Waiting for the iPhone

Just got back from a short walk to stretch my legs. It’s around 3:30 pm and the iPhone goes on sale at 6:00 pm and there are already 40 or 50 people lined up in front of the AT&T store on the corner near where I work.

I love the look of the iPhone but it just doesn’t do enough that I can’t already do for me to want to add one more electronic device to carry around. I’ve got a cell phone on a cheap pay-as-you-go plan that rarely costs me more than $20 a month — I just don’t use it that much. I have an iPod with 30 GB, don’t want to switch to one with just four. I have a modem for my laptop now so I can do email and surf the ‘Net anywhere I can get a cell phone signal. I have a PDA and have learned from it that I hate doing long emails without a proper keyboard I can touch-type on, and for short emails I can text-message on my cell phone. The iPhone doesn’t do anything much that I don’t already have covered. Sure is pretty, though.

Now, if it were a real full-featured PDA that was based on OS X and could run a wide variety of programs and synced well with the Mac, I’d be more tempted. My PDA is Palm-based and has kind of a crappy sync interface with the Mac, and that has kept me from using it more. But I have Mark/Space’s The Missing Sync now which makes it a lot less of a nuisance, and I’m starting to make more use of it again.

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Think We Can Persuade Them Now to Start Up an Ex-Homophobe Ministry?

According to SFGate:

Three former leaders of a ministry that counsels gays to change their sexual orientation apologized, saying although they acted sincerely, their message had caused isolation, shame and fear.
The former leaders of the interdenominational Christian organization Exodus International said Wednesday they had become disillusioned with promoting gay conversion.

Boy, do I give them points for this. Exodus contributes to the brainwashing of queer people to feel ashamed and afraid of their own feelings, and it must have been a long, difficult, and painful journey for these three to get from there to here, to a place of sufficient self-acceptance that they can make an apology like this. Taking some responsibility for the harm they have caused to others, however unintentionally and misguidedly, is a profound step toward wholeness.

About Failure

During a discussion on the WELL, a pointer came up to this article from the New Yorker about the Citicorp Building in New York. Seems that the engineer who designed the unusual structure of the Citicorp Building discovered, after it had been completed, that a last-minute change had been made without his being notified, a change that under ordinary circumstances would have made no practical difference, but in the case of this building’s unusual design meant that the whole thing could have toppled over in a severe wind — a level of wind that weather records showed hit Manhattan about every 16 years.

It’s a fascinating article, so it’s petty of me to pick nits, but as a technical editor I’m going to pick one anyway. The writer at one point refers to “the word ‘failure’ being a euphemism for the Citicorp tower’s falling down”. This is quite a bit of overstatement. The word “failure” is standard engineering talk, and not so much a euphemism as a matter of practicality.

For one thing, any time you design anything — say, a bridge — you figure out two numbers: how much weight or other kind of force that it needs to be able to resist at the worst (the plausible worst, not the once-in-a-millenium freak-accident worst), and how much force will cause it to fail.

In a complicated structure like a building, you make this calculation over and over again in countless different ways; since a structure is only as strong as its weakest part, you need to know how strong every last part is in relation to how much force might be put on it.

So you need a couple of short words you can use over and over to label those two ideas. Engineers use “design” and “failure” — the “design load” is how much force we’ve calculated the structure needs to withstand, and the “failure load” is how much force we’ve calculated will cause the structure to fail. You have to know both numbers, and in fact building codes typically set a “safety factor” so that the failure load has to be two or three or five or however many times the design load.

The other thing is that failure does not just mean toppling, it can mean deformation. In the case of the Citicorp Building, since the parts that would fail first would have been bolts, toppling might well be how it would fail; but ordinarily when you’re building something out of steel the point of failure is the point at which the steel bends out of shape, not at which it collapses.

In fact, if your structure is made out of a combination of materials — like concrete with steel reinforcements — it’s required practice to design it so that the steel will fall first. That way the bridge starts sagging noticeably long before it collapses. It seems like it would be the case that the more steel reinforcement, the better, but in fact the result of too much steel is a beam that gives no warning when its weakest part — which is now the concrete — is about to fail. Steel fails by deforming and concrete fails by shattering to pieces, so you don’t put so much steel in the beam that the concrete will fail first.

Plurally Plural

The most common way for an English noun to form its plural is by adding an s: bed, beds; toaster, toasters; suitcase, suitcases.

Another common way for an English noun to form its plural is by changing a vowel sound: tooth, teeth; mouse, mice; foot, feet.

I just now noticed that there is a reasonably common unhyphenated, uncapitalized English word that forms its plural by doing both: It changes a vowel sound and adds the letter s. This is the only plural for this word given in three dictionaries that I’ve checked, including the Merriam-Webster Tenth Collegiate. The word isn’t archaic or obscure or in a dialect or anything like that, though most of us probably don’t have occasion to use it very often.

I can’t think of any other word in English that does this. So I’ll pose it as a puzzle: What’s the word?

Too Bogged to Blog

I haven’t been blogging much this last month, mostly because I’ve been busy. Work has been busy, and then in the last six weeks I’ve been to two Billy Club gatherings (one of which, the May Day gathering, I was ritual coordinator for, which means organizing the construction of the maypole and the rituals around it) and two Body Electric workshops. As soon as I finished the second of the workshops, it was time to start planning for the SF Pride Parade, for which I help manage some behind-the-scenes operations, so that will keep me hopping through weekend after next.

Hopefully after that I will return to a better state of balance between having a life and having time to write about it.

If Your Very Point Is That Too Many People Don’t Feel Included in Political Discussion Nowadays, How About, You Know, Including Them?

There’s some discussion on the WELL this morning of a line from Al Gore’s new book that is apparently quoted in David Brooks’s New York Times column today as an example of muddled thinking:

“The remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way — a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.”

Well, I don’t think the sentence is all that bad. I certainly don’t think it shows muddled thinking. I do wish Gore were plainer spoken, but I wish that were true of all politicians, and I’m sorry to say especially the ones on our side, who have a tendency to write as though they were trying to impress their college professors or something.

But Gore’s sentence is no worse than most such writing, and the only problem I can see with it is that it uses college-reading-level vocabulary and sentence structure to express an idea that doesn’t require it. The thinking isn’t muddled, it’s just not expressed as plainly as it could be.

But boy, I gotta say that I’d sure like it if just once in a while I could hear Gore or any other Democratic politician say something like, “You know, folks, our democracy here in America is in terrible shape, and we’re going to lose it if we don’t do something. I think there’s only one way to get it back, and that’s to get a real, honest discussion going again between our citizens and our leaders, like we used to have in this country. Americans need to be able to say what they think, and make suggestions, and come up with good ideas, and then they need to know that the people who are running this country have heard what they said. Our leaders have to start responding in ways that mean something, not just in empty cliches and form letters.”

Same idea, just different words. Republicans don’t shy away from writing and speech-making at an eighth-grade reading level, and it looks to me like a lot of Americans vote for them not so much because they agree with the Republicans more than with the Democrats but because the Republicans are the only politicians these people can make sense of. I think a lot of this “culture war” crap boils down to the fact that a lot of Americans feel like liberals are more concerned about showing off their college-level vocabularies than they are about the country. Hell, I get to feeling that way sometimes myself, and I’m generally in agreement with these blowhards. And I sure don’t know what else you could expect people to think about politicians who refuse to bring what they’re saying down to their level. It’s got to give the impression that Democratic politicians don’t care a whole lot about folks like them.

Granted, Democrats are usually trying to put across more complex ideas than the easy but false answers the Republicans tend to be selling nowadays. But if more lefties could learn to explain themselves better to the less well educated, I think we’d start capturing the hearts and minds of a fair number of people who are at the moment solidly in the Republican base. My hunch, anyway.