Farked over Elvish

I like to think that sophisticated readers like you come to my site for the sparkling prose and pointed insights, but when I look at my logs, it’s plain that Elvish pays the bills. My little page Write your name in Elvish in ten minutes has tickled some kind of popular resonance. It’s been around for a while, but recently it got posted on a site called Fark.com which gave it a lot more visibility.

Look at this plot and see if you can spot when this site was farked. My Elvish page has been on StumbleUpon for a while, but the day I got farked my traffic took a huge leap and I got posted to several other popular sites like Digg (385 diggs)and the Del.icio.us popular list (404 bookmarks). I’ve even been listed as a reference page from the Wikipedia.

It’s fun to have so much traffic because of a geeky skill I learned in seventh grade, but I know popularity is easy-come-easy-go on the web. Tomorrow I’ll be old news. At least I managed to put some Google ads up before the crowds came to visit. If you have a popular page on your site, I’m here to tell you that Google ads pay real money (taxable income, naturally). I won’t be quitting my job anytime soon, but at least it covers my web hosting expenses. This month anyway.

The wiki effect

The Sunday Boston Globe had a commentary piece by Matthew Battles called The Wiki Effect. In it, Battles recounts the recent story of a Wikipedia hoax/joke on journalist John Seigenthaler that went sour and went on to damage the reputation of the entire Wikipedia enterprise. We hear in this article the same old objections to the obvious flaws in Wikipedia’s approach. Where are Truth and Authority to be found when any yahoo can stumble along and vandalize articles at will? Is this any way to run a serious Reference of Record?

This is a facile observation. While true, it misses the larger point. But I was pleased to see Battles making this same larger point later on:

The Seigenthaler affair is a reminder that the age of the casual reader, if it ever in fact took place, is rapidly passing away. Most readers may not fancy themselves encyclopedists, authors, or journalists-manqués, but they can no longer assume that what passes for fact is unimpeachable. The ecology of information turns them into editors and reviewers perforce. The effect of this revelation may in time prove healthy-if we wake up to our responsibilities as readers.

The key phrase here is “if it ever took place.” What’s happening with news sources has been happening for some time with digital photographs. People now know they shouldn’t (necessarily) trust digital photos. But in fact they never should have trusted photographs. Photographs have been manipulated since the dawn of the photographic age. Similarly, people are learning that they shouldn’t (necessarily) trust their news sources. Of course, manipulated news stories have an even longer history than manipulated photographs. The Wikipedia is an honest and straightforward tool to help understand and manage the potential for its own abuse. Look at this Wikipedia article on the scandal and ask yourself if CNN would give as full accounting of its own foibles. As Claude Rains might have said in Casablanca: “I’m shocked… shocked to hear the New York Times sometimes fumbles the truth.” That’s a lesson worth learning.

St. Frank’s Infirmary: the blog

I have known St. Frank since my days in California, many years ago. He has been a steady friend of the Star Chamber throughout its tenure, and has contributed many pieces to this site, of which the most graphically disturbing is surely The Naked Felix. The proprietors of this site cannot in good conscience recommend you read this piece unless you are helmeted and buckled in to a secure reading chair.

At any rate, St. Frank has started his own blog which I recommend without reservation. He’s a funny guy. St. Frank’s Infirmary.

Many languages

I have a book, Languages of the World, in which a page is devoted to each of maybe 150 different languages. You don’t learn much about each language, but flipping through the book is a pleasure in much the same way as strolling through a botanical garden and admiring the amazing variety of plant and flower forms. It’s a spellbinding tour of the remarkable shapes that human thought can take.

St. Frank recently pointed me to the even more comprehensive Language Museum, which is maintained by Zhang Hong, an internet consultant and amateur linguist in Beijing. As he says in his description of the site:

The Language Museum is a linguistic website which offers the samples of 2000 languages in the world. Every sample includes four parts: (1) a sample image, (2) an English translation, (3) the speaking countries and populations, (4) the language’s family and branch.

Two thousand languages! Now that’s a grand tour… you’ve got good old standbys like Yoruba, Wolof, and Tagolog, but then you can go crazy from Northern Kissi to Southern Nambikuara, this last being a native Brazilian tongue which, from the looks of it, never gets written down except by visiting linguists. Also represented are extinct languages like Gothic and synthetic languages like Lojban.

Most of the passages shown in translation appear to be either biblical in nature or something from the Human Bill of Rights. But my favorite is this sample of Greenlandic branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language Inuktitut: Kinal uunniit pisinnaatitaaffinnik killilersugaanngitsumillu iliorsinnaatitaaffinnik nalunaarummi maani taaneqartunik tamanik atuuiumasinnaavoq, sukkulluunniit assigiinngisitsinertaqanngitsumik which is taken from an Eskimo weather report. It translates to English roughly as Snow snow snow snow snow snow and snow followed by snow snow light breezes and scattered assigiinngisitsinertaqanngitsumik. Assigiinngisitsinertaqanngitsumik, it appears, is a kind of snow.

All code will eventually be open source

Here’s a nice Innovator’s Dilemma style example of how easy it is for free software to come along and take money away from a perfectly good commercial product. If you want to take a screenshot in Windows, you can always use the built-in “PrintScreen” capability, but it’s pretty limited. SnagIt, from TechSmith, is a much nicer full-featured tool. You can select all sorts of different kinds of regions and you can save them in many formats: GIF, PNG, JPG, and so on. It won the PC Magazine Editor’s Choice award for three years running, and it’s been adding lots of features every year. Now you can capture animations, scrollable regions, and text. At $40 a copy, it’s not that expensive either.

I’ve actually been in the market for a nice screen capture tool. Here’s what happened. I downloaded a free trial of SnagIt, and I discovered that SnagIt would definitely make me happy. But I really don’t need all those extra fancy SnagIt features, nice as they are. And while I was pondering how much of my $40 would be paying for features I’ll never use, I came across this post on the UI design blog flow|state. It told me that maybe Brian Scott’s free Cropper is all that I needed. I downloaded Cropper, and sure enough, it’s exactly what I needed, neither more nor less. And free is a price I’m willing to pay. I have no idea how much Cropper will cut into SnagIt’s market, but it has to hurt to see competitive high quality software being given away in your space.

If information wants to be free, then I would add that software wants to be a service.

Early sunsets in December

sungraph.pngEvery winter I look forward to Earliest Sunset Day. Here in New England, the sunlight drains away with distressing speed in October and November, so I always feel a little warmer inside (even though there are currently 8 inches of snow on the ground) knowing that the sunsets will start getting later and later starting around now in December. In fact, when I went to check my trusty SunGraph program this year, it informed me that Earliest Sunset Day for my location was on December 9th. If you live near me, you too can celebrate the illusion that the days will now appear to be getting longer. Of course once you factor in the dawn, the days don’t actually lengthen until the honest-to-goodness solstice on the 21st.

It’s easy enough to see how ancient astronomers determined the solstice: they watched where the sun rose and set and noted when it stopped moving south and appeared to stand still (sol+stice derives from sun+still). But without accurate timepieces, I wonder how long it was before they realized that the earliest sunset did not coincide with the solstice. My guess is that some clever Greek had it all figured out a few thousand years ago.

Unearthing the battle for Kiev

Elena Filatova is a Ukrainian woman who gained some notoriety on the web for her remarkable pictures of the condemned zone around Chernobyl. Since posting those pictures (which I highly recommend), she has added more material to her site. One is a short photo set of the Orange Revolution, the event that has happily displaced Chernobyl as the world’s number one association with Ukraine. Another is her collection called The Serpent’s Wall, which describes her adventures as a camper and souvenir collector on the World War II battlefields around Kiev.

We get a steady diet of World War II nostalgia in the US, almost all of which, understandably, centers on campaigns with American involvement. But as Germans and Russians will point out, our war was much shorter than theirs and much less costly (more than that, ours was short BECAUSE theirs was long). The number of people involved in the battles of the Eastern Front simply boggles the mind. Filatova’s site lets you see through the eyes of someone from the Ukraine. I appreciate her pictures and her pithy no-nonsense prose. You learn that her favorite discovery isn’t a potato masher or a silver SS Death’s Head ring, but a box of German chewing gum. She also has a nice collection of personal photos taken by German soldiers during the 1941-1943 occupation of Kiev.

Even today, the war goes on killing. The landscape is riddled with bunkers, unexploded landmines, and artillery shells. Next to a picture of what looks like a twelve year old kid, she says, “Local boys are the best guides through the bunkers. In each village there is someone who lost arms, hands playing with the war toys. They are invalids of war.”

Animated engines

Ever wonder how a Wankel rotary engine works? Matt Keveney’s excellent animated engines site does more than just show you a little diagram. You get a lovely, instructive animation. Actually, a Wankel rotary is pretty straightforward to understand. It’s just got that marvelously rude name going for it.

It’s more fun to look at some of the less well-known historical engines. For example, here is the very first steam engine, which spawned the industrial revolution and launched a thousand dark satanic mills.
Also of historical interest is the unusual Gnome rotary engine, which was used in World War I planes like the Sopwith Camel. The entire engine spun around, fixed directly to the propeller shaft. Spinning the engine gave it lightweight air cooling, but there was no throttling (besides “on”), and the wicked gyroscopic torque killed more than a few pilots.

Other engines are more newsworthy. Look at the small, lightweight two-stroke engine and you can see why it’s unpopular with environmentalists: it’s particularly easy for unburned fuel, which is a nasty pollutant, to blow straight out the exhaust. And finally, the lovely and super-efficient Stirling engine that may save us all some day. It’s so efficient, in fact, that you can buy one that will run forever using only the heat of your hand.

To give you an idea of the sort person who would make a site like this, note that he also has an entire portion of his website dedicated to instructing people in the art of hand-carving propellers. The world needs more people like Matt.