Intermediate Form

Reagan Outpouring

Well, Reagan is barely in the ground, and already people are trying to minimize the tremendous amount of people that turned out to see him off. Drudge reports about the NY Times' Frank Rich:

On Public reation to Reagan Death, Rich claims: 'The dirty little secret of the week: The outpouring didn't live up to its hype. 'There was this kind of extraordinary outpouring not by the public but by reporters who should know better,' as Morley Safer told Larry King after it was over.'

I'm interning in Washington, DC this summer, and I snuck out of a conference a little early to attend the procession down constitution avenue. I can report that people were lined up, not one or two deep, but literally 15 deep, up onto the stairs of the buildings behind us. It was the largest crowd I've ever been in, but it turned silent when the casket went by.

I don't know what Rich would consider to be an "extraordinary outpouring", but in my book, this was one.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-06-17 09:22

Movie Music

During the concert to celebrate the dedication of the World War II memorial, one of the pieces that was played was "Hymn to the Fallen", which was originally part of the score to "Saving Private Ryan". At Reagan's funeral, the recessional was "Mansions of our Lord", from the film "We Were Soldiers".

It seems that many of the new great patriotic music is originating in the scores of movies. I find that interesting, for some reason.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-06-12 12:03

The Sons of Martha


I'm by no means a literature critic, but surprisingly I do have two poems that I consider my favorites. One of them is Tennyson's "Ulysses", and the other is "The Sons of Martha" by Rudyard Kipling. So it was with much dismay that I read Chris's blog post bashing the latter poem. While Chris did a damn good job formatting the poem, I'm afraid he's missed several important points when understanding it.

To understand it, we need to first understand who the "Sons of Martha" are. They are the people who make the things that we take for granted, and the people who ensure the services that we expect to always be available are.

I once heard someone, when asked "Where does electricity come from?" answer in all seriousness "An outlet in the wall." And the thing is, to a first approximation, that's correct. We don't when plugging things in, think about the thousands and thousands of people that work every day to ensure that there will be voltage and current available at that outlet. While we might think about the electric company when their bill comes, the only time we think about the people who work for it is when the power fails, and then we start caring a great deal.

Likewise, when we turn on the water faucet, we don't think about where that water comes from. But it's the job of many people to ensure that that water makes it to your lips. Most of the water drunk by the population of New York City comes from one of three "water tunnels". The construction of the newest of these was started in the 1970s, and isn't scheduled to be completed until 2020. 23 men died to ensure that people who live and work in New York City can continue to drink.

"The Sons of Martha" are these uncelebrated people who do the things that improve everyone's lives, and Kipling is both celebrating them and pointing out that they should be celebrated.

The bible quote Chris mentioned has Jesus declaring that Mary (who seems to worry about one thing, religion) is superior to Martha, who worries about many things related to the comfort of Jesus. I disagree with Chris that Kipling is interpreting this to mean that Jesus died to ensure "physical comfort of those who listened to him".

Rather, I think that the right (and only) interpretation is that Jesus is declaring that those who focus on religion are superior to those who focus on more worldly matters. And I don't think that it's irrational to extend the Sons of Mary to include people like artists, academics, lawyers, and politicians, who argue amongst themselves without caring how they are provided form. The Sons of Martha, then, are the people who provide for them. In the poem, Kipling focuses on people like engineers and construction workers, but I'd also put people like farmers and truck drivers and the like in there.

For those familiar with the Hitchiker's guide series, I'd claim that the Sons of Mary are the residents of the A and B arks, while the Sons of Martha claimed the C ark.

Chris asks:

the sons of Mary have it so much better than the sons of Martha, then be a son of Mary, not a son of Martha.

The answer to this is twofold.

The first is that if there were no Sons of Martha, we would all be much the worse for it. Without the people that supply electricity and water, we would be in the dark, hoping for rain to refill our cisterns. Without the bridges and ferries that cross waterways, we'd be trapped in our small towns. Without the farmers and truck drivers that bring food to markets, the Sons of Mary would be ekeing out livings as subsistence farmers, rather than thinking their deep thoughts.

The second is that doing these tasks is quite rewarding, personally. The joy of making something new and useful with ones own hands and mind is one that few will experience.

Chris says:

For the practical side, the complaint is essentially that there's a group of people who do thankless and dangerous jobs for no identifiable reason. Or, more eloquently, "simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need."

Except if it were simple service simply given for a common need, they wouldn't complain or feel slighted. That just isn't the meaning of "simple".

The thing is, by and large, these people aren't complaining. Kipling wasn't an engineer. He's one of the Sons of Mary, an enlightened one who's pointing out and celebrating all that the Sons of Martha do without complaining.

Finally, he writes:

Kipling does address this idea in his line "To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar." Of course, if you're going to invoke predestination, it's rather unfair to complain of those predestined to a better life.

I don't interpret the Belief in this to mean religious belief... it would be foolish to imply that an engineer cannot be as religious as the next man. Instead, the Belief that's denied here is the faith in technology. By choosing (if it is really a choice) to work on technology, people pull up the veil on something, and so are forced to care about how it works. They then become responsible for using that knowledge to benefit others, rather than just expecting things to work. This goes back to "They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose."

I don't think the reference to birth was intended to imply predestination. Instead, I think it was pointing out that it takes a special kind of person to be a "Son of Martha". Some people can handle technical things, and some can't, and I don't think it's something that can be tought at a late date. I know I knew from a young age I was destined to work with computers, and I suspect many people of my generation knew the same thing, in the same way our fathers knew they would work with electronics, or engines, or motors, or the like.

I think Chris's problem is twofold: He's interpreting the poem as religious commentary, which knowing the original audience, it wasn't. And he's considering the poem to be being given from the perspective of one of the Sons of Martha, while I think it's more appropriate to interpret it as the words of an outsider (as Kipling was), looking in and celebrating them.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-06-11 12:41

Penn and Teller on Normal Borlaug


The above brings you to a great link in which Penn and Teller interview Normal Borlaug and compare his work (saving a billion people before 1970, and he didn't stop there) with that of the anti-GM crazys. Well worth watching.

As you might have guessed from the URL given above, there's a bit of profanity in this video. It also requires something that can play windows media player files (mplayer and xine work on Linux).

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-03-28 12:07

The Silent Billions


Google released a press release today claiming that their search index now contains over six billion items. While this may seem staggeringly large to some, it actually seems somewhat small to me.

Consider this. I estimate that, between my blog, my web site, and various mailing lists I've posted to over my life, I'm responsible for the existence of over a thousand web pages. My parents are not very technical, but they probably have over thirty pages, devoted to photo galleries and things of that nature.

Six billion Google entries. Six billion people in this world. It stands to reason that for every person that has a thousand pages, there are a thousand people with no pages indexed by Google.

Now, the 'Net isn't a zero sum game. By making a web page, I take nothing away from anyone else. But it is somewhat sobering to realize that the vast majority of people on this planet have yet to experience the Internet, let alone leave their mark on it.

- Tom | permalink | 3 comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-02-17 14:11

Spirit Isn't Dead


I'm somewhat annoyed with sites like Slashdot and the Drudge Report declaring the Spirit rover dead, just because it hasn't been sending data back to earth for a day or so. While it may be dramatic to proclaim the mission a failure, it just isn't accurate.


A better site for mars rover news is spaceflight now. There mission status center has the following update:

But earlier today, a signal was sent from Earth to Mars and Spirit responded with a simple tone.

"We did send a command to the spacecraft on a specific channel and we got a response back basically saying 'yeah, I am here' and we got exactly what we expected from it. So that gave us the indication, because it is on that specific channel that we got the response, is that the spacecraft is in safe-mode. Something kind of went wrong and it put itself into a safe-mode," Elachi said.

A safe mode is a far cry from a failed mission. As an example, the Mars Pathfinder's computer reset itself twice within the first week after it landed. Ground controllers had to find and send the right commands to get it communicating again.

I strongly expect Spirit to be up and roving again in a few days, with the major complications being from having to diagnose this problem as the second rover, Opportunity, races towards Mars.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-01-22 19:25

State of the Union

Just got done watching the state of the union. Bush was remarkably combative. He mentioned his controversial carrier visit, gave a listing of the nations involved in the war against Iraq, and demanded that the PATRIOT act and the tax cuts be renewed.

During the speech, the Democrats were remarkably uncivil. I thought I heard booing when the president was enumerating all the tax cuts. I don't think I've ever heard that at the State of the Union address. There was also inappropriate applause interjected at points.

Still, I think one of the best things is that the President still gets it on the war on terror. The speech had lines like:

After the chaos and carnage of Sept. 11, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States - and war is what they got.


As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends. ... And above all, we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others, and help transform a troubled part of the world.

It'll be interesting to see what happens when the actual campaign starts.

- Tom | permalink | 4 comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-01-20 22:28

Corrections, Updates, and Changes


Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, writes about how he dislikes "stealth corrections", but at the same time thinks "there's something perhaps a bit too self-important about posting an audit-trail note every time you make a minor stylistic edit to a post."

I like to think that here on Intermediate Form, I've found something of a balance. Generally, I write blog entries on my desktop computer here on Long Island. This computer also runs the secret intermediate form beta/work-in-progress site, where I can preview posts in progress. When I'm happy with the post, I check it into CVS on my server in Texas, where is located. A few seconds later, the post is automatically checked out of CVS, and scripts run to post it on the actual blog itself.

As many technical people know, but some non-technical people may not, CVS is the concurrent versions system, which provides a framework for keeping track of multiple versions of a file on a system. One of the benefits of using CVS is that a history is kept, and people can see how a file looked at any time in the past. With proper tools, CVS can be used to show things like diffs, lists of changes between versions of a document.


Clicking on the "changelog" link at the bottom of a post leads you to a page showing the history of changes to the post. Each version has a message I gave when posting it, and links to view the source to that post, and a list of differenced between that version and the previous one.

Every change I make to this site is processed through CVS, and is made available to anyone who cares to look. While I occasionally do write notes explaining major changes to the text of an article, minor changes (like fixing typos) are always noted in the log, and there's never any completely stealthy editing.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-01-14 13:01


Last Exile Screenshot
A screenshot from Last Exile.

I was having a conversation with my friend Tony today about a new anime called Last Exile, which features teenage pilots rescuing a young girl from an evil menace that, in the four episodes I've seen, has yet to be fully fleshed out. The teenage pilots fly a small plane called a vanship (seen in the foreground in the still above), while governments have large aerial battleships, with many banks of large cannons.

This isn't the first series we've seen to feature this mix of small planes and aerial battleships, but I haven't seen this genre named before. Tony came up with the name Stratopunk, after Cyberpunk and Steampunk. I think the name fits as well as any, I've never heard it used before, and the only results in a google search seem to be guitar-related , so I decided to write a blog entry about what I think Stratopunk is, based on our short conversation.

(I do realize that small planes tend not to reach the stratosphere, but tropopunk doesn't have the same ring as stratopunk, so stratopunk it is. The "punk" component doesn't have any more meaning to it than it does in steampunk.)

I'd say Stratopunk is a sort of fictionalized golden age of aviation, in which small, open-cockpit planes are mixed with large air fortresses. The general feel is a sort of fictionalized period between the two world wars, but with more advanced aircraft than we had in the real world, and wildly differing political situations. Aircraft are powered by props and not jets, and it's perfectly okay to be exposed to the elements, given a scarf, hat, and goggles (which may not even need to be worn, see above.) A small business airplane is something that is normally built in one's garage. Air travel is not the domain of the common man, but is instead reserved for the rich and powerful, the military, and greasy pilot/mechanic entrepreneurs.

Last Exile isn't the only work in this genre, nor the only anime. Studio Ghibli produced two movies in this field: Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso. Disney's cartoon TaleSpin also would seem to mostly fall into this genre. I'd say the the Crimson Skies board and computer games could also be called stratopunk. Live-action stratopunk is harder to find... perhaps the movie The Rocketeer, but I think that this would be a good place to make a movie in.

I've given some things that I think are stratopunk, but I don't by any means think this is a comprehensive list. If you can suggest other titles, leave a comment.

- Tom | permalink | 1 comment | changelog | Last updated: 2004-01-11 12:16

RSS Issues (Whoops!)


Well, if you read this site through a RSS reader, you may have aggregated a few empty blog posts. This is because I posted a broken version of the RSS script, and didn't adequately test it before I put it online. That'll teach me to upgrade the blog at 1 in the morning.

Rather than fix the old code, I rewrote it in python. The RSS code still generates quite similar RSS 1.0, but now writes out static xml files rather than being generated using a CGI script. Although the old URL still works, if you get a chance, please update your RSS aggregator scripts to the new URL, which is given above and in the navbar to the right. Thanks.

- Tom | permalink | no comments | changelog | Last updated: 2004-01-09 10:32