Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wheelchair stairs

These Wheelchair stairs are pretty awesome:


"These stairs/ramp are in Brussels. Apart from the visual appeal, I like this because it allows people in wheelchairs to navigate the stairs without segregating them from those on foot. Brilliant and beautiful!"

Friday, January 30, 2015

Photos of the Week

All sorts of great pictures from In Focus, Photos of the Week: 1/24-1/30 "This week we have images of lemurs in China, a Dalek in a pool in the UK, the blizzard that hit the U.S. East Coast, the liberation of Kobani, Syria, a rare megamouth shark, a wine cork portrait of the King and Queen of Spain, a Zanzibari fisherman, and much more."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Every Time Travel Movie Ever, Ranked

io9 lists Every Time Travel Movie Ever, Ranked

"With the release of yet another time travel movie this week (Project Almanac), it's time for us to look back at the great time travel movies of our past. Here are all the major time travel movies ever, ranked. Here are the rules: No animation. No short films. And no movies that where someone is frozen (or something) and then they wake up in the future (so Mel Gibson's Forever Young, Encino Man are OUT)."

Normally I'd just read this and nod and humf at some. But they criminally ranked Timecrimes way too low so I had to take a crack at it:

These are good movies worth seeing roughly in order favorite to least

  1. Back To The Future (1985)
  2. Groundhog Day (1993)
  3. Primer (2004)
  4. Back To The Future 2 (1989)
  5. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
  6. Timecrimes (2007)
  7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
  8. Donnie Darko (2001)
  9. Terminator (1984)
  10. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
  11. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
  12. Looper (2012)
  13. Interstellar (2014)
  14. X-Men Days of Future's Past (2014)
  15. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
  16. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

These are fine, worth catching on cable or renting:

  • Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Midnight In Paris (2011)
  • Army of Darkness (1993)
  • Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
  • About Time (2013)
  • Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) - The games with death make it
  • The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)
  • Men In Black 3 (2012)
  • Brigadoon (1954) - this musical really doesn't fit on this list
  • Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

I've seen these and they aren't good:

  • Back to the Future Part 3 (1990)
  • Timecop (1994)
  • The Time Machine (1960)
  • Final Countdown (1980)
  • Somewhere In Time (1980)
  • 13 Going on 30 (2004)
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  • Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)
  • Kate & Leopold (2001)
  • Just Visiting (2001)
  • The Butterfly Effect (2004)
  • The Lake House (2006)

The Movies I didn't see:

  • The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
  • Flight of the Navigator (1986)
  • The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1998)
  • Predestination (2015)
  • Deja Vu (2006)
  • The Last Mimzy (2007)
  • The Jacket (2005)
  • Daleks: Invasion Earth 2051AD (1966)
  • The Time Machine (2002)
  • Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982)
  • Freejack (1992)
  • Timeline (2003)
  • The Sound of Thunder (2005)
  • Click (2006)
  • Time After Time (1979) - I saw it, but I don't remember it

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Russia is hinting at a new Cold War over SWIFT. So what’s SWIFT?

Henry Farrell in The Washington Post's Monkey Cage explains Russia is hinting at a new Cold War over SWIFT. So what’s SWIFT?. I didn't know of any of this.

"Because SWIFT plays such a crucial role in international financial transactions. Russia’s own financial system relies on SWIFT and would likely be crippled if it were no longer able to use the system. Russian banks would have great difficulty in engaging in transactions with each other."

Bad Assumptions About Apple

After Apple announced the most profitable quarter of any company ever, Ben Thompson writes Bad Assumptions.

And yet, the perception that Apple is somehow hanging on by the skin of their teeth persists. I was speaking to someone about Apple’s particularly excellent China results this afternoon, and was struck at how their questions were so focused on threats to Apple – “How will Apple respond to Xiaomi” for example. This is in stark contrast to the way most think about a company like Google, where their dominance in whatever field they choose to enter is assumed, just as Microsoft’s was a decade ago. Apple, though, is always a step away from catastrophe.

It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% – a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.

9 surprising facts about the sense of touch

I really don't like Vox's Buzzfeed headlines but I found 9 surprising facts about the sense of touch to actually be surprising.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

So I haven't written a movie review in a while, let's correct that. I saw A Most Violent Year tonight and you shouldn't. I'm not sure why this movie is getting so much praise. It's written and directed by J.C. Chandor who's previous films Margin Call and All Is Lost I mostly liked.

First the basics. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales the head of a heating oil company in New York in 1981. He built the business himself and it's doing well and he's trying to expand by investing all his savings in a new storage facility. Straining his finances isn't his only problem. For the last six months many of his trucks have been hijacked and the oil stolen. He doesn't know who is doing it but suspects one of his competitors in this shady industry. The police have been no help and in fact the DA, David Oyelowo, is investigating him and the whole industry. But here's the hook, Abel is, in spite of all this adversity, trying to do the right thing. He's really trying to be honest in his dealings while being aggressive in his business. This is a marked difference from his competitors and his wife, Jessica Chastain. She's the daughter of a mob guy and keeps threatening to get her family involved if Abel doesn't step up. She also handles the company's books.

So that's a fine setup and the movie isn't horrible but it doesn't go anywhere. First, I didn't believe for a moment that Abel is successful. The film just states that he is, but he doesn't make any decision that a boss would need to make. If your trucks are being hijacked and your drivers attacked again and again, you have to do something to protect them. You can't just send them out and say they're stronger for going out again and the attackers are just cowards. Fine he doesn't want to arm them illegally, but how about giving them something to protect themselves with. Or hire security (or just more people) to sit in the trucks too. He also has no knowledge about the books of his business. A few times we see him in negotiations with others and he's horrible at it. It reminded me of the old Robin Williams joke about British police; "Stop! or I'll say stop again!" There are a couple of moments where he shows some skill, offering something for what he wants, but they don't add up to anything.

I also read a bunch of reviews raving about the cinematography. Ok, so it's set in 1981, they have the cars and outfits looking right. Otherwise it's mostly slightly dark with lots of brown tones. Meh. It's set in New York City and while you see some run down areas and some industrial yards and the occasional skyline, there's barely any people in it. The roads either have no one on them or are packed so that no one is moving. The conversations are all in rooms with just a couple of people. The offices of this up-and-coming company only ever have one other person in it, the one Abel has to talk to. It could be anywhere, so all those comparisons I've seen to Sidney Lumet are just ludicrous.

I don't know why this was set in 1981. Apparently that was the year in NY with the worst crime statistics, but it could have been now with no problem. Ok, perhaps it's useful to have no cellphones, but he has a radio that the company uses and there's at least one obvious time where I was practically screaming to have him use it to call the police.

A few things do happen but it doesn't add up to much. None of the characters have an arc or change in any but the slightest ways. Abel's constant refrain about doing the right thing I guess make's it a morality tale. Sure trying to be good is sometimes difficult, but a story should offer more to it than just repeating that. And I don't respect a character that's about always doing the right thing while simultaneously ignoring some problems and not wanting to hear about others. Well that could be interesting, but the film should point out the flaws in that folly. I think Stephanie Zacharek nails it, "It's not really that violent. But it sure feels like a year."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Amazon: 100 Books To Read In A Lifetime

Amazon lists 100 Books To Read In A Lifetime. I'm surprised I've read 25 of them (and own a few more).

A Look Back at Apollo 16

Because looking at photos from the moon never gets old...

In Focus takes A Look Back at Apollo 16 "In early April of 1972, NASA was preparing to launch the Apollo program's 10th manned mission, Apollo 16—the fifth to actually land on the Moon. This mission would be the penultimate trip in the Apollo program, carrying astronauts John Young, Charles Duke, and Ken Mattingly to the Moon, with Young and Duke headed to the lunar surface while Mattingly remained in orbit. Apollo 16 was the second expedition to bring a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) along. The astronauts spent more than 20 hours exploring the surface of the Moon, driving 16.6 miles in their LRV, gathering 210 pounds of samples, and setting up a package of instruments and experiments. On April 27, 1972, the crew splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, after 12 days away from Earth."

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A Bioluminescent Bloom in Hong Kong - The Atlantic

The Atlantic Photo writes A Bioluminescent Bloom in Hong Kong "A bloom of Noctiluca scintillans, a large, green marine dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence when disturbed, was captured in photos made earlier today in Hong Kong, with a long exposure showing an eerie glow along the seashore. The luminescence, also called Sea Sparkle, is triggered by farm pollution that can be devastating to marine life and local fisheries, according to University of Georgia oceanographer Samantha Joye. Noctiluca itself does not produce neurotoxins like other similar organisms do. But its role as both prey and predator can eventually magnify the accumulation of toxins in the food chain, according to R. Eugene Turner at Louisiana State University."

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Sharp Football Analysis

Sharp Football Analysis looks at the Patriots and their rates of fumbles. It's pretty amazing.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Solar System May Have Two Undiscovered Planets

Ars Technica reports The Solar System may have two undiscovered planets

"The presence of the closer of the two planets had already been suggested in a previous work. The new study provides more evidence for its existence and adds a second planet. Both studies are based on observations of objects far beyond Neptune’s orbit, called extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs). These ETNOs display shared patterns in their orbits, which suggests they’re all being influenced gravitationally by heavier objects, much further away from the Sun. While this conclusion is based on a small sample (13 bodies), the authors confirm that their results are statistically significant and that at least two planets, orbiting far beyond Pluto’s orbit, are the most likely explanation for the observations."

Social Media and Other Tech

Backchannel published A Teenager’s View on Social Media. It's a kinda interesting look at what one 19 year-old's social network uses to keep in touch. He followed it up with What Teens Really Think About YouTube, Google+, Reddit and Other Social Media. As he said, neither is a statistical study or an attempt to describe what every teen uses, but it's a nice survey of the options. There's been some backlash, the faults are described in An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media.

On the other end, Ars Technical wrote about Ars’ small taste of no-tech travel. A couple took a weekend trip (by train) and didn't use any tech for one whole entire day but did use it the next day and compared the results. Basically as you'd expect.

On the really high tech side, Microsoft’s new interface: FREAKING HOLOGRAMS. They demo'ed a new device that's apparently going to be available "in the same timeframe as Windows 10" that's a combination Oculus Rift and Kinect. It's goggles you wear, that can project images a la augmented reality, but that you can also interact with a la Kinect. Ars Technica, Re/code, and Yahoo Tech all got a hands-on demo and really liked it. The Verge says, Minecraft — more than anything else — could make HoloLens a hit.

How PAPER Magazine’s web engineers scaled Kim Kardashian’s back-end

Nice post on Medium on How PAPER Magazine’s web engineers scaled Kim Kardashian’s back-end. Yes it's safe for work.

It's a fairly technical description of what systems they set up to enable a site that normally handles "a couple million people per month " to be able to cope with something that will generate "at least 100 million page views". Their IT guy had 5 days notice to make this happen.

Pirating the 2015 Oscars: HD Edition

This is pretty amusing. Pirating the 2015 Oscars: HD Edition "Pirates are now watching films at higher quality than the industry insiders voting on them."

"But here’s the thing: screeners are stuck in the last decade. While we’re all streaming HD movies from iTunes or Netflix, the movie studios almost universally send screeners by mail on DVDs, which is forever stuck in low-resolution standard-definition quality. A small handful are sent in higher-definition Blu-ray. This year, one Academy member received 68 screeners — 59 on DVD and only eight on Blu-ray. Only 13% of screeners were sent to voters in HD quality."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

8 ways the GOP’s State of the Union response was different in Spanish

Dara Lind reports in Vox 8 ways the GOP’s State of the Union response was different in Spanish — and why it matters

"For three of the last four years, the GOP has given one response to the State of the Union, but gave it twice: once in English, and once translated into Spanish. This year, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) delivered the speech in English, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), one of his party's lone immigration reformers, delivered it in Spanish.

The initial GOP press release billed the Spanish speech as a 'translation,' but it was clear to anyone who listened to both versions that these were two different responses to President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union — tailored to two different audiences.

Ernst laid out a version of the GOP agenda that dodged immigration reform, and other policy topics that are controversial among Republican voters — but important to Latinos. Curbelo included them, as well as making other substantial changes to the text of the speech. (Curbelo told the Miami Herald that he'd made the changes himself.)

The two speeches never contradicted each other; they weren't intended as doublespeak. But the omissions, additions, and nuances in phrasing added up to an impressive speech."

  1. A mention of immigration reform
  2. ...and education reform
  3. Executive overreach is a possibility — not a done deal
  4. A neoconservative approach to Cuba and Iran
  5. Washington isn't necessarily the problem
  6. A much more subtle attack on Obamacare
  7. More emphasis on opportunity
  8. Cultural competency

So they're literally talking with two faces to the English and Spanish speaking communites.

The Senate is pretty clearly a hoax

Brad Plummer in Vox concludes The Senate is pretty clearly a hoax

So now it's 2015, and the Senate is debating a bunch of amendments on a bill that would fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. On Wednesday, they were faced with one from Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that said:

'To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.'

That one was pretty easy. The Senate voted 98 to 1 in favor of this amendment. So far, so good.

But then came a tougher question. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) put forward an amendment that said:

'To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real; and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.'

In the end, just 50 senators voted 'yes' on the question.* But 49 senators voted 'no.' The amendment failed to pick up the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster."

There was also a separate, milder amendment from John Hoeven (R-ND) stating that "climate change is real and humans contributed to it." Even this one failed, but it ended up getting 59 "yes" votes in all.

So I guess it's now fair to say the GOP believes climate change is real but doesn't yet agree that it's man-made. The next amendment I would propose is:

'To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real; and human activity could significantly contribute to alleviating climate change.'

Meanwhile, Republican leadership pulls anti-abortion bill that was tearing the caucus apart. Because remember that jobs are the most important thing for the Congress to be working on (and there's no war on women).

Mapping America’s Futures

The Urban Institute has an interactive tool, Mapping America’s Futures "Test possible scenarios for how the US population might change by 2020 and 2030. The results will change depending on whether you choose low, average, or high rates for future births, deaths, or migration."

Wonkblog uses it with 4 maps that show how demographic change will touch every corner of the country

Vox Covers the Rest of the World

The Putins of the world should be terrified by what just happened in Sri Lanka. "In retrospect, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa probably regrets his decision to campaign for reelection on the slogan that voters should stick with his administration because he was a "known devil" and his opponent was an "unknown angel." At the time, Rajapaksa's hold on power had seemed unshakable; his repressive, authoritarian government, rock solid. But on January 8, he was peacefully voted out — and, just as surprisingly, failed in what appears to have been an attempted coup to remain in office. Rajapaksa's loss of power shocked the world, and not just because so many expected him to hold on."

What the hell just happened in Yemen, explained. "The two rebellions are not directly linked, but the Yemeni government's inability to fight informs its failures against the other, and the weaker that the government gets, the easier it will be for both groups to grow unchecked."

Boko Haram's massacre in Nigeria: what happened and why. "The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram launched its worst attack ever in the northeastern town of Baga, where it killed hundreds or possibly more. The motivation is unclear, but it appears aimed at intimidating Nigerians into not voting in the coming presidential election. Key context is the military's indifference to northern Nigerian lives. Its troops fled almost immediately, and had itself previously massacred Baga's residents." And also, Before-and-after satellite photos show the scale of Boko Haram's worst-ever attack.

The real state of the union, in 33 maps and charts

Vox shows The real state of the union, in 33 maps and charts.

American Sniper’s Chris Kyle is John Rambo for the 21st century

I have to agree with Todd VanDerWerff, American Sniper’s Chris Kyle is John Rambo for the 21st century.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It's just that enough of the movie exists as a kind of shadow version of itself as to suggest that all involved want to question something but don't dare question the man at the center. Every time the movie pushes toward a question as simple as "Does killing over 100 people change you in some way?" it freezes up. Eastwood creates lots of dots, all over the film's landscape, but he refuses to connect even a couple of them.

Thus, Chris Kyle becomes the 21st century John Rambo, rapidly retconning a major world conflict and letting Americans know that we are still okay. Most films about the Iraq war have openly asked audiences to consider what part of America's soul was sacrificed in the process of fighting an unnecessary war. Those films' protagonists become empty machines, used up by the government. Ergo, we all have been used.

American Sniper will have none of this. Chris Kyle was a good guy. Chris Kyle was an American. Ergo, we are all good guys. The movie doesn't push or challenge viewers in any way. It doesn't bother making the conservative argument for the war, nor launching liberal attacks against it.

This powerful Reddit thread reveals how the poor get by in America

Wonkblog writes This powerful Reddit thread reveals how the poor get by in America. "The poor pay more for everything, from rolls of toilet paper to furniture. It's not because they're spendthrifts, either. If you're denied a checking account, there's no way for you to avoid paying a fee to cash a paycheck. If you need to buy a car to get to work, you'll have to accept whatever higher interest rate you're offered. If you don't have a car, the bus fare might eat up the change you'd save shopping at a larger grocery store as opposed to the local corner store."

What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest

Ezra Klein wrote What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest. Read the whole thing, but here's the meat of it:

No one likes the answer I'm about to give, but it's the right one. The political system isn't built like a family. It's not designed like a business. It's much more like a football game.

In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.

The government isn't a business either. It doesn't work towards a single goal. It can't judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn't built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there's someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn't built to find agreement the way a family is, but it's built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.

You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game. You ever think about why football games are they way they are? You have all these guys hitting each other so hard they cause each other permanent brain damage. So why do they do it? Why do kids who aren't getting paid a cent do it?

It's not because they hate each other. They're hitting their friends. In practice, they're hitting their teammates. They're hurting people they love.

They do it because that's how the game works. They do it because the rules are you line up in front of the other team and then you hit them as hard as you can. They do it because, for one side to win, the other has to lose. And they do it because, if they don't do it, they're off the team. Football has no place for conscientious objectors.

The honest truth is that that's how politics works, too. We've got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don't cooperate because the rules don't let them cooperate. They don't agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can't help the people you came here to help.