Ephemerides

A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

Who is that fat bastard? A Sturm's Eye View, Guaranteed Free of Harmful, or Potentially Harmful Chemicals -- but Watch Out for the Ideas! Some of them are Contagious! 

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 20 May 2002

I spent most of today in my bed with a fever. Usually I get one "proper" cold a year that lasts a very short while, often only overnight. This has been a low-grade "cold" for some time, though feeling chilly hasn't alternated with sweaty fevers. At the cottage, I used to get in the bath and keep adding a small amount of hot water at a time to bring the water to as high as I could stand it. An hour of this was marvellously decongesting. The theory also is that a hot fever is the body's response to fight the infection and that the steaming hot bath aids the body's fight. I have no idea whether this is true, or not, but it appears to work for me. 

Of course I can't do that now lest I also take to boiling little children alive in my bathtub. There is the legally required tempering valve preventing the water becoming any hotter than 55C. My new $US500 pressed steel bath loses heat much faster than the old cast-iron bath in the cottage, despite my putting insulation around it. I have but one opportunity to top the water up to anywhere near what I could achieve at the cottage as it requires a doubling of volume of water to make any significant difference to the temperature.

After the plumber decides to come and fix the hot water outlet problem on the cookstove, I will move the tempering valve to where it belongs -- on the shower. I have only been waiting for the plumber since we first moved into The House of Steel in late January. And this cold has persisted for some weeks with miscellaneous aches and pains moving hither and yon around my aging body. I cannot remember having felt so tired for so long since having pneumonia back in the late 1970s.

-oOo-

The day in bed enabled me to do some serious decision-making. I am in the throes of designing a website for a client and really should have had the whole thing finished a couple of weeks ago. Apart from this website and Franklin and Friends, I only ever created one before and that was just to get my feet wet, so to speak. I have been involved in publishing on paper though from long before computers became ubiquitous.

My own personal preference is for keeping things as simple as possible. The overriding purpose of any document (government and legal excepted) is to convey information efficiently. The client agreed with this basic precept and mailed me a copy of an excellent book on advertising written back in the 1920s. Its message, most of it at least, is as true today as it was then. So far, so good.

The client also sent me a bunch of documents to use and rather than the simple, straightforward sort I was expecting as a result of our conference, many of them are design-intensive. Step one was to convert them all to Rich Text Format since they are all on paper. That was the easy part once I came to grips with the settings needed for decent OCR. I tried several applications to convert them to usable HTML with no real success. One of the applications I had high hopes for took a whole day to successfully install. "Successful" might be somewhat of an exaggeration. My system became unstable on that day and uninstalling the application left the system in no better state. It's days like that one really wishes for the elegance of the Mac!

It really amazes me that the Web has been in popular use since 1995, yet our tools for shifting information between applications remain so appallingly primitive. There are specific tools advertised as being able to do the job, but in the absence of a trial, I was unwilling to plunk down the pitifully small remains of my hard-earned if they were not up to the job. I attempted to bend MS Word to my will, that being the application I am most familiar with. Unfortunately, it is so good at doing what I want out-of-the-box, I hadn't needed to do any extensive macro writing for several long years. I now sincerely regret not learning VBA when the macro language changed tfrom Word Basic! I must admit that I stuck with Word 95 as long as possible, rather than have to constantly deal with Word 97's execrable bugginess, despite it getting the long overdue VBA macro language.

Cutting back to the chase, there was a parallel thread of discussion with people advising me to change my simple HTML 4.x ways to XML -- "the way of the future". Fortunately, the tool for the job -- DreamWeaver MX -- became available as an evaluation download. Not only does it do the required XML stuff, it's brilliant for HTML as well. I haven't enjoyed using a new product so much since I first started using Excel 3 and PageMaker 3 on my old 286. The experience wasn't as keen, but then they were the very early days when most tools really stank.

Another event had an impact on my thinking. I keep a fairly close eye on the statistics of what my readers are using to access these pages. A surprising (to me) 11% have no JavaScript and a further 4% have JavaScript disabled. Having voyaged through a comprehensive look at what is available, I have decided to stick with the lowest common denominator. I now know I can create attractive, design-intensive pages, but that doesn't necessarily mean I should. Using HTML 4.x with some hints in CSS means most will view my pages as The Pompous Git intended -- many won't. But they will be able to obtain what they came for -- information.

My final pre-decision thoughts were: "Who are these pages intended for? Me, my client, or their clients?" As I ran several web pages through the IBM Via Voice text-to-speech converter, I realised that my decision could, and perhaps should, have been made several weeks ago. Vision-impaired people are potential clients, too. So, was I wasting my and/or my clients time? I sure have learned a lot about where the Internet and web-page design will be in the future. Time spent on this research was my time, not billable. And given the propensity of legislators to mandate even the way we deal with hot water in our own homes, I would not be surprised to see laws making most current websites illegal on the grounds they exclude the less-abled. Converting those websites will not be trivial if this prediction comes to pass.

And my very final thoughts were about The Pompous Git. It would have been much easier to make a quick off-the-cuff decision and live to regret it, or not. Certainly, this approach is frequently more financially rewarding, but my feelings about doing the best possible job come first. If that costs me money and clients, so be it. I have lived to regret many of the rushed decisions I made in my impetuous youth. Spending endless amounts of time "fighting fires" caused by poor planning is frustrating at best, disastrous at worst.

-oOo-

Fellow Daynoter (we do these things so you don't have to) Dave Farquhar has managed to create the best XML/JScript page I have seen so far. The link may not last as it's the test location before a final commit. Sooner or later, it will be here. Right now, Dave's thoughts about web design are in the first link. What I like about this page, more than anything else, is the inclusion of buttons on the left hand side that allow the readers to make their choice of font and text size.

Thought for the day:

An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.

Carl Jung

Current Listening

Pink Floyd -- Obscured by Clouds

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Tuesday 21 May 2002

A sad day, Stephen Jay Gould died of lung cancer, age 60. There's an excellent obituary here. Doubtless many of the victims of his penetrating intellect and clarity of thought are looking forward to dancing on his grave. I am not one of them.

Thought for the day:

Intelligence appears to be the thing that enables a man to get along without education. Education enables a man to get along without the use of his intelligence.

Albert Edward Wiggam

Current Listening

Daevid Allen -- Now is the Happiest Time of Your Life

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Saturday 25 May 2002

Being very busy with a houseguest, fixing the electrician's computer and burning some copies of a friend's recently released CD. Actually, Matchfist wrote the lyric In a Field in France -- Jimmy Little recorded it some two years ago. Matchfist has yet to receive any copies from the record company to sell, much to his disgust. The Returned Soldiers League are going to use the song for their music on hold to entertain people who telephone them. That should put a few extra dollars in my friend's pockets and they are sorely needed.

Swing music and dancing at The Palais tonight. I'll be photographing, not dancing.

-oOo-

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the phrase "Precautionary Principle" in the last few weeks. Usually, it's in connection with the imminent end of all life on planet earth -- Anthropogenic Global Warming (we must act now!), or Genetically Modified Organisms (we must not act now!). When I was a boy, the Precautionary Principle had mothers take their uninfected offspring to the home where some unfortunate sprog was suffering from measles, or chicken pox. The theory was that a childhood infection was far less serious than the same as an adult and infection meant inoculation against later infection. Sadly, the Pompous Git never managed to acquire mumps and so has spent a life in absolute dread and fear of catching the disease as an adult. Where the gonads are concerned, you can't be too fearful if you are a bloke!

These days of course children are protected from infection by those childhood diseases. One is simply not allowed to send a child with measles to school lest they infect another child and cause irreparable brain damage causing them to vote Republican/Democrat/Liberal/Labor [delete whichever is inapplicable] for the rest of their days. When I was a boy the greater health risk as an adult was balanced against the far smaller health risk of the childhood form of the disease. Today, we expect that the very small number of adults that become infected will be saved by the latest and greatest wonder-drug.

It is true that the second strategy has enabled children to attain their status as adults and retain their innate capability to vote appropriately/inappropriately [delete whichever is inapplicable]. It is also true that by and large we no longer see those infections at the same infection rates that were commonplace when The Pompous Git was a mere tadpole in the scummy pond called England. However, these infectious organisms developed (dare I say, evolved?) alongside humans (hupersons?). It was an arms race as several scientists have pointed out. Forcing these organisms underground, as it were, to develop a secret strategy against which we have no defences whatsoever, bodes ill for both sides in the millennial conflict.

The Pompous Git is very much in favour of The Precautionary Principle. A strange thing happens to some tadpoles when very young -- they become fascinated by history. Let it be known that The Git favours the return of the British Parliament's Red Flag Act of 1865. In order to prevent the appalling carnage we see on our roads today, it required every motorised vehicle on the road to be preceded by a man on foot bearing a red flag by day, or a lantern by night. Clearly, this would dramatically reduce the death rate from motor vehicle accidents.

Scientific American pointed out in 1899: "Specialists have many times expressed an opinion that the nervous disorders which exist in the city are aggravated, if not caused, in many cases by the city's great traffic." Who could argue against a reduction of the stress caused by motor vehicle induced bipolar disorder and depression?  The reintroduction of this excellent Act would also enable the elimination of the loathsome car horn. It is a well-known medical fact that loud noises damage the cilia of the ear leading to premature deafness. This is something that many of us believe afflicts the leaders of our governmental institutions and leads to their complete inability to respond in any meaningful way to the desires of their electorates.

"Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We'll keep the Red Flag flying here!"

Thought for the day:

I value the friend who for me finds time on his calendar, but I cherish the friend who for me does not consult his calendar.

Robert Brault

Current Listening

The Hobart City Swing Band

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Sunday 26 May 2002

Stephen Jay Gould's death reminded me of one of the best essays he ever wrote: The Median isn't the Message. It is the story of the discovery of his terminal cancer and what the statistics really meant. Recalling his story had a particular significance for me. I share Gould's temperament and love many of the things he loved. Having been unwell for some time, it was a positive message about dealing with illness. For those who really want to know, I am much better. Gould's Pharmacy in Hobart (coincidence) provided me with a herbal remedy for my nocturia -- Serenoa. While the Git is hopeful for a cure for his problem, he is more than a little worried that it may become unavailable, since the label is clearly discriminatory! "For men only"! (Most women lack a prostate gland).

On a similar note, the Git observes that the Digital Millennium Act forbids the use of any device to decrypt digitally encrypted copyright material. Since the human brain is a device superbly suited to decryption, clearly it is illegal now to possess a brain in the USA. Lest I be accused once more of this being an anti-American statement, I look forward eagerly to my brain too being declared illegal if it has not already.

A visit from my good friend Tim Marshall with a small bag of clothes and a large one of vintage wine, mostly organic, cheered me immensely as I had not had the chance to have a face-to-face chat for the best part of a decade.

For the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep close on my normal six hours a night without waking for the piss that terminated any likelihood of sleep until 9:30 the following evening. For those who theorised that this might be down to my mind being overactive (some might say fevered), Tim brought a welcome amount of intellectual stimulus above and beyond that I normally experience. We have in common a fascination for epistemology and science. The Git drank about twice his usual amount of slosh in the evening and that usually leads to a worsening of the nocturia. But that is not what is exercising the Git's mind today.

It is a truism that there are "lies, damned lies and statistics". Few understand this branch of mathematics at all well and The Pompous Git is probably only marginally above the mean. I read earlier this week that "hurricanes cross the US coastline one year in three. Since this hasn't occurred for two years now, the probability that it will occur this year is greatly increased". It's actually quite easy to detect the fallacy here by experimentally tossing a coin a few hundred times and recording each toss as a head, or tail. You will note that there is no tendency for a head to follow a tail. Indeed, there is not even any tendency for a head to follow tossing four tails in a row. Each toss of an unbiased coin has precisely a 50% chance of producing a head or tail. The chances of a hurricane crossing the US coastline this year is precisely the same one in three it was last year and the year before. This year's hurricanes have no knowledge of last year's hurricane behaviour.

Things become a little more complicated when we want to measure trends in large, widely spread sets of data. For instance, my hypothetical researcher might want to know the precise height of a large number of people so that he could analyse the data for information. He might want to know if there is a preponderance of very short people leading to an average height below the median height, or the converse -- mostly taller individuals leading to a median higher than the mean. To do this, my hypothetical researcher publishes a request for colleagues to provide the information he needs.  His colleagues in this instance are primary school teachers who read a regular newsletter intended for that audience.

The astute will already have leaped to the rather obvious conclusion that even if our researcher receives many responses to his request, the data and subsequent conclusions that can be drawn from them may not be adequate to the task. For instance, doubtless there are many primary school teachers who do not receive the newsletter having never heard of its existence. Some may receive it, but be unable to read English as it's not their native language. Some may measure children only, some may include the teaching staff. And so on... 

This is what we call a convenience sample. The conclusions we can draw from the data are limited to the sources of the data. We cannot, for instance, draw any conclusions about the heights of all the inhabitants of planet Earth. To do the latter, we would need to determine a certain number of random sample locations for data gathering. If there was a preponderance of samples from the US and a corresponding lack of samples from African pygmies, the data would be skewed higher than if the reverse were true. In countries where females are not educated, they would be left out of the data. And so on...

The even more astute might have detected where all this Pompous Gitting is leading. The use of the surface temperature record as a device to predict climate change is a profound misuse of statistical mathematics. I am reminded of the injunction of one of Napoleon Bonaparte's generals to never attribute to malice what may be attributed to stupidity. The data from GISS and CRU used to create the Global Historic Climate Network data is all convenience sampling. Almost every location chosen for gathering temperature records is where people choose to live, a decision due more to local climate than anything else. Mountain tops, deserts, the sea surface above the Marianas Trench... don't come into it. A random number of data-gathering locations chosen for the purpose of climate change predication must necessarily include many such places. A data set that fails to include most areas of the planet and is decidedly not randomly chosen, may not be legitimately used to draw conclusions about the current state of the planet, never mind past and future change.

Put a slightly different way, we cannot infer the probability of a temperature recording at the peak of Mount Everest from any amount of temperature recordings made on the eastern seaboard of the United States. One may very well be a function of the other, but we most certainly have no idea of the relationship prior to conducting an investigation as to what that relationship might be!

And all of this contributes to why the International Panel Climate Change 's expert review draft Third Assessment Report, Chapter 14, states that "the long-term prediction of future exact climate states is not possible." Yes, the very same group who say the exact opposite in the Summary for Policy Makers. It is intriguing to ask why IPCC are saying one thing to scientists and the opposite to the hoi polloi.

The only data sets that overcome this profound difficulty so far are the radio sonde and satellite records. Again, it is intriguing to ask why the Anthropogenic Global Warming advocates denigrate these legitimate data sets in favour of a data set intended for quite a different purpose.

-oOo-

Ward Gerlach writes:

You wrote, on your post of Monday, May 21: "It really amazes me that the Web has been in popular use since 1995, yet our tools for shifting information between applications remain so appallingly primitive."

Hmmmm.... I seem to recall that Gutenberg invented/made practical movable type - which took many decades to become actually widespread, and more decades to have a sort-of standard for layout purposes.

Another analogy is the automobile. My first automobile was a 1959 VW bug. My current "ride" is a 1994 Geo Metro (Suzuki Swift, assembled in Canada, sold in the US by General Motors). Both were/are basic transport. I loved that VW, and was happy to get 75,000 miles before having to think about engine rebuilds. I put 225,000 miles on that car before the electrics went up in smoke and glorious flame one fine day. And I fussed with it - every 2500 miles, change the oil, adjust the valves, adjust the ignition timing, and replace spark plugs, cap, rotor, and spark plug wires every 10,000. Thirty years later, my Metro/Swift gets an oil change every 3000 miles. Cap and rotor every 20,000 miles. Never have adjusted the ignition timing (in 80,000 miles), and, I don't expect to do an engine rebuild for another 40,000 miles (and it would be longer, if I didn't have a heavy throttle foot). AND, the Metro/Swift gets much better gas mileage than the VW, and does NOT dribble oil all over the garage floor over-night! These minor advances took 30 years.

You expect major conceptual advances (rather than strictly mechanical advances) to happen in seven years?

Even on "Internet Time", isn't that expecting a little much?

Regards....WARD GERLACH (San Jose, California, USA)

Call me impatient, but I have been frustrated by moving data between file formats for as long as I have been using computers. Most of my writing used to be done with MS Word, but it generates execrable HTML, so I have been using FrontPage and more lately, DreamWeaver MX. I really miss AutoCorrect for inserting common phrases rather than typing them out in full. If FrontPage can generate fairly clean HTML, surely it's not impossible for Word, or any other common word processor for that matter.

Thought for the day:

The world is not to be put in order; the world is order, incarnate. It is for us to harmonize with this order.

Henry Miller

Current Listening

Richard Betts -- Highway Call

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Jonathan Sturm 2002

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Jonathan Sturm 2002