Sunday, August 26, 2007

See that potato sack? See that river?

Oh Macavity? Hey you! Stupid, over here!--I'm going to write something now that will get me in a world of trouble. People are really going to yell at me because I am about to attack one of their most cherished beliefs. Boy, I'm in for it now.

Cats are about a smart as door knobs. They are genuinely stupid animals.

Cats are so stupid that cat lovers (who are truly weird) can anthropomorphise all kinds of attributes into their cats and feel sure they are seeing truth. T. S. Eliot wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (used by Andrew Lloyd Weber for his show Cats) posited that the reason you get no reaction when you call a cat by its name is that you don't really know its name. It is a mystery that cats keep to themselves. In fact, they don't respond to their names because they are much too dumb. Dogs get it almost instantly, and if a dog changes owner (say through a dog pound) and acquires a new name, it learns that almost instantly and without regret. Whatever. So now I'm Fido. Cats have no sense of humor, no sense of shame, no loyalty. They understand almost no human language. They are stupid animals. There, I said it.

What triggered this treacherous scree was a study from the University of Alberta, Canada, on what cats remember and how, published in Current Biology. They tested the cats by tripping them up while they had to go over hurdles. Cats remember things physically, not visually, it turns out. They will remember bumping into something and avoid it in the future but won't remember it is there if they just see it. And they only remembered the obstacle for 10 minutes. The researchers said they found the same thing with dogs and horses, but that doesn't harm my thesis that dogs are a lot smarter than cats. (Editors note: I've had four cats. I think the only thing cats remember is who fed them last.)

Remember the song, "Memory," from Cats? Forget it.

While we're on the subject, researchers on the Big Island of Hawaii report that the slopes of Mauna Kea are infested with thousands of feral cats, posing a threat to the wildlife, particularly birds, on the mountain and could become a threat to humans. The cats have been there for years, probably descendants of house cats gone free. They are a potential threat to humans not because they are going to jump up and bite your neck, but because they carry diseases, including toxoplasmosis. They also have feline versions of HIV and leukemia. They wander between 6,500 and 9,000 feet, and eat birds they can find, including some that are endangered. If they come down from that height and mix with domestic cats, the diseases could spread to people. Any attempt to hunt down the little buggers would, of course, trigger a violent reaction from cat people.

[Picture above, of course, is Bill the Cat from Bloom County. I miss him.]

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Flashed any good books lately?

OK, we can talk to girls or we can decode flashing lights. Duh!--Silicon Valley, where I lived for 20 years, is a seriously weird place, filled with seriously strange people, and I enjoyed it very much. Once in a while, a story pops up that explains everything. Or not.

Last year, the city of San Jose, the capital of the valley, ran a Digital Art festival. You can work that out for yourself, but one of the displays was four glowing amber discs on top of the Adobe building (as in Adobe Acrobat). The lights were flashing a semaphore signal. The discs would light in sequences that never appeared to repeat, clearly a code. But for what?

Enter two classic geeks, Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud. They had time on their hands and engineers cannot resist puzzles. Both were taking a seminar on “communication skills,” which means learning how to pick up girls. (I am not making any of this up. One of the features of Silicon Valley that intrigued me is that given the choice between deciphering a good piece of code and getting laid, the code wins every time. Keep reading.)

The two guys could see the disks spinning from a bar they frequented. They noted that each disk changed every 7.2 seconds. But what the hell was it trying to say? Geeks never read manuals, so first Mayo, who lost his job at Hewlett-Packard and apparently had a load of free time, photographed hours’ worth of spinning disks from a nearby parking garage to record the pattern. They then considered setting up a radio receiver to pick up electromagnetic transmissions from the disks. Then they found out that if they just went to the project’s website, they would have saved themselves the trouble. The website had the sequences.

First they tried to match the semaphore signals to ASCI code, the language most computers use to code text. They discovered that certain patterns matched passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses. [It’s not clear which of them knew enough of Joyce to figure that out but apparently at least one had a liberal arts education, or could use Google].

Then, spending months using pattern recognition software, they found certain odd words ["Dominus" and "calumet," to name two], which they then Googled, only to discover that all came from the same source: Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The semaphore signals from the Abobe tower were the text of the 1966 novel, which is set in the Valley and is about code. The disks took months to go through the 800 paragraphs.

The artist who designed the work, Ben Rubin, was pleased the mystery was solved.
What did the two get for all that work? The admiration of their peers. It’s the Valley, after all.

If you want to know the details, click here, and thanks to John Murrell at

Oh yeah. Snesrud now has a girl friend.

Friday, August 03, 2007

It's Sgt. Preston of the Yukon! On King!--RANT UPDATED

He died of frozen nose hairs, sniff—As most of you know, I begin a eight month tour of duty with the journalism department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this month, and in fact, leave in a week’s time. Consequently, this blog will be down for the next two or three weeks while I gather my mucklucks, cariboo parka and cans of jellied moose nose. I’ll be back the end of the month with a new, revived blog. This will be my cure for cabin fever. Everybody needs an adventure. The alternative at my age is to walk around on the grass hitting little white balls into holes with a stick, a sport designed for the village idiots of Scotland a century go.

In the meantime, I leave you with these quick thoughts:
  • Minnesota bridge is falling down, falling down--Why is the presence of Laura Bush and later her inept husband at the bridge collapse in Minneapolis news? He didn't show up when one of America's largest cities was being destroyed. To be fair, there isn't much he can do about the bridge except make sure there is funding, which he has; it really isn't even his fault that the bridge went down, and the reasons for the destruction of America's infrastructure seem beyond most politicians anyhow. But why is his presence, an obvious photo op, news? It is an attitude of the news media, particularly the press corps in Washington that everything a president does is important. It isn't.
  • And yes, the small death toll is wonderful and amazing and it does make you wonder about all the reports on CNN and Fox and elsewhere about a "major catastrophe." In the news business I thought you wait until you get actual facts before you draw conclusions. But what do I know.
  • Nomination for the Darwin Prize—Why am I supposed to be sympathetic to 23 Christian Korean missionaries who volunteered to go to Afghanistan, a dangerous and fervently Moslem country? You can still despise the Taliban who captured them and are still using the missionaries as hostages (and killed two) and hope they return to Korea safely and don’t reproduce.
  • And while we are on the subject, if you spend $1.25 for bottled water, most of which comes from a public source, you should consider not reproducing either. Or, you have too much money on your hands. Pepsi admits that's where Aquafina comes from, a tap, and so do most of the other non-spring water products. And why do you think spring water is cleaner or tastes better than public water? Most American cities (New York's is world famous for its quality) have superb water supplies, and if there are still too much chemicals for you, you can always filter it. To spend $1.25 for something in a plastic bottle is insane. (My wife refills a plastic bottle with splendid City of Baltimore water through a Britta filter, completely reasonable. And virtually free. And you?)
  • Suggestion for Constitutional change—American democracy has worked pretty damned well for more than 200 years, but it doesn’t any more. It’s time to consider a parliamentary system so that when you get an administration that has behaved the way this one has, and a Congress as corrupt as this one, you can vote the bastards out. Oh, and why do Karl Rove and Dick Cheney still have security clearances? I'm not alone in this: historian Robert Dallik has a suggestion in the Washington Post of how to get rid of a president who has failed miserably and lost all hope of redemption. He would have a presidential recall process added to the constitution.
  • Suggestion for cruel but not unusual punishment—Airline executives should be required to spend at least 4 hours a week in their own coach sections, in a middle seat, except for those airlines that fly the Atlantic in 757. Those executives should spend 10 hours flying to Vilnius every week. They should be required to bring their own food and sit next to either a fat person or a screaming baby. And every other week, they should have their flights canceled and have to spend overnight in Cleveland waiting for another flight.
  • Requirement for an antacid—Rupert Murdoch owning the Wall Street Journal. He has vulgarized everything he touches (and then sells them) and now he has his hands on one of the three best newspapers in America. No good can come of this.

We have become a docile and passive people, capable of putting up with any outrage without much of a protest or revolt. Been to an airport lately? Heard of anyone going bankrupt to pay medical bills or dying because a clerk at an insurance company won't let them have the treatment they need? Don't mind a government tapping your telephone without your knowledge and without a court order? Have schools so bad you have to home-school your kids to keep them safe? We should not be putting up with this stuff folks. Lost your pension? Had to take salary cuts while the guys running your company are pulling in millions? Still getting only two weeks' vacation time? Why are you sitting there?


Whew. I feel much better. Next time from Fairbanks.