Horses for courses

This is a snippet of John Siracusa’s longish piece on e-books, which I haven’t finished yet (but I can tell you that it’s considerably more than an “e-books are the future” rant).

“Books will never go away.” True! Horses have not gone away either.

“Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.” True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.

“Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.” True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

USGS historical maps

The USGS has a nice collection of scanned historical maps of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here’s the one I was after, a c1902 map of the area where I now live.


These maps are available in medium-resolution JPEGs (this one at 1600×2161) and higher-resolution MrSID files (this one at 6614×8933). Mac users can use a free plugin for GraphicConverter to view and convert MrSID files.

Phil Greenspun likes his new Canon 5D

A lot.

I reflected on the 15 or so Canon bodies that I’ve purchased since 1994. All performed flawlessly from the time that they were removed from the box until they were given away. All of the people to whom I’ve given Canon bodies are still using them with no problems. These are machines with motors, springs, electronics, etc. that are subject to vibration, impact, dust, water, and the other hazards of modern life.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and ask if there is an American company that could produce anything competitive to the Canon 5D. Keep in mind that Canon makes the CMOS sensor in its own fab. Canon writes the software itself. Canon designs and makes the lenses. An American company is lucky if it can handle a challenge in one domain; everything else needs to be contracted out.

What about Japan? How deep is their technological prowess? If they didn’t have Canon they’d have to supply us with cameras from Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony.

via Jorn Barger

The only warmth in my life is the toilet seat

I can tell you, from personal experience, that this is all pretty amazing stuff. The US is without doubt, um, behind in the field of toilet technology. Far behind.

BBC: The art of the toilet in Japan

FA5E6591-5A87-44E2-B188-1BB96AA372BC.jpgNo country takes toilets quite so seriously as Japan.

Machines with heated seats, built-in bidets and a dynamic range of flushing options are almost ubiquitous in homes and public buildings.

A poem recently published by a stressed-out salary man captured their comforting appeal with haiku-like brevity. “The only warmth in my life is the toilet seat,” he mourned.

But lavatories here can do much more than keep you warm. One even sends a tiny electrical charge through the user’s buttocks to check their body-fat ratio.

“To put it succinctly, we win.”

Congratulations to Sam Wang and the Princeton Election Consortium.

The Electoral College
Outcome: Obama 365 EV, McCain 173. The map (NE 2 not shown):


FiveThirtyEight: 348.5 EV. Error: 18.5 EV. 353 EV. Error: 12 EV.
The last-day Median EV Estimator for Obama: 352 EV. Error: 13 EV.
Our prediction: Obama 364 EV, McCain 174. Error:1 EV.
Closest: Princeton Election Consortium.

Individual state wins
FiveThirtyEight: 50 out of 51 correct, Indiana missed. averages: 49 correct, 1 incorrect (Missouri), 1 tie (Indiana).
Our prediction: 50 correct, Indiana missed.
Closest: Tie between the Princeton Election Consortium and FiveThirtyEight.

Google tracks flu trends flu trends

We’ve found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in your state up to two weeks faster than traditional flu surveillance systems.

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Trends. But can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.

During the 2007-2008 flu season, an early version of Google Flu Trends was used to share results each week with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at CDC. Across each of the nine surveillance regions of the United States, we were able to accurately estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports.


This graph shows five years of query-based flu estimates for the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, compared against influenza surveillance data provided by CDC’s U.S. Influenza Sentinel Provider Surveillance Network. As you can see, estimates based on Google search queries about flu are very closely matched to a flu activity indicator used by CDC. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Our system is still very experimental, so anything is possible, but we’re hoping to see similar correlations in the coming year.

CDC uses a variety of methods to track influenza across the United States each year. One method relies on a network of more than 1500 doctors who see 16 million patients each year. The doctors keep track of the percentage of their patients who have an influenza-like illness, also known as an “ILI percentage”. CDC and state health departments collect and aggregate this data each week, providing a good indicator of overall flu activity across the United States.

So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza.

For epidemiologists, this is an exciting development, because early detection of a disease outbreak can reduce the number of people affected. If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could emerge and cause millions of deaths (as happened, for example, in 1918). Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and — though we hope never to find out — pandemics.

Study shows how spammers cash in

Via the BBC:

Study shows how spammers cash in

Spammers are turning a profit despite only getting one response for every 12.5m e-mails they send, finds a study.

By hijacking a working spam network, US researchers have uncovered some of the economics of being a junk mailer.

The analysis suggests that such a tiny response rate means a big spam operation can turn over millions of pounds in profit every year.

It also suggests that spammers may be susceptible to attacks that make it more costly to send junk mail.

John Taylor’s Chronophage

A diversion, but an appropriate one, maybe.
The BBC:

“Conventional clocks with hands are boring,” he said. “I wanted to make timekeeping interesting.

“I also wanted to depict that time is a destroyer – once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.

“That’s why my grasshopper is not a Disney character. He is a ferocious beast that over the seconds has his tongue lolling out, his jaws opening, then on the 59th second he gulps down time.”

The Chronophage in action:

via /.

Update: The Love of my Life, whose wish is my command, requests a picture of the grasshopper itself.


Of arms and the man I sing

One arm, anyway. I’m the man in question. This collection of hardware came out of my right shoulder yesterday. The plate is about 4 1/2″ long; the longest screw 1 3/4″ (the longer ones went into the ball of the joint).

I broke my right arm in early December 2006 (orchard ladder, tree limb, chainsaw, whoops). The plate needn’t have come out, but it was inhibiting my range of motion, and after procrastinating for a few months, I finally went under the knife and got it over with. An outpatient procedure, by the way, albeit under general anesthesia.

All told, the hardware weighs a couple of ounces. It does not trigger airport metal detectors; it’d make a nasty stiletto. 

RSS readers

Anyone reading an occasional blog like this one, or indeed doing any significant blog-reading, really ought to be using an RSS reader to do it. It’s a little hard to describe just how powerful a good RSS reader can be, but fortunately they’re mostly free, and you can find out painlessly on your own.

Mac users should download a copy of the excellent NetNewsWire (go ahead; I’ll wait for you to come back). Users of other platforms, including iPhone and Windows, have other choices. Here’s a starting point; I don’t have first-hand knowledge here.

Safari, Firefox and I suppose other browsers also have an RSS subscription feature. They work OK for very limited use, and they’re better than nothing. Look for “RSS” in your browser’s help.

The basic idea of RSS (in this context; it has other applications) is that your RSS reader checks a list of blogs or news feeds on your behalf and makes it easy to see what’s new, and easy to read new material when it shows up.

You won’t look back.

Time Machine works

…and I am here to testify.

My (MacBook Pro) disk drive got flaky a week ago, making odd noises and refusing to do its disk-drive things (like read the disk). Last Saturday I carted it down to the Apple Store, where they agreed that It Shouldn’t Do That, and also agreed to fix my crunchy trackpad button, a long-standing annoyance.

I picked it up on Tuesday, restored from my last Time Machine backup that evening, and by Wednesday I was back where I had started. Well, not quite, because I had stupidly turned off the backup of my iTunes library, so I had to do some extra work to restore it. Don’t Do That.

In the olden days, pre-Leopard, I’d have had a backup, but it would likely have been weeks out of date. Time Machine makes it painless to keep current. If you’re running Leopard, but not Time Machine, go buy an external drive (you’ll find suitable ones for less than $100) and get right with the backup gods.

(A feature request: what I’d really like to do with my iTunes library is to keep a current copy backed up, but let deleted files expire from the backup after so many days. I listen to a lot of audio books, ripped from CD, that take quite a bit of space. Once I’m done with them, I really don’t need a backup.)

Better thinking through chemistry

Cognitive enhancement | All on the mind |

Provigil and Ritalin really do enhance cognition in healthy people. Provigil, for example, adds the ability to remember an extra digit or so to an individual’s working memory (most people can hold seven random digits in their memory, but have difficulty with eight). It also improves people’s performance in tests of their ability to plan. Because of such positive effects on normal people, says the report, there is growing use of these drugs to stave off fatigue, help shift-workers, boost exam performance and aid recovery from the effects of long-distance flights.

Via /.

Reading “unreadable” CDs

I have a longish commute, and I like to pass the time listening to audiobooks. I get them mostly on CD from my local library system, but because my commute is evenly split between car, train and walking, I rip the CDs to my iPod.

Unfortunately, library CDs are often not in the best shape, and often individual tracks are unreadable, or, as with a book I was ripping this morning, the CD won’t load at all.

As it happens, almost all computer CD drives these days are actually DVD drives, and a DVD drive is at best a compromise when it comes to reading CDs. It occurred to me to resurrect an old external CD drive from my parts closet (I used it back when my old PowerBook didn’t have a CD writer), and presto, all three CDs I was having trouble with on my DVD drive (and my wife’s DVD drive, an entirely different model) were readable with no trouble at all.

So if you’ve got an old external CD drive lying around, you might want to hang on to it.

(The audiobook in question: Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, which I’m listening to because I’m a fan of the narrator, Mark Hammer, and I’ve found Leonard’s stuff entertaining in print.)

Update. I meant to pass along another tip. I find that sometimes, maybe one time in ten, but erratically, the insertion of an audio CD wakes up iTunes, but doesn’t get mounted (or ejected, as can happen with a bad CD). When this happens, it can be difficult to eject the CD (because the system doesn’t recognize it as mounted); if you do manage to eject it, inserting it again, perhaps more than once, will eventually persuade iTunes to see it.

An easier and quicker solution is to run Disk Utility, where you’ll see an unmounted “Audio CD”. Select it, click the Mount button, and Bob’s your uncle.

Travelling Light

George Monbiot, in a nice piece on airships, points out a neat solution to the problem of hydrogen fuel storage:

Traveling Light
Even when burning fossil fuels, the total climate-changing impact of an airship, according to researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is 80-90% smaller than that of ordinary aircraft. But the airship is also the only form of transport which can easily store hydrogen: you could inflate a hydrogen bladder inside the helium balloon. There might be a neat synergy here: one of the problems with airships is that they become lighter – and therefore harder to control – as the fuel is consumed. In this case they become heavier. Michael Stewart of the company World SkyCat suggests burning both gaseous and liquid hydrogen to keep the weight of the craft constant.

I like the idea of airships as an alternative to ground transport–cars, trucks, rail. If you’ve ever traveled a significant distance by small plane, you know that the scenic opportunities are vastly better than high-altitude airliner travel. And of course no roads or rails are required.

Book me a ticket.

Mailx, a NetNewsWire style

Mailx is a simple NetNewsWire style based on Chris Clark’s Mail style, with readability enhancements. Thanks to Oliver Boermans for some of the ideas.

My aim was to display all the relevant meta-information cleanly, and specify enough leading to improve readability, but no so much as to waste too much screen real estate. It works especially well in Widescreen View (not surprisingly, since that’s what I use).

Download Mailx here, put the unzipped style in ~/Library/Application Support/NetNewsWire/StyleSheets/, restart NNW, and select Mailx as your style.

Update: thanks to Isaac for pointing out that installation is easier than my instructions: unzip and double-click; NNW will do the rest.

Update 2: I’ve added a bar on the right of blockquotes to make them more obvious when there’s an image on the left that obscures the left bar. 

Update 3: I tweaked the colors just a bit for compatibility with the rest of NNW’s appearance.

Update 4: I added a little left & right margin to images.

Try it; you might like it.

Here, for comparison, are Mailx and Mail. The font is Lucida Grande.



CSS Follies

Damn, but CSS is frustrating.

Over the weekend, I was designing a simple site, to be maintained by the members of our local Green Party without anyone having to worry too much about an over-fussy design. The idea was simple enough: a banner across the top, a main column of blog-like content, and a navigation column over on the right. For design purposes, the two columns were fixed-width, reflecting a design element in the banner.

The main column would have a white background and dark green text; the nav column would be light gray-green with the same dark green text. Oh, and here’s the rub: the nav column would be the same height as the main column.

Well, bud, near as I can tell, there’s no straightforward way to accomplish that straightforward design in CSS. The nav column ends up being too short, not extending to the bottom of the main column.

You’d think that you could wrap the two columns in another div, and make the nav column’s height 100%, but you can’t do that because the columns have to float, and that divorces them from their container’s height.

Yes, there are some more less outlandish workarounds. Something about a bottom margin of 5000 pixels, and negative padding likewise, or vice versa, or something like that. I don’t really want to know.

It’s crazy that you can’t do such a simple layout in a straightforward way with CSS. Don’t tell the Web 2.0 police, but I ended up laying it out with a table. Five minutes and it was done.

I actually like CSS well enough in principle. But the simplest tasks can become a royal pain. Who thinks this stuff up?

Safari Tidy

I’ve been using Safari Tidy for a few days now, and recommend it highly. The author says:

The Safari Tidy plugin is a small plugin that lets you validate the webpages you browse for (x)html compliance. The actual validation is done by Tidy. This plugin was modeled after a similar plugin for Firefox, which can be found here.

Download Safari Tidy here

I’m finding it especially handy for WordPress, both for my own markos, and for cases where WordPress’s automatic markup conflicts with my own. I assume that the Firefox version would be just as useful.