Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Code Talker

I had an interesting thing happen to me last Friday. I was hanging out at the Left Hand Brewery on Friday night after work, as I am apt to do. The tap room is a small place frequented by mostly beer club members where you can sit with a nicely crafted brew and some friends and lie to each other in relative peace. It is open the general public, and I encourage everyone to check it out. You should at least try to track down a six pack of Jackman’s or Milk Stout. Anyway, enough about beer, as I was sitting there regaling the fellas with my knowledge of the cast and characters of “Melrose Place” I noticed someone sitting at the bar wearing U.S. Marine WWII veteran’s hat. As I got up to get another tasty beverage I got close enough to read the writing on the side of his hat: Navjo Code Talker. Amazing. Here we were in this cruddy little bar in a crappy town in Colorado and in walks in one of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers that made it possible for us to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific corridor. Simply amazing. For those of you that do not know, I am a bit of a WWII buff. I just can’t seem to read or watch enough about it. It was a fascinating time in human history, and it has been a desire of mine to meet a Code Talker since learning about them years ago.

So I went up and introduced myself and thanked him for his service to the country. He was…well…old…really old, and he was only able to communicate in Navajo. Than
kfully, his wife, Virginia, was there to translate and interpret for me. As it turns out, the man sitting at the bar was Sgt. Allen Dale June, Congressional Gold Medalist, and one of two remaining Code Talkers still alive (the other, Samuel Tso, lives in Arizona). It really was fortuitous to meet in this setting, since I had the opportunity to speak with them for a little while over a glass of beer. It was a little awkward since I was half incredulous that I was speaking to a Code Talker and half trying not to barge in on their evening. Virginia assured me that I wasn’t being a bother which made me feel a bit better. June joined the Marines because there was nothing to do on the reservation, and he wanted to serve his country and represent his tribe. Sgt. June served in the Pacific Corridor from 1942 – 1945 calling in valuable military information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications.

The Navajo Nation (Diné Bikékya) covers about 26,000 square miles of the four corners area which encompasses much of the original land that the Navajos have occupied since the 16th century. In 2000, there were around 300,000 Navajos living in the U.S. with over half of them living on the reservation. In 1942 there were only 50,000 Navajos in the U.S., and pretty much all of them lived on the reservation. Because of their small population and relative isolation, it was estimated that fewer than 30 non-native people could speak the language. Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity whose syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It is a purely spoken language - it has no alphabet or symbols. All of these properties made it an ideal candidate for the basis of an uncrackable code for the military.

This wasn’t exactly a new idea. In WWI the Chocktaw language was used in a similar manner. Interestingly, the British had their own code talkers for the European theater. They used the Welsh language. I don’t think that even the Welsh really understand their language, but that’s another story. So, in 1942 the original 29 Code Talkers set about the task of creating the code at Camp Pendleton. They developed and memorized a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. You can take a look at the original code here. I find it amazing that it was basically just a direct translation from Navajo to English. Field tests were then staged under simulated combat conditions which showed that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message error-free in 20 seconds. Seems like a long time with present technology, but the code machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Even though the code appears to be simple on the surface, due to the complexity of the Navajo language Navajo speakers that were not trained in the proper inflections and tone of the code could not even decipher the messages.

So, the U.S. employed about 540 Navajos in the military in WWII, and ~300 of them became Code Talkers. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language, all during a time when Indians were punished for speaking their native language in the U.S. Sgt. June told me that he was once chained to a basement water faucet by a third-grade teacher on the reservation for speaking in Navajo rather than English. Why would a public school teacher do this? The primary goal from the beginning of European occupation of the Americas has been to assimilate the indigenous people. To achieve this goal, the government has tried to obliterate tribal languages, eradicate their religions and cultures, and as a final humiliation force them to dress and act like Europeans. In the late 1800’s boarding schools were set up for Indian children where they were taken against their parents’ and their own wishes and were systematically brainwashed into believing that American society was superior. These “schools” were deliberately located far from any Indian reservation or communities. Although this system was cruel, it was certainly effective. Native languages have been in decline ever since. However, despite the diabolical attempts at assimilation and eradication the Navajo language remains. Navajo is spoken in every state, and in 2000 there were almost 180,000 Navajo speakers. Notice that this is around half of the number of people in the Navajo tribe; so only half of all Navajos speak their native tongue. However, still more people speak Navajo in the U.S. than speak Thai or Scandanavian.

Since the code was unable to be cracked (it is believed to be the only truly unbreakable code in the history of warfare), as a final injustice the Code Talkers were forbade to even discuss their service in the military until the code was declassified nearly 25 years later. Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima: the Navajo Code Talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. It is almost certain that we would not have been able to win the war in the Pacific without the aid of these men, and we can only guess at the number of lives that they have saved. It truly was a great honor to meet Sgt. Allen Dale June and buy him a beer, but it somehow does not seem like enough to me. We are all truly indebted to their service. Ahéhee’.

Hozo-go nayh-yeltay to
A-ma-oh bi-keh de-dlihn
Ni-hi-keh di-dlini ta-etin
Yeh-wol-ye hi-he a-din
Sila-go-tsoi do chah-lakai
Ya-ansh-go das dez
e e
Washindon be Akalh-bi Kosi la

May we live in peace hereafter
We have conquered all our foes,
No force in the world we cannot conquer,
We know of no fear
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
United States Marines will be
There Living in peace.

Exerpt from "The Marine Hymn"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

6° of Daniel P.

About a year ago I was bamboozled by The Hippie into signing up for a Facebook account. Being a misanthrope, of course I thought that it would be a total waste of time and energy since I couldn’t give a cold turd about what everyone in the U.S. is doing right now. But I begrudgingly obliged the wily layabout and created an account anyway. As it turns out, I was right. Facebook is a total waste of time and energy, but what I’m finding out is that’s mostly the point. Isn’t it? In addition to being an excellent diversion from work, I have been able to contact some of the old loads that I haven’t talked to in millennia and catch up on what everyone has been up to. It really is a great social networking tool and a brilliant way to find friends that have become sticks in the wind. Facebook is one of the most trafficked social media sites on the web and the fifth most visited site overall (behind Google, Yahoo!, MySpace and YouTube). With over 100 million current users the potential for scientific social data mining is immense. So I thought to myself, “What’s the best way to use all of this information?” After seconds of excruciating deliberation, I came up with it. Of course! Why not use the data to prove the concept behind the idea that everyone on the planet is only separated by six social connections. That seems like a silly enough venture for this week. What do you think?

I’m sure you’ve heard about the theory of six degrees of separation before, but let’s just do a bit of an intro. The basic premise of the idea is that there are just six degrees of separation between any two strangers on Earth. This means that I am connected to Indira Ghandi, Nanook of the North, or Pol Pot by six or fewer social connections. I don’t think Pol Pot checks his Facebook account very often, though. This idea was originally presented by a Hungarian wacko named Frigyes Karinthy in the late nineteen twenties. Karinthy believed that the modern world was shrinking due to the increasing connectedness of human beings. He suggested that despite great physical distances between people in the world, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance smaller. Pretty forward thinking considering there were only ~1.5 billion people around, and there was almost no intercontinental communication. He wrote a series of short stories titled “Everything is Different” in which Karinthy's characters believed that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. This became what we know as the hypothesis of six degrees of separation.

I happen to believe whole-heartedly in the theory. It’s one of the theories that form the foundation to Daniel P. Daniel’s reasons why you should never cheat on your significant other. Allow me to explain. Say you’re on a solo fly fishing trip in the Amazon Basin trying to snag Pirarucu using a wooly booger, and you come across a hot native woman with a stick through her nose who has a thing for bald Americans with rugged good looks…hey it’s my story…You think, “Who’s gonna know?” Right? Wrong. Two weeks later an anthropologist from the University of Chicago shows up to study native stick piercings. When he gets back to the states, he goes to his barber and tells him a story. That barber is originally from Kansas and still has family there. He tells the story to his brother who has a friend that works at a grocery store in Colorado. While shopping at the Vitamin Cottage the wife overhears a story about a tall, mysteriously good looking…again my story…American fish warrior that conquered an Amazon village of scantily-clad stick-pierced women. Six degrees of separation - loop closed. Now the jig is up, and she knows why she has a venereal disease that has never been documented in the developed world. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You may be more familiar with the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game where the goal is to connect actors through films that contain Kevin Bacon. For example: William Shatner was in Dodgeball with Julie Gonzalo who was in Saving Angelo with…Kevin Bacon. In fact, I can be connected to KB in only two steps. I have met Michael Jordan a couple of times, and he was in a Hanes commercial with KB. We’re practically related. The mathematics behind these social networks is pretty complicated, but they can be explained somewhat simply. Imagine that you know 100 people…real people, Sybil. Each of those people knows 100 others. By the time you reach out to six steps you end up with something like 100^5 or 10 billion people. As I said this is a gross simplification, but it’s easy to see how this might work in principle.

Back to the original Facebook idea. I did a little poking around, and it turns out that some jaggoff beat me to the punch. There is a Facebook application called Six Degrees that calculates the degrees of separation between different people. It has about 4.5 million users. The average separation for all users of the application is 5.73 degrees, and the maximum degree of separation is 12. The application has a "Search for Connections" window to input any name of a Facebook user, to which it then shows the chain of connections. I hate it when people steal my ideas before I have them. It’s pretty cool, though, that the numbers pretty much support the six degrees hypothesis which was put forth by some weird-ass writer 80 years ago.

There have been many other studies that seem to support the theory. The latest (and largest) is a study done by Microsoft. They gathered the information from all of the conversations held via Microsoft Messenger in June of 2006. Seems a little creepy, right? Personally, the number of instant messages that I have ever sent is equal to the number of wives the Pope has had, so I’m not too worried about it. They collected records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people from around the world…that’s right, 30 billion messages…in a month…That’s a billion a day, or 11,500 messages per second, 24/7. What the @#&#@, people! Give it a rest, will ya? Now where was I? Oh, yeah. Their researchers have concluded that any two people on average are distanced by just 6.6 degrees of separation, meaning that they could be linked by a string of seven or fewer acquaintances. Even though the sample size is huge, there remains some question in my mind weather or not the dorks that use IM all of the time are as socially connected as the rest of the world. Either way, I’m not ready to start calling it the seven degrees of separation just yet.

Turns out it really is a small world after all, but I still wouldn’t want to paint it…

Check out: for some more nonsense.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Steampunk 101

O.K., so the mid-term sucked worse than a make-out session at a leper colony. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, but I can assure you that the test was horrid. However, now that it is over I can pull my head out of the books and put it back into the bottle where it belongs. So, let’s begin this week’s bit of nonsense. Shall we?

I’ve had several conversations with various people in the past couple of weeks about modern electronics (computers, phones, televisions, etc.). The basic premise of the conversations was how (even though they are totally ubiquitous) these devices are basically disposable, crappy, almost completely utilitarian and entirely hideous to look at most of the time. Of course, when I get pulled in on conversations like these, I always bring up steampunk and the handful of artists and craftspeople that excel at making the mundane beautiful. What I’m finding out is that most people have never heard of steampunk before even though the movement has been around for about twenty years. So, I thought that I’d put together a little steampunk primer in order to introduce it to the next batch of possible enthusiasts.

Although many people may have never heard the term steampunk, chances are they’ve run into steampunk somewhere. It’s a term that describes a genre of fashion, art, film, writing, games, and much more. It can be found when the styles of the past collide with the gadgetry of the future. It’s a romantic look back at a bygone era that never was. It can be found in films like The Prestige, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sleepy Hollow, The Golden Compass and Hellboy. It’s in games like World of Warcraft and Bioshock, and in music videos like Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins and Closer by Nine Inch Nails. It’s defined by an entire genre of books and comics. In fact, one of my son’s favorite books is a bit of steampunk lore called Moonpowder. From sort of a retro sci-fi techno Victorian hodge-podge of ideas in the 1980’s steampunk has evolved into a vibrant subculture all of its own. Followers and artwork have the look and feel of someone or something straight out of a 19th century Jules Verne novel. It is all about romance and airships and pirates and submarines and goggles...the ubiquitous steampunk goggles.

It started as a futuristic, apocalyptic genre more like cyberpunk, but the authors of the movement thought, “Why not take all of this technology, all of the scientists, all of these programmers and put them in the past in a world before electricity - before power sources other than steam?” Originally, like cyberpunk, it followed the same dystopian themes and had a similar bleak outlook on the future. But I think one of the coolest aspects of steampunk is that as the genre evolved it dropped the dystopic view and took on a more Utopian view that makes it seem much more romantic and soulful.

On the surface, I don’t think that imitating the 19th century upper class is particularly rebellious or revolutionary, but even though stylistically steampunk takes its cues form the Victorian era, it’s the technological updates to the Victorian look that really give steampunk its edge. Enthusiasts focus on steam engines, clockwork devices, difference engines and employ them to modify clothing, vehicles, mundane modern devices, and anything else they can get their hands on. This is what originally drew me to steampunk. I have designed and built several steam engines, a Stirling engine, and I have been working on a design for a modern sundial. Some examples of objects that others have modified include computers, televisions, cell phones, musical instruments, etc. The goal of such redesigns is to employ appropriate materials (such as polished brass, iron, and wood) with design elements and craftsmanship consistent with the Victorian era. I’ve included some pictures of their genius mods which are all modern devices (a screaming fast desktop computer, laptop computer) wrapped in Victorian-inspired shells.

This is where our original conversations that started this mess come in. There was a period of time in the past when industrial designers actually had the freedom to create devices that were both beautiful and functional. Think back to the automobiles of the 50’s and 60’s. Think of the original locomotives, ships, and planes. Think about early console televisions and telephones. All of these devices and machines experienced a period where no expense was spared on their creation. The best materials were used in their construction. Now think about computers. What did the first computer look like? Essentially what it looks like now, right? A noisy plastic cube that takes up way too much space and is like a fist in your eye whenever you look at it. It’s sad that the device that has arguably made more of an impact on mankind than any other in history has never gotten any fanfare. This is pretty much how everything that is created today is treated – TVs, vehicles, appliances, etc. Why is it reasonable that people spend thousands of dollars on decorating their houses, but you can always find an ugly-ass computer or entertainment center sticking out somewhere like a pregnant nun? Why is this even remotely acceptable? It shouldn’t be, and that’s why I praise the steampunk mod artists and craftsmen that take these pieces of crap and turn them into artistic centerpieces so they can be used and displayed in public without hiding them in a back room like a retarded grandparent. Taking something that is bland and crappy and making it into a functional piece of artwork with a soul is absolutely brilliant.

A few Steampunk links of note: Steampunk Workshop, Brass Goggles, Datamancer, Steampunk Magazine, Coilhouse.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mid-Terms Suck

As some of you know, I'm taking classes to pursue my masters degree (possibly PhD) in mechanical engineering a CU Boulder. I didn't think I had enough going on with two kids, full-time job, social life, recreation, etc., so I thought that I'd pile some more on top. This week is mid-term, and I've been busy studying solid state chemistry and the physics behind symmetry and crystal formation. You know, calculation of Madelung constants and Bragg's rule for x-ray diffraction patterns. I figured you'd be interested, so let's go over some of the finer points of what I've been studying...I'm only joking, of course. I don't even want to be reading that bullshyte, and it's bad enough that I ask you to read some of my other ramblings about arcane nonsense. I won't put you through the same spanking machine that I'm forced to go through.

Since I won't have time to write a good weird-ass article this week, I thought I'd give you a status update on the fam. Everyone is happy and healthy. Jax is pretty much a real person now, and Syd is a lot less like crib larvae. Regarding Syd, I'd like to address a private issue publicly if you don't mind. It's something that has nagging at me since she was born. Much like most guys I'm a little insecure about...well...about who the actual father is. I think I've narrowed it down to who it could be. Take a look at the picture below. Be honest what do you think? It's Hardy, isn't it? I knew I couldn't trust that fat bastard...
Here are a couple of pics of my little ones.

I wish everyone could experience the same amount of happiness in their lives. I am a very lucky man. Now back to my pennance: determination of lattice constants and elastic scattering from disordered materials. Yippee!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter

For those of you who, like me, love bad movies in all of their awful glory I’ve got four words for you: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Holy shit, I have not seen a movie as bad as this since leg warmers and parachute pants were in. This brilliant cinematic masterpiece makes Student Bodies look like The Godfather. It is awesome! With a star-void cast of tens and special effects that can only be described as “low budget” the brilliance of this film has not been matched since Weasels Rip My Flesh (or anything starring Jennifer Aniston) has graced the silver screen. I mean how can you go wrong when the premise of the movie is that the son of God must save the lesbians of Ottawa, Canada from certain death by exsanguination by righteously kicking evil vampire ass. There is even a dance number. Yes, that’s right, a dance number. Oh, and did I mention that the Messiah is aided by a 300lb. Mexican masked wrestler (El Santo) who has a pilot’s license? Oh, yeah. The brilliance of the plot is only matched by the horrible editing. If all of the unnecessary zooms, pans and shots of people walking from one place to another were cut out the movie would only be 15 minutes long. This is an absolute must-see for any true fan of crappy movies. Truly, truly brilliant.

I’m glad I stumbled across it on Netflix the other day, because it has rekindled the fire inside me for truly horrible cinema. I think it is important the we make a distinction between bad B movies and bad mainstream movies. There is a huge difference between a movie that was intended to be viewed by a fringe audience and a movie that just falls flat on its face right out of the gate. For example, I know when I sit down to watch Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead that I’m in for an hour and 43 minutes of nonsensical zombie chicken cinematic mastery. But if I pay $8 to see a movie like A.I. or anything with Kevin Costner in it and I realize halfway through it that my eyes are bleeding because I’ve tried to gouge them out with a Twizzler, I get seriously torqued off. There is a real difference between intentionally bad and accidentally bad movies.

Watching these intentionally bad movies has been a hobby of mine since I first embraced my insomnia in middle school many, many, MANY years ago. It’s like watching a slow crash or seeing a poorly crafted raft set sail. You know it’s going to be a stinker, but the beauty is that so do the filmmakers so there is nothing that is off limits. There are no cinematic or societal taboos. No logic or necessity to adhere to anything resembling reality. Want to make a movie about murderous produce? Go right ahead. Think the plot of your movie should involve an evil cartoon character that terrorizes scantily clad coeds. Of course you do. Why not throw in a couple of huge radioactive insects? All the better. Gratuitous nudity is absolutely mandatory, and a couple of gallons of fake blood paint the path to theatrical bliss.

The movies that I love are very simple to spot. They usually have pictures of people running from something on the cover. If the cover is also holographic then you know it’s going to be a doozie. Anything with "Blood", "Gore", "Camp" or "Sorority" in the title is bound to be on the list. Also, if you have no idea what the plot of the movie is based on careful examination of the cover, it has to be good. If you can tell that the props are obviously made out of ordinary household objects then I’ve probably seen it once or twice. The ones that are serious gems are the films that have stars in them before they made it mainstream, and they aren’t listed in their filmography anymore. It’s a sure tip off if my wife walks by and says “Oh dear God! Is there something wrong with you?” Of course there is, Honey. Of course there is.

So I encourage everyone to put the kids to bed, nuke some popcorn, turn out the lights, sink back into the couch and enjoy a screen gem like Army of Darkness, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds, Meet the Feebles, or Dark Star. Just don’t be surprised if the lady at the video store looks at you differently from now on…