Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Eat the Peach

And now for what has become an annual tradition on this particular date. Please recite after me:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all--
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
And this, and so much more?--
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Friday, August 25, 2006

My Kind of Review

Via Gizmodo, a link to a very funny video review of a new MP4 player. If I were British and still reviewed things, I expect this is how I would do it. The device is obviously terrible, but the nine-minute running commentary makes it worth watching. And what is it about the British accent that even the most extreme profanity sounds quite grand?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

E-Mail Goes to the Dogs

This is the most horrifying thing I've seen since the cellphone comfy bed:
The e-Puppy will read you your email and word documents! It also allows you to hear internet radio and music! The built in microphone allows you to record messages and notes. The e-Puppy also has a LED on its stomach for E-Mail notification. The e-Puppy is easy to operate, with its simple buttons and user interface.
Still, depending what kind of mail you get, there could be some fun to be had...

Pluto Gets the Booto

It's official--astronomers have declared that Pluto is no longer a planet:
Much-maligned Pluto doesn't make the grade under the new rules for a planet: "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit."
"Cleared the neighborhood around its orbit"? What that means, in the case of Pluto, is that Pluto's orbit overlaps Neptune's. Of course, under the new planet definition, after a hefty meal, I could be considered a planet.

Still, astronomers say that Pluto aficionadoes should look on the bright side:
"It could be argued that we are creating an umbrella called 'planet' under which the dwarf planets exist," ...said [Jocelyn Bell Burnell -- a specialist in neutron stars from Northern Ireland who oversaw the proceedings], drawing laughter by waving a stuffed Pluto of Walt Disney fame beneath a real umbrella.

Now That's a Knife

Here's something Freddy Krueger might enjoy:
The Most Incredible Knife
Wenger wants you to do one thing: throw out your old knives. Actually, it wants you to do several things: throw out your bike tools, your toiletries, your laser pointer and so on, because you can find all of these instruments in a huge Swiss Army knife, which includes every tool the company makes. Wenger is calling the contraption “Giant Knife Version 1.0.” It debuted with all 85 features and can perform hundreds of functions.
It looks like quite the death machine. Don't try slipping it in your pocket.

Fly; the Friendly Skies

Here's something Studebaker Hoch* might enjoy: instructions for making a fly-powered matchstick airplane. In part:
Take the flies out of the freezer. Attach the abdomen of one frigid fly to each drop of glue. Make sure all the flies are facing the same direction.

Breathe life into the flies. A miracle: A gentle puff of your warm breath will resuscitate the flies.

Launch the aircraft. It should fly like a charm, and, far from being cruel to the flies, you'll be teaching them a new and valuable thing, one that brings us to the virtue of this exercise. For we see that while flies think a lot alike, have a great deal in common, share many of the same hopes and dreams, they never act in concert, as a team, with regard for the worth of other, neighboring flies until forced to by grim circumstance - as, for example, when they are harnessed to fly and either first experience the exhilaration of high-altitude cooperation or die.
Ri-i-i-ight. I can't imagine this would work, but, hey, it might be a good way to pass the time.

*Easily the most obscure reference I have ever made here...perhaps.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fast FAQs

Via Boing Boing, another great source of online distractions: Used FAQs, a collection of honest-to-goodness Frequently Asked Questions from sites all over the Internet, taken out of context. Some examples:
What is the cost of a Walk of Fame star ceremony?
What is a fursuit?
Can I bring my favorite sword or knife?
How can I use a Barney Fife Impersonator at my next event?
Do I have to be naked all the time?
And so on. I don't want to give them all away here...

Dude, You're Getting a House Fire

Anyone else think this story sounds a bit fishy?
A fire that destroyed a South Venice house and left a family of five homeless early Thursday may have been sparked by a Dell computer model that was recalled by the company because its battery was a fire hazard.

Homeowner Louis Minnear, 36, said his wife's Dell laptop was sitting on papers on the family's couch when the couch mysteriously caught fire.

Minnear, who was staying with his family at a nearby motel Thursday night, said he is "convinced" the fire was started by the computer's battery.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is investigating, and has not ruled on the cause of the fire.
Dezzi said he knew there was a computer on the couch when the house burned, but was not aware that the computer was a Dell. He said the fire marshal's office should issue a preliminary report on the cause today.
The family lost almost all of its possessions, including 843 DVDs.

The fire came three days after Dell recalled 4.1 million notebook computer batteries. The company warned consumers the batteries could erupt in flames. they didn't know what kind of a computer they had, but they knew the precise number of DVDs they owned? Ver-r-r-r-ry interesting...

I always leave my laptop sitting on a stack of papers, but I make it a point to soak those papers in lighter fluid first. Usually, though, I keep my computer stored with my oily rag collection.

Lost Verizons

The Onion actually reports a true story, or so it would seem:
Verizon Introduces New Charge-You-At-Whim Plan

NEW YORK—Verizon Communications, Inc. announced a new service package for its wireless and residential customers that would charge them widely varying, but always high, fees every month depending how the communications giant feels at the time. "Our Charge-At-Whim packages offer the same mediocre quality and insufferable level of customer service you’ve come to expect," a Verizon spokesman said Tuesday. "But it adds an unjustified, arbitrary and, if you’ll allow us to boast, frankly unjustifiable method of determining just how much you’ll pay for them." Packages start at "oh, $69.99 a month, let’s say?" and went into effect about three or four months ago.

Pseudo Despair

Someone is stealing's thunder:
Still, they have a point...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Riff Raff

One of the funniest TV programs ever is the late great Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show in which really cheesy movies (usually grade Z sci-fi flicks like Attack of the Giant Leeches, Pod People, The Incredible Melting Man, Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, etc.) are subjected to a non-stop barrage of hysterical comments from three silhouetted figures at the bottom of the screen. Rhino has been consistently releasing DVDs of the program (which ran from 1990 to 1995 on Comedy Central, and from 1997 to 2000 on The Sci-Fi Channel), but the show has been long off the air. One of the big problems that the show had was that obtaining the rights to the movies they busted on was quite expensive. You wouldn't think this would be the case for such awful films (where "paying for the rights" could just as easily be a euphemism for "paying the director's bail") but once distributors got hip to what MST3K was doing, they weren't all that eager to help out. So the cost of the program was one of the reasons why it was cancelled.

The program's host and head writer, Michael J. Nelson, has been making a name for himself as a film critic, author, speaker, commentator, etc., and has hit upon a way of producing a type of MST3K without the expense of buying the rights to the movie: Riff Trax. Riff Trax is essentially a podcast; Nelson (and the occasional guest) sit down, watch the movie, and record their comments, jokes, insults, etc., and sell them as downloadable MP3s for $1.99. You open the MP3 in iTunes (or the MP3 player of your choice), rent (or download) the movie yourself, cue it up as instructed, and you're off. There is some "drift"--the MP3 and DVD get gradually out of sync--but the Riff Trax producers occasionally have a voice speak a line of dialogue from the movie to help re-sync the video and audio. It works very well.

They have three movies available--Road House, The Fifth Element, and Star Trek V: Shatner Kills the Franchise, on the latter, Nelson is joined by former MST3K cast member Kevin Murphy. Last weekend we watched/listened to the Riff Trax for Star Trek V and it was hilarious. Highly recommended.

Also available are Riff Trax taken from the Legend Films DVD reissues of the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Living Dead, and Reefer Madness. These Riff Trax are gleaned from the commentary tracks on these DVDs, which feature Nelson doing the MST3K thing. Some weeks ago, we had watched the Riffed version of the sublimely awful Plan 9 and, again, it was very very funny.

The ease of podcasting these days also means that just about anyone can produce their own "riff tracks." Hmm...

The Towering Inferno

It's all my fault:
The parent company of Tower Records, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sunday, is seeking to sell its assets through a court-supervised auction Oct. 5.

The company, which operates 89 stores in 20 states and is owned by the privately held MTS Inc., said yesterday that it needed to close the sale by mid-October to prepare for the holiday shopping season, when it has about 32 percent of its annual sales.

Tower said revenue fell to $430 million for the fiscal year ended July 31, from $476.1 million a year earlier. The company said intense competition had hurt its business and that of other music retailers.
Ever since I moved to a location that has no Tower Records, it's been downhill for them. For years I suspect I was keeping first the New York store(s) and then the Torrance, CA, store in business.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Reading with a Vingeance

I am almost finished the latest novel by one of the best sci-fi writers working today, Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. It's not bad--but I like it more as a view of how society will be changed by technology in the next 20 years than as a gripping drama. Admittedly, there is not much plot in the book (and what there is seems kind of half-baked), so once the novelty of the "new world" wears off, it's kind of slow-going, but I think it's worthwhile just for Vinge's view of the future and the future of media.

I've only read one other book by Vinge (the space epic A Deepness in the Sky, which was fantastic and highly recommended--it won the Hugo for Best Novel), but he is one of the biggest proponents of the "singularity," or the notion that we are quickly reaching the point where technological progress and change occur faster than our ability to understand it. Vinge taught computer science for years at U.C. San Diego and he is a popular speaker and writer, both in the areas of science fact and science fiction.

More rambling below the fold.

In the 2025, says the book, most people (especially young people) are "wearing"; that is, their computers are woven into the clothes they wear and wirelessly connect to displays embedded in contact lenses. Subtle tics, body movements, and eye movements control menu items and commands as well as virtual keyboards. Thus, users can--and almost always do--create virtual environments for themselves, so you can give any physical space whatever characteristics you like. More importantly, wireless Internet connectivity is ubiquitous, and people don't so much hang out physically with each other, but appear to each other in a way that is like a cross between virtual reality and Instant Messaging. That is, people pop virtually into the rooms of others--and can have whatever physical appearance they like. (Surprisingly, the book is entirely unbawdy. Even Ray Kurzweil has speculated about naughty matters in the age of the singularity.) People communicate through silent messaging, or a way of using a virtual keyboard to tap out messages meant for only one person, and those messages appear in big yellow letters in the receiver's field of vision.

More importantly, there is little real privacy, at least for people who are wearing. Sure, you can "go offline"--that is, take off your wearable--but when you're on, you're open to everyone, depending on how you have your security set. People can and do keep tabs on each other, often without the other knowing it, and people often pose as other people. Malware is abundant, and sometimes a person has to "fry-clean" their wearable.

Anyway, there's a lot more to it, but that's the general gist. What I like about the book is that Vince doesn't think all of this is wonderful. The general plot of the book hinges on the "bad guys" taking advantage of modern technology for nefarious purposes.

Now, I don't agree with a lot of this vision, but I do think wearable computer technology will be available (very primitive versions already exist) and certainly the constant connectivity is coming--assuming it's not here already. It's amazing (and often frightening) how much of our working and non-working lives are already conducted through Instant Messaging--or at the very least through e-mail. Taking it one or two steps further really doesn't seem like much of a stretch to me. Picking a VR avatar really isn't all that different from having a personal icon in AIM or Skype or whatever. Whether things in the real world will actually be even further along by 2025 is a perfectly fair question.

However, one of the major points of the book is related to one that I always use when I write or give talks about media and the future: people of my generation (late 30s) and older are not the future, nor are we going to be the ones who decide how technology and media will change. It's the kids--with their hula hoops, and their rock-n'roll, and their fax machines. In the book, the main character is a 70-year-old poet (who thus would have been in his 40s in the year 2000) who is recovering from Alzheimer's (which was just recently curable at the time the book is set). As a result (and I think this is a good plot device to ease us into Vinge's world without a lot of tedious exposition), the world he remembers is pretty much our world and thus he has to go about getting caught up on with new technology. (Amusingly, his 13-year-old granddaughter makes fun of his electronic paper as old-fashioned.) As he takes adult classes at a local high school, he hangs out with the kids--and thus we see how they are immersed in all of this stuff while some of the older folks use what they have to, but treat it all rather tentatively (sound familiar?).

There's also a fair amount about a nefarious plot by a Google-like company to digitize then destroy all the print books, which had been rendered superfluous by all the online content. While I think there's a certain legitimacy to the basic idea, the way it was handled in the book just seemed really dorky to me. (Maybe it will make more sense when I finish it.)

Some readers have complained (at least in the Amazon comments) that the vision of the future isn't all that different from today--and there is a point there. But think about 20 years ago (1986), the technologies that existed at the time, and the level at which they were used. There were computers--almost all my friends had a Commodore 64 or something similar, and in college the computer center had PCs or PC clones that ran DOS (I had a Mac--I've never changed). The Internet and e-mail existed, but were only used in government and academia. A friend of mine in high school had a summer job (for a computer company) around that time that gave him access to online message boards and he used to "IM" or e-mail a small cadre of connected friends. The cellphone was proposed as long ago as 1947, and the FCC approved cellular communications in 1982. The first cellular network was launched in 1983. Car phones have existed for years (they were a status symbol in L.A. long before cellphones became popular). It's one thing to have a technology in place, but quite another to get it to the point where it is highly usable (the exception being cellphones--they've never become usable), commercializable, and, more importantly, widely accepted and popular.

Anyway, I recommend the book more as a think piece about how technology and culture change each other. Half the fun, actually, is quibbling over the details or envisioning an alternate future. Or blogging at great length about it...

Hi Def Jam

I have only paid marginal attention to the Sony Blu-ray vs. Toshiba HD DVD battle, but Sony thinks it has the upper hand:
Sony made its latest market move this week, with the introduction of its recordable Blu-ray discs.
Big deal. In contrast, news out of Japan suggests that Toshiba may win this one:
GLAY'z...just released the world's first adult film on HD-DVD
Which do you think is bigger "killer app"? That's really not meant to be as facetious as it seems. Says Gizmodo:
It was the porn industry that helped decide the winner in the VHS/Beta wars 25 years ago. The porn industry helped make CD-ROMs ubiquitous and created the basis for online payment systems so prevalent today. And as a big-time electronics company executive told me a couple months ago, it will be the porn industry that decides the ultimate victor in the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD wars. So it's not surprising the industry decided to pioneer in the area of digital downloads.


Yes, it's Pluto Week here at Blogito Ergo Sum. Yesterday's New York Times online has a good summary of the Pluto debate. One line stood out:
The planet (if that is what it is) has been an oddball ever since Clyde Tombaugh spied it wandering in the outer reaches of the solar system beyond Neptune in 1930.
This implies that Tombaugh--who was at Lowell Observatory and thus he is the only American to have discovered a planet (for the time being, of course)--looked in the telescope one night and spotted little Pluto out of the blue. Actually, the existence of a planet beyond the orbit of Neptune had been theorized for decades before it was actually found--Percival Lowell (founder of the observatory) being among them. The reason they suspected something being there was that there were certain eccentricities in the orbit of Neptune that could only be explained by another large object in the vicinity. In fact, this was exactly how Neptune had been discovered in 1846--thanks to perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. Some astronomers also simply felt that, "Hey, we found Neptune. Maybe there's another one out there." So the search was on.

Lowell died in 1916, but his observatory continued the work. How? Far more laboriously than you would think. Clyde Tombaugh--a 24-year-old assisitant hired for the project--attached a camera to a telescope and took a series of photographic plates of the night sky in the general vicinity in which the object was believed to be, each taken one to two weeks apart. He would then place two separate plates into a device called a "blink comparometer" which essentially toggled between two different pictures. The goal was to see which of the many many white dots had moved (stars are fixed, while planets move about). It was a long, tedious, laborious process (they had a demonstration of the process when I took the tour--it kind of reminded me of analyzing TrendWatch's historical survey data...)--but on February 18, 1930, Tombaugh announced he had found it.

The new planet went nameless for a while, until a an 11-year-old British girl (whose father had connections in the astronomical community) suggested "Pluto." Cables were sent across the pond and to Arizona, where the directors of Lowell University rather liked the idea--especially in that the inital "Pl" are Percival Lowell's initials. Since they had naming rights, they chose "Pluto."

What's rather ironic about all this is that astronomers later discovered that Pluto was too small to have affected Neptune's orbit--and, in fact, the original "perturbations" were the result of an inaccurate estimate of Neptune's mass (19th-century astronomers were good but were working with pretty primitive resources). It's a good thing Tombaugh found something--imagine going on a wild goose chase of astronomical proportions!

Check In Out

On the surface, this sounds like a good idea:
Marriott is...testing a system that lets you check in on the way to the hotel using your Windows Mobile smartphone.

Users have to download mobility software from Marriott which then lets them use their device to check in, change their room if they want, confirm their rates and receive welcome information. When they arrive at the hotel, an automated dispenser is waiting to spit out their keys and they are in business. The software even remembers the data that has been entered, so you don't have to start from scratch if your signal is interrupted.

Marriott is currently testing this system at just one hotel. By pure coincidence, the test of a system relying on Windows Mobile is happening in Redmond, Washington.
Like most things involving mobile phones, I expect this will function nightmarishly, if at all. And hopefully people won't try to do this while they are driving to the hotel.

Dammit, Pomegranate

I didn't even know there was such a thing as pomegranate juice. From Science News Online:
Juice May Slow Prostate Cancer Growth (with recipe)

Several studies have associated diets high in plant-derived polyphenols—principally, the deeply pigmented antioxidants in many fruits and vegetables—with lower risks of malignancies including prostate cancer. Because the blood-red juice of pomegranates is especially rich in such compounds, Allan J. Pantuck of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues decided to test it against metastatic prostate cancer.
The researchers calculated that the men's average doubling time in PSA concentrations—a rough gauge of cancer growth—was 15 months. After men drank a glass of juice a day, their average doubling time more than tripled. In nearly one-third of men, Pantuck notes, PSA values actually fell—in a few cases, dramatically.

Although this is just one study and the juice showed no sign of curing the disease, Pantuck says it shows that pomegranate juice might be a beneficial adjunct to other therapies in men with this potentially lethal disease.
The bar at Tiznow here in town has a pomegranate martini, which I'm led to understand is quite good. Would that be as effective?

Plutonic Relationships

From the "making lemons into lemonade" file, publishers and toymakers see an economic upside to the redefinition of "planet":
Under a proposal by astronomers, the lineup of the solar system's planets would grow from nine to 12. For people who make their living on books, toys and games based on the Mercury-through-Pluto system, a change in the planets means plenty of revisions are in store.

The idea that our nine-planet solar system may soon join the obsolete world of eight-track tapes and slide rule should send science teachers, textbook writers and toymakers back to the cosmic drawing board

"Does it make our products obsolete?" asked Kim McLynn, spokesperson for Illinois-based Learning Resources, which makes an inflatable solar system and a Planet Quest game.
McLynn adds, surprisingly free of hyperbole, "Wow, a whole new universe."

Not everyone is happy, though:
Pity Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of PBS' "Star Gazer" show. His very first book, a full-length cartoon guide to naked-eye astronomy, features an entire chapter on the solar system -- the nine-planet version.

It won't be out for four more weeks -- after the world's astronomers are likely to open the solar system doors to three new planets: Ceres, Charon, and one nicknamed Xena to be renamed later.

"My book is out-of-date before it even hits the bookstands," Horkheimer said. "It's kind of like buying a computer. By the time you get it out of the box and get it hooked up, it's already obsolete."
Let's hope Horkheimer's text is more free of cliches than his comments.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dammit, Planet

So much for the notion that complexity doesn't increase over time. As per Sky & Telescope:
This week our solar system has nine planets. Next week, if astronomers approve a new definition of the word "planet," there will be 12 — with more to come. Newcomers to the list include Ceres, the largest asteroid; Charon, Pluto's largest moon; and 2003 UB313, an icy body more than twice as far from the Sun as Pluto and a little bigger (and not yet graced with an official name).
Here's the actual wording: "A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid-body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet."
Under the new system, the eight planets from Mercury through Neptune would be reclassified as "classical planets," while objects smaller than Mercury (including Ceres--now an asteroid--Pluto, Pluto's moon Charon, and 2003 UB313) would be classified as "dwarf planets" (or, perhaps more colloquially, "the Billy Barties"). At the same time, Pluto becomes the standard for a new type of an object called a "pluton" (I'm not wild about the name--it sounds like a subatomic particle) which is defined as "a small object with an orbital period longer than 200 years and a highly elongated path tipped steeply with respect to the ecliptic."

To make it even more confusing, there is this footnote:
"For two or more objects comprising a multiple-object system, the primary object is designated a planet if it independently satisfies the conditions above. A secondary object satisfying these conditions is also designated a planet if the system barycenter [center of mass] resides outside the primary. Secondary objects not satisfying these criteria are 'satellites.'"
Thus, Charon's moon is a planet and the Pluto-Charon system becomes a "double-planet." In case you were wondering.

Grammar school science classes (assuming there are any anymore; who knows these days?) are going to be a tad less festive, at least for a while.

This whole thing concerns certain people, who I guess are nostalgic for the old, original astronomical ennead and think that the name UB313 lacks poetry (unlike UB40, who at least had "Red Red Wine"). This is all well and good, and no one clings to the past like a barnacle as much as I do, but science is science, and the point of science is discover new information and refine definitions and theories. This disturbs those who like the idea of things being etched and stone and thus immutable and unchanging, but, sorry, that's not what science is or should ever be.

Besides, the definition of "planet" has itself changed over the centuries, and the "pantheon" has seen some objects come and go. In fact, I was actually surprised to find out that there has thus far never been any official definition of what a "planet" is, it being one of those things you know when you see. Before the advent of the telescope, planets were nothing more than "wandering stars" that moved with respect to the fixed stars of the constellations (no one knew they were big round chunks of rock and/or gas). When the telescope was invented in the 1600s, astronomers discovered that planets were actually large, round objects orbiting the Sun and, in fact, Ceres and other asteroids were called "planets" when they were discovered in the early 1800s. (They were downgraded to "asteroids" when a distinct population of similar small objects was found.)

I remember in the 1990s there was some contention over whether Pluto should be demoted from planet status--I think the term "trans-Neptunian object" was bandied about at one point. (In 2002, I visited Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which was the institution that had discovered Pluto in 1930, and they were having none of it. Pluto was a planet. Period. I detect a faint bias on their part....) The problem was that there were all these other objects in the Solar System (like 2003 UB313 and other Kuiper Belt objects) that were bigger than Pluto. So if Pluto was a planet, why not these objects? And if not these objects, then why Pluto?

Hence, the meeting this week to try to sort out all this mess.

Funnily enough:
Michael Brown (Caltech), codiscoverer of 2003 UB313, argues similarly on his Web site, where he also worries that having potentially dozens of planets in our solar system might make sense to astronomers but will be confusing to everyone else.
Like that's ever stopped anyone before! Heck, I've got five phone books; I think I can handle a few extra planets.

I really don't think the definition is a bad one--it delinates the eight "big boys" and sub-categorizes the newer objects (and, yes, even beloved Pluto) as, essentially, "planet-like objects." The only thing I dislike is the term "pluton." But that's strictly an aesthetic point.

My Fingers Did the Walking But Got Crushed by the Weight...

This conversation came up with some friends last night, and I started to dwell on it. Check this out: I have five phone books. All of them current. All of them different. I don't want five phone books. But there they are. And they are:
Capital District Area (white and yellow pages) published by TransWestern Publishing which uses the original "walking finger" logo of the original Yellow Pages. It is valid through January 2007.

Verizon Yellow Pages (with White Pages) for the Saratoga Springs Area, dated July 2006.

The Verizon Yellow Pages Companion Directory for Saratoga/Glens Falls, dated July 2006. This differs from the one above in that it is much smaller and includes Glens Falls, but not Ballston Spa, Schuylerville, etc. I think. I'm not entirely certain why this exists.

The Talking Phone Book (which is remarkably silent) for the Saratoga/Glens Falls Area, published by Hearst Holdings and dated 2006-2007.

The Saratoga Springs Telephone Directory, dated 2006-2007, published by Easy Book Publishing and billed as "Your Local Yellow Pages.
Now, all of these are unsolicited and have magically appeared by my mailbox over the past several months. Occasionally, I attempt to look up businesses or individuals, and it can be quite the research project. Even though they all cover roughly the same area (the Venn diagram I could create for all my phone books would have Saratoga Springs as the darkest-shaded region--and how upsetting is it that I even have to draw a Venn diagram for my phone books?), not everyone is listed in all of them. I've done research papers in school that took less time than finding the phone number for a restaurant. The rebuke in those old commercials--"Why use directory assistance for numbers you could just as easily look up in the phone book?"--is no longer valid.

I can't wait until we start having multiple 411s to choose from.

I really don't know what it is with telephony these days, but just about every aspect of it is completely, utterly maddening. This is why I have decided to revert back to the days when people sent messages by carrier pigeon. I am installing a telegraph. I have purchased one of those operator-assisted phones so I can crank it up, pick up the little ear cup, and say, like Humphrey Bogart, "Operator, get me Murray Hill 5-2845." Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days. Time to duet with Jean Stapleton....

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Not if they use this watch, they don't:
The EleeNo Bingo Watch has a series of tiny round windows laid out in a grid similar to a bingo game, where the outer dots show you the hours and the inner ones display the minutes. The only problem with that? There are just four minute indicators, forcing you to tell time in 15-minute increments.
I wonder if they also make a calculator that rounds everything to the nearest multiple of 10.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wreaks Q. Blurt, We Hardly Knew Ye

Curses, someone beat me to it: via Boing Boing, a very funny site containing fake obituaries for those weird names that turn up in the "from" fields of spam messages.
Manitoba M. Parsnip 1953 - 2006

Manitoba came to fame in the great Canadian vegetable wars of the early seventies. Such was his dominance in the root vegetable section he won the right to change his surname to Parsnip in 1972. This was a great source of family pride as his grandfather had been King Carrot in the twenties. Being the seventies they were also pleased to move into another vegetable surname, with Jasper Carrot finding fame in the UK.

The vegetable wars started when people began enhancing their crops with banned chemicals to simply grow them as big as possible. Manitoba and his pals saw this as sacrilege and waged war on the freak show fairs, wrecking any veg that were just too big for their own good. On they went, wanging watermelon, chucking carrots and throwing turnips around with gay abandon. The GM growers fought back and boy were they strong. The chemicals have gotten in their blood streams and they had super human strength. One of them had three arms, but that may well have been because he was from Alabama. These fights happened on a regular basis over the intervening years, the stalemate apparent to everyone bar the two fighting sides.

Manitoba lost his way in 1999 after a particularly bad crop and hit the bottle. It started with beer, beer became whisky, whisky became toilet duck, before he eventually hit the hard stuff and overdosed on industrial strength fertiliser.

In Through the Out Box

Oh, good, just what we need, another daily task masquerading as a psychological test (or vice versa):
Take a clear-eyed look at how you answer or file each email. Notice what you choose to keep or delete. Consider your anxiety when your inbox is jammed with unanswered messages.

The makeup and tidiness of your inbox is a reflection of your habits, your mental health and, yes, even the way Mom and Dad raised you.

"If you keep your inbox full rather than empty, it may mean you keep your life cluttered in other ways," says psychologist Dave Greenfield, who founded the Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford, Conn. "Do you cling to the past? Do you have a lot of unfinished business in your life?"

On the other hand, if you obsessively clean your inbox every 10 minutes, you may be so quick to move on that you miss opportunities and ignore nuances. Or your compulsion for order may be sapping your energy from other endeavors, such as your family.
I never read e-mail; I print out all messages and immediately eat them. It's safer that way. I reply randomly to to messages and calculate the odds that my response will be relevant to the original message. But then I only reply to messages that have the letter "q" in them. If the word "mackerel" appears in any message, I start clucking like a chicken. I sort all my mail by the fifth letter of the sender's middle name. If I don't know the sender's middle name, I have to stop work for the day and go out and walk aimlessly around the park for several hours, muttering the word "megaphone" to myself over and over. Any message marked "urgent" is printed on a large-format poster printer 36 x 72 inches and applied to the roof of my car so that it's readable from a circling helicopter, which is where I go to read it. I have separate e-mail accounts for every message I receive, and before I send a message I set up a separate e-mail account for it. I only save the messages that I receive from people's pets.

Let's not even talk about snail mail.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bat Boys

I just don't want to know:
Baby bats babble just like newborn human babes, a new study finds.

Babbling is thought to be a kind of vocal play that provides human infants a chance to train their vocal tract muscles in preparation for speech and to practice combining the syllables they will use as adults. Humans begin babbling at about 7 months of age.

Apart from a few other primates, like the pygmy marmoset, babbling has never been observed in any other mammals until now. However, certain species of songbirds are known to engage in a similar behavior, called "subsong."
If my brother and his wife discover their almost-seven-month-old daughter hanging upside-down from the ceiling, eating mosquitoes, and/or flapping about the house, another evolutionary fluke will have been discovered.

Bats. Ugh. I was bitten by a bat once, and ever since then I do not register on film, CCD, or even in mirrors, which causes almost insurmountable problems (but not as many as you may think). Shaving requires a small army of portrait artists. Getting ready for a date requires an NEA grant. All I can say is, never trust an abstract expressionist. The time I hired Frank Frazetta was just weird.

On the Ball

OK, then:
A new type of robot balances on a ball rather than relying on legs or wheels.

The Ballbot, as it is called, can move in tight spots, making it potentially more useful than other designs for some uses.

Carnegie Mellon University robotics Professor and inventor Ralph Hollis first started fiddling with the thing at home. Then he got funding from the National Science Foundation.

"We wanted to create a robot that can maneuver easily and is tall enough to look you in the eye," Hollis said. "Ballbot is tall and skinny, with a much higher center of gravity than traditional wheeled robots. Because it is omnidirectional, it can move easily in any direction without having to turn first."

An onboard computer reads balance information from its internal sensors, activating rollers that mobilize the urethane-coated metal sphere on which it moves. At rest, Ballbot stands on three retractable legs.
Leaving aside for the moment the amusement to be had in the name "Ballbot," that's nothing. When I was in physical therapy last winter, there were patients there who could do a remarkable number of physiologically improbable things while balanced on balls (now cut that out). They had these giant, rubber orbs (there, that's less suggestive) that you had to balance on to regain some kind of muscular strength (I'm unclear on what the point of any physical therapy is, since I don't actually have muscles, but rather move my limbs via an intricate network of water-inflatable bladders--call it an evolutionary fluke like my prehensile tail). I had wanted to work out on the giant rubber orbs, but it was hard to figure out how you would exercise a shoulder on them, although I was keen to give it a go. As it is, my daily workout--which involves 900 situps and the regular hoisting of a live salmon--also involves balancing on a variety of geometric solids. I'm pretty good at maneuvering across the room while balanced on a dodecahedron. It doesn't have the consummate beauty of the sphere, but there's something cool about the word "dodecahedron."

Let's see a robot try that.

Jacks of All Trades

If the back of this new Yamaha 7.1 A/V receiver isn't the most terrifying thing I've ever seen, I don't know what is. By the time you get everything connected to it, entire media formats will have come and gone. I can't help but think of that sequence in George Pal's Time Machine-- while you're hooking up components, the decades, centuries, millennia are passing quickly by outside the window until finally the Morlocks break in and eat all the cabling. The first thing I would play on it would be "In the Year 2525" just for the sake of nostalgia.
And that it uses two remotes is an added bonus.

The Far Side--The Reality Show

Via Roberto, I find that Gary Larson is alive and well and writing for
Twenty-one penguins were rescued on a hot east Texas highway Tuesday after a truck carrying the wildlife to a temporary home south of Houston overturned, said a state trooper. Four penguins and some exotic fish were killed in the accident...
...including the most unlikely line to appear in a news story:
The truck, also carrying an octopus that was uninjured, was bound for Moody Gardens, a tourist destination in Galveston...
Whew! Thank heavens the octopus was OK. I expect Moody Gardens is going to be decidedly moodier for a time.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hot Line

While some of us get a warm, tingly feeling when certain people call us (or, more often, a sick, retching feeling), now we can always get the warm fuzzies, thanks to a BlueTooth-enabled jacket:
Flame 5 (F5) allows to notify a remote person via heat. If a person sends an SMS to a remote person wearing Flame 5, the clothing heats up depending on the personal message. Embedded in the jacket is light-weight technology that allows the mobile device of the wearer to connect to the jacket via Bluetooth and to heat different parts of the clothing. Today’s mobile phones use sound, vibration and light to interact with the user and use rather alerting mechanisms. Flame 5 offers mobile phones a more sensual and calm communication via heat. Heat has been chosen since it is often associated with emotional connectedness. Moreover heat can be felt unobtrusively and in the periphery of a wearer’s attention.
This is perfect for 100+-degree weather, but much better than the Vibrate mode on my mobile, which is hard to detect when I've had too much coffee.

However, reading the above passage, one wonders if constant exposure to this jacket causes the wearer to randomly lose contact with the English language. Which would be ironic if it did--you know, a communication device that results in the breakdown of communication. Hm. Kind of like a cellphone, now that I think about it. Perhaps we should start to talk to non-communication devices to properly communicate with people. For example, I frequently speak into the heads of marble statues, but it never occurred to me while doing to that I could actually be communicating with someone completely unintended. (I never took art class as a child and do not understand the concept of sculpture so I remain convinced that statues have actual people trapped inside them and figure they might need to hear a friendly voice--although I usually end up screaming profanity at them. It has yet to be explained why I walk about shouting profanity into the heads of marble statues. I should probably look into that; I get kicked out of too many museums.)

I'm not sure I like the idea of a jacket that heats up when someone calls me. I think I'll wait for a pair of BlueTooth-enabled tube socks that turn cold and wet when the phone rings.

"It's Full of Stars"

We can fall asleep, but now we can try to sleep without falling, as:
[a] young Dutch architect has created a floating bed which hovers above the ground through magnetic force and comes with a price tag of 1.2 million euros ($1.54 million).

Janjaap Ruijssenaars took inspiration for the bed -- a sleek black platform, which took six years to develop and can double as a dining table or a plinth -- from the mysterious monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 cult film "2001: A Space Odyssey."
I worry, though: if I get on top of the thing, will I suddenly fall through a portal in the space-time continuum, experience a tediously long psychedelic light show, and emerge eating a lovely dinner on a strange planet, before ultimately growing old and then evolving into a star child?

If so, it seems like rather a lot of trouble for a bed.

The Strangest Line I Read Today

In today's New York Times, discussing a new collection of Jayne Mansfield movies on DVD:
It was Mansfield’s anatomy that made her a star — she claimed a 41-inch bust line and a 22-inch waist, though some scholars dispute those figures
Is there much scholarship on this topic? Peer-reviewed journal articles? Complex computer modeling? Lectures and symposia?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Curry Favor

Well, then. Says the New Scientist:
Call it yellow ginger, haldi, turmeric or E100, the yellow root of Curcuma longa, a staple ingredient in curry, is turning out to be gratifyingly healthy. Now Tze-Pin Ng and colleagues at the National University of Singapore have discovered that curry eating seems to boost brain power in elderly people.

Curcumin, a constituent of turmeric, is an antioxidant, and reports have suggested that it inhibits the build-up of amyloid plaques in people with Alzheimer's.
I guess my inordinate fondness for Indian and Thai cuisine will stand me in good stead in my dotage, which should be along any day now.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Dark Lord

OK, I admit, this is very funny: a YouTuber (no, not a potato or some sort of yam-like object) reedited a sequence in Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader is sitting in his clamshell commander's chair, producing the effect that "Smartass Vader" is sarcastically opening and shutting the clamshell every time his subordinate opens his mouth.

An Inconvenient Drink

Well, this is the spirit (as it were):
A Danish brewery in Greenland is brewing beer using water from the melting Arctic ice-cap.... The brewers claim that the water is at least 2,000 years old and free of minerals and pollutants. The first 66,000 litres of the new dark and pale ales are on their way to the Danish market.
I suppose the real question is what temperature it is best served at...

More Premonitions About the Looming Robot Holocaust

Well, at least they're not cloaking the evil in something benign.
Kotaku reports on this 5-foot tall fully articulating Gumdam action figure. Designed for "men in their 20's to 40's" it costs $3000, weighs 77 pounds, includes a ginormous black gun, 14 moving parts, and an infrared remote.

A Keyboard? How Quaint

Do you want to play piano but have no room in your home or office for an actual piano? Well, then, why not learn the notes to Billy Joel's "Table Man" and try the "virtual piano":
Digital Information Development (DID) has developed a highly portable virtual piano that is played with a keyboard consisting of projected laser beams.

The box-shaped device measures about 10 x 3 x 3 cm (4 x 1 x 1 in.) and weighs about 100 grams (3.5 oz.). Using a red semiconductor laser module and holographic optical element, the device projects a 25-key 2-octave keyboard onto the surface in front of it (black surfaces don’t work because they absorb the light). A CMOS camera module and infrared (invisible) red semiconductor laser module detect which keys are touched, and the corresponding notes are emitted from speakers built into the device. Chords can also be played, and DID claims it is technically possible to reproduce weighted notes (but presumably not with this version).
Essentially, it turns any surface into a piano. While I can certainly see the advantages in playing the desk, the kitchen table, or the automobile dashboard, I think this could revolutionize the massage industry. Just project the keyboard on someone's back and get Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman to come in and do a solo or two. It would be quite the workout. Could be fun with significant others and/or pets, too.

Miss Fortune

For those who believe that a) the future can be foretold in any way, b) that a modern device for such a purpose would be an improvement over the old Magic 8 Ball, and c) love to spend money on this kind of crap, I give you: the Fortune Ball:
Invented by Dr Ming Fang, a well-known developer of medical and industrial products, the Fortune Ball takes a little bit of crystal waving nonsense and applies some science to it. By using the entire Chinese calendar, theories of Astrology, Numerology, I Ching and Biorhythms, once you tell the Fortune Ball your accurate birth date and time (it's on your birth certificate if you're unsure of the hour) it will in a jiffy tell you your fortune for any given day up 30 days in advance. It can also tell you retrospectively what the last 30 days were like. The Ball looks at three aspects of your life; your Health, Wealth and Love life, and the intricately etched crystal ball will glow different colours to let you know what to expect in each area of your life.
What the Fortune Ball told me was that "Ming Fang's" actual name was Sidney Applebaum. I'm not so much interested in the future, but I am eager to have it tell me what the past was like, because I don't always remember it as well as I remember the future.

There's a pertinent George Santayana quote about how those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it--or someting like that, but since I can't remember the actual quote I'm doomed to not be able to repeat it. Ironic, really.

This is kind of a metaphor for life in that, rather like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, I do not live my life chronologically. My life is not linear, but is rather like a Moebius strip, with the future and the past gradually becoming interchangeable. It does make hitting deadlines rather a challenge, which some would tell you explains rather a lot...

Baby Got Bacteria

As if cellphones weren't bad enough just as general irritants, now they're a potential health hazard:
Your mobile phone could be a major health hazard, research shows.
The phones, an essential part of everyday life for 55million Britons, are crawling with potentially lethal bacteria.

With tens of thousands of microbes living on each square inch, they harbour more bacteria than a lavatory seat, the sole of a shoe or a door handle. Microbiologists say the combination of constant handling and the heat generated by the phones creates a prime breeding ground for all sorts of bugs that are normally found on our skin.

They include Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause illnesses from pimples and boils to pneumonia and meningitis and is a close relative of the superbug MRSA.

Joanna Verran, professor of microbiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "Mobile phones are stored in bags or pockets, are handled frequently and held close to the face.

"In other words, they come into contact with more parts of our body and a wider range of bacteria than toilet seats. The phones contained more skin bacteria than any other object. This could be due to the fact that this type of bacteria increase in high temperatures and our phones are perfect for breeding these germs as they are kept warm and cosy in pockets, handbags and briefcases."
I suppose, then, that it doesn't help that I store my cellphone inside my body, using an incision made in my forearm. To my credit, though, I do keep my phone encased in a thick impenetrable layer of cellophane, thus allowing no actual germs near it (this is when I temporarily abandon my Howard Hughes-like existence and allow millions of microscopic germs near me--normally I spend my day soaking in a brine-like solution and scrubbing my flesh clean constantly). Of course, the cellophane layer--which I refer to as the cellophone--makes it very difficult to hear callers or for callers to hear me, but that's no different than my normal cellphone reception.

It occurs to me that Yo-Yo Ma would also likely have something he would refer to as a cellophone. Pronounced differently, of course.

Just Conduit

I've been eagerly awaiting the advent of broadband over power lines (BPL), and it may actually happen some day:
The United States is one step closer to jumping onto the internet through its electrical outlets.

The Federal Communications Commission has reaffirmed its intention to allow the implementation of broadband-over-power-line, or BPL, technology. It adopted a new announcement by Governor Pataki last week that $2.5 million is now available in grants for building internet infrastucture.

Industry analyst Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects, said the next option for opposition groups is the courts.

"It's now up to the lobbying efforts and the legal beagles to take up the case," he said.

However, Dzubeck added that if the FCC were challenged further, the groups would likely agree a compromise because of the strength of the pro-BPL lobby.
But why limit it to power lines? I think every conduit into the home or office should carry Internet access--plumbing, gas lines, the central air system, you name it.

In fact, I think that if squirrels or bugs or bats get into the house they should be carrying some kind of Internet access that I can tap into. Heck, if I'm going to chase creatures around the house, it may as well be with an Ethernet cable. I hear PetSmart is now offering kittens and puppies for adoption that can function as Internet hubs, to which you can connect network cables, kind of like leashes that transmit data. If you go out, just make sure you clean the spam off the neighbor's lawn.

I also think Internet access should be administered intravenously into the human body. But why limit it to physical conduits? Everywhere we walk and drive should be a thick cloud of wireless Internet signals that we can connect to via cranial implants.