Mark T. Shirey (, May 2004 - Present

My Blog of miscellaneous musings.

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Nov 2009, #52

Engineering the Animal Way

Animal metaphors keep cropping up in Software Engineering and Leadership literature - they can be a useful tool for remembering some useful concepts.

Pigs and Chickens (and Quail) - The Agile "Scrum" methodology of developing software in 2-4 week "Sprints" makes use of a "pigs and chickens" metaphor as inspired by this old joke:  A pig says to a chicken, "Let's open up a breakfast restaurant." The chicken says, "Let's call it Ham 'n Eggs." The pig says, "I don't like that name - in that restaurant, I'm committed, but you're just involved."  Scrum teams refer to those who are "committed" to the implementation of the project as pigs (developers, testers, etc.) and those who are only "involved" (PMs, Managers, Business Analysts, etc.) are chickens.  In daily Scrum meetings, only the pigs can talk!  (This is reminiscent of the Six Sigma concepts of value stream, necessary waste, etc.).  Laurie Williams suggests that Managers should be Quail, allowed to provide information and ask the opinion of those who have not spoken up, in order to foster an informed diversity of opinion.

Starfish and Spiders - Spiders are centralized creatures - they can lose a leg or two, but not their head.  Starfish are decentralized - they cannot only re-grow a lost arm, some can regenerate a whole starfish from just an arm!  And for a starfish to move, one arm must convince the others!  The book "The Starfish and Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" argues that self-organizing, decentralized teams can be better than traditional teams (as in software development using the Agile Scrum methodology).

Squirrels, Beaver, and Geese - In the book "Gung Ho!" (which is Chinese for "working together"), the Squirrels fulfill the forest, they understand about making the world better through important, worthwhile work toward a shared goal, using values to guide plans, and sharing information with everyone.  The beavers fulfill themselves by being in control of achieving a goal, they want a playing field with clearly marked territory, they exercise good leadership and good following, and they have high expectations.  The geese represent the gift we give each other; they excel at cheering each other on with happy, enthusiastic, cheering honks - TRUE congratulations for measurable progress should be Timely, Responsive, Unconditional, and Enthusiastic.

Foxes and Hedgehogs - The "Good to Great" book relates Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the ancient Greek parable in which "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."  The fox seems like a winner - sleek and cunning, with a myriad of complex strategies to attack the hedgehog, who is dowdier and has just one big defense - rolling into a spiky ball.  Some people are foxes - moving on many levels, embracing complexity; others are hedgehogs - simplifying the world into basic, unifying principles.  Businesses need Hedgehog ideas.

Reptiles and Mammals - In "The Nature of Leadership", B. Joseph White says Leadership skills can be arranged in a pyramid.  The base has four characteristics: a desire to be in charge, ability, strength, and character.  The middle tier has a Reptile side ("cold-blooded", disciplined, economic sense, financial management, attention to detail, detached and analytical, etc.) and a Mammal side ("warm-blooded", nurturing, people sense, attention to context, communication ability, delegate, empower, etc).  The top of the pyramid requires innovation, risk-taking, an appetite for talent, the "helicopter view" (looking ahead, back, sideways) and the "sparkle factor" (charisma, presence and magnetism).

Also-rans:   Penguins on the cover of "Leading Change" (the melting iceberg as burning platform); Mice in "Who Moved My Cheese?"; Elephants as leaders in "Beyond Reasonable Greed: Why Sustainable Business is a Much Better Idea!"; Pigs as terrible leaders in "Animal Farm"; the O’Reilly zoo - Technical books from O’Reilly have taken Engineering with animals to a whole other level with 360 different "Animal Books" on software technology topics (see

"Animal", the drummer from The Muppet Show, though it’s not clear what kind of animal he is, might be seen as representing activity vs. progress, a topic that’s been on my mind lately.

May 2009, #49


In his most recent book, "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell concludes that IQ and ability are less important than circumstances, effort, and luck for outstanding achievement. He writes in an easy-to-read, pop-journalism style, with little math and lots of punch-lines, but he has the insights, anecdotes, and statistics to make his case. He endeavors to understand "success" the way sociologists came to understand how immigrants from Roseto, Italy formed an isolated community in PA with no suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, welfare, etc. - they have a powerful, protective social structure, health via circumstance, via community. We extracted 10 success variables from the book:
  1. Relative age. Starting school later helps, an "accumulative advantage" called The Matthew Effect (MT 25:29 "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." This is silly).
  2. Hard work. It can take 10,000 hrs of practice to succeed in music, chess, and software, which makes one wonder if they are related fields. He gives as examples: great violinists, Mozart, chess grandmasters, software standouts Bill Joy and Bill Gates, and The Beatles, who played 1,200 live shows, some 5-8 hours long, before making it big.
  3. Time and place. 14 of the 75 richest people in history were born in 1830s US of modest means (think Industrial Revolution). IBM made billions on mainframes, allowing many software tycoons born 1953-56 to make it big with micros.
  4. Savvy. Smart doesn't mean successful (the Mensa Paradox, or "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"). In general, the higher your IQ, the more education you'll get, the more money you'll make, and the longer you'll live. But once you reach a 115-120 IQ, additional points don't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. Chris Langan, "The World's Smartest Man", IQ 195, appeared on TV's "1 vs. 100" and won $250K (even though he believes that high-IQ people tend to specialize, think deep thoughts, and avoid trivia). (See the web for more on Langan and his Mega Society, Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe (CTMU), etc.). But Langan has had mostly bad luck in life and seems unable to converse with people about things that interest them. Is "practical intelligence" separate from IQ and measurable?
  5. Home life. Lewis Terman, creator of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, tracked the 1,470 brightest of 25,000 kids, but most had careers that could only be considered ordinary and a number were clearly failures. The best predictors of success? Family background, parent's level of education, and books in the home.
  6. Parenting. Parents are either "involved" or not. He claims that wealthier parents are often heavily involved in their children's free time (seems doubtful) and poorer parents may be intimidated by authority and not contribute as much (seems doubtful). Kids should feel entitled to speak up, ask questions, and customize their environment to suit their purpose. "No one ever makes it alone." Strong stuff.
  7. Culture and demography. Jews often have a cultural will to win. The Great Depression and WW II nurtured some people’s willingness to work hard and take responsibility, and many people looked for opportunities to do so.
  8. Profession. Success can depend on the level of competition and how "meaningful" you find the work. A $50K/yr architect has complexity, autonomy, creativity, and effort-reward that a $100K/yr tollbooth operator does not). "If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires."
  9. Inherited communication style. Polite, "mitigated speech" between pilot and co-pilot can cause crashes; they must "really communicate", encourage, cajole, calm, negotiate, and share info in the clearest and most transparent manner possible. High-power communication works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention, and it works only if the two parties have the time to unwind each other's meanings.
  10. Inherited Culture. Rice agriculture teaches complex life skills that hunting/gathering may not. Success is a function of persistence and doggedness. Compare Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs: Russians are fatalistic; Chinese believe hard work, shrewd planning, and self-reliance or cooperation will pay. Success is foretold by how hard students are willing to work. KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program), kids spend 50-60% more time learning and 80% go to college; they use the SSLANT protocol - smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when spoken to, track with your eyes.

"Outliers are products of history and community, of legacy and opportunity. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious - it is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky, but all critical to making them who they are." Gladwell seems to say that Outlier-level success is outside of our control.

"In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em." - William Shakespeare, "Twelfth Night" (Act I, Scene V), Malvolio reading a letter

Maybe we should aspire to a lower level of success.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." - William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar" (Act I, Scene II), Caesar speaking

Nov 2008, #42

Read My Bits - No Dull Axes

When Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, I spent an hour at the Reference Library looking for a word for "female cuckold" and found none. The 2008 book "Reading the OED" reveals that the OED has many words for cuckold - actaeon, becco, half-moon, hoddy-poddy, summer-bird, and wittol. Only one word is listed in the OED for a woman who has an unfaithful husband: cuckquean.

"If Budweiser is made by a different country, I don't drink Budweiser anymore. I'll go back to Wild Turkey." - Jordan Moore, 21-year-old resident of St. Louis, Mo., on the $52 billion sale of iconic American brewery Anheuser-Busch to InBev NV of Belgium. Wild Turkey is owned by French Company Pernod Ricard SA. [Time Magazine, 28 Jul 08]

Many cultures share the idiom, "Speak of the devil [and he appears]". Some cultures (e.g., Hungarian) say, "Don't paint the devil on the wall or he will appear". Germans say: "Wenn man vom Teufel spricht..." (speak of the devil) and sometimes "Wird der Teufel genannt, kommt er gerannt" ("call the devil and he comes running"). Some languages/cultures use wolves or tigers instead of the devil; Spain uses the "King of Rome". These are my favorites: Swedish - "When you speak of the trolls, they stand in the entrance hall." Norwegian - "Speak of the sun, and it shines."

The government of New York City is going septalingual: English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole.

A recent ad for The Economist: Great minds like a think.

Steven Covey's 7th habit of highly effective people is to "Sharpen the saw". I thought I had found a good quote about "preparation" by Central PA football coach Joe Paterno, but then I kept looking and found various wordings and attributions:
The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital. - Joe Paterno
Everyone has the will to win. Few have the desire to prepare to win. - Joe Paterno
Everyone wants to win, but few have the will to prepare. - My improvement on the above
Everyone wants to be on a winning team, but no one wants to come to practice. - Bobby Knight
Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win. - Bobby Knight
The key is not the will to win... everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important. - Bobby Knight
The will to succeed is important, but what's more important is the will to prepare. - Bobby Knight
It's not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference. - Bear Bryant
To be prepared is half the victory. - Miguel De Cervantes
Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. - Confucius
If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first hour sharpening the ax. - Abraham Lincoln


Sep 2008, #41

Fish and Bicycles

A man without religion is like a horse without a bridle. - Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, c1621
A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle. - Charles S. Harris (U.S. psychologist), 1958
Man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle. - variation on the above
Vique's Law: A man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle. - "Murphy's Law" by Arthur Bloch, 1977
A man without God is like a fish without a bicycle. - graffiti c1961, Bethel, Alaska (NY Times, Aug 20, 1975)
A man without a woman is like a... fish without a tail. - "Silver Dollar", popular song by Jack Palmer and Clarke Van Ness, 1939
A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. - Irina Dunn, 1970 (not Gloria Steinem)
A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. - 1970s button / bumper-sticker
Asking if computers can think is like asking if submarines can swim. - Edsger Dijkstra (paraphrased), c1972
Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, I got to love one man till I die. - "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" by Oscar Hammerstein, 1926
Sharks gotta swim, and bats gotta fly; I gotta love one woman till I die. - "My Girl", by Tom Lehrer, 1958
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, but they don’t last long if they try. - "Pollution", by Tom Lehrer, 1965
Fish swim, birds fly, lovers leave, by and by... old men sit and think... I drink. - "I Drink", by Blake Shelton, 2003

"All I see are dead people." - Bruce Willis as James Cole in "12 Monkeys", three years before "The Sixth Sense", in which Haley Joel Osment plays Cole Sear (see-er?) opposite Willis and says "I see... dead people". James Cole was sent into the past, where everyone he saw was "dead" in his home-time.


Aug 2008, #40

Butterflies, Babel, and Snowclones

Andy Andrews wrote a book called "The Seven Decisions" and Decision #3 is to "Be a person of action", like Joshua Chamberlain's 80 men at Gettysburg who "won" the Revolutionary War. Andrews says, "Everything you do matters to everyone forever." Every move you make, every action you take, is creating the world that everyone else, and their descendants, has to live in. This reminds me of the Butterfly Effect, an SF story where stepping on a butterfly changes the future (based on Edward Lorenz’s 1963 MIT paper on the fractal/chaos theory of weather), and the Law of Unintended Consequences (and initial conditions).

The first (primary) pronunciation of "Babel" on is bey-bul, but I'm still inclined to add it to the list of words I will never say in public, or I’ll say "bay-bull, but many people say babb-ul" (another word on that list is “forte” pronounced “fort”). FYI, the advent of booksellers apparently led to the word "stationery" - the stuff that stationers sell.

After Penn State changed from a college to a University in 1953, President Milton Eisenhower proposed that the town of State College change its name as well. In a popular vote, borough residents were given two choices, "State College" or "Mount Nittany". The latter lost in a landslide. When National Geographic Publisher, William Grosvenor, came to State College to speak at Penn State on geographic literacy, the first thing he said to the audience was "It's great to be here in College Station". There are other school-named towns: Collegeville, MN; Collegeville, PA; College Park, MD and GA; College Park, GA; University Park, IA; and University Center, MI. University Park, PA is the campus address for Penn State’s main campus, which is surrounded by State College, the town. But University Park, MD is a town adjacent to the U of M, which is in College Park, MD. "College towns", whether named for the school or not, are primarily a U.S. phenomenon; there are very few in Europe, such as: Aberystwyth, Wales (Aberystwyth University); Cambridge, England (Cambridge University); Durham, England (Durham University); Loughborough, England (Loughborough University); Oxford, England (Oxford University); St Andrews, Scotland (St. Andrews University).

Labor omnia vincit, "Hard work conquers all", is the motto of Oklahoma and Bradford, England and "although not commonly used today it can still be seen on many Victorian buildings in Bradford such as parts of the Esholt Sewage treatment facility"(!) Elucet maxime animi excellentia magnitudoque in despiciendis opibus - Excellence and greatness of soul are most conspicuously displayed in contempt of riches. Nemo timendo ad summum pervenit locum - No one reaches a high position without daring (Publilius Syrus). Nulla avarita sine poena est - There is no avarice without penalty (Seneca). I suppose the old phrase "No excellence without labor" would be Nulla excellentia sine labor.

"No X without Y" is a snowclone (a popular pattern like "Got X?"). Googling "no * without *" reveals two types: observational, e.g.: No excellence without labor, No smoke without fire, no lord without vassals; and political, e.g.: No taxation without representation! No Congressional recess without lower gas prices! No reincarnating without government permission!

Voltaire said, "The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire." It was used on Saturday Night Live by Mike Meyers as Linda Richman in "Coffee Talk" sketches - whenever Linda would get upset, she would put her hand on her chest and say "I'm a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic." The topic would be like "X Y is neither X nor Y. Discuss." Examples: "The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut. Discuss." "Ralph Fiennes is spelled neither rafe nor fines. Discuss." "Duran Duran is neither a Duran nor a Duran. Discuss."


Jun 2008, #39

BookExpo America, etc.

I had a great time at BookExpoAmerica(.com) in the L.A. Convention Center recently. My Librarian friend took me (her personality type is ISBN); she cut down this year and only shipped home 3.5 boxes of free books to my 1.5 boxes (60+ books including some kids books for my niece). I saw many famous authors, plus Magic Johnson, Ted Turner, Alec Baldwin, Jeff Bezos, etc., etc., speaking at meals and promoting their books. I think they said it was roughly 1,000 authors, 1,000 media, and 28,000 attendees. I missed seeing William Shatner, plugging his autobiography, and Leonard Nimoy, plugging his book of photos of naked fat women. I did get signed books from and pictures of or with Neal Stephenson (Anathem, 900+ pages and a CD), Scott Adams (Dilbert), and Garrison Keillor (a CD about English Majors). One intriguing book due out this fall is "I, robot" (with a small "r") by Howard S. Smith, who said it’s "better than the short stories and better than the movie" (see After getting a free, signed copy, I asked the obvious question and the answer was, "You can't copyright a title."

In case reading about books makes you want to write a novel, this website looks good and includes 27 conflict "structures", aka plots or storylines: . Another site lists 6 basic plots: Boy Meets Girl (or Boy Meets Boy or....), Boy Saves World (or at least his little corner of it), Boy Learns Better (or Boy Grows Up), Boy Goes on Quest, Boy Goes Home (or finds a home that he might not even have been looking for), Boy Gets Killed (and probably never had a chance to do anything about it). Another site lists 8 canonical plots: The fatal flaw - Achilles, Innocent abroad - Candide, Dream comes true - Cinderella, Chase (the spider and the fly) - Circe, Debt that must be repaid - Faust, Gift taken away - Orpheus, Boy meets girl - Romeo and Juliet, Eternal triangle - Tristan and Isolde. Steve Kaess said that Gilgamesh started it all with its plot: headstrong guy gets exiled, has adventures, and returns... changed.

The American Numismatic Society (ANS) recently moved their hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars' worth of coins to a new home in New York City last week by making it look like an ordinary office move, with hidden police protection. The ANS is the "cointerpart" to the American Philatelic Society (APS) whose home is "stamped" in Central Pennsylvania. Sounds like the ANS might have more valuable stuff than the APS - An ANS rep said, "We didn’t tell our movers what the cargo was until the morning of" (instead of saying "until that morning", but I like it).

Here's a Central Pennsylvania-ism I'm not that fond of, while I don’t mind dangling the occasional preposition: "I'm going to the store; do you want to come with?" And did you hear about the father who went downstairs to get a book about Australia to read to his son? Upon his return, the son said, "Daddy, what’d you bring this book I didn’t want to be read to out of about down-under up for?"

Recently, Professor Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at Ulster University, said that many more members of the "intellectual elite" considered themselves atheists than the UK national average. A decline in religious observance over the last century was directly linked to a rise in average intelligence, he claimed. On a related note, one Central PA evangelical clergyman wrote that the official faith of the US is not Christianity, but rather Universalism or Secularism - the "God" mentioned on our money, for example, is not the Christian God, but a multi-religion, watered-down, "universalist" God. One reader pointed out that Secularism isn't a faith, "it is what is left when you remove religious influences from government. It is agnosticism toward faith and allows everyone to believe what they want without government interference. Ideally it means government makes decisions based on reason and logic, instead of what a holy book or a holy person says." Amen.

My 4yo niece (now 5) misunderstood "Last one there's a rotten egg." She'd RUN and get there first and say, "I'm a rotten egg! I'm a rotten egg!"

Joe Bach's wife was Helen, and fugue fans may be shocked, but his music's good, I'm tellin' ya, 'cause he'd been to Helen Bach.

Despite the equinoxes, I’ve always felt summer was June, July, and August (4 seasons, 3 months each!). Also "evening" begins at 5pm - I can't believe people disagree about this.

"A dime a dozen" is about $.0083 each.

When I was in an Irish pub in Watford near London, I was much relieved to find out that the English-Irish guy next to me couldn't understand the Scottish bartender either. Someone later told me, "Eee raight mann, ye kanna noe wat a skott sayss eef ya not skott yersel."

World’s Shortest Joke: Pretentious? Moi?

No joke: Along the coastline of Peru and Chile are offshore islands where, over the centuries, guano has grown into large deposits, often 100 to 140 feet deep.


May 2008, #38

Central Pennsylvania and Books

William Penn was the author of more than 100 books and pamphlets, mostly about religious toleration, and Central Pennsylvania (roughly the center third of the state between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) has been home to many writers.

James A. Michener was born in Doylestown, but didn't write his first novel until age 40 (it won the Pulitzer Prize). Bestseller Dean Ray Koontz is from Harrisburg; he was born in Everett and went to Shippensburg State Teachers College (now SUP). John O'Hara was born in Pottsville; his real-life author's office-study was moved in toto, and is preserved in original condition at Penn State's Pattee Library and Paterno Library ("Patteeno", I call it). (No word on Toto's condition.) Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (originally called Catch-17) was written while he was in Central PA. John Updike and Wallace Stevens were born in or near Reading. Updike included Reading in his books, but called it "Alton", PA.

There's lots of Science Fiction and Fantasy going on in Central PA (writing, I mean). James Morrow is my favorite author currently living in Central PA and one of my favorite authors, period (semicolon); he's won the Hugo and Nebula awards. H. Beam Piper, a novelist and SF author, lived and wrote in Williamsport until his death in 1964. Nancy Springer, another science fiction and fantasy author, was a long-time resident of York County. Barry Longyear was a Harrisburg native and won Hugo and Nebula awards for his SF book "Enemy Mine".

Pierce Butler was best known for his books on librarianship and lived in the metropolis of Blossburg where he wrote and worked as a preacher.

Rural legend has it Edgar Allen Poe visited the Eutaw House inn (now closed) in Potter's Mills, but it does not appear that nearby Poe Paddy or Poe Valley were named after him. Legend also has it that a major publisher offered to move to Reading, PA if they would change the pronunciation of their name to you-know-what.

The huge book operations Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Book Club (QPB) are headquartered in Camp Hill. The country's largest used book sale is in Central PA - the annual AAUW Used Book Sale has over 250,000 books and many thousands of people over four days in May. The books are laid out on tables (and under them), filling Penn State's Ag Arena.

Central PA was home to "Booksburg"! Ironmaster Moses Thompson built a small school near State College to educate his workers' families, and the area became known (informally) as "Booksburg". That somehow morphed into "Boogersburg" (never underestimate the power of pre-adolescent humor!) and the Boogersburg School still stands.

For more information about Pennsylvania books and authors, see these two "Literary Maps of PA" (the latter of which is actually hosted IN Central PA): and  
Next month, I’ll report on my trip to BookExpo America.


Apr 2008, #37

Study Shows: Many of Us Like What We Like

Challenged by a professor saying "I like what I like" at a party, researchers at The Pennsylvania State University (TPSU) recently completed a landmark, 10-year study that shows, not only does the professor in question like what he likes, most, if not all, of the study's participants like what they like, too. At a press conference on the steps of Patteeno Library at Penn State recently, head researcher Robin Cline Darling talked about the study and its implications.

"I overheard Computer Science Professor Noah Lackey at a party in ’96." Darling said, "He could not explain why he preferred blue cheese over sharp, or Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot, and he did not want to try other things. He said, ‘I just like what I like.’" Dubious, Darling, a Professor of Food Studies, immediately launched a pilot study with the goals of finding what foods and beverages Lackey liked and then determining whether or not he liked them. Following a subsequent, failed study involving animals, Darling spent 2-years obtaining permission to study human subjects other than Lackey. Enthusiasm for the research, and the importance of its possible results, inspired Darling and her students to expand the study to a full, representative sample of the population of people who claim to like things.

Subjects were asked whether or not they liked certain foods and beverages and then were given items they did or did not like in a "double blind" test, where subjects did not know what they were getting and researchers did not know who liked what or who was being given what. Almost to a person, the subjects liked what they liked. There were a few so-called "outliers", Darling reported. Due to the nature of certain test foods and beverages, the palates of certain participants, or vagaries in the wording of the survey questions, a few people reported liking some things they do not like, and vice versa. For example, one person reported liking something which they do not usually like. Another, after eating a few dozen of one item, said, "I don't like these anymore." These data points were discarded by the team as being unreliable.

But the main conclusion, that many people like what they like, seems to be borne out by the data and could revolutionize Food Studies. "We hope to get some government grants, and funding from industries that can benefit from our research, and continue exploring this, especially the temporal aspects." Darling said. "Are there people who like what they do not like? Do people like what they used to, but no longer, like? Do people like what they do not currently, but may in the future, like? Can what a person likes actually change? Are there other reasons for liking something other than liking it? Why are some people resistant to trying new things to find out if they like them? Can people be told what to like? Future studies could have an enormous impact on segments of business, industry, and society in general, involved in providing people with things that they like."

Spaham Granier, President of TPSU, echoed Darling’s comments and announced a major, new, University-wide initiative in this new field he dubbed Likeology. "When we realized that Dr. Darling's breakthrough findings about people 'liking what they like' in the field of food and drink might be applicable to movies, and perhaps even books, we realized we needed a multi-discipline Institute," Granier said. He unveiled plans for the Likeology Institute and promised funding for a Likeometrics Lab and a new graduate course in Likeonomics. Granier said, "We have enthusiastic representatives from every College and Department that deals with things that can be liked, except English."

Cindy Drummand, head of the English Language Department, is less than enthusiastic. "Let's get real," she said, "we can't have, you know, people, especially undergraduates, liking, you know, stuff, for example a certain kind of poetry or books, just because they like it. That kind of thinking could cause our culture to go to Dante's Inferno in a handbasket."

X's and O's

Online recently, someone nicknamed "camelion" (a 3-way animal!) coined the country-music song title "All My Ex's Are a Little Cross".

Every culture has curling; everybody bowls. There's bocce, Pétanque, boccia, curling, shuffleboard, lawn bowling, croquet, nine-pin, ten-pin, jacks and marbles, etc. Ancient Polynesians rolled stones at objects from a distance of 60 feet (18.29 meters) - the same distance as from foul line to headpin. My Mother's maiden name, Bolling, is an early English spelling of "bowling". Camper Van Beethoven sang, "Take the skinheads bowling, take them bowling." Barack Obama came to Central PA and went bowling; he scored a 34.

Historians often describe Central Pennsylvania's James Buchanan as "our only bachelor president," although he did live for many years with William King, who later became our only bachelor VP.
Car Talk (radio show on NPR) says that 334,912,740,121,562 is an easy number to tell whether or not it is a perfect square! Apparently all perfect squares are all 0, 1, 4, 5, 6, or 9 mod 10, so no perfect square ends in "2".
Some illustrations of Shiva, a Hindu deity, show 2 arms, most show 4, and others have 6, and one site says "Of course Shiva does not literally have 8 arms." "Restaurateur" can be spelled correctly with an "n", or NOT.
Jennifer 8. Lee is a New York Times reporter. She writes her middle name as "8.", with both the digit and the punctuation, on paper, but on her New York driver's license, it is spelled out as "Eight" (my middle initial is "T", but I sign it like a "7").
Alexander Graham Bell thought we should say "ahoy, ahoy" when answering the phone. "Hello" was an expression of surprise until Thomas Edison proposed it as a greeting.
Recent news items:
Turns out the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) really works; it's two 8.4-meter mirrors, which in tandem provide a resolution greater than the Hubble Telescope, equivalent to a single 22.8-meter (75-foot) telescope.
NASA has a plutonium shortage, which will affect future missions - the US hasn't produced plutonium since 1988, we've been buying it from Russia.
The age of the Universe is now known to unprecedented accuracy: 13.73 B yrs old, +/- 120 M; space-time is flat to within 2% error; and ordinary matter and energy account for only 4.62% of the Universe's total. "Some people might say it doesn't look a day over 6000 years. They're wrong."
The DNA in fossilized feces found in Oregon last month shows that humans were in North America 1,200 years earlier than thought - 14,300 years ago.
Zimbabwe started printing a $10 million dollar bill, good for two rolls of toilet paper.

Didja hear the one about: A Brit flying to Australia fills out the little form they give you to enter the country. Next to "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" he writes "I didn't know it was still required."

And didja hear the one about mandatory vacations? "I insist that each of my employees take at least a week off every three months," a manager said. "It's the best way I know of to learn which ones I can do without."

I'd like to write an article about the unspeakable - the not speakable; that which may not be spoken; exceeding the power of speech; unutterable; inexpressible; indescribable; ineffable, unimaginable. There’s also the unknowable - the not knowable; that which is incapable of being known or understood; something that is unknowable; the Unknowable, the postulated reality lying behind all phenomena but not cognizable by any of the processes by which the mind cognizes phenomenal objects.

Often we do what is expected and not what is right. May reason guide us to think, say, and do, what's important, timely, right, and true. - Mark Shirey (To quote oneself is pompous. - Ibid). This is Mark and I approved this message.

All that we are is the result of all that we have thought. - Buddha, The Dhammapada

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. - M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Recent "The Onion" headline: Diebold [e-voting machine vendor] Accidentally Leaks 2008 Election Results Early


Mar 2008, #36

Data, Information, Knowledge

Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? - T.S. Eliot, "The Rock", 1934

Information is not knowledge / Knowledge is not wisdom / Wisdom is not truth / Truth is not beauty / Beauty is not love / Love is not music / Music is the best. - Frank Zappa, 1979

Data are not facts, facts are not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not truth, and truth is not wisdom. - Anonymous

Information consists of data, but data is not necessarily information. Also, wisdom is knowledge, which in turn is information, which in turn is data, but, for example, knowledge is not necessarily wisdom. So wisdom is a subset of knowledge, which is a subset of information, which is a subset of data. - Jacques Steyn, 2001

Other paradigms for these layers of abstraction:
Information, knowledge, wisdom (Harlan Cleveland, circa 1982, apparently based on Eliot)
Data, information, knowledge (DIK)
Data, information, knowledge, wisdom (DIKW, aka Information Hierarchy or Knowledge Pyramid)
Signal, data, information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom
Void, phenomena, symbols, signals, data, information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, enlightenment, nirvana.
The world accoring to Mark: 
Era           Technology               Layer          Advancement
Pre-History   Awareness                Phenomena      Reality
Human Era     Observation              Symbols        Description
Civilization  Calculation              Signals        Measurement
1950s-60s     Data Processing          Data           Abstraction
1970s-80s     Information Management   Information    Patterns, Pattern Matching
1990s         Knowledge Management     Knowledge      Predictions, Expert Systems
2000s         Understanding Management Understanding  Ontologies, Weak AI
2100s         Realization              Wisdom         Reasoning, Strong AI
Sensors transform phenomena into signals. Signal processing transforms signals into data. Data processing and data mining transform data into information. Information Management transforms information into more information. Knowledge Management transforms knowledge into more knowledge. Politics and business transform information into knowledge into action. The progression goes from real to mental, from concrete to abstract. Some might say it goes from science to religion.
The Great Fire of London (1666) burned the homes of 70,000 of the city's 80,000 inhabitants, but only 5-8 deaths were reported. The Great Molasses Flood of Boston (1919) (when a large tank burst) flooded a neighborhood with a wave of molasses at approximately 35 mph; 21 dead, 150 injured.

A book someone recommended that I would like to read someday: "The Glass Bead Game" (aka Magister Ludi), wiki-p entry: Another book recommended: Lila, by Robert Pirsig.

Connessione... the recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. - Leonardo Da Vinci
"Sacrilege" and "religion" are lexicographically unrelated; "leger" meant "to steal" or "light", so legerdemain is "light-of-hand".

Accounting = Ledgerdomain.


Feb 2008, #35

Flying Cats

I e-mailed my hero Douglas Hofstadter about the anagrams I had found for his latest book title "I Am a Strange Loop". Doug replied with kind words about my doggerel, so I wrote another:
Owls are Flying Cats (Die Flugkatz)
"Eine Fledermaus" is German for "bat"
And some would say a crow is a flederrat.
Non-flying vermin surely must know that
An owl is clearly eine fledercat!
Apparently "fleder" means "flutter" (flugen is to fly and flugzeug (airplane) means "flying stuff"!). I thought this "flying cats" idea was original, but Googling /"flying cats" owls/ revealed: The Neocortex: Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Barbara Laverne Finlay, with "... evidence from which one may conclude that owls are "flying cats". Also, the Barred Owl is sometimes called Le Chat-Huant du Nord, French for "Hooting Cat of the North".

Please send me your thoughts, events, doggerel, etc. Friends, palindromans, countrymensans, lend me your owls.

Rogues are preferable to imbeciles because they sometimes take a rest. - Alexadre Dumas

You can fake nice, but you can't fake smart. - Mark T. Shirey

The world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. - Horace Walpole

Listen to what people say about themselves; they will tell you everything you need to know. - Mason Cooley (scholar)


Jan 2008, #33

The End of the World

When I went to England, I decided my favorite "football" club would be "Sheffield Wednesday", based on their colors (blue and white) and odd name (the day of the week they played back when they were a cricket club in 1820). Added bonus: their mascot is a owl and their motto is "consilio et animis", wisdom and courage.

"Panache" means a grand or flamboyant manner; verve; style; flair; also, a bunch of feathers or a plume, especially on a helmet. One website says about Cyrano de Bergerac: Differences in the translation is evident in the last line. Dying, Cyrano says there is one thing he will take with him. What is it? One translation says " panache," which is Rostand's word in the original and great if you have some French, but Hooker prefers " white plume." Either way, it is a romantic last line: "Cyrano removes his hat, revealing his heavily bandaged head. Roxane [sic] exclaims that she loves him and that he cannot die. But Cyrano draws his sword and engages in one last fight with his old enemies -- falsehood, prejudice, and compromise -slashing at the air insensibly. Then he collapses and dies, smiling as Roxane bends over him and kisses his face."

Trivia sans proof: Cold Portland, Maine is the same latitude as warm Monaco, Nice, Monte Carlo. Hawaii is the only state with no straight-line border segment. The Sahara is only 15% sand ("plateaus of coarse gravel cover about 70%. mountains, oases, etc. 15%"). Abe Lincoln's name came from the Roman's encampment in Britain called "Lindum Colonia". New Jersey got its name from England's Isle of Jersey which got its name from the Roman "Caesarea". Russia's trains and planes can cross 11 time zones, but train stations and airports all stay on Moscow time.

Smile: Happy days are here again, The skies above are clear again, So let's sing a song of cheer again, Happy days are here again. All together, shout it now! There's no one who can doubt it now. So let's tell the world about it now, Happy days are here again. Your cares and troubles are gone, There'll be no more from now on... Happy days are here again, The skies above are clear again, So, Let's sing a song of cheer again, Happy times, Happy nights, Happy days, Are here again!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti got a PhD from the Sarbonne, printed Ginsberg's "Howl", and at age 90 just published a call to arms in the war of poetry vs. complacency. He says we should challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy; liberate have-nots and enrage despots; and not cater to the "American Middle Mind" or consumer society.

Google Maps Street View now features 23 cities, including Philly, The Burgh, and Dallas. You can "walk" down the street, view buildings and homes from different angles, etc. Very cool. For example, on, search for "1229 Corporate Drive West, Arlington, TX, then click on the "Street View" pic that comes up. Look "up" to see the street light, look "down" to see the Google camera truck.

Sat 19 Jan 2008 marked the beginning of the 30-year countdown to the so-called Y2K38 bug, when Unix computers' time field will overflow 32 bits. Some 30-year loan calculation software might start having problems with this. One hopes they can convert to newer 64-bit computers in time to prevent havoc.

Some think they have until 21 Dec 2012 when the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, notably used by the Maya civilization, completes its thirteenth B'ak'tun cycle, signaling a major change in world order or a transition from the current Creation world into the next (i.e., the end of the world).

Speaking of the end of the world as we know it, I have three worries: 1) ubiquitous/ambient advertising - the proliferation of ads into every exposed surface and every sensory input (including The Sixth Sense - "I see dead people... wearing Adidas"), 2) over-acronymization (OA), aka acronymania, the trend toward acronyming everything, and 3) headlinification - the trend toward being so concise, cute, and clever, that we start to oversimplify things and write in headlineze that impedes real communication, e.g., I saw a headline recently that used "artificial intelligence" to mean "fake info from the CIA".

Favorite Poems

From a thread in an online "Arts" forum at (comments are from contributors): The Road Not Taken, Acquainted with the Night - Robert Frost (INFP's tend to like Frost); The Raven, Annabel Lee - Edgar Allan Poe (haunting, beautiful, romantic); Masters of War - Bob Dylan (extremely relevant today); Howl - Allen Ginsberg; Pigs on the Wing (Parts 1 & 2) - Pink Floyd; Do not go gentle into that good night - Dylan Thomas; The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - T.S. Eliot (teacher made the class memorize this); "somewhere I have never travelled,gladly beyond" [sic] - e.e. cummings [sic] (reminds me of my daughter); Is My Team Ploughing - A. E. Housman; Invictus - William Earnest Henley; Detroit Annie, Hitchhiking - Judy Grahn; The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Men That Don't Fit In - Robert W. Service; Casey at the Bat - Ernest Thayer (first poem I had to memorize for grade school); The Task - William Cowper; The Cross of Snow, The Children's Hour - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Bluebird - Charles Bukowski (another poet who paints very striking images with his words); Horatius - Thomas Babbington Macaulay (the first poem I read because I wanted to); High Flight - John Gillespie Magee (a WWII pilot killed in midair over England just 3 months after he wrote this at age 19).

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body, then I realized who was telling me this. - Emo Phillips, comedian

Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. - P J O’Rourke

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. - William Carlos Williams

Nostalgia is like grammar: the present tense and the past perfect.


Dec 2007, #32

Strange Loops and Stuff

I just read Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop", a sequel of sorts to his Pulitzer Prize winning "Godel, Escher, Bach". Strange Loop is about feedback, self-reference, enigmatic stuff about the nature of consciousness, artsy pics of loopy things, his dead wife's consciousness semi-captured in his brain, and other interesting stuff. Using the Internet Anagram Server on, the best anagrams I could find for "I Am a Strange Loop", are: A Loop, Enigmas, Art; A Gal Remaps onto "I"; and Loop Again, Master! So far, the loopiest anagram I can find for "I Am a Strange Loop" is "Loopiest Anagram".

I heard Doug introduced to Penn State's Slavic Languages department as the only person ever to have learned Russian just so they could read Eugene Onegin in the original. He published a translation in 1999, preserving the Onegin stanzas, after having summarized the controversy about translating poetry (and severely criticized Nabokov's attitude towards verse translation) in his book "Le Ton beau de Marot" in which he discusses the difficulties and rewards of translating works (particularly poetry) from one language to another.

An old computer translation legend says that they put in "Out of sight, out of mind", translated it into another language and back into English, and it came out "Invisible idiot". "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" translated to Russian and back, came out "The vodka is agreeable, but the meat is rotten." (or other variation).

I see Bryant McGill has a World Poetry Translation Project, e.g., Seamus Heaney in German: (scroll down to see other languages, poems, poets).

Apparently true story, with photos on the web: A guy ordered a cake and asked them to write on it: "Best Wishes Suzanne" and underneath that "We Will Miss You". The cake came out saying "Best Wishes Suzanne / Under Neat That / We Will Miss you". I told a friend about this and she had one to top it: They had a co-worker who liked frogs, so on some occasion, they ordered a cake to say "Congratulations Chris" with a frog face, and it came saying "Congratulations Chris With A Frog Face". Be careful what you ask for.

The 20 standard answers in a Magic 8-Ball are: As I see it, yes; Ask again later; Better not tell you now; Cannot predict now; Concentrate and ask again; Don't count on it; It is certain; It is decidedly so; Most likely; My reply is no; My sources say no; Outlook good; Outlook not so good; Reply hazy, try again; Signs point to yes; Very doubtful; Without a doubt; Yes; Yes - definitely; You may rely on it.  So, it has 10 "yes"s, 5 "dunno"s, and only 5 "no"s! Be careful what you ask.

Bob Dylan's song "Like A Rolling Stone" was probably inspired by the 1948 Muddy Waters song "Rollin Stone" and the Hank Williams song "Lost Highway" which starts "I'm a rollin' stone" (D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back", filmed shortly before Bob's song was written, shows Bob backstage playing Hank's song). Some claim Bob admitted to friends and once in concert that "Like a Rolling Stone" was meant for his friend Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Dylan based the lyrics on a short story he had written about a debutante who becomes a loner when she falls out of high society. The Rolling Stones finally recorded the song on their 1995 album "Stripped". Rolling Stone Magazine named Bob's version #1 on their list of the greatest songs of all time (Nov 2004). A line from this song provided the title of the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan called "No Direction Home". Martin Scorsese is now making a documentary about The Rolling Stones, due out in 2008. No word if he plans to make another rockumentary called "A Complete Unknown".

BBC Radio had a story recently about a 47 year-old (yo) guy who pretended to be 18 online and fell in love with an 18yo girl in chat. They chatted constantly for months and then his WIFE discovered it and contacted the girl, who didn't believe her. Then a young co-worker of the guy became a rival for the girl's affections and the first guy KILLED him. Then police figured out the guy had actually been chatting with the girl's 47yo MOTHER who was pretending to be the girl the whole time. Einstein's Theory of Relativity in 4 letters per word or less:  

Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. - Jesuit motto

Give me a child for the first five years of his life and he will be mine forever. - Vladimir Lenin


Nov 2007, #31

Baby Got Books

To the tune of “Baby Got Back”: I like good books and I can not lie / Some other people may deny / When a person walks in with an witty, witty phrase / And a hardback in your face... / My Homer boys tried to warn me / But that book you got makes me feel I Odyssey... / Baby got books!

"I'm treading on new water." - John L. Shirey (my Dad) (it's a 4-or-5-way mixed metaphor, ok, 3 for sure: breaking new ground, treading water, walking on water. Someone suggested changing it to "I'm treading on new ice water" to add the "walking on thin ice" and "ice water" angles.)


Oct 2007, #29

Earth and Moon

Info from Robert Keeler, in the Chicago "ChiMe": NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 plaque designed by Carl Sagan, et al, shows rings around Saturn only (and now we know there are rings around three other planets), includes Pluto, and has an arrow pointing from the Earth, although arrows may be a hunter-gatherer artifact with no meaning to extra-terrestrials. When it was provided to them as a puzzle, few earthly scientists were able to decipher the plaque.
A joke: For our first Thanksgiving, my wife's parents came over for dinner. My bride roasted a beautiful turkey, which she brought to the table on a silver tray. With a very sharp knife, I carved it into lovely piles of thinly sliced white and dark meat. I smiled at my father-in-law, a well-known surgeon, and said, "How was that for a stunning bit of surgery?" He laughed and replied, "Not bad. Now let's see you put it back together." - Carl Ross, Monroe, WI.
Another joke:  A guy working on his car in the driveway spotted his neighbor the heart surgeon. The guy said "Hey, Doc, look at this engine. I open its heart, take valves out, fix 'em, put 'em back in, and when I finish, it works just like new. How come you get the really big bucks, when you and I are doing basically the same work?" The surgeon paused and smiled, leaned over, and whispered, "Try doing it with the engine running."

An IT term worth knowing: PICNIC - problem in chair, not in computer.

I see a sign that says "Caution - Small Children Playing". I slow down, and then it occurs to me: I'm not afraid of small children. - Jonathan Katz

We had just finished listening to an old Simon and Garfunkle tune when my young daughter asked, "Well, did he?" "Did he what?" I asked. "Did Parsley save Rosemary in time?" - Ron Pearce

Family should always come first, but we like our employees to think of us as family. - Justine Howell

Before we spend money on a new chandelier for the mess hall, shouldn't we find out if anyone can play the thing? - J. Stevens

Triviality: Esquire magazine’s Answer Fella says: There were six flags, one at each lunar landing site, and Jack Kinzler, the NASA engineer who designed them, says they’re still standing tall. "We painted red bands around the aluminum flagpoles and told them, "Pound it down until the red line that’s painted on there reaches the bottom of the soil - and that’s the way we determined how to safely put it in so it wouldn’t fall over." Whatever happened to the lunar landers? After exiting them to get in the capsules, they crashed the landers into the moon!


Sep 2007, #28

From Calculus to Kafka

Old joke: Two male mathematicians are in a bar and the first claims that the average person knows very little about basic mathematics. The second one disagrees and says that most people can cope with a reasonable amount of math. The first mathematician goes off to the restroom, and in his absence the second calls over the waitress. He tells her that in a few minutes, after his friend has returned, he will call her over and ask her a question. All she has to do is answer "one third x cubed". She repeats "one thir -- dex cue"? He repeats, "one third x cubed". Her: "one thir dex cubed"? "Yes, that's right", he says. So she agrees, and goes off mumbling to herself, "one thir dex cubed...". The first guy returns and the second proposes a bet to prove his point, that most people do know something about basic math. He says he will ask the blonde waitress an integral, and the first laughingly agrees. The second man calls over the waitress and asks "What's the integral of x squared?". The waitress says "one third x cubed" and while walking away, turns back and says over her shoulder, "plus a constant"!

An Alabama State Trooper pulled over a pickup on I-65. The trooper asked, "Got any ID?" The driver replied, "Bout whut?"

The complete OED traces the word "jaywalker" back to 1917 and labels it 'originally US'. There is a cross-reference to the word "jay", which has a number of slang senses including "a stupid or dull person, a simpleton. Also (as adjective) dull, unsophisticated; inferior, poor". So persons who stupidly ignored traffic regulations were given this compact name."

How Many Mensans does it take to change a light bulb? (Answers collected by Trebor McGale, Sep Western PA Mensa Phoenix): 1. None. Dim bulbs aren't "changed", they are humanely euthanized. 2. To hell with the light bulb, let's drink in the dark! 3. One to do it, and the other 99.999999% to read about it in the newsletter. 4. Thirteen: one to raise the motion, one to second it, ten supporters (all of whom must have changed no more than three light bulbs this year), and one Hell's Mensan to connect the socket to the flashing Christmas tree lights to start the disco. 5. Two: one to change it, and one with Internet access to mail the sordid details to everyone they know. 6. One: any more in one place would constitute a Mensa Event and need advertising two months in advance.

Famous Last Words (from the Jul-Aug Isolated M newsletter): I'll get a world record for this. It's fireproof. It's probably hibernating. I'm making a citizen's arrest. So, you're a cannibal. It's probably just a rash. Are you sure the power is off? Yeah, I made the deciding vote on the jury, so what of it? I've seen this done on TV. These are the good kind of mushrooms. Let it down slowly. Rat poison only kills rats. Just take whatever you want, this is a ghost town. It's strong enough for the both of us. This doesn't taste right. Nice doggie. Well, we've made it this far. That's odd. Don't be so superstitious. Go ahead and open it - what's the worst that can happen?

Dr. Mardy Grothe, creator of the wonderful, has a great new book and website, The book has a Forward by Richard Lederer (author of "Anguished English" and father of pro poker phenoms Howard Lederer and Annie Duke).

Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly. - Franz Kafka


Aug 2007, #27

Book Lists for Deserted Islands and Post-Apocalypse

What 5 books would you take to a deserted (or desert) island? What 5 books would you bequeath to a post-apocalypse society? Some ideas from friends:

Dan Weyandt - Deserted island: 1. Truly Tasteless Jokes, by Blanche Knott 2. Giant Book of Dirty Jokes, by Mr J 3. Outrageously Offensive Jokes, by Maude Thickett 4. The Mammoth Book of Dirty, Sick, X-Rated, and Politically Incorrect Jokes, by Geoff Tibballs 5. Insanely Gross Jokes, by Julius Alvin. Post-apocalypse, to make sure they live up to our expectations: 1. 1984, by George Orwell - What we fear will destroy us. 2. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley - What we crave will destroy us. 3. Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut - Human nature will destroy us. 4. Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End, by Lawrence E. Joseph - Regurgitating apocalyptic superstitions will destroy us. 5. Dr. Strangelove, by Stanley Kubrick, based on Red Alert by Peter George - Slim Pickens will destroy us. WHEEEE HAAAAA! (“Yes, I know this one is a movie, so it will have to go with a DVD player”).

Hein Hundal - Deserted island: 1. The Bible 2. The Annotated Shakespeare 3. The unabridged deserted island survival guide 4. Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics by Arnold 5. Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman or The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, by Roger Penrose. Post-apocalypse: 1. The Way Things Work - An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology 2. A practical book on Agriculture 3. Real Analysis, by Halsey Royden (calculus) 4. College Algebra, by Michael Sullivan 5. Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman. Also: 6. Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements, by Thomas L. Heath 7. Greek & Roman Technology, by John W Humphrey 8. Chemistry, by Brown, et al 9. Biology, by Campbell, et al 10. Metallurgy Fundamentals, by Brandt 11. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.

Mark Shirey (me) - Deserted island (I assumed I was trapped, but with room service): 1. Gödel, Escher, Bach; by Douglas Hofstadter 2. The Bible (interesting to atheists, too) 3. Complete Works, by William Shakespeare 4. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, by Merriam-Webster 5. Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, by ACBS Prabhupada. Post-apocalypse (need titles!): 1. Definitive math/physics/logic book (to jump-start science)? 2. Definitive How-To book (to make ropes, buckets, ink, soap, etc.)? 3. Taxonomy (names for plants, animals, anatomy, stuff)? 4. Our best medical book? 5. Huge compilation of failures (religion, superstition) and hopes and dreams?

Don Smart If stranded on the island: 1. American Practical Navigator: An Epitome of Navigation & Nautical Astronomy 2. Tom Brown's Field Guide Book Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants 3. Complete Book of Sushi 4. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. If on a sabbatical on the island: 1. World Turned Upside Down by David Drake 2. The Astronomy Encyclopedia 3. The Beauty of Fractals: Images of Complex Dynamical Systems 4. Sandcastles Made Simple 5. Complete Book of Sushi. Post-apocalypse: 1. Life After Doomsday 2. Tom Brown's Field Guide Book Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants 3. The Astronomy Encyclopedia 4. Complete Illustrated Kama Sutra 5. The U.S. Constitution & Fascinating Facts About It.

Cheater's List: 1. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 2. Wikipedia 3. Encyclopedia Britannica 4. Diamond Age: A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer... (an AI book) 5. The Neverending Story. Questions: Do you have to worry about survival? Can the post-Apocalypse people read English? Are there books that contain many useful discoveries and inventions? Might we do more harm than good, via the Law of Unintended Consequences, by breaking Star Trek's Prime Directive against "helping" fledgling cultures?


Jul 2007, #26

What Happens to Atheists When they Die?

Author Unknown (Wanda Wilson?), ~ Aug 1985
Q: What happens to Atheists when they die?
A: Their bodies rot in the ground.
Q: And their souls?
A: Atheists have no souls, all that remains after they die are the things they have made and done and the memories others who live have of them.
Q: And Christians - what happens when they die?
A: Their bodies rot in the ground.
Q: And what about a Christian's immortal soul?
A: Christians have no souls, all that remains after they die are the things they have made and done and the memories others who live have of them.
Q: But Christians believe devoutly that if they live a good life and accept the Lord Jesus as their Savior, they will have eternal life.
A: They are mistaken. No matter now strongly a person believes an untruth, it will not come true.
Q: But the Bible is the word of God and promises eternal life...
A: The Bible is one of many books written by men and women who claim divine inspiration to give their writing undue weight.
Q: But if you don't believe the Bible is the word of God the Almighty, where do you get the moral judgment to function in life?
A: It is time that we all stop insulting ourselves. All of the moral and ethical standards that exist today in all the cultures of the world were created by US, not some magical power or bogey-man. Let's start taking credit for all the great writing that has survived to the present - the writing of Confucius, the writing in the Bible, or more modern writings - they all have much to teach us if we remember they are the words of our ancestors and our heritage as much as our genetic traits come from our ancestors.
Q: But what about evil? Surely there is a Devil. Look at those awful things he has made us do in his name!
A: No, there is no devil. Again, we must grow up and accept the responsibility. Sure, it is more comforting to say that the Nazis were possessed by the Devil - how else could they have done those awful things, but that is not the truth. They were ordinary people like you and me - and what they did are examples of the awful things that people are capable of. It is important to learn from the past and not just attribute the evil we have done to the devil's forces of darkness.
Q: But if humanity is not here because God created us to worship him that we may have everlasting life, what are we here for?
A: We are not here for a purpose. That is a difficult idea for humans, but it's true. Whatever purpose humanity chooses to give itself, those are its only purposes.
Q: I find that very depressing.
A: I'm sorry. I know it's like finding out that there is no Santa Claus when you were young - there is a sense of loss and disappointment, but then you can start to be a part of giving gifts and add to the joy of the holiday. In much the same way, once you accept the truth, you will feel the pride of all we have done on our own, and the shame of what has gone wrong. Then you can begin to truly give to life and start humanity working together.

G-strings and Rollerball

We should call the search patterns we type into Google "g-strings"! For example, to find what happened in the 1200s besides Dante and a few corrupt popes, try the g-string: "13th Century" -Pope -Dante.

Larry and Sergey started Google when they were patrons of the Stanford U Library and are now digitizing the world's books, including 10 million volumes from the 11 Big Ten libraries (including Penn State) and the U of Chicago.

The 1975 movie Rollerball ( is about a gladiator of the future, Jonathan E, who wants to figure out who’s running the world and ruining his beloved sport (he’s an AynRandian hero, a talented individual vs. The System). The screenplay for the original movie was written by William Harrison, based on his "Rollerball Murder" story written in 1973, the year Larry and Sergey were born. In Rollerball’s "Library" scene, we learn that all knowledge has been digitized, "summarized", and stored. In the Computer scene, Jonathan E visits Zero, a fluid, sentient computer containing all knowledge (note that Google is named after "googol", one followed by 100 Zeros) - who has just lost everything that is known about the 13th century.


May 2007, #25

Observations and La Bamba

Some observations (original): You can fake nice, but you can't fake smart. You can fake being dumb, but if you say something mean, you're mean. Darkness is cause by _things_ coming between you and the light. People should try to be better instead of trying to be cool or liked. Honey is in the hive of the bee holder. I know a few words of ancient geek ("Hollerith card", "Flow chart", etc.). It’s "i" before "e" except after "c" and in WEIRD words like Einstein.

Trivia: What language(s) are "Þ" and "Ð" from? Answer: I read that Þ and Ð are Icelandic (didn't know there was such a thing) and Old Norse, and reportedly Ð is Turkish and Serbian and Croatian, too.

Guy flying into Australia has to fill out the little "immigration card". One question is "Have you ever been arrested for a felony?" He writes, "I didn't know it was still required."

A guy who loves kids starts chasing some down the street when they step in his wet cement. Someone says, "Hey! I thought you loved kids!" He says, "I love them in the abstract, not in the concrete!"

If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done. - Wittgenstein

I guess I should feel sad that I'm still going on bad dates, when, by now, I should be in a bad marriage. - Laura Kightlinger

Is it better to marry or not? "Whichever you do, you will repent it." - Socrates

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. - William Arthur Ward

How much Zen would a Zen master master if a Zen master could master Zen? A Zen master would master as much Zen as a Zen master could master if a Zen master could master Zen.

Nothing is easy to the unwilling. - Nikki Giovanni, Poet. Change the conversation to change the culture. - Peter Block, Author

Para bailar La Bamba, se necesita un poco de gracia, para mi y para ti y mi patria, y arriba y arriba, por ti sere por ti sere, yo no soy marinero, soy capitan. (To dance La Bamba, a little grace is needed, for you and for me and my country, and up and up, for you I will be. I'm not a sailor, I'm the captain.) - La Bamba (old Mexican folk song)


Apr 2007, #24

Acronym Findability

I used to work for PXDS (aka RTN-SC) on the TCS PPM CSCI and CMMI L3 SCAMPI. I reported to a CAM, a PM, an FM, and a PSWDL (pronounced "pee-swaddle", I kid you not). I was the LocSec of CPAM, so I got to interact with the RVC and AML about our RG, etc. These abbreviations are "initialisms" but are usually called acronyms, which are technically initialisms that are pronounced as words, like "RADAR". Are the ubiquitous initalisms in "modern life" wasting neurons and distracting us from real thinking? Or are they freeing up neurons and letting us think more quickly and about higher-level ideas? Do mental abilities increase with such initialism-decoding exercise or is the Shakespeare in each of us too distracted by alphabet soup to think and write well? Will online-isms like "BTW" (by the way) and "BRB" (be right back) creep into written and spoken English?

I love (I think every page on that site is great).

Record-setting "Jeopardy" champion Ken Jennings won millions of dollars, but he was shortchanged by $200 when Alex Trebek ruled against his response to the clue "This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker." Jennings' guess "What is a ho?" caused Trebek to sputter, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! They teach you that in school in Utah?" The correct answer was "What is a rake?"

A Scottish man broke the world record for cell phone text messaging. In just 48 seconds, Craig Crosbie typed, "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality, they seldom attack a human." - The Week (magazine), Apr 05

Movie alerts: "The Number 23" is a psychological thriller about a man who sees the number 23 everywhere after he starts reading a murder mystery that parallels his life. The crew said 23 kept popping up in odd places during filming. The director thought "This is my 20th feature, too bad it's not my 23rd. Then, while shaving one morning, he thought, "Wait, there were those 3 TV movies." An even BETTER movie is "The Prestige" - I had to watch it three times to get all my questions answered and I loved every time.

Book alert: Thomas Pynchon's latest book "Against the Day" includes the 4th dimension and Gottingen Germany, "a hotbed of mathematical theorizing". TIME says, "Kit is dazzled by Yahsmeen, a beautiful mathematician with mystical leanings. Yashmeen, meanwhile, is caught up in the theoretical wars between vector analysts and the champions of Quaternions, each with their visions of which was more real - time or space."

Seen on the web: "The Denialism school of crackpot conjurer James Randi in particular has again been attacking both the paranormal and alternative medicine. Which extremist group funds this man?" (see

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see. - Arthur Schopenhauer

Known until 2001 as Thomson-CSF, Thales ("TAH-less"), is a world leader in aerospace, defense electronics, IT and services. Thales is named for Thales of Miletus, the first known Greek philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. He was the first to measure the accurate height of the pyramids and schoolchildren today still study his theorems in geometry.

Top 10 Signs of Giftedness in Adulthood: The short version: 1. Qualitative differences in information processing 2. High sensitivity 3. Intensity 4. Multipotentiality 5. Idealism 6. Perfectionism 7. Need for autonomy 8. Strong entelechy (from Greek for 'having a goal') 9. Intense moral commitment 10. Global view

Do Parisians like the Eiffel Tower? "They say" some eat in cafes around its base so they don't have to look at it.

Favorite book of the month: Ambient Findability, by Peter Morville, Information Architect, web guru
Favorite website of the month: The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods:  
Favorite recursive self-reference of the month: This one.


Mar 2007, #23

Funny news item and correction

A Wed 21 Mar 07 Centre Daily Times (CDT) newspaper item entitled "Man charged with secretly taping sex" says that his attorney "at first argued the woman was at least partially dressed, claiming she was wearing a negligee." "No, that was him," the DA said, pointing at the defendant. (This may be the funniest thing I’ve ever read in my newspaper.)

Re: last month’s list of abbreviated place-names (SoHo, LoDo, etc.), Elaine Brody (Mensa Trivia Queen, author of the trivia quiz mentioned in A.J. Jacobs’ book "The Know-It-All") e-mailed to say that "Soweto = South West Township, not exactly an upscale neighborhood".

Muriel Hykes sends this internet humor: Ask a theoretical physicist her phone number, and she'll tell you it's a trivial consequence of Maxwell's equations. Ask a mathematical physicist her phone number, and she'll tell you it's a trivial consequence of Maxwell's equations with the appropriate boundary conditions. Ask an experimental physicist her phone number, and she'll tell you that so far she knows it to only four significant figures. Ask an astrophysicist her phone number, and she'll tell you it's on the order of ten to the sixth. Ask a hacker her phone number, and she'll offer to sell you a program that will try every telephone until you find hers.

Ayn Rand said, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." I wish she had left out the "his own". By the way, "Ayn" rhymes with "mine" or, as she put it, "I, with an n". She was born Alisa Rosenbaum - she based "Ayn" on a Finnish name pronounced "I-na" (perhaps "Ayna") and "Rand" is an abbreviation for "Rosenbaum" in Cyrillic (it preceded Remington-Rand typewriters, a debunked theory about her name). - info from This is hilarious:

Top books that made a difference in people's lives: 1. The Bible 2. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand 3. The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck 4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 5. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. A large gap exists between the No. 1 book and the rest; based on 2,032 responses from Book-of-the-Month Club members,1991, in survey co-sponsored by Library of Congress' Center for the Book

Data is like garbage. You better know what you’re going to do with it before you start collecting it. - Mark Twain

The plan is useless; it's the planning that's important. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

The "comp.risks" website,, has lots of great examples of lessons learned and preventable problems involving computers, technology, engineering, and life.

I met a Professor of Palynology, "the study of live and fossil spores, pollen grains, and similar plant structures". The word comes from palýn(ein) to sprinkle, scatter (akin to pálé dust, Latin pollen) - I vote we change it to Pollenology. He told me about my Kentucky Coffee Bean trees and how the seeds need to be scratched or punctured to germinate because they evolved to survive being eaten by dinosaurs, giant sloths, and such.

I think it's funny that, since "ensure" means "guarantee", "insure" means "protect", and "assure" means "comfort" - "Quality Assurance" should really be "Quality Ensurance", unless it’s just to comfort someone that they may get a quality product.

In the "Bart the Genius" episode of "The Simpsons", FOX TV, 14 Jan-1990, Bart swaps IQ tests with Martin and is declared a genius. STUDENT: Tell you what, Bart, I'll trade you the weight of a bowling ball on the eighth moon of Jupiter from my lunch for the weight of a feather on the second moon of Neptune from your lunch. BART: Well, OK. [The student snatches up Bart's sub.] STUDENT: There you go. [He hands him a grape. Everybody laughs.] STUDENT 2: I'll trade you 1,000 picoliters of my milk for 4 gills of yours. BART: Well, all right. STUDENT 2: Anything you say. [He takes Bart's carton and pours four tiny droplets into Bart's cup.] STUDENT 3: Uh, Bart, would you wager your cupcake against my---? BART: Save your breath. [Bart hands the boy his cupcake.] STUDENT 3: What do you think of the new kid? STUDENT 1: A rather mediocre genius. STUDENT 2: Yes, not very bright at all.

Robert Heinlein said, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Overheard at work: "While you're on travel OCONUS, redline the white paper, the conops, and the prop, make a WAG for the labor and a ROM for the material, and put some draft bullets on a slide in our pitch for the gold team. Touch base with me so I can give the Lead a heads-up unless you think it's too far down in the noise or OBEed. I got my tickets, so I'll meet you in the vault to polish our elevator speech by COB. You're key personnel on this effort, so don't play telephone tag with any headhunters!" - Mark Shirey

Also overheard at work: "Now they’ve changed their song and dance.", "I think you hit the nose on the head.", "I have a memory like a hawk."

A Wed 22 Mar 07 CDT Correction: "A video referred to, that showed him wearing a negligee, was taped when he was alone. He was not wearing a negligee in the videotape involving his wife. Due to an editing change, this was not clear in the story that appeared."


Feb 2007, #22

Texas and Nothing to Say

Facts about Texas (from a list sent by Bill Simon): Beaumont to El Paso is 742 miles; Beaumont to Chicago is 770 miles. El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas. The Worst natural disaster in U.S. history was 8000+ lives lost on Galveston Island, TX in a 1900 hurricane. King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island. Texas is the only state to enter the U.S. by TREATY (known as Constitution of 1845 by Republic of Texas to enter the Union) instead of by annexation - this allows the Texas flag to fly at the same height as the US flag, and may divide into 5 States. Texas has had six capital cities: Washington-on-the-Brazos, Harrisburg, Galveston, Velasco, West Columbia, Austin. "Texas" comes from the Hasini Indian word "t e jas" meaning friends. Tejas is not Spanish for Texas. Armadillos always have four babies - they have one egg, which splits into four, and they either have four males or four females.

"Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down" was apparently a graffito referring to the Dr. Bengué's Ointment (now Ben-Gay) 1940s tagline, "Pain is nature's way of telling you to slow down" (says Wilson Gray of the American Dialect Society). I like these, too: Cocaine is God's way of telling you you have too much money. - Robin Williams. Dawn is nature's way of telling you to go to bed. Getting fired is nature's way of telling you you had the wrong job. A sucking chest wound is nature's way of telling you to slow down. - Military saying. The refractory period is nature's way of telling to do something else for a while. Internal server errors are nature's way of telling you to go outside. Divorce is nature's way of telling you you have too much stuff.

I live on SoAl (South Allen St.) and I’ve been to a few of these places: LoDo - Lower Downtown in Denver; NeChe - Northeast Chelsea in NYC; SeaTac - Seattle/Tacoma area; SoBe - South Beach in Miami; SoBro - South Bronx in NYC; SoDo - South of Downtown Seattle; SoFi - South of Fifth St. in SoBe; the original SoHo - Somerset House palace area in London; SoHo - South of Houston Street in NYC; SoHo - Hong Kong tourist area; SoHo - Bejing’s Small Office (Home Office), SoMa - South of Market St. in San Francisco; SoNa: South of Narodni St. in Prague; SoNo - South Norwalk in Connecticut; TriBeCa - Triangle Below Canal St. in NYC; WeHo - West Hollywood. OK, I just made up the "SoAl" thing.

I was going to say something else here, but:
Blessed be the person who has nothing to say who refrains from giving wordy evidence to that fact. - George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans, author of Silas Marner, The Mill on The Floss, Middlemarch)
I have nothing to say and I am saying it. - John Cage (avant-garde musician)
One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say. - Will Durant
It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak. - Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. - Wittgenstein
He who speaks does not know. He who knows does not speak. - Lao Tsu
I don’t have anything to say; I’m just going for cheap applause. – David Letterman, 5 Feb 07


Jan 2007, #21

Normal Schools

I'm in favor of using the serial comma (aka Oxford comma), the one before the conjunction in a list (e.g., the comma before "and" in "a, b, and c"). Many newspapers leave it out, supposedly because it saved time/ink years ago. But it can be confusing if you leave it out, such as the old book dedication: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." It also helps because some list items may contain an "and": "I'll fill the cream pitcher, sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers." "My favorite color combinations are blue and white, red and green and pink and black." The serial comma is NOT used in Dutch, French, German, Russian, Spanish, or other main Indo-European languages!

"Antarctic" was originally spelled without the first 'c'. The 'c' was introduced in the early 1600s, most likely to conform more closely to its Greek ancestor. The spelling with the 'c' is now the only acceptable one, but it can be pronounced with or without the "c" (ant-arc-tic or ant-ar-tic). -  

The term "normal school", a school to train teachers, originated in the 1800s from the French "école normale" - the graduates of these schools, that is, the teachers, were expected to uphold and teach norms, or rules. The term is still used in China and in Europe there is the École Normale Supérieure of Paris and the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, although neither specializes any longer in teacher training. Somehow, many "normal schools" became colleges and then universities, e.g., James Madison University was: [VA] State Normal and Industrial School for Women (1908), State Normal School for Women (1914), State Teachers College (1924), Madison College (1938), James Madison University (1977).

Someone suggested forming a political party whose primary, defining value is intelligence, a party of research and reason that would do what’s smart. We could call it the Know-Somethings.

Control the language and you control the issue: death tax vs. estate tax, Government eavesdropping vs. electronic intercepts, global warming vs. climate change, torture vs. aggressive interrogation techniques, tort reform vs. ending lawsuit abuse, invasion vs. liberation, coalition partner vs. occupying power, sectarian strife vs. civil war, collateral damage vs. civilian casualties, surge / strengthening / augmentation vs. escalation, mission accomplished vs. victory vs. success, phased troop re-deployment vs. retreat / surrender vs. peace with honor. (mostly from Eric Effron, The Week)

"Do they wear a coat because it's warm and not wear a tie to keep cool? No, they wear a coat because it a socially accepted custom and they do not wear a tie to show that they are rebelling against the custom... A man who wears a coat without a tie is trying to fool us, perhaps not intentionally, and is not to be trusted." - Mensan J.B. Lankes, Jan 07 M-Tides

If I had more time, I'd confirm these items: Peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite. There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar. A shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes. The longest one-syllable word in the English language is "screeched". All of the clocks in the movie "Pulp Fiction" are stuck on 4:20. All 50 states are listed on the back of the $5 bill. Almonds are a member of the peach family. Strawberries are the only fruit with the seeds on the outside. Maine is the only state whose name is just one syllable. There are only four words in English that end in "dous" (tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous).

Do-It-Yourself Clever Quotation: X is Y's way of telling you Z. - Mark


Dec 2006, #20

Good luck? Bad luck?

Kurt Vonnegut came up with the idea of plotting story lines as good-fortune/ill-fortune over time. Years ago he said these graphs were part of his rejected PhD thesis and he discusses them again in his memoir "A Man Without A Country". Prototypical graphs: Man in hole, Boy meets girl, Metamorphosis, Cinderella, etc. He says "Hamlet" is a flat-line graph. Someone on the web explains: "The ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Is this good or bad? Hard to tell. Hamlet loved his father and is glad to see him, but not glad to be reminded of his untimely death. The graph is flat. Hamlet kills Polonius: good or bad? Well, murder is bad, but wasn't boring Polonius asking for it? The graph of Hamlet as a whole is flat, as are the graphs of all great stories." Take this "ancient Chinese story":

There is an old farmer who had an old horse for tilling his fields. One day the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?" Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this was very bad luck, except the farmer, whose only reaction was, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg they let him stay home. Now was that good luck or bad luck? ...Who knows?

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Hamlet, Act II Scene 2


Nov 2006, #19

Engineering Your Life

You can use mature Engineering practices to become a mature person and to increase the probability of success in any endeavor. Engineering uses Science, Math, English, and Civics (as they used to call it) to build useful things. One of the useful things you can build is your own life (your body, mind, family, home, education, knowledge, job, skills, hobbies, friendships, etc.). The way Engineers do Engineering well is to follow a process, measure its results, and improve it over time.

The American Sign Language sign for "Engineer" is "measuring person". Engineering is about measuring things: needs, goals, materials, money, time, designs, structures, systems, processes, speed, efficiency, etc. Every Engineering project (and maybe every life and every endeavor?) has a Customer, a Plan, Goals, Resources, a Budget, and a Schedule of the following tasks: Requirements, Design, Implementation (build it), Integration, Test (use it and measure it to see if it meets the requirements?) and Fix (by revisiting previous tasks), Sell-off, and Improve the process for next time. Some Engineering process ideas that could apply to your life:

Have a Policy - a statement of your beliefs or world-view and intent in life, some sort of directive that helps you make decisions. Steven Covey calls this "True North Principles"; some people call it "religion". Be prepared to change your Policy as you learn and understand. Have documented Procedures for things you would like to learn to do better over time. This gives you a "ratchet" effect of always getting better and overcomes your human memory and ability limitations. Have Enablers - books, friends, mentors, heroes, tools (e.g., mental/physical exercises, mental/physical diets). Document what you do to some appropriate level of formality (keep a journal or at least tell someone how your day went in some meaningful way). Plan what you're going to do before you do it and write down the plan. Know what other people's Plans apply to you (your employer's? spouse's? government's?) and how. Know what the requirements are for everything you must produce for someone else. Have an agenda or plan for any activity that is intended to accomplish something. Record important "action items" or "to-do lists" and have a way to track them to closure. Report to your superiors or stakeholders the status of scheduled tasks assigned to you and anyone that works for you. Document your work and life so that someone else could pick it up easily if you leave or die. Peer review, number, control, and backup all formal work products (deliverable documents, baselines, anything you provide to other people). Identify and involve the "relevant stakeholders" (your family?) connected to every task. Collect metrics on effort (hours spent) and size (pages read or written, etc.) for every task, so you can estimate the effort and size of future tasks. Make formal agreements with people if there's any danger of misunderstandings later (pre-nups? contracts? work authorizations?). Create and maintain folders of information about important things or topics. Keep an Engineering Notebook (a journal or diary) of decisions, agreements, important information, contacts, etc. Write down the criteria you use to make major decisions, select items to purchase, evaluate important risks and opportunities, etc., and write down the results. Take time to status your budget/schedule, test your life against the requirements, interface/integrate with others, collect lessons learned, etc.

Strive to be a "Level 5 Person": positive, calm, helpful, fact-based, list-making, checklist-following, measuring, process-improving, etc.

The Three Hat Game (or Three Hat Problem)

Three people will be sent into a room, each with a hat on their head. There are two colors of hats, red and blue, and they are assigned randomly. Each person can see the hats of the two other people, but they can't see their own. Each person can either try to guess the color of their own hat or pass. All three do it simultaneously and there is no communication and no way to base their guesses on the guesses of others. If nobody guesses incorrectly and at least one person guesses correctly, they all share a big prize. Otherwise they all lose.

Beforehand, the three people can discuss and decide their strategy. Can they beat the 50% successful strategy of having one person just guess "red"? Yes! How? (answer below)

Very Short Stories

Hemingway wrote a story in just six words ("For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.") and called it his best work. WIRED (Nov 06) asked SF, fantasy, and horror writers to take a shot at it. Some faves: “Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.” - William Shatner. “Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?” - Eileen Gunn. “Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.” - Joss Whedon. “Machine. Unexpectedly, I'd invented a time” - Alan Moore. “Internet ‘wakes up’? Ridicu - NO CARRIER” - Charles Stross. “Longed for him. Got him. Sh**”. - Margaret Atwood. “Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.” - Vernor Vinge. “It cost too much staying human.” - Bruce Sterling. “It's behind you! Hurry before it” - Rockne S. O'Bannon. “The baby's blood type? Human, mostly.” - Orson Scott Card. “To save humankind he died again.” - Ben Bova. “Tick tock tick tock tick tick.” - Neal Stephenson. “Easy. Just touch the match to” - Ursula K. LeGuin. “Time Machine Reaches Future!!! Nobody there” - Harry Harrison.

Answer to Three Hat Problem

Solution to the Three Hat Problem: They can win 75% of the time! Whoever sees 2 hats of the same color should guess the opposite color; whoever sees two hats of different colors should pass. The guesser(s) will only be wrong when all three hats are the same color and they will be right the rest of the time, 6 out of the 8 combinations. Try it with 3 people flipping coins and holding them to their forehead. With more people, can you beat 75%? Yes!


Sep 2006, #18

Most Recent Uncle Jim

Some say humanity's Most Recent Common Ancestor was around 1 AD. His descendants mated with every surviving branch of humanity and all other branches died off. Anyone of us could be the next Common Ancestor, if we have kids.

Can hummingbirds cross the Caribbean? (I was surprised to learn they might). Did JFK employ a hair-puller to prevent hair loss? (I swear my newspaper said he did). Is time discrete or continuous? (I read Penn State "proved" it discrete 15+ yrs ago). 7/14/06 Peanuts, re-run from 1993: Linus and Charlie Brown are sitting looking at the stars. Linus says, "Carl Sagan says there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and there are a hundred billion galaxies and each galaxy contains a hundred billion stars! Sort of puts things into perspective, doesn't it Charlie Brown?"
Charlie says, "I miss my dog."

The purpose of humanity is to conduct original research - everything else is supporting.

The Universe was obviously an open source project, otherwise it wouldn't have been documented so badly.

The current pop band "Death Cab for Cutie" got its name from a 1967 Bonzo Dog Band song title in the Beatles movie "Magical Mystery Tour".

"Bad boys, watcha gon, watcha gon, watcha gonna do? When they sudedongdong come for you?" WHAT?

Be mindful of the prayers you send, / Pray hard but pray with care. / For the tears that you are crying now / Are just your answered prayers. / The ladders of life that we scale merrily / Move mysteriously around, / So that when you think you're climbing up, man, / In fact you're climbing down. - Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds' "Oh My Lord"

Peg Shambo says that Ambrose Bierce was a great 1800s journalist and short-story writer of the American west, known for his legendary carousing with Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, most famous for his 1906 collection of satiric definitions, The Devil's Dictionary. He set out for Mexico in 1913 and was never seen again (he was rumored to have been shot by Pancho Villa or to have committed suicide in the Grand Canyon). The 1989 movie "Old Gringo" with Gregory Peck is a fictionalized account of him in Mexico as an old man.

Old Uncle Jim was always going on about the good old days with the lower cost of living. "When I was a kid, Mom would send me to the store with a dollar and I'd get a salami, two pints of milk, a dozen eggs, and two loaves of bread. Of course, you can't do that anymore with all of those video cameras around everywhere..."


Jul 2006, #17

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Will Appear

I searched for an attribution for "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." The best I could find was "Buddhist Proverb". I think it speaks to their notion that ultimate wisdom is passed through gurus, and that ultimate wisdom is wasted on the unprepared.

It might be one of the most important observations about the human condition. We are surrounded by data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, but it is only when we are able to ask the question that the answer "appears" to us. We are surrounded by people and things we can learn from, but it is only when the student is ready that the teacher seems to "appear".

"The truth knocks on the door and you say, 'Go away, I'm looking for the truth,' and so it goes away. Puzzling." - Robert Pirsig (quoted in Zen To Go, by Jon Winokur)

Tony Robbins and hypnotism seem to only work, or at least work best, when you believe, when the student is ready. I didn't know that google allowed wildcards until now; when I searched for the g-string (tm):
"when the * is ready, the * will appear", I found many variations (I especially like the last one):
When the student is ready, the master will appear. - book title
When the yarn is ready, the pattern will appear. When the princess is ready, the prince will appear.
When the explorer is ready the guide will appear. - Himalayan Saying
When the fisher is ready, the rod will appear. When the teaching is ready, the medium will appear.
When the rider is ready, the trail will appear. When the Venusian is ready, the Martian will appear.
When the traveler is ready, the path will appear. When the technology is ready, the artists will appear.
When the seeker is ready, the guru will appear. When the surfer is ready, the web-site will appear.
One New York Times article concluded with: "When you're ready to change, the right therapist will turn up."

Mnemo and Stuff

"Mnemomeme" says, "If a day was 3 periods of 13 segments, or 39 segments, with each segment having 39 portions, and there being a macro-level denomination of periods of 3 with larger scale portions of 13... what you end up with is 13 full moons a year, and one day for the sun. I suggest putting the day of the sun on the day of longest sunlight, but it's arbitrary, you can put it anywhere. He also said, "Mormonism is the closest thing we have left to a real Zoroastrian religion, and possibly the easiest way to understand Islamist extremism is to get cozy with Mormon ideas for a while before you tackle the Qur'an."

"Bravo!" should be yelled to men; "Brava!" to women. If the performance is really awful... yell "brutto/a" meaning dirty, ugly or nasty. - opinions on an editor e-mail list.

"If I understand Gödel, Tarsky, and Turing (as explained by Jacob Bronowski), then if you actually could specify precise rules for a natural language (axiomatize it as Gödel means it) the language would be rendered useless for much of human communication. Without the capacity to be ambiguous, it would not work." - Jim Kay


Fun with Holy Books

Many good atheists, Christians, and others love religions and holy books like the Bible. See or for many translations. See for many lists of verses.

Dan 1:11-16 has good diet advice, including "At the end of the ten days [of eating fruits and vegetables], Daniel and his three friends looked healthier and better nourished than the young men who had been eating rich food." Cor 1:19-20 has a warning: For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Isaiah 29:13-14 continues: Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.

A clergyman knocked on one door several times, but no one answered. He could hear noises inside, so he took one of his cards, wrote "Rev 3:20" on it, and stuck it in the door. The following Sunday, a woman handed him a card that said: "Gen 3:10". Ha!

I look forward to using Dan 5:14-15: The wise men were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Or maybe I should just follow Job 13:5: O that ye would altogether hold your peace! and it should be your wisdom.


May 2006, #16

Math and Computers

My friend Hein Hundal writes: "I have been thinking a lot about the rise of computers and the fall of Mathematics. It is commonly believed, and perhaps it's true, that mathematical education is more useful and important now than it was 20 or more years ago due to the rise of computers. My experience over the last few years leads me to question this hypothesis and here is why: Many times when I want the answer to a question that could be answered by mathematics, I find that it is much quicker to use a computer. For example, suppose I wanted to estimate how much money I will have when I retire assuming I have x dollars, save y dollars per year, and get z interest per year.

To solve this problem in the 60's, I would either a) have to solve the differential equation, which requires second year calculus and takes thirty minutes, b) roughly estimate the answer using the rule of 70, c) look it up in a book, which requires me to understand the book somewhat and know where it is, or d) bother someone else that either knows the answer or can do a, b, or c.

In the 80's, I could write the BASIC program below or something similar for a pretty good solution. This requires a 1 semester course in comp sci or equivalent and 10 min. X is total savings, y is savings per year, z is the rate of return on investments:

   x = 30;    y = 10;    z = 0.1
   FOR age = 41 TO 65
      x = (x + y) * (1 + z)
      PRINT age, x
In the 90s, I could have Mathematica solve the differential equation:
DSolve[ {x'[t] == y + z*x[t], x[41] == x0}, x[t], t]
This takes maybe 2 minutes, but requires 2 years of calculus, a copy of Mathematica, and a year of experience with it.

After 2000, I would just look it up on a website using google, e.g.,, requiring about 4 minutes AND requiring almost no mathematics beyond fourth grade arithmetic.

I have had other problems at work where a simulation or other software produces a pretty good answer quickly, and trudging through the math takes much longer. Also, many times I find the answer on the web without much effort. The benefit of trudging through the math is that I often get insights that I don't think I would get with simulations and sometimes I can write proofs. On the other hand, if I had spent all that time writing more simulations or reading publications on the internet, who knows what I would learn. (Here is a related URL about simulations:

In summary, what I am starting to believe is that as computers get faster and more networked, the value of math courses (algebra, trig, calc, and beyond) to the average person is diminishing. I also think the value of these courses for many engineers is diminishing. Hmm."


Apr 2006, #15

Books and Miscellany

Books that had the greatest impact, from a Forum on Books and Reading: The Bible, Jack London's Call of the Wild (emotional impact), John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath & Travels With Charley, George Fox - An Autobiography, John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Exiles", Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Will Hobbs' Far North (a book for younger readers but mature nonetheless), General Norman Schwarzkopf's autobiography, It Doesn't Take A Hero, Amelia Bedelia ("I never knew anyone could take everything literally!"), Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, as it got me studying Physics, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, not about motorcycles, A Brief History Of Time, and Calvin and Hobbes (same person), The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey, Travels with Charley (a second mention) "All over the US, we're all one body in this race, one leg tripping the other."

Ray Voet says he took a class in efficient reading in 1958 and improved from 300 to 1K wpm with 80% comprehension, and later 2k wpm.
The Napoleonic Code is the foundation of much of Louisiana's civil law. Quebec, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and many Latin American countries all adopted the Napoleonic Code. British Common Law is based on Roman law (and the US is partly based on British Common Law).
Is Latin America is called "Latin" because Spanish is a Latin language?
Renew! Renew! - what they shouted in Logan's Run to encourage the 30yos to vaporize themselves in a death ritual. Also what National Public Radio is telling their members right now.
I used to tear 8.5x11" sheets of paper into four "idea-sized" pieces of paper until someone pointed out how small my ideas must be.
Some Buddhists carry around a picture of a skeleton as a reminder that we are alive only temporarily.
Must we preface every opinion with "I think that" or "I believe"? Or does it go without saying? I think people who say "That movie is great!" or "Coffee is bad for you!" don't realize the difference between fact, belief, and opinion.
When Ted Kelly's family laughed at something his little daughter said, she replied, "Stop that noisy smiling". He thinks a comedian should call his show "Noisy Smiling". - Redwood Mpire News, Apr 2006
Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of everything is junk. - Theodore Sturgeon, writer
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. - F. Scott Fitzgerald [I think everyone does this all the time without realizing it, but I probably misunderstand his point]
I agree we need a better word than cyberspace... I suggest googleland. - Dave Rosselle, Snellville, GA
You lack analytical rigor. And so does your mother. - a PJ Mueller cartoon
Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member. - The Groucho Letters [1967], by Groucho [Julius Henry] Marx, 1895-1977, per Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
Alan Baltis explained to someone that James Doohan was Scotty from Star Trek. They said, "Oh, of course you'd know that." Alan says he should’ve replied "Funny, I can't think of anything that I'm certain you'd know."
L'esprit de l'escalier ["wit of the staircase" - when you think of something funny to say when you're walking down the stairs (when it's too late)] - Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Paradoxe sur le Comedien


Mar 2006, #14

Some Favorite Trivia

1. Where did the "&" symbol and its name come from?
2. Who was born as a result of the Immaculate Conception?
3. What does "ISO" stand for, e.g., in ISO-9000?
4. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
5. What are the countries in "Scandinavia"?
6. Puerto Rico is not a "state". What is it?
7. In what state is the easternmost point in the United States?
8. In what state is the westernmost point in the United States?
9. In what state is the northernmost point in the contiguous (continental) United States?
10. In what state is the southernmost point in the contiguous (continental) United States?
11. In what state is the easternmost point in the contiguous (continental) United States?
12. In what state is the westernmost point in the contiguous (continental) United States?

1. The symbol itself is an abbreviated combination of the letters ET, the Roman word for "and". Its name is derived from a spoken form of the phrase "and per se and". But there’s also this cute story: A printer named "Ampers" invented it to save space; it's "Amper's 'and'" symbol.

2. Mary. The Immaculate Conception, as defined by the Catholic Church (it’s not in the Bible), was what happened to Mary's Mother, when she conceived Mary to be "without sin". For some reason, almost everyone confuses it with the "Virgin Birth". For more info, see a priest.

3. International Standards Organization, but according to ISO ( it doesn't stand for anything; it's the Greek word "iso" for "equal". The name of the organization is International Organization for Standardization. They now claim they just call themselves the word "ISO" so it will be the same in all languages.

4. Isaac Asimov explained that if you say there IS an "unstoppable" force in the universe, then you are saying there are no immovable objects in the universe. So, it's a nonsensical question.

5. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (and sometimes Iceland, less often Finland) - "Scandinavia" (ancient Scandia) is the name applied collectively to three countries of northern Europe: Norway and Sweden (which together form the Scandinavian Peninsula), and Denmark. The three countries are so grouped because of their historical, cultural, and linguistic affinities. The term Scandinavia is sometimes extended to include Iceland, which is linguistically related to the others, and less often to Finland, which is not linguistically related. - MS Encarta

6. Puerto Rico is a "freely associated commonwealth" of the United States. Puerto Ricans share most rights and obligations of other U.S. citizens; residents of the commonwealth may not vote in U.S. presidential elections, however, and, except for federal employees and members of the U.S. armed forces, are not required to pay federal income taxes. - MS Encarta

7. Alaska (Semisopochnoi Island in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, across the 180th degree line, in the Eastern hemisphere)

8. Alaska (Little Diomede Island, Alaska or Cape Wrangell, Alaska)

9. Minnesota (Northwest Angle, Minnesota (across Lake of the Woods, completely surrounded by Canadian territory)

10. Florida (Ballast Key, Florida Keys (islands), not the monument at "Southernmost Point" in Key West, Florida).

11. Maine (West Quoddy Head, Maine (near Eastport, MA) - actually, the barber-pole-painted Quoddy Head Light (lighthouse) or "Sail Rock" which is 200 hundred yards out to sea)

12. Washington (Cape Alava, Washington)

FYI: The serial comma or "Oxford comma" (the last comma in "A, B, and C") is not used by many newspapers. A great example of why to use it is the book dedication: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."


Nov 2005, #13

Puzzles and Miscellanea

Q1: Can you figure out how to carry 99 apples in 4 bags, each bag containing an odd number of apples? My first answer was, "No, I can't."

Q2: Patty has some cookbooks. All but 3 are French, all but 3 are American, all but 3 are Italian, and all but 3 are Chinese. How many cookbooks does she have? My first answer, "Yikes, that's impossible."

Q3: Name four islands whose names sound like questions. The first one is "Hawaii?" (pronounced ha-WY-yah?). OK, this, from Paul Shuch, is more of a joke than a puzzle.

Answers below.


Jeff Bezos recommends the Alastair Reynolds SF books about Earth being destroyed by nanobots. (Time, 1 Aug 05). Revelation Space and Chasm City and Redemption Ark followed by Resolution Gap deal heavily with the idea and implications of nano-tech. Among other things, he predicts their use for medical and architectural purposes, as well as disturbing idea of a nano plague...
Director Rob Cohen says movie heroes shouldn’t flinch and they shouldn’t reveal any backstory. (Time, 1 Aug 05)...
Actor Josh Lucas moved 30 times before age 13. "I would lie in bed the night before a new school and decide who I was going to be. It would usually be based on someone I admired from the school before." (Time, 1 Aug 05)...
Alan Mann says in the Phila. Inquirer that hominids developed a lumbar curve in the spine to balance head and trunk to stand upright and walk, now 10s of millions suffer from back pain in that curve. Many women have too-narrow birth canals requiring Caesarians, our mouths are too small so must of us get our wisdom teeth removed. If Intelligent Design were true, we'd have the basis of a class action lawsuit. (The Week, 12 Aug 05)...
One should never push one's enemy to the point of despair, because such a state multiplies his strength and increases his courage. - Francois Rabelais...
Every man is dangerous who only cares for one thing. - G.K. Chesterton...
Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...
Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers. - Lord Alfred Tennyson...
Bad Week for: Your brother's keepers, when a Canadian man's body was finally found inside his condo, two years after he died. No one had noticed. A neighbor did say he occasionally wondered, "Where the heck is he?" - (The Week, 22 Oct 04)...
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth. - Mark Twain...
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children. - John James Audubon...
If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun. - Katharine Hepburn...
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. - Joseph Brodsky...
In the book of Matthew, Jesus pares the 10 Commandments down to 6, leaving out the 4 that emphasize formal observation of religion (not honoring other gods, keeping the Sabbath, etc.)...
Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. - Plato...
If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the ax. - Abraham Lincoln [cf. Steven Covey's admonition to "sharpen the saw" and use efficient processes vs. winging it]...
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. - Ralph Waldo Emerson...
Warning signs that a lover is bored: 1. Passionless kisses. 2. Frequent sighing. 3. Moved, left no forwarding address. - Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, in Forbes.

Answers to Puzzles:
A1: Place 33 apples in each of 3 bags and put all 3 bags in one large bag.
A2: 4
A3: Hawaii? Samoa? Jamaica? Staten Island?


Oct 2005, #12

By Fiat

My employer could issue a fiat saying I must use FIOT (their Formal Inspection Online Tool) but they can’t make me drive a FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian automobile manufacturer) or Fix It Again, Tony).
When did "reticent" change meaning from "reluctant to speak" to just "reluctant"?
Ellipse and ellipsis have the same plural.
I sit in my cubical cubicle and ponder my principal’s principal principles.
Did you hear that "gullible" is not in the dictionary?
Brevity is the soul of wit, but not, you see, the same as it.
Why is there no apostrophe in "Wegmans"? Their webpage FAQ says it’s too expensive.
If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life 
you have imagined, you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  You will pass 
an invisible boundary:  new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish 
themselves around and within you and you will live with the license of a higher order 
of beings.  
    - Henry David Thoreau


Jul 2005, #11

Pogo Wisdom

We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities. - Pogo (comic strip by Walt Kelly)
To dream the impossible dream... - Man of La Mancha (1972), lyrics: Joe Darion, music: Mitch Leigh
What is man's chief enemy? Each man is his own. - Anacharsis, 600 BCE
We have met the enemy and he is us. - Pogo

Whence "RADAR"

The Historical Electronics Museum in Linthicum, MD has an exhibit on "Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt" saying he called his display for radio waves "RADAR" (presumably in the 1930s). They have another exhibit called the "Development of RADAR Timeline" which says the term "RADAR" was coined by the US Navy in Nov 1940. The web is of little help in settling the matter: says: Watson-Watt coined the acronym RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging), in a paper he wrote in 1935 entitled "The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods". says:
The acronym radar, which stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging, wasn't coined until 1942, when the U.S. Navy started using it. is interesting:
In 1934, the Air Ministry asked Robert Watson-Watt to examine the feasibility of developing a 'death ray' using ultra-high-frequency radiation. This impractical request led to the detection of aircraft at long range via a cathode ray tube (CRT) display, which made it possible to plot position, altitude, and course... The first successful radar experiment in Britain was made in February 1935.
The Historical Electronics Museum also has a display describing how Raytheon's Percy LeBaron Spencer was working on a RADAR magnetron in 1946 and noticed it melted the chocolate bar in his pocket... which led him to invent the microwave oven, or Radarange.


Jun 2005, #10


A few notes from "Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" by A.J. Jacobs (see the recent Bulletin with AJ on the cover for all of the Mensa-related passages in the book). He's an Editor at Esquire and decided to read the entire Encyclopeadia Britannica and write about it. It's a mixture of interesting facts, personal anecdotes about his life and how this experience changes him, and philosophical "big picture" observations about life. Some quotes, excerpts, ideas from (or inspired by) the book:

A Middle Eastern potentate asked his wise men to write an encyclopedia, and every time they came back he'd say "Shorter, shorter". Finally they came back with one sentence summarizing the whole of human knowledge. The sentence was: "This too shall pass."

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. - The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:11

"Ducks" is vernacular for ducks and drakes (as in "Do Not Feed the Ducks"), "cows" for cows and bulls (as in "cowboy", "cowpie", etc.).

Samuel Johnson said great thoughts are of a general nature and poets should not "number the streaks of the tulip" (be too specific). Others have said that God, or the devil, is "in the details".

A stereotype is a type of printing plate.

Ian Fleming, who wrote the Bond books and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, said, "Never say 'no' to adventures. Always say 'yes', otherwise you'll lead a very dull life."

Ghandi's rebellious adolescence included secret atheism, petty thefts, furtive smoking, and worst of all, meat eating.

Glottal stops are when you say "glah-ul" instead of "glottal". AJ notes that "Those who use it can't pronounce it. Was it named that way on purpose?"

capitonyms - when capitalizing a word changes it, like Herb/herb, Polish/polish.

Miranyms (between two opposites) - concave/convex: FLAT, hot/cold: LUKEWARM.

Horace Mann, education reformer, in his last speech, said, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Wow.

jamais vu - false unfamiliarity (the opposite of deja vu)

Why do we say "lb" and "oz" for "pound" and "ounce"? Because of the Latin (Roman) "libra" and the Italian "onza". See  

Buffalo, NY may be named for the "beau fleuve", beautiful river. Or did Indians name "Buffalo Creek" first?

Newton's interest in the occult and action-at-a-distance helped him discover gravity.

Pythagoras showed numbers as shapes made of dots. The bottom row of a square number is the "square root".

We are born of risen apes, not fallen angels... we are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses. - Robert Ardrey, Encyclopaedia Britannica, "philosophy"

Everywhere, unthinking mobs of "independent thinkers" wield tired clichés like cudgels, 
pummeling those who dare question "enlightened" dogma.  If "violence never solved anything,"
 cops wouldn’t have guns and slaves may never have been freed.  If it’s better that 
10 guilty men go free to spare one innocent, why not free 100 or 1,000,000?  
Clichés begin arguments, they don’t settle them.  
    - Jonah Goldberg, Editor-at-large, National Review Online


May 2005, #9

F-words, The M-word, Miscellany

Feghoot - a pun-joke, e.g.:
A mushroom walks into a bar and the bartender says "We don't serve your kind."
The mushroom says " Why not? I'm a fun guy."

Some originals:
Two termites walk into a bar and one says "Is the bar tender here?" (bar... tender...?)
Two termites walk into a bar and the bartender says, "What wood you like?"
Two termites walk into a bar and one says "Ow! I think I broke my nose!"
Two termites walk into a bar and the bartender says, "Puh-lease; we've HEARD this one."

Firkin - Any of several British units of capacity, usually equal to about 1/4 of a barrel or 9 gallons (34 liters). Ask if they have a "Firkin Day" at your local microbrewery.
Filk - Science Fiction fan’s (they prefer "SF" to "SciFi") SF-related folk music, e.g., as sung and played by our own H. Paul "Dr. Seti" Shuch.
Fustian - pompous or pretentious talk or writing. ’Fustian’ is fustian, but ‘quotidian’ isn’t quotidian.

"Mensa" is pronounced MEN-suh, with an "s" sound, not a "z" sound. Mensa is spelled with a capital "M" and a lower case "ensa", not all lower case or upper case (despite American Mensa Limited’s common "mensa" logo and frequent use of "MENSA"). It is not related to the words "men" or "menses".
In Latin, "mensa" means mind, table, and month. See [now]
In Latin, "mens sana" means sound mind.
In Spanish, "mesa" means table.
In Mexican Spanish (a la American English) "mensa" means mindless, stupid, or silly.

Seen on a men’s room wall: "My wife follows me everywhere." Underneath: "I do not."
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. - Scott Adams
The first 40 years of life give us the text. The next 30 supply the commentary on it. - Arthur Schopenhauer
Boy’s pants come in waist sizes numbered by their age (4, 5, 6, etc.). So do some men’s (38, 39, 40, etc.).


Mar 2005, #8

I'm thinking of ex-citations

Most cited books in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index c1987:
  • Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Kuhn
  • Ulysses - Joyce
  • Anatomy of Criticism - Frye
  • Philosophical Investigations - Wittgenstein
  • Aspects of the Theory of Syntax - Chomsky
  • The Order of Things - Foucault
  • Of Grammatology - Derrida
  • S/Z - Roland Barthes
  • Being and Time - Heidegger
  • European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages - Ernst Curtius


Feb 2005, #7


Ken Riznyk asks if there’s a word for words like: emcee, deejay, and veejay (and I'm sure I've seen "teevee" used somewhere). says: "Initialism - An abbreviation consisting of the first letter or letters of words in a phrase (for example, IRS for Internal Revenue Service), syllables or components of a word (TNT for trinitrotoluene), or a combination of words and syllables (ESP for extrasensory perception) and pronounced by spelling out the letters one by one rather than as a solid word. Acronym - A word formed from the initial letters of a name, such as WAC for Women's Army Corps, or by combining initial letters or parts of a series of words, such as radar for radio detecting and ranging."

But Richard Lederer disagrees on "Grammagrams are RT words that, when they are pronounced, consist entirely of letter sounds. Words such as emcee, deejay, and veejay that are actually formed from letter sounds are initialisms, not grammagrams. Listen now to the FX of the most popular two-syllable grammagrammatical attractions: any (NE), decay (DK),... devious (DVS), enemy (NME),... anemone (NMNE), arcadian (RKDN), excellency (XLNC),... And the longest grammagrams are -- ta da! -- the pentasyllabic expediency (XPDNC) and obediency (OBDNC)!"

I think "MC" and "DJ" are initialisms, but "emcee" and "deejay" are an unnamed breed of word, words that spell out the sound of initialisms. homophone initialisms? homophinits? is great, but ignores emcee and deejay. BTW, FYI:

"Success depends on persistent effort, on the improvement of moments...
A great amount of time is consumed in talking nothing, doing nothing, and indecision as to what one should do."   
- Paraphrase of Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings


Dec 2004, #6

Movie Prequels, Movie Computers

A prequel, as probably everyone knows, is a sequel set in a time preceding the original. For example, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was set in 1936; its sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", was set in 1935. According to the OED, J.R.R. Tolkien and others claim to have coined the word. Best known are Star Wars Episodes I/II/III, set before, but filmed after, IV/V/VI (and George Lucas says he won’t get around to his original plan of VII/VIII/IX). TV does it, e.g., Enterprise, Smallville. Comics do it all the time, e.g., Superboy came decades after Superman. Shakespeare's Henry IV plays were staged after the Henry VI cycle. The movie list so far, with the help of Google and
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (the first movie to be called a prequel)
The Godfather Part II
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, Highlander III: The Sorcerer
Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels refused a sequel)
Red Dragon (both a remake (name the original!) and a prequel (to what movie?!))
Psycho IV: The Beginning, Puppet Master III, Hellraiser: Bloodline (both prequel and sequel)
Infernal Affairs II (aka "Wu Jian Dao", part of a pre-planned original/prequel/sequel trilogy)
Starsky & Hutch (2004) (ok, a prequel to the TV show; doesn't count)
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Batman Begins (coming in June 2005)

Joke movie prequels by Stephen Kramer from
Snow White and the Dwarf	9 to 4:59
The Undergraduate	Kramer and Kramer
The Jungle Brochure	Schindler's Item
Almost Out Of Africa	Private Ryan
Black Hawk	Dead Man Standing
Thelma	[Insert yours here]
My query about "rebellious, super-AI computers/programs from books and movies" on our Yahoo Group (URL on the Who's Who page) started with this list (can you name the computer/programs?):

2001: A Space Odyssey, This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas J. Ryan, War Games, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Terminator, The Matrix.

Muriel Hykes replied that she has the book upon which the Demon Seed movie was based and added "I, Robot" to the list.

Art Jones continued with the following interesting post:

One of the more fun movies I have come upon that features technology as a central character/theme is a 1957 Tracy/Hepburn flick called "Desk Set." It proves that having a computer as a central character does not imply a science-fiction genre.

"I, Robot" was very similar to "Collosus: The Forbin Project" but using some updated views of technology and a famous work for some name recognition among Sci-Fi fans. I thought the action and special effects detracted significantly from the underlying concepts that had been the focus of the book. The lessons were lost.

To add to the list: Lawnmower Man, Tron, Simone, Alphaville, Red Alert, Westworld, Terminal Choice, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Looker, Electric Dreams, Robocop, Terminal Man.

If anyone has a copy of any of these, let me know (Art Jones, via the Yahoo group, or see the Who’s Who page). I have been thinking about writing something about the relationships between humans, technology, and information using such movies as a platform.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.
    - Margaret Mead (1901-1978), American Anthropologist


Nov 2004, #5

Notes to Self

I recently heard the old "How I Met My Wife" bit on NPR's Car Talk ("I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado..." See ), so I decided put on my odorant and try to buy some licit drugs with feit money.

Alphabet Puzzle: What's special about the letters of the alphabet C, O, and S? [Answer below]

I advocate the use of the word "eddress" for "e-mail address".

I know a few words of ancient geek ("Hollerith card", "Flow chart", etc.)

Honey is in the hive of the bee holder. - MTS

Mark's Observations on Conversation: 1. You can fake nice, but you can't fake smart. 2. You can fake dumb, but if you say something mean, you're mean.

Darkness is cause by _things_ coming between you and the light. - MTS

People should try to better themselves and be good instead of trying to impress others and be cool.

Be aware of who annoys you and why; this is how you learn the most about yourself.

"There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilocus which says, 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'" – Isaiah Berlin in his 1953 essay on Tolstoy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox". As examples of hedgehogs, those who understand the world in terms of a single central vision, Berlin gave Dante, Plato, Hegel, and Proust. As examples of foxes, those who have a pluralist vision of the world, he gave Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe, and Joyce.

Tobacco - a stimulant people take to relax. Alcohol - a depressant people take to "party". - MTS

Things overheard at work: I have a memory like a hawk. I think you've hit the nose on the head. Now they've changed their song and dance.

Answer to the Alphabet Puzzle: They are the only letters which do not contain any straight lines.


Oct 2004, #4

Digital Clock Puzzle and Words to the Wise

A true story and original puzzle (c)2004 Mark T. Shirey:
I turned my digital alarm clock upside down. How many times a day does it still read the right time? (e.g., not at 1:11 because then it reads 11:1) [Answer below]

quiddity - the real nature of a thing; the essence, or a hairsplitting distinction; a quibble.

retronym - a new word or phrase coined for an old object or concept whose original name became used for something else, or was no longer unique, e.g., analog watch, manual typewriter, World War I.

Answer to "Digital Clock Puzzle": 6 times (10:01 AM / PM, 11:11 AM / PM, and 12:21 AM / PM).
Now do it for "military time" where the hours go to 24!


Aug 2004, #3

The Hokey Pokey (that is the essence of the situation)

I saw a T-shirt recently that said "What if the Hokey Pokey really IS what it’s all about?"
In his "Frankly Speaking" column in the State College "Centre Daily Times" (13 Feb 2000), Russell Frank said that the lyrics of the children's "Hokey Pokey" song and their ritual enactment in the dance are nothing less than a call to action. It concludes with:
   You put your whole self in, you put your whole self out
   You put your whole self in and you shake it all about
   You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around
   That's what it's all about.
"Cast aside inhibition and plunge into the waters of life," Russell summarized. He later printed a response from Steve Kochersperger, a local Postmaster and ISKCON (Hare Krishna) devotee:

"Your recent column on the Hokey Pokey reminded me of my own experience in India about seven years ago as part of a Rotary Club Group Study Exchange. The ever-gracious Indian hosts would entertain us with centuries-old dramas, songs, and dances in which every gesture was rich with nuance, deep philosophy, and the sum total of human emotion. Afterwards, they would request some performance of 'American culture' (is that an oxymoron?). Our repertoire was limited to the 'Star Spangled Banner' and the Hokey Pokey. At one performance at Kotdwara, in the foothills of the Himalayas, so few of the audience understood English that a running translation to Hindi was needed. I was very curious if our anthem of self-actualization lost anything in translation, so I asked my host to translate back into English the Hindi translation the audience was hearing.

As a half-dozen uncoordinated Americans gyrated in our highest form of cultural expression, our Indian friends solemnly watched and listened to these [very Hindu-sounding] words:

   One must insert one's entire being, withdraw one's entire being
   Reinsert one's entire being, then vibrate one's entire being
   One performs the Hokey Pokey while rotating in a circular manner
   That is the essence of the situation.
I watched the faces of the audience as they heard this translation. They were nodding knowingly. Apparently they already understood the essence of the situation."


Jun 2004, #2

Mark, My Words

I just read an article about dictionaries ( which inspired me to dust off some words I've learned. Talking to lexophiles has increased my savoir faire and my vocabulary. Pronunciation (aka "pronounce-iation") is important, too - I disdain conversations like "Djeet yet? No, djew? No, wonko eat?" I cringe at the televangelist (don't ask me why I was listening to him) who said "Then God told Noah those three simple words: 'Iz goh rain!'"

Martha Hummel, of Pine Grove Mills, always has some great words handy from her years as an editor of grad school theses. She can talk knowledgably about "boustrophedonic palimpsests". The first time I met Muriel Hykes, of Cogan Station (near Williamsport), she informed me that "forte" properly has only one syllable when used to mean "strength", so I never use the word anymore. I've since learned that "naïveté" should be pronounced with only three syllables. (By the way, have you heard that "gullible" is not in the dictionary?!).

Art Jones's Book Chats near Bellefonte lead me to take notes while I read "The List of 7", a novel about Sir AC Doyle's own Holmesian adventures, by Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks. I had to look up "quotidian" and "fustian" and discovered that "quotidian" is quotidian but "fustian" isn't fustian, much the way polysyllabic is but monosyllabic isn't.

Perennial Winter Solstice RG raconteur CW Wilson, of Carl Isle (one of the South C Isles near Harrisburg), told me about a sentence that is easy to say but impossible to write correctly, namely "There are three TOOZ in the English language." On a non-word-related note, having CW teach you to play the "Petals Around the Rose" dice game is a memorable, if frustrating, experience. Entre nous, I still have the 5 dice from Rae Neubaum in my winter coat pocket, but I digress from my digressions.

Linda Harrison, of Lewistown, met someone whose name contains "ii", which is common in Finnish (I’m a Finnophile, having been there three times for work). She proposed a search for words that end in "ii". The results so far include: radii (Art’s quick answer), genii (another word for geniuses?), and a few proper nouns such as: Hawaii, Pompeii, and _____ (Linda’s bonus-points answer).

A friend insists that "RSVP" should not be used as a verb, but if I want to RSVP, who's to stop me? She also says, "If you can't pronounce 'LAN-jah-ree' in French, say 'underwear'". Phooey. My Father is sure that the word "sausage" must come from "sow" (pig) and "sage" (spice), and that "peninsula" and [bleep] must share a, um, root no matter what the dictionaries say.

Someone was eliminated from a Spelling Bee for spelling either "moebius" or "möbius" when the judge wanted the other (acceptable) spelling. I like über-Mensan Marilyn Vos Savant's idea that spelling bees should be replaced with spelling tests for fairness, but they wouldn't be as fun to watch.

The author of the dictionary article mentions looking up the usage of: aggravate (not "to annoy"), disinterested (not "uninterested"), fortuitous, literally, enormity. He mentions the etymology of: chauvinism, juggernaut, lagniappe. And he uses the following miscellaneous words as a dictionary benchmark: regret, jealous, overdetermined, je ne sais quoi, Panglossian, condominium, alembic, hegira, dogsbody, topi, graduand, hackle, exiguous (not "exigent"), anhedonia, eminence grise, nonplussed (not "unperturbed"), and hopefully (wrong when used as a so-called sentence adverb - avoid this by saying "Let's hope", "Let us hope", or "It is to be hoped".) By the way, he decided the best dictionary is Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, $25.95, "long considered the gold standard of desk dictionaries and the only ‘real’ Webster's (descended from Noah's 1828 original). It had the highest percentage of words I looked up; it exerts an intoxicating old-world authority; its illustrations are soulful; it comes with a subscription to its Web site and a CD-ROM. Its usage notes are at once the least prescriptive and the most haughty.”

Keep up the good words.

Some items from the wonderful :
Hairdresser's oath:  First of all, harm no 'do'.  - Andy Hartzell
We live in a time of the signs.  - Paul Ferris
"If you really loved me you'd do what I like."  "If you really loved me you'd like what I do." - Philip Noble
The chameleon can hide, but he can't run!   - Alan Williams
If you're wasted all the time, all your time is wasted.  - C. J. Wolfe
I need an editor.  When I think about my writing, I can't create;  when I'm creating, I don't think about my writing.  - George W. Bowman


May 2004 #1

Hofstadter and AI

One of my heroes is Douglas Hofstadter, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" and other great books. He told one reviewer that he wrote GEB "for the bright 15 year old" and I was exactly 15 when I read it (and 36 when I got it signed). 
Doug is a polymath; PhD in physics, expert on Artificial Intelligence, etc. When he visited Penn State, Doug spoke in three departments: Physics, Music, and Slavic Languages. The person introducing him in that last department said, "Many people have expressed a wish to learn Russian just to read Eugene Onegin in the original language. Our speaker today is the first person known to have actually done it." Not only that, but he published his own translation. I overheard him in the hallway telling someone that "The essence of intelligence is being able to figure out what information is important and useful, which is much easier for people to do than computers."

Live For Today

A few thoughts on the phrase "Live for today" and some of its possible meanings; here’s five:

One possible meaning is "life is too short" to worry about, or even plan for, the future. I cannot find the definitive origin of the phrase "Live for today, for tomorrow you [may] die", but it seems to suggest hedonism and irresponsibility.

Another possible meaning is the "one day at a time" philosophy espoused by people enduring great pain or hardships or resisting great temptations. It's easier to concentrate on not giving up or giving in just for one day, today.

Another possible meaning is "life is not a dress rehearsal". Eugene Onegin, the book by A.S. Pushkin, is a great example; boy meets girl, boy leaves, girl gets married to some other guy, boy falls in love with her later, but it's too late. This is almost the opposite of meaning #1; don't waste today, live for today by making every responsible choice and not putting off "real life" until tomorrow.

Fourth, "live in the present", not in the past, not dwelling on past mistakes. Life is for the living. "Be here now" as Ram Dass said; just forgive (yourself and/or others) and forget.

Finally, another great meaning of "Live for today" might be "carpe diem", seize the day to live courageously and feel intensely, as they did in the Dead Poets Society movie. Take every possible advantage of every opportunity to live life to its fullest, squeeze every drop out of life. Carpe momento, seize the moment. Premo diem, squeeze the day. Once, when I was sitting waiting for a TV show to start, I thought, "I wish I could fast forward Real Life to skip these lulls." And then I remembered how precious every moment is and how we should put them to good use.

["Live for today" is similar to, but different than, "Live in the moment", another intriguing idea:]

Anyway, live for today, whatever that means, so that tomorrow you may live even better.

Comments? 2009-12-23