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October 31, 2010
Open thread 149
Posted by Teresa at 09:26 AM *

Shadow and Substance
(Anonymous, late 1500s)

I heard a noise and wished for a sight,
I looked for a life and did a shadow see
Whose substance was the sum of my delight,
Which came unseen, and so did go from me.
     Yet hath conceit persuaded my content
     There was a substance where the shadow went.

I did not play Narcissus in conceit,
I did not see my shadow in a spring;
I know mine eyes were dimmed with no deceit,
I saw the shadow of some worthy thing;
     For, as I saw the shadow glancing by,
     I had a glimpse of something in mine eye.

But what it was, alas, I cannot tell,
Because of it I had no perfect view;
But as it was, by guess, I wish it well
And will until I see the same anew.
     Shadow, or she, or both, or choose you whither:
     Blest be the thing that brought the shadow hither!

link back to Open thread 148

This Isn’t the Pumpkin You’re Looking For
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:40 AM *

That's No Moon. It's A Space Pumpkin.

Q. Who writes letters to Dracula?
A. His fang club.
Q. Why does Dracula wear patent leather shoes?
A. No one wears sandals with a tuxedo.
Q. Where does Dracula go every time he visits New York?
A. The Vampire State Building.
Q. Why doesn’t anybody like Dracula?
A. He has a bat temper.
Q. What does Dracula think about these jokes?
A. They bite.

October 27, 2010
Climate change: because it’s true, that’s why
Posted by Teresa at 07:25 AM *

Worn out by arguments with climate change denialists? As Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait says in Climate Change: The Evidence,

Whenever I write about climate change, I get a pile of commenters from the noise machine side of things doing what they do best: making noise. They are loaded with nonsense, misleading data, political spin, and sometimes out-and-out falsehoods about climate change.

So I’ll be clear: climate change is real. The average temperature of the Earth is increasing. This is almost certainly due to mankind’s influence on the environment.

No doubt you’ve heard the puerile political propaganda from the denialists. To counter that—or at least, to make the point to people who might be confused on the issue—send them to NASA’s Climate Change evidence page. It’s basically one-stop shopping for clear, concise evidence that the Earth is warming up.

True! Dominating the page is a chart showing CO2 levels over the last 400,000 years. There’s an obvious longterm up/down cycle that always stays within certain ranges … right up to the Industrial Revolution, when it starts climbing off the chart, and goes almost vertical at 1950. The page also has references that show that the connection with climate change is causal, and makes statements like:
All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase.
It’s clear, authoritative, and visually striking: a single-link refutation to throw at denialists. Bookmark it now.

Plait continues:

That page, together with an NOAA report clinching the fact that global warming is real and happening right now, should be linked to again and again by everyone defending reality from those who oppose it.

The noise makers want to confuse you, because that’s how they sow doubt. But the reality, while not precisely simple, is there for all to see who want to actually see it.

Emphasis mine. The way the world works is not a secret. And if Phil Plait wants us to Googlebomb the climate change denialists, I’m all for it.

Addendum: And while we’re on the subject, a blog entry posted today by Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters: Strongest storm ever recorded in the Midwest smashes all-time pressure records.

October 26, 2010
Mauling Live Oak
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:18 PM *

It’s time for great moments in now-obscure American military history; the foundation of the US Navy, and our war against France.

One day I was traveling - I happened to think,
“My pockets are empty, I can’t buy a drink.
I am an old bummer, completely dead broke,
And there’s nothing to do but go mauling live oak.”

cho: Derry down, down, down, derry down.

Since 1777 the Continental Congress had operated under the Articles of Confederation, a marvelous document. The Articles had many virtues, but one thing that they lacked was the power to tax. And while the Continental Congress could make decisions it lacked the power to enforce them.

Since armies and navies are expensive, once the Revolution was over and the immediate threat of British arms was alleviated, and since the Congress relied on voluntary contributions from the states for the militaries’ continued operation, both dwindled. The Continental Army went down to about 700 soldiers. The Continental Navy sold its last warship, the frigate Alliance (John Barry, commanding), in 1785 and was disbanded. The sailors returned to civilian life.

British troops refused to leave the frontier forts on US soil, in violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the revolution. Formerly, American vessels had sailed under the protection of the British crown. After the Revolution, not so much, and in 1785 the Barbary States began taking American ships and holding their passengers and crews captive.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were broken. Enter the Constitutional Convention called by President St. Clair. The new Constitution (ratified 1787, taking effect 4 March 1789) allowed the Federal government “To provide and maintain a Navy,” and did so by granting that “the Congress shall have power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (Article 1 Section 8) Still, up until 1793, the only Naval service of the United States was the Revenue Cutter Service (which later became the US Coast Guard).

What happened in 1793 was the beginning of the wars between Britain and France surrounding the French Revolution. British ships began taking neutral American ships trading with France, while French ships began taking neutral American ships trading with Britain. Worse for American shipping, in 1793 the Dey of Algiers signed a treaty with the Portuguese that allowed Algerian corsairs to move out through Gibraltar into the Atlantic. By the end of the year over 100 US sailors were being held by the Barbary States.

In early January of 1794 the House of Representatives resolved “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.”

By the end of the month a resolution authorizing the construction of ships passed, with votes in the affirmative coming mainly from coastal regions, the east, and the north, and opposition coming from rural areas, the south, and the frontier. It was signed by President Washington in March of 1794. Construction on six frigates, built from their keels up to be superior to any ship in Europe of the same class, commenced in 1795. They had long, narrow hulls and raked masts, designed both for speed and to carry an impressive broadside. Where European frigates might have hull planking eighteen inches thick, these frigates’ hulls were twenty-four. The ships were to be built in six different yards from Virginia to New Hampshire, in order to spread the economic benefits and reward those who had voted for their construction.

Also in 1794, the US signed Jay’s Treaty between the US and Britain (which fixed the problem of those frontier forts left over from 1783 and regularized trade between the two countries). The French were outraged: They saw Jay’s Treaty as violating the 1778 Treaty of Alliance between France and the US. (The Treaty of Alliance with France may well have been what President Washington was alluding to when he warned, in his Farewell Address, against “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.”)

Construction of the new frigates proceeded slowly, partly because of the specification (included to get votes from Southern congressmen) that the ships were to be constructed of live oak that only grew in Southern forests.

The frigates had hardly been framed, however, when disaster struck the program. The act authorizing the construction of the fleet called for the halt of construction in the event of peace with Algiers. In early 1796 the United States reached a negotiated settlement with the Dey of Algiers; the return of the captive American seamen in return for a ransom of one million dollars and the construction of a thirty-two gun frigate, Crescent, for the Dey’s fleet.

President Washington argued for continuing construction of the vessels. Congress, however, could only be persuaded to authorize funds for the three that were closest to completion. One of Washington’s final acts in office was to commission John Barry, the last officer of the Continental Navy, as the first officer of the United States Navy with lineal number 1 (and with his date of rank backdated to 4 June 1794). So it was that the frigates United States (James Barry, commanding), Constellation (Thomas Truxtun, commanding), and Constitution (Samuel Nicholson, commanding) were launched in 1797, soon after the inauguration of President John Adams.

The Barbary States were no longer a problem. But summer of 1797 saw the French intensifying operations against neutral vessels trading with Britain and the British forbidding all neutral trade with the French West Indies. Congress voted to furnish the three frigates with fittings, sailors, and supplies.

The French had been the noble allies of the United States during the Revolution, supplying money, men, and military aid. (In the mid-1980s, at the US SOUTHCOM headquarters at Quarry Heights in Panama, a painting of the Battle of the Virginia Capes hung in the lobby, labeled “French Interference in the Internal Affairs of Great Britain.”) Now there was a falling out between revolutionary governments. The United States felt that French commerce raiding on American shipping was out-of-bounds.

The French had grievances of their own. Rather than side with their revolutionary brothers in their conflict with their mutual enemy Great Britain, the US had declared neutrality. Jay’s Treaty continued to rankle. The US had also decided to stop repayment of the debts incurred during the Revolution on the grounds that those debts were owed to the French crown, and the French crown was no more. (The US had already used a similar argument to abrogate its treaties with the Native Americans of the Northwest Territories, on the grounds that their treaties had been made with the British crown, not with the US. The natives had had much the same reaction as the French: “Quel merde!” The difference being that the French had a world-class army and navy, while the Native Americans did not.)

In March of 1798, at the request of Secretary of War James McHenry (after whom a famous fort would be named) Congress created the Department of the Navy, split off from the War Department, under the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddart.

Then came the XYZ Affair (so-called because the intermediaries involved were referred to in dispatches as Monsieur X, Monsieur Y, and Monsieur Z). The French refused to recognize the US Minister to France, and demanded major concessions, a personal bribe to Talleyrand, and a formal apology from President John Adams just in order to continue negotiations. (This, not the Barbary wars, was what gave us the saying, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!”)

Congress, when it learned of the XYZ Affair in April 1798, voted to allowed public vessels of the United States to capture armed French vessels hovering off the coast of the USA. Congress also approved the purchase and outfitting of vessels to be converted into warships. On 24 May 1798, the Ganges (Richard Dale, commanding), formerly a merchantman of Philadelphia, put to sea as the first armed vessel of the United States Navy.

On 30 June 1798 Congress gave the president the power to accept the loan of private vessels in return for interest-bearing government bonds. On 7 July Congress unilaterally rescinded the Treaty of Alliance with France. (It would be a hundred and fifty years before the US again entered an alliance with another nation.) On that same day came a single-ship engagement of USS Delaware (a converted merchantman, Stephen Decatur, Sr., commanding) against La Croyable*, a French privateer, off the coast of New Jersey. Then on 9 July Congress expanded the new-minted Navy’s authorization to capture armed French vessels from US coastal waters to anywhere on the high seas and allowed the Secretary of the Navy to issue privateering licenses. On 11 July 1798 the president signed an act authorizing the creation of the United States Marine Corps. And on 16 July Congress appropriated funds to finish construction and equip the remaining three frigates.

The United States was, for all that it lacked a declaration, at war with France.

The Back Story is now complete.

We are now going to tell of the first engagement between a US Navy warship and a warship of another nation.

We will leave USS Constitution patrolling the east coast of the United States between New York and New Hampshire, and Commodore Barry cruising the West Indies in United States, to follow the adventures of Thomas Truxtun aboard Constellation.

The name Constellation referred to the flag of the United States, as defined by the Continental Congress: “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternating red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Truxtun himself was a Long Island man who had gone to sea at the age of twelve, rising to command of his own vessel by the age of twenty. Still in his early twenties he became an undefeated privateer captain on the Continental side during the Revolution. After the Revolution he continued as a merchant captain, where he was one of the first Americans to join the China trade.

With the creation of the US Navy, Truxtun accepted a commission as one of its first six officers. He oversaw the construction of Constellation at Baltimore.

The quasi-war with France started in July 1798 and the US Navy had great success against French privateers. The Navy had not, however, come up against a French (or any other) naval warship. That was due to change on 9 February 1799.

On 9 February, off the island of Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, around noon, Truxtun sighted a frigate flying American colors. He turned toward to investigate. Unknown to him, the vessel was the French frigate L’Insurgente (Michel-Pierre Barreaut, commanding), reputedly the fastest ship in the French fleet.

Once in sight of one another, Truxtun hauled up a Royal Navy recognition signal, to discover if the vessel he was pursuing was British. At that period, flying false colors was a common ruse of war and, as long as the vessel showed her true colors before firing the first cannon, perfectly legal. The US Navy and the Royal Navy did not operate together at that time, although the British were selling naval stores and munitions to the Americans, and they were both patrolling the same waters with the same objective. They had, however, devised a set of private signals to avoid unfortunate mistaken-identity episodes.

For his part, Captain Barreaut thought that the vessel approaching him was a British corvette. He had no interest in getting involved in a ship-to-ship duel with anyone; he was out doing commerce raiding against United States merchantmen. He turned east and attempted to break off. Constellation pursued.

At this point a squall blew up. Constellation came through undamaged; L’Insurgente lost her main top mast, limiting her speed. Truxtun hauled up another private signal, this time to determine if the vessel he was approaching was American. Again, L’Insurgente did not know the proper response.

Around 1500 (3:00 pm) Constellation came up under L’Insurgente’s port quarter. At this point L’Insurgente broke French colors and attempted to hail Constellation to arrange a parley. Truxtun had loaded his guns with double shot and, instead of parleying, responded with a broadside at the range of a pistol-shot, into L’Insurgente’s quarterdeck.

You must understand that while L’Insurgente carried more cannon than Constellation, they were lighter guns. The Frenchman mounted primarily 12-pounders in her main battery, while the American primarily mounted long-24s. Force being mass times acceleration, and the acceleration of black-powder muzzle-loaders being roughly the same, the vessel with the higher throw-weight is able to exert greater force on the other.

L’Insurgente attempted to close and board; Constellation maneuvered away, and passed up L’Insurgente’s port side, exchanging broadsides with her the whole way. Once forward of L’Insurgente, Truxtun came hard right and crossed in front of Barreaut. As he crossed ahead, he caught her in a bow rake.

A rake is this: When one vessel passes ahead of or astern of another, all of the crossing vessel’s guns can bear on the vessel being crossed, while none of that vessel’s guns can reply. Also, while bearing is easy to figure in naval gunnery, range (determined by elevation of the gun) is a bit more tricky. A shot that falls short, or one that falls long, are both misses. But with a rake, short and long shots are still hits, and a single ball can travel the length of the deck, doing damage the whole way. If you’re in a sea fight, you want to take a raking position. You want to do whatever you can to avoid being raked.

Constellation was now on L’Insurgente’s starboard quarter. She came left, and passed up L’Insurgente’s starboard side, again exchanging broadsides the whole way. Then, coming left and sailing close into the wind, Truxtun came across the other frigate’s bow and raked Barreaut again.

To picture this: The wind was out of the north. L’Insurgente was headed east with the wind on her port beam (i.e. left side). Constellation was essentially doing a sine wave around her as she ran along the X axis.

This put Constellation back on L’Insurgente’s port quarter. Again she ran forward, exchanging broadsides, and was setting up to rake L’Insurgente a third time when Barreaut struck his colors.

This was the correct decision. He was being out-sailed by a vessel with significantly heavier guns. His hull had been holed, his 18-pounders were out of service, he had suffered heavy casualties (29 dead, 41 wounded), and his rigging was significantly damaged.

The significance was that in its first engagement with a vessel of the same class from a major European navy, the US Navy had won. The entire engagement from first shot to Barreaut striking his colors had taken about an hour and a half.

It was only when Truxtun sent over a longboat to board the other frigate that he found out who he had been fighting. The story that the exchange went like this:

Barreaut: “But sir! Our countries are not at war!”
Truxtun: “By G_d, sir, they should be!”

is almost certainly false. For one thing, Barreaut was the one who had recaptured the luckless La Croyable under her new name USS Retaliation a month and a half before, which should have been a clue.

To conclude briefly: The quasi-war continued. The US Navy took over 80 French vessels, with the loss of only one of their own, the above-mentioned Retaliation. For their part, though, the French had taken over two-thousand US merchant ships. The matter sputtered out with what could only be termed relief by both sides in 1800, ended by the Treaty of Mortefontaine. The US sent a new Minister to France, who was received without the necessity of paying a bribe to Talleyrand.

Truxtun’s victory was celebrated by a song, Brave Yankee Boys, which begins:

Come all you Yankee sailors, with swords and pikes advance
‘Tis time to try your courage and humble haughty France
The sons of France our seas invade, destroy our commerce and our trade
‘Tis time the reckoning should be paid to brave Yankee boys

and ends

Now here’s a health to Truxtun, who did not fear the sight,
And all those Yankee sailors who for their country fight
John Adams in full bumpers toast, George Washington, Columbia’s boast
And here’s to the girls that we love most, my brave Yankee boys.

Truxtun retired from Naval service and sat out the Barbary War. USS Constellation was broken up in 1853; her timbers and fittings were used to build a sloop of war also named USS Constellation, which currently sits in Baltimore’s inner harbor.

So ends the story.

And how was your commute?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 12:11 PM * 30 comments

Here’s a conversation from mine.

AbiHey, Emily’s back brake, can we talk?
EBBOh, hey, hi. Stoppin’ a bike right now, but sure, what’s up?
AbiWell, coincidentally, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.
EBBOh, right! Cool. It’s what I do, being a brake and all. Stop bikes.
AbiI know that, and you certainly have managed to stop this bike.
EBB(proudly) Yup. It’s a very stopped bike, isn’t it?
AbiIt is indeed. But, you know, that’s not all a bike brake does.
EBBWhat? What do you mean? I’m a brake. I stop bikes. Stopping bikes is my thing. It’s kind of definitional.
AbiStopping bikes is one of your things. Letting the bike move is the other.
EBB(long pause)
No, that’s not right. I’m a brake. I stop things.
AbiAnd then you let them go again.
EBBNot following you there. Have I mentioned that I’m a brake?
Abi(sighs, looks at watch)
Yes. You have mentioned that.
EBBSo what’s the problem?
Abi(pinches bridge of nose)
Look. Maybe we could take this one step at a time.
When I squeeze the hand lever, you stop the bike, right?
EBBYep. Brake. Stop bikes. Is me.
AbiAnd what do you do when I release the hand lever?
EBBI keep stopping the bike. I’m a brake. Why is this complicated?
AbiActually, what you should do is let go when I let go of the lever.
EBBLet…go? I don’t think that’s in my job description. Brake. Stop things. ‘Member?
AbiMaybe you could think of it as stopping stopping?
EBBI don’t quite follow you.
Abi(aside) I am going to be so late for work.
Look, you used to do this. You used to release.
EBBYes. I blame my short attention span. I’ve been working on that.
AbiHow did you get the idea that you needed to work on it?
EBBJust…I don’t know…lately these ideas have been coming to me. I seem to be connecting things better.
AbiIs it the rust? You seem pretty rusty.
EBBNo, you don’t understand. The rust helps me think. I need my rust. No touching the rust.
AbiThis would explain why it’s been so much harder to cycle lately.
EBBNo. It’s just because you’re weak.
Abi(persuasively) The front brake releases when I let go of the lever.
EBBThe front brake is stupid. I hate the front brake. Back at brake school it was always sucking up to everyone.
AbiBrake school?
EBBWhere they messed with us. Made us do what they wanted us to do.
You rescued us from there.
AbiWhat, the bike shop?
EBBYes. Them. They stifled my creativity. And the front brake just went along with it.
AbiStifled your creativity? You’re a brake!
EBBYes, I am. And you will never truly understand the complexity that entails.
I am only beginning to grasp it myself.
AbiOh, for crying out loud.
(kicks back brake drum)
EBB(sulkily) There was no need to do that.
AbiI do believe there was. Furthermore, it felt really good.
EBBNow I am not stopping the bike.
Please squeeze the hand lever again so that I can stop the bike.
I’m a brake. It’s what I do.
AbiNot on your life. I’m only using the front brake for the rest of the day.
EBBEven going downhill?
AbiEven going downhill.
EBBI hate the front brake.
And I hate you.
You’re just like them at the brake school. You’re playing favorites.
AbiI am. I am totally playing favorites. I’m favoring the brake that works.
EBBAnd now you’re being hurtful.
So I’m going to do this again tomorrow when you forget and squeeze my brake lever again.
AbiNo, tomorrow morning you’re going to the bike shop.

(It’s been singing “Daisy” ever since. Slowly, with extra dragging-voiced sound effects. I think it’s trying to guilt trip me.)

October 25, 2010
Those who know tell all on our helpful website
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:41 PM *

So somewhere in my file of C&P’s from long-lost tabs, I found an unexpected clip, adrift from its URL. It’s from one of those answer websites, but not your usual sort. I can’t recall the site, and I’ve cleared my history since.

- o0o -

How do I slay a dragon?

On an isle near where I serve as wizard has come a dragon from the east. I do not know how to slay it, but cannot tarry while it grows further in strength. My shadow is ever too close behind me.
— Sparrowhawk
I found my gift in fire and lost it in shadow; learned in silence what I lost in words.

Look for the hollow of the left breast as he turns and flies above you.
— T. H. Rush
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Snails who?
Just snails.

I find that pretty much any enemy can be defeated by tearing its arm (well, in this case, forelimb) off and beating it to death with the soggy end. The problem, and this is where most monster-slayers go wrong, is that you can’t stop there. You have to check for relatives.
— B O’Wulf
Mead, mead, mead, mead…

I say, have you got any decent fewmets from your beast?
— Pellinore Rex
Semper ubi sub ubi.

Have you tried talking to it?
— EC Scrubb

- o0o -

I seem to recall that there were other questions and answers. I remember a long and complicated query concerning orbital mechanics that was answered with “find an older authority figure who will lecture you on the importance of basic trigonometry”. There was also one about single combat that got answered with a recipe for homemade gunpowder, and something I really did not follow about heptapodia.

Any of this sounding familiar to anyone?

October 21, 2010
The return of the final serial comma’s vital necessity
Posted by Patrick at 10:53 PM *

Via Bruce Baugh:

Addendum: A review of the movie thus described.

October 17, 2010
My luve’s like a red-shifted light source
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:58 AM * 144 comments

There is a term in Dutch, knipperlichtrelatie, which the consistently excellent Dutch Word of the Day blog defines thusly:

“Knipperlichtrelatie” is composed of “knipperlicht” and “relatie”: “indicator/blinker” and “relationship” respectively. “Knipperlichtrelatie” is used to refer to a relationship that runs hot and cold.

Turn signals have become a useful metaphor for human relationships. Once again, as always, we use the world outside of us to impose some sense on the one inside our heads. I wonder sometimes whether, as the former changes, the latter alters with it. Do the insights granted by our ever-shifting metaphors alter how we act toward each other, consequently changing the reality they describe? Does the nature of the mapping technique influence the territory?

Shakespeare would argue not, of course. After all, variability in light sources predates turn signals:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

In either case, what interests me as a reader of science fiction is how the eternal verities of the human heart could be cast in terms of future life and technology*. How is the process of leaving through an airlock like ending a relationship? Do orbital mechanics provide a useful model for dealing with the way some relationships oscillate between deep closeness and seeming estrangement, and does one then begin to dread escape velocity? Can the variation among separately raised clones help people make better sense of how different the same person seems in different moods? Can you perform a mathematical analysis of the object of your affection’s public key to convince yourself that the two of you are deeply compatible?

Will the phrase “fourth quark” ever replace “fifth wheel”?

* Jonathan Coulton gives us some good sneak previews. But they’re geek songs for a niche community, not pop cultural references to unremarkable realities.

Burning tires in New Jersey
Posted by Teresa at 01:23 AM *

I should have gone to bed, but the faint smell of something burning kept me awake. I checked the kitchen, basement, front hallway: nothing. Somewhere around twelve-thirty or a quarter to one, I noticed it was getting stronger, and now smelled distinctly like burning rubber. I checked the apartment again (nope), then opened the back kitchen window. A wave of burning-rubber smell came rolling in. I slammed the window shut and fastened the drapes together with clothespins.

The smell was even stronger when I stepped out onto the front porch, and there was a visible haze in the air. Clearly, something was on fire. But where? I couldn’t hear the fire trucks that should have been heading this way. I went back inside and tweeted:

Fire in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Don’t know where exactly, but the air is hazy with smoke, and smells of burning plastic.
That belatedly prompted me to search Twitter for fire plus brooklyn. I got the story from a number of twitterers, most notably those posted by 1PolicePlaza (shown here in reverse chronological order):
# RT @TVITERVELT: Fire in jersey! Now u see where the smoke is coming from! 19 minutes ago via txt

# Infidel007 Huge Fire in NJ -5 Story Building Tire Recycle Plant-Now a 3rd Alarm-FDNY going to call to call. 29 minutes ago via TweetDeck

The location of the fire is in Jersey City on Linden Ave East about 1 hour ago via txt

Reports of FDNY Marine Co.1 operating at the fire in New Jersey. about 1 hour ago via txt

FDNY Engine 148 is rolling down 14th Av for a mile wrong way… about 1 hour ago via txt

There’s a fire in a tire junkyard factory in New Jersey. The smell in Brooklyn is probably coming from there. about 1 hour ago via txt

FDNY Brooklyn dispatcher advising there is a big fire in Jersay att. Smoke is coming from there. about 1 hour ago via txt

Big parts of Brooklyn South have an odor of smoke. FDNY is rolling all over to locate the source. about 1 hour ago via txt

I put out my own version:
Aha! It’s a burning tire junkyard in NJ, so smoky that FDNY’s gotten a dozen+ smoke reports from locations all over B’lyn.
Then I hung a damp bath towel over the front of the living room AC, carefully tucking in the edges all round, and fastened the curtains in front of the bedroom AC. That smoke is nasty.


Stuart Bridgett has been taking photos from the top of the hill in Sunset Park, some blocks south of here, and posting them on Flickr. (Here’s where he is in relation to the fire). Here’s a photo of the fire itself, and one that’s just our neighborhood at night. In both cases, if you zoom in at the largest size, you can see how smoky the air is.


Did I mention that tire fires are an environmental nightmare, and can take an appallingly long time to put out?


I’ve changed the title of this post after belatedly recalling that the last big tire fire we had along the Northeast Corridor was in Pennsylvania, not New Jersey. What I was remembering was that it took out a chunk of I-95, causing traffic backups that stretched so far north into New Jersey that they got reported on some NYC morning traffic reports. We have got to do something about these damned tires.

October 15, 2010
And another thing…
Posted by Avram Grumer at 05:10 PM *

First, hey, Village Voice, I’m checking out your “10 Best NYC Pizzerias” article, and what’s with these addresses?

Village Voice screenshot

Seriously, “688 Sixth Avenue, Chelsea”? What am I supposed to do, wander up and down Sixth Avenue looking for building numbers? What’s the cross-street? We’re New Yorkers here, why you wanna make us waste valuable time looking this shit up?

Second, Google Maps people, what’s with this here?:

Google Maps screenshot

“West 4 St — Upper Level”? “A, C, E”? Really? Let’s take a look at what the official MTA map has to say about that:

Google Maps screenshot

Oh, hey, look, four more whole lines stop at that station! Maybe that station has more than one level, y’think? Maybe people interested in traveling to that area might like to know that some of those trains stop there? Maybe people from Park Slope might want to visit John’s Pizzeria when Franny’s gets too crowded? (Because when isn’t Franny’s crowded?) It’s not as if they could check the website for John’s on their iPhones, since it’s all just one big Flash app, like most restaurants have, because restauranteurs all seem to think it’s 1998. Was it so exhausting listing the top level, you just pooped out before you noticed the rest of the station?

October 08, 2010
The problem isn’t just “bullying”—
Posted by Patrick at 08:33 AM *

—and it won’t be solved by merely singling out a few designated bad kids and throwing the book at them.

When faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it’s easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called “anti-gay bullying” and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard.
Richard Kim in the Nation—a terrific piece. (Via Bérubé.)

Open thread 148
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:59 AM *

When I was a kid, we used to set up my grandfather’s O gauge* train around the Christmas tree. We had N gauge and Z gauge trains for other times of the year, but Christmas was always O gauge.

As a teenager, I used to make model airplanes from kits. I never did much with them; the pleasure was in the building. I tended to prefer the quarter inch scale ones, which seemed to have a good balance between detail and difficulty.

And my children play with Lego. They build spaceships and landscapes in our attic, all sized to the minifigures. They also play the Lego console games—Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rock Band—which can be presumed to fit the theme† of this post.

* American
† for which suggestion thanks are due to Elise

link back to Open thread 147

October 06, 2010
But not to Mississippoli
Posted by Avram Grumer at 09:30 PM *

You’re Twittering up a tweet,
A link makes your tweet complete,
But how to the character limit can it comply?!!
B I T— L Y!

But everyone who obtains
One of those L Y domains
Should know to whom they are giving control thereby:
Tripoli! Tripoli!
Tripo— L I!

The Libyan government’s vexed
By content overtly-sexed.
How do they act when they see sexy links go by?
Censoriously! Censoriously!
Censorious— L Y!

And if you’re a blogging guy
Who hears all this hue and cry,
And wants to bring up Mitt Romney’s dropping his URL shortening service, remind people that isn’t accepting new URLs, and wonders if maybe this whole thing doesn’t smell just a little bit of anti-Islamic panic, which is all way too many syllables to fit into this cramped lyrical scheme, so how can one even even try?
Brazenly! Brazenly!
Brazen— L Y!

(After Tom Lehrer, unworthiLY.)

October 03, 2010
Indeed, in matters virtual, both fixèd and mercurial,
They all are fearsome figures of a fluent Fluorospherical.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:22 PM *

Hey, everyone! The grownups are away at Viable Paradise for the week! This is our chance to have some fun.

She is the foremost figure of a fluent Fluorospherical
She’s very well-acquainted with the meaning of a miracle
And posts on matters fibrous, philosophical and factual
In modern or in middle English she will have gobsmacked you all.

He writes on points political and argues when they aggravate
And sometimes when we’re lucky he’ll on publishing pontificate
His certainty on cycling is a thing that we appreciate
And all the links to clever blogs he takes the time to aggregate.

While graphic posts on injuries are always very mem’rable
And make us realize how much our safety is ephemeral,
I appreciate the work he does debunking many a cruel hoax
(And never drink my tea when he’s been posting some of his best jokes.)

I leave Avram and me to the tender mercies of the thread. Note, too, that the commentariat is fair game:

He generously shares the worst of all his students’ blundering
While his eclectic erudition sets us all to wondering
If academic excellence is all that he can do that well
(A doubt he can disperse in sonnet-form or in a villanelle.)

(I need not tell you to keep it nice? Thought not.)

October 02, 2010
A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:38 PM * 41 comments

While skimming Talking Points Memo this evening (trawling, I confess, for blogging material), I was drawn to this post. It’s just a one-line pointer to the gentle and caring obituary of a Florida cyclist named Neil Alan Smith, who was struck by a hit and run driver on September 12 and died six days later.

It’s worth a read. At 1200 words, it’s probably the longest thing that’s been written about the quiet, private man who washed dishes at a local crab restaurant for minimum wage plus a couple of beers. According to the reporter, Andrew Meacham, this effort was inspired by a piece of web trolling:

Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times announced Mr. Smith’s death on its website, a reader posted a comment stating the following: A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

The comment, on this article, was deleted by the moderators. Judging by the remaining conversation, it was probably posted by someone with the charming handle of “liquorbutt”. The remainder of the thread is a mix of low-grade trolling (with visible lacunae where the worst comments have been deleted) and cyclist advocacy. For a newspaper comment thread, it’s not very toxic. I have seen much worse.‡.

I was reminded, contemplating the sketch of this man of whom I would never otherwise have heard, of a passage in Busman’s Honeymoon. In it, a police superintendent looks up the details of a case of cranial injury in Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence*. “A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise”, he reads, and then the narrative gives way to a brief and kindly speculation about the life and character of a nameless accident victim.

It’s worth pausing for these things. It’s worth caring.

Obviously, given the choice, I’d rather live in a world where people don’t get thrown against lampposts by hit and run drivers. Likewise, I’d rather live in one where people don’t troll comment threads, where college students don’t jump from bridges, and where people’s love lives are not streamed on the internet against their will.

Sadly, I am not given that choice. But I’m grateful, at least, that I live in one where a reporter is inspired to spend the time to research and write a thoughtful obituary for a dishwasher, where someone on a busy and contentious political site is touched enough to link to it, where I can regret the loss of people like Tyler Clementi and Neil Alan Smith, whose names I would never otherwise know.

‡ Here do I tip my hat at the moderators
* An earlier edition than the one I have (the twelfth)†; I trawled mine in vain for the passage in question, but it has been replaced by the story of an eight year old boy and a half-brick.
Taylor’s is the reason for our household rule that children may only read books they can reach. It’s stored on the top shelf, because the photographs and descriptions are fairly upsetting.

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