models on card of fairies and propped them on hatpins and dusted them with chalk to make them seem translucent. They took the photo for their parents, but also because Elsie wanted to take artistic photos, which was common at the time – and that’s where the story should have ended.

About 3 years later Elsie showed an elder woman friend who was a theosophist, who sent the picture to Edmund Gardner, a leading theosophist in London. He took it as proof of his beliefs, took it to a professional trick photographer to authenticate it, and asked him to touch it up for use in a magic lantern show. This is when the perspectives and sizes were changed, and the image we now know came into being. He then took it to Conan Doyle, who had been a spiritualist since his son was killed in WWI. Gardner asked him to publish the picture in The Strand Magazine, where the Holmes stories were published. Conan Doyle agreed, and published them in 1920.

Both men were middle class establishment men, the girls were working class young girls. When Gardner asked the girls for more photos how could they say they made it up? There’s an immediate press furore, the girls are ‘outed’, Elsie loses her job, they spend the rest of their lives tainted by the argument about whether they had attempted to defraud the public. Gardner also made them sign away the copyright on the pictures to him. He was going to be their protector.

In a way the girls have to take the pictures on Gardner’s behalf because of the 19th Century invention of childhood – these stories about innocence, childhood as a special time unsullied by the awful realities of adulthood – so it wouldn’t have worked if the photos had been taken by a middle aged gentleman.

And you might enjoy revisiting a few lines of this by William Allingham, a poem, The Fairies:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home--
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

The rest is mystery.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Links 2006-05-27

Tricks of the Trade: Dishwasher

Microsoft W3rd. Gangsta version of Microsoft Word

Spelling poems.
"Poems showing the absurdities of English spelling."

One Hundred Rules for NASA Project Managers

Preach it, sister

First Draft - If You Are Looking For A Way To Be Against Gay Marriage: "Because while I love freedom and equality and the rule of law, you know what else I love? Pissing off the sanctimonious. That's the ice cream sundae of my world."

[via flutterby, from whom I also stole the title of this post]

Friday, May 26, 2006

Don't believe in God? To hell with ye

Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fit

Since 1994 when I bought it used, I've driven a 1992 Chevy Lumina. I got it with about 78,000 miles on it, and it last week flipped over 200,000. (Today, it's about 220,218.)

I've toyed over the years with buying a new or used car, but it never seemed the right time: not enough money, shaky job, no job. Recently, though, my job has proven itself to be steady and supportive and my car has over the last year had its water pump, battery, and starter replaced, and new tires are in the near future.

My old boss used to say that you could handle only so many crises at one time and you don't want your car to be one of them. Your car may have to get you out of a crisis, so that's one area of your life that you want taken care of. So, on the grounds that it's best to fix the roof before it starts raining, and seeing that ol' Lumy was going to turn 200K, I decided it was time to get that new car.

I set the parameters for the search as: it would happen in the second quarter of the year; I would go about it in an easy and relaxed manner; I would not let anyone, anything, or any event pressure me into making a quick decision; as much as possible, I wanted a low-haggle deal.

Ramit details his decision-making process in his sprightly new-car rant. I won't go into similar detail here, except to say that after driving used cars all my life, I was ready for a new car with modern safety and convenience features. Airbags! Keyless entry! ABS! Cupholders!

I threw myself into the process by first picking one or two cars to focus on. I started at the library with The Car Book 2006's list of recommended vehicles, moved on to MSN Auto's ratings, Consumer Reports, and other sites and rankings.

The Web has made car-shopping so different from the old days. Information is so plentiful you can drown in it. I find it useful to pick one or two sources at the beginning that I trust, then after I've got the lay of the land, expand my search radius to other sites.

I also wanted a way to track my online searches; this seemed like a perfect time to explore PBWiki. I'd had a free account for a while but hadn't really hit on a use for it; so I took this occasion to create a car-buying page that basically became my online scratchpad, holding the data I collected and ongoing notes as my ideas changed. I found that my del.icio.us account was also extremely helpful in collecting relevant reference links. (Look for the "cars" tags.)

Aside: I found that after I'd decided on a specific car, I really didn't need the PBWiki page anymore for collecting car ideas or links. Instead, it became a page where I recorded ongoing progress and data. I hardly ever refer to the car information now.

My online info gathering eventually rotated around Edmunds.com, especially its terrific user forums. Any car's make and model has its own dedicated forum area and so, in economics parlance, I was a free-rider on the enthusiasm and research of others.

And now--a digression on logic and intuition. At a previous job, one of my managers sent me on a research mission within the company on how our software was perceived; he was particularly interested in anecdotes, he said, even more than raw data. Anecdotes communicated. I found that, as much as MPG ratings mattered, I tended to read more closely the Edmunds.com forum posters, especially on their experiences and their problems. I paid special attention to those people who posted negative points of view and found them very valuable. As a former arts reviewer, I know that when you like something, you tend to gloss over its shortcomings.

I also remember an episode from "The Paper Chase" TV series when it was on Showtime. Prof. Kingsfield corrected a student who was making an incorrect but "logical decision" (this is from memory): "I have spent years trying to make students consider the facts and think logically. But there are certain facts--emotional facts, personal facts--against which the great god Logic is impotent." Emotional facts--I've always liked that concept. Logic has its domain and its uses, but it's not an all-purpose tool; like a knife, it's useful in specific situations and not in others.

In the comments to Ramit's rant, many people dinged him for not acting logically and hewing to his own financial best interests. They seemed to be accusing him of making an emotional, non-fact-based decision, and then backfilling the decision with logic to justify it. I suppose it depends on what you hold to be your highest priorities. It also depends on what facts you consider to be paramount in your decision making.

Psychologists have proven that every decision we make--political, financial, sexual, career--is first and foremost an emotional decision. That's the legacy of our lizard brains. No one can ever render a completely objective decision, because our minds simply don't work that way. Yes, we do use logic to justify our emotional decisions, and then remember or convince ourselves that the decision made logical sense all along.

So, how did I use intuition and logic to help me make a decision? I started out interested in the Scion xB, then heard a few anecdotes from acquaintances about the low-powered automatic version (I don't drive stick, sorry). I then moved to the Honda Element, which is the car whose looks I really liked the most anyway. Read the Edmunds forums and you'll see that its owners love it. LOVE it. I figured I would too--it was such a sharp-looking car. But a friend's mechanic said his customers were disappointed with its low mileage and that stuck with me.

I'd long thought of a compact SUV as being my next vehicle. I'm 6'3", about 220 lbs (as of today--I hope to see it go down soon!), have a tall torso, and wanted a car that I didn't have to crouch or scrunch myself into. I didn't want another sedan.

My intuition told me to try the Element but stay open to other possibilities. At the Honda dealer, I sat in the CR-V--my hair brushed against its roof. No go. In the Element, I had plenty of hair room and it felt like driving in Liz's old Astro van. The Element handled OK, seemed a little underpowered, but it's a 4-cylinder, what did I expect? I didn't get a thrill from driving it though. And the reports from owners that they were averaging about 20 MPG really gave me pause. Three or four years ago, it would have been OK to buy a car with that kind of mileage. But today, with prices nearing $3/gallon, it struck me as irresponsible for me to buy a car that didn't get at least 25 MPG, or better.

(I really didn't consider the Prius or any other hybrid vehicles; I'm sure they're great cars, but they were more expensive and I'm in agreement with their critics who say they don't make financial sense. I know people who love their Prius, and that's great; they made their decisions based on facts that were significant to them.)

I'd defined for myself that my next car would be mainly a commuter vehicle, running errands, the occasional long trip. The salesman steered me to a Honda Fit. It's Honda's "Scion-killer," a subcompact hatchback with estimated 31/37 MPG. Yes, I have to bend down a bit to get in, but the cockpit felt comfy and the car was just fun to drive.

Liz asked me what I meant when I said it was "fun to drive." Sorry -- I can't quantify "fun." But it became a significant personal and emotional fact.

Also, it's MPG ratings and its price impressed me. It's not without problems; the Edmunds forum for the Fit has a couple of threads on overcoming the car's shortcomings. But as others have commented, if you want a Fit with fill-in-the-blank, then buy a Civic or Accord or CR-V or Element or whatever. The Fit is what it is.

I also had to come back to what I'd always said about cars (my cars, anyway): they're boxes on wheels. They get me from here to there. I don't want to get emotional about a box on wheels. However, I also don't want to get angry everytime I fill up the tank. And since I'll be spending significant amounts of time behind the wheel, I do need to be sensible about the box's comfort and amenities.

I only test-drove two cars--the Fit and the Element. I thoroughly researched the Fit, took a second test drive with Liz, and made the emotional decision that this was the car I wanted. It fit my price range, it was fun, it was a counter-intuitive car for me to buy after years of saying I wanted a bigger car, blah blah blah. I think Liz is a little skeptical of the decision since I really didn't drive any Toyotas or other cars (and I have to say the Kias and Hyundais also had some compact SUVs I was interested in). But based on my reading, my thinking, and my emotions, it just felt like the right decision.

At that point, logic kicked in: determine the price, get quotes from various dealers, check insurance rates, etc. Logic is very helpful at that point in the game.

Fortunately or not, the Fit is a low-profit enterprise for Honda and the dealers aren't making very much. They all quoted me the Edmunds True Market Value price for the car, which I'd used as my baseline, and their final prices all clustered very close together. I dealt with these guys via email and it was very pleasant to take time to craft a response and not talk myself into a hole. I know I don't do well in face-to-face dealings, so having the option of email or fax gives my emotions time to calm down so I can think rationally.

So far, the process has indeed been easy and relaxed. I've got my financing and insurance lined up. I've not had to "armor up" to do battle with salesmen, an experience that others look forward to but that I never did. I've not had to factor in any emotional wear and tear to the cost of the vehicle. There are still unknowns, to be sure: how will the seat feel after sitting in it for an hour? Are the headlights properly aimed? Will I miss an armrest?

Now I'm just waiting on the car. Given increasing demand and short supply, waiting for the Fit in my color (Blaze Orange Metallic) may mean waiting till August. My logical self is telling my increasingly antsy emotional self that it's character-building to delay gratification. But it's a hard sell.

Addendum: My Fit arrived on July 27 and I'm really enjoying it. I donated the Lumina to TROSA and that went OK. Before donating the Lumina, it got a good washing at the Durham Ritz car wash; it was the least I could do for a car that served me well for so many years. When I took ownership of the Fit, the business manager said that if you ordered some Fit models today, it might be December before they arrived.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Best paragraph I've read today

At the end of Sam Jardison's list of Top 10 books on cults and religious extremists comes this rather startling plot summary:

"10. The Bible Eyes of fire, seas of blood, rivers of tears, scarlet beasts, plagues of locusts, pealing trumpets, bottomless pits, mass murder and mayhem. Now this is a crazy book."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Poetry Daily: From "Epitaphs"

I like reading Poetry Daily (wish it had a proper RSS feed). I'll sometimes print out poems I like and put them in my Poetry folder to pull out and marvel.

This poem, by Abraham Sutzkever (translated by Jacqueline Osherow) stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of how poetry differs from prose, how brief poems can open vast spaces.