Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Solve two problems at once!

Okay, people, listen up.  Here's another Simple Solution to not one, but two Complex Problems!  I can't take all the credit for it: I must share it with the blogger who proposed to arm the toddlers so as to reduce the death toll when kindergartens are attacked.

Arm the blastocysts!

Solves the abortion problem and the dreadful lack-of-guns problem!

With today's advanced microgenetics technology, clearly there's no good reason we can't modify the spermatozoon to deliver advanced defense technology to the egg along with the father's DNA.  Think of it: we empower the zygote to decide for itself whether it wants to come to term.  If it senses an impending dilation and curettage, it could go with the flow, or take arms against a sea of consequences.

Also, think of the profits we could make on the ensuing arms race. Better nanomissiles for the blastocyst, better defenses for the OB/GYN, and round and round we go.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Quote of the day from yrs truly

Theory without practice is lame. Practice without theory is blind.
Mr. Gaar, my ninth-grade science teacher, kept a copy of the famous quote from Albert Einstein prominently displayed in his classroom: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Tonight as I was talking about the tension between theory and practice with some of Today's Young People, the above mutilation occurred to me. I like it better than the original.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Triumph of the Poorwill

I saw my first Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in June 1985 in Water Canyon in the Magdalena Mountains west of Socorro, NM. It is a smaller relative of Whip-poor-wills and nighthawks. It is nocturnal and is often found sitting on the ground near dusk and dawn. I have never before managed to photograph one.

Tonight I had a wonderful bit of luck: around 8:30pm, there was one sitting on the street where I live. I grabbed my camera and managed to get this picture using the built-in flash.

photo of Common Poorwill

Cute little guy, isn't he? About 8" long. As I drove away I found a second one half a block further on. It's fall migration; they must be moving.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Shipman goes to the nail salon

I forget which guru, probably Stewart Brand, once suggested that it's a good idea to dive into a completely alien culture once in a while. Following that maxim, I've always made it a point occasionally to pick up a publication I wouldn't normally read, like Better Homes & Gardens, and really study it, just to get a viewpoint almost completely outside my normal orbit.

And just such an experience was my visit to the local nail salon today. I went there out of necessity, not curiosity: grubbing around in the back of a drawer the other day, I managed to ram the index finger of my dominant hand into a hidden projecting metal plate and rip up the nail. The fissure went longitudinally, then sideways, leaving me with a square chunk of nail hanging by a thread at one corner.

Fortunately some folks at our breakfast group recommended Socorro's USA Nails. I go in, tell them my problem, they make a nearly invisible repair that keeps the fragment in place, and charge me three dollars. I'm outta there maybe twenty minutes after I walk in there at midmorning without an appointment. I've always been curious about the world of nail salons, but it's a competitive market, and I figure that any place that's been in business for a while must be delivering the goods, because their clientele runs to the very finicky and also to those of limited means.

And now for the cultural anthropology payoff!

A couple of really attractively dressed and made-up women peered at me as if to say, “What planet are you from, young man?” As I'm currently 62, I don't get so much of the cougar action nowadays.

There was a young mom with her infant sleeping in the carrier. I didn't see any women leave without really attractive nails, although your definition of attractive may vary. As a card-carrying nerdette-chasing nerd, most of my dating history is with women who were pragmatists and kept their nails short and undecorated. So I haven't consorted that much with those that go for glitter or longer extensions or little computer chips that sing your birth-month's special anthem.

So what have you done lately that expanded your cultural horizon?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nogal Canyon to Box Canyon

In May 1985 my neighbor Philip Johnson and I went birding on a fascinating little route that starts in San Antonio, NM, heads west through a slot canyon with vertical rock walls and a floor of sand, sometimes deep sand, and then meanders through rangelands for twenty miles or so and drops you back on US-60 at Box Canyon, about 15 miles west of Socorro.

On 2012-07-28 my friend Josef Brown, a math professor here at NM Tech, and I retraced it and were rewarded with another amazing day in the field. Formal bird notes for this interesting field day are elsewhere. Warning: Do not attempt this route without four-wheel drive. Wider tires, for good flotation in sand, are more helpful than high clearance. Here's the entrance to the slot canyon. I know nothing about the shrine's religious significance. Click on the thumbnail for a large version.

Entering the Nogal Canyon slot, westbound, with shrine.

Much of this transect is open, pretty well overgrazed rangeland. However, just west of the slot canyon there is a tiny little oasis with several huge, ancient Arizona Walnuts (Juglans major). This species is actually native to the arid Southwest and evolved to fit the erratic but generally thin rainfall patterns. Here's a general shot of the grove. Figure this has been here for thousands of years.

Just leaving the slot canyon westbound, a general view of the whole postage-stamp grove.

Maybe fifty yards later, the road diverges from the streambed and heads west. The tree shown below is one of the largest walnuts. It is a tiny but complex ecosystem housing birds, lizards, chipmunks, and a sizeable bracket fungus, among others.

One of the largest walnuts, and the road west.

Most of the terrain looks like the photo below. The sign says, as far as I can tell, that it's 11 miles east to the Bianchi Ranch and the junction of I-25 and US-85, and 10 miles west to the Pound Ranch and US-60.

Sign at the point of no return

We didn't see anywhere near as many species as we would on even a slow summer day at the Bosque del Apache refuge, but what we did see were some rather special desert life forms. Like this Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) dozing on a high branch.

Common Nighthawk sleeping

Although I've specialized in bird photography since 1976, I'm always interested in all life forms: reptiles, invertebrates, wildflowers, even the occasional mammal. Lately, thanks to two excellent books I've recently acquired (details below), I've become a lot more aware of butterflies, and bird photo equipment is useful for shooting them. This Reikart's Blue (Echinargus isola) would fit on a dime and give you three cents back, so I'm delighted to get even a relatively cruddy flight shot. Here is one in flight, and one drinking from a muddy seep.

Reikart's Blue, flight

Reikart's Blue, ventral wing

If you are at all interested in identifying butterflies, this field guide is comprehensive, beautiful, and fascinating.

Brock, Jim P., and Kenn Kaufman. Field guide to butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin, 2003, ISBN 978-0-618-76826-4.

An even more engrossing and beautiful book, this one emphasizes the complete ecological context of New Mexico's butterflies, reviewing them according to their habitat and life zones. How, for example, do pupas defend themselves against carnivorous ants? Much more depth than a field guide, and the kind of beautiful book that befits New Mexico magazine, the publisher. One great value of this work is that it tells you where to go, when, and the specific microhabitat: seeps, treetops, hilltops, specific plants.

Cary, Stephen J. Butterfly landscapes of New Mexico. New Mexico Magazine, 2009, ISBN 978-1934480038.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dillard's puts me into a box

My quest for a decent pillow sent me to Dillard's, one of the few remaining department stores in Albuquerque. Situated in the Winrock Center, once the Happening Mall but now in the throes of rejuvenation, they have two two-story buildings with floorwalkers and escalators and all the trappings of big old-fashioned department stores.

I'm very picky about pillows. Must be feathers or down. No foam, no synthetics, no fiberfill. Dillard's has usually come through, but this time they were looking kind of picked-over. I finally settled for a reasonably-priced feather model in an odd “European” size: square, 25"x25". I foolishly assumed that it would fit into one of my king-sized pillowcases.

Well, apparently all pillowcases are 20" wide, so stuffed into a king case, this pillow resembles a large sausage. Not a very relaxed pillow at all.

Today I go back and demand a “European”-sized pillowcase. Wouldn't one assume that they want to sell you the linens that fit their weird pillow? But noooooo, as the late John Belushi might say.

They had a large number of color-coordinates ruffs, shams, duvets, foofaraws, googlymushes and carnelians and several other items of which I have never heard and which looked both expensive and uncomfortable.

All these these would doubtless make my futon a decorator showplace—if I ever actually made the bed. But because my decorator scheme is Aging Bachelor, stuff that lives on my bed is for comfort, not to entice Sunset magazine to feature my house in a photo spread.

“I would prefer,” I said, “something that is not made of silk or brocade, without embroidery, because I would like to rest my face on this pillow at night.”

Once she finished the 20-minute phone call that started her shift, the woman who runs this half of the floor suggested that try Bed Bath and Beyond. “They're right around the corner.”

Oh perfidious floorwalker, to put your customer in a box and then suggest they try the competition?

Naturally, Bed Bath had nothing either. Not to mention no pillowcase covers that would fit.

Maybe I can try Europe.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The NY Times has spell checker software, yet....

From Bozo Brooks' daily excretion, as quoted by Balloon Juice:

The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

It's all about the disbursement, in his world.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spellcheck follies #2

From Trains magazine, July 2012, p. 7, in an article discussing how the Talgo corporation gambled on being able to build trains in the USA for domestic markets:
Although Washington and Amtrak had initially purchased four trainsets, Talgo built a fifth set at its own expense to pedal in other corridors.
It's an old Shipman family tradition, when in a car climbing a grade without quite enough power, to shout, “Pedal harder!”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

If programming religions were languages

I generally agree with this post, “If programming languages were religions”, and not just because he said nice things about Python.

However, I'd like to comment on this point:

APL: ...you've always suspected that it's a huge and elaborate prank that got out of control.

That's a pretty accurate description of Scientology, but APL's story is different.

It started with Ken Iverson's 1962 work A programming language. This book was not intended as a programming language, but as an exercise in mathematical notation. Specifically, Iverson wanted to describe certain operations in abstract terms. For example, adding two 50-element vectors was generally described in programming terms as looping over the 50 addends and producing 50 sums. Iverson proposed that the “+” operator be defined on two conformant vectors as a single operation.

An IBM researcher, Herbert Hellerman, implemented a language processor for a subset of the notation, and from there it grew by word-of-mouth. At one point IBM tried to shut it down but the user community screamed too loudly, and IBM eventually sold quite a number of big mainframes just to run APL.

The notion that you can add two arrays with a single operator is taken for granted these days, especially in contexts like MATLAB and Mathematica and the excellent NumPy package for Python. Bits of APL survive in all these languages. For example, the “reshape” operator, which can turn a 1000-element vector into a 10×10×10 array, was the ρ (rho) operator in APL.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Parking enforcement, Lithuanian style

"There are very few problems in computer science that are not susceptible to brute force." (Ed Runnion, former NM Tech computer science professor)

Or in parking enforcement: (short YouTube video)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

One of these words is not like the others

This New York Times press release about a burger chain got through the spell checker. Can you spot the funny?

An innovative addition to Red Robin’s lineup of delicious milkshakes, malts and other dessert offerings, the Salted Caramel Shake combines soft serve ice cream, milk, and decedent caramel sauce mixed with Red Hawaiian Sea Salt and topped with whipped cream and red sea salt sprinkles.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

There's no dot like an old dot

Some more gleanings from my series of 3x5 cards in the MISC category.

 * * *

“I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (Laura J. Mixon) Another fine example of the need for care in punctuation.

 * * *

“The modern conservative is engaged in of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” (J. K. Galbraith)

 * * *

Six dozen of the half, one of the other. (JS 2008-04-09)

 * * *

Is “delible” the opposite of indelible? (JS 2008-04-15)

 * * *

Columny: calumny by a columnist. (JS 2008-04-30)

 * * *

Don't hate the player, hate the fame. (Railroad car graffiti, 2008-05-06)

 * * *

It doesn't matter how much it costs so long as it looks cheap. (Prescott Grey on the equipment purchased by MIT Lincoln Labs)

 * * *

The rotten cream rises to the top. (Kathy Albrecht)

 * * *

If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons? (Anon.)

 * * *

The odds are good, but the goods are odd. (On MIT coeds being able to find a husband there; fide Pat Buckley)

 * * *

Where is that chocolate sauce leaking from? (Discussion between two employees overheard at the Albuquerque Airport Village Inn, 2008-03-01)

 * * *

What a catastrostroke! (Jimmy Durante)

 * * *

Innovation is hard to schedule. (Dan Fylstra; from the Unix fortune file)

 * * *

Energy-to-clues ratio: a metric for twinkishness (JS 1999-06-12)

 * * *

I didn't major in shutting up. (JS 1999-07-02)

 * * *

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (Frank Zappa)

 * * *

A chicken farmer went to the New Mexico State University agricultural extension agent to get help with his chickens. “When I plant them head down, they die. When I plant them with their head sticking out, they die. I tried flooding the field. They all drowned.”

The agent replied, “Let's start by taking a soil sample.”

 * * *

Information wants to be anthropomorphic. (Via Allan Poindexter; a riff on “Information wants to be free”, an Open Source manifesto.)

 * * *

Even the gravy is going to be tough. (Don Huebner explaining why it's a bad idea to bag an old, toothless elk.)

 * * *

If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it. (Al Stavely, 2001-01-24)

 * * *

Claptraptions: marginally functional automobiles. (JS 2001-02-14)

 * * *

Careful. We don't want to learn from this. (Calvin & Hobbes)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some gorgeous unaccompanied choral works

Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) has always been one of my favorite choral composers, especially his works in the Russian Orthodox tradition.  I love the dense harmonies and especially the way this tradition uses those low bass voices.  When my local group, the New Mexico Symphonic Chorus, did Rachmaninoff's All-night vigil in the spring of 2011, it reminded me how much I love this kind of music. We will be doing some more a capella modern liturgical music in our upcoming concert, including Gorecki's Totus tuus, that has many of these qualities.

Here are some YouTubes of Gretchaninov works that gratified my search for good performances.
  • Svete Tihiy (O gladsome light). This April 11, 2011 performance by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir in Ellensburg gave me goosebumps. Their faces reflect the ecstasy I feel listening to them. See how their bodies sway so slightly, leaning into the notes.
  • Nunc dimittis (Time to hit the road).  Holland Chorale, Hope College, Holland, MI. A larger, older choir with a beautifully balanced sound.
  • Vespers. No information about this version, but it is apparently a study compilation that also shows you the sheet music (hope you can read Slavonic).  The first piece shows off that great Russian basso sound.
  • The cherubic hymn by the Wicker Park Choral Singers of Chicago. Sweet sound, nice balance, solid bass line. Nice-looking room they're in, too.
Our recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers should be available shortly.  Until then, our CD of our October 2011 Mozart Requiem is already available. I think it came out rather well, for one show—live without a net, as our director Roger Melone calls it.

Meanwhile, check out the State Russian Choir's version of Blagoslovi Dushe Moya Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O my soul).

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The three hardest choral pieces I've sung

After singing baritone parts for 18 seasons with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus (NMSOC) and its 2011 reincarnation as the New Mexico Symphonic Chorus (NMSC), I've seen our director Roger Melone pick pieces that are all over the classical map, from ancient times to several actual 21st Century works.

It's a tough balancing act. You can't ignore the warhorses like the Mozart Requiem and the Beethoven Ninth, but you can't just program the warhorses if you want to keep singers from getting bored. You have to give your singers some challenging works to keep them growing, and program some modern works to attract concertgoers who may also be tired of the warhorses.

Of all these pieces, some of them were tough and some of them relatively easy, but three stand out in my memory as the hardest I've had to work to prepare my part.

  • Rhythmically, the most challenging was Sir William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931).  This is the story of the Writing on the Wall, mene mene tekel upharsin: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. It reminded me of some jazz pieces by Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck.  Highly dramatic, punchy notes in odd places, surrounded by treacherous rests.  The most dangerous piece I've sung in terms of opportunities for an accidental solo.
  • In terms of being able to find pitches, the hardest piece to hear was When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd by Paul Hindemith (1946). This deeply moving piece was a setting of the Walt Whitman poem commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was commissioned by Robert Shaw to commemorate the passing of Franklin Roosevelt: the mood was similar, the passing of a great national leader who had just gotten us through a long and bloody war.  Learning the piece was a bloody war, too.  In many sections I had to mark every single interval in my line. I use lowercase Roman numerals for minor intervals and uppercase Roman numerals for major intervals.  Long sections have marks like “ii III iii IV ii II ii ii” so I could hear each interval. Very 20th century.  By the time the concert rolled around, all this chopped salad somehow jelled into quite emotionally intense music.
  • The most physically challenging piece was clearly the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven (1824).  In the engineering field we have a saying: “Faster, better, cheaper: Pick any two”. For this piece, the rule is easier: Faster, higher, louder, longer, pick any four. An hour of singing, much of it at high volume,  much of it in a very high tessitura, with lyrics that go by like a bullet train.
Honorable mentions:
  • The piece the NMSC just sang in January 2012, the oratorio King David (1925) by Arthur Honegger, was notable for both rhythmic and chromatic difficulty. Lots of pitches you have to pull out of thin air, lots of rapid-fire words that sound terrible unless every single singer is extremely careful about diction.
  • In 2004, the New Mexico Tech Chamber Chorus performed Giancarlo Menotti's The unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. Another piece both rhythmically and chromatically non-Euclidean.  It took us three semesters to get this piece working, along with the accompanists (one flute and one bassoon). We took it on the road and performed it in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. After I got my first look at the score, and swallowed hard, I asked Roger Melone if he knew the piece. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “It's very difficult.” But the NMT Chamber Chorus did a credible job, thanks to the tireless and inspiring work of our conductor Dr. Doug Dunston.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Poppa Needs Shorts

Poppa Needs Shorts, by Leigh Richmond and Walt Richmond, is one of my all-time favorite short stories. Originally published in Analog, it is available here in a free version. It's a quick read and rather charming.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hewlett-Packard tightens the screws (1973)

Around the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis, energy conservation suddenly became an issue in California. Hewlett-Packard was concerned about their electric bill. So they started a program to save energy.

Most -hp- buildings back then had high ceilings illuminated by fixtures that held eight fluorescent bulbs, each eight feet long. Every division's maintenance staff had various ladders and work platforms for getting up to the ceiling. They came around to take one bulb out of every fixture.

When that was done, they came around and took another bulb out of every fixture.

About the time the fixtures were down to three bulbs each, a lot of people started to complain that they couldn't see what they were doing. So they sent the staff around to make sure there were at least four bulbs in every fixture. The complaining died down because the company had responded.

This is a pattern I have observed many, many times in other contexts. I suspect they actually teach it in management schools: lay off staff until the remaining staff explode from the stress, then hire a thin slice of them back until the screaming dies down.

Is this actually a good idea? Not always, I'd say. Consider the American health care system. Because so much of the health care and pharmaceutical industries revolves around profit, they tend to cut to the bone, and then maybe a little more.

Maybe in normal times this will fly for a while. But what happens when disaster strikes? Have you spent much time in an emergency room lately? Because so many people are uninsured, they can't afford preventive care, then they get really sick and go to the ER. Waiting times in most ERs nowadays, I hear, are pretty long unless you have a severed artery or aren't breathing. And this is pretty much all the time. What if we get a really ugly flu epidemic or a natural disaster? Where is the reserve capacity?

My solution is, of course, typical Progressive cant. Make health care a nonprofit activity. Go to single-payer like all the rest of the civilized nations, which spend half what we do and get better outcomes, like the Canadian healthcare system.

The day I wore a burqa (ca. 1980)

Somewhere around 1980 I was invited to a Halloween party by an old New Mexico Tech friend who was living in Palo Alto at the time.

Another friend of mine was an inveterate shopper of second-hand stores and had a number of treasures, including an authentic burqa. She agreed to loan it to me for the party.

It was a black robe with a head covering that left only two parts visible: a tiny rectangle enclosing my eyes (with some small coins hanging just underneath), and my legs up to about mid-calf. I put flip-flops on my feet and drove to the party.

This was during the Iranian hostage crisis, when Islamist militants took over the American embassy and held 52 Americans for over a year. The news often showed footage of Iranian militants screaming “Death to Carter!”

So when my dear friend Candy answered the door, I said in a high sing-song voice, “Death to Carter! Death to Carter! Happy Halloween! May I come to the party now?”

Candy and I have been friends since we were freshmen together in 1966, so I was quite surprised that she didn't seem to know who I was. But I wasn't armed or otherwise menacing so she let me in. I didn't shave my legs, so I doubt anyone thought I was female, but no one had any early correct guesses about who I was.

I stayed in character for twenty minutes before Candy figured it out! The lesson that has stayed with me, since that day, is how much a burqa makes one anonymous. This is not a value judgement, just an observation.

At this point I weighed probably around 300 pounds, so finding a costume that concealed my identity was a good trick. But a burqa worked surprisingly well.

The first computer program I ever ran (1966)

This story is part of my permanent Web, but you are welcome to leave comments here.

At Texas Tech, I found a sympathetic staff member who said I could run my program. I was in ecstasy.

They had two computers then. One was an IBM 1620 with add-on core memory (persistent storage—a luxury of the day!) and a Flexowriter terminal. However, such was not for mere mortals, but I would be welcome to run it on their IBM 7044, the older and not so shiny system.

The first obstacle was learning how to use an IBM 026 keypunch. What a miserable excuse for a human-computer interface! Communicating with computers by punching holes in a piece of cardstock! If you made a mistake, you had to throw away the entire card and start over: once you punch a hole, you can't unpunch it.

(the full story)