Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Space Ghost

Via Ken, an appropriate image today from the Astronomy Picture of the Day: A Spooky Nebula.
The dark nebula SH2-136 appears to be celebrating Halloween all of the time. The complex process of star formation create dust clouds of many shapes and sizes -- it is human perception that might identify a ghoulish creature, on the right of the above image, chasing humans. Halloween's modern celebration retains historic roots in dressing to scare away the spirits of the dead. Since the fifth century BC, Halloween has been celebrated as a cross-quarter day, a day halfway between an equinox (equal day / equal night) and a solstice (minimum day / maximum night in the northern hemisphere). With our modern calendar, however, the real cross-quarter day will occur next week. Other cross-quarter markers include Groundhog Day and Walpurgis Night.

Poor Circulation

Uh oh. Says the New York Times:
Circulation at the nation’s largest newspapers plunged over the last six months, according to figures released today. The decline, one of the steepest on record, adds to the woes of a mature industry beset by layoffs and the possible sale of some of its flagships.

Overall, average daily circulation for 770 newspapers was 2.8 percent lower in the six-month period ending Sept. 30 than in the comparable period last year, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported. Circulation for 619 Sunday papers fell by 3.4 percent.

But some papers fared much worse. The Los Angeles Times lost 8 percent of its daily circulation, and 6 percent on Sunday. The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times Company, lost 6.7 percent of its daily circulation and almost 10 percent on Sunday.

The New York Times, one of the few major papers whose circulation held steady over the last few reporting periods, did not emerge unscathed this time: its daily and Sunday circulation each fell 3.5 percent. The Washington Post suffered similar declines.

The Wall Street Journal’s new Weekend Edition, just over a year old, lost 6.7 of its circulation from a year ago.
Remember, this is not a new phenomenon. According to Newspaper Association of America data, newspaper circulation peaked in the early 1980s and has been declining ever since, a process set in motion by the advent of 24-hour cable news. The effect of the Internet is only hastening a trend set in motion some years earlier.

Still, some people just don't get it:
Newspaper executives attribute some of the latest losses to intentional cutbacks in the number of copies that are paid for in bulk by third parties, for example to be distributed to hotel guests. These count as paid circulation but are of less interest to advertisers than copies paid for directly by readers.
Well, actually, they do have a point. Still, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it may not be an oncoming train:
Still, the association said, when newspaper Web sites are taken into account, the number of readers its members reach is up very sharply. Revenues from Web sites are rising quickly as well, but they account for only a small portion of overall revenues, and it could be decades before Internet revenues exceed those from the printed editions of major newspapers.
Newspaper readership--at least in print--is in for some big-time generational changes.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Icon Tact

I bought this Braun hand blender (er, I mean, handheld blender) and I was looking through the impenetrable instruction book and came across the greatest warning icon I have ever seen:

It wouldn't be unreasonable to place this little warning sign on just about every object in my house...

Radio, Radio

Today they're called podcasts, but back in the Golden Age of Radio, they were called radio shows.

For those who love old-time radio dramas, here is a link to 100 horror dramas from the good ol' days, including "The Phantom of the Opera," "Sorry, Wrong Number," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "The Dummy," "Buried Alive," "Donovan's Brain," "Frankenstein," and "Jack Benny Throws a Hallowe'en Party."

Needless to say, Vincent Price is all over the place. And that's a good thing.

Last Class Mail

On the subject of the mail, when I receive letters from my bank or credit card company that say "Important Information About Your Account" on the envelope, it really irks me when I open it to discover it is another stupid credit card offer. I have seen data that indicate that printing lines to that effect on the envelope stimulate recipients to open them three times faster, but I have to say it makes me stuff them into the paper shredder 50 times faster.

Prize Patrol

So I get this card in the mail today that reads, in part:
You are an official prizewinner in our new Mercedes, BMW,
Porsche, or $40,000 cash promotion. We have been unable to contact you...
Now, granted, I always ignore notices telling me that I have won contests I never actually entered, but this scam would be a tad more compelling if the last three people who lived at this address didn't receive the exact same card on the exact same day.

The Great Pumpkin

For those who need a heavy dose of cute, herewith the niece, Lucy Bee, 9 months and growing (tempus fugit!), dressed up as the Human Pumpkin Girl. I bear at least some of the responsibility for the pumpkin costume....
As it turns out, I will be on jury duty on Halloween, and they say to dress in a manner that is respectful of the court. I was thinking of a similar pumpkin outfit. Or, better yet, a Starfleet uniform, like that juror in the Clinton trial back in the 90s....

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Soul of Wit

...is brevity, of course. And in today's attention-deficit-disorder-based world, the briefer the better. So Wired magazine recently asked a bunch of writers to come up with short stories that are only six words long. Some of my favorites:
Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.
- William Shatner [jeez, he's everywhere!]

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
- Joss Whedon

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood

Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu -
no carrier.
- Charles Stross

Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.
- Vernor Vinge

We kissed. She melted. Mop please!
- James Patrick Kelly

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card

Kirby had never eaten toes before.
- Kevin Smith

Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.
- Margaret Atwood

Bulleted Text

Yes, I'm with Gizmodo: perhaps this is a sign of the apocalypse:
An Oklahoma retired veteran and state school superintendent candidate is campaigning to have bullet-proof textbooks. Bill Crozier tested traditional textbooks to see what, if any kind of bullets a textbook would stop. The traditional textbooks were able to stop handgun bullets, but not rifle bullets.
Whew! Saved by trigonometry!

Sort of like that old proverb about the bible in the breast pocket...

I can think of a few textbooks I've wanted to put some bullets through (like that one I had in Advanced Chemistry freshman year in college...).

There is no truth to the rumor, though, that certain literary enclaves (like Yaddo here in Saratoga) are toying witth the idea of making protective vests out of textbooks. (Insert own metaphor here.)

Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers

Uh, OK:
The sonic bed is a king-size bed with 12-channel surround sound. It may look like a wooden tank from the outside, but inside its got enough speakers to dwarf any home theater set up. Created by Kaffe Matthews as a museum exhibit (no plans for retail as of yet), the bed requires 220 volts of electricity and covers every inch of your body in sound.
I guess this is perfect for those who don't have enough of an insomnia problem.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


What could possibly be more unpleasant than blundering into a bar on karaoke night? Why, having Griffin's iKaraoke, of course:
Karaoke sends the music from your iPod to your stereo minus the lead vocals, so you can step up to the mic and sing the lead in your favorite tunes.
Well, maybe I was wrong. Perhaps a karaoke-singing robot would be more unpleasant. It's certainly more disturbing, and will almost certainly be one of the elements of the impending robot holocaust.

Shrimp Scampering

From the "Uh, OK" file, here is a link to a video of a shrimp on a treadmill. (You have to sit through an ad first.) No, that's not an un-PC statement. It's an actual shrimp (i.e., the crustacean). Why would there be a shrimp on a treadmill? Perhaps it was referred to as a "jumbo shrimp" once too often and got self-conscious. Actually, though:
Researchers measure activity of an exercising shrimp by time, speed and oxygen level.
Ah, of course. Poor thing. He's just a prawn in someone else's game...

Cursors, Foiled Again!

Looking for that special Christmas gift? Via Boing Boing, try the Cursors That Kill T-shirt.

I think we've all been there at one time or other...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Burnin' for You--Not

Gizmodo, of all places, has a post about the Coca-Cola Company's new Enviga green tea soft drink that is apparently supposed to "burn calories." Uh huh. (I confess I had never heard of it, but I don't quite get the physics or the chemistry behind a soft drink that can burn calories unless you drink it while running on a treadmill, perhaps out of one of those hamster-cage bottle things.) The Consumerist rightly throws the BS flag on this one.

Lying in Bait

Do you want to sleep on raw fish? Sure, we all do! Perfect for your bed of rice: sushi pillows:

Friday, October 13, 2006

For Want of a Snail

Uh, OK...
RealSnailMail is a performance art piece in which the artists create snail mail with real snails. The intent is to harness the power of gastropods to deliver email messages across short distances using special waterproof RFID tags glued to their shells.

In the project, messenger snails are 'chipped' by using a waterproof glue to affix an RFID tag to its shell. The project will focus on a suitable snail environment (like a fish tank) with several RFID readers installed at different spots.

The project begins with a web site that accepts short messages from people on the Internet. These messages are placed into a queue for snail mail delivery.
Kind of like Roadrunner some days...

Prison Cells

Yes, but:
YouMail is a free service that lets you change your cellphone's voicemail greeting according to who's calling. You could record a separate personalized voicemail announcement for every entry in your phonebook.
Whilst I like this idea in theory, perhaps it's just me, but when people call my cellphone, no one ever leaves voice mail. I don't know if anyone bothers listening to the outgoing message or just gives up if I don't answer after two rings--which I never do because, well, cell reception in the house is virtually non-existent (why is why I had to get a landline), plus I hate talking on cellphones in public (it's rude and obnoxious, plus I get self-conscious) and of course I refuse to talk while driving (hey, someone's got to stay alert out there, given how idiotically everyone seems to be driving lately--lanes? what are they?).

OK, I'm better now.

Since incoming calls come out of my cell minutes (and I don't have a first-minute-free plan), I also rely on caller ID. I'm always amused when the same unknown people call over and over, obstinately refusing to leave a message. I always return messages (sometimes even promptly), should anyone ever actually leave one, but don't see any reason to maintain 24/7 telephonic availability--especially to "unknown" callers (who are usually only going to ask me for money).

Gross Domestic Product

Definitely the grossest I've seen (since, perhaps, the chocolate chip pancake-and-sausage-on-a-stick): deep-fried Coca-Cola. I kid you not:
There are fried Twinkies and even fried candy bars.
Now, vendor Abel Gonzales Jr. has come up with a new artery-clogging concoction for the State Fair of Texas. It's fried Coke.
Gonzales deep-fries Coca-Cola-flavored batter. He then drizzles Coke fountain syrup on it. The fried Coke is topped with whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and a cherry. Gonzales said the fried Coke came about just from thinking aloud.
I think I'd rather take my chances with E. coli-infused spinach.

Introducng the Fall Collection

Get it now, just in time for the 31st. If you have a couple of grand to drop on your Halloween festoonery, be sure to visit this online catalog of haunted furniture. Personally, I'd use this stuff all year round, especially the chair that has a ghoul intermittently spring out of it. (The flailing "exorcist bed" is also kind of cool, but could get messy.) Breaks the ice at parties.

I Can't Believe It's Butter

With so much going on in today's high-tech world of iPods, cellphones, PlayStations, Google and YouTube, etc. etc. etc., we often lose sight of the fact that butter-spreading technology has also been proceeding apace.

For example, via mi hermano, the "One-Click Butter Cutter" for those who don't trust themselves alone with a full stick of butter. Now you can just squeeze out a small, healthy pat.
You can also squeeze the butter pats right into your mouth, if you're into that.

And, via Marginal Revolution's link to a slideshow of strange Japanese inventions, the spreadable butter stick:

Word of advice: if you have this butter stick, as well as a glue stick and/or any of those stain-removing sticks, you might not want to keep them all in the same drawer.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Battle of the Bands

Via Boing Boing and courtesy of "GooTube," an inspired bit of Terry Gilliam-esque animation featuring an all-out war among classic rock album covers. One of the funniest things I've seen in a while.

You know, some people just have way too much time on their hands.


Some of you may recall a link to a video of a wry British guy--named Dr. Ashen, as it turns out--reviewing (quite hysterically) a piece of shite MP4 player. Now he's back with a look at a green laser pointer.

Back to the Future

So what was life like in the year 2000? Or, I should say, what did they predict life in the year 2000 would be like 50 years ago? This article from the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics, written by the then-science editor of the New York Times, does a spectacularly bad job of forecasting the future--but some things ultimately came to pass, although in a somewhat different way than had been envisioned. The article discusses the hypothetical Dobson family of 2000, living in their ultramodern city of Tottenville.

Some choice excerpts:
Tottenville [is] a hypothetical metropolitan suburb of 100,000....Tottenville is as clean as a whistle and quiet. It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute air with smoke and soot. In the homes electricity is used to warm walls and to cook. Factories all burn gas, which is generated in sealed mines. The tars are removed and sold to the chemical industry for their values, and the gas thus laundered is piped to a thousand communities.

The highways that radiate from Tottenville are much like those of today, except that they are broader with hardly any curves. In some of the older cities, difficult to change because of the immense investment in real estate and buildings, the highways are double-decked. The upper deck is for fast nonstop traffic; the lower deck is much like our avenues, with brightly illuminated shops. Beneath the lower deck is the level reserved entirely for business vehicles.
It is a cheap house. With all its furnishings, Joe Dobson paid only $5000 for it. Though it is galeproof and weatherproof, it is built to last only about 25 years. Nobody in 2000 sees any sense in building a house that will last a century.
They've got a point, there...
Everything about the Dobson house is synthetic in the best chemical sense of the term. When Joe Dobson awakens in the morning he uses a depilatory. No soap or safety razor for him. It takes him no longer than a minute to apply the chemical, wipe it off with the bristles and wash his face in plain water.

There are no dish washing machines...because dishes are thrown away after they have been used once, or rather put into a sink where they are dissolved by superheated water. Two dozen soluble plastic plates cost a dollar. They dissolve at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, so that boiling-hot soup and stews can be served in them without inviting a catastrophe.
I like this next idea...
When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors — all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.

Cooking as an art is only a memory in the minds of old people. A few die-hards still broil a chicken or roast a leg of lamb, but the experts have developed ways of deep-freezing partially baked cuts of meat. Even soup and milk are delivered in the form of frozen bricks.

This expansion of the frozen-food industry and the changing gastronomic habits of the nation have made it necessary to install in every home the electronic industrial stove which came out of World War II. Jane Dobson has one of these electronic stoves. In eight seconds a half-grilled frozen steak is thawed; in two minutes more it is ready to serve. It never takes Jane Dobson more than half an hour to prepare what Tottenville considers an elaborate meal of several courses.
Microwave ovens, anyone? And how about a big "oh, yuck" for this next bit:
By 2000, a vast amount of research has been conducted to exploit principles that were embryonic in the first quarter of the 20th century. Thus sawdust and wood pulp are converted into sugary foods. Discarded paper table “linen” and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy.
However, does this next bit sound familiar?
Of course the Dobsons have a television set. But it is connected with the telephones as well as with the radio receiver, so that when Joe Dobson and a friend in a distant city talk over the telephone they also see each other. Businessmen have television conferences. Each man is surrounded by half a dozen television screens on which he sees those taking part in the discussion. Documents are held up for examination; samples of goods are displayed. In fact, Jane Dobson does much of her shopping by television. Department stores obligingly hold up for her inspection bolts of fabric or show her new styles of clothing.
Anyway, go read the whole thing. Some of it will sound eerily prescient, some wishful thinking, some downright bizarre.

Of course, we shouldn't mock too much. As Ray Kurzweil has explained on numerous occasions, one of the hallmarks of the coming "singularity" is the fact that technological chnge that takes place exponentially will ultimately reach a point where progress happens faster than our ability to forecast it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Delusions of Adequacy

For all those insultants (rather than consultants) out there, here is a link to a blog that collects famous insults. My favorites:
"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
Winston Churchill

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
Groucho Marx

"He had delusions of adequacy."
Walter Kerr
And perhaps the most relevant in my line of work:
"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts...for support rather than illumination."
Andrew Lang

Friday, October 06, 2006

Be Kind...

Via Version 1.0, useful as a gag gift or an accessory for the truly gullible:
DVD Rewinder

Too many DVDs, and CDs and not enough time to rewind? Are your DVDs running a bit too slow? The DVD rewinder is the perfect solution! This novelty rewinder comes with the exclusive Centriptal Velocity Spindle providing the world’s fastest DVD rewind!

The idea of a "Centriptal Velocity Spindle" may have been (marginally) more convincing if they had spelled it correctly. You can bet, though, that there were some high-level meetings at Blockbuster about how they could charge people for un-rewound DVDs....

Monday, October 02, 2006

To Serve Man

Sure, this seems harmless enough:
In Japan...[r]esearchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed a robot that can taste — an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d'oeuvres.
Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort — a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.

The "tasting" is done elsewhere, however.

At the end of the robot's left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object's chemical composition.
But, uh oh:
When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.
It's a cookbook!!