Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Mitvah for Christmas

I know that there is a statute of limitations for posts relating to Christmas, but I didn't find today's site until just yesterday, so please pardon one final Christmas link.

Akiva and Ilene Miller wondered what Christmas would be like if it were a Jewish celebration. In particular, they wondered what the mitzvah (i.e., laws) of the celebration would look like.

The site also has some "traditional" Jewish Christmas songs including "Hagada for Christmas" which is about "the fruitcake of our affliction, which our ancestors baked 400 years ago".


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

With a little help from my friends...

Well, I have, in fact, been working on the second half of my essay concerning the problem of celestial bodies in The Land of the Lost, but I've run into something of a roadblock and I hope that one of you can help point me in the right direction.

It's become fairly clear that this is an essay that needs some illustrations. I've Googled around for some that would fit the bill but haven't been able to find any, so it looks like I'm going to have to make them myself.

Does anyone know of an open source illustration program? I would prefer something that's easy to use (particularly since I have zero artistic talent). Ideally it would be something that would have a built-in ability to create illustrations of simple geometric structures, such as spheres, cylinders and toruses, with the ability to arbitrarily shade and label them.

If anyone knows of such a utility, please either email me or post a comment.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry XBox... or summtin' like that

I assume that, by now, all of you are aware that I've been waging war on Christmas.

Honestly, it came as something of a surprise to me. All these years I just considered Christmas to be another one of those Holidays that people celebrate as they will whether or not they think about what it's supposed to represent (a bit like Memorial Day which, contrary to most people's impressions, isn't a celebration of three day weekends and barbecues).

Yes, I was aware that, for a fair number of people, the day had religious significance. That never especially bothered me since the actual parts that interested me, such as gift giving, the Christmas tree, and so forth, weren't closely tied to religion (unless you want to go back to the ancient pagans, at least). It seemed like a perfectly reasonable sort of arrangement.

Lately though, I've been told (mainly by Fox news) that the forces of secularism (which is where I get drafted into this nonsense) have been trying to destroy the Christian version of Christmas. I assumed that this had to do with nativity chreches since that's long been the seasonal point of contention between secularists (and Jews, and Jehovas Witnesses, and Christian liberals, etc) and the self-appointed defenders of Christianity.

Honestly, though, I had thought that the courts had done a fairly decent job of working that controversy out with a general prescription that says that you can't put displays on public land that are solely for the promotion of a religion but, if you want to have a nativity, it could be fine if you place it in the general context of a secular celebration of the season. It's one of those compromise solutions that doesn't make anyone quite happy, which is often the nature of a good compromise.

It turns out that's not what Fox is on about, though. And least not entirely, since they do mention the whole creche controversy as being part of the War on Christmas. It seems that what really steams their stockings is the phrase "happy holidays". Although I've never really been conscious about what sort of semi-sincere seasonal greetings I've been offering, I'm sure that I have said the dreaded double-H every now and again (thus waging war on Christmas). Heck, I'm pretty sure that I've even suggested that people have a good Solstice now and again. Of course the fact that I am, indeed, an atheist automatically makes me one of the warriors in the battle. Even when I do say "merry Christmas" it can be assumed that I am merely trying to infiltrate my way into the ranks of the good and decent so that I may further subvert them.

So, since it's apparent that I am, in fact, waging war against Christmas, I would like to beg a favor of the government. In keeping with the tradition of all the other wars on things (drugs, terrorism, jaywalkers, etc), I think that it would only be fair to grant me unlimited powers of search and seizure, the ability to arbitrarily arrest and detain people without oversight, and the ability to surveyal my enemies (real and imagined) without restriction. Seems only far.

So heads up, Christian America! I'll know when you are sleeping, I'll know when you're awake...

(And a very happy set of holidays, however you may celebrate them [or not], to all my loyal readers. Do take care.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Aristotle said that Man is the animal that laughs. I dispute this! I say that Man is the animal that builds sixteen feet high snowmen.

A Wonderful Internet

I hope that you shall enjoy the cautionary tale of It's a Wonderful Internet. Be sure to play with all the knobs and pull-outs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Like most people, I tend to think of graffiti as an eyesore. I will admit that there is some small fraction that aspires to art but most of it is banal. For archaeologists, however, graffiti can be an invaluable tool for understanding the common language and culture of a vanished people.

Today's link is a list of gaffitos found at Pompeii.

There are declarations of love ("I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world"), of hate ("Serena hates Isidorus"), and of bitterness ("I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?"). There are sexual boasts ("Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion"), insults("Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before!"), and compliments("Crescens is sweet and charming"). There are philosophical proclamations ("Once you are dead, you are nothing"). There are advertisements ("Palmyra, the thirst-quencher") and admonishments ("heophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog"). There are some that sound like a something out of LiveJournal ("On April 19th, I made bread").

There are also the critics: "O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin."

The overall impression is that there were ordinary people just like ourselves, although every so often you come across an entry that's jarring to our modern sensabilities ("Take hold of your servant girl whenever you want to; it’s your right"). On the whole it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who were beneath the notice of History, as are most of us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

PSA: Pump and Dump Stock Trading

Lately I've been getting a lot of spam with unsolicited hot stock tips. According to a recent AP article, similar messages are getting sent out via text messaging to cell phones and IM accounts.

These are all a type of scam known as "pump and dump" trading. What the scammers do is they buy up a bunch of low valued stock, then they spam out messages encouraging people to buy the stock because it's a hot pick. Once enough people buy into the stock, the scammers sell their own shares for a profit. Meanwhile, the people who were tricked into trading typically lose money when the stock price collapses back to its regular value.

It should go without saying that it's never wise to respond to unsolicited messages but, sadly, many people still do. Like any other unsolicited email or message, just delete them without giving them a second glance.

Unstructured Foam

Image hosted by Photobucket.comMarshall McLuhan once famously proclaimed that the medium is the message. I leave it up to you to decide what sort of message is conveyed when the medium is the foam in a latte.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

On the Problem of Celestial Bodies in the Land of the Lost, part I

Back in the early to mid 70's, Sid and Marty Krofft were a dominant force in Saturday morning kids programming. Mind you, this is equivalent to saying that you’re the tallest person at a dwarf convention. In those days, kids shows were done on the cheap and were largely considered an afterthought by the Networks — a way to provide a convenient slot for toy manufacturers to hawk their wares.

The Kroffts specialized in low-budget live action shows. Most of the shows were fairly dismal with such titles as Lidsville (a show about a land of living hats, which must have been inspired by LSD consumption), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, The Bugaloos, and similar dreck. There did exist one bright spot in their lineup: a show called Land of the Lost.

Land of the Lost was about the adventures of the Marshall family who were stranded, Robinson Caruso style, in a mysterious and strange world. The most obvious thing about the show (aside from its lack of budget and the dearth of good acting) was that it had dinosaurs (provided via stop animation as well as some truly pathetic puppets for close-ups). Indeed, from interviews with the Kroffts, it's clear that all they were interested in was plugging into the dinosaur market which, even in those pre-Jurassic Park days, had a hell of a lot of kid appeal. Left to their own devices, they would have probably come up with one of their standard crapfests. Fortunately, they were lucky enough to sign up David Gerrold as the story editor.

If the name tickles your hindbrain, it may because you've seen him credited for the much loved Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. Gerrold, by that point, had quite a few science fiction screen credits. More importantly, he was a bonified science fiction author in his own right (I would absolutely recommend his book The Man who Folded Himself, which is, in my opinion, the very best time travel story yet written). Even more importantly than that, he was well connected in the serious science fiction community and, thus, able to get such respected authors as Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon and Ben Bova to contribute stories. From the perspective of the Kroffts, this was like knowing someone who could get Stephen Hawking to help you with your physics homework.

I started watching the show when I was five years old. My initial attraction to the show was, of course, the dinosaurs. Even compared to other little boys, I was intensely interested in dinosaurs. I remember shouting out "That's a struthiomimus!" in Kindergarten when the teacher was showing us dino pictures. By the time I was six, half my vocabulary had an alarmingly high percentage of complex Latin and Greek names. Ultimately, though, it wasn't the dinosaurs that made me really love the show. What really kept me coming back for the full three years was the originality of the world that the Marshalls had found themselves in.

I suspect that most people, given the assignment of making a dinosaur show would have either set it in the past (via time travel) or would have done something in the present using some kind of Jurassic Park variant. Gerrold, in conjunction with Niven, came up with something really out of the box. The story was set in an entirely different universe. Erratic space-time doors would occasionally trap random people and beast in this other universe (hence the dinosaurs, as well as other curious flora and fauna, including a family of ape-like creatures called Pakuni1). The universe also had its natives in the form of the Sleestak who were a kind of hybrid insect/lizard people who were the degenerate descendants of the creators of the Land of the Lost.

The most interesting thing, for me, however was the nature of the universe. Rather than being a true world, the Land was actually a very small pocket universe that wrapped around itself. An early episode (by Larry Niven) has the Marshalls attempt to find their way to civilization by sailing down a river. At the end of the episode the river returns them to their starting point. A later episode has them on a mountain top looking through a pair of binoculars and seeing the backs of their own heads in the distance. Even as a kind, that scene simply blew me away with the awesomeness of its implications.

As a kid, of course, I didn't really understand what was being presented. I thought that it was cool and mind blowing, but I didn't realize that I was being exposed to the idea of higher geometries.

Allow me a slight digression to discuss this.

We tend to think of such concepts as the forth dimension as being thoroughly modern. In point of fact, the idea goes back some ways. One of the best treatments of the subject comes from Edwin Abbott's book Flatland. Flatland is a universe of two dimensional creatures (who mainly take the shape of simple polygons). Being constrained to a two dimensional plane, they have no concept of the third dimension. The protagonist of the story, a Mr. A Square, encounters a visitor from the 3rd dimension. This visitor, who is a sphere, demonstrates the existence of a third dimension beyond the two that Mr. Square can perceive. In the end, A Square ends up afoul of the authorities, who consider his claims to be anarchic and blasphemous. He also offends the sphere by suggesting the existence of dimensions beyond the third.

Flatland was simultaneously a parody of Victorian culture (a fact that gets lost of some of its detractors who object to the portrayal of women in the book) as well as a kind of theological speculation. At the time of its writing, some theologians and spiritualists believed that Heaven and Hell could be found in the fourth dimension (which is much more tenable than supposing that they can be found somewhere in our universe) and that angels and demons were able to accomplish their apparently magical interactions with the world via their privileged status of being four dimensional beings.

In the early part of the 20th century, Albert Einstein brought the idea of higher dimensions to the world of physics. Einstein proposed that space and time were a unified four-dimensional structure and that both are curved, in higher dimensions, by the presence of mass. With the ascendance of Relativity, the subject of higher dimensions ceased to be a theological parlor game.

With the emergence of science fiction, as a distinct genre, in the late 20s and early 30s, it wasn't long before the subject became the subject of popular fiction. One of the more memorable of the early efforts was Heinlein's And He Built a Crooked House which was about a man who built a house in the shape of a "flattened" hyper-cube (aka, a tesseract). Think of unfolding a cube and flattening it out and you have the basic analogy (for what it's worth, a "flattened" tesseract looks like a cross built of cubes with additional cubes struck in the front and back of the junction point). In the story and earthquake causes the house to fold up into a true tesseract, causing immense distress to the people trapped inside of it.

Although you find references to the fourth (and higher) dimensions in stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (which lasted through the 50s), it wasn't really that common of an idea. The bread and butter of the science fiction community were stories with spaceships and aliens (and scantily clad women in constant distress, to judge from the covers of the pulp magazines).

The late 60s and 70s represented a sea change in the SF community. So-called New Wave authors rejected the traditional tropes of science fiction in favor of more literary stories where the science fictional elements took a back stage to such things as characterization, politics, religion, sex, and so forth. Essentially, science fiction was trying to grow up and escape from the teenage-boy ghetto of its readership. Unfortunately, in attempting to become more mature, many of the authors threw the baby out with the bathwater. Hard SF, meaning stories with rigorous scientific speculation, were considered to be passé and undesirable. While a lot of good stories did come out of this era, many of the efforts come across as amateurish and self-indulgent. The actual scientific content became such a minor chord that some of the stories are barely recognizable as science fiction at all.

Larry Niven was one of the few authors who moved against the grain. Almost single-handedly he managed to revitalize the field of Hard SF. His stories were based on cutting edge theory in physics and astronomy, applying rigorous logic to the consequences of his speculations (for instance, he proposed that widespread teleportation booths would result in the existence of flash crowds showing up at major events). Many of his ideas came straight out of the covers of astrophysics journals.

One of the hot topics at the time was cosmology. During this period there was a vigorous debate over the origin and nature of the universe. Part of that discussion dealt with the question of the shape of the universe.

The notion that the universe has a shape is counterintuitive. We tend to think of it as just being a vast, featureless emptiness without either shape or substance beyond a small sprinkling of matter. It we recall Einstein, however, our perception of the universe is as limited as A Squares perception of flatland. Since space can be curved, the idea that the universe has a shape is not so outlandish. In point of fact, the actual shape of the universe is rather important when discussing its origins and ultimate fate. A universe that is relatively flat has different properties than a universe that has an overall curvature.

Different models speculated on different curvatures. One idea was that the universe was a kind of immense hyperdimensional sphere. Supposing that the universe is indeed a 4D sphere, certain odd properties arise. One of those is that, from our perspective, the universe seems boundless, meaning that you can travel around it forever without coming to an edge, but finite. In other words, if I got on a very fast spaceship and flew, in a straight line, in any direction, I would eventually return to my starting point.2

Sound familiar?

The Land of the Lost was envisioned, by Niven and Gerrold, as a miniature analog of what our own universe might be like on a much, much, much larger scale, thus providing what may well be the only intersection between popular kids entertainment and advanced cosmological theorization.

In the next installment of this essay (and I do, in fact, promise that there will be one), I will take a closer look at what sort of shape the Land of the Lost would have to have to be consistent with its portrayal. In particular, I will confront the problems caused by the fact that the Land of the Lost has a sun as well as a number of moons. Stay tuned.

1The producers actually got a professor of linguistics to develop a language for the Pakuni. It was that sort of attention to detail that really helped to make the show something beyond the ordinary.

2There's a couple of assumptions here, not least being the assumption that you can travel faster than the universe expands and that you have enough time to get back to your starting point before the heat death of the universe.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

That Wet Carpet Smell

Well, folks, it has not been a fun month as Casa Lias. This last thursday I went home early with a major migrane headache. This, as it turns out, was the good part of the day. When I took off my shoes to go to bed I noticed that the carpet was damp. My first thought was to wonder if I had spilled something but the area of dampness was huge. I checked around and found that the water was seeping in through the wall.

I called maintenance who determined that a pipe had broken in the vacant unit next door. They shut it off and called in flood specialists who arrived at eleven that night. They determined that they would have to take all the furniture out of the room and rip up the carpet to get to the padding. Afterwards they'd need to dry it out. This was not going to happen overnight, so I was put up in a hotel.

I am typing this on Saturday and am still in a hotel. They weren't able to get the carpets dried yesterday and I haven't heard whether they will be done today.

I am attempting to cultivate a sense of serenity. Considering I haven't kicked anything yet, I think I'm doing a good job.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I've been a happy customer of Netflix for some time now and have been very pleased with their rental model. It didn't really occur to me that the same idea could be applied to other products (which is why I'm not a millionaire, I suppose). Others haven't been quite so slow to see the possibilities, however.

One of the most interesting varients of this idea comes from a company called Bag Borrow or Steal. What they do is rent luxury purses out to (I would presume mostly) women with such popular high-end labels as Prada, Chanel and Burberry. The idea is essentially the same as Nexflix: you pay a monthly membership fee, you can keep your purse as long as you like, and exchange them as often as you like for new ones. Apparently the idea has been successful enough to spawn a competitor company called Bags to Riches using a similar methodology.

NPR reports that the idea of renting out luxury goods, including such items as antique jewellry, has proven to have popular appeal. They said that this was part of an overall idea with the truly awful name of masstige, meaning prestige items for the masses, which nearly seems an oxymoron since the very thing that used to make something a luxury was its relative unaffordability.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Skeletal Funeral Drawing

I came across this drawing of a strange, skeletal funeral while surfing the internet. Sadly, I don't remember quite where I got it from. I'd like to know what the name of it is and who the artist was.

If you happen to recognize it, please leave me a comment.

Image hosted by

Monday, December 05, 2005

Unstructured Discovery

So here's the story: a student comes in late to a statistics class and notices two problems on the board. Assuming that they are assignments he jots them down and takes them home. He has a really hard time with them but finally manages to solve them a few days late. He brings them to his professor, apologizing for his tardiness. His professor tells him to leave them on his desk and he'll look them over.

A full six weeks passes before his professor wakes him up one Sunday morning exclaiming that he'd written an introduction to one of the papers and that he was sending it out for publication. It turns out that the two problems were examples of well known but unsolved problems which the student had, in fact, managed to solve.

Urban legend? Too good to be true? Surprisingly, no. Mind you, urbany versions of the story have been circulating around, but the core facts are true. The student in question was George Bernard Dantzig and the events of the tale transpired in 1938.

Snopes has a full account of this rather amazing story.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Unstructured Bang

Still not well, my friends. Hence, no poem today. Instead, I came across a very interesting site that tests the old movie cliche of shooting a paddlelock off with a gun. It turns out that it's not as easy as you might suppose.

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .