Everest from orbit

When you fly across the country on a jet, you’re used to seeing an oblique view of the landscape with the horizon plainly visible. Most pictures you’ve seen from space, on the other hand, are taken looking more or less straight down. But this turns out to be a matter of convenience and convention more than anything else. Planes don’t have glass-bottomed viewing galleries, and satellites don’t look sideways at the planet. But the International Space Station does offer spectacular airplane-like views of Earth. Look at this picture of Everest and Makalu from NASA’s Earth Observatory Newroom. Be sure and click on the full-size image link… it’s mesmerizing. The view is from Tibet, and Everest actually looks like the second tallest mountain in the picture. I remember years ago looking at fanciful National Geographic diagrams of what a view from this vantage might look like. To actually see it naked before you like this is almost… pornographic.

Twilight of the Elves

The dramatic explosion of interest in Elvish tattoos seems to have faded. The Oscars are safely over, Elijah Wood hardly appears in People magazine anymore, and babies are being named “Frodo” far less often than in months past. For those sturdy souls out there who are still interested in learning how to write Elvish (and partly to decrease the load on me for bespoke Tengwar calligraphy) I created the page Write Your Name in Elvish in Ten Minutes. I’ve looked at a lot of Elvish language web sites and they all seem to talk about how “real Elves” might write rather than providing a simple usable solution for people who just want to write their names. For the record, though, the best site I’ve come across for a credible and scholarly approach to the problem is Tolkien Script Publishing.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve written out something like a hundred names and phrases for people over the past few months, and I have discovered that if you send someone something first and then ask them to pay for it, they are actually quite unlikely to pay for it (even if they are a “SUPER HUGE LOTR FAN”). Still, it’s been a fun experiment… something like running a lemonade stand in cyberspace. My shingle is still up, but traffic is down.

Airport code origins

Ever wonder why Newark International Airport has the three letter code EWR? This article explains it all: Airport Codes: History and Explanation. In the case of Newark, it turns out that the Navy lobbied to have the initial letter N all to itself, so Newark had to make do without it. Similarly the letter W is off limits as a first letter. Why? Because the FCC says that radio stations east of the Mississippi get to start with W. Fair enough, but I wouldn’t have guessed that airports codes had to swim in the same bathtub as radio stations. As a result, the Wilmington airport in North Carolina limps by with a flaccid ILM. I always wondered…

Props and pikies: define

It seems that funny names for Britain’s underclass are much in the news of late. Over at Ben Hammersley’s blog I came across this list of labels: Chavs, Neds, Townies, Kevs, Charvers, Steeks, Spides, Bazzas, Yarcos, Ratboys, Kappa Slappers, Skangers, Janners, Stigs, Scallies. He rounds off the post with a mention of Pikies. Wondering what the connotations of this last were, I asked Google, who sent me to the UrbanDictionary.com. It’s an idea that I very much like: anyone can submit a definition of a slang term, and people vote for the definitions they like. Who better to compile the people’s dictionary than the people? There are things in here that Meriam-Webster just won’t tell you. The number one pikie definition is: “a term used for a common, unfashionable looking youth, usually wearing unsurpassable amounts of gold jewellery and reebok ‘classics’.”

To see if this urban dictionary was any good, I tried out the word “props”. This is a slang term that appears in phrases like “mad props to my peeps, yo.” I understand it from context, but where does it come from? I was pleased to get a satisfying answer: props = proper respects. So: mad props to the urban dictionary, yo.

Are you a ned?

My friend Judy pointed me to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words. It’s a great site for learning things like where the phrase tripping the light fantastic comes from (John Milton. Who knew?). What Judy sent me was an entry that says, among other things, that neds are young louts in Scotland. Google for “neds” and “Scotland” and you’ll find a load of stuff from the BBC’s Chewin’ the Fat show. They have an “Are you a ned?” test with a post-test Nedometer to tell you how you’ve done. There are also the NedOlympics (including a game in which you try to smash windows with bricks). But I most enjoyed the Neducation page. It has a variety of helpful phrases translated for your convenience. I’d transcribe one of them here, but I couldn’t understand them.

By the way, according to the Ned Test, I’m only half a ned. I was told

You could do dot tae dot on yer coupon that you’ve that many plooks, ‘n’ ye can handle yer buckie ‘n’ yer jellies, but you’d be keechin’ in yer joggies if it came to a proper square go.

Eye-brain pain

I am about to show you a simple doctored photograph of a woman’s face. But it has been so artfully rearranged that your brain will insist that your eyes are malfunctioning somehow and it will fight to resolve the image into something that it isn’t. If you’re anything like me, this process will give you a headache very quickly. It all goes to show what an active process seeing is. You think you’re just passively taking in the world, but in fact you’re busy busy busy constructing it all the time. It takes an illusion like this to drive that point home.

Here you go: Are U drunk.


Roy showed me this site for teeny tiny pilots: Micropilot. The site bears the tagline “Miniature, Low-Cost, UAV, RPV, RC Autopilots and Autonomous GPS Navigation,” which means that, assuming you have the cash, it’s getting easier and easier to be the pilot of a remote control plane. Tell one of these planes where to fly, and it will take itself there automatically. Want to have an airborne camera loiter over your neighbor’s pool? This is the plane for you. These planes are the civilian versions of what the military is used for battlefield surveillance in Iraq. The sinister side of this boon of cheaper and smaller and better is that it’s getting much easier for the other guy too. Want to land a miniature plane on the roof of the White House? This is the plane for you. What you choose to put on that plane is your own business.

Wait till the hornet-sized assassin planes start coming out.

Doctor, know thy plaintiff

How you feel about this news tidbit is a good indicator of where you fall on the lawyer vs. doctor spectrum. The NY Times has this rather menacingly-titled article: Hire a Lawyer, Forget About a Doctor? A bunch of doctors in Texas put together a website that records people who have sued their doctors for malpractice. They are careful to say this is not a blacklist, but they were obviously fed up with the number of suits going on. This is publicly available information, and accountability works both ways: if you deserve good medical care, don’t physicians deserve reasonable patients?

So what’s the name of the website? DoctorsKnowUs.com. And what do you see on this website? This:

DoctorsKnow.Us has permanently ceased operations as of 3/9/04. The controversy this site has ignited was unanticipated and has polarized opinions regarding the medical malpractice crisis. Our hope is that this controversy will spark a serious discussion that results in changes that are equitable to both patients and physicians.

Too bad. Doctors still need patients to stay in business, and the marketplace of patients seems to hate this idea enough to shut it down. But doctors don’t have to stay in business.

This idea is too good to die here. I predict other sites like it will pop up quickly.

Engineer, sightseer

Years ago, while hiking in the Hetch Hetchy valley near Yosemite in California, I came to rest briefly on the O’Shaughnessy Dam that corks the bowels of the valley. Reading the bronze plaque there displayed, I was amazed and impressed to discover that the dam was built by M.M. O’Shaughnessy. This giant structure wasn’t named for a politician… it was named for the engineer who built it. I thought this was remarkably honest and pleasant thing to do (too bad for old M.M. the dam is so unpopular).

You don’t hear about the engineers who make things so often as you do about the architects who design or the astronauts who fly the things they make. And you don’t often hear about engineering marvels worth visiting as such. So I was pleased to come across the Sightseer’s Guide to Engineering. They’ve got eyepoppers in every state. See the
Alaska Pipeline or the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. I have to confess, I have no idea how they nominate their marvels. There are only five sights listed for all of California, and one of them is the Herman Goelitz Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield. I just hope that Herman Goelitz is the engineer who built the first jellybean.

Scenes from Chernobyl

I saw this on BoingBoing, and it’s been making the rounds, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you really owe it to yourself to give it a visit. A woman who lives in Belarus near Chernobyl likes to go zooming through the “dead zone” on her high-powered motorcycle. She likes it because, as she says, “one can ride there for hours and not meet any single car and not to see any single soul.” She was a girl when the reactor blew back in 1986, and her father, whom she quotes often, is a nuclear physicist. She sprinkles her remarkable photos with direct, informative, and often heartbreaking prose. The area around Chernobyl is, of course, devoid of all human activity save for a few officials with dosimeters. She has one picture of what looks like a digital clock in operation. Why would they maintain a working digital clock in that emptiness? But she points out the units are not hours and minutes, but micro-roentgens per hour. Here are some highlights.

Chernobyl actually has become something of a tourist destination. But not everyone was happy with their tour of the ghost town it has become.

They charged 210 us dollars for 2 hours excursion and town guard say, they all were leaving in some 15 mins, complaining that silense is tremendous as if one got deaf.

Next to a picture of a tall building, she had this to say.

This is highest building in town and in April 26-27, 1986 after reactor exploaded, people gathered on the roof of this building to watch a beautiful shining that rised above APP [atomic power plant]. They didn’t know this was shining of radiation. they learned it on next day when evacuation began.

If you want a look at a post-apocalyptic world, you don’t need to pick up a science fiction novel. This entire region has been poisoned, seriously poisoned for at least 900 years. It’s hard to believe. Riveting stuff.