July 29, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 1 of 6 – “Flow”

Filed under: Randomness,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

July 24, 2015

Good advice to anyone, not just to Millennials

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

John Derbyshire proffers a bit of useful advice:

Here’s this week’s precept:

Avoid fucked-up people.

Most citizens of a functioning society live in a bourgeois style. They obey the law, keep regular hours, and brush their teeth. They get as much education as they can tolerate, acquire a marketable skill, work, marry, raise kids, and keep their debts under control.

The people I’m advising you to avoid, the fucked-up people — hereinafter FUPs — are the others. You’ve met them, or will: the drunks and moochers, the losers and dropouts, the profligates and unemployables. They will at best waste your time, at worst drag you down (?) into fucked-uppery.

I’ve known more than my share of FUPs across the decades. At least 20 come easily to mind. Expat life is particularly rich with them. FUPs must have cost me hundreds in current U.S. dollars, though most of it in my younger, more empathetic and gullible years.

And I’ve gotten off lightly. A friend of mine inherited a modest fortune from his father. His FUP brother co-inherited but soon frittered away his share and came to my friend for help, arguing that blood is thicker than water. My friend estimates the cost of testing those relative viscosities at $2 million over several years.

July 23, 2015

I didn’t know formal debates are now also performance art

Filed under: Randomness,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

Kathy Shaidle posted this video, which to be honest I first thought was a poorly done parody. I still rather hope to hear that it’s just somebody pulling a fast one on Fox …

July 22, 2015


Filed under: India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

I was not aware that there were quite so many grades of tea: David Warren explains the rankings (and why you won’t find any in the Tea and Coffee aisle of your local Sobey’s or Metro):

There are six grades of Darjeeling, and the highest, Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP), will never reach the Greater Parkdale Area. One will need not only money, but contacts to obtain it. Perhaps, fly there, and start networking among the estate managers. You can’t buy it at Harrod’s, because they don’t sell to Harrod’s: it would be beneath them. The Queen might obtain some, but then, she has a staff.

Each grade lower drops a letter off the front, so that my fine tea is of the fourth grade, just short of “tippy,” which refers to the abundance of flowering buds. “Golden” means that in the process of oxidation, these tips will turn a gold colour. “Flowery” is the term for high floral aroma. “Orange” has nothing to do with fruit, but refers to the Nassau family of Holland, whose most creditable accomplishment was pioneering the importation of tea into Europe, four centuries ago. The term insinuates, “good enough for Dutch royalty,” perhaps. “Pekoe,” or more correctly pak-ho, refers to the white down that gathers at the base of the bottom bud, an indication of the plant’s mood, its susceptibility to plucking. (Tea picking is an art; one does not strip the tree bare, but selects each leaf as it is ready.)

Now, survey your local supermarket shelf — let us suppose it is an “upmarket” emporium — and you will find in the tea section nothing but sludge. The teas will all be “blended” — which I esteem as blended whisky, or blended wine, delivered in tanker trucks. This will be especially true of the expensive boxes with whimsical names for the blends — that say nothing of date, terroir, or the specific variety. The tea inside the boxes will be packed in irritating little bags, probably with the absurd claim that they are “organic.” Once cut open, they reveal that the tea was ground by a Rotorvane, even before being stirred in a diesel-electric mixer. Various chain tea stores have sprung up, posing as effete, to separate fools from their money. Their pretensions are risible, and they annoy me very much.

I won’t comment on the “herbal teas” they also sell; except to recommend, to the women (including nominal males) who want herbal remedies for their malades imaginaires, that they take up smoking.

Rather, let us focus on the words, “Orange Pekoe.” They attach to most of the Subcontinent’s black tea supply, as to that of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the former paradise of Ceylon). I have explained what the words mean in a series — not much — but standing alone, they mean less. They guarantee that the purchaser will receive, at an inflated price, tea of a low, coarse, common quality, processed by the method called “CTC” (crush, tear, curl), introduced in the 1930s by a ravening industrialist named McKercher (“Sir William …”), and now spread around the planet.

The machinery was designed for volume at the expense of quality. It makes no sense to put good tea in, and what comes out might as well be bagged. This is tea for the masses, who have no prejudice or taste, and do not aspire to the humane. Like so much else in our fallen world, the best argument would be that tea of this sort is “better than nothing.”

July 19, 2015

It’s the right answer to so many intrusive questions!

Filed under: Humour,Politics,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sippican Cottage relates the tale of how the answer to life, the universe, and everything came to be discovered:

Excuse me, did you say “42”? Because 42 is so last week. I have discovered the answer to life, the universe, and everything, and it’s a lot more useful and comprehensible than 42.

My wife was accosted in the supermarket parking lot by some ill-mannered brigands, otherwise known as female high school students. Don’t get me wrong; people are more mannerly and friendly in Maine than in other places I have known. But there are many interactions between persons that have been bent by circumstance.


My wife is very quiet and reserved. She smiles a lot, but she doesn’t talk very much. I have always depended on her steadiness, because I am mercurial. I wonder if there is anyone in this world who has anything bad to say about her, other than she chooses husbands in lighting not suitable for buying off-brand bales of hay. Anyway, she was caught somewhat unawares, and didn’t have a moment to parse what she said carefully for its effect. She just asked, more or less politely, “Why would I want to do that?”

They backed up like people who had opened a mummy’s tomb and heard Egyptian being spoken. It was as unanswerable as a tax bill.

Don’t you see? Can’t you see it? It’s the answer to everything. It’s the Swiss army knife of life, with the little can-opener dongle on it, except instead of opening cans it opens universes. If everyone would answer 99 percent of the questions put to them every day with, “Why would I want to do that?”, the world would be a better place. Not just for the questioner. All manner of mischief would fold up and die and I wouldn’t get messages from Nigerian princelings anymore because every offer to send a million dollars tax-free would be met with, “Why would I want to do that?”

I recognized it like a lost friend. It’s the phrase I’ve been thinking but not saying, morning, noon and night, for years on end, whenever anyone asks me anything about anything. It is my default position for everything, I’ve just never uttered it.

Why would I want to do that?

But (and there’s always a “but”) … it fails the test of one critical question.

July 12, 2015

The erosion of meaningful marks in school

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Randomness,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 04:00

Richard Anderson on the move to eliminate “D” as a mark in educational grading schemes:

Thing is that if you get rid of Ds then Cs become the new Ds. If C is now the borderline for pass / fail then the slackers will work hard enough to get Cs, or more likely public school teachers will just drop their standards in order to meet their performance metrics. While this change might mean that the students learn a bit more as a signalling mechanism it’s a lateral move. Employers and colleges will know that the new C minus student is about as mediocre as the D minus student of yesteryear. The end result is that Peppermint Patty gets into the C Minus Hall of Fame instead.

Yet Ds are important in education. They tell the student they’re not very good at that particular subject. This is because they are lacking something: work ethnic, motivation, intelligence or aptitude. The grade system, assuming it is reasonably applied, is providing important feedback information. It’s fundamentally no different from any other form of measurement. Imagine a speedometer that never gave you the correct speed below 20 mph. That’s the same as a grading system were Ds have been done away with.

The D-Reformers are trying to short circuit the educational feedback loop. Instead of providing real information that can be used to draw conclusions, it instead provides false information that misleads and misdirects. While in the short-term this can seem kind, over the long-term it’s very cruel. It gives students an incorrect understanding of their talents and abilities. Sooner or later objective reality catches-up. Often this happens when the student reaches college and flunks out.

July 5, 2015

A half-baked theory from John Derbyshire

Filed under: Health,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

How much reality can you stand? John Derbyshire says it’s less than we used to be able to cope with:

T.S. Eliot’s observation that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” is surely up among the half-dozen wisest things ever said about our common nature.

There is, of course, individual variation in how much reality we can bear. I flatter myself by believing I am up toward the high end. I readily admit, however, that I have spent not insignificant portions of my life in a state of self-delusion driven by wishful thinking — a hugely underestimated force in human affairs. Some humility is in order, and not just for me.

There is group variation, too. Speaking generally, and again with much individual variation, the old can bear more reality than the young; men more than women; people in up-against-it professions like medicine or law enforcement more than those in comparatively sheltered occupations; people educated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) more than humanities majors; and so on.

I am now going to propose a half-baked theory to you.

Theory: In advanced societies, the average amount of reality people can bear has declined across the past few decades.

This, I believe, has something to do with the ever-increasing availability of screen-based entertainment (movies, TV, the internet), something to do with the decline of religion, something to do with the revolution in manners that we call “political correctness,” and something to do with the falloff in violence, as chronicled by Steven Pinker.

There are surely connections there; but which is cause, which is effect, and which mere symptom, I don’t know. That’s why the theory is half-baked.

Illustrations: As we have seen these past few days, the whole zone of “identity” is shot through with barefaced, unblushing denial of reality.

All but a very tiny proportion of human beings are biologically male (an X and a Y chromosome in the genome) or female (two X chromosomes). A person who is biologically of one sex but believes himself to be of the other is in the grip of a delusion. That is what everybody would have said 50 years ago.

Some of those who said it would have followed up with an expression of disgust; some with unkind mockery; some with sympathy and suggestions for psychiatric counseling. Well-nigh nobody would have said: “Well, if he thinks he’s a gal, then he is a gal.” Yet that is the majority view nowadays. It is a flagrant denial of reality; but if you scoff at it, you place yourself out beyond the borders of acceptable opinion.

May 30, 2015

The chemistry of gin

Filed under: Randomness,Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Compound Interest looks at the chemical make-up of gin:

Click to see full-size graphic

Click to see full-size graphic

For the fifth in the ‘Alcohol Chemistry’ series, we turn to gin. As with other types of alcohol, there are a huge number of different chemical compounds present, but it’s possible to identify a range of significant chemical contributors to its aroma & flavour. Here, we take a look at those compounds and where they come from.

Gin is a spirit that we’ve been making for centuries; although Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician and scientist, is often credited with its discovery in the 17th century, references to gin (or genever as it was also known) exist as far back as the 13th century. Sylvius originally conceived it as an concoction for the treatment of kidney and bladder problems, but its popularity as a recreational drink later soared.

Its popularity in England was spurred by heavy government duties on imported spirits, as well as the fact that gin production was not required to be licensed. This growth in popularity was also accompanied by a gradual decline in its reputation, however, with it being blamed for a range of issues, from social problems such as public drunkenness, to increases in death rates. Gin’s reputation has since largely recovered, although some references to these associations still survive in English parlance – ‘Mother’s Ruin’ is still a widely known alternative name for the spirit.

April 21, 2015

The statistical anomalies of sex

Filed under: Health,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

As the old saying has it, “everyone lies about sex“:

Straight men have had twice as many sexual partners, on average, as straight women. Sounds plausible, seeing that men supposedly think about sex every seven seconds. Except that it’s mathematically impossible: in a closed population with as many men as women (which roughly there are) the averages should match up. Someone is being dishonest, but who? And why? These questions, along with many others, are explored in Sex by numbers, a new book by David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.

“Sex is a great topic,” says Spiegelhalter. “There’s lots of it going on, but we don’t know what goes on or how much of it, because most of the time it goes on behind closed doors. It’s a really difficult topic to investigate scientifically, and a real challenge for statistics.” Spiegelhalter’s aim is to get people interested in a critical approach to the numbers they hear about in the news and give them the tools to figure out if they can be believed. “It’s really a book about statistics, using sex as an example.”

Statistics about sex are not all equally good. Some, like the number of births in a given year, are cast-iron facts, but others are much harder to come by. The number of sexual partners is a good example. The mismatch above comes from the third The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), conducted between 2010 and 2012, in which men reported having had 14 sexual partners, on average, and women 7. Studies have suggested that women give lower numbers when they fear the survey isn’t entirely confidential, something that doesn’t seem to affect men (contrary to my expectation, it doesn’t induce them to exaggerate). So that’s one possible explanation for the mismatch: sadly, women still need to fear social stigma.

But there are other explanations too. One is that men (more than women) may have some of their sexual experience with sex workers. These aren’t included in the surveys, so their experiences are missing from the female tally. Another is that there are different attitudes as to what counts as a sexual partner. If a woman feels she’s been coerced by a man, for example, she may not want to count him.

March 30, 2015

Wooden Boat Building – White oak vs Red oak with Louis Sauzedde

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 6 Jun 2014

Shipwright Louis Sauzedde shows you how to tell the difference between white oak and red oak for proper wooden boat building. Produced by Fish Hawk Films.

March 21, 2015

I know several people who’d want one of these

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Want a new exotic toy to show off to your buddies after you say “Here, hold my beer”? How about a personal flamethrower?

Personal flamethrower 1

Personal flamethrower 2

Personal flamethrower 3

QotD: The modern snob

Filed under: Europe,Quotations,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Walking through Amsterdam recently, a paradox that I had long noticed in an inchoate way formulated itself clearly in my mind. It was this: A century ago, there would have been one clothes shop for every hundred well-dressed people. Nowadays there is one well-dressed person (if that) for every hundred clothes shops. What accounts for this strange reversal of ratios?

Beyond the fact that clothes are now mass-produced rather than made individually, there is an act of will involved. Practically everyone now dresses not merely in a casual way, but with studied slovenliness for fear of being thought elegant, as elegance is a metonym for undemocratic sentiment or belief. You can dress as expensively as you like, indeed expensive scruffiness is a form of chic, but on no account must you dress with taste and discrimination. To do so might be to draw hostile attention to yourself. Who on Earth do you think you are to dress like that?


Modern scruffiness, then, is a manifestation of egotism. Outside one of the shops in Amsterdam was a large plasma screen showing models wearing the kind of clothes to be had within. They were precisely the insolently ragged clothes that the great majority of people in the street were wearing anyway. This was a form of flattery of the public, for it implied that its members had nothing to aspire to in the matter of dress higher than that which they themselves were already wearing — that in the matter of appearance they had already reached acme of the possible.

There was yet more. The models, in their T-shirts, baseball caps, sneakers, and so forth, as uniform as any army, walked with the kind of vulpine lope that one associates with the less law-abiding young males of the American ghettoes. But even more striking was the expression on their faces, which were cachectic in the case of the women, androgynous in the case of men: a fixed, determined, humorless stare that indicated a hatred of the world and all that was in it, including their fellow-beings. If one saw such a person at a social event, one would go to some effort to avoid or to flee or not to talk to him or her. The models’ faces were vacantly earnest, as if they wished for annihilation of everything around them for some personal reason, no doubt trifling.

This is the first age in which people do not dress to please others, but dress to displease others, to make sure that everyone knows that I’m not going to make any effort just for you. And this, no doubt, is because I am as good as anyone in the world, bar none: His Majesty, myself. And what starts out as an attitude becomes an unexamined and ingrained habit.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Slobbery as Snobbery”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-06-15.

March 19, 2015

I know it’s been cold around here this winter …

Filed under: Cancon,Randomness — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

… but I hadn’t heard that Hell had actually frozen over. Because that’d be the only possible explanation for a headline like this one:

Is Scarborough, Ontario the dining capital of the world?

Wednesday night I was taken on a restaurant tour of Scarborough — four different places — plus rolls from a Sri Lankan locale, consumed in the office of the Dean of UT Scarborough and with the assistance of Peter Loewen.

After that eating, and lots of driving around and looking, I concluded Scarborough is the best ethnic food suburb I have seen in my life, ever, and by an order of magnitude. I hope you all have the chance to visit Scarborough, Ontario.

Update, 20 March: The Toronto Star‘s Lauren Pelley reports on Tyler Cowen’s recent visit to Scarborough and his discovery of the area’s impressive range of high quality ethnic food.

Over the phone from his office at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen noted that people in Toronto seem to perceive the new, hip restaurants to be elsewhere. “But it seems to me, you don’t come close to this part of town,” he said.

Rick Halpern, dean of UTSC and Cowen’s tour guide last Wednesday, agreed that most people are fixated on the downtown core. “No one goes east of the DVP,” he lamented.

Cowen’s post is making the rounds online, and sparking discussion on blogs and Reddit. Scarborough is “a foodie’s best kept secret,” as one commenter put it, though it’s no secret to locals.

“I would say that people who are into food, and who have a car, explore Scarborough and other suburbs,” said Jennifer Bain, the Star’s food editor, who has highlighted many of the area’s offerings over the years — including Uighur fare from Scarborough’s Chinese Muslim community, sweets from local Filipino bakeries, and the global flavours of Hakka Chinese food, to name a few.

March 14, 2015

BAHFest West 2014 – Catherine Hofler: Why Cats Sprint Out of the Room for No Apparent Reason

Filed under: Humour,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 31 Dec 2014

Catherine Hofler, the Director of Research at Emerald Therapeutics, explains the regression toward cardiovascular mean in Felis catus via sporadic locomotion.

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong evolutionary theory. Additional information is available at http://bahfest.com/

BAHFest West was a part of the 2014 Bay Area Science Festival http://www.bayareascience.org/

March 2, 2015

Food naming oddities

Filed under: Cancon,India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren on the oddly named “Digby Chicken” and “Bombay Duck” along with a paean to the joys of food shopping in Parkdale:

Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”

This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.

Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.

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