Category Archives: Uncategorized

Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic

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Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic by Karen Stollznow is a great book despite the lack of an Oxford Comma in the title.

I mention Karen’s book not because it is new (is was published in 2014) but because a) it will be of interest to most of my readers and b) Mike Haubrich and I plan to interview Karen for Ikonokast in the near future, thus lending currency to the volume and topic. (Our interview will be about Karen’s work in skepticism as much as linguistics.)

Note: This book appears to be out of print, so it is hard to get at a reasonable price, but if you look around it can be acquired used for about $15. You can find it on Kindle if you go to the provided link and look laterally on Amazon, and there are used versions.

I have yet to see a review of Language Myths that is satisfying. Most reviewers claim that Stollznow is debunking the idea that language has magic powers. She does not. Rather, she explains the magic power that language actually does have. This does not require belief in anything supernatural. In fact, a careful look at each of the myriad examples of magic and mythical mysterious language the author carefully and richly documents, will leave even the most spiritual or religious reader convinced that natural explanations cover all of the phenomena that have any explanation at all The remaining unexplained things are comfortably rare and do not require an unnatural cause.

Yet, language is magic. As my friend Mark Pagel is fond of noting, language is the powerful magic that allows me to use sound waves to alter the growth and connections of neural cells inside your skull. Stollznow’s exploration is more detailed, of course, and richly culture bound. It is a detailed exploration of actual examples from across a wide range of current and historical story, literature, common usage, and rhetoric.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in language itself, communication, folklore, skepticism, or writing and literary analysis. (Notice how that last sentence LOOKS like it has no Oxford comma, but actually does.)

Karen Stollznow is also the author of God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States, and a book that I have a chapter in, Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect. Karen podcasts here.

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Alicia Plerhoples for Fairfax County Board Chair

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I know some of you are in Fairfax County, Virginia. If you are, please send this around to your climate-loving local people who are presumably voting in the upcoming primary election (June 11th).

From Adam Siegel, Virginia-based energy expert and climate hawk spotter:

Fairfax County Democratic voters face — for the first time in decades — a real choice as to their nominee for Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. It isn’t just that there are four candidates seeking our support, but that a reasonable person paying even superficial attention to the race should be able to articulate reasons to vote for (or not vote for) each of the four. This is a good situation for voters, and a reason why I have thought long and hard before coming out with a public endorsement in this race. After consideration of many factors (see discussion below), the choice has become clear to me…

For the details, read: Alicia Plerhoples for Fairfax County Board Chair: Adam Siegel Explains His Choice

There is another endorsement of Alicia Plerhoples here.

Plerhoples herself is also covered here: Under my leadership, says Plerhoples, Fairfax will be a greener county

Also, look at Dick Saslaw’s race. I hear he is a fossil fuel favorer and it might be nice to have him not running in the election, so when the Democrats take back the Senate, their Majority Leader is not a Carbon-symp. This is Virginia State Senate district 35, where Yasmine Taeb and Karen Elena Torrent are primary-ing Dick Saslaw. I have nothing to provide in the way of guidance for choosing between those two candidates.

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Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, Are All About The Same

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How does this sound? In a two person race (among Democrats and LD’s),

Biden 43%
Sanders 41%

(statistical tie)

Biden 41%
Harris 38%

(statistical tie)

Sanders 42%
Harris 37%

(that may be statistically significant, but just barely)

Sanders 37%
Warren 40%

(statistical tie)

Conclusion: Among these front runners, they are all about the same, among Democrats, nationally. Note that recent polls showing Biden with a huge lead are all, as far as I know, among the First Four contests.


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Celestial Calculations: This Book Promises To Not Hurt You

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To calculate the exact location of a star, planet, or satellite, read the appropriate chapter in this book, download the source code, data files, or binaries, as needed from the publisher, and off you go on a wild adventure that combines star gazing, mathematics, and coding.

I am especially attracted to science or technology books that contain something the reader can work with. A book about a programming language should walk the reader through developing a good example of useful code. A book about computational science should include templates for workflow in data analysis. It is rare, though, to find a book about a pure science (as opposed to technology) that does this. Celestial Calculations: A Gentle Introduction to Computational Astronomy (The MIT Press) by J. L. Lawrence is one of those pragmatic publications.

J.L. Lawrence comes from the world of technology. He is a CTO of a company that builds computer systems for satellite-launching customers including the government. So, one might imagine that he has an interest in pulling out the old slide rule and doing applied rocket science.

Consider the situation of a serious amateur astronomer. You can look at the stars and planets through a good set of binoculars, or an amateur telescope. After a while, you may want to upgrade to a telescope that can be linked to your laptop for positioning. Or you might build a star tracker to allow your camera to get a nice shot of a comet. And so on.

But eventually you may also want to get into the math of the heavens, combining that with some coding skills you can easily pick up, and figure out how to locate planets, find specific stars, track the moon’s behavior with great accuracy, and convert between all the values of time and space that happen when round objects of various sizes find themselves falling towards each other in great, seemingly infinite time, spirals. And so on.

Celestial Calculations is written for amateur astronomers who want to use accessible math combined with extensive ready to go code written manly in python, java, and visual basic.

The prose that discusses the math and astronomy is straightforward and accessible, and if you read the book just for that you will come away much better informed about the solar system and broader universe. If you do that, you will probably skip about 20% of the technical discussions and math (maybe a bit more). The math is very clear and you can work through the concepts in your head, more or less, to get the idea, and appreciate the dynamic relationships between things in space. The programming is all relegated (but with notes in the book) to a major on line archive that you can download and use on your own computer to make the calculations, and modify as you wish.

The software is developed with a Microsoft Windows user in mind. The software should run on any platform, but you may have to fiddle with paths and other environment issues if you are using a non-Windows machine.

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Hawking’s Black Holes and Baby Universes Cheap

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Black Holes and Baby Universes: And Other Essays in kindle form cheap right now.

In his phenomenal bestseller A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking literally transformed the way we think about physics, the universe, reality itself. In these thirteen essays and one remarkable extended interview, the man widely regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein returns to reveal an amazing array of possibilities for understanding our universe.

Building on his earlier work, Hawking discusses imaginary time, how black holes can give birth to baby universes, and scientists’ efforts to find a complete unified theory that would predict everything in the universe. With his characteristic mastery of language, his sense of humor and commitment to plain speaking, Stephen Hawking invites us to know him better—and to share his passion for the voyage of intellect and imagination that has opened new ways to understanding the very nature of the cosmos.

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Cheap early Carl Hiaasen book!

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Fans of Carl Hiaasen who have not yet read his book Trap Line can get it right now cheap in Kindle form.

Though he is one of Key West’s most skilled fishing captains, Breeze Albury barely ekes out a living on the meager earnings of his trade. Meanwhile, Cuban and Colombian drug smugglers thrive all around—and they have their sights set on Albury and his fishing boat.

After the smugglers cut his three hundred trap lines and crush his livelihood, Albury is forced to run drugs to survive. But when he gets busted by the crooked chief of police and becomes a target of the drug machine’s brutal hit men, Albury becomes a vigilante on the seas of Florida, unleashing a fiery and relentless vengeance on the most dangerous criminals south of Miami.

Along with Powder Burn and A Death in China, this is one of the early suspense thrillers written by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano, a writing team praised for their “fine flair for characters and settings” (Library Journal). Perfect for fans of the Doc Ford novels by Randy Wayne White, Trap Line is an action-packed preview of Hiaasen’s stellar Florida-set crime novels including Sick Puppy, Tourist Season, and Razor Girl.

See THIS for more info on the author.

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Dune, ersatz Holmes, cheap books

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A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes Novel Book 1) by Brittany Cavallaro is the second in a series of Holmes Not Holmes books. The series consists of:

A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes Novel Book 1)

The Last of August (Charlotte Holmes Novel Book 2)

The Case for Jamie (Charlotte Holmes Novel Book 3)

And, Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah also cheap on Kindle.

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A Smarter Open Recent Files Function in Office

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I’m talking about LibreOffice or OpenOffice, but the concept applies to any office suite. Specifically, we are talking here about the behvioar of the “Open Recent Documents” function under the “File” menu on the typical Office style application. This menu item shows you the most recent several documents you’ve had open, so you can re-open one right away. Continue reading A Smarter Open Recent Files Function in Office

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Practical Binary Analysis: Book Review

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A computer program is like a memo. Often, a vague memo.

You are the boss. You want a pile of files to be put away. You could do it yourself, but instead you instruct someone else to do it. There are a lot of them and they are all mixed up. So you write a memo to an employee that says “put the files away” and sis-bam-boom you’re all set.

Or are you? Continue reading Practical Binary Analysis: Book Review

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Learning And Using JavaScript Eloquently

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First, let me disabuse you of the notion that “JavaScript” and “Java” are totally unrelated to each other other than having the word “Java” in both. That is a bit of revisionist history that serves no real purpose. On the other hand, JavaScript is not a scripty version of Java by any means. The two are different languages, developed independently, for very different purposes. The overlap or connection stems in part from the fact that early thinking about getting a language to program stuff inside browsers was happening when Java was emerging, and Java would be likely considered the default language to use for such a think, if a full blow real life language would ever be considered for this task. JavaScript have elements that look like Java, and was created by Brendan Eich to use instead of Java and it was, at the time, called Mocha, which is a coffee drink and Java is coffee and they drank a lot of coffee so….)

Continue reading Learning And Using JavaScript Eloquently
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Darwin, Tuchman, On Kindle, Cheap

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Fossils, Finches and Fuegians: Charles Darwin’s Adventures and Discoveries on the Beagle (Text Only) is a biographical account of Darwin during the voyage. The Kindle version lacks the pictures, but if you have Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle then you probably have all those pictures. I’m not sure if this is a worthy addition to the average person’s library, but if you have all the Darwin books and don’t have this one, this is a chance to fix that for a mere two bucks.

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century is available on Kindle for 1.99. It is audible enabled.

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Blocks is the new HTML

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I just upgraded this site to WordPress 5.01. (I waited out 5.o.) I am now faced with an editor that is not text based and does not give me access to my HTML codes. Instead, it uses this thing called “blocks.”

A block can be an image, like this image I’m putting here right now. That was actually fairly cool, because it allowed me to use dragging to size the “block” (image with caption, in this case) precisely where I wanted it to be. I wonder if I can insert a link in a caption? If so, I’d like to do so in order to point to the kind of post where this sort of on the fly real time WYSIWYG editing would be helpful, here: STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids!

I just finished inserting that graphic of the unhappy Wall Street stockbroker guy (to the right) and if you look at the caption, you’ll see that there is a link in the caption. That was actually difficult to do in the older version of WordPress, so I like that.

I wonder what other kinds of blocks there are? Let’s see.


There are (see above) headings. Those are blocks.

It is said that a quote can be put in a block. It is a block quote.

There is a plugin that allows you to go back to the old style of editor. I’ll probably install that to see how it works, but this “Gutenberg” editor, as it is called, seems cool. I’m a very text-oriented writer, but this is not bad. We’ll see.

Next task, if I can get it to work: Make comments editable for you, dear readers, a commonly requested feature.

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The Pause that Refreshes

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… and refreshes … and refreshes … and refreshes.

I speak, of course, of the non-existent hiatus in global temperature increase vigorously but incorrectly pointed to by deniers of global warming. What happened was this. We had a really warm year, owing to an El Nino, in the late 1990s. Then, things settled down a bit, and due to normal variation of the Earth’s climate system, that year was followed by a series of years in which the global surface temperature continued to increase, but very slowly. Meanwhile, of course, the Earth’s ocean temperature was steadily increasing, no pause or hiatus there. Then, after a few years, the Earth’s surface temperature warmed very rapidly. The period between that El Nino year, and the rapid return of temperatures rising, is where climate science deniers shoehorn their hiatus. Continue reading The Pause that Refreshes

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