Friday, May 23, 2008


So it's quite late and I'm not sleeping, which means I'm looking at random articles in WikiPedia. One piece of very interesting information that I came across is that we actually have no idea why worms come up from the ground after it rains.


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Earthworms are seen out of the dirt after large rain storms because the soil becomes too moist for them to survive. They need a moist environment to allow the diffusion of gases across their skin membrane, however if the soil becomes too moist the earthworms begin to drown in the water. To protect themselves from drowning they find higher, dry ground. This is why they are seen in places like driveways after a storm. However, after the storm they are sometimes unable to return to the moist soil and they dry up, and because their body is no longer moist enough to allow the diffusion of gases, the earthworms suffocate. However, this theory is rejected by some because earthworms can survive underwater for several hours if there is oxygen in the water.

An alternative theory concerning this behaviour is that some species (notably Lumbricus terrestris) come to the surface to mate. Since this behaviour is limited to a few species, as well as the fact that mating is not connected to rain, this theory does not seem very likely.

Another theory is that the worms may be using the moist conditions on the surface to travel more quickly than they can underground, thus colonizing new areas more quickly. Since the relative humidity is higher during and after rain, they do not become dehydrated. This is a dangerous activity in the daytime, since earthworms die quickly when exposed to direct sunlight with its strong UV content, and are more vulnerable to predators such as birds.

Another theory is that as there are many other organisms in the ground as well and they respire as any animal does; the carbon dioxide produced dissolves into the rainwater; it forms carbonic acid and the soil becomes too acidic for the worms and they come seek neutral nourishment on the surface.
All of these hypotheses seem to contradict each other or just are not convincing on their face. It's always very interesting to me to realize what we still don't know about the world.

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By al - 3:13 a.m. | (0) comments | Post a Comment

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everyone's talking about Iceland

This article in the Guardian, "No wonder Iceland has the happiest people on earth," is pretty effusive in its praise for the societal development of Iceland. Apart from the usual Nordic socialist paradise things we all have read about Sweden and Finland and the rest of those countries, there were a few things that seemed to be unique to Iceland.

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no. Iceland, the block of sub-Arctic lava to which these statistics apply, tops the latest table of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, meaning that as a society and as an economy - in terms of wealth, health and education - they are champions of the world. To which one might respond: Yes, but - what with the dark winters and the far from tropical summers - are Icelanders happy? Actually, in so far as one can reliably measure such things, they are. According to a seemingly serious academic study reported in the Guardian in 2006, Icelanders are the happiest people on earth. (The study was lent some credibility by the finding that the Russians were the most unhappy.)

Oddny Sturludottir, a 31-year-old mother of two, told me she had a good friend who was 25 and had three children by a man who had just left her. 'But she has no sense of crisis at all,' Oddny said. 'She's preparing to get on with her life and her career in a perfectly optimistic frame of mind.' The answer to why the friend perceives no crisis in what any woman in a similar predicament anywhere else in the western world might consider a full-blown catastrophe goes a long way towards explaining why Iceland's 313,000 inhabitants are such a sane, cheerful, successful lot.

This is a very unique situation, and seems like as isolated islands go, Iceland seems to have done the best job of figuring out how to live with each other over the last 1,000 years or so. And it looks like more accommodating family arrangements, where divorce isn't seen as a personal failure and no one stays in bad relationships for the sake of the kids, because the kids will be taken care of by everyone in the family, seems to be the evolved best practice. I find it interesting also that while the Lutheran church did establish itself in Iceland, the Christian insistence on getting involved in peoples' personal lives didn't seem to wash with the pagan Icelanders, and they seem to be better off for it.

It is curious to compare Iceland's steady growth towards prosperity with its geographical counterpart, Newfoundland, and maybe ask why Newfoundland who also relied almost entirely on the fishery for most of its history, has not developed along the same path. I found a blog post that discussed just that, at The Head Heeb, but it seems to be offline now, so I'll copy the full text from Google's cache here:

Why Iceland and not Newfoundland?

In the emergent field of Island Studies, Iceland stands out as a highly positive example of a small isolated island society that has succeeded, admirably. Iceland's three hundred thousand inhabitants do face some problems, but by and large these are the problems of success. How can Iceland most effectively switch to a hydrogen-based economy (as detailed by Arno Kopecky in his recent article in The Walrus, "Water to Burn")? How can Icelandic inflation be restrained given the country's galloping economic growth? Is it good that Icelandic investors, flush with cash and finding nothing to buy in their homeland, have embarked on a spree of corporate buyouts in Europe?

To islanders in Atlantic Canada, used to living in some of the most economically depressed jurisdictions of North America, this is depressing. The island of Newfoundland, like Iceland, is a relatively inhospitable island in the North Atlantic famed for its fish stocks. For most of the 20th century, though, the two island nations have gone in separate directions. Where Iceland smoothly developed into an independent state throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War, Newfoundland's economic collapse prompted Britain's suspension of its statehood and eventual annexation into Canada. Where Iceland's fisheries have been carefully and aggressively managed, Newfoundland's fisheries have been famously devastated. Where Iceland is one of the richest countries in the world, Newfoundland remains the second-poorest province in Canada.

What did Iceland do right? What did Newfoundland do wrong? It all comes down, in my estimation, to the two nations' respective histories. Historically, Iceland's has been a much more homogeneous and egalitarian society than Newfoundland's, with a highly literature population united by a common language, a shared history, and political issues (the questions of self-government and nation-building, not to mention the fisheries) which galvanized the entire island. Newfoundland, for its part, has traditionally been riven by divisions: Catholic versus Protestant, outporters versus residents of the capital of St. John's, the poor versus the rich, the fishing familes versus the mercantile families. As a point of fact, in the 1948 referendum Newfoundland's pro-confederates secured their slim majority for union with Canada by invoking a Catholic threat in letters sent to the membership of the famously bigoted Protestant Orange Order. I'm tempted to conclude that the famous lack of initative taken by the Newfoundland state, whether in preventing starvation among outport children during the Great Depression or in effectively pressuring the Canadian government to regulating the Grand Banks fisheries, can ultimately be traced to this paralysis, to the fierce competition of different interest groups all demanding satisfaction. Compare, if you would, the situation of the autonomous Faroe Islands as a sort of intermediate situation, combining the self-assertion of Iceland with Newfoundland's paralysis.

Looking towards the future, it's interesting to note that although the 21st century is still young, Iceland and Newfoundland are starting to move towards a common model. Globalization is plugging Iceland ever more deeply into transnational movements, as the country's wealth has made it a destination for foreign immigration while the question of Icelandic membership in the European Union has recently been raised. Newfoundland, for its part, seems to be in the process of consolidating itself, what with the collapse of its traditional sectarianism, the recent economic boom driven by oil and natural gas, the evolution of the capital of St. John's into a prosperous metropole like Iceland's Reykjavik, and--after the tragedy of the Grand Banks cod fisheries--a new determination to control Newfoundland's natural resources. Iceland's prosperous and happy future seems to be secured, even with the complications of European Union membership and accelerated globalization. It might not be too much to hope that Newfoundland, within the Canadian confederation, might finally be catching up to its role model.

Posted by Randy at February 23, 2006 03:25 AM

Newfoundlanders have had the option of moving elsewhere in Canada to find work. Icelanders haven't had a similar option. It's not surprising that Newfoundlanders have had less of an incentive - or need - to build up their island's economy.

Posted by: Peter at February 23, 2006 09:32 AM

Also note that Iceland already had something happen that was more serious than the collapse of fishing stocks - almost total deforestation. That created a powerful constituency for ecological stewardship.

Posted by: Hektor Bim at February 23, 2006 12:13 PM

Newfoundlanders have had the option of moving elsewhere in Canada to find work. Icelanders haven't had a similar option.

Although there was a great deal of Icelandic emigration during the 19th century, with most of it going to Denmark, Canada, the United States and Brazil. I believe Iceland is one of those countries where the diaspora is larger than the home population, and a number of towns have emigration museums or memorials.

Part of the credit for Iceland's prosperity belongs to the investment and infrastructure improvements made by the Allies during WW2, and to the subsequent NATO base at Keflavik. I'm not sure why Argentia and Goose Bay didn't have a similar effect on the Newfoundland economy.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at February 23, 2006 01:12 PM
Coming across what looks like an excellent, thoughtful blog that seems to have disappeared off the face of the Internet is rather depressing, to be sure.

But I think the comment about Icelanders learning to deal with almost complete deforestation, which seems to have caused them to become more innovative and contributed to the collective sense that they have to share this small space with each other and they'd better back each other up. Perhaps losing the fishery in Newfoundland was the wake up call that was much longer in coming, but Newfoundlanders seem to be coming together to make St. John's a pretty exciting place to be right now – and it's not all from the oil boon, either. (Do people say 'boon' anymore or have we all just given up that fight and just say 'boom' now? If we let the rabble win this battle pretty soon we'll all be saying "for all intensive purposes" too, mark my words.)

In the end I think we can safely blame the British. Something about British culture and values, colonialism and its short-term approach to managing resources and leaving people to fend for themselves vs. the more enlightened Nordic view that they're all in it together, combined with an evolved sense of family that seems rooted in practicality that is unique to Iceland, goes to show that they simply do it better than the Anglo world has managed to.

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By al - 6:11 p.m. | (3) comments | Post a Comment

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I was just reading Neal Stephenson's essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, which was written in 1999 and is the best-written snapshot of where the computer industry was at the time and how it came to be. Definitely still worth reading as a great backgrounder on the philosophies and histories behind things like why Windows and the classic MacOS resemble a trip to Disneyland, and how Unix is like the computer programmer's Epic of Gilgamesh. Really, it makes perfect sense and is a level of contextualization that most computer programmers aren't equipped to make but can certainly benefit from reading about.

As he was talking about the first iterations of Windows that were slapped together and placed neatly on top of MS-DOS something occurred to me: Windows 3.1's Program Manager was the best way to launch programs I had ever used on any operating system.

Yes, really. And it's for a pretty simple reason too, it's lack of sophistication.

It was almost certainly similar to what My First MDI Application.exe would look. (oops, firstmdi.exe, this is DOS days, after all.) It had windows that you could cascade or tile, and icons that stayed where you put them and didn't make any attempt to arrange them for you by default. It was big and ugly and efficient, once you got it arranged the way you like. Everyone had their programs sorted into separate windows by function, games and productivity apps and system tools all lived in their own little windows happily together, and I could get to any of them right away without having to waste any extra clicks. If I used one more frequently than another I would put it at the top so it would always be the most prominent. It wasn't very 'smart' but that meant that users actually had to be, with the ones who let their desktops become unruly piles of icons probably being the reason Microsoft felt they needed to saddle everyone with the Start menu later.

This is how the Classic MacOS treated every single folder on the hard drive, but even it made the mistake of stuffing everything into /Applications (which OS X still does to this day) and forcing you to individually open and close each individual window if you did make the decision to try and organize your installed programs by function.

Microsoft abandoned this perfectly efficient program in favour of the Start Menu, a step back that trey trumpeted as their best new feature in Windows 95. Now instead of having my programs be fully visible whenever I wanted them, I had to click Start and then Programs before I could even get a look at them. And instead of being grouped according to how I choose to group them, software companies, becoming more keenly aware of the importance of branding, started stuffing their own programs into sub-folders of the Programs menu according to the name of the company that makes them. So I have to know that Symantec are the people who manufactured my virus scanner before I could find and launch the program, instead of dropping the more descriptively-named program shortcut into my utilities folder to begin with when I loaded the program onto my computer the first time.

This is probably the reason you see so many Windows users with desktops cluttered from left to right with random icons, they want the things they access and think of as important to be immediately visible. Of course, instead of being able to just alt-tab into the Program Manager they have to minimize every single window first. (A tedious job for most computer users. Do an informal survey around your office and see how many people know the shortcut key for 'Show Desktop'. It's depressing.) Also, software companies have decided that the user is their adversary in their aim to spread their brand identity to as many places on your screen as they can, so every program you install drops a copy of its icon on your desktop in no particular order, and certainly not grouped by function.

In Mac OS X it's almost as bad. The /Applications folder is an ever-growing list of programs with quirky names like CyberDuck and Seashore. One of those is an FTP program, the other is a (quite nice) graphics editor, which I had completely forgotten the name of once when all I wanted to do was put a watermark on a PNG file, since it had been a while since I used it, the incongruous bit of information "seashore is the name of a graphics editor" had dropped completely out of my head. That's as much a knock on the tendency of software developers to go for cute over practical as it is Mac OS X's program interface.

But one thing that is becoming more and more common in the OS X world is for people to just eschew using the Finder to launch programs altogether and just hit Command-Spacebar and type the name of the program into the search box and hit Open right away, the Desktop equivalent of I'm Feeling Lucky. And as great as Spotlight searching does work, having to use it when I used to have my programs organized in a sensible way in front of me does not seem like progress to me.

I'd like Apple to please just admit that a file browser and an application launcher are fundamentally different things. The dock is well and good for maybe 20 programs, but I have way more than that I might want to run in the course of a day, especially when I crack open the /Developer folder.

So I'm going to say it again: Windows 3.1 did it best.

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By al - 6:15 a.m. | (2) comments | Post a Comment

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My Secret Weapon

Yes it's another post about another damn toy. You love them.

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By al - 12:07 a.m. | (2) comments | Post a Comment

Saturday, May 03, 2008

From the "Oh of Course" Department

When watching the Disney short "Donald in Mathmagic Land" (Youtube link) on my computer just now, there's a part where the narrator is showing a rifle-brandishing Donald about Pythagoras and starts to talk about the golden ratio, and shows examples of it that can be found in a pentagram and then shows the golden ratio as a rectangle, and it finally occurred to me..

Golden Ratio iMac

That my iMac's screen was built to exactly this proportion. Yeah I'm slow.

It's interesting to visualize a typical desktop layout over top of the divisions of the golden ratio, though. Web browser or word processor on the left, email program on the bottom right, instant messenger window in the top right and contact list tucked in to the left of it. Very close to what my screen typically looks like.

PS watch that cartoon, it's very good and has some neat visualizations in it.

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By al - 6:27 p.m. | (0) comments | Post a Comment

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