The U.S. Navy in WWII

The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War

The amount of activity undertaken by the U.S. military in World War II is truly staggering to contemplate. Germany had to fight on both eastern and western fronts, but America fought on eastern and western fronts each separated by thousands of miles of ocean from the homeland. This meant mastery of the seas was imperative. Morison managed to talk President Roosevelt into giving him, as a working historian, a naval officer’s commission and assignment to various warships throughout the conflict. His book does a thorough job sketching out the scope and drama of U.S. naval operations in the war, and since he was literally on the scene at the time, he adds a welcome journalistic touch from time to time. For instance, he tells us that nobody in the service called Admiral William Halsey “Bull” Halsey. It was just Bill. Now you know.

Look at all them shopping carts!

Very simple and nicely designed, 300 Images From 1800 Sites has a clip-art-ish collection of icons gathered from sites all over the web. The juxtaposition of, say, 87 shopping carts makes a lovely little magpie shell collection… so many designers struggling to be original in a tiny 16-by-16 pixel space! You can almost hear the conversations: “Can you punch up that tiny mail envelope icon so it looks a little more edgy, so it’s all floaty and fast with a little dangerous-looking zing to it? Like this would be the envelope your parents wouldn’t let you date, you know, but not in a scary way? Could you do that by tomorrow? Thanks!”

Question: can you spot the ugly Amazon shopping cart?

When geeks become fathers

The Trixie Update is an obsessive baby blog about a little nine month old named Trixie. They (it seems to be mostly the dad who’s doing all the posting) record all kinds of data, things you might wonder about as a parent, but when on earth would you bother to collect the data? For instance: how long will one thousand diapers last? Answer: three and a half months. The sleep log is particularly interesting. They know total amount of milk consumed yesterday (32.7 ounces), and the number of minutes since last diaper change. It just goes on and on! The spectacle of Milk Week alone is worth the price of admission.

Ben MacNeill, the man behind the site, is even releasing software so that you too can obsessively track your baby’s every poop and pee: the Trixie Tracker.

If he can do this much with an infant child, he must have moved worlds before he had a kid.

Alchemy 101


One of the better books on alchemy. It contains one of my favorite quotes of all time. The eighteenth century Dutch chemist Boerhaave, who on being asked his opinion of alchemy replied:

Wherever I understand the alchemists, I find they describe the truth in the most simple and naked terms, without deceiving us, or being deceived themselves. When therefore I come to places, where I do not comprehend the meaning; why should I charge them with falsehood, who have shown themselves so much better skill’d in the art than myself? I therefore rather lay the blame on my own ignorance than on their vanity. Thus much I have long ago had a mind to say, concerning the knowledge of the true alchemists in physics; lest such skilful artists should be condemn’d by incompetent judges…. Credulity is hurtful, so is incredulity: the business therefore of a wise man is to try all things, hold fast what is approv’d, never limit the power of God, nor assign bounds to nature.

The ESP game

Suppose it was your job to label pictures with descriptive tags. You’d type in things like PICNIC, LIGHTNING for a picture. Then it would be easy for someone who needs pictures of a stormy picnic to find what they needed. Labeling pictures is very hard to automate, but very useful. So suppose it was your job to label 1000 pictures. Or 100,000 pictures. Or perhaps even 3 million pictures. What would you do?

Some clever people at Carnegie Mellon have come up with a perfect Tom Sawyer hack: turn labeling pictures into a fun game, and people all over the web will spend their spare time doing it. Apparently it’s working like a charm, because they claim to have labeled more than 3 million pictures using the ESP Game. You get paired up with another person, and the object is for you to agree on a label in the shortest amount of time. In the meantime, you generate labels furiously that all get logged into a database for later consumption. Brilliant. (Thanks, Jenifer!)

MTAmazon-based book list

I asked Kristin how her cool “what I’m reading now” display works. The magic behind the scenes is based on two nifty adaptations of Amazon’s generous web services: MTAmazon and BookQueue. MTAmazon makes it easy (via special tags) to provide information about any book that Amazon sells. BookQueue, when used in conjunction with MTAmazon, helps you manage lists of books. As an ensemble, it’s a beautiful illustration of how heterogeneous tools with clean APIs can work together in an open environment.

Thus inspired, I created a new book blog, Star Chamber Books. I’ve tried over the last year or two to build some useful tools for managing lists of books, but none of them worked very well. Too much work. I love books, and I enjoy managing lists of books that show what I’ve read and what I’m going to read. But even so, I was getting tired of writing special code myself. This way the special code problem belongs to somebody else.

Alchemy and porcelain

The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), though critical of alchemy, compared alchemists to the father who, on his deathbed, told his lazy sons of a sum of money hidden underground in his garden. After his death they began digging in hopes of finding the treasure. They found none, because (as the father knew) there was none, yet they enriched themselves with a large crop that their inadvertant plowing made possible. A cute little story, but this book is the story of Bacon’s anecdote come true. In trying to create gold alchemically, a brilliant proto-chemist invents porcelain. Or rather, re-invents it, since the Chinese had been doing just fine making porcelain for hundreds of years before.

GPS-ified road trip photos

Here’s a nice example of a what photo albums will look like in the future.
Ron and Taylor’s Road Trip takes all of the photos taken during a road trip and puts them, through the magic of GPS, in exactly the right cartographic context. The first page all by itself tells a great story of where the trip went and what was seen. GPS-enhanced cameras seem like such an obvious idea to me, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of them on the market. You’d never have to ask the question “Where was I and when did I this picture?” The next thing I want to know is exactly which way the camera was pointing. Then I want a back massage and strong drink. The wish list goes on from there, but I’ll leave it at that.

Be sure and click on the little satellite images on the right side of the page.

Making life

I’ve talked about synthetic biology here before, but only in the context of adding new functionality to organisms that are already alive. Science writer Carl Zimmer has written an article for the June 2004 issue of Discover magazine that addresses a far more ambitious approach to synthetic biology: synthesizing a new life form altogether. See
“What Came Before DNA?” at

Improbable as it sounds, researchers are attempting to bootstrap life using as a roadmap our best guess as to how life got started in the first place. The idea is that, before DNA was used to store genetic information, and before proteins were used to perform their enzymatic magic, RNA was able to fill both roles. This means that instead of having to account for the mysterious arrival of three different cooperating types of molecules (DNA, RNA, proteins), we have only to account for the mysterious arrival of RNA. This latter scenario is preferred by William of Ockham.

Starting with this concept, researchers have been systematically evolving RNA molecules to fill various roles required in a living organism, and they’re having remarkable success. Transfer RNA (tRNA) already has my vote as coolest molecule of all time. Add to that microRNA, siRNA, RNAi, and others and it’s a safe bet that a lot of biology in the next few years is going to revolve around this remarkable molecule. There’s a lot of life in the old girl yet.