December 2007

George C. Marshall, Dec. 31, 1880-Oct. 16, 1959.

“I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.”
—FDR, explaining why Marshall would not command Operation Overlord.

“The Organizer of Victory.”
—Sir Winston Churchill.

“Congress will never accept anything less than the ‘Marshall Plan.'”
—Harry Truman

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New Year’s Eve, 2007, is the 127th anniversary of George C. Marshall‘s birth. There’s nothing special about a 127th anniversary, of course, but we here at 12AMB—history buffs that we are—occasionally salute people who have been forgotten, or at least not remembered as thoroughly as they should. Having read several books recently in which Marshall was a main player, I came to the feeling that Marshall was, in all likelihood, the greatest American never to be president and thus deserved what little bit of remembering I could provide. While people of my grandparents’ generation (aka the “greatest” generation) would know his name, they probably would remember more colorful, if less consequential, figures of the day. Unfortunately, Marshall’s lack of pretension and avoidance of vainglory have led us to forget him, which is, in my view, a deep shame. FDR predicted this, but Marshall was motivated primarily by results, not self-promotion, unlike far too many people in the high position then and now, and he made choices that were in the best interests of the country, not his personal or partisan ambitions.

Marshall only had a brief battlefield command in World War I, and cut his teeth as one of the officers running the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, before proving to be one of the greatest staff officers of all time, “the organizer of victory” in Winston Churchill’s words. After the war, rather than retire to his beloved compost pile (Marshall was an avid gardener), he was sent to China to try to mediate between the Nationalists and Communists (unsuccessfully), and a bit later became the organizer of victory again when he was Secretary of State between 1947 and 1949. Finally, before retiring, he helped pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire of the Korean War as Secretary of Defense. The plan that carries his name came when he was Secretary of State. The economic prosperity it brought, probably more than anything, prevented a rerun of a general European war, something which nobody in their right mind could have wanted. So sure that the aid was desperately needed and so sure of Marshall’s reputation, President Truman had the plan named after Marshall, not himself.

The Marshall Plan is important but I think the ultimate proof of George Marshall lay in his work as Chief of Staff of the Army from 1939 to 1945. We don’t really understand just how amazingly difficult the Allied victory of World War II was. Hindsight bias leads us to think that what happened was “inevitable” or “easy.” But Allied victory—something that truly staved off a new Dark Age—was far from inevitable. First, it was a coalition war, and coalitions are inherently weak. Marshall was able to ride herd over a fractious bunch and keep things focused on the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, in that order. Second, it is a long, long way from the US to Europe and the Pacific, and Marshall’s guidance was essential in making sure the right stuff got to the right places at the right times, in quantity.

He wasn’t always perfect in his decisions, of course. Most critically, if it had been left to him, Overlord would have failed for going too early and running into the sausage grinder that was the Wehrmacht of 1942 or 1943. FDR was correct to overrule him on this. After the war he opposed the recognition of Israel, saying privately to Harry Truman “If you [recognize the state of Israel] and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.” But, to paraphrase the ancient Greeks, “Perfection is for the works of God, not man.”

By the early 1950s, he was worn out and he finally did retire to his compost pile. He did pause collect the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, but not before getting slagged by Senator (from Soviet Wisconsin) Joe McCarthy’s “hates America” barrages during the 1952 Presidential campaign. In what is unarguably not one of his finest moments, Eisenhower failed to defend his old boss while on the campaign trail. Marshall died in 1959. Bill Mauldin’s famous Pulitzer-prize winning cartoon eulogy probably said it best:


Alas, due to the poor resolution of the image, you probably can’t read it but the name on the helmet is, of course, “Marshall.” Usually loquacious Willie and Joe always had something to say before, but not this time.

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ObFascism Tag: Duh.

As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, I have a hard time taking Iowa seriously. Naturally we had lots of Iowa jokes, many of which do not bear repeating but the most memorable involved finding backronyms for Iowa: Idiots Out Wandering Around, I Owe the World an Apology, etc. Of course, this is the narcissism of small differences talking. You would be hard-pressed to tell the area of Iowa closest to my hometown apart. But at least we could comfort ourselves with the fact that we had a once-great football team, a never-great baseball team, cheese curds and beef sticks (on the interstate, not really elsewhere), and, most importantly, cheap, shitty industrial beer, made in Milwaukee! All Iowa had was corn, corn, and more corn and the Iowa Tests.

But once every four years, it forces itself into the national consciousness in a long standing tradition (since 1972, even).

It’s mouseness roars on Jan. 3, 2008.

Soon, someone’s going to take home the Iowa Caucuses Brass Ring (well, one for each party). Sure, the brass ring came out of a bull’s nose several decades back, when they still had bulls on farms rather than the much safer but less… satisfying and profoundly unnatural modern option. And its predictive ability of who wins the nomination is not all that great, but it does have a certain theatrical je ne sais quoi? Remember, Pat Robertson shot to the national consciousness due to his showing in the Iowa Caucuses in 1988 and Howard Dean famously melted down in the Iowa Caucuses of 2004. Some questions:

  • Is Huckabee going to win? How can he miss with Chuck Norris’ endorsement?
  • Obama set to upset HRC?
  • Who’s going to get the hook exit stage right by Iowa?
  • Any juicy meltdowns?

Time to make your predictions. (Note: Iowa does have the honor of bringing us a good source of information which you may find useful.)

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ObFascism Tag: Iowa is 96% white. If that’s not fascist, I don’t know what is…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Since I’m not so good at appoximating Hallmark-worthy sentiments, I’m going to keep this one short and to the point:

Whatever your holiday is, have a good one!

MPA for 12AMB

N1   Angryman Challenge Problem

On the 8th of August 1900, David Hilbert presented a set of 10 problems at a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris. While anyone can throw out ten unsolved problems, Hilbert’s problems influenced much of 20th century mathematics, leading to entire new fields of mathematics — group theory and Godel’s theorem to name two. The interesting aspect is that one man (Hilbert) was so in tune with mathematics that his problem set drove much of the mathematical work of the century. [There were 23 problems but only ten were presented at Sorbonne.]

Later in 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute, initiated the Millennium Prize, which unlike Hilbert’s problems came with a $1MM prize for the solution. Interestingly, the Millennium Prize problems still contain the Riemann Hypothesis, one of Hilbert’s original questions.

As a member of the Angry Man technorati, I am continually impressed by the readership of our humble blog, as well as the stream of email from my fellow Angry Men; and while I would not characterize myself as being in the same class as David Hilbert, I have been involved with technology for much of my life. As such I feel inclined to throw out a few problems of my own. So all you slashdottirs and sons, I present the AMB Challenge: initial problem.

Search engines incorporate various algorithms to index and identify web content. Much of this indexing is handled through ‘robots’ and ‘crawlers’ which follow links. Google, Ask Jeeves, and Dogpile are really pretty good once you train yourself to ask the right questions (and ignore the first three sponsored answers). But do you ever feel something is missing?

The first challenge problem is to design a system which can be integrated into search engines to identify and return links to images. A browser plug-in would allow the user to upload for immediate analysis an image or frame of a movie to be used as a search key. The search engine would return content which contained that specific image whether in a static image file (.TIFF, .JPG, .PNG, .GIF, etc.), or incorporated into a movie (.MPG, .MOV, etc.). This would presumably be accomplished by indexing the web for images. As crawlers identify known image formats, an analysis would be performed and a compact representation of the image content would be stored with the link. The submitted image would similarly be reduced to a representation and used as the search key, returning the links, and perhaps thumbnails, associated with the close matches. Users could specify match thresholds in preferences.

Consider a few applications. One might want to load an image of your girlfriend and return all links to any on-line content with her visage, such as MySpace, FaceBook, group photos posted by organizations, etc. Or as a fellow Angryman quipped “It would revolutionize the porn industry. You could search for your particular preference: a blond and two frogs.”

More seriously, trademark and service mark protections are dependent for their validity upon aggressive defense by the owner. McDonalds Corporation hires law firms to search the Internet to identify misuse of the “golden arches” — much like the misuse parodied by McDowell in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” where McDowell’s restaurant is adorned with a set of somewhat similar arches.

Consider all of that imagery collected in the streets of London. If the process could be used on line to index web content, it could certainly be used to index stored video content. The national security implications are staggering.

Companies already invested in video web content (YouTube?) would have a vested interest in developing this technology. Competing companies (in Redmond, say), would have a powerful incentive to come up with a technology that would prevent certain search companies from attaining a 100% share of the search engine (and ad revenue) market.

I mention these few applications in passing only in that whoever develops this technology (solves the challenge problem) will probably not have to worry about rising gasoline prices. While we at 12 Angry Men would not be able to match the Millennium Prize amount, it would not be unreasonable (hint, hint) for Microsoft or Google to cough up, say, $10MM for the winner. The NSA and intellectual property lawyers are said to have money also. We will throw in a free beer at the Man Lunch providing the winner is local.

The current state of the art seems to be based on tags which are assigned to images by the provider or poster. That the automated search of images is yet an immature field is evidenced by Google’s attempt to entice users into participating in tagging. Polar Rose is another attempt at making a user friendly browser image tagger. To be truly useful, the image must be analyzed on basis of content, not associated metadata. As a start to the problem, the following thoughts are forwarded:

  • The compact representation of the image must be generated in small polynomial time
  • Compact is very small compared to size of original image
  • Representational form may be equivalent to solving eigenvalue problems of high dimension
  • Formats need to be expanded to a common form for analysis
  • Search comparison will likely be multidimensional

I looked at this from the point of view that many images were self-similar and subject to a fractal compression technique similar to Michael Barnsley’s Iterated Function Systems (IFS). In a particular iteration experiment, we were able to create a particularly accurate coastline of Australia using five line segments and a set of iteration coefficients — extremely compact compared to the point set describing the continent. Unfortunately, the rendering could be done in linear time but the cost of deriving the coefficients, the heart of the problem under consideration here, was high. Wavelet approximation also has some potential. Added to this is an observation that it might be more efficient to classify images first before trying to generate a compact representation. Kris Woodbeck is reported to have a process similar to the way humans process images but a quick read suggests it’s more in the line of a classifier rather than reducing the image representation to a searchable context.

Any process is used both at the server side when requested by the browser at submission of the search key image, and in the crawler image indexing process. So far the human eye-brain is the only process that comes close to doing this.

Good luck.

The current restaurant trend is tapas. For those of you who don’t dine out much at “nice” places, American-style tapas involves a bunch of small dishes of mostly quasi-Mediterranean “fusion” food ordered a la carte, which are sampled by everyone at the table “family style.”


I don’t pay good money to have to pass a bunch of stupid little dishes filled with pretentious food I don’t understand around a table. Tapas can return to whatever culinary fad hole it crawled out of as far as I am concerned.

This rant is inspired by two recent events, my reading of this Dec. 5, New York Times article and my going to a Japanese “japas” restaurant with some relatives on roughly the same day. (I name no names to protect the innocent and guilty both.) I’d been to the restaurant a few years ago and liked it quite a bit, but the menu had changed from being more traditional Japanese restaurant, which always had a fair bit of a la carte on the sushi menu, of course, to “japas.” There were no entrees at all, just a long list of small dishes mostly priced between $3 and $8, with a few over that. No clue as to what they were, no clue as to what goes with what, how big anything is, and so on. The waiter was a useless ‘tard (both kinds). Now I’m not especially fond of Japanese food but can usually find something decent on the menu, for instance one of the Japanese adaptations to please the Western palate, shrimp tempura. There was a shrimp dish (“sweet shrimp”) which I ordered hoping that it was shrimp tempura… when the plate showed up with small shrimp in the shell with heads still on I realized the answer was a resounding no. Sure they were breaded and fried but definitely not shrimp tempura and definitely not satisfying either. I ended up ordering something else which was OK… but of course added to the bill, which added to my dissatisfaction. More on that below.

Basically, the whole phenomenon is just an upscale reinvention of an old American classic: the buffet. The big difference is that at a buffet, all your choices (as incoherent they may be) are laid out in front of you and are usually pretty simple stuff like mac ‘n’ cheese, steamed vegetables, overcooked roast beef, etc. With tapas, you’re sitting down at your table facing a menu with a blizzard of dishes. Some are straightforward, such as mixed olives or bread and olive oil, but most suffer with vague, pretentious fusion cuisine titles like:

  • “Roasted beets with goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Hazelnut-crusted wilted arugula with maple goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Rabbit with wilted arugula, goat cheese and nuts”
  • “Watermelon goat cheese salad with citrus vinagrette”
  • “Wild bighorn sheep sausage with blueberry mustard goat cheese vinaigrette.”

Goat cheese and vinagrette for EVERYONE! The standard tapas menu is the culinary equivalent of “feature vomit.” Given the questionable edibility of most fusion cuisine, it’s none too far from being the actual, honest-to-goodness kind, too, especially after one’s third Grey Goose appletini in two hours, coupled with those cigarettes “smoked only on weekends.” Unsurprisingly, the Spanish—inventors of tapas—practice it more sensibly. Basically, it’s bar food, something Americans aren’t exactly ignorant of. That’s right, tapas is just the Spanish version of buffalo wings, peanuts, fries, etc., except it’s olives, bread with toppings, etc., which restaurateurs in the US have convinced the public should cost a bundle. And who ever thought bar food was a good deal? ๐Ÿ˜‰

Diners are, as the New York Times article linked above, supposed to like this because of Americans’ desire for more choice, whether we need it or not. As far as I’m concerned, tapas is just another way to fleece me out of my hard-earned money while making me agonize over picking a meal, but I’m one of those seemingly relatively rare people who hates shopping, and tapas brings all the joy of accessorizing to the dinner table. Behavioral economics tells us that, from the standpoint of the retailer, tapas makes sense: Many small transactions are more easily overlooked than larger ones and it’s easier to get diners to spend more thereby. Of course my discontent is also understandable—too many choices and too many transactions can be disconcerting. If you want a nice short introduction, look at Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz‘s little book The Paradox of Choice, which explains quite nicely why more choice isn’t always better for our own well-being. (Read this review for a short course.) In a nutshell, each choice we have to make involves cognitive effort on our part, and a comparison with all the other choices we could have made but ended up rejecting. All this comparison is tiring and opportunity cost is a stone-cold bee-otch, if you’re aware of it. Schwartz characterizes two basic ideal-type cognitive styles: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers carefully compare their options. Satisficers, by constrast, are willing to settle for “good enough” and move on. Evidently I am a “maximizer” when it comes to meals at good restaurants… and, at least according to Schwartz, maximizers are unlikely to be happy about what they get because they spend more time comparing their options, paying attention to opportunity costs, and so on. Tapas is, therefore, pretty much guaranteed to piss me off. (I’m better at satisficing in other choices, fortunately.) I admit a lot of this is my descent to fogey-ism. I don’t like the “mix tape on steroids” that is the modern Ipod playlist and I never play albums on shuffle either. I hate surprise parties. I have a decidedly unfashionable desire for a coherent whole, be it an album or a meal, and tapas (of whatever variety) doesn’t deliver it for me. The fact that it’s a way to run up the tab just nails it.

The only good tapas experience I’ve ever had was a few years back in Minneapolis. The restaurant was not my choice, but I was with friends…. The waitress had the sense to suggest that we “course” the meal and let the kitchen take over. She asked us for a basic list of our preferences and went back to the kitchen. So “choice”—if you want to have a good experience, anyway—is an illusion, too.

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Aside: You may notice the “fascism” tag. I have decided—out of deference to Angry Midwesterner—to tag all my rants with “fascism” from here on out. I give it a fig leaf of justification with Spain’s experience under the dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the man about whom Adolf Hitler said “I would rather spend two hours in the dentistโ€™s chair than have another meeting with him.” Franco would have enjoyed tapas. So there. ๐Ÿ˜›

Occasionally on The 12 Angry Men, we will post rants from invited guests. In lieu of our normally scheduled segment, today we feature an invited rant, from an Angry Guest Woman. You may remember our current guest from her previous appearence when she ranted about poor service, and tipping. – The Staff of The 12 Angry Men

My company, like many others, decided a few years ago to outsource all IT-related work in an effort to “save money” and have more “effective” business practices by limiting the people who worked on our IT systems to “specialists.” Of course, in reality, we ended up with the opposite situation.

Sure, there were the comical incidents associated with initial setup. Like the time I ordered my first Linux box through the new IT contract. It arrived, carried by a teen-aged-looking guy with slicked-back hair, wearing chains, presumably required to keep his pants covering the bottom half of his boxer shorts, whose cologne I started to smell about 10 minutes before he entered my building. He had a set of Linux CD’s in his hands and absolutely no clue how to use them. I ended up giving him a lesson on how to install Linux. (He had never done this before whereas I had trouble remembering how many Linux boxes I had installed.) He insisted on driving the entire time because he was the “specialist” and I was not. Incidentally, upon completion of my setup, several key settings needed to be fixed. Yet I was not allowed to have the root password or su power on my box so I had to keep calling the teenager and his associates to do things like set the correct date on my box. Each time he had to call me to ask how to do this; or just give me the password and then change it again when I was done. Apparently setting the date and time is not intuitive to some IT professionals.

Since then, I have taken the company’s system administration certification exam, applied to administer my own box, and have had relatively few problems, except having to re-negotiate my status every time someone new sees I’m defying the system. But, my boxes have consistently worked, no thanks to our IT contractors.

Well — until the *only* thing of mine over which IT has control, my email, stopped working yesterday. I kept getting weird server errors whenever my email program attempted to connect to the server to send/receive messages. After we went through the normal process of me calling; getting someone who has never heard of email but promises to have someone else call me back; and 5 different people calling me back with different reasons why it didn’t work AFTER insisting that clearly their server errors must be caused by the fact that I’m running Linux and my telling them they’re full of it because server errors occur *on* the server, we have the problem solved. Despite the fact that I was told that IT did not know they were going to start expiring passwords, apparently my email password had expired. But they couldn’t tell this had happened and they couldn’t notify me of the status of my email account because… get this… (this is my favorite IT excuse EVER) they didn’t have my email address!!!!! I should win an Oscar for making it through two phone calls this morning without bursting into laughter while two different men explained to me in very serious voices that my email address was not in their system (the system of the people who CREATED and ASSIGNED my email address and who RUN the email servers!) and that they needed to enter it. The first guy called to inform me of this epiphany. The second one called to check that they had entered my email address correctly. I presume both of them found my phone number in our company directory. (Incidentally, my copy of the company directory also lists email addresses.)

My sides hurt now.

When I stopped laughing, I was still unable to change my password because the web interface, which is the only way to do this from Linux, was broken. In response, IT has just released a statement saying that all of their problems are being caused by people running non-standard desktops and has issued a ruling that everyone must now use the same standard Windows desktop, with a few exceptions for Mac. I have been ordered to give up all of my boxes and replace them with one Windows box, which will have exactly the same installation as every other box at the company, including the machines running specialized equipment in the research labs and the box they give to our secretary. Did I mention that my job is to do research? I write experimental software for a living. On a machine with no compilers (because why does the secretary across the hall need a compiler?), this should be very interesting. Then there’s the issue that a lot of the software is written for operating systems that are not Windows… I complained to the decision-making head of IT about this change and he didn’t see a problem. Why am I not surprised? Probably because the person I spoke to didn’t know what a compiler was.

I’m off to fight again for the right to have a computer I can use to do work on. Please, if you’re a manager out there, think long and hard before outsourcing your IT department to another company. Each year or three we change IT contract companies, but they’re all the same: they charge you too much; pay their employees so little that none of them stay to complete the “training” process; and waste your employees time while contributing to your IT problems instead of solving them. Then they fill out their own “customer reviews” instead of sending them to the employees, like they’re supposed to, so they insure they will keep the contract. I’ll hold out as long as I can in an effort to be able to effectively do my job. Each time our entire building is taken down by a computer virus and my Linux box is one of the few machines left standing, I’ll take the time to smile and feel vindicated.

– Angry East Coast Guest Woman


Not too long ago I wrote about the Chemistry Set as an endangered species. This seemed to hit a resonant chord among the readers of the blog with a notable exception [You know who you are Clintus.] Thorazine, commenter #38 asked if anyone remembered the Perfect brand. I remember going into one the the early strip malls in Peoria, Illinois (Sheridan Village) as a child and looking at the Perfect displays. I can’t remember which store although I think it was a bookstore. I used to look longingly at the gear, although most of it was way too expensive for my meager budget.

Shopping around Champaign, I was looking for some brass metal strips and stopped in at Slot and Wing Hobbies, Inc. (803 W Anthony Drive, Champaign, IL 61822 (217) 359-1909). In the aisle, along with a myriad of motors, tools and model parts, I was astonished to find a Perfect Laboratory Apparatus and Chemical display. True, it had seen better days and the phenopthalien solution bottles on sale were dust dry, but there were the rows of small bottles I fondly remembered from my Gilbert chemistry set.

Perfect Chemicals

The two part display had glassware on the left with pictures of flasks, tubes and bottles; and the right display was the apparatus: tongs, clamps, clay triangles, and Bunsen burners. They had four Bunsen burners and a couple of alcohol lamps. Also quite a few bags of lamp wicks. For your viewing and reminiscing pleasure:

Perfect Chemicals Display
Perfect Apparatus Display Perfect Glass Items
Perfect Lab Items Rocket Motors

The last photo on the bottom right is of a display of Estes model rocket motors, of which they also had a significant number. Apparently model rocketry is also rapidly becoming endangered. I asked whether they were under any constraints with respect to selling rocket motors (as in “terrists” shooting down planes with home made missiles). They can sell but cannot ship — go figure.

The proprietor is Mark Thompson. I suspect that if you made him an offer you could obtain the entire display and its contents. Unfortunately, the display didn’t have any potassium carbonate. [Many thanks for commenter suggestions as to where to obtain some.]

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