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January 2007
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Not Much Happenin'

A quiet week. Three weeks since I fainted, my pacemaker hasn't gone off--heck, I haven't even felt dizzy. The students are behaving, Rae had fun in Jamaica, Marlow's settling into her first permanent job, and I'm off to church on Sunday to give the 10am service a try.

Magic Mirror Joke

Do we demean ourselves when we make fun of the President's intelligence? Yes we do. Does that make this joke any less funny? No it doesn't. Please note that I used to run Bill Clinton jokes as well.

Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush went to a fitness spa for some fun. After a stimulating, healthy lunch, all three decided to visit the men's room and they found a strange-looking gent sitting at the entrance.

He said, "Welcome to the gentlemen's room. Be sure to check out our newest feature, a mirror that, if you look into it and say something truthful, you will be rewarded with your wish.

But, be warned: if you say something FALSE, you will be sucked into the mirror to live in a void of nothingness for all eternity!"

The three men quickly entered and upon finding the mirror, Bill Clinton stepped up and said, "I think I'm the most intelligent of us three," and he suddenly found the keys to a brand new Bentley in his hands.

Al Gore stepped up and said, "I think I'm the most aware of the environmental problems of us three," and in an instant, he was surrounded by a pile of money to fund his next Presidential Campaign.

Excited over the possibility of finally having a wish come true, George W. Bush looked into the mirror and said,

"I think...," and was promptly sucked into the mirror.


by Craig Reynolds

DRM and copyright: as described here last week its getting harder and harder to find anyone in favor of DRM (see's poll: Should music companies drop DRM? (via)). Interoperability is easy if there is no DRM to worry about. iTunes has demonstrated that most people are happy to buy legal content if the price is reasonable, that you can "compete with free". Of course there are a few clueless music and tech execs who insist that DRM is exactly the right approach and that, unlike the first N versions, release N+1 will actually work. As a public service, Daring Fireball provided some clues to one such exec: Translation From PR-Speak to English of Selected Portions of Macrovision CEO Fred Amoroso's Response to Steve Jobs's 'Thoughts on Music'. It comes as no surprise when BBC reports: US copyright lobby out-of-touch. MPAA: blatant, unrepentant law breakers: the most deliciously ironic news last week was that the MPAA was caught violated the license on copyrighted software (via, via, read the software author's comments here and here). It seems clear that this was not MPAA's official policy, it looks like a lazy programmer was prototyping something and cut some ethical/legal corners. (The license said the software was free if you retained the links back to the author's site, otherwise you had to buy a special license. MPAA removed the links without purchasing a license.) MPAA claims they should not be held responsible for the actions of an employee. Yet they routinely sue innocent parents for license/copyright infringement by their kids. MPAA claims that the site was never advertised and was used only for evaluation. Yet they sued developers of a Linux media player for privately using movie clips to evaluate their software. I hope this turns into a messy lawsuit, it couldn't happen to a nicer association.

Be careful how you praise kids: I recently became fascinated by the work of Stanford Prof. Carol Dweck on the dark side of praise in education.  I heard an interview with Dweck on local news radio (KCBS, Feb 6?), and later found this press release (which I mentioned briefly last week) and then this article in New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids (The Inverse Power of Praise). Very short summary:  Praising kids for being smart is deadly, making them risk-adverse praise junkies.  Praising them for working hard is helpful, it encourages them to continue to try challenging tasks. Describing one of the experiments: "...The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores..." Hear Dweck interviewed about her book Mindset -- The New Psychology of Success. Several years ago I heard AI pioneer Marvin Minsky decry how educators work so hard to prevent kids from suffering the horror of failure.  He said it was critically important to fail again and again, so it actually meant something when you succeeded.  My reaction at the time was along the lines of "but what about their self esteem?"  Looks like he had it quite right.

Mother Nature's Sun: very exciting technology: Cheap solar power poised to undercut oil and gas by half (via, via) Cultural ethology: Did teenage girls invent technology? That is certainly what happened in a band of wild chimps living in a tough environment. While the big strong adult males were out catching rabbits with their bare hands, the females and young foraged for other foods. Female adolescents were regularly observed making simple pointed spears from tree branches, and using them to stab at potential hiding places of bush-babies (small squirrel-like primates): Chimps Use "Spears" to Hunt Mammals, Study Says and Hunting chimps may change view of human evolution. So much for the notion of "bird brains": Now, where do I hide this? Birds plan, study shows. Green tech: The plug-in hybrid carving three-wheeler from Venture and Windmill Sailboat: Sailing Against the Wind. Finally: Robo Bird-Watcher "An intelligent video system in an Arkansas bayou searches for an elusive bird," Robot watches out for rare bird.

Cosmic debris: Astronauts should 'ski the Moon', 181 Things To Do On The Moon, Deadly stellar dance explains supernova shape, Scientists surprised by data about distant planets (and Distant planets: Warm, weird, waterless).

Math notes: a math-phobic death spiral: Math anxiety saps working memory needed to do mathAncient Islamic inventions seldom remembered in the west have been touched on here before and now another example. The geometry of quasicrystals (and other aperiodic tilings, see this gallery) were first described and analyzed by Western mathematicians in the 1960s and 1970s. It appears that quasicrystals were well understood by Islamic artisans in the year 1453: Medieval Muslims made stunning math breakthrough and Geometry meets arts in Islamic tiles.

Technobits: Why Understanding Programs is Hard from Ed Felten --- iTunes fingers musical fraud --- Algorithm helps computers beat human Go players --- Modular robot's wriggles show greater flexibility, Incredible Robots Walk, Roll, Climb and Cooperate (lab's site) --- Zeroshift - Advanced Transmissions (see also, via) --- Jolly Roger should run from scary squiggly arrows!

Neal's Oscar Picks

[Paul's comments in italics]

Here are my selections as to what I think will win in the following categories:

Picture – The Departed

[I'd also be happy with my nominated picks: The Queen or Babel. I am embarrassed to admit I though Superman had a chance in this category, but not at all embarrassed to admit I liked The Last King of Scotland]

Director – Martin Scorsese

[Again, The Queen or Babel are find with me, although I agree with Neal; Scorsese is overdue]

Actor – Forest Whitaker

[Nichols or Damon or could have been nominated as easily as Di Caprio, whose performance I like. But how can Whitaker lose this year?]

Actress – Helen Mirren

[Streep too, is deserving for The Devil Wears Prada, but I am still getting over the lack of a nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger than Fiction. As usual, a bad year for women's roles]

Sup. Actor – Eddie Murphy

[I preferred Mark Wahlberg in The Departed, but my other three favorites weren't even honored with nominations: Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada, James Cromwell The Queen and Dustin Hoffman Stranger than Fiction.]

Sup. Actress – Jennifer Hudson

Original Screenplay – Little Miss Sunshine

[Original, perhaps, but nowhere near as original as Zach Helm's script for Stranger than Fiction].

Adapted Screenplay – The Departed

Editing – United 93

Animated Feature – Cars

[Cars was OK, but the best animated film of the year, Flushed Away was a financial bust because of the American public's appalling lack of taste and judgment, and so was not even nominated. Neither Happy Feet nor Monster House can hold a candle to it]

Foreign Language Film – The Lives Of Others

Many of the technical awards will go to Dreamgirls or Pirates of the Caribbean

It’s shaping up as a not-very-exciting year, though the battle between Babel and The Departed for Best Picture will be interesting.

[And, since I was able to see all the best animated short nominees, my pick is a tossup between art (The Danish Poet) and commerce (No Time for Nuts). If any other film wins in this category, it will have to be because the voters didn't actually watch them. Paul]

Animated Shorts

4 stars out of 5

If the 2007 Animated Short Films (and other good short films too) come to your town, go see them. In the meantime, here are my comments on the nominees:

"The Danish Poet" (National Film Board of Canada). If they give the Oscar for art, this should be the winner. Primitive animation, cleverly done, in the service if a brilliant, funny and witty story. I love the drunks, the hikers, the farmers trying to get their cows to the second floor, the shrink--there's something going on every minute in the narration and the visual if you're paying attention, which I was.

"Lifted" (Buena Vista) A Pixar Animation Studios Production--Amusing little piece with the usual spectacular Pixar production values, in the service of a slight anecdote--I'm not sure you could even call it a story.

"The Little Matchgirl" (Buena Vista). Beautiful pretentious claptrap. Make a mass appointment with the shrink for the Academy if this turkey walks off with the Oscar.

"Maestro" (SzimplaFilm): Serves as a reminder of the power of silent film, and why most Disney cartoons from the 1930s have little or no dialog. The soundtrack consists entirely of sound effects and music, yet the film is clever, funny and tells a story. Highly amusing.

"No Time for Nuts" (20th Century Fox). If they give the Oscar for commerce, this should be the winner. Scrat, the squirrel from Ice Age, would be a major star if cartoons still topped every bill at the theater. As it is, I find him a worthy successor to Wile E. Coyote, and wish him a long successful career. Apparently, there are an infinite number of ways for a squirrel to not get a nut.


4 stars out of 5

It amazes me when Hollywood manages to turn out a taught thriller about a subject we've all seen in the newspapers, in a situation where we all know how it turns out. In fact, the film begins with the announcement of Robert (Chris Cooper) Hanssen's arrest; almost the entire film is told in flashback from that point. The movie centers around Eric (Ryan Phillippe) O'Neill, the straight-arrow FBI agent wannabe who brings Hanssen down, but any time Cooper is on the screen, you can't take your eyes off of him. Intelligently, the film devotes about .001 percent of its running time to the question of why Hannsen, a devout and conservative Catholic and a political conservative to the Nth degree, sold out his country. In the end, as at least two characters literally say, "Why doesn't matter." Laura Linney does a good job as O'Neill's boss, but this film just makes me wonder, yet again, why every actress in Hollywood doesn't go postal; Cooper and O'Neill's characters are fleshed out, her's isn't.

Lives of Others

4 stars out of 5

We're lucky; in these days of the DVD and close-in release dates, it must be very difficult to keep an art house cinema running. Yet, we have one, courtesy of Cinemark, about 20 minutes away in a suburban mall. Thus, just a few days before the Oscars, we were able to take in a big-screen showing of one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others. One of the reasons we went to see it was Neal's prediction that it would take the Oscar in the category. We've only seen two of the five nominees, but Pan's Labyrinth needs to be taken for a long walk every night when you get home. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine any of the other three films having the combination of production values, direction, acting and script which combined to make it a pleasure to read subtitles and listen to German for a couple of hours. I am a sucker, I should point out, for German films, as I once spoke the language a little and so swell with pride when I can understand people before the subtitle comes up. Historically highly accurate (based on my own understanding of the GDR (East Germany), both during and after Communism, it is a frightening and yet moving evocation of a very scary time when a very scary group of absurdly normal people ran a police state. I don't know about you, but I always wonder about the accuracy of such films, at the detail level and at the emotional level. This film may have missed a few details, but it rings true emotionally, and is right on the big stuff, even if it had to tamper with the little stuff. Here's a discussion of the accuracy of the film by a German intellectual. You can read an interview with the director as well.

Chuck Carroll on Immigration, Lasusa Links, Mark Mason's Cute Video Find, Peggy Coquet on Helping Teachers, Dan Grobstein File

I don't agree with Chuck Carroll, but since he's a friend of mine, intelligent, and not a racist, I don't mind pointing at his blog entry on immigration.

Tom Lasusa surfs the web so you don't have to. What a group of finds this week! A way to drop an egg four stories without breakingHigh-speed photo of a lightbulb burning out... Smeagol and Gollum from LOTR sing with Barry White... I'm not even sure how to describe these comics. But they're funny... And We Wonder Why our Perception of Beauty is Distorted... Prodigy pianist declared a fraud... Guy hears girl crying for help in upstairs apartment, grabs sword to free damsel from her captors. Turns out neighbor was watching porn... "THIS is an EX-SCAMMER!"

Mark Mason, who makes the Macs in my house run properly, has a tech support blog with occasional sidetrips into humor:

A video depicting early tech support circa 1488 has recently been discovered in the dusty archives of a library in Barcelona, Spain. Much analysis yet remains to be completed on this rare (video incunabula) footage from Europe but it is safe to state that revolutionary technology developments engender universal culture shock and disorientation.

Peggy Coquet found this article at Slate: Want To Buy My Students a $392 Camcorder?: A nonprofit uses the Web to work marketplace magic.

You may never eat at KFC again after watching Rats Gone Wild. Also, all former college editors can't believe the shit being published by their successors.

Dan Grobstein File

  • While America obsessed about Brittany's shaved head, Bush offered a budget that offers $32.7 billion in tax cuts to the Wal-Mart family alone, while cutting $28 billion from Medicaid.
  • This is what the Army medical people do in a high-profile case. I wonder what the difference in level of care is for the wounded vets at Walter Reed?
  • Kimberly Dozier is recovering, though she has a long way to go. 

More True Tales of Teaching

Since we're not in it for the money, we must be in it for something else. Regular correspondent Tom Lasusa offers some theories:

Reading all these anecdotes reminded my about my Aunt Linda...and I thought I would share a little about her.

My Great-Aunt (or Grand-Aunt, depending on your preference), Linda K., was a teacher in Pennsylvania for what seemed to be eons (she was in her early nineties when she passed). On her street alone she lived to neighbors whose family she had taught three generations of - mother, son, and grandson.

Before Alzheimer's took her and required her to be taken to a residence, we would spend many summers visiting with her. When we would go into town we would occasionally be approached by someone whom she had taught. Everyone spoke highly of her, how she had made such an impact in their lives, teaching them in that little school on 'Coal Street.'

I recall one of the last times we took her out for a day in town; we were crossing a street with her. A woman -- she looked to be in her late sixties -- glanced our way, and then looked again. She stared at Aunt Linda for a long time and then finally said "Oh My God, Miss K! You're Still Alive!" and gave my Aunt a huge hug. Once again, Aunt Linda had bumped into one of her former pupils, whom remembered her lessons and good nature all too well. It was truly a testament to the kind of person she was.