Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Books in the mail 

I got a package of books today in the mail.

Usually this is a time for rejoicing. I like books. I own too many of them. I buy too many of them from Amazon, so many arrive via mail.

But this was a package of books I'd sent out, and it returned to me, undelivered. I think it says "insufficient address" and it has stuff crossed off and a new address written in.

I'm a bit haunted by this. I don't know what happened.

As some of you know, I belong to a group called Operation Paperback. I send care packages of books and magazines to servicemembers overseas, often in the Middle East (I don't know where my packages go, since I send them to a military APO or FPO address, and the military takes it from there. But I get warned when a package will be sent to the Middle East, since the censorship laws there are so strong against material that promotes Christianity or shows photographs of women). I sent a package of books and a letter to Justin (I'm not giving his full name). The package came back to me.

It could be anything. Maybe I didn't have the right address. Maybe he'd moved. Maybe he'd come home sooner than the OP people expected.

But I don't know. I wish I did. And at some point I will open the package I sent him and re-send the books to other service members. But right now it just feels eerie.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Gold in Bethesda, Maryland 

My article on gold mines in Bethesda, Maryland, came out this week in Bethesda Magazine.

Yes, there's gold in Bethesda. And parts of Virginia and DC.

And there were active mines up through the 1940's. Then the land became worth more as real estate than mines.

If you're in the DC area, pick up the magazine for a brief history lesson and a list of mines, one of which has been reconstructed for historical tourists like me.


I finished Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Now I have to read some non-novelized accounts of the mutiny to find out how much of it was true (was Fletcher Christian ever seen again? Was Roger Byam a real person? Was William Bligh really that much of a dick?). Sometimes it seems I will never get caught up on all the reading I want to do.

Now, be aware that I'm biased in that I love reading about wooden sailing ships (and frigates and sloops...), particularly naval ships, though I tend to read more history than novels and more American history than British, but this was a great book. Really, really fun. And I'm not the only one who thinks so - it was published in 1932 and is still in print. I got my copy for 25 cents at a used book fair, a version published in the 60's that's well worn and smells yellow, like an adventure story should.

The narrator is a midshipman named Roger Byam, recruited to sail with Captain Bligh to Tahiti to compile a dictionary of Tahitian for Sir Joseph Banks. The sail to Tahiti is hell, and the devil responsible is Captain Bligh. He's abusive, vindictive, and petty, too eager to order use of the cat, and too quick to assume the worst of his men. It's no surprise, then, that after a long stay in Tahiti that the crew is reluctant spend another year sailing with Bligh to get back to cold, rainy England. Master Fletcher Christian is the first to crack, and he leads the successful mutiny.

Byam never joins the mutiny; he tries to leave the ship with Bligh, but there's no room in the small boat the deposed captain is given. He, Christian, and a shipful of liberated sailors wander the islands of Melanesia, until Byam settles in Tahiti, still working on his dictionary.

This book was the best 25 cents I've spent.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Carteographic Warfare 

WTF? And again, WTF?

One kind of information / propoganda warfare is called carteographic warfare. Essentially, it means redrawing maps so that boundaries of countries are where you want them to be. Both Britian and Argentina did this while arguing over possession of the Faulkand Islands. The border between Pakistan and India changes depending on which country you ask. And the very existance of Israel depends on whose maps you're looking at. Stare at a map that omits Israel long enough, and you'll forget that it's a country with representation in the UN. I'm just an amateur, armchair historian. So while I'm a supporter of Israel's right to exist, I'll acknowledge that there are people more well-versed on the subject.

I just refuse to admit Google is among them.

If Google can identify Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Kuwait, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip on a map, that it can darn well fit the word "Israel."

Hat tip: LGF.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

State of Fear 

I gave up on Michael Chrichton after I read The Lost World, even though I loved Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain. Jurassic Park turned me on to one of my current passions, chaos theory. But I was in middle school when I liked him. I thought I outgrew him.

But I've been hearing interesting things about his latest book, State of Fear. Like this essay by Dr. S. Fred Singer.

Our heroes manage to scotch the nefarious doings of NERF and its egomaniac chief -- but just barely. In the process, They survive all sorts of perils, from frostbite in Antarctica to death by multiple lightning strikes to captivity by cannibals in the South Pacific. It is an exciting story. I read it in essentially one sitting, broken only by a few hours of sleep.

The not-so-hidden scientific message of State of Fear, spelled out in debates between action scenes and substantiated by footnotes, an afterword, an appendix, and a 20-page bibliography, is an oddly reassuring one for a novel:

**The scientific evidence does not support global warming fears -- or even the occurrence of a significant warming trend.

**The environmental movement and its well-paid leadership has jumped on the global warming bandwagon because that’s where the money is.

Footnotes in fiction are a rarity. I may have to read this one. Even if it is a best seller.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A history 

The first "books" were actually scrolls. They got the job done, in that you could write on them, read them, and transport them easily, but they had to be "rewound" after a reading, like a video tape, and they were impossible to index. They were sometimes wrapped up with leather ties or kept in tubes, and the ends often had tags on them to identify the work. Then came the codex, often made from papyrus and wood, that closely resembled "books" as we imagine them today. Often the codex would be two wooden slabs filled with wax and hinged together - a scribe could write in the wax during the day, then transcribe everything to a scroll, and smooth out the wax again to take notes the next day. As codices were gradually stocked with paper instead of ivory or wood, they resembled more and more books of today.

But those original books were both more ornate and more protected than books today. Everything had to be written by hand (sometimes by illiterate scribes - you don't need to know the language to copy what amounts to a drawing line by line) and took years. Covers were gilded and set with precious stones. The ugly but functional spines faced the wall on the rare occasions books were shelved, and ornate locks both kept the text secret and kept the book pressed together, lest the pages warp. More often, the book was displayed on an easle-type shelf, so the cover could be seen.

Libraries chained their books to the shelves. Tangling became a problem as more and more books were written, but since books were so valuable, it was still the best security solution librarians could think of.

Finally, Gutenberg invented his printing press.

The first real effect that had was that books were less frequently ornamented and less frequently chained - few people collected books, and that would take time to change. Conventions changed so that the names of books were imprinted along the spine. People could store books on shelves, vertically, as the tradition of ornamenting the cover became less common.

Skip forward a few centuries, and we now have ebooks and websites like Gutenberg.org that aim to digitize all books whose copyrights have expired. All this, in my mind, was a good thing. The text of the book became more valuable than the casing.

This history is just my long-winded lead-up to the fact that I bought a used copy of Steinbeck's The Moon in Down and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for a couple of bucks yesterday. I think I read the former in middle school. But books are cheap enough now that someone decided to give these to the library book sale, and I bought both for less that the cost of a matinee movie ticket.

Granted, the books I bought are in bad shape. They're yellowing, because of the acid in wood pulp paper (as opposed to hemp paper or papyrus). The glue on the spine is weakening. The paper covers are rounded from use. But all the words are clear. And if I fall in love with either, and if years from now they disolve in my hands, I can get another.

And that's a wonderful feeling. The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Mutiny on the Bounty 

I'm still reading Game Theory at Work and still enjoying it.

But I can never read just one book at a time. Call it a weakness, call it ADD, call it whatever. But I have reading due for school (I'm doing an independent reading class in military psychology), I read during work, and I go stir crazy if I'm not reading something for fun.

Non-fiction needs digestion. Plus I read fast - I can easily finish a 200 page novel in a day and start a second before bed. Non-fiction needs more time. I can read it as fast, but if I do, I don't learn as much.

So I've started Mutiny on the Bounty by Nordhoff and Hall, published 1932. Sad as it is, I don't know the story. That's only partly true - I know it's set on the HMS Bounty, and I know there's a mutiny. I haven't read far enough to get to the mutiny. The ship has just landed in Tahiti, and the abuse Captain Bligh forces his crew to suffer is, for the time, on hold. Master's mate Fletcher Christian is intelligent and dashing and probably my new crush (most of my crushes are on dead people...usually sailors). The book's taking me some time, but I always have trouble with historical language. Melville takes me forever, though I love every sentence.

Someday I'll branch out my naval reading to the age of steel, but I haven't been brave enough yet. I like the wooden ships. I'm in love with Stephen Decatur (I played his wife in a Travel Channel TV show while my fiance played the commodore himself). I love John Paul Jones, pirate or no. I love Issac Hull and his dying words, "Don't give up the ship," uttered shortly before his crew...gave up the ship. The bombardment of Fort McHenry, immortalized in out National Anthem, brings tears to my eyes.

Enough rambling. Back to the mutiny.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Back to books 

Let's get back to books.

It's been a hard week, for various reasons. But that's enough blogging about me - let's get back to books.

I'm starting Game Theory at Work by James Miller, a "practical application" of how game theory can be applied to your advantage at work when, say, bidding on a contract or asking for a job. So far, it's great. He's taking into account both rational and irrational responses to choices and the need to read your "opponent." Some games come down to a final choice in which your opponent must choose between both parties receiving nothing and him receiving $100 while you receive $200. It's in his best interest to take the $100, even though you get $200 - he's $100 richer, and life is not a zero-sum game. But maybe he's irrational, spiteful even, and he refuses to give you $200 even if it means he's turning down $100. This book discusses possible ways to deal with such people.

So far it's great. There are "practice exercises" at the end, the diagrams are clear, the examples come from real life and from an abstract rational world, and the text is understandable and exact, even without using equations.

Here's hoping it stays good. I could use a good read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The aforementioned book-construction project 

A previous post talked about a craft project involving a book, some bamboo, a piece of pine, aluminum foil, and some flowers.

This is that project.

Many thanks to my sysadmin, who helped me figure out how to display images.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Flag Day 

It's also Flag Day. I didn't realize what that meant until today.

Today is the 228th birthday of the flag of the United States of America.

That makes me feel better about being born today.

And where is the band that so vaultingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.

No refuge shall save the hireling and the slave
From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Read Isaac Asimov's essay on the national Anthem: All Four Stanzas.

Ave et Vale 

Hail and farewell.

A great man died today. Peter McWilliams - author, poet, libertarian, AIDS and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma sufferer, proponent of medical marijuana - died June 14, 2000. He lived in California, where he used California-approved pot to treat nausea, to keep his medication down and stay alive. The Federal Government arrested him, and he pled guilty. He was out on bail, awaiting sentencing, deprived of his marijuana. He died at age 50, on his bathroom floor, choking on his own vomit.

His book Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do turned me on to libertarianism. I discovered Ayn Rand later, but it was Peter McWilliams who really shaped my political philosophy. He believed that as long as you weren't hurting anyone else, the government shouldn't tell you what to do. So if you want to receive money for sex instead of getting drunk picking up a random guy at the local pub, go for it. If you want to buy and sell pieces of the Titanic, go for it. If you want to drink some absinthe, go for it. Just don't steal, break a contract, damage someone else's property, injure someone, or murder. His website is still being maintained. You can read all his books online there, except his published poetry.

Greater minds than I have breached the subject of whether denying people medication, whether to regulate pain or to prevent death via asphixiation, is torture, moreso than showing puppet shows to terrorists. Read here for the argument.

It's ironic that today is the day Auschwitz opened. And that Che Guevara was born today.

Today's also my birthday. I never feel much like celebrating.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Of writing and shooting 

The success curve for writing looks a lot like the success curve for shooting.

When I decided to start shooting, I felt like a natural. I was handling the recoil, my stance felt natural, I understood the balance and focus and the projection forward, based on my martial arts training. I was hitting the target. And I was using ammunition that would make most bad guys fall down.

Then I tried different firearms (all handguns) and found which ones I liked. I liked the larger frames. I like Glocks. I love my Glock 9mm because the round is powerful relative to the lightweight frame.

I was improving my accuracy, but slowly. But if you don't train every week, you lose skill. And I haven't been. So my last trip to the range was frustrating at best.

When I decided to start writing for publication, it started easily. I wrote a few pieces of free, and for cheap, and got a thrill seeing my name in print that told me I could continue and improve and maybe make a living at this.

A few assignments in the hundreds of dollars showed me I was doing well. I was improving my query writing skills. I was targeting the right markets.

I've been dealing well with the inevitable rejection letters. But sometimes they remind me how this business will always be a struggle. Always querying, being rejected, sometimes being accepted, no regular salary.

Both writing and shooting started easily for me. But to get good and successful at either takes practice and effort. Sometimes I wish that weren't so.

Friday, June 10, 2005

I'm not the only book freak 

I found this post via a writer's forum I frequent.

The joy of reading.

And how too many people don't get it and glare at you for (horror) laughing at a book.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Not book related. Pure vitriol. 

Resonding to an entry on Cam Edward's site, about a recent desecration of the US flag in New York by the Islamic Thinkers Society.

"A group of American Muslims produced a video that shows its members on a New York City street corner declaring Islam's dominance over America as they tread on a U.S. flag and then rip it apart." They claim it's in response to the (retracted) Newsweek story about someone who flushed an entire Koran down a toilet.

Sometimes it sucks being the grown-ups. I'm furious at these people for what they've done. I'm proud of my flag. I'm offended by a British-Islamic group hosting a demonstration in New York about how awful America is, when leaving America is so easy. But you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to rant on my blog for a little while. I'll definately b*tch to my poor fiance tonight. I'm going to swear (silently).

But I'm not going to destroy any flags, dip any religious icons or books in urine, demand the arrest or deportation of people expressing their opinion in non-violent means, or do anything rash with any of the various weapons I collect.

One protester said, "We reject the U.N., reject America, reject all law and order. Don't lobby Congress or protest because we don't recognize Congress! The only relationship you should have with America is to topple it!"

I don't know if they're trying to provoke something. But it's going to take more than words and a torn flag to make me do anything other than swear. I'll lose respect for those who claim to be freedom-fighters, and I'll feel sorry for Muslims who don't want such people claiming to speak in their name. But I won't take to the streets to protest the desecration of my flag. It's just cloth, after all, and I won't hurt anyone for slinging mud or tearing cloth. I believe they know that.

I haven't been ducking any falling buildings lately.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Rule 1 - don't scratch your ear with the barrel 

Since I'm contemplating a trip to the range for my bachelorette party, I thought I'd post my rules of gun safety. Really, I couldn't care less if the people I'm shooting with hit the bull's eye as long as they don't shoot me.

So people who are knowledgable, feel free to add to this list. People who aren't - learn at least the big four if you expect to come shooting with me, or even visit my apartment and look at my "toys."


Rules of gun safety

(because you should know these, even if you don't ever plan on touching a gun)

These are the "simple" rules. I'll explain the reasons and potential exceptions in a minute:

1. Treat all guns as if they were loaded.
2. Never point the gun at something you aren't willing to shoot.
3. Know your target and what's behind it.
4. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.

Explanations and exceptions:
1. "Treat all guns as if they were loaded." There's a saying that the epitaph for too many people is "But I thought it was unloaded." Never assume a gun is unloaded unless you see for yourself. Even then, treat it as if it were loaded (don't touch the trigger or point it at anybody). R. A. Heinlein worded this rule "Never believe what anyone tells you about the status of a gun." It's just as dangerous (if less likely) that you'll need to use a gun in self-defense. Then you shuldn't just assume it's loaded; you should know it is. That's an embarrassing way to die.

2. "Never point the gun at something you aren't willing to shoot." Simple enough, but this can be difficult to remember your first time on the range when someone's giving you instructions and you turn your whole body to look at him (and in the process point the gun at him). Safe on a range means down range. Safe in other situations depends on where you are. See the next rule.

3. "Know your target and what's behind it." Bullets don't stop when they hit the target (especially if the target is paper). You're reponsible for knowing what happens to that bullet if you miss the target or if it goes through the target. This is related to rule 2, since the safe direction for a gun to point in depends on the strength of what you're pointing at. Many bullets can go through doors or drywall or shower curtains. Bullets fired into the air invariably come down and sometimes hit things. Some can go through car doors. Some can go through bad guys and hit bystanders. This problem is mitigated a little by what some call "cop killer bullets" or hollow-points. These rounds expand when they hit something, doing more damage to what they hit, and are less likely to come out the other side. At a range, the people working there will tell you what kind of ammunition you can use, and then you can safey assume that the backdrop is safe to shoot. Just remember if there are any people in front of the firing line (collecting bullets and shell casings or whatever) they are NOT moving targets. They're just idiots.

4. "Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot." Or, as one blogger put it, "Keep your booger hook off the bang switch." Guns are mechanical devices. They don't fire without reason. The biggest cause of accidental discharges is pulling the trigger at the wrong time. This is impossible if your finger is not on the trigger. (It's also possible for a gun to go off if you pull back the hammer and let it fall, but this is less likely and much more deliberate). The index finger (the trigger finger) stays on the side of the gun, along the barrel, fully extended like you were miming a gun with your hand. Once you see your target and make the decision to shoot, you move your finger to the trigger (your grip should be such that only your finger needs to move to make this happen).

Those are the basic rules. There are others, invovling safety and politeness:
- Use only ammunition made for your caliber gun (don't shoot a .22 round from a .45 gun.)
- Store guns where kids can't find them.
- Keep guns unloaded with ammunition in a separate place unless you plan to use the gun.
- Don't cross your thumbs when shooting a semi-automatic. When the slide recoils, it could scrape the top of your hand.
- If you fire a gun and no bullet comes out, you have either a hang-fire or a dud round. In case it's a hang-fire, keep the gun pointed in a safe direction for at least 30 seconds (a hang-fire is when the bullet takes a few seconds to fire instead of firing immediately). Only then should you manually eject the round.
- Clean firearms after using them. No ammunition should be present when cleaning.
- Wash your hands and face after shooting - the chemicals in gunpowder include lead.
- Don't eat while shooting (for the same reason as above).
- Guns and drugs do not mix. At all. Drugs include alcohol, cold medicine, PCP, crack, etc. It's up to you and how well you know your body to decide if you're safe shooting while taking prescription medicines or caffeine or nicotine. Basically, if you'd hesitate before driving, then put off shooting until you feel better.
- If you don't know how to use a particular gun, then get someone to show you. Don't try to figure it out yourself. Every gun is different, and it's difficult to figure out how mechanical safeties work, how to lock back the slide, or how to open the cylindar on a revolver if you've never seen it before.
- Always wear eye and ear protection.
- Always wear a hat (especially when shooting a semi-auto, which automatically ejects spent shell casings. These tend to bounce off the wall beside me and then off the top of my head. Don't ask why).
- When handing a gun to someone, open the action to show him whether it's loaded or not. That's just polite.

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