Thursday, June 30, 2005

Toy Review: Kensington PilotMouse Mini Bluetooth

I love my PowerBook. Up till now I've been using the trackpad almost exclusively (and like it), but sometimes a mouse is good too. Since getting my PowerBook I wanted a wireless optical 3-button scroll-wheel mouse that was small enough for travel but reasonably sized for full time use. I also wanted it to use the builtin Bluetooth so I didn't have a separate dongle connected to a USB port.

Those requirements proved difficult. The Mouse BT was the leading contender but reportedly had tracking problems. Apple has long been rumored to be producing a multi-button mouse, but I'm tired of waiting. The Logitech V500 Cordless Notebook Mouse is very cool but there's no middle mouse button and I'd still need a dongle.

I bought the Kensington PilotMouse Mini Bluetooth at They had a sale and I got it for $53 delivered, better than the $70 list + tax I could have gotten it for at my local Apple Store. It arrived Tuesday. I'm still amazed that I knew it arrived not by hearing the doorbell or seeing it on the front porch but by looking at the PackageTracker Dashboard Widget and seeing that its status was delivered. I opened the front door and found the package sitting there. There's something wrong with that.

So how is the mouse? It's great so far. The size is good, small yet perfectly usable. The Bluetooth connection works great with minimal setup. It seems to track well except on a desktop surface I have nothing seems to track on (need a mouse pad there but not on other tables). I haven't had it long enough to comment on battery (2 AAs) life. The mouse goes to sleep to save the batteries and a right click wakes it up and the PowerBook notices it fine. It came with Alkaline batteries but no case, which doesn't bother me.

I did have one glitch. I read manuals. This one was small enough and most of it was about setup on Windows which I could skip. A section said specifically for a Mac I could download their driver, MouseWorks, for "additional button programmability". I downloaded and installed it and it did nothing. A bit of digging and I found it was not supported for the PilotMouse Bluetooth Mini. So why was it in the manual? And yes the manual was only for this product, not for several similar ones. I should just stop reading manuals.

Anyway, very good product. If the battery life turns out to be good I'd call it great.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Oil Fires

Google Sightseeing pointed me at these amazing satellite photos of oil fields buring near Basra in Iraq.

Bush Spoke, Did Anyone Listen?

President Bush spoke last night on Iraq and the War on Terror, I missed it because all the advanced thought was that it would be more of the same and nothing new, so I saw Cinderella Man instead. But today I read the speech at the White House web site and I have a few comments.

First I'm not quite sure what this is. It says for immediate release and it's dated 8:02 PM EDT so I think it's a press release of the speech just as he started giving it. So why are there two places that say "(applause)"? Were they instructions to the audience? I found halfway through reading the speech that I was using my own voice and not Bush's (or an SNL impression of Bush and that I really enjoyed that more than listening to his voice.

He changed the demeaner from the "War in Iraq" to the "War on Terror", ok. And while he mentioned 9/11 five times it mostly seemed ok. The part that struck me was the new phrase I've been hearing for about week now "totalitarian ideology". I didn't think a nationless terrorist organization without a government could be "totalitarian". I preferred the fundamentalist label, but I guess that causes some problems for Bush. He also said how this ideology "despises all dissent" which also struck close to home with all the stupid speaches I've been hearing from Congress and Karl Rove about how the other side is attacking them.

Bush talked again about how instead of fighting the terrorists here we need to fight them abroad. Many Democrats point out that Iraq wasn't involved in 9/11 (which is very true) and that Iraq has now grown and imported terrorists since our invasion ("Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and others"). I wonder if the plan wasn't really to get terrorists to fight Americans in Iraq instead of in the US.

He said "Our mission in Iraq is clear. We're hunting down the terrorists. We're helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We're advancing freedom in the broader Middle East." He went on to say "They know that as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty, as well. And when the Middle East grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits, and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world." That may well be true. Bush also quoted German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, "There can be no question a stable and democratic Iraq is in the vested interest of not just Germany, but also Europe." Bush later in his speech mentioned the effects of a free Iraq around the world: that Libya has given up its WMD program, that Palestinians and Lebanese had elections and more vaguely that "elections are inspiring democratic reformers in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia".

It really could be that the best way to stop this fundamentalist Islamic movement is to offer the Arab nations a better (aka democratic) choice and our experience with them is that in the 30 years they haven't taken the opportunity to do it themselves. Thomas Friedman is all over this, that the biggest real underlying cause of terrorism is that the existing Arab governments have failed to make economically viable modern nations, even with the advantage of all the oil money.

Others will point out Bush also said "We are removing a source of violence and instability, and laying the foundation of peace for our children and our grandchildren." and that seems at odds with the casualties and growth of the insurgency we're seeing. I agree those are real concerns and we should but don't seem to have a real concrete plan for dealing with it. But I disagree that these numbers prove the idea is wrong, this could be the case of it getting worse before it gets better, or that the tactics need some improving but the strategy is correct. There was a huge spike in World War II casualties on D-Day but that really was progress in the war. I haven't seen evidence from either side if we're winning, only that the casualty rate is high.

Bush did a good job explaining that while the terrorists have recently done many horrible things, they've failed on any strategic goals of stopping the democratic movement in Iraq. That's an important point. The goal of terrorism is to change the behavior of governments when you don't have a nation or army strong enough to fight in a conventional way. Yes capturing Bin Laden would be great to see, but I doubt it will stop Al Qaeda the same way capturing Saddam didn't stop the violence in Iraq. The measure can't be the end of terrorist acts (even though on that front Bush as a perfect score, zero terrorist acts in the US since 9/11), the measure has to be the continuation of our way of life (and on that front I think the Patriot Act is a failure).

The President then used the report card approach and then outlined steps going forward. Let's see how he did at this. He said: "A little over a year ago, I spoke to the nation and described our coalition's goals in Iraq." I believe he's referring to a speech on May 24, 2004 which the White House has entitled: President Outlines Steps to Help Iraq Achieve Democracy and Freedom. In that speech he clearly listed "five steps in our plan to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom":
  1. transfering full sovereignty to Iraq on June 30, 2004
  2. establish the stability and security that democracy requires. fighting with Iraqis to defeat "the terrorists, illegal militia, and Saddam loyalists". He particularly called out Fallujah.
  3. rebuilding [Iraqi] infrastructure
  4. "enlist additional international support for Iraq's transition"
  5. free, national elections by January 2005

Yesterday he said "I outlined the steps we would take to achieve this goal: We would hand authority over to a sovereign Iraqi government. We would help Iraqis hold free elections by January 2005. We would continue helping Iraqis rebuild their nation's infrastructure and economy. We would encourage more international support for Iraq's democratic transition, and we would enable Iraqis to take increasing responsibility for their own security and stability." So he reordered the goals he didn't change them, that's a good first step. The next is how did he do at achieving them?

Clearly we've handed over sovereignty and there were elections by January. Also clearly we've helped rebuild the infrastructure though there's lots more to do, Bush said "Our progress has been uneven, but progress is being made." and I think that's fair. He said " Thus far, some 40 countries and three international organizations have pledged about $34 billion in assistance for Iraqi reconstruction. More than 80 countries and international organizations recently came together in Brussels to coordinate their efforts to help Iraqis provide for their security and rebuild their country." and my guess is that's the same overstating of the coalition he did during the election.

So what about the part of making Iraq safe? Here's everything Bush said: "Finally, we have continued our efforts to equip and train Iraqi security forces. We made gains in both the number and quality of those forces. Today Iraq has more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions. Iraqi forces have fought bravely, helping to capture terrorists and insurgents in Najaf and Samarra, Fallujah and Mosul. And in the past month, Iraqi forces have led a major anti-terrorist campaign in Baghdad called Operation Lightning, which has led to the capture of hundreds of suspected insurgents. Like free people everywhere, Iraqis want to be defended by their own countrymen, and we are helping Iraqis assume those duties." That doesn't sound right to me. He changed the goal of making Iraq safe and defeating the terrorists to having Iraqi security forces that conduct operations.

He could have talked about the US-Iraqi Offensive in Fallujah last November. Of the estimated 1000-6000 insurgents there about 1200 were killed and 1000 captured. 15-20% of the town was destroyed and about 60% damaged. Only about a 1/3 of the town's population was back by March and they have to wear ID cards all the time. While I understand this is war, that doesn't sound like a safe and secure Iraq, but perhaps it is progress.

Bush then described the plan going forward, but it was far less specific than what he offered a year ago. We'll hunt down terrorists and help Iraq defend itself. He mentioned three specific ways we (including other nations) are helping to train the Iraqi units which are all well and good. But these are tactics, not goals. He described why having a deadline for bring out troops home is a mistake. "Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong message to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed, and not a day longer." I happen to agree with all of that. What I disagree with is not having a timeline or if you will a project plan going forward. Last year he said elections by January, that's a goal, and remember many thought it couldn't happen that quickly, but it did. Why not now say something like by January we'll have 100,000 Iraqi units fully functional and can begin bring some US troops home? That's a timeline. If we don't have the functioning Iraqi units we don't bring troops home, it's still incentive to our troops and the Iraqis and it doesn't give the enemy a date to wait us out. After we leave they'll have the Iraqi forces to contend with.

He talked about the next steps in building an Iraqi government, namely writing a constitution but set no deadline for having it done. Okay, Iraq is now sovereign, he can't set a deadline, but how about a goal, you know like going to Mars. And that's about it, which really surprised me. His report card based on his stated goals from last year is pretty good, why not repeat it? Well it's not an election year, so he doesn't have to defend himself so much. Also the general mood now is that Iraq isn't going so well and the administration is a bit in a world of its own. Cheney's "last throws" remark didn't help. And Rumsfeld's round on the Sunday news show didn't bring anything new to it either.

It really felt like a missed opportunity. He could have talked about the miltary plans to bring security to Iraq or the plan for when the Iraqi troops will be trained. Or how we're getting the equipment our troops need to them (according to Rumsfled we're doing some, but why not more?). He could have talked about securing Iraqi borders to prevent foreign terrorists from moving in, or securing US borders to defend us from any terrorist attack here. He could have talked about plans to get Iraqi oil fields working faster so they could pay for all the aid they are receiving (remember when we were told it would only cost a few billion to do this because Iraq had all this oil tied up), or how he's going to balance the budget to pay for all of what we're doing in Iraq. He could of mentioned how he's going to fund the VA programs so our troops are taken care of when they return. He could have described an energy policy to make us less dependent on Arab oil. He could have asked the US citizens to make some sacrifice to help. This is all he asked: "This Fourth of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom -- by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field, or helping the military family down the street." While that's a nice thought, I don't think it will accomplish much, much as this speech didn't.

Fusion Reactor to be built in France

I'm not sure if this is in the energy plan, but the US is a participant in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) progrram and from
this articleit seems we're paying about $1.3 billion. I also don't know why the US wasn't one of the contenders for the location or why there was a a year and half of arguing on the location, but it's good to see that progress is being made.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Movie Review: Cinderella Man

Ron Howard has a gift. He can show a historical story, for which we all know how it turns out (even if only because reviews of his films give it away), and still make it dramatic and keep you on the edge of your seat and perhaps bring a tear to your eye. He did it with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and does it again with Cinderella Man.

Cinderella Man tells the true story of boxer James J. Braddock an up-and-coming fighter in the twenties who lost a title fight with Tommy Loughran and watched his career decline. This coincided with the Great Depression and Jim and his family fell on very hard times. He then got an opportunity to fight a strong contender and in a great upset, won which he parlayed into an opportunity to fight Max Baer for the title. Baer had killed two men in the ring before and Braddock was a 10:1 underdog. Boxing was a popular sport at the time and Braddock became the nations hero.

It's a rousing story and Howard tells it well. Russel Crowe does his typical fantastic job in the role. He's believable as a fighter and as a proud father and loving husband willing to do anything to provide for his family. It's an Oscar caliber role and at this point in the year Crowe's guaranteed of a nomination. I normally like Renée Zellweger, but I found her squinting face a bit distracting until late in the film when she had some very strong scenes before the Baer fight. Paul Giamatti is perfect as Braddock's manager.

While Crash is the best film of the year, this is second. It's a shame that after 4 weeks in theaters it's only made $50 million, that's slightly more than Crash, about a third of what the Longest Yard made in 5 weeks and less than a quarter of what Madagascar made in 5 weeks. Part of it is probably that it seems more like a fall film than a summer one. I suspect there are two reasons for this release date. First, the Baer v Braddock fight happened on June 13, 1935, so it was near the 70th anniversary of the fight. But since there was no advertising to this affect, it probably isn't the reason, more likely that this way the DVD can come late in the year for Oscar season.

Monday, June 27, 2005

MGM v. Grokster

The big US Supreme Court decision today was MGM v. Grokster. Since they unanimously found in favor of MGM the slashdot crowd wa a bit upset at first, but it might not be so bad.

The opinion was written by Justice Souter and is specific to Grokster and StreamCast as opposed to broadly covering all peer-to-peer software. At issue was whether the software creators were responsible for the users putting that software to illegal use. The measure for this has been the 1984 decision of Sony v. Universal City Studios which said VCRs were legal even though they could illegally copy broadcast content because they also had legitimate uses (timeshifting television for personal use).

The problem in this instance is that they found that Grokster and Streamcast was used about 90% of the time for copyright violations and the companies knew it and did nothing to stop it. But even that wasn't enough to rule against them. The decision said: "companies can't entice users to violate copyright, if they do, and the users do, then they are liable for the users actions." The court found they encouraged this illegal use in part by:
  • courting former napster users and discussing this a lot in internal communications
  • "Grokster distributed an electronic newsletter containing links to articles promoting its software's ability to access popular copyrighted music." though I'm concerned about precisely what the links part means.
  • "And both companies communicated a clear message by responding affirmatively to requests for help in locating and playing copyrighted materials. "

"Here, evidence of the distributors' words and deeds going beyond distribution as such shows a purpose to cause and profit from third-party acts of copyright infringement. If liability for inducing infringement is ultimately found, it will not be on the basis of presuming or imputing fault, but from inferring a patently illegal objective from statements and actions showing what that objective was." So they overturned the summary judgment and sent it back to the courts for reconsideration.

Overall that seems pretty reasonable though it leaves folks wondering about BitTorrent which is used more than the others for distributing large files (e.g., linux distributions) as well as for copyright violations, though the creators don't condone that use. Also this decision seems to suggest that radar detectors should be illegal though that's not copyright protection.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a concurring option with Rehnquist and Kennedy joining her. The lower court interpreted Sony to mean "a product need only be capable of substantial noninfringing uses." and she thinks that's insufficient. While Grokster and Streamcast agreed the overwhelming use was infringing, they said there were legitimate uses and therefore their software was "capable of substantial noninfringing uses". Ginsburg though says the valid uses presented were minor, hearsay, or on networks other than Grokster and Streamcast, which she rightly says, is irrelevant to this case. She ends with "If, on remand, the case is not resolved on summary judgment in favor of MGM based on Grokster and StreamCast actively inducing infringement, the Court of Appeals, I would emphasize, should reconsider, on a fuller record, its interpretation of Sony's product distribution holding." In other words, merely being capable of noninfringing uses shouldn't be enough, there needs to be a substantial amount of noninfringing use.

Justice Breyer, joined by Stevens and O'Connor, wrote another concurring opinion, that disagrees with Ginsburg's opinion. He agrees that they don't have to revisit the Sony decision now, for this case, but disagrees that it needs reinterpretation. He says a law (like the Sony decision) must strike a balance between effective copyright protection and allowing unrelated areas of commerce. He thinks the "capable of commercially significant noninfringing uses" standard is a good one, and goes on to point out that at the time of the Sony decision, the estimate was that "of all the taping actually done by Sony's customers, only around 9% was of the sort the Court referred to as authorized". The court also found "that, in any event, unauthorized time-shifting often constituted not infringement, but 'fair use'."

He notes that the 10% of noninfringing uses of Grokster is very similar to the 9% of authorized VCR use in Sony. He also notes that the word "capable" implies not a fixed line of 10% but rather something that allows more legitimate uses over time is good too. In the same way that judges couldn't foresee the growth of legal video rental and sales businesses, judges can't be expect to foresee future noninfringing uses of peer-to-peer technologies, and shouldn't restrict their development.

He says the Sony rule is clear, strongly technology protecting, forward looking, and understands the limits of judges. If changed as Ginsburg proposes then defendants would have to provide much more detailed evidence and the burden on them would be high, potentially stiffling technology innovation. Sony has been the law for some time, and copyright holders have other tools available to them including "intent to infringe (of the kind the Court describes)" and direct suits against those that wrongfully copy. And he says that they could try making legal ways to sell music online more attractive and cites selling songs for $0.88 each. "Consequently, many consumers initially attracted to the convenience and flexibility of services like Grokster are now migrating to lawful paid services (services with copying permission) where they can enjoy at little cost even greater convenience and flexibility without engaging in unlawful swapping."

I have to say Breyer's opinion seems dead on and yet again I'm not impressed with Ginsberg's opinion.

Kelo v. New London

Much was made of the Supreme Court decision last week about eminent domain. Some interpret it to mean the government can take your house for any reason. Eminent Domain has been around for a long time and says the government can take your land for public use and with just compensation (the 5th Amendment). In this case the taken land was given to a private company to develop.

The question comes down to: is urban renewal a public use? In this case, New London has double the unemployment rate of the state and it's lowest population since 1920. The New London Development Corp (a private non-profit firm created to help the city) created a plan to build a park and the city approved it. Pfizer said they'd move in next to it with a $300 million research facility. The NLDC created a plan for a waterfront conference hotel, a small urban village with restaurants and shopping, marinas, a riverwalk, 80 new residences, a new Coast Guard Museum, more than 90,000 sq ft of additional office space, parking etc. "In addition to creating jobs, generating tax revenue, and helping to 'build momentum for the revitalization of downtown New London,' the plan was also designed to make the City more attractive and to create leisure and recreational opportunities on the waterfront and in the park." It affected 115 privately owned properties and land from a closed naval facility. 9 people owning 15 affected properties refused to sell out.

The opinion states clearly that the gov't can't take property from one private owner to give to another private owner, there must be public use (which in 1896 was ruled to include public purpose). it also says "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government. " and lists many cases the court upheld and says saying this one is different somehow doesn't work. The opinion is that the state and local gov't should know best, not the federal judiciary.

O'Connor's dissent (joined by Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas) is that urban renewal is not a public use. And that in some of their previous decisions the original property was harmful to the community (not maintained) and that's not the case here. Though to me, there's no rule to eminent domain that the property taken must be in poor condition, so I don't see how that matters, particularly as no one claims every public-purpose taking was of a unmaintained property. She then goes on to state that under this new decision the line is blurry and I agree, but I don't think this decision blurs it more than it already is, lines are sometimes blurry. Thomas then writes his own additional dissent which as near as I can tell wants to overturn every public-purpose decision of the last 100 years so that we can go back to the founders original meaning of use (he cites a dictionary from 1773 for the word "use").

In our increasingly confusing times, it's odd that the liberals are defending states rights and previous decisions of the court while the conservatives want to limit states rights to protect individuals and go back to 200 years ago.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Another White House Secret?

According to Arianna Huffington Cheney visited a hospital in Vail before attending the World Forum at Beaver Creek. The rumor at the hospital was that it was an angina attack though the official story is an old football injury to his knee. I know Lewis Black takes some comfort in his government lying to him but I've heard so many lies recently I'd like one bit of truth to come out of the White House.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Karl Rove's an Ass

I've been reading Thomas Friedman's Longitudes and Attitudes and have been thinking of writing a long post about the Bush administration and 9/11, but Kristen Breitweiser's post Karl Rove's Understanding of 9/11 on the Huffington Post says it better than I ever could.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Movie Review: Batman Begins

This is by far the best Batman film ever made, one of the best comic book films ever made, and a good movie. It had great balance between the lives of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Between Liam Neison, Michael Cane, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman the supporting cast is great. Katie Holmes is ok and Rutger Hauer will never be the villian he was Blade Runner. But Christian Bale does a great job pulling off both the physical and the psychological aspects of both parts of the role. The story gives the most realistic telling of Batman's origins, explaining his training, motivation, equipment, supporting people and villians.

I found three faults to the movie. First the fight scenes were shot way too close, it's impossible to see what's going on. It was probably intentional to add to Batman's mystique but I think it's too confusing and found it quite annoying. In the middle is a chase scene with the police chasing the Batmobile through Gotham City. It reminded me of The Blues Brothers and I wondered how it was that Batman was causing a dozen police cars to crash violently. Finally, as is all too common in movies these days, the bad guy's plot was too complicated. The film does a great job of tying things together and ensuring that everything mentioned is used somehow, but in the end there were far easier ways for the villian to accomplish what they were trying, and they were smart enough that they should have realized it. In a film that was so realistic about so many other things, this stood out. And a last minor quibble, some of the lines in the last fight were mumbled and hard to make out.

Still it was a fine summer film and I look forward to it's sequels. Also I hope the Fantastic Four is this good.

Movie Quotes

The American Film Institute has released their list of the Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time. 9 of the quotes were from 1942, and 6 were from 1939. Casablanca has the most quotes with 6. It's a pretty good list, but of course the purpose of any such list is to spark debate...

I don't know as "We rob banks" from Bonnie And Clyde deserves to be at number 41, if on the list at all. Number 50 is "Houston, we have a problem" from Apollo 13 but I think this was famous from it actually happening, not from the movie. And as much as I love Dead Poet's Society, I don't think it's quote (at number 95) is worthy of the list. "Luke, I am your father" is bigger than that. So is John Wayne's "Whoa, take 'er easy there, Pilgrim." (name the film). Here's another good one: "I'm Spartacus". It amazes me that nothing by Christopher Walken is on the list but I'm not sure what quote should make it. Yul Brynner should have made the list either with The King and I's "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!" or "So it is written, so let it be done" from The Ten Commandments.

I've seen all the movies mentioned except four: The Godfather Part II, A Streetcar Named Desire, Beyond the Forest (never heard of this one), and Auntie Mame

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Movie Review: Safety Last and Girl Shy

The Brattle tonight ran a double feature of two Harold LLoyd films. He was one of the great silent film stars though not quite as well known as Chaplin or Keaton. His films haven't been as available so these were a treat to see.

Famous Harold Lloyd Clock Scene First was Safety Last from 1923. Harold leaves his small town and his girl to find a career in the big city. He works for a department store making $15 a week (rent is $14 for 2 weeks) and writes her every day. Of course he exagerates his position and his girl comes to see him. There is a long sequence of many gags in the department store as he pretends to be the general manager to impress her. Through an unlikely situation he's offered $1000 to find a way to promote the store. He asks his friend, a construction worker to scale a 12 story "skyscrapper" as a publicity stunt. The last half hour of the film is this wonderful stunt, during which the audience gasped, applauded and laughed out-loud as he encounters difficulties at each floor. It's made all the better by the fact that he did his own stunts which really involved hanging from ledges. You'll probably recognize the famous clock scene. This films is in the National Film Registry and is absolutely wonderful.

The second film was Girl Shy from 1924, it follows a similar formula. This time Harold is a tailors apprentice who writes his first book. On the way to city to get it published he meets "the girl" and they fall for each other. Through a series of mishaps she's to be married and he has to stop the wedding after having found out the groom is already married. The last 20 minutes is a wonderful chase scene of him getting to the wedding by all kinds of vehicles with outstanding stunts.

The Brattle is showing more Harold Lloyd films through Thursday, I think I'll be going again.

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson is a well know travel writer. According to the introduction he was flying one day and realized he didn't know the difference between a protein and proton. He wanted to understand these things and moreso to understand how it is that people have figured out the various things we know. After 3 years of work the result is the 475 page (plus notes) A Short History of Nearly Everything, a book I thoroughly enjoyed.

He covers a lot, from what we think the universe is like and it origins, the structure of atoms, the age, size and composition of the Earth, to the origins of life and man and how cells and DNA work. He covers much of this by covering the discoverers of the various theries. Newton, Einstein, Watson, Crick, all the heavy weights, but also many others you haven't heard of. What also comes across is how difficult some of this stuff is. How do you measure the mass of the Earth? It turns out Newton suggested to hang something near a mountain and it should hang slightly not straight due to the mountain's gravitation pull on the object. Now measure the mass of the mountain (not easy) and compute what the mass of the Earth must be. Other things were no so easy.

As an example of how he makes this interesting, he describes teh story of Guillaume Le Gentil, a French scientist who travelled to India in 1760 to measure a transit of Venus across the sun to triangulate the distance of the Earth from the Sun. He was one of many who travelled around the world to take precise measurements of the event. Travelling then wasn't easy and despite the fact he left a year ahead of time, he was still at sea during the transit and could get no measurements. The transits come in pairs, 8 years apart, so he stayed in India and prepared for the next one in 1769. He prepared for it by constructing a tower and calibrating his instruments, but just as the transit started, a cloud covered it and remained there for over 3 hours ruining the viewing. So almost 10 years after he left, he returned home to France, contracting dysentery on the way, and finding that his relatives had declared him dead and plundered his estate. Such was often the lot for scientists and their crazy ideas. I don't remember ever learning stories like this in school.

Friday, June 17, 2005

What's on my Mac

What follows are the 3rd party applications I've installed on my mac and continue to use. Unless otherwise noted they are free.
  • Camino - I use this as my main web browser. Safari is good but there are few things missing that bother me, namely ad blocking and bookmark keywords. I think PithHelmet might add those to Safari but haven't tried it. Camino is based on Mozilla code but unlike Firefox is a well-behaved Cocoa app. I used Firefox for a while but then some of the differences bothered me, mostly that Emacs-like editing didn't work in the address bar and that it didn't use the KeyChain for remembering logins. Camino uses the Cocoa toolkit not the Mozilla XUL one, so Firefox extension don't work, but I haven't really missed them. Camino 0.9 adds builtin AdBlocking.
  • Carbon Emacs - Based on current CVS builds of the development branch of emacs, this is the best Mac version. It has many packages bundled with it including ispell which is nice. It's from Japan so some Japanese stuff is there too, but you can turn it off easily by deleting one file. See the EmacsWiki entry CarbonEmacsPackage for details. There is also AquaEmacs which seems to be updated more frequently and now supports two-finger scrolling on my PowerBook's track pad, but it's a little too mac-like and has deprecated ~/.emacs for ~/Library/Preferences/ stuff (though ~/.emacs still works for now). The most annoying thing is it opens a separate frame for each buffer, though there's a menu option to turn that off. See the EmacsWiki entry AquamacsEmacs for more info. Use the Option key for meta so, that your fingers don't get confused with the Command (aka Apple) key. Also you'll want this hack to add more emacs keybindings to every cocoa app.
  • Quicksilver - This is really a wonderful and hard to describe application. Think of it as a command-line for a GUI. Via a trigger key (usually Command-space) you activate it and via typing can enter a noun, verb and perhaps an object to do things. Nouns can be file names, bookmarks, Address Book entries, iTunes songs, iPhoto albums, Applications, services, users, random text, etc. Verbs are things like run, copy, paste, open, compose email, send IM, append to file, etc. Objects are needed to specify things like what address to send a file to, etc. It's all modular and is really remarkable. One of the great advantages is that it's matching algorithm is very clever, working with a variety of abbreviation techniques and it learns your preferences over time. So after not too long you can do very complicated things with just a few keystrokes. The documentation isn't great so you're left learning by doing, but this basic and intermediate tutorial are quite good and this page on 43 folders hints at some powerful things.
  • NetNewsWire Lite - This is the free version of the best RSS reader on the mac. 2.0 added atom support so it works well with blogger. I find I use this as much as Mail. I'm thinking of springing the $25 for the full version.
  • Adium X - Until iChat adds support for Yahoo IM I need something else. Adium is the closest thing to Trillian on the mac. It uses libgaim, works very well and there are lots of extras available. I use the Dock theme which can get pictures remotely or from the Address Book. So I have a small dock-like thing on the right of my screen that has pictures of my online buddies. It seems very personal. It can't yet do video chat, I have to use iChat for that but I haven't been able to get it to work.
  • VLC - This is a video player and it can play just about anything.
  • Microsoft Office - I can't say I use it too often but I did buy this to open docs people send me. I found the Standard edition online for $257. Many like Entourage which is the included Outlook-like app, but I use, and and am very happy. Now there's a free option, NeoOffice/J based on OpenOffice, but I haven't tried it yet.
  • iWork - This is the suite from Apple and includes Keynote for presentations and Pages for documents (and it's rumored the next version will contain Numbers). Keynote is very impressive and Pages is ok for a 1.0. Both integrate nicely with iLife and it's interesting to see the different approach from Office. A lot of features are dealing with typography and making things print nicely but I find I need hardcopy less and less. It's $79 from Apple.
  • Azureus - This is the BitTorrent client I use.
  • Delicious Library - This is a clever app to help you keep track of your books, DVDs, CDs and Games. It only runs on Mac and won all kinds of awards when it shipped in late 2004. It's a little expensive at $40 but I've enjoyed it. Basically it's a database for your collections but it's very very pretty. It's also easy to enter information into, you give it a name or a UPC code and it looks it up on Amazon and downloads all the info, including a picture, it can even suggest similar items you might be interested in. The really neat hook is that it can use a video camera (I bought an iSight) to scan in UPC codes. I entered all 150 DVDs in about an hour.
  • Cyberduck - This is a GUI-based ftp client. While OSX has a command-line client, this is convenient to use from the finder with drag and drop. The other popular client is Transmit which does have a Quicksilver plugin, but it's $30 and I don't do that much FTP. Update:MacWorld reviewed 3 FTP clients in July 2005.
  • MoinX - I tried a lot of outliners for personal notetaking but found myself drawn back to wanting a wiki. I wanted a python based one and MoinMoin seems to be the best. This is a prepacked version that trival to install. If your more comfortable with the mac command-line you can probably install whatever you want.
  • Windows Media Player - There are a few things that VLC won't play, though this doesn't always play them either.
  • Real Player - In case VLC doesn't play it. It's good for NPR audio streams.
  • SilverKeeper - I bought a LaCie d2 drive for backups and this came with it. It works with any drive and is freeware. So far it's been fine.
  • Google Maps Plugin - Not a separate application but rather a plugin to the Address Book that lets you click on an address and have your browser show a google map of that address. This plugin works well at normalizing the address to work well, e.g., removing apartment numbers.

Life Lessons

This is Steve Jobs commencement speech at Stanford delivered last sunday. It's a really good read.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Movie Review: Howl's Moving Castle

This is Japanese anime by the master Hayao Miyazaki who's previous films include Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Both of those are better than this one but this is still pretty and better than many other films.

Fans of Miyazaki will find a lot of familar elements in the story. There are two warring kingdoms in what looks like early 20th century Europe. Sophie is a young girl who runs to Howl, a wizard being chased by some dark blobs. They escape but she's smitten. She's then visited by the Witch of the Waste who casts a spell on her turning her into an old woman. She goes looking for Howl who lives in wondrous moving castle. She meets various others characters, the most interesting of which is a fire demon in servitude to Howl, and stuff happens.

The stuff happens part is unfortunate because that's roughly how well it hold together. The first half is very good as we're introduced to about eight characters, but as the resolution happens I was reminded of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I really didn't know what was going on or why characters were doing what they were doing. Nevertheless, the individual scenes are often fantastic, the castle itself is an organic marvel and you'll find yourself remembering the Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Submarine.

Collaborative Efforts

You come across the oddest things. The OEDILF is The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form. A online project to write at least one limerick for each and every word in the English language. Their forums have 278 registered users. You have to wonder what else could be accomplished with this kind of energy, and the answer is probably nothing, because this is what these people want to do.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Movie Review: Shane

I haven't seen a lot of westerns, not even the great ones. They never interested me while I was growing up. So I'm trying to catch some of the better ones to get a feel for the genre. Shane is one of those classics that I only really know of from an episode of the Batman TV series from the sixties.

Joe and Marrion Starrett are homesteaders in Wyoming, they have a young son Joey. Shane is a gunslinger who comes to town apparently trying to escape a past, Joe hires him to help on the farm. The homesteaders are being intimidated by a local cattleman named Ryker who wants their land. Joe and Shane handle themselves well in a saloon fight but then Ryker hires a gunslinger to clear out the homesteaders and Shane and he duel.

It's old school good vs evil with wonderful scenery and a glimpse of life in a different era, when people built their own houses starting with trees and axes. But what makes this movie stand out from other westerns (I think) is the boy Joey. The movie is basically told through his eyes. He comes to idolize Shane, wanting to learn how to shoot a gun from him despite his mother's wishes. Whether this framing or point of view says anything more, I'm not really sure. Shane was good, but I'm not rushing out to see it again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Logic and Mystery in Science and Religion

I went to a lecture tonight at Harvard by Charles Townes. He won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on masers and lasers. His talk was entitled "Logic and Mystery in Science and Religion". He thinks both science and religion are qualitatively similar and will eventually converge. Science tries to explain how the universe works and religion tries to explain the meaning and purpose of the universe which must involve how it works. He then described a survey of thoughts on this.

Science started out assuming the universe was deterministic which would suggest that there isn't a god in control, but then came along quantum mechanics and that threw determinism out the window. He said Bell's Theorem (which I don't understand) proved there wasn't an unknown force involved that could make quantum mechanics deterministic. Science represents faith as postulates, you believe in them until they are proven or something better comes along. Religion represents experiments as observations of people and what helps them in their lives. Revelations, the spontaneous generation of ideas, happen in both science and religion and logic is also used in both. Science has proofs but also inconsistencies (he mentioned two: the dark matter problem and zero point fluctuations which went over my head). Science can't explain free will, and no one knows what consciousness is.

He said Bob Wilson was in the audience and helped formed theories about the Big Bang. I think he was referring to Robert Woodrow Wilson, yet another Nobel Prize winner. He mentioned how there are a few constants in the universe that need to be quite precise or things wouldn't work (see the book Just Six Numbers, of which I still have to write a review). Fred Hoyle took this to mean there must be a greater intellegence orchestrating it, Freeman Dyson thought otherwise. The one that stuck in my head was can we understand ourselves? Do you have to be more complex than a thing to understand that thing, and if so, no we can't understand ourselves.

Trying to wrap things up he said even though we know Newtonian Mechanics are philosphically wrong (quantum mechanics again) we still teach it because it's a very good approximation. A Harvard study proved that prayer is effective in treatment of illness, though the patients knew they were being prayed for and further experiments will remove that condition. And in explaining evil, he said god created us with free will, and things are still a puzzle.

People looking for answers to "life the universe and everything" (obviously) weren't going to get them at this lecture, but it was an interesting ride. Though after going to several lectures that covered such topics at high levels, I'm wanting something more in depth.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Google Sightseeing

This isn't new, but Google Sightseeing is very cool. I justed subscribed to the RSS feed and read a few of the recent posts. Check out the Giant Plane or the F14 in flight or the Barringer Meteor Crater. Good stuff.


A friend told me this story tonight. They were at a bed & breakfast for Memorial Day and their 3 year old asked why the phone had a string hanging from it.

Extra-Solar Earth-like Planet Found

Scientists have found a planet outside of our solar-system that is more like Earth than like Jupiter. They apparently used techniques similar to what I heard about in March, just finding an extra wobble on the star. Only 15 light-years away, much closer to its sun, and its year is only about 2 of our days long. It may not have life, but it's probably just the first one of these that we'll discover. We could have a round trip conversation with them in only 30 years time...

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Movie Review: Mr and Mrs Smith

I might have just been in the right mood for this film, but I had a lot of fun watching it. It's mostly mindless fun. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play married assassins who don't know what each other really do after they leave for work in the morning. And it seems that keeping these secrets from each other has hurt their marriage. They're assigned to kill each other, figure out the truth and things progress from there.

If you want can find metaphors for married life, but really they are better left as funny double entendres. "I missed you" takes on an obvious double meaning. When talking about the number of kills they have, they each want the other to go first. He's hidden his weapons in the tool shed, she in the kitchen. She complains about getting "the girl gun".

Their agencies are super high tech, a notch or two above James Bond, and several notches more absurd. Her's is an all woman's group that reports to "father" and looks like something out of In Like Flint or VIP. Many reviews have complained that it devolves into mindless action, but they miss the point, the action is played for laughs too. A minivan outruns three BMWs and Jolie pulls a maneuver at the end and you wonder why she doesn't do it earlier. Well obviously it wouldn't have been as much fun. Sure you can wonder why our stars have bullet- proof vests and the agents sent after them don't but again, that's missing the point, notice the Butch Cassidy reference and sit back and enjoy.

I was the only one laughing when their captive was wearing a "Fight Club" T-Shirt, but most of the rest of the time, they were laughing right along with me.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Bush and Science: Impeachable?

Maybe Franken is right and George Bush is just a lier. Today in the Boston Globe I read that funding for fusion research is being cut by the Department of Energy. But I remember Bush saying in his State of the Union message that the way for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil was in part through technology and nuclear power. Fucking lier.

And this goes well with the recent stories of how Philip Cooney, the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, had edited official reports on climate change in 2002 and 2003 "inserting qualifiers designed to cast doubt on findings about climate change and to play down the link between climate change and industrial greenhouse gas emissions" (quote from today's Washington Post). He resigned on Friday, just two days after the story broke. But of course officially it's "completely unrelated" (according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino) to the accusations.

Here was Bush's chance to say we won't allow this in our administration, but no. The White House defended the edits, saying they were part of the normal review process. Scott McClellan (White House spokesman) said Wednesday that Cooney was "someone who's very familiar with the issues relating to climate change and the environment". Maybe so, but he's lawyer with no scientific training and worked for more than 10 years for the American Petroleum Institute as, guess what, a lobbyist for the U.S. oil and natural gas industry. What business does he have editing climate research reports?

This week NASA reported that unusual weather patterns helped reduce the artic ozone loss but that it was still bad. Scientists aren't sure what's going on with the climate and are trying to do more research to find out. That's why this story is so damning for the administration. "In places where uncertainties in climate research were described, Mr. Cooney added qualifiers like 'significant' and 'fundamental'" (quote from the New York Times). It's not like the scientists are sure, they had uncertainties and it seems the administration exagerated them to support their policy. Just like they are accused of doing with Iraq and WMD's. Let's also add in the position on stem-cell research, remember Bush lied about the number of viable stem-cell lines available. Gee maybe there's a pattern.

Oh and go to Fox News and search for "Philip Cooney", when I did it today there were no stories on it at all, Google News returned 47. I at least expected a story of how the liberal media is blowing this out of proportion. "Fair and Balanced" my ass.


It seems that the people who run this school shouldn't be allowed to teach children. "Thomas Benya wore a braided bolo tie under his purple graduation gown this week as a subtle tribute to his Native American heritage. Administrators at his school in Charles County, Md., decided that the string tie was too skinny. They denied him his diploma, at least temporarily, as punishment." What the fuck were they thinking?!?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Book Review: Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

This is Al Fraken's book originally published two years ago and released in paperback about a year ago. While I'm not that impressed with his Air America Radio show, this book was very good. It's got a mix of many quotes and facts, backed up by references, and good biting satire.

He's at his best when he goes after the right-wing media (conspiracy?) of Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Hannity and Colmes. He also does a good job on the Bush administration and their economic, environment, and military policies. He's better when he stick to facts. He talks frequently about TeamFranken, a group of 14 Harvard students who did the research, and it shows. He describes a lot of lies. He rips aparts speeches, books, TV shows etc. and does a really good job of it. I won't repeat here, but let me say I agree, Ann Coulter is a nutcase, Bill O'Reilly is a bully and Rush Limbaugh is an ass and they are all serial liers. And throughout all of this he's pretty funny and quite sarcastic.

He's really at his best when describing Paul Wellstone and how the right took advantage of his death and funeral by claiming that the Democrats took advantage of his death and funeral. The whole situation is really disgusting.

I had little use for the 20 page fictional account of various political figures serving together in Vietnam. Franken and one of the researchers visit Bob Jones University pretending that the researcher was interested in attending. They played various games with the students and employees and in the end he says he felt a little bad about it. But in Lazlo Toth style he describes other stunts including sending letters to various right wingers asking them to describe their abstinence stories so today's children can have someone to look up to. Of course he lied about the purpose and if he had gotten any real responses I'm sure he would have published them as jokes. He also describes meeting Barbara Bush on a plane, saying some sly things to her and having her say "I'm through with you" and then he describes her as a bitch. And he doesn't say he feels bad about these other bits.

In the end he says that to beat these liers we can't fight like they do, we need to fight them with the truth. The problem is, by mixing the facts with stunts like the above and mixing in a lot of sarcasism which isn't always clear when it starts and ends, he gives people the opportunity to tune him out for being what he complains about. I'm sure there are some errors in his work, there always are. And I'm sure he's pulled a few things out of context to make something particularly compelling or funny. There are several critics who are picking these out and the result is back-and-forth nitpicking on inconsequential things like whether Bill O'Reilly grew up in Westbury or Levitown. He's added some rebuttals in the paperback edition. But as far as I've seen they haven't faulted him on his substantive claims. Maybe the other side would have gone after whatever they could find anyway, probably so, but I think Franken helps them a bit with his style. It was entertaining and informative, but I think you have to take them in that order.

I wish his radio show was this good, I've listened to it some more since reading this book and fact to humor ratio is too low.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Movie Review: Crash

Crash is a great film; Shawshank great. Crash is about racism, pure and simple. Just about every single scene is either an example of it or has characters talking about it or both. It has a dozen main characters and many more supporting ones, covering seven main storylines which all interconnect in a 24 hour period. In spite of all these characters it's not hard to follow and yet it's also not predictible. The script is very tight, not a scene or a word is extraneous. This is melodrama, but in a good sense of the word, this film delivers stunning emotional wallops. Genuine suspence, disgust, surprise, relief, anguish, humor, and other emotions will come over you while watching Crash. You will walk out, overwhelmed and dying to discuss it with someone or everyone.

Crash introduces many characters and based on their actions and the bluntness of their dialog you quickly find out about them and then it pulls the rug out from under you and you start to realize you don't know what's going to happen next and you didn't know everything you thought you did. No one is purely good or evil and many are trapped by circumstances, but we're all responsible for our actions in each and every situation. People in this film crash into each other both automotively and verbally. There are many times in this film where poor communication forces a situation to spiral out of control. This happens with immigrants not speaking English, with people too upset to think about what they are saying and with people who don't say what they're thinking.

Due to the ensemble cast Crash begs comparisons to the films of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson as well as Grand Canyon and Do the Right Thing. The acting is generally fantastic, particularly Don Cheadle (as usual), Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton. Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Dashon Howard, Ludacris and Michael Pena all do wonderful jobs as well. Only Brendan Fraser seemed a little flat. Four parent-child relationships and two marriages are given a fair amount of screen time if not actually explored.

Some prominent reviewers gave Crash some not so glowing reviews, most of which complained that there was too much coincidence, too much structure in the story or that the characters weren't three dimensional. Those things might be true, but it's missing the point. This isn't a documentary and it's not a character study, it's a film to make you think about and feel the effects of racism. While the character situations are a bit contrived, they are composites and every viewer should be able to relate to at least one conversation or stereotype in this film, if not many more. Please go see this film in the theater so it generates good revenue and we get more films like this and less like The Longest Yard remake.