Colorado Wildfires

Oct 292003

Today was a hot and gusty day… and Colorado seems to be following the lead of California.

As I drove up to Boulder for class today, I saw a huge plume of smoke from what turned out to be the Overland fire. And as I drove home after class, I discovered that a second fire was burning out of control just a few miles northeast of our house.

We’re not in any immediate danger — are are unlikely to be given the lay of the land and the forthcoming weather. However, for the moment, the wind has picked up and shifted in our direction, which is worrisome. Here’s a news photo of the fire.

We have a fairly good view of the fire from a hill in our neighborhood, so Paul and I are going to go take a look before heading to bed.

This is our third fire in three years. I must admit, it’s getting a bit tiresome.

Update: The cold and damp weather seems to have knocked out the fire. Yeah!

New Fire Map

Oct 292003

This morning’s fire map doesn’t look good:

The news isn’t so great either:

Fire crews exhausted by three days of battle were pulled back.

“There’s really no way to stop this fire from getting up to Julian,” said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief. Reinforcements were sent out, but Hawkins said he needed twice as many.

“They’re so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we’re not willing to let the firefighters continue any further,” he said.

Ten miles south of Julian, about 90 percent of homes were destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents, said Chief Bill Clayton of the California Department of Forestry.

Fires in San Diego

Oct 262003

As many of you know, Paul and I used to live in San Diego: first in La Jolla, then in Alpine. So when I look at the GeoMac wildfire map, I know all to well just how densely populated so many of the areas affected by the fires are.

The news report only makes the situation sound worse:

Three major fires are cutting a swath through San Diego, in Valley Center, Scripps Ranch and Otay Mesa. Residents and businesses in Kearny Mesa, Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta have been evacuated. Ten deaths have been confirmed in San Diego County.

One of the fires started near Ramona overnight. The fires have since charred more than 100,000 acres and destroyed hundred of structures.

Officials said that weary firefighters were battling the blazes on several fronts, contending with gusting winds, soaring temperatures and low humidity as they struggle to stop the flames.

“We have everything sent out that we can possibly send out,” said San Diego Fire Department dispatcher Ron Cumbey. “And we are asking for all that we can get.”

The so-called “Cedar” fire started about 7:45 p.m. Saturday near Ramona and swept through parts of Lakeside, jumped Highway 67 and reached Scripps Ranch, said Susan Plese of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Flames jumped from home to home in Scripps Ranch, which authorities said was evacuated by 10 a.m. It is not yet known how many strucutres have been destroyed or damaged there.

The fires soon spread westward toward Interstate 805 and skipped over 805 near State Route 52. Residents and businesses in Tierrasanta and Kearny Mesa have been evacuated. Officials said that a small patch of fire west of 805 near Clairemont Mesa Blvd. has been contained, and it appears that the Clairemont Mesa area will not be immediately affected.

… And so on. My heart goes out to the people affected by the wildfire.

Update: I just found this picture of a firefighter walking along one side of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard while the other side burns. Jesus. The story that accompanies it said:

One victim was found dead in a trailer, one in a motor home and four in vehicles, county sheriff’s spokeswoman Susan Knauss said. Three were killed while trying to escape on foot and two were dead on arrival at local hospitals.

“We were literally running through fire,” said Lisza Pontes, 43, who escaped the fire with her family after the roar of flames woke them at 3:45 a.m. As they drove off, they saw a neighbor’s mobile home explode.

“I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet,” Pontes said. “It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere.”


Hot Hot Hot!

Oct 262003

David Kelley’s recent commentary “The Witless Battle Over General Boykin” was excellent: informative, philosophical, and a bit spicy. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entirety.

The crackle of small-arms fire you hear about General William Boykin is the sound of the latest skirmish in America’s culture wars. Boykin is the Pentagon’s head of intelligence in the war on terrorism. He is also an evangelical Christian who has told church groups that Muslim terrorists hate the United States because it is a “Christian nation,” that our real enemy is not Osama bin Laden but Satan, and that we will prevail only if “we come against them in the name of Jesus.”

It gets worse. According to the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story, Boykin would show audiences a picture he took while in Somalia, after the “Blackhawk Down” fiasco in Mogadishu. Pointing to an unnatural-looking dark streak in the sky, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your enemy. It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.”

The usual suspects quickly rounded themselves up and the cultural skirmish began. Liberals denounced the general’s remarks as divisive and likely to offend Muslims worldwide, and called for his resignation. “The most important global struggle,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, “is not between one religion and another but between fanaticism and tolerance.” Conservatives rushed to Boykin’s defense. Not only does he have the right to express his religious conviction, they argued, but he is also right that America is a Christian nation, engaged in a war against evil.

Following the culture wars is usually interesting. It is often infuriating. But in this case it’s just embarrassing. The mark of the devil over Mogadishu? And this from a man in charge of military intelligence?

The problem here is not intolerance, divisiveness, or extremism. It is rank irrationality. The whole exchange is another tiresome example of a false dichotomy: dogmatism vs. relativism. Conservatives are right that liberals are afraid to assert the truth of their convictions. Liberals are right that conservatives are claiming truth for sectarian religious dogmas–and rightly alarmed that they invoke those dogmas to justify war.

What both sides ignore is the alternative of reason and rational certainty. When Islamic terrorists attack us out of hatred for our secular way of life, our pursuit of happiness, our wealth and productive achievements, it is reason, not Jesus, that tells us they are viciously wrong. And reason does tell us that they are wrong, objectively wrong, and that we are objectively right in responding with force.

Earth to General Boykin and his conservative allies: You are defending a country founded in the Enlightenment, the era when reason was finally recognized as the arbiter of truth. You are relying on America’s vast wealth, created by people who used their minds, not their prayers, to work and produce. You are employing sophisticated military technology created by scientists whose highest commitment is to facts, observation, logic, and proof. You would not count on incantations or sacred texts to find bin Laden’s cave. How can you rely on such means to justify your cause?

Earth to Ellen Goodman and her liberal co-ideologists: You are living in a country founded in the Enlightenment, by men who believed in the power of reason to find the truth and create a good society. The tolerance you enjoy is not an ultimate value; it is a means to an end, an enabling condition for peaceful cooperation and the rational exchange of ideas. If peace and reason are not objective values, worth defending when attacked, then you have no case for tolerance in the first place. And to judge by your vehement antipathy to dogmatism, you’re really not willing to tolerate that, are you?

The next time one of these skirmishes begins–whether it’s the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, the Pledge of Allegiance, or a leader’s invocation of faith–could we try to avoid another such witless battle?

A Great Day

Oct 222003

Today has been a most excellent day.

First, I had only very, very mild problems with migraines. The beta-blockers seem to be kicking in.

Second, in my Aristotle class, we discussed a rather interesting and fundamental objection to Gilbert Ryle’s argument that philosophy of mind is shot through with a “category mistake” concerning mind and body. (Perhaps I’ll post on that later.)

Third, I had a fun time arguing about a priori knowledge and intuitions while out for drinks with other grad students and Mike Huemer after Epistemology class.

Fourth, I had an interesting chat with Mike Huemer about dualism and other theories of mind before heading home.

Fifth, I found out that my article on false excuses has been accepted for publication by The Journal of Value Inquiry with only editorial changes needed. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! This is huge for me. This is what made a good day absolutely fucking great.

Sixth, I found my glasses sitting on one of our recliners, where they had been hidden under a blanket for the past week.

After two weeks of migraine hell, I deserved a day like this, dammit. And wow, has it ever been sweet!

Translation Services

Oct 222003

A while ago, I got this spam advertising translation services. Let’s just say that, based upon the quality of the English in the letter, I won’t be hiring them anytime soon.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am the general manager of Beijing Huayi Translation Co.,Ltd, that is a professional translation company based in Beijing. we supply high quality translation service. I hope to have opportunity to supply you with translation service. Our company is skilled in Chinese translation, especially in English-Chinese, Chinese-English, French-Chinese Chinese-French, German-Chinese, Chinese-German, Japanese-Chinese, Chinese-Japanese, Japanese-Chinese, Chinese-Japanese, Russian-Chinese, Chinese-Russian, Korean-Chinese and Chinese-Korean translation projects. We have finished many big projects and made many achievements in the translation industry. We have good and long-term relationships with many famous international corporations, for example, P&G, Delaware Corporation, Multiling Corporation, many governmental organizations of China and big publishing houses. We have translated about 30 books from English to Chinese for some famous press house of China. We once translated technical material of many big projects, for example, China West-East Gas Pipeline Project of PetroChina.

There are 8 full-time employees and 1500 full time and part-time translators in my company. Our weekly turnout is 250 thousand words and the monthly turnout is 1 million words. Almost all of our translators are professional translators with many experience and good education background. Most of our managers and full-time employees of our company have doctor degree or master degree in science, law or other specialties.

Our translation business mainly includes following fields: Medicine & medical instrument (15%); Computer & IT (15%); Chemistry, Biology & chemical engineering (10%); Law (10%); Economy and management (10%); Finance and Insurance (5%) ; Traffic & railway (5%); Mechanism (5%); Architecture (5%); Culture and People (3%); Geology and Environment Protection (3%); Commerce (2%); Education (2%); Others (10%).

We mainly translate through traditional way by human being, and at the same time we can use computer-aided translation software to do translation work. We have many copies of the famous computer-aided translation software, Star Transit and TermStar. Many of our translators and employees can use the software to translate the big projects as our customs required. With the software our translation works have higher quality and productivity.

Our rates are as follows:

English-Chinese: US$0.045-0.05/English word; Chinese-English: US$0.065-0.08/English word; French-Chinese: US$0.055-0.06/French word; Chinese-French: US$0.065-0.08/French word; German-Chinese: US$0.055-0.06 per French word; Chinese-German: US$0.065-0.08 per French word; Japanese-Chinese: US$0.035-0.05 /Japanese Character; Chinese-Japanese: US$0.04-0.06 /Japanese Character; Japanese-Chinese: US$0.035-0.05/Japanese Character; Chinese-Japanese: US$0.04-0.06/Japanese Character; Russian-Chinese: US$0.03-0.035/Chinese Character; Chinese-Russian:US$0.04-0.045 /Chinese Character; Korean-Chinese:US$0.03-0.035/Chinese Character; Chinese-Korean:US$0.040-0.045/ Chinese Character.

Best regards

Dr. Zhen Wei

General Manager of Beijing Huayi Translation Co.,Ltd.

602 of Building 1, 123 of Zhongguancun East Road Haidian Dis.Beijing China.

Post code: 100086 Tel: 008610-62144551 62144542 Fax: 0086-10-62149508

E-mail: [email protected] [email protected]

If this mail has disturbed you, I will be very sorry. You can send me a letter to: [email protected] I will remove your e-mail from our list.

I just love the reference to their “many copies of the famous computer-aided translation software.” I have Dragon NaturallySpeaking myself, but it must not be very famous, as I have yet to see any paparazzi sneaking around the house!


Oct 192003

Life has really sucked lately. I mean: REALLY SUCKED. From the outside, everything is pretty much the same as usual. From the inside, pain and suffering abound — thanks to a now ten-day migraine.

Normally, I get migraines a few times a month for a few hours at a time. Aspirin and Excedrin usually work very well for me, even though they do sometimes create “rebound headaches,” i.e. repeat headaches the next day. If those options fail, then I can turn to my prescription Maxalt. And if that fails, then usually a nap or a night of sleep will cure all ills.

A few weeks ago, I started getting migraines while up in Boulder twice a week for class. That was unusual and bother, but not a huge problem. But then late last week, hell descended upon me. I got a migraine that just wouldn’t go away. In its first few days, I was able to banish it for a few hours at a time with aspirin or Excedrin. But after a while, the pain was getting worse and the medicine less effective. One dark 4am, I woke up with the delightful feeling large spike through my skull. The Maxalt (which does not generate rebound headaches) was completely ineffective. In short, life sucked.

On Friday, I saw my doctor. She recommended that I stay away from the aspirin and Excedrin, so as not to create more headaches later. Instead of the Maxalt, she gave me a new prescription for the migraines (Relpax), one supposed to cover a person for 24 hours better. She also put me on a low dose of beta-blockers in order to break the migraine cycle. (When I was an undergrad, I effectively controlled my excessive migraines with beta-blockers. They made me tired, but otherwise worked very well.) This all seemed like a reasonable course of action to me.

Unfortunately, the Relpax has done nothing to curb the migraine pain, even in its maximum dosage. And the beta-blockers don’t seem to be working yet. (I’m going to call my doctor tomorrow about increasing my dosage.) As a result, Saturday was a really miserable day; the migraine just ground into me all day long. The pain hasn’t been quite as bad today, but I’ve had problems reading due to my aura. (An aura is the visual hallucination associated with a migraine. Mine tend to be a cross between strangely shifting shadows and very fine tv snow.)

So now you know why my life has sucked of late. Um, thanks for listening. Okay, my migraine and I are going to bed now.

More Word Jumbles

Oct 192003

In response to my previous post on word jumbles, Tibor Machan sent me this jumble:

Almtiedtdy, the eniaimtoiln of tmtnrileeeakg furad and the piiibroothn asnaigt dipeevcte and aviubse tmtnieeeakg atcs or pcaiecrts are sfiacinngirt pilbuc ceornncs.

I readily concede that I have no idea what it says. So what is the difference between this jumble and the ever-so-readable one? In the comments on my previous post, Tim pointed us to this excellent explanation by Matt Davis of the facts of the matter. Based upon his research into the subject, the author concludes that the brain can compensate for some jumbles, but is not as flexible as claimed in the original jumble:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Matt disputes that merely the placement first and last letters determine whether a word can be easily read or not by asking us to compare these three sentences:

1) A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir

2) Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

3) A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur

Matt then comments:

All three sentences were randomised according to the “rules” described in the meme. The first and last letters have stayed in the same place and all the other letters have been moved. However, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine, which is that the texts get progressively more difficult to read. If you get stuck, the sentences are linked to the original unscrambled texts.

Hopefully, these demonstrations will have convinced you that in some cases it can be very difficult to make sense of sentences with jumbled up words. Clearly, the first and last letter is not the only thing that you use when reading text. If this really was the case, how would you tell the difference between pairs of words like “salt” and “slat”?

So what really determines the readability of jumbled words? Using the sentence “The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm” as his example, Matt suggests these criteria:

1) Short words are easy – 2 or 3 letter words don’t change at all. The only change that is possible in a 4 letter words is to swap the order of the middle letters which doesn’t cause too much difficulty (see 4).

2) Function words (the, be, and, you etc.) stay the same – mostly because they are short words, see (1). This really helps the reader by preserving the grammatical structure of the original, helping you to work out what word is likely to come next. This is especially crucial for reading jumbled text – words that are predictable are going to be easier to read in this situation.

3) Of the 15 words in this sentence, there are 8 that are still in the correct order. However, as a reader you might not notice this since many of the words that remain intact are function words, which readers don’t tend to notice when reading. For instance, when people are asked to detect individual letters in a sentence, they are more likely to miss letters in function words.

4) Transpositions of adjacent letters (e.g. porbelm for problem) are easier to read than more distant transpositions (e.g. pborlem). We know from research in which people read words presented very briefly on a computer screen that the exterior letters of words are easier to detect than middle letters – confirming one of the ideas present in the meme. We also know that position information for letters in the middle of words is more difficult to detect and that those errors that are made tend to be transpositions.

One explanation of this property of the reading system is that it results from the fact that the position of an exterior letter is less easily confused with adjacent letters. There is only direction in which an exterior letter can move, and there are fewer adjacent letters to ‘mask’ an exterior letter. Both of these properties emerge very naturally from a neural network model in which letters are identified at different positions in an artifical retina.

The account proposed by Richard Shillcock and colleagues, also suggests another mechanism that could be at work in the meme. They propose a model of word recognition in which each word is split in half since the information at the retina is split between the two hemispheres of the brain when we read. In some of the simulations of their model, Richard Shillcock simulates the effect of jumbling letters in each half of the word. It seems that keeping letters in the appropriate half of the word, reduces the difficulty of reading jumbled text. This approach was used in generating example (1) above, but not for (2) or (3).

5) None of the words that have reordered letters create another word (wouthit vs witohut). We know from existing work, that words that can be confused by swapping interior letters (e.g. salt and slat) are more difficult to read. To make an easy to read jumbled word you should therefore avoid making other words.

6) Transpositions were used that preserve the sound of the original word (e.g. toatl vs ttaol for total). This will assist in reading, since we often attend to the sound of the words even when reading for meaning:

7) The text is reasonably predictable. For instance, given the first few words of the sentence, you can guess what words are coming next (even with very little information from the letters in the word). We know that context plays an important role in understanding speech that is distorted or presented in noise, the same is probably true for written text that has been jumbled.

Word Jumbles

Oct 172003

Some of you may have seen this little tidbit in e-mail a few weeks ago when it was making the rounds:

Instructions: Just read the sentence straight through without really

thinking about it.

Acocdrnig to an elgnsih unviesitry sutdy the oredr of letetrs in a

wrod dosen’t mttaer, the olny thnig thta’s iopmrantt is that the frsit

and lsat ltteer of eevry word is in the crcreot ptoision. The rset can

be jmbueld and one is stlil able to raed the txet wiohtut dclftfuiiy.

What I find strange about my capacity to quickly read that jumble of letters is that I am horrible at real jumbles, i.e. puzzles where you have to discern the word from totally mixed-up letters. I wonder why fixing the first and last letters makes such a huge cognitive difference. Anyone know?

Oh, Blessed Fibula

Oct 172003

For a long time now, I’ve done much of my computing work on an old but ultralight Sony Vaio laptop (200MHz CPU, 96MB RAM, 2GB HD, Win98, but only 2.8 lbs), as I don’t like being constrained to my desk. So I’ve long had all philosophy files on the laptop, but I also recently swapped over my e-mail too, as I found that I could keep up with the flood better if I could send out e-mails while watching TV.

A while ago, I decided that I would get a new laptop soon. And then I decided that I wanted it sooner. And then I decided that I wanted it now.

So on Tuesday, I ordered a refurbished Dell Inspiron 300m (1.2GHz CPU, 632MB RAM, 60GB HD, WinXP, and still just 2.99 lbs). I was expecting it to arrive sometime next week or so. But it arrived today, just 3 days after I ordered it!

And wow, am I ever in love.

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