Monday, 29 April 2013

LibreOffice Advancing, and the Virtues of Gratitude and Patience

I am too well-schooled in politeness to look gift horses in the mouth. Thank my parents for that. As a result, I am truly and humbly grateful for the gifts that the Free Software Movement has given me. For example, a couple of years back, my wife and I tried to set up a new high school. The computers we bought for the computer lab came with Windows XP, of doubtful legality, and no antivirus. I didn't want to pirate either the operating system or the antivirus program and I certainly couldn't afford to purchase them. A simple download of the Linux operating system (specifically, a version called Ubuntu) solved the problem. The students had no trouble adapting to a slightly different user interface and the OpenOffice suite provided a capable word processor and spreadsheet. That's not to say that it was a perfect solution at first, but the flaws that made two computers misbehave were fixed in the next Ubuntu update which arrived, as always, six months later.

I'm still using Ubuntu, but OpenOffice has gone through a complex split into different versions. The one that I'm using, the most quickly developing of them, is called LibreOffice. I've written books with it, so I know that it handles large files easily. I developed enough confidence in it to try to write a much more complex document: a master document that imports 59 separate chapters, includes a table of contents, four levels of headings, illustrations, in-text tables, 159 automatically numbered poems, numbered lists, a single sequence of footnotes for the whole book, and some word art.  Here is a screen shot of the project.

LibreOffice handled most of the tasks I set it like a champ, but three flaws became apparent.
  1. One flaw was annoying, but I could live with it: the level 3 headings in one particular chapter file displayed in the master document as level 2 headings. Why? I don't know.
  2. One flaw was infuriating: When I loaded the master document, separate numbered lists would often decide that they were a single numbered list. Instead of reading 1, 2, 3, and then following that with another 1, 2, 3, I would see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and have to fix this by hand. Over and over, every time I started editing.
  3. A last flaw was not really the fault of LibreOffice nor of Ubuntu but of how the two projects interact. LibreOffice usually presented its menu at the top of a window, in a very Microsofty way. Ubuntu switched to a Mac-style menu at the top of the screen. There was a way to make LibreOffice adopt the Ubuntu standard menubar, but there was a catch. If I loaded the master document and edited a few of its component files, the connection between the menu and the program would break. That is, I could select a menu item, but nothing would happen. I had to revert to the top-of-window menus to get anything done.
Some people at this point would say that these problems were visited on me because I had sinned against proprietary software. "You get what you pay for!" they would cry. "Pay nothing and you get nothing worthwhile in return."

This is where the mention of gift horses comes into play, not to mention patience.

On the 27th of this month, the new update for Ubuntu came out, version 13.04. (That means the April 2013 release; the next, in October, will be 13.10). With this new version came a new version of LibreOffice, version 4.0. People, whether they know it or not, have been working hard on my behalf. The problem with the heading levels is gone. The problem with the numbered lists is gone. (I couldn't believe it! Joy, joy, joy). The problem with the menubar may well be gone: LibreOffice now has code to set the menu on Ubuntu in the right place, and I haven't had any problem with its usability so far.

That's not to say that this version of LibreOffice is perfect, but only that those flaws have been fixed. There's still a cosmetic problem with the menus, in that the highlight that should follow my pointer down a menu is now missing. I've checked: that bug has been filed and placed on a high priority for fixing in the next release, a couple of months down the line. Until then, the program is still working fine.

I've been reluctant to write this posting in case it dissuades people from trying either Ubuntu or LibreOffice. It shouldn't. Both are projects in active development and are advancing in both stability and features. There is absolutely no penalty for trying either or both, and there is the possibility that one or both will suit your needs, so try them.

LibreOffice is available for use on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Versions for Android and iOS are in development.

Here's an amusing video where someone sat his mother down to try Ubuntu for the first time. Notice that she's running it from a USB memory stick.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

"Barbara Ann" by the 'Orrible 'Oo

It's a joy to listen to musicians playing music that is nothing like their usual stock in trade. It reminds us how good, say, Bachman-Turner Overdrive is to listen to their cool jazz instead of hard rock.

This was a hit for them. On the other hand...the documentary on the Who called The Kids are Alright has a hilarious attempt by the band to sing like the Beach Boys. Try listening through the whole song to see if you can resist grinning along with the band!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

I Write Like...Edgar Allan Poe!?

My friend Guy Duperrault, who apparently writes like Shakespeare, pointed me towards an odd site called "I Write Like." The point of it is that, if you paste in a sample of your writing, then mysterious cogitations take place and your writing is likened to that of some famous author.

This sounded like fun.

I pasted in the first chapter of my unpublished novel, The Worm in the Helix, to see what my fiction style of thirty years ago looked like. The result: "I write like Edgar Allan Poe."

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Next, I tried a chapter of my recent non-fiction work, The Complete Poetry Guide and Workbook. The result caused another loud guffaw. I write like H.P. Lovecraft!

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Fascinating, since I have never really liked the prose styles of either Poe or Lovecraft. Is there truly something dark, eerie, and sinister about my prose. Does it hint at Knowledge that Man Should Never Know? Nothing remained but to try it on a sample of poetry. Please, if there is a God in Heaven, let it remind this heartless automaton of Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins! I'll use my poem "Sisyphus" as grist for the mill.

Now, apparently, I write like Chuck Palahniuk, of whom I had not heard.

I write like
Chuck Palahniuk
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

So, what does it mean to write like Chuck Palahniuk, anyway? Well, it doesn't preclude literary success (thank heaven!) because he wrote the famous novel The Fight Club, of which I've heard. Wikipedia tells me that he is an author of transgressional fiction, of which I have not heard. The definition of that is
A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.
None of which interests me. On the other hand, there is some hope for me held out by this tidbit:
There is also some overlap with literary minimalism, as many transgressive writers use short sentences and simplistic style.
Finally, I find that I like some of Mr. Palaniuk's short quotations, such as this:
Masochism is a valuable job skill.
So maybe in style, though not subject, I can live with the damnable automaton's judgement of my writing. Still, how I can be at once "like" two exemplars of overwriting and one of minimalism is a mystery.


As a bit of extra value to this blog, here is the first chapter of The Worm in the Helix, which has never before been published anywhere. The genre, it quickly becomes clear, is science fiction. The style, as mentioned, is apparently that of Edgar Allan Poe.


I can see it!”
At his cousin Wernher’s shout, Ernst reflexively raised his eyes from his instruments. Sure enough, there was a red-edged dot in the sky in the right direction. It grew quickly, though the ship’s skin was exchanging speed for heat as quickly as it could. Ernst checked the instruments: everything was fine. Then he looked out the shuttle’s forward window again. He could now make out the bulky curves of the colony ship.
I see it, too,” he said.
No chatter,” said Ulrike from behind him. Ernst grinned, but followed his wife’s directions.
As Behemoth approached land for the first and last time, Ernst recalled the lines from Job that were engraved in the control room: “Siehe da, den Behemoth, den ich neben dir gemacht habe”—“Behold now behemoth, which I have made with thee.” It came closer still, and the roaring filled the shuttle. “Seine Knochen sind wie eherne Röhren; seine Gebeine sind wie eiserne Stäbe”—“His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.”
The ship’s belly glowed red from the effort of slowing its long fall into the atmosphere. It boomed low over the wasteland of salt-encrusted rock. It came closer, closer...touched.
Ernst missed what happened next. The massive wheels extended, touched the rock, then the rock itself seemed to buckle. The wheels on the closest side tore off. The belly lowered. Then the ship disappeared in a pillar of fire, followed by a cyclone of dust and broken rock.
Ernst caught glimpses of the flame at the centre of the opaque wind. It was now a pyre for his friends, brother officers, commander, and the farmers. Their dream of a simpler, Bible-centred life on a new promised land burned with them.
The radio was silent for a time he could not measure. Ulrike said nothing. Finally, a soft voice seemed to speak in his mind: “Then answered the LORD unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Gird up thy loins now like a man....” Ernst coughed softly then tried out his voice. “We have work to do.”

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Shock! Local credit union praised by the BBC!

I shook my head in puzzlement and re-read the news article on the BBC News website. My first reading was correct though: A BBC News article was holding up the North Shore Credit Union, a small, local cooperative financing organization in North Vancouver, one that I happen to know quite well, as an example for the mighty British banks to follow. The photograph shows the pleasant interior of a branch and the text reads:
After being met by a concierge as you step through the door, you can help yourself to a cappuccino and a hot towel, and dispatch the children to the Kids' Zone while you relax by the granite rock garden fountain.
Welcome not to a high-end hotel, but to the Financial Spa. It is, in fact, a branch of the North Shore Credit Union in Vancouver, Canada.
There are displays of local artists' work and among the aromatherapy candles, you can discuss loans and insurance in what the credit union describes as a "cosy, semi-private lounge" with soft music playing in the background.
It is all a far cry from the stereotype of a branch of a UK bank, with its long queues, poorly staffed counters and freezing cold drafts from the overused entrance.
Is this boutique, sofa-clad destination modelled in Vancouver the bank branch of the future?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Herbert's DUNE, Heinlein's GULF, Schmidt's DEMON BREED

Frank Herbert's novel Dune is a masterpiece, I'm told. At least, it is a Hugo Award winner, a Nebula Award winner, and one of the required texts in a university course I once took on Science Fiction. However, it is horribly overwritten. If it had been properly edited (say I), the book would be about one third of its current length and much better for it. To see what I mean, look at this passage from near the start of the book.
Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness . . . focusing the consciousness . . . aortal dilation . . . avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness . . . to be conscious by choice . . . blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions . . . one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone . . . animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct . . . the animal destroys and does not produce . . . animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe . . . focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid . . . bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs . . . all things/cells/beings are impermanent . . . strive for flow-permanence within . . .

Over and over and over within Paul's floating awareness the lesson rolled.
The key to this passage is the phrase is "over and over and over...," but clarity is not enhanced by repetition. How can one "fall into the floating awareness," which is referred to later as "Paul's floating awareness," while simultaneously "focusing the consciousness"? Evidently by "avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness." Clarity is further evaded by insensitive diction. Herbert writes, "the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe," which puts the grid into its place as "background," but it somehow gets in front of us so that we can see through it. Aargh!

Even people who like the book notice its compulsive repetition:  the phrase "over and over and over" is echoed by "plans within plans within plans," "a feint within a feint within a feint," "tricks within tricks within tricks," "treachery within treachery within treachery," "wheels within wheels within wheels," "blue within blue within blue," and even "the spirit of spirits..." Aargh!

Dune is, simply, verbally obese. Other writers show superhuman capacities in their characters without Herbert's maundering.

Let's take Robert Heinlein's novella Gulf, published in the November and December issues of Astounding Science Fiction.

Two people are imprisoned. They need to communicate privately, but they are being watched and listened to. One of them, however, has a deck of cards so, on the spot, he invents a game that is also a method of communication.
" is a game I learned as a kid." He paused and stared into Gilead's eyes. "It's instructive as well as entertaining, yet it's simple, once you catch on to it." He started dealing out the cards. "It makes a better game with two decks, because the black cards don't mean anything- Just the twenty-six red cards in each deck count-with the heart suit coming first. Each card scores according to its position in that sequence, the ace of hearts is one and the king of hearts counts thirteen; the ace of diamonds is next at fourteen and so on. Savvy?"
"And the blacks don't count. They're blanks . . . spaces. Ready to play?"
"What are the rules?"
"We'll deal out one hand for free; you'll learn faster as you see it. Then, when you've caught on, I'll play you for a half interest in the atomics trust-or ten bits in cash." He resumed dealing, laying the cards out rapidly in columns, five to a row. He paused, finished. "It's my deal, so it's your count. See what you get."
It was evident that Baldwin's stacking had brought the red cards into groups, yet there was no evident advantage to it, nor was the count especially high- nor low. Gilead stared at it, trying to figure out the man's game. The cheating, as cheating seemed too bold to be probable.
Suddenly the cards jumped at him, arranged them- selves in a meaningful array. He read:
I understand the level of intelligence referenced by this passage. I realize it is far, far, above mine and am suitably impressed.

Or, if it is not sheer intelligence, but intelligence combined with extraordinary ability to control one's autonomic nervous system that is the key to Paul Atreides' superhuman status, then look at how this is indicated in the beginning of James Schmitz's novel The Demon Breed. 
As the pain haze began to thin out, Ticos Cay was somewhat surprised to find he was still on his feet. This had been a brutally heavy treatment—at moments it had seemed almost impossible to control. However, he had controlled it. The white-hot sensations, which hadn’t
quite broken through with full impact into consciousness, faded to something like a sullenly lingering glow. Then that faded too. His vision began to clear.
Cautiously he allowed himself to accept complete awareness of his body again. It was still an unpleasant experience. There were sharp twinges everywhere, a feeling of having been recently pierced and sliced by tiny hot knives; the residue of pain. The lasting damage caused by one of these pain treatments to the human nervous system and sensory apparatus was slight but measurable. The accumulative effect of a series of treatments was no longer slight; and there had been over twenty of them during the past weeks. Each time now, taking stock of the physical loss he had suffered during the process, Ticos wondered whether he would be forced to acknowledge that the damage had spread to the point where it could no longer be repaired.
However, it hadn’t happened on this occasion. His mind was fogged over; but it always was for a short while after a treatment. Reassured, he shifted attention from his internal condition to his surroundings.
The book itself is about a young woman, Dr. Niles Etland, who must impersonate a superhuman in order to prevent an alien invasion. She impersonates it so well that the reader is left wondering if she is, contrary to her own estimation, superhuman.

To return to my point, Dune is widely regarded as well-written, but I've always found its prose puffy, imprecise, and even conducive to headaches. As the theme song to Monk says, "I could be wrong now, but I don't think so."

I suppose I'll just have to wait for the world to sway towards my opinions. It's bound to happen, someday. :-)

A Little About James Schmitz and Literary Cross-dressing

For those who don't know James Schmitz, the author of The Demon Breed, he was a writer who has given me much pleasure over the years. He was ahead of the pack in making ecology a central concept in his stories, even back in the sixties. His human characters often had mutually respectful alliances with sentient non-humans, such as the otters in The Demon Breed and telepathic big cats in The Universe Against Her. He also, consistently, wrote stories with strong female protagonists.

He makes an interesting contrast with "Andre Norton" (Alice Mary Norton) who had a similar concern with ecology, who often had human and animal alliances, and who preferred to write stories with strong male protagonists.

These two belong to the category of science fiction writers who prefer to write stories about somebody of the opposite sex. That category would make an interesting blog posting if I could think of any other writers who belong to it.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

"And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire"

The Late 2000's Financial Crisis (which started about 2007 and is ongoing) accomplished one highly unlikely end, among others: it got me reading business and economic news reports. I wanted to learn, first, how we got into this mess; second, how bad was it going to get; and, third, once I had a good sense of answers to the first two matters, when are the bankers going to go to jail. At least, when would they be kicked out. Or resign. Preferably with an admission of guilt and an appropriate apology.

It has happened here and there. Iceland put the self-important scoundrels in jail, nationalized the banks, and repudiated unreasonable debt and debt payable in foreign currency. It recovered well. Britain's response has been less clear-cut. Bob Diamond, the head of Barclay's Bank, who saw no need to apologize or resign, was forced out. The Royal Bank of Scotland has been effectively nationalized, so a continuing stream of embarrassing stories has not been covered up by the board and management. There has been a parliamentary inquiry and a promise of new rules. On the other hand, Britain's going to court now, defending its right to remain unaffected by the Eurozone's new Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). This is despite two-thirds of British citizens supporting some form of FTT. The United States, though, has the honour of being the most deeply corrupted nation in terms of banker influence on policy. The banks at the heart of the Financial Crisis kept their management and received a trillion dollar loan. The bill to keep the same flawed activities from creating a new financial crisis (The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) was fiercely resisted, especially the Volcker Rule section, which was blown hither and yon before it was passed.

All this is prequel to the story I want to link to now. According to the Financial Post, the same risky behaviour that created the last financial crisis has re-emerged. The key quotation is, "The Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul is forcing banks to take extra steps in the process of bundling loans, but it does not change the basic approach."

The quotation that provides the title for this post is from Kipling's poem "The Gods of the Copybook Headings."
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;


Update: An article on Rolling Stone, "Everything is Rigged: The Biggest Price-Fixing Scam Ever" by Matt Taibbi, explains that the price-fixing scandal over Libor in Britain is matched by a similar one in the US called USDAfix, which includes some of the same criminal players plus a few different ones. The problem extends beyond interest rates:
"In all the over-the-counter markets, you don't really have pricing except by a bunch of guys getting together," Masters notes glumly.
That includes the markets for gold (where prices are set by five banks in a Libor-ish teleconferencing process that, ironically, was created in part by N M Rothschild & Sons) and silver (whose price is set by just three banks), as well as benchmark rates in numerous other commodities – jet fuel, diesel, electric power, coal, you name it. The problem in each of these markets is the same: We all have to rely upon the honesty of companies like Barclays (already caught and fined $453 million for rigging Libor) or JPMorgan Chase (paid a $228 million settlement for rigging municipal-bond auctions) or UBS (fined a collective $1.66 billion for both muni-bond rigging and Libor manipulation) to faithfully report the real prices of things like interest rates, swaps, currencies and commodities.
All of these benchmarks based on voluntary reporting are now being looked at by regulators around the world, and God knows what they'll find. The European Federation of Financial Services Users wrote in an official EU survey last summer that all of these systems are ripe targets for manipulation. "In general," it wrote, "those markets which are based on non-attested, voluntary submission of data from agents whose benefits depend on such benchmarks are especially vulnerable of market abuse and distortion."

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Coincidence or Conspiracy? Ship Classifications.

Some facts are so odd that they simply cannot be coincidence. Except that they have no rational reason for being implemented by plan. A prime example is ship classifications. I set out to list them in order of size, from largest to smallest.
  1. Aircraft carrier
  2. Battleship
  3. Cruiser
  4. Destroyer
  5. (Destroyer) Escort
  6. Frigate
There you go, listed by size. Surely the fact that they are also in alphabetical order is a coincidence! Surely it can't be!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

What Would Korean War II Be Like?

Fire in the Hole

The latest news is that South Korea expects that North Korea will test a ballistic missile on April 15, the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the country's first and "eternal" president. This is not the first: it is part of a long-term program of rocket development. Two of the launches were identified as satellite launches, but the rockets could as easily be used as ballistic missiles. Their accuracy is not high enough to reliably destroy military or civilian targets with conventional explosives in the warhead. They would be more dangerous if and when North Korea miniaturizes its atomic weapons enough to mount on the missiles. Alternatively, they could be used with other non-conventional weapons: specifically, chemical or biological weapons. Both are as illegal as heck in most civilized states, but few doubt that North Korea would scruple to use them. In fact,
Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003 and is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) or a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The DPRK is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is believed to possess a large chemical weapons program. North Korea is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), but is suspected of maintaining an offensive biological weapons program in defiance of that treaty.
A moment to clarify terms for the weapons we are talking about. The press and politicians are fond of tossing around the acronym WMD, meaning "Weapons of Mass Destruction," for atomic, biological, and chemical weapons. I had previously known of these by the more logical acronym ABC. A little research told me that the proper term now is CBRNe.
In English the term CBRN is a replacement for the cold war term NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical), which had replaced the term ABC (atomic, biological, and chemical) that was used in the fifties. The addition of the R (for radiological) is a consequence of the "new" threat of a radiological weapon (also known as "dirty bombs"). In the new millennium, the term CBRNe was introduced as an extension of CBRN - the e in this term representing the enhanced (improvised) explosives threat.
Who knew that my acronyms were a full half-century out of date?

A missile test now represents a greater danger of escalation towards war than any previous missile test. South Korea was stung by two North Korean provocations in 2010--the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island--and declared that any further provocation would be met with force instead of forbearance. South Korean destroyers will monitor and American ones could shoot down a North Korean missile that threatens to hit South Korea. The United States has placed another anti-missile defence to protect its base in Guam. In addition, Japan has deployed anti-missile systems to use on any missile that overflies its territory. However, we do not know what North Korea's response would be if one of its missiles were shot down. It would, undoubtedly, feel that it had to respond, and that response could provoke an additional response from its neighbours. The result could conceivably be a spiral towards war, as the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has warned.

The question this posting tries to answer is "What would that war be like?"

If War Occurs

The main weapons that North Korea possesses are conventional, and often either old or old-fashioned. It has a 1.1 million man army, 3000 tanks, a large artillery force, substantial special forces within the army, and a large number of hardened, dug-in military sites that would not be trivial to destroy. With these weapons, the North Koreans could, if they felt they must, shell the South Korean capital of Seoul, launch a full assault on South Korea, and create widespread terror and chaos behind the South Korean and American defensive line.

Shelling Seoul

In 1994 and again in 2013, North Korean spokesmen threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Its potential to do so is often accepted as fact. North Korea has, in fact, 10,000, 11,000, or 12,000 artillery pieces within range of Seoul. (The number differs according to the source). The counter battery effort--identifying the location of the North Korean artillery and destroying it with missiles, bombs, drones, and self-propelled howitzer rounds would quickly reduce its effectiveness. According to a Chinese article, the American government has announced that it would use the B61 "bunker buster" bomb (a tactical nuclear weapon) if necessary. Despite all this, the first hours would be brutal, and several thousand people in Seoul would die.

The Main Assault

The American and Korean Operational Plan for an invasion is called OPLAN 5027. It is regularly updated. For example, before 1973, OPLAN involved a retreat to a line behind the Han River, which would be held until reinforcements allowed a counterattack. That implies giving up half of Seoul to North Korean occupation.

More recently, due to a reassessment of the strength of the North and South Korean militaries, the plan is to hold a line north of Seoul while striking North Korea itself with the far superior American and South Korean naval and air forces. Again, the eventual counterattack could take Pyongyang and, potentially, all of North Korea. The ability to do this depends on several factors.
First, the ROK forces must be able to withstand DPRK forces over the first 5-15 days. Second, they must hold the line while US and ROK forces are mustered for the counteroffensive for another 15-20 days. Such a campaign also entails CFC air forces controlling the air and neutralizing DPRK attacks against southern airbases, as well as successful aerial interdiction of DPRK ground force movements.
The geography of Korea requires that a second Korean War have similar elements and objectives as the first one. It could also have the same result. In the first, North Korea was defeated but the Chinese took over the war when the UN forces reached the Chinese border (the Yalu River). Keeping the Chinese from entering the war would be a primary objective of diplomacy this time.

Although few people outside of North Korea give the North Korean blitzkrieg much chance of success, it is fascinating to read a North Korean opinion on the matter.

Special Forces

The North Koreans have 180,000 special forces soldiers. To put this in perspective, the American Special Operations Command has 63,000. Even if this number were only half of the total of the American special forces, it would still be far short of North Korea's. Knowing the weaknesses of its army in a direct assault, it has developed the largest special forces in the world. Their job would include attacks on people, infrastructure, and special buildings to create terror and disruption. The number who could get behind the main battle lines is substantial: "Estimates reveal that the North Koreans can deliver over 7,000 SOF personnel to each of South Korea's coastlines." This is in addition to whatever number may be delivered by air or infiltrate the South Korean and American lines. We can assume that the special forces would kill many people directly or indirectly, as by the destruction of dams.

Aftermath of War

 If North Korea managed to delay a total military defeat, it might try to negotiate terms of peace. China would certainly support this. The United States and, especially, South Korea, might not. There is no way to predict the results.

Complicating things would be North Korea's small nuclear deterrent. If it survived the war (because taking it out early on would be an American priority), it could still be used as a threat. How credible the threat would be is another matter, since the North Koreans do not, yet, have a credible way to drop an atomic weapon on their enemies. Could they try a suicide option--for example, threatening to blow up the population of their own capital if enemy troops enter it? If the North Korean regime did this, could it survive against its own army and people? There is no way to predict the results.

However, there is a set of South Korean and American options, called OPLAN 5029, to guide the response to a collapse of the North Korean regime. The Chinese may have their own plans in place against that eventuality. If those plans conflict, there is no way to predict the results.

You can follow the developments in the 2013 Korean Crisis on a handy Wikipedia page.

Update 15 April 2013. The US Army War College recently wargamed approaches to "securing"  North Korean atomic assets. The takeaway:
In the end it takes the U.S. a force of 90,000 troops and 56 days to secure "North Brownland's" nuclear weapons.
"We are not very well prepared to deal with a collapsed North Korea," said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
On the good side, I like the cut of their jib when it comes to moving civilians out of the cities that they intend to enter.
U.S .troops, he said, had immediate problems surging into the North Korea-like country. V-22 Ospreys zoomed U.S. soldiers deep beyond the border, but with reinforcements so far behind they were quickly surrounded by the enemy and needed to be pulled out. American troops eventually made it over the border, but with nuclear sites located in populated areas, their mission became more difficult. U.S. forces made humanitarian aid drops to draw people out of the cities.
 It was also interesting to read the characterization of the land in these war games as "a family regime that had nuclear weapons." Now where did I read the phrase "family atomics" before?

Monday, 8 April 2013

Flatland and Planiversal Machines

It is amazing how certain things make an lasting, even an indelible, impression. For example, when Edwin Abbott Abbot (sic) wrote Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions in 1884, he could not have imagined that his satire taking place in a two-dimensional universe would inspire a feature film in 2007. I couldn't, but here it is, all the same.

Just as unlikely, but equally true, there is another film called Flatland, also inspired by the same book, and released in the same year. Here's the trailer.

You can read the original book at Project Gutenberg here and a lovely digitized copy of the original publication on the Internet Archive here.

I caught the bug at third hand. In the July 1980 edition of Scientific American, Martin Gardner published an article that included the most wondrous two-dimensional machines: lock and key combinations, steam engines, and more. One could look at the diagram and comprehend the entire operation of the machine. Since the wonderful internet has provided me with so many seemingly lost treasures, I went searching for that article and found it. It is called "The Wonders of a Planiverse."

The article was, in fact, the review of a 98-page monograph called  Two-Dimensional Science and Technology. published in 1979 by A.K. Dewdney, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Western Ontario. His home page is here. Gardner's review exercised the same fascination on many others as it had on me: over two-thousand letters and comments reached Dewdney. As a result, he edited A Symposium on Two-Dimensional Science and Technology, which came out in 1981; The Second Symposium on Two-dimensional Science and Technology, in 1986; and a novel, The Planiverse, in 1986.

Let us have a look at a couple of the machines that captured my attention. They are comprised of just a few building blocks that would work as well in a two-dimensional space as a three-dimensional one.

To make a faucet, combine them like this.

To make a steam engine, combine them like this.

As Dewdney writes, and Gardner quotes,
It is amusing to think that the rather exotic design pressures created by the planiversal environment could cause us to think about mechanisms in such a different way that entirely novel solutions to old problems arise. The resulting designs, if steriversally practical, are invariably space-saving.
This is true, but they might not be as easily manufactured. An addendum to Gardner's article gives a letter from John S. Harris, of Brigham Young University's English Department, who points out that one famous engineer did design two-dimensionally.
As I examined Alexander Keewatin Dewdney's planiversal devices in Martin Gardner's article o n science and technology in a two-dimensional universe, I was struck with the similarity of the mechanisms to the lockwork of the Mauser military pistol of 1895. This remarkable automatic pistol (which had many later variants) had no pivot pins or screws in its functional parts. Its entire operation was through sliding cam surfaces and two-dimensional sockets (called hinges by Dewdney). Indeed, the lockwork of a great many firearms, particularly those of the 19th century, follows essentially planiversal principles. For examples see the cutaway drawings in Book of Pistols and Revolvers by W. H . B. Smith. 
Gardner suggests an exhibit of machines cut from cardboard, and that is exactly how the firearms genius John Browning worked. He would sketch the parts of a gun on paper or cardboard, cut out the individual parts with scissors (he often carried a small pair in his vest pocket), and then would say to his brother Ed, "Make me a part like this." Ed would ask, "How thick, John?" John would show a dimension with his thumb and forefinger, and Ed would measure the distance with calipers and make the part. The result is that virtually every part of the 100 or so Browning designs is essentially a two-dimensional shape with an added thickness. 
This planiversality of Browning designs is the reason for the obsolescence of most of them. Dewdney says in his enthusiasm for the planiverse that "such devices are invariably space-saving." They are also expensive to manufacture. The Browning designs had to be manufactured by profiling machines: cam-following vertical milling machines. In cost of manufacture such designs cannot compete with designs that can be produced by automatic screw-cutting lathes, by broaching machines, by stamping, or by investment casting. Thus although the Browning designs have a marvelous aesthetic appeal, and although they function with delightful smoothness, they have nearly all gone out of production. They simply got too expensive to make.
Three-D printers may help to change that.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Propaganda Picture

The CBC web site recently published a set of recent North Korean propaganda photographs. They show Kim Jong-Un surrounded by attentive people and, usually, pointing at something. When one sees them all together, of course, it is remarkable how much pointing-at-things he seems to do.

Anyway, one of the pictures made me laugh.

Here is Kim Jong-Un at a military base a guitar. A guitar. A serious-looking senior military officer takes notes. (Excuse the pun).