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July 2007
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September 2007

The horror of making a book your own

In The ethics of handling -- and manhandling -- a book, Patrick Reardon examines the relative morality of dog earing pages, underlining, and even more drastic crimes against the printed page.

An undergraduate professor of mine demonstrated the value of adding my own layer of information, atop the author's, by making systematic notes, symbols, and markings. Today, as a book collector, I won't write in volumes that I've purchased for the collection, but if the book is mine to consume, then I typically do "violate" it with the mark-up gleaned from my dear old prof.

I don't concern myself with how my markings might interfere with the next reader. I got over this with a somewhat painful emotional experience many years ago. I had lent a monograph to a professor, in graduate school, and when he returned the book I asked him how I liked it. He said its conclusions were exceeded in their obviousness only by the notes that someone had made in the margins. Ouch. I became self-concious about my markings for a while thereafter, but have since gotten over it.


R.I.P. Joybubbles

This morning I learned, via Dave Farber's IP list, that Joybubbles passed away on August 8, 2007. Born Joe Engressia, and blind since birth, Joybubbles discovered that his perfect-pitch whistling allowed him to control telephone switching systems, thus giving birth to the era of "phone phreaking." Although I never met Joybubbles, I did encounter many legendary stories, and much respect for him, during my own time in the Computer Underground. An eccentric and unique man that made a lasting countercultural contribution. You can read his NYT obituary for more fascinating details.


Remote Control on a budget

Eric Gwinn, writing Start your Mr. Coffee with these mega-remotes for the Chicago Tribune discusses options for using remote controls for more than just your television. The article mostly discusses consultant-provided systems, however, and the price tag is high:

"[...] it'll cost you. For $450 to $750 a room (plus the cost of a $5,000 remote and another $400 to program that remote), you can automate your life. Wake up and press a few buttons to turn on the coffeemaker in the kitchen, slide open the blinds in the bedroom, cue up your favorite song in the bath, and turn on the air conditioner to smooth your entry into the morning."

Of course, you can do it yourself for much less. A good place to start would be the new RemoteLinc remote control from Smarthome. It's attractive and very functional with an INSTEON-based system.


Book Review: Words of a Feather

I recently spent a pleasant Saturday morning reading "Words of a Feather: A Humorous Puzzlement of Etymological Pairs" by Murray Suid. Suid is the author of one of my favorite writing reference books, Demonic Mnemonics, and his latest work is another volume that will tickle writers and word lovers alike.

Words of a Feather examines words that have similar origins but have, over time and usage, drifted apart from each other. Sometimes the result of Suid's couplings are enlightening, such as "menu" and "minute." The book reveals that they share the Latin root of "minitus;" a small unit of time. In France, a "menu de repas," was a small description of foods provided to customers in order to spare the waiter's time in taking orders. From there, we arrive at “menu.”

Some of the word pairs are suprising, such as "fornicate" and "furnace," which are related because Ancient Roman prostitutes used to look for customers near the arch-shaped ovens, or “fornus,” where bread was baked and offered for sale.

Occasionally the word couplets confirm what you always suspected, but lacking Suid's yen for linguistic archeology and sheer persistance, have never investigated for yourself. For example, who hasn't at least noticed that "shirt" and "skirt" are very similar? In Words of a Feather you'll learn that shirt derives from the Old English word "scyrte" for tunic, whose style was similar to a short coat. The word skirt comes from the Old Norman "skyrte," also referring to clothing, but in the peasent style of a long shirt. From there, Suid goes on to explain how the terms apply to today's styles.

In addition to using research and witty observations, Suid also brings words together with his own intuition. For example, he relates the modern "blog" with "log," which derives from a ship's "logbook" where sailors kept record of the vessel's speed. So-called because the speed was measured by how quickly the ship passed a log floating in the water.

This is a book that is best consumed, if you'll pardon the metaphor, in small pecks. Its compact size makes it easy to carry--it would be a great book to bring on your next flight--and the page design is attractive and easy to skim. There are a number of delightful illustrations, too, but sometimes they're not next to the words they are intended to enhance, which diminishes their impact. I'd also consider adding an index to make it easier to find specific words. You'll want to do this because you're likely to find facts to share with your friends, some of whom will certainly ask for documentation of your amazing claims.

But as enjoyable and entertaining as the book is, my favorite parts appear on its final pages. The annotated list of references, many of which are online, is quite usefu. But the hidden gem is a fifteen page chapter called "word factory." It’s a wonderfully organized and informative discussion of etymology and word-making processes. I wish this had been at the front of the book, but it is somewhat academic so I can understand why it wasn't. Placing it there would undermine the book’s subtitle declaration of being humourous. However, I think reading Word Factory first will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the fun parts. It might feel like eating your vegatables before dessert, but that too, is a good idea.

Words of a Feather is funny, esoteric, and informative. It doesn't disappoint in any regard, and it gives you both the appetite and tools to do some word sleuthing on your own. I think its a worthy addition to your library.


A cosmo for the Cosmos

As a young boy, I wanted to be a rocket scientist. But I never fantasized about being an astronaut, I'd like to think that even then I was somewhat sensible about "risk vs reward" equations. Given this childhood interest, which still has some emotional connection for me, I wasn't upset by the recent reports of astronauts having a drink or two the night before blasting off.

Today, Charles Krauthammer reports that his reaction was almost identical to mine. In So they're blasted at blastoff; Wouldn't you want to be too? he writes:

"Have you ever seen that beautiful and preposterous thing the astronauts ride? Imagine it's you sitting on top of a 12-story winged tube bolted to a gigantic canister filled with 2 million liters of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Then picture your own buddies -- the 'closeout crew' -- who met you at the pad, fastened your emergency chute, strapped you into your launch seat, sealed the hatch and waved, smiling to you through the window. Having left you lashed to what is the largest bomb on planet Earth, they then proceed 200 feet down the elevator and drive not one, not two, but three miles away to watch as the button is pressed that lights the candle that ignites the fuel that blows you into space."

They don't call alcohol "liquid courage" for nothing, but don't let that diminish the truly brave and remarkable feat of crudely escaping our own planet for the sake of science and learning. I'll drink to that, anytime.


Martha on home automation

At the Science Foo Camp, Martha Stewart observed the following, in regards to automated homes:

Martha Stewart fills a big room speaking on the Paperless Home. "I may not look like it," she says, "but I'm the typical homemaker. I have a dog, I have a daughter, I have a garden, I have a farm, and I do--or I did it all myself." And as a homemaker, she's convinced homes need to become computerized. Not too computerized, of course -- not like those crazy folks at MIT who want to have refrigerators that talk and coffee makers that do the same thing every day. Stewart wants to preserve traditions too. So she's going to build tools to organize the ultra-tedious tasks of life. She's very bright, hard-headed, and engaging. "So exhausting," says one woman upon the session's conclusion. "We pay people to do that sort of work."

I agree with her, unnecessarily making things "talk to each other" isn't productive. It's having your house take care of the tedious things automatically that make it "smart."

Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.


iPhone Earphone Solution

There has been some angst over the iPhone's recessed headphone jack because, it is said, it prevents you from using regular headphones with the device. Some people have even gone so far as to surgically alter their headphones, but the more sane approach is to buy a butt-ugly, but functional, Belkin adapter or wait for the aesthetically-pleasing, but not-yet-available, Griffin version.

However, I say to you, stop! With the cacophony over this issue, I felt certain that I would have to buy one of the aforementioned adapters. I even had the Belkin model in-hand at an Apple Store, ready to buy, until my inner design snob talked me out of bringing such an offensive hunk of plastic into my home.

The inspiration struck. I dug out my Griffin SmartShare dual-jack splitter; I purchased this a while ago for use with an iPod. It works well. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with the iPhone. If you have one, don't bother trying it.

But there is something you should try instead. Try the headphones you already own. As it turns out, to my surprise, my Etymotic Research 6i earphones work with the iPhone. It's not a super tight fit, but its perfectly functional, and they sound great. Hurrah! No adapters or cutting required. It seems that the jack isn't out of reach of all headphones, just some headphones.

Personally, the only time I ever plan to use these earphones with the iPhone anyway is on board an airplane. Otherwise, they don't make sense. The iPhone is, after all, a phone! If a call comes in and you're using regular earphones, how will you answer it? It will be very awkward to do so--that's why the earphone with microphone--which come free with the iPhone is really the more usable solution. But, see me in the air, and I'll be in audio-bliss with my 6i's.