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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Website Update- Revised Artwork Pages

Looks like I still managed to keep my once per month update goal. I slightly updated the Artwork page. For each collection, I now use the same type of set up that I use for my photo pages - when you click on a thumbnail, instead of taking you simply to the .jpg or .gif file, it takes you to an html page displaying the picture, so that I could put navigation links on those pages, and you don't have to keep hitting the back button to view different pictures. Also, I added two new images to my Technical Drawings collection. On one of my more obscure pages, I've updated the Rough & Unfinished POV-Ray Work page. It was pretty much an all text page before. Now I've added thumbnails for each of the images.

I guess I'll make one note here - the reason I haven't been adding so much to my main site recently, is because I've been trying to update my blog on a fairly regular basis. Essays that before would have gone in my Writings section are now getting put there, instead.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Internet Explorer 7 Sucks

The other day I took the plunge and upgraded to the latest version of Internet Explorer, IE7. Less than 24 hours later, it was deleted off my computer.

I didn't research it much before I installed it. I'd read a few things about it, how it had better printing support, some cool new features, and was supposedly more secure than IE6. I figured I'd install it for the extra security, and that I probably wouldn't notice that much difference in actually using it. Boy was I wrong. Microsoft completely overhauled the user interface (UI), and they didn't do a good job at it at all.

For a good overview of how Microsoft changed the interface, read this review from a blog called Greg's Head.

For me personally, I like to have all the major controls near the top left of the window. It just makes sense to me, since that's the way computer menus have been organized ever since I started using them, and the way they're organized in most other programs. You just look up to the top left corner, and you can easily find whatever function you're looking for. It works; it's standard; so why go messing around with it? I've read other people who like their internet browsers organized a bit differently, putting everything in as few of lines as possible so that they can have more screen space for the actual pages they're looking at. But IE7 accomplishes neither of these - important functions are scattered helter skelter over the top of the window, and the menus take up more space than people were able to accomplish in IE6, and worst of all, IE7 doesn't let you move the menus around to customize them the way you want, so you're stuck with having it in the haphazard design that Microsoft came up with.

Now, you could say I'm just bitching. But really, that's the whole point of Internet browsers. It's easy enough to look up a web page and display it on a computer, so making the navigation easy on the user, especially considering how much navigation most people do when browsing the Internet, is about the most imporant consideration in Internet broswers.

Aside from the UI, IE7 crashed a lot more than IE6. IE6 crashes maybe once a week on me - not very often. In the less than 24 hours that I used IE7, it crashed on me at least half a dozen times. And, it was slower to load than IE6 was.

As far as tabbed browsing, well, that never really did much for me. I'd tried it in Firefox before, but I just don't see the point, at least for the way I use my computer. I've got a task bar at the bottom of the screen already. Every document, application, and folder I have open is available with a quick scan and 1 click of the mouse. Using tabbed browsing means a different location I have to scan, and when switching between applications, 2 mouse clicks to get back to web pages I'd been looking at (1 click to switch to the browser, 1 click to switch to the appropriate tab) (Oh yeah, I disabled that feature in XP that automatically groups similar taskbar items, for the same reason). I just don't understand why tabbed browsing is supposed to be so great.

Anyway, I'm back to using IE6, because it's familiar. I may start playing around with Firefox a little more, though, to start getting used to it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Happy Fastnacht Day

Depending on where you are in the world, you may call today something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, today's called Fastnacht Day. Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. So, in celebration of today, here's a recipe on my main site on how to make fastnachts, and a link to the (not so thorough) Wikipedia article. (I know it's a little late, since you should have made them either last night or early this morning, so that you could eat them throughout the day, but better late than never. And yeah, I just cut and pasted this entry from last year's Fastnacht Day entry, but really - what's the point to writing something original for an entry like this? Maybe next year I'll remember to make this post the day before Fastnacht Day.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Review of Darwin's Origin of Species

There is a follow-up to this review, written after I finished reading the book. However, both of thses entries have been supplanted by a newer post, which combines the two, with a little editing, and a paragraph's worth of new content.

Cover of Origin of SpeciesSince today is Darwin Day, I figured I ought to post something. As it turns out, I'm currently reading The Origin of Species. I'm not quite done with it, yet - only about 2/3 of the way through - but I wasn't intending to write an in-depth review, anyway; I was only going to cover my general impressions of the book. So, with today being the day it is, I figured this would be a good time to do it, as I doubt my opinion will be changed much with the last third of the book.

Long before I picked up the book, I already had a pretty good understanding of evolution - better than most laymen, I'd wager. So I didn't start reading Origin of Species to try to learn anything about the theory. Rather, it was more to do with my interest in history, particularly for this case my interest in the history of science and technology, that was the reason I wanted to read this. And it doesn't disappoint.

Okay, let's get the background out of the way, first. Origin of Species was published in 1859, with the full title, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It's not that Darwin was the first to propose some type of evolution and common descent, but Origin of Species really was the book that presented the evidence in such a way, and proposed a plausible mechanism, that the theory really came to be accepted.

Part of what I find just so fascinating is how Darwin came up with all this without any knowledge of genetics. Even though Gregor Mendel was performing his pea plant experiments around the same time that Darwin wrote Origin of Species, it appears that Darwin wasn't really aware of Mendel's work. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1900's that the scientific community recognized the importance of Mendel's experiments. And it wasn't until the 1940's and 50's that people finally understood what DNA was and how it controlled heredity. Obviously, people in the 1800's knew that offspring bore some resemblance to their parents, but nobody knew how exactly this happened, or what it was that caused offspring to have variations. So Darwin was kind of left groping around in the dark, and all throughout the book, he's reduced to explaining concepts while admitting that he doesn't truly understand the mechanisms responible. From a modern viewpoint, understanding genetics, it almost makes you wish you could travel back and explain it to Darwin. It would have made things so much easier for him.

So knowing that Darwin was ignorant of genetics, and knowing that our knowledge of the geologic record was even less complete then than it is now, it's interesting to see the insights Darwin had that lead him to formulate the theory. For me, when I think of evolution, I think of fossils. Yeah, I know there are multiple other lines of evidence, but growing up, that was the main line of evidence that convinced me that evolution actually happened. But Darwin only briefly discusses fossils in two chapters of the book. The rest of Origin of Species is about what he observed in the world around him - how there seem to be clusters of similar species, the difficulties of distinguishing between true species and merely varieties of the same species, the geographical distribution of species, etc.

It's also interesting how Darwin determined that variation and natural selection were the mechanisms responsible for evolution. Consider one of Darwin's contemporaries, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck came up with the idea of "Use and Disuse," that animals could affect their own bodies through their actions, and that they could then pass on these acquired traits to their offspring. The classic example of this is a giraffe stretching its neck to reach higher leaves, and it's offspring thus having a longer neck because of it. Thanks to genetics, we now know this is a false view. To be fair, Darwin didn't rule this out entirely in Origin of Species, but he concluded that it must have been secondary to variation and natural selection. And one of the best examples he used to demonstrate this was ants - all the variation evident in workers, even though it's the queen that lays eggs.

I also find it fascinating to read Darwin comparing evolution to special creation, to think that creationism was the dominant scientific theory of the time. What I find especially fascinating, is to think how people integrated this into the knowledge of an ancient earth. Darwin fequently cited Charles Lyell in Orign of Species (Charles Lyell was one of the early popularisers of uniformitarianism, and helped promote the idea of the Earth being truly ancient), and in his chapters on the geological record, Darwin discussed some of the different geological periods. And concerning fossils appearing in the geological record, Darwin tells of how people proposed that those species were created during those periods. Just imagine that - seeing all the evidence for an ancient earth, and thinking that different species had been specially created throughout the history of the earth. I suppose without a better explanation, that's all the people could come up with then, but it certainly does seem an odd idea now.

I've read other places that evolution, through Origin of Species, was one of the last major scientific theories that was first presented to the world in a book intended for a lay audience. It wasn't presented in a peer reviewed journal; it wasn't full of technical jargon or equations; it was a book published by a regular publisher and sold through normal venues. It was easy to understand, and became a best seller. Now we need science writers to translate for us lay people, so we're always a few steps removed from the real science. It's hard to imagine any new major theories being presented the same way evolution was in Origin of Species.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with a good understanding of evolution who's interested in the history of the theory, but not necessarily to those people who don't undertand evolution, yet. For one thing, Darwin gets a few things wrong. For another, being written in a style 150 years old, it's not the easiest thing for a modern reader to understand. And finally, genetics is such a huge component of evolution, that a good introduction to evolution should include genetics in its explanation.

Anyway, despite any mistakes he may have made, Darwin certainly made a huge contribution to our understanding of the world. Happy Darwin Day, everybody.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Upcoming Darwing Day Event in Wichita Falls

Darwin Day GraphicWhile reading the latest entry on The Loom, I found out that there's actually a holiday called Darwin Day. Following the link that Zimmer provided, I found that there's even an event going on right here in my own hometown of Wichita Falls. Whoda thunk it? I doubt I'll go, but it's nice to see things like that here in this part of Texas.

(Yeah, I stole that picture from Zimmer, but I figured that a caricature from the 1800's was probably in the public domain by now.)

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