Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Debunking the 2012 Mayan apocalypse

The other day I read a great column by Jean-François Cliche, a science writer for the Canadian newspaper Le Soleil. It does a neat job of debunking the 2012 Mayan apocalpyse. Since I've heard this debated by well-educated colleagues in the scientific agency where I work, I'm offering a translation of this excellent article in hopes of clearing away some of the silly mystique around this hoax.

Original article: L'Halloween en décembre... 2012 | La science au quotidien
Halloween in December...2012
Jean-François Cliche
Le Soleil

(Quebec) “I'm writing to you because I've got questions about the date December 21, 2012. We know that the planets of our solar system will be aligned on that date. Some people say that the poles will change position. Others say that storms will be much more frequent and more violent, and a number of others speculate that it will even be the end of the world. As far as I know, this kind of alignment already occurred 5000 or 6000 years ago, and we're still here. From a purely scientific standpoint, what can we expect?” writes Michel Gagnon.

With last week's release of the film 2012, which paints an apocalyptic portrait, it's certainly a question people are asking. What's more, a plethora of New Age websites are predicting all sorts of spectacular events for this so-called special date. In itself, this isn't terribly surprising, because humankind has been seeing omens in astronomic phenomena for millennia, according to the physicist and popularizer Sébastien Gauthier, of the scientific communication firm Cosmagora. He recently gave a lecture titled “2012: how to survive the pseudo-scientific discourse” at the Collège F.-X.-Garneau.

But the thing that's particularly astonishing in this case, says M. Gauthier, is that there will be no alignment of the planets on that date! Absolutely none, as you can see on this map of the solar system which shows the position of the planets (calculated by a NASA simulator) at high noon, universal time, on December 21, 2012. http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/ Unfortunately, this doesn't stop false rumors from circulating on the Web...

(Anyway, even if all the planets did align, there wouldn't be the slightest consequence. A few small calculations show that the combined gravitational effect upon Earth of the seven other planets is 61 times weaker than the pull of the moon. So as far as this author is concerned, they can go ahead and align as much as they want.)

According to M. Gauthier, the “popularity” of this date 12/21/2012 stems from the recent craze in New Age circles and other more or less esoteric groups for the history of the Mayans, that great pre-Columbian Central American civilization. In one of their calendars (the Mayans had more than one way to measure the passing of time), called the “long count,” this exact date will mark the end of a baktun, which is a 394-year period in this calendar that corresponds roughly to our millennia.

Since the Mayans used a vigesimal (base 20) counting system instead of a decimal (base 10) system like ours, their calendar counted days in groups of 20, called uinal, which served as months, after a fashion. The next largest unit was the tun, equivalent to 18 uinal instead of twenty so that it would correspond roughly to a solar year – 18 x 20 days = 360 days. In turn, a group of 20 tun made a katun (which is 7200 days, or about 20 years), and the longest unit of time was the baktun, equal to 20 katuns, or 394 years.

According to certain calculations, says M. Gauthier, this “long count” is supposed to have begun on August 11, 3114 B.C., which means that December 21, 2012 would mark the end of the 13th baktun. But remember that this date calculation exercise is subject to errors, and certain experts suggest instead the date of December 23, 2012, which is unfortunately too late for the end of the world to save us from last minute Christmas shopping.

And anyway, what would that change? For the industry of all things esoteric, every temporal milestone is a business opportunity – let's remember the year 2000 – and its gurus are certainly delighted to have a new one at hand.

Finally, let's point out that there's a Mayan monument in Mexico that refers to the end of the 13th baktun. The “catastrophists” refer to it abundantly, saying that its inscriptions foretell a catastrophe, but serious experts describe its inscriptions as “vague” at best.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Weighty matters

"What is making my purse so darn heavy?" I wondered. "I know what I'll do. I've got that dandy electronic kitchen scale. I'm gonna weigh every last thing in my purse to find out the answer."

So I did. Here's what I found:

The purse, laden, weighed 4 lb. 11 oz. (2.13 kg). Okay, so I wasn't imagining things; that's kinda heavy.

11 oz.
310 g
purse itself
8.5 oz.
240 g

7 oz.
200 g

5.5 oz.
160 g

moleskine notebook
5 oz.
140 g

4.25 oz.
125 g

medicine/makeup bag
4.25 oz.

120 g
agenda book
3.75 oz.

105 g

special red “ideas” notebook
3 oz.

90 g

2.5 oz.

75 g

2.5 oz.

75 g

Weight Watchers member book
2.25 oz.

65 g

loose change
2 oz.

55 g

2 fountain pens + case
1.75 oz.

50 g

ID badge & lanyard
1.5 oz.

40 g

loyalty cards on keyring
1.5 oz.

45 g

1.25 oz.

35 g

earphones in a tin
1.25 oz.

35 g

0.75 oz.

20 g

packet of tissue
0.75 oz.

20 g

lip balm #1
0.5 oz.

15 g

lucky bauble
0.5 oz.

15 g

exercise band
0.5 oz.

20 g

tube of hand lotion
0.5 oz.

15 g

ballpoint pen
0.25 oz.

10 g

lip balm #2
0 oz.

5 g

2nd pair of earplugs
0 oz.

0 g

I can see a few things that I can do without, at least for everyday commuting (hello, two fountain pens?). And I can certainly choose lighter versions of other things. But can I use this as an argument to get a different small camera? And if I got a smartphone, could I really bring myself to leave out the camera and the agenda book and the iPod? 

It makes me think of Steve Martin in "The Jerk":
"Well I'm gonna to go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this. [picks up an ashtray] And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Man struck down in crosswalk

I saw him for the first time this summer, in a crosswalk in Chicago. I wasn't sure if he was friendly, so I walked by without speaking to him.

But when I saw him after they repaved the streets, he just wasn't the same man.

It's a tough life on the streets. (I think this is some sort of meme.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What would you tell 6% of all men?

It started as an email discussion at work. We've encountered a user who has red-green colorblindness. Some of the colors associated with links in our website aren't distinguishable to him.

M: User L is color-blind, red-green (which occurs in 6% of males). L cannot distinguish between the "visited" state of links and regular text. The purple visited link is gray for him. While looking at a page with a bunch of visited links, he wasn't even aware they were links. Should we do something to indicate the visited state more clearly?

C: It seems that the default for all PCs and all browsers, unless you customize, is blue for unvisited and purple for visited. Why doesn't L just customize his browser?

M: I know about the default blue and purple. (...) And what, are we going to tell 6% of all men to "customize your browser, dude"? :D

S: Listen, if I could tell 6% of all men something, it surely wouldn't be that! :^)

So if you could tell 6% of all men something, what would it be? (Keep it clean, please!)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Favorite tools: Snagit screen capture utility

I don't intend to make a habit of endorsing products, but I do have a few favorites. Remember how Douglas Adams described the Babel Fish as "mindbogglingly useful"? Well, Snagit is like that for me. It does a simple thing better than any other utility I've tried: take a screen capture. (If you haven't heard the term before, it just means taking a picture of what's on your computer screen.)

Yes, I know that my computer comes with that inscrutable PrtSc key (Print Screen), which I can use to copy a picture of my entire desktop onto the Clipboard (more info here). But Snagit is better.
  1. Snagit has a simple interface, even after countless versions (please heed this, Techsmith!)
  2. You can easily choose what you want to take a picture of (the whole screen, just one window, a region that you draw with your mouse)
  3. You can do the things you're most likely to want to do with the image you've captured: paste it into an email, save it as a file, print it.
  4. You can even add stuff to your snapshot, like highlighter yellow or big fat red circles and the words "click THIS BIT RIGHT HERE"
  5. There are some nice bells and whistles, too:
    - capture a scrolling window all at once, rather than screenful by screenful;
    - magnify or shrink what you're capturing
    - choose what file format you want to save the image as
    - automatically name a series of captures
Although I don't use it every day, it is exactly the right tool for some things.
  • Illustrating instructions for some process on the computer (e.g. saving Word documents without the prior edits available in them)
  • Documenting problems (error messages) or odd behavior of my computer ("See? My monitor has this line of schmutz running across it. That's not right!")
  • Printing a web page exactly as it appears, so that I can do a paper-based usability test) or mark it up with edits
  • Putting a picture of your website or software in a newsletter or promotional materials
There are just enough post-production editing tools that you could get away without a fancier image editor. I've used Snagit for maybe ten years. The colleagues I've recommended it to are now acolytes.

As of this writing, it costs $50, with discounts for education, nonprofit, and government. There's a free trial (fully functional, 30 days), so you can see if it becomes one of your favorite tools, too.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cupcakes: WTF?

Okay, I'm going to spoil a few minutes of my lovely Saturday morning (first honest to goodness warm sunny day of the year) and open the cranky gates. It's not so much dislike as honest puzzlement.

What's up with cupcakes? I just don't get it. There are so many things that are nicer than cupcakes. They're not actively bad; they're just aggressively over-promoted. A few quick Google searches reveal the wrongness:
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 8,780,000 for cupcakes
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 5,730,000 for apple pie
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 1,310,000 for creme brulée
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 1,050,000 for chocolate mousse.
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 657,000 for chocolate fondue.
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 307,000 for Baked Alaska.
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 170,000 for Bûche de Noël
  • Results 1 - 10 of about 99,200 for French silk pie.
Ditto vampires. I missed this whole bit: Buffy, Anne Rice, and now True Blood. I read Dracula as a teenager and I was very nervous going into our basement for weeks afterward. Is that nice?

Bringing the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. All I can say is: É a vez de Rio!

Reality TV of any stripe. Real Housewives Dancing with your Big Brother to American Idol on Tempatation Island. One exception: I dig Deadliest Catch. (Maybe this is the reason why.) And if you've never seen any of the Up documentaries (7 Up, 21 Up...), they're interesting.

Miracle Whip. Give me the Hellman's every time.

Friday, March 06, 2009

My Cranial Jukebox needs a refresh!

Okay, this is getting serious. I usually have one or two songs that get stuck in my head for a few minutes or hours, and then they're either replaced by something else or fade away altogether. If I'm desperate, I can tell someone else what's playing, thereby infecting them instead (not very nice), or I can ask my husband for a replacement song without telling him what I so desperately want to replace.

But I have been plagued by a small playlist of songs I don't care for the last few days and it shows no signs of going away.
  • Little Old Lady from Pasadena (Beach Boys)
  • I Get Around (Beach Boys)
  • Barbara Ann (Beach Boys)
  • Witchy Woman (Eagles)
  • I'm Gonna Tell You How It's Gonna Be (Buddy Holly)
It could be worse, but it ain't great.

So please, if you have something better to suggest, give me a new song to play in my head!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Web design and stuff

As our workgroup deals with comments on a look-and-feel redesign, we get a number of requests for making navigation elements smaller or even eliminating them, allowing for much longer page titles, and expanding the number of items we allow in the "quick finder" table at the top of some pages.

It's making me think that in Web design, as in real life (as in Weight Watchers, for that matter!):

If you keep looking for more room to cram your stuff,
have you considered that maybe you have too much stuff?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Favorite tools: Neoprene face mask and other stay-warm clothing

Today is very cold. It was minus 18 F (-26 C) as I waited for the train. About minus 10 as I trekked the mile across the Loop to my office. But I was toasty warm, thanks to my four favorite tools to combat the cold (two old-fashioned, two from new-fangled materials).

Neoprene face mask - Sure, I look like a bank robber when I wear it, but it keeps my face warm and lets me breathe. Yes, I could achieve all that with a tightly wrapped muffler, but here's the significant advantage: my glasses don't fog up and ice over. The design directs my exhaled breath down and away from my face, and I can proceed confidently instead of viewing the world through an admittedly artful icy haze. ($11 from Campmor)

Silk long underwear - This stuff is fantastic. It is gossamer-like, as thin and elegant as a white lie. It lies unconspicuous beneath a pair of slacks or jeans, and your legs are miraculously warm. Much more comfortable than nylons.

Polarfleece - Yum! I have a couple "fuzzies" that are stylish enough to pass as casual office wear. They're light and warm and wash with no fuss.

Down - God bless the geese who gave their downy bottoms to keep me warm. (Down doesn't make me feel as guilty as fur does, though maybe it should.) I just got a very long down coat from LL Bean, and it is "ultrawarm" as promised. After a few blocks' walk, standing on the corner waiting to cross, I sense that I'm enveloped in a column of warmth.

In French you could say "Je ne crains pas le froid," (literally, "I don't fear the cold") for "I'm staying warm."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Free Irish Calendar / Féilire Lán-Ghaeilge saor in aisce

Sin é! There it is!

I finally finished the project I've been hatching for the last seven weeks: an Irish calendar featuring photos from our most recent trip to Ireland. When I say Irish, I mean tá an féilire seo lán-Ghaeilge; it's completely in Irish, right down to the little letters denoting the days of the week on the small inset calendars each month.

I'm really pleased with how it turned out. (I owe a big debt of thanks to Juliana Halvorson, who created the
Adobe InDesign template I used.) I took the photos in Cork and Connemara.

I took the file to
Kinko's today, and for just under $20 I was able to get the calendar printed on 60 lb. paper and comb-bound. (I had hoped it would be far less, but there you are.)

2009 Irish Calendar - Íomhá na Míosa : Féilire Gaeilge 2009 ón mblag Íomhá an Lae (PDF) (27MB, 28pp) Yes, it's big, but it prints beautifully. Here's a smaller version if you just want to see what it looks like: lower-resolution version (PDF, 28pp, 3.7MB)

And if you have little or no Irish, well, I think you should take a look anyway, because a calendar is a calendar; it's laid out just the same as the ones you're used to, ah, go on, it's not hard at all... :^) Please let me know what you think.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Why don't you write, indeed

Came across this terrific advice from Daphne Gray Grant, the Publication Coach, via Le Craic (merci to AJ). :

1) When you have words, use them. I’m a gabber. I usually talk a lot. I write a lot. And I read a lot. But I seldom see words as precious. They are. Write and speak as if you might never be given the chance again. Don’t waste time; don’t waste your words. Really communicate.

2) Plan your time so you use each minute in the way you most want to. Sometimes you might need to be walking or running. Or other times, you might need to abandon making dinner so you can write a sonnet. (OK, I just made that up.) But do whatever it is you most need to do. Don’t compromise; don’t take second place. Think hard and act harder.

3) Never forget every day is a gift. I’m grateful to be alive and I’m spectacularly grateful to my patient and thoughtful husband, Eric, and my wonderful kids, Claire, Duncan and Alison. They make my life interesting and challenging and engaging. I’m also grateful to you, all the readers of Power Writing — some of whom I know well enough to visit or chat with — others of whom I know only by their email name in my database.

Life is a gift. Use it. Write with it.

So for 2009:
  • Write
  • Read
  • Do what you really want to do