The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

Contents by Category

Contents by Date

Favorite Links

My Wiki: main entrance
Boing Boing
Gwydion Dylan
Paul Graham
Richard P. Gabriel

Mon, 28 Feb 2005 Bismuth

So, we received our bismuth metal and proceeded to do some informal experiments. I call them "informal" because we did not keep strict records, form a precise hypothesis, and work hard to vary only one variable at a time. However, we did form some interesting conclusions and observations.

Experiment 1: Diamagnetism

The first thing we tried to observe was the diamagnetic effect in bismuth. The idea behind "diamagnetism" is that a magnet will induce in some materials an opposing magnetic field. We tried to observe this using a set of small but very powerful neodymium magnets. I am sorry to say that we were unable to observe any noticeable magnetic repulsion using any amount of bismuth from tiny splatter fragments to a solid ingot of perhaps 200g in mass. I am not sure why we could not observe this effect, which is supposed to be quite strong. One hypothesis is that our bismuth was not pure bismuth, but I think this is very unlikely since in all other respects (melting temperature, formation of crystals, oxidation, color tint of the oxidizing melt, and behavior when the liquid metal was dripped into water) it behaved exactly as expected). Also, it is my understanding that the bismuth would not need to be absolutely pure to show the diamagnetic effect. We will have to do a little more reading and perhaps ask some other people.


For the hot metal experiments, we made sure that we were wearing reasonably durable clothes that covered most of our skin, that we both had eye protection, and that we had a ready supply of water nearby to put out any fires, including a 32-ounce cup pre-filled and ready to go. For eye protection, I have prescription polycarbonate lenses which I judged to be adequate. Isaac put on a pair of polycarbonate sunglasses when he came near the melted metal. We used a thick cloth potholder to grab the handles of the cups, which was adequate, since the metal handles acted as heat-sinks anyway, although a silicone glove might have been provided a better grip.

Experiment 2: Melting

The second informal experiment was done to answer the question "can we melt bismuth on our stovetop?"

Our stove is a rather low-end home stove, and the oven is not very powerful, frequently doing a poor job getting the right amount of heat for baking, so I was not completely confident that we'd be able to get the metal hot enough.

Our methodology was to place 5 10-gram cylinders of the metal, as it arrived from the supplier, into a new stainless steel 3/4-cup measure. We placed this directly on the heating element and set the temperature control to 75% of the way to maximum. I was prepared to wait a while for melting to start, but Isaac noticed that the metal began melting almost immediately. So the answer was "yes." It did not even seem necessary to set the heat to maximum.

Experiment 3: Crystals

The third informal experiment was done to answer the question "can we form macroscopic bismuth crystals?"

The methodology was to melt 100 grams of bismuth and then remove the cup from the heat, allowing it to cool for several minutes without disturbing it, then pouring off the remaining melted metal into another heated cup.

We ran into complications because I had thought that we could place the hot cup on a heavy wood cutting-board in order to to allow it to cool slowly, rather than on a more heat-conductiven metal surface. The heat was too much for the wood, though, and the cutting board smoked and steamed underneath the cup. We increased the ventilation, but this was not really satisfactory. The smoke detectors did not go off, but it was at this point that Grace took the baby from the living room downstairs with her to the laundry room so that the smoke would not irritate her.

Despite this complication, after the first pour-off, we noticed visible crystals. After the bismuth and cup had cooled for several minutes, it was cool enough to try scraping some of the tiny crystals out of the cup, which I did using a wire hanger.

We broke one small crystal, about 3 millimeters across, that exhibited "hopper" structure. This was not very impressive, but it proved the concept. I threw this one back in the melted metal in the hopes of getting larger crystals on another pass. In retrospect, I should have saved it, for we were not able to get good crystal specimens after this.

The plan was to try using different cooling times to determine the cooling time which produced the most crystals. Because I was trying to find a solution to the smoke problem, we were not able to repeat the experimental conditions accurately while changing only one variable. I tried using ten layers of aluminum foil between the steel cup and the wooden board, reasoning that the foil would deflect some of the heat. This did not really solve the scorching problem; it just scorched more slowly. Moreover, the use of the foil dramatically changed the characteristics of the cooling metal. It no longer cooled first from the sides and bottom, but seemed to cool from both the top and bottom equally, so that when we attempted to pour off the remaining melted metal, it poured not from the top but from "holes" in what had become a semi-crystalline slab of brittle, oxidized bismuth. This brittle mass was clearly formed of a crystallized form of the metal, but it did not form attractive individual crystals.

I should say a few words about oxidation. We observed as we poured off, melted, and re-poured off the metal, it developed a "sheen" of various colors, most notably a vivid blue and green, as well as an oxidized, ugly "skin" of powder-gray metal, which would not melt. We were able to skim this off using the wire hanger and collect a heap of powdery oxidized bismuth. After working with the metal for a while, the cups became scarred and pocked with a yellowish oxide on the bottom, and lumps of scaly oxide on the sides, which we were unable to scrape off using the wire. At higher temperatures the liquid metal could be skimmed with the hanger, which would leave behind a clean, shiny surface, which would then immediately begin to develop a powdery-gray appearance.

This bismuth oxide, which we were not able to melt, could presumably be "reduced" using charcoal and a crucible, but we did not have an apparatus to do this, and so our shiny melted bismuth became gradually more and more contaminated with oxide. The smoke from the scorching cutting board, and possible varnish on the wire hanger, may have contributed to this contamination.

So, result was that we were able to grow at least a few small macroscopic crystals, but we were not able to successfully experiment with melting and cooling conditions or improve the results. I was not terribly disappointed by this as I was not really expecting to be able to grow large, beautiful crystals with this simple setup.

Experiment 4: Casting

A fourth informal experiment was done to answer the question "Can we cast the molten bismuth into a solid ingot using a mold made from folded aluminum foil?"

This part was very interesting. The answer was technically "yes," although with extreme reservations.

I folded a dozen layers of foil into a small box shape, and placed it on the cutting board, and poured about 100 grams of molten bismuth into the mold.

The result was somewhat startling. The combination of hot bismuth and aluminum foil immediately produced a thick black smoke, so we cleared the area and increased the ventilation. The smoke was not coming from the wood underneath, which did scorch as expected, but seemed to come the mold itself. The foil did not visibly burn, but may have either burned under the molten bismuth or have somehow allowed the bismuth itself to oxidize with some violence.

The molten bismuth did form a solid ingot, which upon cooling we were able to remove from the foil, which did not appear particularly burned. The top of the ingot was coated with a black powdery residue, which was much more difficult to remove from my fingers than the bismuth oxide. We washed and dried the ingot. Some of the aluminum foil on the bottom had stuck to the metal and could not easily be removed. We decided to melt the ingot back down and remove the foil from the melt. However, once it was melted, we were not able to find the foil, so I assume that it burned up. Our melt was now presumably contaminated with aluminum oxide, which probably would have ruled out any further crystal growth.

So, in conclusion, it was possible to use foil to form a mold and create an ingot, but the heat produced a potentially dangerous reaction, so I would not want to try this again. Powdered aluminum is used as an explosive, and aluminum is apparently too prone to oxidation to use safely for such a purpose, although I imagine that a solid piece would not produce smoke so readily. We are not certain of the toxicity of the generated smoke, but presumably it was not a good idea to be breathing it. I was glad that the baby was out of the room and that we had good ventilation.

Experiment 5: Spatters

A fifth informal experiment was done to answer the question "what happens when you drop the molten bismuth metal into water?"

We tried using several different size containers and dropping the metal in different ways, ranging from pouring individual drops into the water up close, to pouring a stream from high up.

For these experiments we used a small steel bowl on the counter, and also a large bucket on the floor. This part made it clear how important it was to have eye protection. The hot metal produced small steam explosions, which resulted in sprays of water droplets as well as occasionally very small droplets of molten or near-molten bismuth. The result was somewhat like the spatters that can happen while cooking bacon in a frying pan. I received some very minor burns on my forearms, but I had expected that this might happen, and none of the burns were severe enough to require treatment.

Pouring pure bismuth into a small container in a steady stream produced very elaborate spatter shapes that would stick together in a semi-solid "forest." Doing this raised the temperature of the water to the point where it was steaming, and produced a lot of spatter.

Dropping bismuth into the larger bucket produced at least four somewhat distinct results.

Dropping the metal from several feet produced "exploded" shapes, where it appeared that the molten metal actually splashed upon hitting the water. The shapes ranged from very thin foil-like fragments to spheres and teardrops that seemed "exploded" -- hollowed out.

Pouring the bismuth very close to the water surface resulted in elongated, needle-like shapes with points at both ends, some several inches long.

Pouring the bismuth carefully drop-by-drop resulted in a large number of small, nearly identical "teardrop" shapes. These were so remarkably uniform and attractive that I separated these out and set them aside to put in a jar for display.

In the bottom of the bucket we also collected a very fine "sand" or "grit" of dark, oxidized-looking bismuth. It is not clear whether this was solid oxide, or how it was formed. Some hypotheses include: it oxidized by the dissolved oxygen in the water itself; the hot metal actually released oxygen from the water; it was produced by the explosion within the steam bubbles; it was somehow separated from the actual bismuth metal by the dropping process.

We collected up some of the less attractive pieces, dried them, and put them back to melt again. We discovered that it was extremely important to dry the bismuth thoroughly. Some of the hollowed-out shapes still contained enough water to cause a more violent steam explosion, which blew tiny molten metal droplets everywhere. This served as a good warning; if we try to melt down more of the spatter we will bake it at a low temperature first to drive off the water and then heat it gradually to melt it to avoid this violent steam release.

Experiment 6: Casting (again)

As a final experiment, we poured some of the remaining oxidized and unattractive melted bismuth into a cup and allowed it to cool to room temperature, in another attempt to make an ingot or slab for examination later. When it was cool I was able to remove it from the cup by knocking the cup hard against the wooden cutting board.

End Products

The experiments left us with several end-products:

  1. A highly oxidized, ugly, irregular disc of bismuth combined with whatever oxides or other contaminants are present, with a powdery crust, partially yellow on the outside. I broke this into several pieces and put it into a bag. The broken edges exhibit a very shiny silicon-like appearance. The slab is extremely brittle.

  2. A badly scorched wooden cutting board. I'll save this for now in case weneed to use it again, but we will probably discard it eventually because it smells very smokey.

  3. Several "roasted" steel measuring cups. These are discolored on the outside from the heat. I scrubbed most of the oxide out with steel wool, but some remains that is too hard for me to remove. We will save these for possible use in melting down some of the spatter, or making more spatter, but they may be too contaminated to grow crystals.

  4. One more clean unused steel measuring cup. We may use this for a future attempt to grow crystals.

  5. Perhaps 300 or 400 grams of unused bismuth. We'll save this for a future experiment.

  6. Several baggies with different kinds of spatter: one with very attractive teardrop shapes, which I would like to save; one with "exploded" shapes, one with "needle" shapes, and one that is a jumble of all the rest, most of which is in the form extremely small irregular foils, lumps, crumbs, particles, and fragments.

Paul's Conclusions:

This was a fun way to get the urge out of my system to play with molten metal. Although it was more a demonstration than a formal experiment, we did learn some interesting things and it brought up some open questions for further, more formal, experimentation.

I did wind up making a couple of blunders that caused safety risks. The biggest of these were super-heating the aluminum foil, and putting spatter products that were still damp back into the melt. Fortunatley these do not seem to have caused any long-term harm, although I regret the exposure to the smoke generated by the combination of the hot bismuth and aluminum foil. The scorching of the cutting board was unfortunate but I don't believe it represented a serious risk of fire, because the wooden board was too large and flat to ignite.

Questions for Isaac:
  1. Read the chapter on bismuth in the Elmsley element book.

  2. Examine the contents of the various baggies, particularly the broken "ingot" or solid disc, and the long "needle" shapes. (Wash your hands with soap and water after handling this oxide, since it will stick to your hands).

  3. We can describe metals as ductile (bendable) or brittle (breakable). How would you describe the needle shapes? How would you describe the ingot?

  4. Can you explain the difference in color between the somewhat shiny teardrop shapes and the grayish surface of the ingot? How about the shiny broken edges of the ingot?

  5. Are the needle shapes crystallized metal? Explain. Why or why not?

  6. Is the ingot crystallized metal? Explain. If so, is it one crystal or many crystals? Can you see the crystals? Why or why not?

  7. Explain how to convert the melting temperature of bismuth from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

  8. What would you do differently if you had a chance to do more experiments with bismuth? Particularly, address how to improve safety, how to cool the molten metal without using the wooden board. Which experiment would you like to do?

  9. For the experiment you would like to do, write down the hypothesis, the planned method, the expected result, the reason the expected result would confirm the hypothesis, and an alternative explanation for the expected result that does not confirm the hypothesis.

Isaac's Conclusions:

(to be done!)

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Tue, 22 Feb 2005 Slogging Along with Turin

So, I'm working my way through the second book of Lost Tales. The early versions of Beren and Luthien were easy to read, especially with the somewhat comic scenes with the cat-lord, Tevildo. The draft of the story of Turin Turambar, entitled "Turambar and the Foaloke," is not so easy. It is long, and grim, largely in a very formal style, and it veers perilously close to reading like "the telephone book in Elvish." This is in part because so many of the names are different in the version of the story with which I am most familiar.

I'll have to fortify myself by listening to my recorded version of the tale of Turin Turambar as it appears in the Silmarillion. If that doesn't get me through it, I'll set it aside for now and move on to the next story. Maybe I'm just tired today.

In our bedtime storytelling we're in the midst of the Council of Elrond, the point at which fellowship is formed and the story really gets moving. The night before last we were in the hall of fire, and I read out loud Bilbo's poem about Earendil. I had long thought this was one of the more abstract and dull of the poems in the book, but now that I am older, when I read the poem out loud I find it stunning: an amazing vocabulary, great subtlety of wording, with alliteration and internal half-rhymes, makes it perhaps the best single poem in the book, in my haughty and egomaniacal opinion.

Shortly I'll have the chance to read Tolkien's early Tale of Earendel (an earlier spelling), which contains several earlier poems. I'm very much looking forward to it. It makes me laugh even more at Bilbo's cheekiness in reciting a poem about Earendil in the house of Elrond. But it is a remarkable poem, and the elves were not mocking Bilbo when they asked him to recite it again. It also makes me wonder what it would be like to be old enough to remember personally a world that is now only myth -- but since I was born in the 1960s, perhaps I do -- and wonder further what it would be like to have a constellation for a father!

[/root/geeky/tolkien] permanent link

Mon, 21 Feb 2005 Mercury

So, I should mention that I have a jar of elemental mercury. I have not weighed it, but I would guess that it contains two or three pounds. It is currently in zip-lock bag, in a tin, padded with foam rubber, on a shelf. It came from my stepfather's basement; I think he probably picked it up from a General Electric salvage lot in the 1970s. He used to bring home all kinds of interesting electronic and mechanical stuff. It was apparently not widely known then that mercury was toxic.

There are a couple of things we could do with this. We could pay someone to dispose of it for us -- probably the safest option. We could donate it to someone setting up an element display. We could just keep it as-is and put off making any decision as to its disposition. Or, we could have it ampouled in some way to make it display-worthy for our own element collection, and keep it locked up until the kids are old enough to be trusted around it.

It is somewhat oxidized and not shiny; this can be remedied by squeezing it through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. But although I used to handle this stuff as a kid, and did the filtering procedure before, I am reluctant to do it in our apartment, especially not with a child and a baby on premises. And then I'd have a cheesecloth or coffee filter contaminated with mercury.

What I'd really like is to find someone who would filter it (to "polish it up") and then put it in a heavy walled and attractive display bottle, top the jar off with argon, and seal it up. This is presumably a dangerous procedure; I don't even know how this kind of thing is safely done, but it must be done often, at least with smaller quantities, because ampoules like this are included in commercially available element displays.

Presumably, you'd need a vapor hood, and would do it wearing protective gear.

If you know someone who would like to take on a project like this, and who would be willing to accept the risk of a mercury spill, get in touch. It would be especially great to find someone who would do it in exchange for splitting the mercury into two jars, keeping half for his or her own element display.

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Lisp Group

I'm looking for people interested in meeting to talk about Lisp, Scheme, and other languages of that ilk. I have set up a group, the Ann Arbor Lisp Languages Meetup; the group home page is here:

As of yet, we have not met, because no one has joined the goup. I'm posting this here in part so that anyone Googling for an Ann Arbor, Michigan, Lisp User's Group, or Scheme User's Group, will find it.

I would also like to get this topic syndicated via RSS onto the Planet Lisp aggregate site (, but as of yet the Lisp content is a little light, so I wait until there is a little bit more of interest here before asking them to syndicate my feed. The RSS feed for this topic is available as:

[/root/geeky/programming/lispish] permanent link


So, I decided to order a couple of pounds of pure bismuth to melt down with my son, in order to attempt to create bismuth crystals. In case we can't get any visible crystals, I also bid on a really pretty specimen on eBay. We might also see whether crystallization can be improved by using a "seed" crystal. I don't know whether that works with metals or not.

I mentioned cesium as being another metal that would melt in your hand. Well, some web sites describe a couple of other metal elements as being liquid at "room temperature," but really it depends on the temperature of your room. Cesium melts at about 83 degrees Fahrenheit, gallium at 86, and rubidium at 102.

It is a bit odd to talk about the "melting point of francium," since it is an unstable radioactive element that would be insanely difficult or insanely dangerous to accumulate in a quantity large enough to be visible, but the melting point of francium, presumably calculated via mathematical modeling rather than by observation, is listed in the books as 27 degrees Celsius (about 81 degrees Fahrenheit). Bromine and mercury are both liquid at what I think of as comfortable "room temperature" -- around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, this is technically true -- cesium will melt in your hand, but I should probably also point out that when it was done melting in your hand, it would then melt your hand, or, rather, burn its way through it in an extremely painful way. Cesium is extremely hazardous, and pure cesium must be kept under glass in argon. A cesium FAQ list at the University of Rochester says:

"Cesium is an alkali metal, in the same group as lithium, sodium, potassium, and rubidium, and is similarly reactive, but to a much higher degree due to its extreme electropositivity. It reacts explosively with water, and with ice down to -116 C. In air, it catches fire spontaneously and burns with a brilliant sky-blue flame...

Its hydroxide is the most powerful aqueous base known, and will eat through glass, flesh, bone, and numerous other substances."


The FAQ is here:

This is too bad, because it is very pretty; if mercury is quicksilver, cesium could be called quickgold. It would be a beautiful specimen to have in an element collection, but it is far too dangerous to have a specimen, even a nicely ampouled specimen, in the house with small children (or even with me; I would no doubt want to handle it all the time too). Oh, well.

Of possibly more interest are the non-toxic metals with low melting points. More on those when we get our bismuth!

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Fri, 18 Feb 2005 History Volumes 2 and 6

I have finished reading the early versions of the story of Beren and Luthien, in volume 2 of the History of Middle Earth. This draft is interesting in part, as I have said, because of Huan's nemesis, the evil cat Tevildo, and because Beren is apparently also an elf, but one of a different social class and community. The great love between elf and mortal man apparently had not become part of Tolkien's mythology yet.

The Tevildo material is interesting -- it seems that Tolkien may have been a dog person. One of the cats is actually killed and skinned. Tevildo's lieutenants act like cats, making enormous leaps and twitching their tales. Some of the story borders on comic fable. It is hard to decide whether Tolkien included the comic element wtih full deliberation, or whether he found himself distracted by writing an "origin" fable of the antipathy between cats and dogs in the midst of telling the story of Beren and Luthien. I tend to think the latter is true.

Intentionally, or not. I think he may have eliminated the entire Lord of Cats component of the storyline because it generated that comic feel, and in the later versions of the Silmarillion, he wanted to maintain that high mythological air. This is, I feel, a slight loss. Tolkien famously hated allegory, but the story of Tevildo is not allegory but fable, and I think Tolkien enjoyed writing fable. He may have come to feel that the form was unworthy; if so, that's a shame. I feel that a truly integrated Silmarillion, with "lost tales" framework story intact, could have subsumed both the mythological style and the fable style, though broken down by complete story, perhaps; the combination of styles within the story of Beren and Luthien perhaps did not serve that story well. The storytellers are actually different characters, so it would make perfect sense that they would tell the tales with very different voices.

I received the last two outstanding orders from Amazon: volumes 6 and 8 of the History. Volume 6 was apparently the hardest for Amazon to get, but get it they did. Although all the rest were in mint condition, this one looks a bit shopworn -- not abused, but the cover is scuffed. The binding on this one is a bit distorted, but that is a manufacturing issue and hardly Amazon's fault. Still, it makes me wonder what various and sundry means they use to procure their books -- this volume looks like it came off the shelf of a retail store.

There also was no discount on this volume. Sadly, they also have raised the price of all the available volumes slightly now, although most of them are still far below list.

Anyway. I began reading Return of the Shadow last night. There are a couple of remarkable things about Tolkien's drafts. The first is that many of the ideas and phrases really did spring full-blown from J. R. R. Tolkien's mind in the first draft. Sometimes they are the most clever and recognizable bits, such as when Bilbo tells his assembled guests "I don't know half of you half as well as I would like, and less than half of you half as well as you deserve." Indeed, the whole structure of the party, the speech, and Bilbo's disappearance did not change much.

The second remarkable thing is that Tolkien had no outline. The party was a set piece that he put down on the page, but there was as of yet no vision behind it. In several of the succeeding drafts he tried to get up some momentum for the story, but wound up repeatedly writing himself into a corner. Bilbo goes off and gets married and lives happily ever after. No, that pretty much derails the story before it gets off the ground. Bilbo goes off to Rivendell and lives happily ever after. Same problem. Hmmm. Maybe it isn't Bilbo who gives the speech -- Bilbo is a little too fat and happy to be the protagonist at this point -- but Bingo, his son. Or maybe Bingo isn't his son, but his second cousin. How old is Bilbo, anyway? How many years have gone by? Is this his party, or Bingo's party?

At this point Tolkien had only some very sketchy ideas about where to take the story. There was no deep history behind the ring. He had some vague ideas about Bilbo wanting to go acquire himself some more dragon-gold, or see a live dragon again, or travel across the sea, as part of the ring's curse, but it was not connected to his more ancient and rich mythology. He wanted to re-create the success of the Hobbit, and satisfy his fans, but he also didn't have a lot of interest in telling another children's story. His heart lay in his "Lost Tales," the over-arching legendarium of Middle Earth. The Hobbit was not really connected to this existing body of material at all. The challenge that Tolkien had before him, in order to get himself interested in the story, was to find a way to connect it to that deeper world.

It took him many chapters and many revisions before this began to happen; prior to this, he was mainly "writing his way into the story," as Tom Shippey described the process.

This is unintentionally a great encouragement to writers everywhere. Tolkien proved it: you don't have to know just what you are doing, before you start. If you are truly a writer, the process itself will generate the interesting ideas.

It also reveals the fault lines in The Lord of the Rings. Clearly, there was room for a progressive series of plot outlines in Tolkien's process. Ideally, a writer would use both techniques.

It is now much more clear why the early parts of the story feel so uneven. This long story, generated by repeated revisions and in fits and starts, also suffered, in some sense, from incomplete revision. The process of discovery of the plot is still visible. The seams show. The ringrwaiths, for example, in the early chapters, are not very terrifying, because Tolkien, like Frodo, didn't know what the ringwraiths were, and what terror they represented. And once he knew, he did not rework all the older scenes to fit the ringwraiths as they became later.

There are other places where the seams show. The Bombadil and Old Man Willow episodes, for example, really don't fit into the story arc. Tolkien included them because he had already imagined these characters in his comic rhymes, and thought it would be fun to give the hobbits something to do on their journey to Rivendell. He was right, and this recycling gives us an interesting and enigmatic episode in the story, but only because he was such a gifted writer. Lesser writers should take this as an encouragement that writing itself is the primary tool needed to generate ideas, but that a little planning can go a long way in producing a finished product with a more integrated and unified feel to it, especially if you are not a Tolkien yourself.

[/root/geeky/tolkien] permanent link

The Elements

So, my latest eBay obsession is beautiful specimens of pure elements. There are some sellers that specialize in unusual collectible pieces such as spheres of pure zinc, cadmium, or highly polished silicon, ingots or cylinders of aluminum or tungsten, and balls or lumps of some of the more expensive metals like osmium and iridium, which are neck-and-neck for the honor of densest readily available element, and which have to be melted in strange and very expensive contraptions such as electron-beam furnaces.

Beryllium and lithium are reactive, and iridium and osmium are very expensive, so my second thought was that it might be fun to have some less expensive specimens the represent radically different atomic weights, such as equal-sized pieces of zinc and tungsten. If I can't find equal-sized pieces, it would be cool to find similarly shaped pieces of the same mass, which would differ in size to a comical degree. I could also pick up an ingot if indium, which is an interesting, non-toxic metal that is extremely soft, and can be melted on a stovetop. I did not see any scandium, which is very expensive, or cesium or gallium, which will melt in your hand.

Tracking down a full set of attractive, pure specimens could very well be a full-time, and fascinating, hobby. A good place to start might be a set of attractive metals, like niobium and hafnium. But I probably should not try to take on yet another hobby, especially since I don't have a nice spot to set up a display of these speciments. Sigh.

Besides the pure element specimens, eBay also has great mineral specimens, such as beautiful black tourmaline and fluourite crystals, which would go, presumably, on a different shelf. There are also some amazing fabricated specimens, like a silver-doped bismuth crystal geode that looks like a robot egg, and a piece of Gadolinium Gallium garnet with crystals of platinum embedded in it.

I had a great collection of display-quality mineral specimens when I was young, but someone it got lost or thrown out while I was in college, when my parents moved. I've always regretted that: there were some beautiful specimens, like big cubes of pyrite and some very nice amethyst crystals, a s well as various granites and volcanic obsidian.

Theodore Gray's web site ( has the fascinating details of his collection.

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Thu, 17 Feb 2005 The Nazgul (Ringwraiths) in the Book and on Film

So, I've been reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my family as a bedtime story, bit-by-bit, usually half a chapter at a time. I've read the books before, but reading it again after seeing both the theatrical and extended versions of the first film multiple times, and listening to the commentary of the writers and director, brings into focus some of the differences between book and film.

In the film, the assault at Weathertop is intense and violent. The wraiths are very solid, physical beings. They go up in flames in a very satisfying way. It is only in "wraithworld," when Frodo dons the ring, that they appear ghostly, and he can see their forms as once-great kings of men.

In the book, the sequence is somewhat different. The hobbits and strider are clustered around a blazing campfire. Strider at first does not even see the wraiths as they approach Frodo. Merry and Pippin simply collapse face-down in terror. The wraiths are ghostlike, and difficult to see. It is not precisely clear how Strider drives them off, but I believe they allow themselves to be driven off, believing that they have accomplished their goal.

In the film, the flight to the Ford is very dramatic. The wraiths are very physical, not ghostly at all, with heavy black robes and nasty, black, articulated armored gauntlets. There is a high-speed chase where Arwen carries Frodo, while the wraiths pursue her, their nasty black hands reaching for Frodo, who by this point is completely incapacitated, drooling green slime and breathing like a dying asthmatic frog.

In fact, he does die, or nearly die, on the far bank; Arwen has to give him some of her Elvish mojo, the "grace of the Eldar," to keep him alive. He passes out, and we see his point of view in which he is bathed in white light.

In the book, the whole lead-up to the crossing of the Ford of Bruinen is strangely sluggish. Tolkien devotes paragraph after paragraph to the twists and turns of the landscape, as it frustrates the party's ability to make rapid progress. While the wraiths are converging on Weathertop, Strider recites a portion of the Lay of Luthien. While Frodo is wounded and the party finds Bilbo's trolls, Sam recites a comic poem. There is not an enormous sense of urgency. In fact, we find out that the wraiths themsevles are not urgently pursuing Frodo -- they know that he has been wounded with a Morgul-blade, and they believe that it is just a matter of time before he falls under their control. They do not think there is any need to pursue him further physically, although they seriously underestimate his resistance to the Morgul blade, and by the time the party reaches the ford, they are desperate to keep him from entering Rivendell, where he will be beyond their power.

Frodo bears his wound for seventeen days, and it has healed over after the first few days. The wound is not infected in the usual sense, but in the film we get a glimpse of a diseased-looking open wound. Frodo's arm and shoulder become numb and cold, but he is not in danger of dying in the physical sense. The wraiths attempted to "pierce his heart" with the Morgul blade, which would have turned him into a wraith, but missed, because of his toughness in resisting them. There is a splinter of the blade still in the wound, working its way inward, and it eventually takes all of Elrond's skill to remove it (this important point is not mentioned in the movie, although the key point that the wound will never fully heal is mentioned). The sickness that the wound inflicts on him is more psychic than physical in nature. By the time he crosses the Ford, he is not dying physically, but instead his will to oppose the wraiths is nearly at an end, and he is on the threshold of becoming a wraith himself.

Then, of course, there is the use of Arwen. This is a controversial move among Tolkien fans. I actually completely approve of the expansion of Arwen's character; her relationship with Aragorn comes to life, and the expansion of her very minor role in the book into a full-fledged character brings to life a story which, in the book, is mostly confined to a brief account in the appendix. It also serves to bring to life the sorrow of the elves. In the book, it is all right for someone to simply expound upon the elves, but Jackson and his writing team wisely decide to show us, not just tell us, about this. The story of the love between Arwen and Aragorn echoes those key moments in the history of Middle Earth in which elves forsake their immortality to bond with mortals; these relationships are among the most interesting and dramatic parts of the Silmarillion and the Lost Tales. I love the sequence in which Arwen, riding towards the Gray Havens at her father's command, has a vision of her future children. The flash-forward to Aragorn's death, his aged body replaced by a beautiful tomb bearing his likeness in statuary, and her eventual surrender to mortality in the empty woods of Lothlorien is just magnificent. Her torment over her choice or mortality is beautifully presented. But -- and I believe this is a key factor in why I don't dislike these changes -- Jackson and the writing team here rearranged and expanded a role, rather than changing existing key elements of the story.

In the book, it is Glorfindel who comes to Frodo's aid, and who helps to defeat the wraiths. Now, it makes a certain amount of sense to eliminate Glorfindel from the movie. He has little or nothing else to do in the rest of the story. Tolkien's portrayal of him makes him seem a bit silly -- with bells on his saddle as if he were one of Santa's elves, but then, somewhat incongruously, he is revealed to Frodo as a powerful and frightening elf-lord. (In the film, we see instead Frodo's first vision of Arwen, in which she radiates light and he sees her as she appears in the spiritual realm). The character of Glorfindel makes sense if you've read the Silmarillion -- he is a ancient high elf, who beheld the light of the trees -- but there is nothing in the Lord of the Rings itself to adequately explain why he does not fear the wraiths. Instead, Arwen states outright that she does not fear them, and we have to go with that and with Frodo's vision.

The storyline is further simplified -- Aragorn and the hobbits have nothing to do with the physical victory over the wraiths. In the book, the wraiths are confronted with the terror of the magical flood before them and Glorfindel the elf-lord, together with Aragorn and the hobbits brandishing burning firebrands behind them. Everyone gets into the act.

The changes to the story also take away the opportunity for Frodo to demonstrate what "stern stuff" the hobbits are made of. Even on the verge of psychic (if not physical) collapse, Frodo rides Glorfindel's horse -- he is not carried -- to the ford. He defies the wraiths to the last, calling on them to go back to Mordor, until terror overcomes him and his strength gives out. This show of defiance, and the psychic burden that Frodo carries from his wound, is somewhat lost in Jackson's treatment.

Jackson is very good at articulating inner conflict in dream sequences and visions -- I think he could have used some of that skill to tell this part of the story with a little bit more subtlety, perhaps showing us Frodo's point of view as he gradually succumbed to terror and stood on the "threshold" of the other world himself. We would come to understand that "wraithworld" was not an on/off switch that Frodo activates when putting on the ring, and that he in fact was half in "wraithworld" by the time he reached Rivendell, and indeed that he could never quite free himself of the psychic wound which the Morgul blade inflicted upon him.

This could have allowed the story to retain the sense of urgency which Jackson and the writing team decided, quite rightly, was required for the film form, while making the wraiths even more frightening and Frodo's situation even more perilous than simply the risk of expiration due to green slime disease on the far shore of the Ford of Bruinen. Maybe the next time Lord of the Rings is filmed, this aspect of the story will be explored with a bit more subtlety.

[/root/geeky/tolkien] permanent link

The Moleskine

What follows is the merchange review I wrote for the Yahoo store Moleskine US. There has been interest recently in the Weblogging community in the idea of a pocket notebooks as the ideal "analog PDA." I was, and am still, pleased with my traditional pocket Moleskine notebook, but I am now also wondering if there might be other manufacturers out there that build notebooks of a similar form factor but perhaps with different features, such as a place to insert a pen, thicker paper with less show-through, or other features.

I had a vague hope that Moleskine US would read the review, which was CC'ed to them, and decide to send me a set of the Cahier notebooks to replace the Volant line that I was dissatisfied with. Now that would be customer service. I'm not going to demand it from them, though, especially given that a set of the Volant notebooks places them only at about $2.00 each. There's a limit to what I can expect in the low-cost line.

Anyway... original review notes follow. Now all I need is some vacation time so that I can spend some afternoons in cafes or on a beach actually writing something in my Moleskine!

Moleskines are the best handheld notebooks for writers: they are the perfect size for a shirt or coat pocket, and use good paper with a binding that is stitched rather than just glued, so they will stay open as you hold them to write. They also have a built-in cloth bookmark and an elastic band to hold them shut. Theres a little expanding pocket in the back where I can stuff receipts and loose notes. These little touches give a strong impression of time-tested, practical quality.

I really like my traditional Moleskine notebook and will probably buy more of them in the future. I am extremely satisfied with the service, packaging, and shipping speed of Moleskine US. There are a couple of areas where I feel there is some room for improvement:

It would be nice if the web site would allow me to log in as a return customer, and keep my shipping and payment information on hand, so I dont have to re-enter it if I come back to buy something more later.

The paper exhibits a little bit more show-through than Id like, when I write on both sides with a Rapidograph (liquid ink pen). I am guessing a fountain pen would have a similar issue. I should probably try the sketchbook type, but that paper is thicker, which means either a fatter notebook or fewer pages, so there is a tradeoff.

I bought a set of three of the Volant notebooks as well as a Volant address book. Im disappointed to say that the quality doesn't match the traditional Moleskine notebooks. I knew that they would not have the the bookmark and elastic band, but I did not expect the paper to be of lower quality: it has a rougher feel, and absorbs more ink, with more show-through. The last 16 pages are micro-perforated and can be torn out. That feature doesnt really appeal to me. But the big problem is the cover material. My address book had a big crease on the frong cover where the plastic faux-leather material was not flat and properly glued to the backing. One of the others has bubbles.

I like the thinner form, and they are much less expensive per notebook than the traditional Moleskine, but I was just thinking that the Volant line might be better with plain cardboard covers. Lo and behold, today I discovered that Moleskine US is now offering the Cahier line, which seems to be just that, a Volant with a cardboard cover, and which also includes the pocket in back. I will try those next time. If they have the higher-quality paper, I'll declare them the perfect thin-format notebook to go with the traditional Moleskine.

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

More Moleskines

I earlier wrote:

"I bought a set of three of the Volant notebooks as well as a Volant address book. Im disappointed to say that the quality doesn't match the traditional Moleskine notebooks..."

(In progress)

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link


My friend Alan has been asking me questions about some Lisp programming idioms involving macros, such as destructuring-bind.

Destructuring, the idiom, is a technique in which the shape of a data structure can be determined at runtime, and the contents of the data structure bound to a set of variables.

More later.

[/root/geeky/programming/lispish] permanent link

Amazon Shines for Tolkien Scholars

So, I've now received the first five volumes of the History of Middle Earth in hardcover, purchased through Amazon. Two of the volumes were out of print, but were available as old/new stock (new books, but available through bookshops that specialize in remaindered or out-of-print books). I was able to process everything right through Amazon, just like I am able to buy from multiple used-book vendors via (which I also highly recommend). Apparently you can now buy used books via Amazon in a similar arrangement, but I have not tried it, preferring to support a smaller company in that case. The History of Middle Earth volumes, they are kind of in a gray area between used and new: they are regularly reprinted, but probably not in large quantities, and brick-and-mortar bookstores won't tend to stock them. The used copies available through tend to be very expensive first editions, or the limited collector's editions that cost hundreds of dollars. I don't particularly care which editions I get; I just wanted the whole set in hardcover, since the softcover editions are missing content. I have a feeling that most of the hardcover copies of the History volumes don't circulate a lot as used books; if someone actually took the trouble to track them down and buy them, they probably knew what they were getting, and wanted the books to be part of their permanent library.

Amazon provided a real advantage here: the list price of the History of Middle Earth is $30 per volume; on Amazon, I think I paid $17 each for most of them. The three volumes that came directly from Amazon came with free shipping. The ones that didn't were a bit more expensive and I had to pay for shipping, but the net result was still less than the $30 list price. Then, there is the matter of availability; most bookstores don't carry the History of Middle Earth volumes, or if they do, there will be one battered copy that has been thumbed by a lot of people but not purchased. I could have ordered them from a local bookstore, but they probably would have had the same issue as Amazon with the unavailability of certain volumes.

I've also received two of the next four books in the series, the ones that constitute the History of the Lord of the Rings. Amazon has required some extra lead time to track down copies of all four of these volumes. But they did, and although when you get free super saver shipping you usually have to wait for your order to be complete so that it is sent out in one package, in this case Amazon actually shipped the first two, when it looked like the rest were going to take a while, and then even sent the next two as separate orders one day apart, just to expedite matters. Someone (or perhaps even a rule in their computer system) was authorized to change the shipping arrangements to make sure I didn't have to wait longer than necessary for the part of my order that was ready. And they didn't charge me extra for shipping in multiple batches. That's a perfect example of why people come back to Amazon.

[/root/geeky/tolkien] permanent link

Wed, 16 Feb 2005 Programming Projects, Part 5

I've given up on VMWare, since I was not truly happy with it, and thanks to Paragon's Partition Manager, gotten my system set up in a decent configuration again, with enough disk space for both Linux and Windows 2000. So, for now, I'll just dual-boot.

My original G4 PowerBook, and my wife's iBook, both of year 2000 vintage, are both on their last legs, so we need to be ready to update our Mac infrastructure. We haven't quite figured out what to buy or, of course, how to pay for it.

I have not selected a project, but one that comes to mind now is editing iTunes file metadata. I've got all of Tolkien's works in audiobook form. The individual volumes such as the Fellowship of the Ring contain about 16 disks, and about 23 tracks each. Let's say I want to rename all of those 300+ tracks, as well as the disc (folder), following some pattern, and including the track x of y and disc m of n metadata in the file name, with the numbers padded so that the full filenames sort correctly. I'm doing it by hand now. Hmmm. I am not sure if iTunes exposes that much of itself to scripting, but if it does, it might be an interesting little trial problem.

Alan has been tossing me questions and ideas about Lisp. The latest was destructuring. I'll drop this "Programming Projects" topic for now and write some shorter notes on individual Lisp topics, although my ability to put time into hobby projects remains rather limited. Also, I really, really could use a brief vacation, preferably somewhere sunny, where my brain could absorb some photons and spend some time relaxing with my family. But alas, I don't have the vacation days. Maybe I can arrange something when this project is ended, although it may have to be unpaid time off. I'm almost willing to go that route.

[/root/geeky/programming/lispish] permanent link

Star Trek: Season One

Star Trek inspires love, ridicule, or a mixture of both, but most people have at least a passing familiarity with the long-running cultural phenomenon. I am certainly familiar with the original series, having watched it in reruns endlessly. I was born in 1967, just when season one was in full swing, but by the time I was old enough to watch them in reruns, the showswere frequently butchered to fit in extra commercials, hacking out key scenes and rendering the story incoherent. While I remember many of the episodes clearly, there are probably several that I simply never saw in reruns. My ten-year-old son has never seen any of the original series episodes.

So, we bought the first season on DVD. I've heard a lot of complaints about this package. Some are justified, in my view, and some are not.

Complaint number one is that the quality is poor and no restoration was done. This is patently false. All you need to do is compare the picture quality of the trailers (covered with scratches) with the quality of the restored episodes. There is a big difference. The episodes, shot on film, show almost no scratching or dirt.

Could the restoration have been better? I am not really qualified to say; I haven't seen the best available negative or print. The colors are vibrant, although they maintain the Star Trek palette, characteristic perhaps of the type of film used, and we can see detail in the costumes and makeup that I've never seen before.

This isn't always a good thing: I can better see the pancake makeup on Spock, and the low budget of the original becomes more apparent when scrutinized more closely -- for example, in "Charlie X," when Spock and Kirk are thrown against a wall, it is now painfully obvious that the wall is painted cardboard or plasterboard, because it develops a visible tear.

In some effects shots there is still graininess, matte lines, and the occasional bit of fiber or dirt on the plate. These things may have been present in the original effects shot, and (I am guessing) were not retouched much because it would be difficult to decide how to proceed and where to stop while still remaining the low-tech, film-grain character of the original. Too much digital tampering would be very expensive and could result in an effect that stood out like a sore thumb against the rest of the images. Fans are complaining about just this sort of tampering in George Lucas's THX-1138, as well as his repeated alterations to the Star Wars films. Star Trek was a product of 1960s-era film technology, and trying to make it look like 2005-era digital effects is to make it into something it is not. And here's a news flash, which should not really be news to anyone: the "look" of 2005 will also look very dated one day. The super-shiny "look" and audio production of the Next Generation already looks dated to me today.

I also have heard complaints about the encoding. To my eye and on my player, it is just fine. It looks much better to me, for example, than the Monk series DVD, where there are frequent image freezes.

Gripes about the packaging are completely justified. While the snap-open tricorder-style plastic case is cute, you have to carefully take out the brochure and remove the paper sleeve from the book-style DVD trays themselves. The DVDs snap very tightly into these trays, and there is the justifiable concern that the force needed to pry them out will tend to cause the holes to crack over time. Most recent DVD packages that I've seen have a central "button" you can press to help release the DVDs, reducing the force needed to remove and replace the disc.

Also, when you are done watching, you have to reassemble the whole thing, unless you decide to throw out the paper sleeve and/or the loose brochure (which does not fit well into the case anyway). Those loose paper parts will certainly get lost or torn with handling, but throwing them out will ruin the look of the case, in which you can see Kirk and Spock through a little window, and leave the top DVD open to dust. A much more robust solution was certainly possible while maintaining the clever plastic case, but Paramount apparently couldn't be bothered.

Is the price too high? I would say that it is too high, given the quality of the interior packaging, but would not be too high for the same same content, better packaged. Consider that you get twenty-nine episodes on eight DVDs. If you pace yourself, that's a lot of evenings of Star Trek. I have not yet watched the DVD extras and so can't really comment on them. Unlike the extras on, say, the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, I doubt they will really add much appeal; fans are buying this set to watch the episodes, not the extras.

Some people complain about the order of the episodes. Paramount placed them on the DVDs in the order in which they were aired, which was not the order in which they were filmed, which can be deduced by looking at the "stardate." Watching them in this order apparently leads to some inconsistencies in costumes and casting; some think they should be viewed in stardate order. Well, obviously Paramount could not include them in both orders; they had to annoy either the airdate-order or stardate-order camps. They chose to include them in broadcast order, but the episodes are numbered in stardate order, so it is easy enough to rearrange them, if desired.

Some people will find anything to complain about. Is it worth ranting about the fact that the discs don't have a "play all" button? Are we so lazy that we can't even bother to manipulate the remote control in between episodes? Is it really necessary or healthy to watch four episodes back-to-back without interruption? In my day, I had to actually rewind the VCR, eject the casette, and put in a new one! Can you tell I think this is a trivial complaint?

Many people have complained that the complete pilot is not included. I think they overestimate the quality of the original pilot -- there is a reason that it never aired in its original form. It is, however, included on the third season DVD set, for completists. I am curious to see it. I'd love to see more of Captain Christopher Pike and Number One. I have also read the original pilot script, which was full of double entendres, and would like to see whether some of the wilder lines from the script are still present, such as the line in which Spock says "the human body is capable of generating a surprising amount of heat, depending on the skill of the operator." This was an apparently attempt to tweak the network censors, who were ever-present, and a constant challenge to the writers, in those days. Go, Spock!

Finally, there is the question of the original Star Trek episodes themselves. Fans of the modern, big-budget Trek shows should try to keep in mind that these shows were produced almost forty years ago. The ones who start to crow about the quality of Enterprise, or Deep Space Nine, or Voyager, or Next Generation, in comparison to the original series, should try to be a little more objective, and not just fixate on Star Trek as they first got to know and love it.

Star Trek has always had a very wide standard deviation of quality. There are episodes and moments of Next Generation and Voyager that are teeth-grindingly awful. Note also that just what constitutes "teeth-grindingly awful" varies widely from viewer to viewer, but to me it usually consists of having something absolutely ridiculous happen to the crew, such as the Next Generation episode "Genesis" in which the crew members "devolve" into primitive life forms. Then there is the endless reliance on the holodeck, which while it occasionally produced an intriguing episode, most often just enabled the use of an unoriginal story in a science-fiction context.

To my mind, the very best episodes often involve few or no extraneous special effects at all, and just showcase an intriguing and original story. For example, watch "Space Seed," which set up the story line used in the second Star Trek movie. And, usually, the best science fiction is about issues that a contemporary audience can relate to; not many of us today face turning into a walrus or spider monkey, but we may be concerned about the implications of genetic engineering. The wide variance in quality of Star Trek comes in part from the wide variety of writers who worked on the series.

The original series certainly has its moments of cheesiness, and it is easy to mock the overacting of Shatner and Kelley -- a style which, by the way, I think was actually very useful, in that it tended to keep one from looking too closely at the styrofoam rocks and papier-mache gadgets. It is easy to make fun of Kirk's expanding waistline, or his apparently magical ability to seduce women on every planet. But the show was also extremely groundbreaking, in terms of casting, of writing, of politics, and at least occasionally, of storytelling. It is easy to look back at the show with forty years of hindsight and comment on the blatant sexism, but this has to be set against, for example, the show's remarkably enlightened attitude towards race. And it is impossible to overstate the importance of Star Trek's role in inspiring many, many of today's scientists and engineers. I strongly doubt that I would have ever developed an early interest in computers without the influence of Star Trek.

To me, what the original series proves is that a lot of money is never enough to create a story worth watching, that stands the test of time. Did the millions of dollars spent on Next Generation or Voyager buy them a consistently good show? Of course not. Money can buy script doctors and special effects but it can't necessarily buy good ideas. Imagination, good writing, and a committment to storytelling will always triumph, and the original Star Trek is proof.

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

The AirPort Express Saga Continues

So, the AirPort Express is still not entirely right in the head - it didn't die the way it did before, but Grace was always informing me that either she couldn't print, or her computer would not connect; it either would not automatically reconnect after sleep, despite supplying the network control panel with the network name and password, or sometimes also could not connect even when explicitly supplying the private network name and password. Sometimes the configuration utility, running from my wired PowerBook, could not even find the device. It had apparently crashed. After power-cycling the device, Grace's computer was always able to connect to it.

The last time, I finally decided to give up having a private network, and just make it an open share. There are several others in the neighborhood.

This seems to have made it work reliably again (so far). But I didn't really want an open share. I'm not trying to be a bad citizen; it is just not in our mission statement to supply a public network access point.

I'm not sure what the problem is, but I am disappointed in the reliability of this setup. I don't think the problem is in Grace's computer, since it will connect flawlessly to other wireless networks. For a device without a power switch, cycling the power should not be required.

Then, there are printing problems: sometimes when printing large photographs, the print queue seems to bog down so much that the printer gives up waiting for data and resets the job, spitting out the unfinished picture. I would give up on printer sharing, but given that it is a USB printer, it cannot be shared on the network directly. The alternative is to share it through my PowerBook, which seems to work more reliably but which requires my PowerBook to be on all the time, or requires Grace to remember to wake it up before she tries to print.

I guess this would not be an issue if we had a server machine, but it seemed very convenient to just use the AirPort Express. And it would be, if it worked well. But it seems like the box is just slightly unreliable in several ways. And it isn't like our setup, one wireless PowerBook, used mostly to read e-mail, and one inkjet printer, used only occasionally, should be a serious stress-test. I suppose I need to check to see if there is a firmware upgrade. Sigh...

[/root/geeky/apple] permanent link

Tue, 15 Feb 2005 Partitioning Tools

So, it seems to be a dirty secret of managing mixed-boot configurations that the open-source partition management tools are terrible. I have tried them out periodically over the last ten years or so, and have expected to see improvement, as so many aspects of Linux have improved, but it has not really happened.

Case in point: Knoppix and qtparted. Let's say you have a typical partition-management problem like I did: you have a dual-boot system, and you haven't left enough room in your parititions, but there is a lot of unallocated space available on the drive itself. In my case I wanted to remove an unused FAT partition, and expand the first one, moving everything further down, then remove an unused ext3 partition and expand the existing ext3 partitions to take up that space.

With qtparted, you just can't do this. It doesn't really support the various operations necesssary to do this at all. It just isn't complete.

A die-hard Linux weenie would tell me to get on the ball and write a tool. After all, aren't most open-source projects the result of scratching a personal itch? Well, I suppose that technically I have the skills needed to work on such a project, but I'm aware of what I don't know, and writing code to rearrange partitions and directory structures at that level is something I can happily lead to other people.

In fact, because I have some idea of the difficulty involved, I'd be willinto to pay someone else to write a tool for this purpose. So, what about the commercial tools?

I tried Partition Magic, now owned by Symantec. It did not work at all either. Essentially, while it claims to support ext3 partitions, "support" here means that it will correctly identify and display them. It can't actually do anything with them, such as move or resize them. It also requires a floppy drive, and will crash if one isn't present in your computer. I demanded (and got) a refund for my online purchase, and happily deleted it from my computer. In my view, the marketing materials for this product are completely deceptive, and you should avoid it.

Paragon's Partition Manager, on the other hand, worked nearly flawlessly, and the $50 download also comes with a useful CD-burning tool. It deleted one FAT partition and resized another, deleted one ext3 partition and resized two more, and moved a swap partition. It even resized the whole extended partition, consolidating free space. It even did its resizing on the active partition I was running from, by rebooting and executing a script. Obviously, doing a tricky operation on the partition from which you have booted the computer is a potentially risky operation, but everything worked perfectly afterwards, including my dual boot involving both the NT boot manager and GRUB.

I did see one crash while examining a partition's contents, but this had no lasting effect.

There's the old saying that Linux is free only if your time isn't. I could have reinstalled both Windows 2000 and Linux from scratch, remaking all my partitions and then restoring all my software from backup or from installation disks. Taking into account the time needed to download all the Windows 2000 and Fedora updates, that probably would have taken at least a day. Instead, I have a tool that did all this rearranging in perhaps thirty minutes. Better still, I know that if I need to rearrange some partitions in the future, this tool will do it for me painlessly. I'm very impressed and highly recommend Paragon's Partition Manager for all dual-boot Linux weenies who may need to rearrange partitions.

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Wed, 02 Feb 2005 Five Lakes Grill

To celebrate Grace's 32nd birthday, last night we drove to Milford and ate dinner at Brian Polcyn's restaurant, the Five Lakes Grill.

The space and atmosphere were pretty decent, but not wonderful. I have no love of Muzak, and there was a lot of it, but at least it was not loud.

The food was great. We've been meaning to make the trip ever since reading a review in the Atlantic several years ago. The review has been stuck to our closet door with a magnet ever since then. Now we can take it down!

Grace had the rack of lamb, which she described as the best she's ever had. The only flaw was that the wilted spinach with it was too salty. The salad was good. We split glasses of a house Shiraz, which was quite tasty.

I had a special, marinated skirt steak with a sweetish currant sauce, served with vegetables including blue potatoes and asparagus. The meat and sauce was excellent, and the vegetables excellent, but the combination didn't really sing. Not all specials wind up working out as well as the tried-and-true dishes; that's OK. It was quite good anyway.

We had a charcuterie platter appetizer; it is one of Polcyn's specialties, and he teaches charcuterie. The sausages were all excellent, including a seafood sausage. He also had a great prosciutto.

Isaac had a Greek salad with fried calamari on top, which he enjoyed very much, and a pot pie with pearl onions and duck confit, which was wonderful. He loved it, although he was getting a bit full and had to take some home.

For dessert Grace had creme brulee, which she again described as the best she's had: a great crackling burnt sugar coating on top, fresh berries, and a custard that was not overly sweet. I had a lemon tart, which was excellent, and which came with a little chocolate cup with rasberries that tasted house-made. Isaac had a thick hot chocolate, which was bittersweet and rich, although the combination of caffeinated soda and dark chocolate got him pretty wired up, so perhaps it was not the best thing to give him at ten o'clock at night. The coffee was excellent.

The entire meal cost us $150, before tip, which is quite a bit, but it was one of the best restaurant meals we've ever had, so I don't consider it an unreasonable amount to spend for such a special occasion. We took baby Veronica with us, and that worked out fine; she didn't fuss much, and even slept on the seat of the booth for part of the meal.

It was a good time, and a good reminder of how unimpressive most of the downtown Ann Arbor restaurant have become. I would not be surprised if we were back there soon.

[/root/news] permanent link

Christopher Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth

Christopher Tolkien is the son of J.R.R., and considered Tolkien's "literary executor." He's also the guy that edited, and annotated, the enormous body of material that comprises the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

This was a labor of love. I've heard people criticize C. Tolkien for opportunism, cashing in on Tolkien's material, but I don't think that is the case.

First of all, the History of Middle Earth, a 12-volume set, is not blockbuster sales material. Most bookstores don't even stock the books. I've been attempting to acquire all 12 volumes, in hardcover, and four of them have been difficult to get (out of print or scarce). There are separate paperback editions of volumes 1-5 and 6-9, but I think they are targeted at the wrong audience, and not likely to be big sellers. The small format volumes 1-5 paperbacks with fantasy-painting covers will mislead readers into thinking that they are picking up a prequel or sequel to The Lord of the Rings, when in fact they are looking at drafts and notes from the precursors to the Silmarillion, intermixed with various other extant poems of various quality and a strange framework story that is nowhere to be found in the "official" Silmarillion.

Someone who picked up these books because they enjoyed Orlando Bloom in the Peter Jackson films will likely never get past C. Tolkien's introduction. It is targeted at the kind of person who found the Silmarillion and the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings more rewarding than the story itself -- in other words, English major fantasy geeks who have at one time or another studied Beowulf and Canterbury Tales and who are interested in seeing Tolkien in the raw, so to speak, and of watching over his shoulder while he scratched out his drafts and experimented with forms, and storytelling techniques, not always successfully. These narratives are in "high style" -- that is, in mythological style -- for the most part, although, they are, oddly, in many places much more concrete, detailed, character-driven, and beautifully imagined than the later versions that became the Silmarillion.

No less an authority than Rayner Unwin writes in Tolkien's Legendarium, about the plans for publication of the _History of Milddle Earth, "This time we knew that the books would not be price-sensitive, that there was a hard core of potential purchasers, and even if they never reprinted they could at least expect gradually to sell out and pay their way... Christopher was under no illusions that the work he proposed to undertake would be rewarding on a purely commercial basis."

Secondly, if C. Tolkien he had just wanted to make money off of his father's legacy, surely expanding the licensed properties or authorizing more spin-off works would have netted him a lot more cash. Instead, he put an enormous amount of effort into assembling, annotating, and editing his father's old notebooks, many often nearly illegible, stuffed with loose scraps of paper and containing rough drafts in faint pencil with ink written over top. He made chronological sense of the drafts, annotated and rationalized the names, and wrote painstaking commentary that illustrates the many ways in which the storyline, naming, geography, and even theology evolved. No, this was a labor of love, by a man who was also a scholar, and who knew Tolkien's material deeply.

"Cashing in" would have been writing spin-off novels. Fortunately, C. Tolkien was no Brian Herbert.

So, I don't buy the image of C. Tolkien as a shameless opportunist. However, neither does he seem to be a benevolent ruler of the disposition of his father's legacy. There are disturbing stories coming out of the Tolkien family, appearing in British newspapers. Apparently, when Simon Tolkien, C. Tolkien's son and J.R.R.'s grandson, attended the movie and spoke approvingly of it, even allegedly taking on a small cameo as a soldier of Minas Tirith in shining armor, C. Tolkien disowned him, and now communicates with him only via a lawyer. Simon expected to sit on the board of Tolkien family members that makes decisions about J.R.R.'s materials; he's been kicked off -- all for giving apparent aid and comfort to Jackson's movie project, which C. Tolkien apparently found abhorent, but could not (legally) derail. C. Tolkien's public statements about the movie are more conciliatory, making this move appear even harder to understand. It makes me wonder whether it might also have had something to do with the younger Tolkien publishing a successful mystery novel The Stepmother, which may have been at least partially inspired by his upbringing in a broken home. These days apparently C. Tolkien is a bit of a recluse, although the stories that he keeps wild boars in his garden to drive off visitors may be an urban legend.

It is worth pointing out that C. Tolkien and the Tolkien estate didn't even own the film rights to the Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien signed away the rights decades ago. For his part, he approved of the idea of a film, but the scripts he was shown during his lifetime were bizarre and completely lacked any sense of the material. In his writings J. R. R. Tolkien made the interesting and pragmatic distinction between "art or cash" -- that is, he was willing to license his property for film adaptation in exchange for either his direct involvement and artistic control, or his disinterest and a pile of money.

In the end, although he did not live to see Jackson's film, he got a respectful, if not literal, adaptation that in my opinion retained well the "split personality" of the books, in which the high-and-mighty artistic, noble, and mythological coexists very nicely with down-to-earth, populist, and pragmatic hobbits. But C. Tolkien, rather than engaging in a public debate over the movies or maintaining an honorable silence, seems to have taken on the role of an embittered and despairing Denethor, perhaps moved to anger by his inability to keep popular culture and his father's legacy far away from each other. If so, I think his palantir must be on the blink. Tolkien's work was remarkable in blending high and low, noble and silly, and appealing to a wide audience. The films, whether they are as true to the storyline or not, can only widen that audience. Adaptation and translation for new generations is what keeps literary work alive. History will judge in the long run whether Jackson's film version of the story was a worthy one. But it certainly won't be the last one.

In any case, I am slowly working my way through the 12-volume history. I've purchased the first five books, and the rest will arrive soon. Some of the volumes have proven more difficult to get; I've had to order them from Amazon zShops as old/new stock. Amazon has taken several weeks to track down some of the middle four.

It has taken me many years to make the decision to buy these books. I've seen the various volumes in bookstores over the years, usually unsold battered copies, but never bought them. They also listed at about $30 each, while the in-stock volumes at Amazon run me $18 each. It seems reasonable just to get the hardcovers, which will still be readable even if it takes me 20 years to finish them.

I've now finished the first volume. It is even more fascinating than I expected, especially the "framework story" the Cottage of Lost Play, and the "bridge" material that ties it to the pieces of work that became the first few parts of the Silmarillion. It is a shame that the Silmarillion could not have been structured with the framework in place, and a consolidated, organized, and revised Silmarillion interwoven with it. It would have made the material more approachable, but Tolkien seemed to reject this approach in favor of a more abbreviated, formal, and Biblical style.

It is hard to say whether these early tales are better or worse than the versions they eventually became. The tone and style is all over the place. The first version of the story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is notable in part because of the details of Luthien's magic, and because of the inclusion of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and his cadre of evil feline dog-hating lieutenants. This turns the storyline involving Huan into an expression of long-held rivalry between cats and dogs, which is funny but seems to belong in a different story. Beren also seems to be an elf himself, which does not make a lot of sense in comparison with the later version of the story. I am curious to see how this version ends... perhaps with chaos, floods, plagues, and cats and dogs living together?

I am disappointed in one aspect of the book. In several spots Christopher Tolkien has snipped out and paraphrased sections of the work which he apparently felt did not deserve reproduction in full. But these wordier versions of some of the parts of the Silmarillion, such as the story of the origin of the sun and moon, are interesting precisely because of their longer, more character-driven and detail-driven form. I'd at least like to see the original paragraphs in an appendix. I bought these books to "drink from the fire hose" -- I resent having Christopher Tolkien turning off the spigot while I'm still thirsty. Significant chunks of the story -- the tale of the coming of men, for example -- don't even exist in complete drafts, but only in fragments, This makes it seem all the more inappropriate to arbitrarily cut out chunks of some of the stories that do exist in complete form. Perhaps C. Tolkien was embarassed by the quality of the draft text. But it is precisely the process of improvement that is so interesting and inspiring. Tolkien's early poem, Goblin Feet, is godawful, as he himself acknowledged. (Google for Tolkien and "Goblin Feet" if you don't believe me). Not all of his poems are great. But what is amazing to me is how much better he became. Showing the early drafts in full, warts and all, tells that story.

But despite these problems I am still glad to have these stories in their early form, which J. R. R. Tolkien did not get to polish. I'm glad to have the jewels in the rough.

[/root/geeky/tolkien] permanent link

Paul's Current Viewing

So, we've started up a trial membership with Netflix. Actually, I think it is now a real membership. It has turned out to be a great service! So far, we have borrowed the following movies:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The third. Pretty decent, but not spectacular. I enjoyed the Night Bus. I expected the Dementors to be portrayed more originally. The time-twisting sequence was done much better in the second Back to the Future movie. I could not figure out why Harry and his friends were no longer wearing school uniforms. The kids are getting older; I'm not sure just how they are going to manage doing the next few movies. The movies are not being finished once a year, which means that the cast is aging more rapidly than in the storyline. Will they use a new cast? It was also sad to see Dumbledore replaced; the actor who played Dumbledore in the first two films died. Isaac rated it 4 out of 5, and that seems about right.

Uncovered: the War on Iraq I expected this to be a little better. It is a competently assembled documentary, and has a good selection of people interviewed, but it feels rushed and wasn't edited to a fine point. About 3/5.

Trekkies Grace has never seen the science fiction fandom subculture up close, so she was quite stunned by this. I've been to a convention, so it was not quite a shock, but rather touching. I want to see the next one.

The 1900 House This was great. The premise is that a London home is rennovated (dennovated?) back to 1900 standards: no electricity, only technology and decor available then; the women wear corsets, etc. They hire a "maid of all work." Life hasn't changed as much as we might think. Especially fascinating was how the family members dive into their roles, doing their own research and putting together puppet shows, little plays, and other activities. Amazing how much time is available when you stop watching TV.

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light I used to have this album. It's a great show; Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Lyle Mays all perform with her, along with the Temptations. I was fascinated by the video clips that were assembled over some of the songs. Mitchell's voice is perfect.

A Prarie Home Companion (it doesn't say, but I think this is the 30th anniversary show from the Fitzgerald Theater). It turns out I've heard this one. It's worth seeing, at least once, just how charmingly funny-looking Garrison Keillor actually is, and how funny it is to see the mundane-looking sound effects guys doing their ridiculous stuff. Once you've seen it, though, you don't need to see it again; listening is better. I'd like to see the "Farewell" show that aired sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s again, though.

Life and Debt This is a great documentary about Jamaica, and why it has failed to thrive economically. The contrast between the Jamaica the tourists experience, and the Jamaica that the natives live in, is staggering. Particularly grim and disturbing is the "free zone," the garment district where neoliberal globalization plays out its "race to the bottom."

Big Top Pee-Wee This was a pick for Isaac. He thought it was very funny.

In order to prevent any allegations of unfairness in selection, and floods of kid's movies, I actually broke our membership into 3 separate queues; they allow that. This means that each of us -- myself, Grace, and Isaac -- can manage a separate queue. The DVDs are addressed to the individual person who chose them. Isaac's is age-restricted. It also slows down the process a bit - since Isaac has to return one and wait for the two-way mail before he has another one to watch. That's not a bad thing, actually; it keeps him from piling on the movies.


I spent a little money on the backlog of DVDs that I wanted to buy last month. The bulk of them were the 3 Extended Edition Lord of the Rings movies. The new cuts are much more coherent, although there are some new bits that I dislike. The extras really are worth watching.

We also picked up the second season of Monk. It is off to an uneven start, but "Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus" was one of the best ever. It does, though, have a disturbing scene in which an elephant trainer is killed when the elephant steps on his head. It was rather horrifying. Isaac had to sleep in our room after watching that. It seemed a little manipulative, but the rest of the episode, especially the banter, which had a real ad-libbed feel in this episode, was superb.

[/root/films/watching] permanent link

Paul's Current Reading

I used to be able to read about seven books simultaneously and make progress on all of them, keeping a stack by my bed and picking one out as the mood took me. I'm a little more tired these days, especially after cleaning up the kitchen and helping to get Isaac and baby Veronica to bed, but still managing to make slow progress on a few books. This is what is in the pile today:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This is a hefty fantasy novel. The tone and the overall conceit: that magic is real, but has fallen into disrepute and deperately needs a revival, in early 19th-century England. I love the way she puts together archaic usage. I like the few, dark, and evocative illustrations. I love the digressions told through extensive footnotes. I love the magic: subtle and clever, and far from stereotypical of the genre; very original; it feels somehow true. But the book is starting to drag, and I don't think I'm even yet halfway through it. It is a long story with many subplots. The jury is still out on whether I can reconcile this feeling of length with my enjoyment of the story. Maybe I just need to stick to shorter fare while so much is going on.

The Knight, by Gene Wolfe. Part of the Wizard Knight. I'm a Wolfe fan; I've read the Book of the New Sun books, including the Urth of the New Sun, at least three or four times, and have also read many of his one-off novels including Free Live Free and Pandora by Holly Hollander (that's the title). He writes great short stories, too. I was disappointed, though, by the Long Sun books; they didn't seem to have the depth of the Book of the New Sun, and the story seemed derivative of Phoenix Without Ashes, Harlan Ellison's screenplay for the Starlost, published as a novel in collaboration with Edward Bryant. So far, though, The Knight does not disappoint me. The prose is incredibly tight and evocative. It's written in very short chapters, which works well with the current chunks of time I have available to read. It's like a reaffirmation of just how talented a writer Wolfe really is. I'm very impressed so far.

Radix, by A.A. Attanasio. This is one of his early novels. It is a deeply strange book, filled with neologisms. It isn't a perfectly successful novel. The anti-hero, Sumner Kagan, is a multiple killer, but somehow we are expected to see him redeemed. The neologisms and world-building comes thick and fast, and a lot of it is just too far out there; some strange takeoffs on demonic posession and Zen Buddhism. But the writing is compelling and intriguing and the story, if you can follow it, is at least interesting. I've read this before, but I picked it up again wondering if it would make a little more sense this time. It does, but the ending is still a bizarre mishmash of Kafka and Christ, and I'm having trouble getting through the last few pages. The other books that are part of the Radix "tetralogy," (although they have nothing in particular in common) include Arc of the Dream, Last Legends of Earth, and In Other Worlds. All three are pretty decent, sometimes great, but very different. I should check out his older book Solis. His later work did not look at all interesting to me, but I'm always prepared to be convinced otherwise.

The Broken God, by David Zindell. Zindell wrote Neverness, a standalone novel, and then a trilogy that served as a follow-on; this is the first book of the trilogy. This is big space opera, and detailed world-building in the long "billdungsroman" tradition. I'm re-reading the set. Somehow his main character, Danlo, is very appealing. I've always been a sucker for transcendent, extropian-style stories. Zindell now seems to be writing fantasy, which didn't look interesting, but again I'm always prepared to be convinced otherwise.B

The Complete Roderick, by John Sladek. This is a pair of novels, newly published under one cover. They are deeply satirical, and the characters are fantastic. It reminds me so far of Kurt Vonnegut, but with a more vivid and less dry style.

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. I love Stephenson's writing, including his non-fiction articles for Wired, and I enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot. This one, I'm sorry to say, is getting the better of me. I may have to set it aside and start over later. I think it is an amazing story, and I love in particular the scenes in which Shaftoe goes mad and starts hallucinating a musical comedy; it reminds me of the Circe chapter of Joyce's Ulysses. But I'm starting to lose track of what is going on, and I've set it aside for too long. By the time I get back to it, maybe the next two will be out in softcover.

What We Do Now, by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians (editor). A book of essays on the state of America after the 2004 election. A good antidote to the despair I feel listening to the 2005 State of the Union speech.

The Book of Lost Tales, part 1, by Tolkien and Tolken (Christopher, ed.) I have decided to add to my library the entire 12-volume History of Middle Earth. I've picked at it over the years and considered reading the books, but it seems that I'm finally ready, and can extract a lot of reward from the fragments and their history. I'll put some more about these books under the Tolkien topic heading. I have purchased the first five volumes, which cover the writings prior to the Lord of the Rings. I'll probably purchase the rest sometime this coming month.

I'm also working my way through the Fellowship of the Ring, which I'm reading portions of, aloud, as a bedtime story for Grace, Veronica, and Isaac. We're in the house of Tom Bombadil, which is particularly fun to read out loud, especially after the somewhat slow descriptions of the countryside and landscape that cause the first half of Fellowship to drag a little bit.

Finally, I also have Paul Graham's On Lisp in the stack. The book is out of print, although allegedly it will be reprinted soon, but until then Graham has made the PDF available on his web site, so rather than pay $100 or more for a used copy, I took the PDF file to Kinko's and had a copy printed out and bound. I've been studying Graham's examples of the use of continuations. I feel like I understand them better, although this is the kind of thing that will not be really useful until I play with the code.

[/root/books/reading] permanent link

Tue, 01 Feb 2005 Undermining Social Security

So Bush's latest packet of lies is the attempt to convince us that Social Security is doomed, and needs to be replaced with private accounts. I've read the RNC's 200-plus page briefing guide. I've heard the pundits interviewed. The propaganda is working.

One of the arguments I keep hearing is that "XXX percent of young people of age YYY believe that Social Security will not be available to them when they retire." Bizarrely, we're expected to take this as evidence of a problem with Social Security. Of course, all it tells us is that decades of concerted propaganda has succeeded in casting widespread doubt on the viability of the program.

Take a look at the article "The Trillion Dollar Hustle," from Harpers Magazine, June 2002 issue. You can Google "Thomas Frank Trillion Dollar Hustle." Take a look at the New York Times Magazine's article of Sunday, 16 January, by Roger Lowenstein, entitled "A Question of Numbers." Ask yourself whether you should be getting your information from surveys of twenty-something Fox News watchers, or people who have actually studied the issues.

Why have millions of dollars been spent to convince us that Social Security is a failing Ponzi Scheme? It is, really, strictly a matter of ideology. It has nothing to do with whether Social Security is bankrupt or not, or successful or not. Fundamentally, the anti-Social Security activits don't believe in the concept of civil society. You can hear this undercurrent on talk shows across the country, although it is rarely stated.

"I've got enough money for my retirement," the argument goes, "because I worked hard and carefully invested my money. You, on the other hand, who fiddled around and didn't manage to demonstrate the necessary Personal Responsibility," they say, "didn't. And there's no way in hell that you should expect me, the paragon of virtue, to help you survive in retirement. Doing so would just foster dependency, not virtue, in you."

Because we all know that successful people are all self-made, and never got any benefits themselves from civil society. Yes, at the bottom, it comes down to "throw grandma from the train."

Never mind that Social Security is fundamentally insurance, and not designed to give anyone a cushy retirement, but just to guarantee that our elderly aren't starving in the streets. That it covers more than just the elderly - it also provides disability insurance. It helped my mother, for example, by supplementing her income after my father divorced her, leaving her with two young children to raise on her own income, and helped her to get on her feet financially.

There are some minor adjustments required periodically to adjust Social Security to handle changing demographics. Privatization has Wall Street money managers salivating. Imagine, a thousand Enrons, a thousand WorldComs! It's a neoconservative wet dream. But it is a disaster in the making, the undermining of an incredibly efficient and effective government program.

Mark my words: if this gets underway, Social Security will be working in a few years about as effectively as our system of health insurance is working now. (Hint: of about 700,000 bankruptcies declared in 2001, most of which were related to medical bills, and in most cases the families involved had health insurance.)

We wonder why people in other countries look down on us. It's because we are just greedy and self-centered enough to do this, in the guise of promoting an "ownership society" by people who own it and "personal responsibility" by people who don't have any.

[/root/politics] permanent link

Creative Commons License

Viewable With Any Browser