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October 2008

Drifting Along

A quiet week. FS, the teacher across the hall, has a book which contains the actual drills Von Steuben used to whip the soldiers into shape at Valley Forge. We took our classes out back, gave them rules in lieu of guns, and ran them through some of the drills. Other than that, no Hail Mary passes, just a ground came where we slog a few yards out at a time. Monday is a Jeopardy! game, which will help prepare my students for the Chapter 2 test (not even October, and we're already through the Revolutionary War). This year we switched from actors reading the Declaration of Independence to football players. Do they hear it any better? Who knows!

I practiced Saturday night with the Polka Dots, a polka group that plays at retirement homes. I am sitting in for the regular Tenor player. Sunday was the Danville Community Band picnic; too hot for Vicki and I to take our weekend bike ride, alas.

Not much else to report.


by Craig Reynolds

gPhone: the first mobile phone built on Google's Android platform is out. This specific model does not look like a game-changer, but watch this space. Google has a history of growing huge enterprises out of humble beginnings: T-Mobile G1 Vs. Apple iPhone 3G, Google Introduces an iPhone Rival Open to Whims and Android: Five Reasons to Be Super Psyched About Android (and Five Not to Be).

Blu-ray blues: for a while it was a classic "Beta versus VHS" format fight for the next generation of video discs, then the consortium behind HD DVD began to unravel and the competing Blu-ray format appeared to be the victor. Now there are few spoils to be had, in what is looking like a case of winning the battle while losing the war. Turns out the demand for HD discs is declining: Blu-ray stutters in face of tough economy, HD downloads and Blu-ray Market Share...Drops?

Copywrong: mistrial in the Thomas v RIAA case, mixed messages about which side got the advantage: Thomas Mistrial Decision Bolsters RIAA Litigation, In Blow to RIAA, Judge Raises Infringement Standard for File-Sharing and Thomas case reveals obscene penalties for P2P downloaders.

PS3: coverage of recent events in PS3 land (disclosure: I work there) a shared virtual world: A guided tour of the PlayStation Home beta, PlayStation Home Beta Extended Today and a geographical browser: PlayStation 3 gets weather, Google News, and other Web goodies, PS3 News Service, Life With Playstation, Now Up For Download.

Technobits: Open source could fix e-voting flaws, California secretary of state says --- A Gloomy Vista for Microsoft --- The Camera-Friendly, Perfectly Pixelated, Easily Downloadable Celebrity Academic --- Art and Science, Virtual and Real, Under One Big Roof --- Computer Beats Pro at US Go Congress --- Honeywell finds alternative to explosive fertilizer --- Lichtenberg figure (I have one of these "frozen lightning in Lucite" made by a college friend that just happened to have access to a particle accelerator, never knew they had a name) --- Top 8 Large Hadron Collider Videos --- I am a student of emergent phenomena and multi-agent systems, but had never seen anything like this amazing behavior: Social Waves in Giant Honeybees Repel Hornets, NB this video.

Ghost Town

4 stars out of 5

Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear. They had me at the names of the stars. But, as it turns out, there's more to this lovely, touching and tear-jerker chick flick than just the names above the title. For one thing, I was gobsmacked to discover that writer/director David Koepp was also responsible for writing the last (at least, let's hope it is the last) Indiana Jones film. One thing I'll have to say for the man--he is a master of many tones.

The plot is simple enough. Gervais is a dentist and a jerk. He is established as the world's most miserable misanthrope, and thanks for his perfect deadpan delivery, he pulls it off. He dies for seven minutes during a colonosocopy, as a result of which he can see ghosts. The usual rule applies; ghosts are here because they have unfinished business. Greg Kinnear is the ghost of a jerk, but unlike Gervais, he is a smooth, suave jerk. He convinces Gervais to break up his ex-wife's engagement. Of coruse, Gervais falls in love with Téa Leoni and then, as they say in Hollywood, the fun begins.

Elements of this are straight out of the cookie cutter, including the cute meet, the boy gets girl, loses girl, gets girl back, and the incredibly manipulative ending. Well, I was bawling and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Highly entertaining. It is no Sleepless in Seattle. It breaks no new ground. But if you want to laugh your ass off at a film that the women in your life won't mind seeing, this is the picture for you.

Jon Carroll Cat Column, Coquet: Hail Mary Stunts, Economic Commentary

New from Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle: Pancho the kitten has entered the ambush phase of his development

Peggy Coquest passes along John McCain's Next 10 Hail Mary Stunts (not a violation of my politics ban, because it is humor)

Why is a U.S. Army brigade being assigned to the "Homeland"?

Economics isn't really politics, right? Spoof "Nigerian Scam" letter from Paulson, Tom LaSusa: passes along CNN's Campbell Brown comments on the crisis, Deficits matter, but only if they're not GOP deficits. Chuck Carroll passes along: Painful Parallels With Nordic Bailout.


by Craig Reynolds

Train: the tragic southern California train collision that killed 24 has technological aspects both to its cause and potential preventative measures. While the investigation continues, it appears that the train's engineer was distracted by text messaging on his cell phone (with some young train buffs) and failed to notice a yellow and then a red signal light. The signals were intended to stop the train from proceeding onto a single track used by both north and south bound rail traffic. The commuter train and an oncoming freight train collided on the shared track. As is often the case, a serious accident spurs the reconsideration and adoption of pre-existing safety equipment. This time it is positive train control that would automatically close the loop between traffic signal and train operation: Federal Railroad Administration chief: New technology would have prevented crash, Legislation Mandates Positive Train Control, Addresses Metrolink's Negligence, Bush Administration Strongly Opposed Mandatory Positive Train Controls, Boxer-Feinstein Bill and Train crash sparks look at GPS to prevent accidents (my own work relates to control systems (in noncritical, virtual applications) so this phrase jumped out at me: "PTC systems operate on 'predictive' rather than 'reactive' technology...").

Privacy: a friend sent me this link under the heading The Flagrant Hypocrisy of the Right (recall this similar item?): What does Sarah Palin have to hide in her Yahoo e-mails? See also this note about the sophisticated (not!) hacking techniques used to access this highly secured email account: Who needs hackers? Palin e-mail hack reveals obvious vulnerability. Meanwhile, Republicans have no problem with the Bush administration's spying on private citizens: EFF sues U.S. over NSA surveillance program. A key issue in privacy policy relates to results of medical testing. For example, Sergey Brin can afford to be open about in formation like this: Google Co-Founder Has Genetic Code Linked to Parkinson’s, but a normal person would have to worry that such information might prevent them from obtaining medical insurance, and hence impact their ability to get a new job. One of the few things our President has done that I admire was to sign the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, an important step in the right direction.

Color: I have always enjoyed the art and science of color, so the COLOURlovers blog is right up my alley. This is really fun -- Idée Labs: Multicolor Image Search -- pick a few colors and it returns a collection of pictures primarily composed of those colors. If you have ever flown into Oakland, San Jose or San Francisco you may have seen a mosaic of surrealistically colored patches around the shore of San Francisco bay: The Colors Of Salt Evaporation Ponds.

Face: these days digital cameras identify faces in their field of view to know where best to autofocus. New developments: A Face-Finding Search Engine and Google can sort digital photos on face value.

Phone: Is Apple ARMing the iPhone With Homemade Chips? and First Google Android phone to debut next week.

Technobits: Candidates Answer 14 Questions on Science and ScienceDebate2008 --- EFF: The Latest on DVD Copying --- great picture, forget man bites dog, this is robot hits man: Robot Knows When It Hits a Person --- Tesla to build electric car plant in San Jose --- this is a perennial problem for me, I always have zillions of browser tabs open: 11 Tools to Help You Save Sites for Reading Later --- human evolution: Born To Run --- I print articles from the web for an offline relative and have been looking for a tool like this: --- Guy photographs himself every day for 17 years --- about a year ago I ran across the intriguing concept of motion camouflage then recently saw this related funny video: Ninja cat comes closer while not moving!

Rut or Comfortable Routine?

Is Groundhog Day (the movie) really a curse? Some people call it a rut; I call it a comfortable routine.

If you come within minutes or inches of death, and you know it, and it doesn't change you, there's something wrong with you. Which is a little bit amazing, if you think about it, since we are all, from the moment of our birth, dying. Constant awareness of the fact, of course, would paralyze most of us, so we live our lives without thinking too much about it. When your mortality (or that of a close loved one) is rubbed in your face, it makes you step back, think and take stock. Sometimes that means you change your behavior, or your outlook, or your personality. The changes aren't always visible. But if they're not there, you're not paying attention.

And that's the biggest problem; most of the time, we aren't paying attention. Last week was my 56th birthday, which means I have experienced roughly 20,000 days. You can leave out the first three thousand or so--what do you know before you're 10? But since then, how many of those mornings have I appreciated? I mean really, consciously appreciated? At a weight loss seminar once, the leader told us that some people say your real age is the total amount of time you've spent in the moment. She was 40; she figured her real age was four. I think mine is about two.

If I am lucky and typical, I've got another 7,000 or so days ahead of me (14,000 if I'm extremely lucky), but no matter how you cut it, my future is behind me. I intend to appreciate the heck out of each and every one of those days, because whether they are "good" or "bad" is simply a mental construct. The fact of life, the hope of the future, means that whether I am deliriously happy or miserably sad, I am alive, and that is fact one.

We all know people have a limited ability to keep an idea in mind, to maintain a state of awareness about a single subject. In short, things wear off. I hope my gratitude won't wear off, that I won't go back to taking life for granted, but I know the odds are stacked against that, and that chances are I will go back to being the way I was before, drifting through life and not grabbing it with both hands. Only time will tell.

Which brings me, via a circuitous route, to the idea in the heading for this item. I have a very high boredom threshold, something I have in common with Herb Caen. He reportedly had the same breakfast for 50 years; Special K and a banana. It didn't bother him. I have two breakfasts: oatmeal or microwave scrambled eggs. I alternate them. That doesn't bother me. I eat the exact same lunch every day. That doesn't bother me either.

In fact, if you've lost 60 pounds and have figured out how to keep them off (eat less, exercise more), the more similar every day is to the day before, the better off you are. Disruptions, serendipity, departure from the routine--these are bad things. They get you off your stationary bicycle, throw off your calorie count, and take "making up for." I'm not going to stop living, but while some people would call my routine robotic, I call it life-saving, which takes me back to the first comment--being alive is job one. I feel like an alcoholic; today is one year, two weeks and a day since I came back from "rehab" at Duke, and I am still in the desirable weight range they set for me. I will stay in that range, no matter what it takes. Routine? Pfeh. I snap my fingers at routine.

Taking a Break

After last week's frenetic pace of political comment, I am taking a month off. Yes, I know, as Kent Peterman reminded me:

The McCain distortion video is very effective. As was the compare contrast email which I've also received. In fact I've received well over a hundred emails about Two Shot Sarah since she was chosen and tons more about Johnny Mac since he was chosen. I read them and think to myself this is horrid, ghastly, they are charlatans, varlets. I send them on to my liberal friends who feel the same way and make similar pronouncements. And we must continue to do so. BUT we must also send them on to our conservative friends and acquaintances (God knows they don't mind inundating us with vituperative emails filled with distortions and untruths. It's time we spread the word to everyone the conservatives, the neutrals and undecideds as well. Some of them will be angry, some won't hear, but some will and we must try.
I speak as one who firmly believed Nixon could never win because no one that I knew was going to vote for him ergo I did not work on the election. This election is too important to lose. Spread the word.

But I just can't take it. I see people around me seriously jeopardizing their health by obsessing about this terrible race. I'll preach to the converted anew when we get down to the last month, but in the meantime, I'm cutting off MSNBC Countdown and the Post Politics Podcast for a month, for the sake of my health and sanity. And cutting way back on the politics here as well.

Burn After Reading

3 stars out of 5

Deus Ex Machine literally means God out of the Machine; figuratively, the sudden appearance in a dramatic work of an outside person or force that ties up all the loose ends in an instant. Connoisseurs know that the title of silliest Deus Ex Machine in American motion pictures has been held for 27 years by Wilford Brimley's role as U.S. Atty. Gen. James A. Wells in Absence of Malice. He appears, out of nowhere, opens his briefcase, and in 10 minutes dispatches all the plot points of a two-hour drama.

I don't know if comedies can be compared to dramas in this category, but if they cay, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen can add one more accomplishment to their list: they've broken the record with the performance of J.K. Simmons, the CIA superior, in Burn After Reading. I'm not going to print any spoilers--I don't like spoilers. People die (you'd expect that, it's a spy movie), and people get away with evil (like in every Coen movie); I'm not going to tell you who. And the Coen's won't, for the most part, show you (as movies are supposed to), but J.K. Simmons will tell you.

Jokes? Not Really. Slapstick? Depends on your definition, perhaps a little. Character-based humor, combined with the smiling joy of watching great dramatic actors cast against type? Absolutely. Slick professional movie making? Of course, it's the Coen brothers, that's what they do. What a cast! George Clooney, Frances McDormand (Mrs. Coen), Brad Pitt (as an idiot), John Malkovich (not playing against type as a drunken lunatic) and Tilda Swinton (not playing against type as a cold bitch). You could watch this film just to see these people interact. As a filmed acting class exercise, it has some wit about it. On plot and script alone, a 2, raised to a 3 star film by great acting and direction.