Don’t be a Weenie Launch Cassini

Future generations will remember Bill Clinton for two things, not having sex with that woman and authorizing the launch of Cassini. I was working in Dallas Texas in the months before Cassini’s launch. It was 1997 and the Internet was just beginning to disrupt everyday life. Google was morphing from a thesis to a company and abominations like Facebook, Twitter and smartphones were years away. It was a time of CD-ROM games, 56K dial-up modems, bulletin boards, hand crafted HTML websites, and Netscape Navigator.  Even in its primitive state the Internet already exhibited many of the things I value and detest about it today. Two events made this abundantly clear. The inane shenanigans that preceded Cassini’s launch and the death of Carl Sagan.

I had a few beefs with Sagan. Like all science popularizers he often dumbed things down to misleading levels and, like most western academics, he was naive about vicious authoritarian regimes. In Sagan’s mind, a handful of exemplary Soviet scientists went a long way toward excusing the Gulag and purges. I overlooked his good-natured naivety. It was, and still is, a common delusion. Many intelligent people fall victim to the belief that their superior accomplishments endow them with universal wisdom. This is pure classic hubris.

Sagan had flaws but he was also the real scientific deal. He predicted the surface temperature of Venus before it was measured and contributed both scientifically and politically to the success of some of the 20th century’s most spectacular space missions like the Martian Viking landers and the epic Voyagers. Even his popular stunts like the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager gold records were classy and compelling. For me, Sagan’s most enduring quality was his very public and relentless refusal to buy into irrational bullshit. He rhetorically dismembered idiots that saw faces on Mars and skies full of alien bearing UFOs. The Martian face turned out to an eroded mesa, just like Sagan said it was, and we are still waiting for genuine rigorously authenticated evidence of real UFOs. Sagan’s often said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”  It’s a maxim I apply every single day and you should too.

The day Sagan died I connected to the Internet with my trusty 56K dial-up modem. I was looking for unofficial Sagan obituaries and boy did I find them. It turns out that UFO cultists did not appreciate Sagan’s precise and correct analysis of their unsubstantiated nonsense. Clearly, he was part of the vast centuries old global cover-up. Everyone knows that the Illuminati, the Masons, the Rothschilds, the Jews, and the Jewish aliens in the UFOs, are suppressing UFO evidence: presumably to facilitate draining our precious bodily fluids. I exaggerate but not by much! It was my first encounter with unhinged Internet trolls. My already low opinion of the people’s intelligence dipped lower. Of course, trolls come in all flavors. There are good trolls, the ones I agree with, and evil trolls, the ones I disagree with. Overall, a free Internet with hate mongering vicious trolls is vastly better than a censored Internet that’s been reduced to a giant empty echoing, ruling-class-approved, safe space. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

No matter what you think of the boorish behavior of UFO cultists celebrating Sagan’s death it’s clear to all, including the UFO cultists themselves that they are, in Douglass Adam’s exquisite words, “mostly harmless.”  No one gives a crap what ufologists (yeah it’s a word) think and nobody will pay attention to their ravings until they meet well-defined standards of proof. Sorry guys it’s a skeptic’s world and we won’t be lowering standards of scientific validation for you.

Unfortunately, anti-nuclear don’t launch Cassini, nitwits almost aborted what turned out to be an undisputed marvel of our age. I remember these 1997 loons and until they crawl out from their troglodyte caves, prostrate themselves before the great and powerful Internet, and publicly admit that they were completely wrong about Cassini, that launching the probe was the right thing to do, and that some tiny risks are very much worth taking, I will forever curse, mock, belittle, and remind others of their appalling judgment and sniveling cowardice.

The Cassini launch hysterics began when a pack of dolts noticed the word “Plutonium” in Cassini’s press material. Plutonium, oh my god! What are those privileged white devils in JPL up to? The JPL white devils tried to explain how RTG generators work and that a safe reliable compact long-lasting power source was required for operations at Saturn where sunlight is around 0.011 Earth’s intensity but math is hard. Way too hard for ideologues triggered by visions of Plutonium saturated Challenger like explosions spreading deadly radiation over a wide area. It was all over hyped rubbish. As of 2017, it’s not clear that RTGs have killed a single person in over fifty years of use let alone the tens of thousands the Cassini Cassandras were picturing. The white devils lost patience and did a little back of the envelope calculation that assumed a major Cassini crash that uniformly spread the probe’s “deadly Plutonium” over the entire Earth. Given this absurd worst case scenario, how many excessive cancer deaths could we expect?  The calculation estimated about 5,000 spread over a lifetime: not enough to worry about! Michio Kaku called bullshit on this absurd scenario and quickly concocted his own absurd scenario that had Cassini crashing into a dense urban area with laser guided bomb casualty maximizing effectiveness. This bumped the dark wet dream body count to 200,000. Both calculations were ridiculous. This entire episode is neatly summarized in this Mother Jones (can you believe it) article.

The launch of Cassini and its Earth flyby imposed miniscule risks. Even if things went horribly, but realistically wrong, it’s unlikely the probe would have killed more than a thousand people. Whenever I hear projected death tolls I convert the statistic into one I care about. What are my chances of dying? The Earth’s population was roughly six billion in 1997. The chances of Cassini killing me was at most one in million and probably much less. What type of whiny cowardly snowflake would give up the glories of Cassini for one in million odds of something bad happening? I would have accepted much worse odds.

I wasn’t the only one willing to take an infinitesimal risk to advance human knowledge. Just before Cassini’s launch the anti-Cassini mob planned a march in Washington to screech, wave banners, and go full incontinent leftist ape. In their bush baby brains Cassini had to be stopped. Before 1997 protesters rarely faced counter protesters but Cassini touched a deep nerdy nerve and a small band of pro-Cassini protesters showed up shouting “Don’t be a weenie, launch Cassini,” and like the Greeks at Marathon, they drove the stunted grunting anti-Cassini beasts from the rhetorical field.  I like to imagine the “don’t be a weenie, launch Cassini” ruckus stirred Bill to take a break from dipping cigars in intern vaginas and get on the phone to authorize Cassini’s launch.

Today the pro-Cassini protesters would be erroneously described as “alt-right.” Actually, they were simply and absolutely right as hundreds of thousands of stunning Cassini images, thousands of scientific papers, and dozens of unexpected discoveries about Saturn and its Moons attest. Cassini exceeded everybody’s expectations. The Voyagers were the greatest space probes of the 20th century and Cassini is the greatest of the 21st so far.  If we’re lucky we’ll see Cassini surpassed and that is something to look forward to.

Fifty Years of Nauseating Kennedy Nostalgia

It’s been fifty years since Michelle, a fifth grade childhood friend, interrupted me on the playground of Naples elementary and told me that ”President Kennedy has been shot.” The news did not impress me. I naively rooted for Kennedy in the 1960 election. Yes, I was suckered, but I was in the second grade! I didn’t discover the man was a shiny lying whore-monger until years later so cut me some slack. Kennedy dazzled my second grade mind but by November of 1963 whatever passing interest I had in him had dissolved. Despite Michelle’s worried tones Kennedy’s fate did not concern me but I dearly hoped that we would get the rest of the school day off! My hopes for a premature end of school ended with the recess bell. My first presidential assassination was off to a bad start and it only got worse.

We spent the day in class with distracted teachers; they were visibly relieved when our school buses arrived. I remember our normally genial driver had his civil defense drill face on. In the early sixties we enjoyed civil defense drills. As I was living in a remote rural corner of Utah the prospect of places like New York City getting nuked was cause for celebration. Civil defense drills were grand apocalyptic holidays. We’d get out of school early, pile on our buses, and then flee into the Uintah badlands. In a real attack I would be home in my basement long before the radioactive clouds killed everyone within a hundred miles of major cities. Maybe our driver thought that without our Marilyn Monroe banger at the helm the entire world would self-destruct. People worry about the silliest things.

I don’t remember the bus ride. It took forty-five minutes of highway driving and a change of buses to drop me in the middle of the Redwash oilfield where we lived at the time. Redwash was a small oil camp built to house oil heathens. Rural Utah in the 1960’s was almost 100% Mormon and oil people, like my dad and his coworkers, were almost 100% non-Mormon. Oil hicks and Mormon hicks did not mix. When oil was discovered under the Uintah plateau oil people first stayed in nearby Vernal and Jensen but there were too many fights. Oil people like to drink, smoke and whore while Mormons like to lecture, preach and ostracize. Redwash was the solution. We we’re twenty miles from the nearest small town and hundreds of miles from the nearest city: Salt Lake City. It was a good place to sit out the end of world but there was a problem: TV reception sucked.

When I got home my parents were glued to our fuzzy black and white TV. The Kennedy news was so riveting that my dad, normally allergic to technology despite being an accomplished petroleum engineer, went outside and fiddled with our rooftop TV antenna. No matter where the antenna pointed reception was awful. We got three channels and only one was watchable. TV talking heads were going on about Kennedy’s death. By the time I got home his death was certain. My normal after school routine consisted of TV cartoons, but I could see that there would be no cartoons and I was OK with it. I knew presidents weren’t assassinated every day, a little break in routine might be good. I expected the adults would go on about this for a few days and then things would get back to normal.

Boy was I wrong. Two days later I was eating a bowl of Cheerios in our small dining area when my mother stormed out of the living room ranting, “Why don’t we all get a gun and open fire?1” Ruby had just shot Oswald on live TV. My hopes for a return of afternoon cartoons took a major hit. I don’t remember much after Oswald’s death because my patience ran out. I didn’t watch the interminable lying in state, the never-ending funeral procession, the tiresome media bloviating or little Johnny F. Kennedy junior2 saluting poor dead dad.

Later on I remember sitting with one of my older friends in an oilfield garbage dump. We had been breaking discarded Mercury filled electrical switches to recover Mercury. At one time I had almost an entire liter of Mercury in my basement chemistry lab. I mixed it with molten lead and poured the mixture into water to form brittle 3D Jackson Pollack’ey insta-sculptures. When I was kid boys were allowed to be boys, we snuck cigarettes, shot out oil field gauges with our 22’s, stole welding blasting caps, had fist fights, had rock fights, shot sheep, called girls names and thrust 30-06 rifle bullets into bonfires. It was a golden age. I feel for the poor ADHD drug saturated eunuchs that substitute for boys in today’s pussy safe schools. It’s hardly surprising so many of them harbor volcanic rage that erupts in mass shootings. As my friend smashed Mercury filled switch tubes he bitched, “Jesus Dupont Christopher Christ, it’s been almost two goddamn weeks and there’s still nothing but Kennedy on TV. When the hell do we get back to regularly scheduled programming?” I really didn’t know but I didn’t expect to wait decades.

For years after the assassination we gorged on a steady nausea inducing diet of the handsome young president, so filled with promise, but cut down before his time, propaganda that somewhere between LBJ and Watergate I stopped giving a shit about anything associated with the Kennedy’s. When the stories about JFK’s drug abuse, whoring and general political ineptitude started surfacing3 I thought maybe the masses are finally developing some perspective. Kennedy was an average president. We remember him for five things: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, starting the Apollo program, rabid skirt chasing and getting assassinated. Only one thing on that list, the Apollo program, is good! He had a meager legislative impact and everything liberal morons credit him with was actually implemented by the hated LBJ. If Kennedy hadn’t been shot he would be rated below Clinton and way below Truman and Eisenhower. Fortunately for Kennedy’s legacy, but not for himself, Oswald was a competent sniper.

And now that I have mentioned the “O-word “ will all you Kennedy assassination conspiracy nuts just fornicate elsewhere and expire. It’s been fifty years and you still haven’t definitely made your case. I will admit that a Kennedy conspiracy is possible, just like I will admit that aliens buzzing around in UFO’s is possible, but in both cases the “evidence” does not pass skeptical muster. I only change my mind when there are good reasons to do so and in Kennedy’s case there are no compelling arguments.

My intense disdain for Kennedy conspiracy imbeciles reached homicidal levels watching Oliver Stone’s absolutely execrable film JFK. There is a scene in JFK where two lead characters discuss “the shooting.” The film’s gun expert authoritatively intones that it was simply impossible for Oswald to fire as many shoots as he did and hit a moving target at such a distance. This is a simple outright lie and I would bet big bucks that Stone, another amoral lying reprobate, knew it when he was filming. How did I know it was pure and utter bullshit? Well I have been to the Dallas Book Depository and I have looked out the window Oswald shot from. When I saw just how far away his target was, it’s not that far, I immediately thought — I could have hit Kennedy. It would have been easy for any competent sniper. Go and look yourselves. To test the shooting another fallen liberal icon, Dan Rather, ran a test where he recruited a number of snipers to duplicate Oswald’s shooting. The verdict: it was completely possible. Stone was simply lying in the middle of his alleged historical big budget film. I have never watched another Oliver Stone film; don’t bankroll your enemies.

For a few months we’ll be subjected to a torrent of unbalanced Kennedy retrospectives. The few remaining magazine stands, in the few remaining bookstores, are filling up with Camelot encrusted crud. I only hope the generations born after Kennedy’s assassination will show their usual complete lack of interest in boomer nostalgia and let’s not fool ourselves Kennedy is pure boomer nostalgia. My hideous self-centered generation has always lacked historical perspective and here we are, fifty years later, still acting like fifth graders. Nobody gives a crap where we were when Kennedy was shot! So enjoy your 50th assassination anniversary because in another fifty years, when boomers are dead and gone, a new generation of American historical illiterates will be asking, “Wasn’t Kennedy the dude that nailed Marilyn Monroe on the moon?”


  1. Not a rhetorical question in hunting crazy rural Utah.
  2. Little Johnny grew into another loathsome entitled Kennedy. He was a dim witted echo of his dad and the original shiny pony. Perhaps we should encourage Justin Trudeau to take flying lessons.
  3. Before the Internet it was a lot easier to keep the lid on political dirt. Kennedy, like Obama today, was revered by a sycophantic slobbering press.

Blurb: Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus

Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus 1631 to the Present is the best illustrated astronomy book for general readers since Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer’s The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide.  Everything about Lomb’s book from its eye seizing cover, rarely seen historic photographs and charming well researched commentary is first class. Transit is the type of work you steal[1] from and frankly, there is no better endorsement than that.  I’m not the only reader to reach this conclusion check out this and this and this.

When prowling our few remaining bookstores I often skip illustrated works. Usually they’re dumbed-down rehashes of familiar material but, in Transit’s case, I learned something on my first randomly browsed page. The chapter introduction for Venus of the South Seas reads:

Sometimes scientific expeditions have unintended consequences. The desirability of observing the 1769 transit from the South Seas began a chain of events that would lead to the founding of the colony of New South Wales by the British in January 1788. In effect, modern Australia owes its existence to a celestial event.

How about that history haters. I knew why astronomers cared about transits of Venus. In 1677 Edmond Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, described a method for calculating the astronomical unit from transit of Venus timings. Venus is close enough to the Earth that its track over the Sun differs for widely separated terrestrial observers. This is the familiar parallax effect.  From this small difference you can determine the astronomical unit and if you know the astronomical unit Kepler’s third law tells you the distance of every planet in the solar system.  This was a huge payoff for 17th, 18th and early 19th century astronomers. This is what got Cook out in the Pacific. It’s a great story and Lomb’s telling is the best you will find.


[1] I’ve picked up a few page design ideas.

1421: The Crank History of Gavin Menzies

Crank history is big business and it’s getting bigger. For reasons that infuriate skeptics there is a never-ending parade of pseudo-historians spouting rubbish that is eagerly devoured by a credulous pig ignorant public. Gavin Menzies’ ludicrous tome, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, (also titled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World), is the finest example of delusional sophistry I’ve encountered since Graham Hancock’s insane Finger Prints of the Gods.

About  the only thing you can say for Gavin’s fantasy is that, (unlike Hancock’s Finger Prints — the “science” behind the movie 2012), 1421 is remotely plausible. It’s to bad that remotely plausible does not make your case! Skeptics are hard-asses we demand rigorous and repeatedly verified evidence before deeming suppositions possibly not crap!  By this standard Gavin falls way short. I’m not going to catalog Gavin’s many errors, omissions and deceptions. That task has already been done by an army of critics. You can look here and here and here and here. In particular Bill Hartz’s exhaustive demolition is a bracing tonic for Gavin’s numbing elixir.

To get the gist of Gavin’s arguments let’s look at one of his claims. On page 241, (paperback edition), Gavin first mentions the Sacramento Junk. The Sacramento Junk is allegedly the remains of a large wooden ship entombed under a sand bank in the Sacramento river of California. Ok, so far so good! We have a wooden wreck in a river. The Chinese junks Gavin imagined sailing around the world had unique characteristics that would easily distinguish them from plain old Pacific west coast wrecks. For example:

  1. They had 15th century teak hulls.
  2. Metal bins bolted hull compartments together.
  3. They used silk sails.
  4. They often carried porcelain, seeds and trade goods.

If the Sacramento Junk is the remains of a 15th century junk it looks like identifying it would be an archaeological no-brainer! All we have to do is sample the site, collect some 15th century teak wood for carbon dating, and bingo the case for the Chinese reaching the west coast of the America’s before Columbus is looking promising.  Gavin describes drilling into the sand bank, extracting some wood and carbon dating it to 1410.  Isn’t science wonderful?

Here are a few questions.

  • Where the hell is the Sacramento Junk?

Your impressive end-notes mention collecting samples in 2002 and 2003. I believe GPS was up and running. Could we have exact coordinates please?

  • Was the wood teak?

If you’re looking for teak ships you might want to consult a wood expert. Teak, even old rotting teak, is easily identified. Look into it.

  • How many samples were carbon dated?
  • Where the hell are the lab reports, sample photographs  and other documents?
  • Did you notify the historic relic Nazi’s of your amazing Chinese wreck?

You almost need a permit to weed your own damn garden in California for fear of disturbing native artifacts yet somehow you pillaged an ultra-historic wreck without the save our culture weenies whining —  yeah I once lived in California. With so many simple facts omitted you wonder if the Sacramento Junk is a figment of Gavin’s lurid imagination.

Gavin repeats this pattern of building a case for the Chinese Stopped Here over and over again and, without exception, always omits basic information that would lend credence to his claims. You need to set your bullshit detector on maximum when sailing with Gavin!

Open Source Hilbert for the Kindle

David Hilbert

David Hilbert

While searching for free Kindle books I found Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg offers free Kindle books but they also have something better! Would you believe \LaTeX source code for some mathematical classics.

The best book I’ve found so far is an English translation of David Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry. Hilbert’s Foundations exposed some flaws in the ancient treatment of Euclidean geometry and recast the subject with modern axioms. Because it is relatively easy to follow, compared to Hilbert’s more recondite publications, this little book exercised disproportionate influence on 20th century mathematics. We still see its style aped, but rarely matched, in mathematics texts today.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of compiling a mathematical classic so I eagerly downloaded the source and ran it through \LaTeX.  Foundations compiled without problems and generated a nice letter-sized PDF. Letter-size is fine but I was looking for free Kindle books! I decided to invest a little energy modifying the source to produce a Kindle version. Project Gutenberg makes it clear that we are free to modify the source. Isn’t open source wonderful!

Converting Foundations was simple. The main \LaTeX file included 52 *.png illustrations with hard-coded widths in \includegraphics commands. I wrote a J script that converted all these fixed widths to relative \textwidth‘s. This lets \LaTeX automatically resize images for arbitrary page geometries. When compiled with Kindle page dimensions this fixed most of the illustrations. I had to tweak a few wragfig‘s to better typeset images surrounded by text. The result is a very readable Kindle oriented PDF version of Hilbert’s book. There are still a few problems. The Table of Contents is a plain tabular that does not wrap well and one table rolls off the right Kindle margin. Neither of these deficiencies seriously impair the readability of the text.  If these defects annoy you download the Project Gutenberg source with my modifications and build your own version.

This little experiment convinced me that providing free classic books, in source code form, is a service to mankind.  Not only does it allow you to “publish” classics on new media it also fundamentally changes your attitude toward books. Hilbert was one of the great mathematical geniuses of the 19th and 20th century. It’s hard to suppress we are not worthy moments and maintain a sharp critical eye when reading his “printed” works.  You don’t get the same vibe when reading raw \LaTeX.  Source code puts you in a, it’s just another bug infested program, frame of mind. You expect errors in code and you typically find them. This is exactly the hard-nosed attitude you need when reading mathematics.

The UN Space Treaty is Holding Us Back!

earthrise

Apollo Earthrise

2011 marks the 42’nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  42 idiot infested years have passed since that glorious day and nothing that has happened since comes within a nautical league of matching it.  My vile boomer generation has downplayed the significance of space exploration for decades.  I remember getting a shrill lecture from my left leaning fifth grade teacher about what a waste of money the space program was.  Being a self-assured child so I told my teacher he was preening unimaginative Neanderthal. This landed me in detention but I refused to apologize.

Manned space flight has been in a depressing, decades long, holding pattern. The real advances in space exploration have come exclusively from unmanned probes and robots.  While astronauts have been going round and round in that orbiting boondoggle known as the International Space Station the Voyagers are on the brink of interstellar space, probes are on their way to Pluto and Mercury, Cassini is orbiting Saturn, a small armada of orbiters and crawlers are exploring Mars, low-budget missions discovered water on the moon, space telescopes like Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer have shown us wonder after wonder and, capping it all off,  WMAP determined the age of the entire frigging universe.  Compare these awesome achievements to ISS astronauts unplugging zero-G toilets.

Why has so little been accomplished? I can think of two good reasons.

  1. Exclusive government control
  2. The UN Space Treaty

Until recently only governments could afford space programs.  In the early days of space exploration government control made sense but that era is coming to an end.  In a few decades private entities will be able to mount manned Mars expeditions and send robots anywhere in the solar system and beyond.  The technology is coming along nicely but I am afraid the politics will soon be a gigantic millstone around our necks. The millstone takes the form of the absurd UN Space Treaty.

800px-Outer_Space_Treaty

Green: UN Space Treaty nations

The UN space treaty is another sorry artifact of the 1960’s.   It reads like a bunch of unwashed socialist hippies got together and decided to ban capitalism in space. There is no other way to explain ridiculous terms like:

  1. The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.
  2. Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
  3. States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities.
  4. States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.
  5. States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Suppose some daring entrepreneur decides to mount an asteroid mining expedition.  This is not as crazy as it sounds.  Asteroids are relatively easy to get to and very easy to get off of. They also contain mountains of valuable rare earths, platinum and gold. Eros alone holds well over 20 trillion dollars of metals.  You could pay off the US national debt by mining one dinky asteroid! One day, not very long from now, robot asteroid mining will make a compelling business case. To bad the UN Space Treaty outlaws it.

If you have to pay off all of mankind (#1, #2) your compelling business case evaporates.  Environmentalists, (yeah space environmentalists),  would complain that mining damages and contaminates a celestial body (#4, #5). Finally, even if the operation was 100% privately funded, various governments could legally ransom our daring entrepreneur or shut him down (#3).  These tactics have already been tried.  Remember the hysteria that preceded the launch of Cassini.  A pack of morons decided that the Plutonium powered RTG on Cassini posed a grave threat to all mankind and started citing the UN Space Treaty in hopes of blocking the launch.  Cassini was not a money-making operation so we ignored the loons. Asteroid mining will be another thing all together.  Everyone will want their cut.  With the UN in charge we’re going to feel like the probed subjects in this Kids in Hall video.

Soon we will all be Software Archeologists

One of my pet peeves is the ridiculously short lifetimes of digital media.  I remember 9 track mainframe tapes and 5.5 inch floppies: technologies that thrived in an ancient bygone epoch known as the Eighties. Good luck trying to read 9 track tapes or 5.5 inch floppies today! You will have better luck with older paper punch cards. Punch card readers are hard to find these days but you can see the damn card holes with your own eyes! In fact you don’t even need eyes to read punch cards. I once knew a blind mainframe programmer that banged out massive FORTRAN programs by feeling the holes on punch cards. Try that with a USB flash drive.

Of course I appreciate that you can stuff the data from an entire filing cabinet of 5.5 inch floppies onto one modern USB flash drive but I am disturbed by the fact that all those gigabytes will soon be more unreadable than cuneiform. I am not the first to worry about our distressed digital data. Kevin Kelly considers the word “storage” a dangerous misnomer and advocates the use of “movage” instead. You had better move your data from old to new formats or you will lose it!

Rosetta Ball

Rosetta Ball

Movage is one of the reasons I have not jumped on the eReader bandwagon. Replacing myriagrams of books with one lightweight tablet is appealing but iPads and Kindles are not stable! High quality books have shelf lives measured in centuries.  With digital media you’re lucky to get through a decade.  It’s a good bet you won’t be able to read what’s on your eReaders in ten short years!  You poor dumb suckers will have to repurchase your library just like you repurchased your record and movie collections. It’s not in Amazon’s or Apple’s interest to worry too much about media durability. Fortunately some people do worry about media stability.  Check out The Long Now’s Rosetta project for what I consider a stable medium.

To belabor this point, while I was unpacking boxes of old-fashioned books, (we recently moved again),  I came across a notebook I put together for a poster I presented at the 1994 APL conference in Antwerp. My notebook contained a paper version, still eminently readable, and four 3.5 inch disks.  My oldest computer has a vestigial 3.5 inch disk drive so I tried copying these sixteen year old disks. Some of the disks were unreadable, (surprise surprise), but I was able to recover a directory containing my poster’s source. Some of these files were old Microsoft Word documents. Word 2007 could not read them! Even when bits survive changes in software can render them useless. Fortunately I loathed Word in 1994, a sentiment I still maintain, and wrote my poster in \LaTeX.

\LaTeX source is dull ASCII text. Civilization will collapse before we lose the ability to read it! Of course \LaTeX, like Word, has changed since 1994 so, just for the hell of it, I decided to compile this old document with MikTeK 2.9.  It didn’t compile;  I was missing some old graphics macros and a key style file. It didn’t take me long to fix these problems. I replaced the graphics macros with standard \includegraphics{} commands and converted all the Windows *.bmp files to *.png files. Google even found the long-lost missing style file qqaaelba.sty in arxmliv. After making these trivial changes pdflatex.exe gobbled my poster source and moved Using FoxPro and DDE to Store J Words into the 21st century.