Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Movie Review: X-Men 3: The Last Stand

I've been a big fan of the X-Men series so far and was afraid when director Bryan Singer left (to make Superman Returns) to be replaced by Brett Ratner. I enjoyed the movie but I think it's the weakest of the trilogy.

It does have the best story of the trilogy. It's taken from recent stories in the comics by Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedan. A cure for the mutant gene is developed and now all mutants debate if they should take it. The enormous cast of more than 15 main characters helps to present a variety of different opinions. Some like Storm, say there is nothing wrong with them and they don't need to be cured, others wish they could be human. The Beast would like to loose his furry blue appearance to fit in and rogue would llke to be able to touch someone without killing them. The obvious solution is to let each mutant decide for themselves. But Magneto and others fear that this is the first step and that eventually they will be forced to take it. So they launch a pre-emptive strike and then we see the cure has been turned into a weapon. It's not clear if Magneto merely predicted or actually precipitated this event.

It's a good story, with many parallels to real life issues of those that don't quite fit in. The problem is it's offset by some shallowness and stupidity. They introduce Angel (one of the original x-men from the 60s), in this incarnation he's a son of a CEO who thinks his wings are a disease. We see him first as an adolecent trying to cut off his wings himself and next resisting the cure. He's not a fleshed out character as much as a plot device. This is proven in the next (and only) two scenes we see him in but I won't give it away. You'll be able to predict it yourself.

As for stupidity, there are a bunch of things. Why take a boat or fly across a bay when you can rip out a bridge and move it (ok, it looks cool). Why shoot lightening from your hands when you can fight hand-to-hand. Why send the people you're trying to save out to be killed as pawns in a battle? It just wasn't as tight as the other two movies in these kinds of details.

The movie also has another main story which is a reenvisioning of the classic 80s Dark Phoenix story that made the X-Men a phenomenon. They made a lot of changes but the basics are all there. Jean Grey becomes all powerful and absolute power corrupts absolutely and how loyal are your friends? In the comics she ate a sun, in the movie she does some bad things but destroys perhaps the area of a city block. She also spends too much time standing around looking lost.

There's a lot in there and film seems a bit cramped for time. It's about a half hour shorter than X-Men 2, but I was surprised to see it's the same length as the first movie. I appreciate that they have a lot of characters and don't waste time on origin stories. I also noticed the dialog is very economical. Early on Cylops says to Wolverine about dealing with Jean's death at the end of the last movie that "we don't all heal as fast as you". That worked both in the scene and to make sure people understood his mutant healing ability. There are lots of examples of that kind of thing and my two friends who didn't know the comics seemed to follow everything just fine. Of course if you did know the comics you could appreciate seeing a fastball special or a sentinals head and a number of other things. Speaking of Cylops, the writers must not like him. He was barely in the first film, unconscience for most of the second, and is barely in this film.

I also have a lot of respect for this film because it wasn't afraid to make major changes to major characters. And because it's based on comic books it wasn't afraid to leave in ways to undo those changes. Nevertheless, it works and it shows that the movies were conceived of as a trilogy. It's success this weekend all but guarantees there will be more films, but the word is the next one will be a Wolverine spinoff. I'll go see it.

If you do see X-Men 3, be sure to stay until after the credits.

Staying Addicted to Oil

Remember in the State of the Union Bush talked about how technology would help reduce our addiction to oil? Well, so much for that. It seems the DoE is cutting $115 million from it's budget and about a dozen projects are going away. "Included is a U.S. Energy Department program that in 2004 saved 122 million barrels of oil, worth about $9 billion...Also being subject to spending cuts is the government's Industrial Technologies Program that saves the United States $7 worth of energy for each dollar it spends." Brilliant.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Apple Elevator 1.0 Buggy, Wait for 1.1

It seems you really don't want the first release of a new Apple product. Invariably there are bugs, often recalls or repairs and a lot of press about it (it is Apple after all). Their new flagship Apple Store in NYC is no different. Eight days after opening, the very cool circular glass elevator got stuck. With customers inside. Oops.

Join a Tribe

This is bizarre but it seems to be real and doesn't seem to be reality TV. As best I can figure, Ben Keene was befriended by Fijians in 2004 and wanted to come up with a way to share the experience with others. He was invovled with adventure travelling and Time-Out publicaitons so he had some ideas. Now on Tribewanted 5,000 people can (pay and) signup on the internet to form a tribe to control a real island in Fiji for 3 years. They will meet online and make decisions and then will travel to the island to put them in place. Included with membership are accomodations and food for a visit to the island (you have to get there on your own and are encouraged to pay back the CO2 costs of your travel. It's about $220 per person per year and I think their 5,000 person number is per year, so they're raising $5,500,000.

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code

When it came out I noted that it had a low rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Well I saw it and I think it's better than most of the critics thought (though Ebert and Roeper gave it two thumbs up). I didn't read the book and I'm not a Christian. I did check the wikipedia page on the book to see what parts are real history and what's made up.

Everyone else probably knows the story better than I so I won't repeat it. It was fun enough to follow, there were a few places where there were some gaps, I just assume something was cut and the book fills it in better. I wasn't expecting the whole story to take place in two days. As such there's very little character development. There are some flashbacks but they're really there for plot. I thought the dialog was a bit rough in places. I can't imagine anyone would say (in their second language) "you have an eidetic memory!"

I knew going into the film that the plot was about a coverup that Christ and Mary Magdalene had a child. For a little bit I was worried that this was going to be the climax at the end of the film but this comes out a little more than an hour into it. There's more stuff, but honestly I found it pretty easy to figure out who was doing what to who. When one of the big things is revealed at the end I was honestly surprised because it seemed so obvious to me that I thought it was explained a couple of hours earlier.

Still it was fun. There's a little too much plot for the film but as a result it doesn't drag and you have to pay attention. The few action scenes were refreshingly normal as opposed to special effects extravaganzas. I don't think there was a single explosion. Since I didn't read the book I don't konw how well the actors did in portraying their characters, but I get the sense that characterization wasn't a big deal and it certainly wasn't in the film, so everyone did fine.

I've heard a lot about how the Da Vinci Code is blasphemous or anti-catholic but honestly that seems absurd to me, this is just fiction. It's a conspiracy theory like The Illuminatus! Trilogy or Foucault's Pendulum. There was a letter in yesterday's Boston Globe relating it The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They're similar in that you only get into trouble if you believe them. The difference is that the Protocols have been used to advance hate and persecurtion, in fact they were created for that purpose. The Da Vinci Code was not, it was published as fiction.

Spoilers

I figure people might ask what I figured out. When we first saw in flashback that Sophie's parents died in a car crash I figured it was murder and that she must be a decendant of Christ. When another flashback showed the sex ritual I was convinced. I found it fairly ridiculous that Teabing needed two canes to walk except when holding a gun, then he could get away with using one. And I also thought it ridiculous that Langdon couldn't disarm him. In the Louvre when the police see Langdon's tracker moving away I knew they just threw the tracker rather than jumped. I was amazed that the Louvre was not video monitored either when Silias killed Sauniere or when Langdon and Sophie went to the Mona Lisa. At the time I didn't understand how Silias knew to show up at Villette, so I suspected Teabing or the Remy, but didn't piece it together until Remy died (before they revealed Teabing was the Teacher).

There is a problem caused by having too much plot to squeeze into a movie. It means that nothing shown is wasted, in other words everything is significant. When Tom Hanks entered the Louvre and commented about the inverted pyramid I knew it would come up. Later when he was in Villette and described the symbols of man and woman I thought of that pyramid and knew it would come up at the end. I had forgotten about it until Langdon left his hotel. Though in that scene I was surprised that someone with an eidetic memory would need to look up an image in his own book!

Finally I think Teabing's plan was lame. If you knew the top members of the Priory but didn't know where the keystone was, would you have a crazy monk kill the members to get the info? There's a lot of evidence these people wouldn't crack under pressure. In fact his plan didn't work because Sauniere led Silias on a wild goose chase. That's why you're supposed to keep them alive while you confirm what they say. It was only coincidence that Langdon and Sophie contacted him with the real clues.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Mars Robots Software Upgrade

Some time in the next month NASA plans to remotely upgrade the software on the Mars rovers "to make 'intelligent' decisions in the study of Martian clouds and dust devils. Since they can take more pictures than they can send to Earth, NASA plans to teach them to analyze the photos to pick only the most interesting ones to send. "Clouds typically occur in 8-20% of the data collected right now." I sure hope their QA is good.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

National Hurricane Preparedness Week, 2006

Did you have any idea that today is the last day of National Hurricane Preparedness Week, 2006. Bush proclaimed it on May 19 (a whole weekend of warning there). Seriously. Did anyone know this? Google shows only 120 news articles mentioning it, mostly from small papers or saying NOAA is predicting an active season. Apparently some east coast states had a tax free holiday to buy supplies. I really hope FEMA is to doing more to prepare than merely this.

It was also World Trade Week.

Intelligence Czar Can Waive SEC Rules - BusinessWeek Online - MSNBC.com

BusinessWeek found out this fun fact: Intelligence Czar Can Waive SEC Rules. Presidents since Carter have the ability to excuse companies working on some top-secret projects from standard SEC accounting and disclosure regulations. I guess that makes some sense, though it's not clear if any president has used the authority.

So here's what Bush did. On May 5th, the same day that Porter Goss resigned as Director of the CIA Bush delegated this authority to the Director of National Intelligence, now John Negroponte, apparently the first time the power has been delegated. Six days later the NSA domestic spying program was made public.

The article points out how obscure Bush's directive was. The title was "Assignment of Function Relating to Granting of Authority for Issuance of Certain Directives: Memorandum for the Director of National Intelligence." The key sentence was "I hereby assign to you the function of the President under section 13[b][3][A] of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended." It's not clear from the Business Week article if this was unusual or not.

House Leaders Concede Right to Search - Forbes.com

"House leaders conceded Friday that FBI agents with a court-issued warrant can legally search a congressman's office, but they said they want procedures established after agents with a court warrant took over a lawmaker's office last week." They must have removed anything incriminating.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tony Snows First Gaff

New White House Press Secretary Tony Snow made his first gaff today. On the divisive topic of immigration reform Snow compared illegal immigration to speeding. When asked about a path to citizenship for illegal aliens Snow said "If you had a traffic ticket and you paid it, you're not forever a speeder, are you?" Some took offense to the comparison, imagine that?

Supreme Court Minimalism And Its Effects On Lower Courts

Dan Filler continues the Minimalist Supreme Court debate in this Concurring Opinions article. He talks about the affects of narrow decisions on lower courts, but I don't think he comes to any conclusions. Still I enjoyed the read, and reread to see if I missed something.

Congressional Wackiness

This raid of William Jefferson's (D-LA) office is getting even more wacky. Someone suggested to me that perhaps this is a way for congressional republicans to distance themselves from unpopular Bush for the election. This seems a bit much for that.

The House and Senate leaders of both parties were outraged. I saw someone (I think it was Frist) on CNN yesterday saying that the offices need to be private because there were letters from constituents, private papers, maybe even tax returns. Hmm, sounds to me like anyone's home or office and yet the constitution allows a search with a warrant and they had one. Maybe the other members of Congress are concerned with what they have in their office. I think Congress should be more concerned with searches that don't have warrants.

Jefferson was video-taped last August accepting a $100,000 bribe, $90,000 of the same money was found in his freezer. They have two people who have pled guity to bribing him. He was subpoenaed then (9 months ago) and ignored it so they got a warrant to get the documents they wanted. The wikipedia page has more on the other allegations against Jefferson.

What is this guy still doing in Congress? The House Ethics Committee didn't begin an investigation into Jefferson until last week! The best House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) can say is that she'd like him to resign from the Ways and Means Committee that she chairs? Why isn't Jefferson being impeached?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was one of the most outspoken against this raid. Then ABC News said federal investigators have Hastert "in the mix" of their Abramoff investigation. Hastert said this was absolutely wrong and demanded a retratction. Even though it's "highly unusual" for the Justice Department to comment in ongoing investigations, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said the story was false. Hastert later accused the administration of leaking this false story to intimidate him for his criticism of the Jefferson raid.

Remember, last year we found out that in 2003 Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for Hastert that raised $69,000 and shortly after that Hastert signed a letter to the Secretary of Interior to block an Indian casino Abramoff's clients wanted blocked. In January of this year Hastert said he'd give all the money to charity. Hey nothing conclusive there, but I'd be surprised if he wasn't investigated in connection with the Abramoff thing, though: "Legal experts have said that campaign contributions alone, even if closely timed to a lawmaker's action, are not likely to become a focus for investigators in the Abramoff case."

Still Hastert said the raid on Jefferson's office was illegal. A Boston Globe article quotes two law professors, one from NYU and one from Harvard, who say the search was legal and compared it to Supreme Court decisions in Watergate and Whitewater in which the president had to hand over papers. In the form of fairness they quoted someone on the other side who would only go as far as saying it "is obviously a wonderful technique for stalling an investigation. Some might call it an obstruction of justice, and some might call it separation of powers." That was John Dean, Nixon's lawyer.

Why is it that this is the topic that brings Hastert and Pelosi (and others) together? They demanded the justice department return the siezed documents! The Justice department refused, but now Bush has directed that the papers be sealed for 45 days so this can be resolved with cooler heads. That seems reasonable but I don't see the congress' side of this at all.

Still what's interesting is how this is playing out. Hastert has been one of the most loyal Republicans to Bush in the Congress, delivering every vote ask for. And he's incensed over this. Jefferson is a corrupt Democratic, that should help the Republicans who seem to have a lock on the corruption charges but no the Republicans are diving in. Bush the uniter? Hah. In addition to dividing the Democrats and the rest of the world against the US, he's now managed to divide the most loyal Republicans against him (and both houses on immigration). Now we hear the FBI will start interviewing House members of both parties to investigate the leaks about NSA surveillance. This will get more fun.

Man Raised by Chickens

This is a bizarre story. In Fiji in 2003 a man was found who was raised by chickens. From the ages of 1-8 he was "forced to live in a chicken coop, deprived of human care". He was rescued from that but was then tied to a bed for 22 years "because he was considered unmanageable".

He's 34 now and is making progress. "He laughs and cries now and never used to. He walks up steps when he used to crawl. He didn't used to have favourite foods and now he does. He likes eggs but he doesn't like carrots, which is great because he is deciding between things." Somehow feeding him what I assume are chicken eggs seems cruel.

"You can tickle the bottom of his feet now and he responds whereas before he never responded. His sensitivity is coming back whereas before there was so much pain in his early life he probably didn't recognise what pain is. He doesn't talk but sometimes he makes the sound 'oy, oy'."

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cheney May Testify

It looks like Cheney may be called in to testify against Libby. And it looks like if he is, he won't be able to get out of it. That would be fun, but we'll have to wait till the trial in January, man this is slow.

National Review Distorts Climate Change

The National Review has a cover story on global warming. Apparently lots of thir facts are wrong. Again, I don't get it, do these people want to dramatically alter life on earth?

A couple of days ago I asked for some statistic like 98% of scientists agree. Conveniently this article does just that. It seems that in all 928 peer-reviewed papers on the topic published between 1993 and 2003, none disagree with the concensus view that "Earth's climate is being affected by human activities" (which means greenhouse gases mostly carbon dioxide).

And yet the National Review article apparently says "[T]here is wide disagreement about the extent to which carbon-dioxide emissions are responsible for the warming we’ve seen so far." Ugh.

John Roberts: Unanimity and Minimalism

About a week ago I pointed to an article on Chief Justice John Roberts which in part said that he's been good at getting unanimous opinions from the court. So far this term has seen 44 decisions, 29 of which have been unanimous. This time last term there were only 17 unanimous decisions. He's apparently done this by encouraging narrow rulings and having longer, freer conference debate. Seems like a good thing, though today two articles came out on this topic.

The first by Edward Lazarus of FindLaw says this is probably just an anomally because of two things: a grace period of two new judges and the fact that they haven't yet tackled the hard divisive cases. He points out that while unanimity has been important in such cases as Brown v. Board of Education and US v. Nixon, dissents have also been important such as Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson which helped make Brown unanimous. Lazarus says the real issue isn't the statistical count of votes but how clear the courts ruling is and then points out that the Rehnquist court had a lot of 4-1-4 and 4-3-2 decisions as well as 5-4 decisions. To avoid making that look like more counting he says the first give no majority and therefore little clarification the second makes the court look ideological (e.g., Bush v. Gore). So after saying unanimiity isn't so important, he says Roberts is pursuing a good goal of acheiving clarity, by having unanimous decisions.

The second article was an Op-Ed in the LA Times by University of Chicago Law School professor Cass Sunstein. In a commencement speech Roberts recently gave he stated his preference for broad consensus or unanimiity which probably requires narrow or minimal rulings so that justices could agree. If you have a broad sweeping decision, it's more likely that ideologically different justices will disagree than If you rule only on the specifics of a single case. This is a classic Supreme Court debate, just like being strict or loose contructionist. The interesting thing is that Sandra Day O'Conner was also a minimalist but Scalia is not. It also means Roberts answered the questions in his confirmation hearing accurately. He kept saying it would depend on the specifics of the case, and if you're a minimalist, it would.

Absolut Photoshop Contests

Having seen the post on the photoshop contest, a friend sent me this. Apparently there have been several contests to spoof Absolut ads and I love Absolut ads (and Absolut).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cate Blanchett to play Bob Dylan

Here's an odd one. In the upcoming film "I'm Not There", actress Cate Blanchett will play Bob Dylan. Apparently there will be several actors playing various "aspects of Dylan's life and music". Christian Bale and Richard Gere will play other aspects.

If I were making this film I'd just wait until Benicio Del Toro was available.

Pentagon Shows Video Game to Senate

"Was an elite congressional intelligence committee shown video footage from an off-the-shelf retail game and told by the Pentagon and a highly-paid defense contractor that it was a jihadist creation designed to recruit and indoctrinate terrorists? It's looking more and more like that is the case."

Microsoft Parodies Self

Remember that great video of what if Microsoft designed the iPod box? It turns out that Microsoft made it. "It was an internal-only video clip commissioned by our packaging [team] to humorously highlight the challenges we have faced RE: packaging and to educate marketers here about the pitfalls of packaging/branding."

What's an Aluminium Falcon?

Here's a great bit from Robot Chicken. Imagine how it went when Darth Vader told Emperor Palpatine that the Death Star had been destroyed.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Irreducible Stupidity

I'm sure it won't convince anyone, but it should. David Horton writes Irreducible Stupidity in The Huffington Post and I enjoyed it. The next time someone says that bacterial flagellum proves Irreducible complexity tell them they're wrong.

Fine Art Monsters

The latest Worth 1000 Photoshop contest is a fun one. People inserted monsters into famous fine art paintings.

Search of Congressman's Office

So the debate continues and both House and Senate members, Republicans and Democrats alike are very upset about this search saying it's a violation of the separation of powers of the Constitution. So I wondered about this, what part of the Constitution is this? I read through it (it's not long) again and didn't see it. I just saw Bill Frist (R-TN) interviewed and he mentioned "the so-called speech and debate clause". So here it is:

Article I, Section 6: "The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the treasury of the United States. They shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place."

This is the clause that Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) apparently tried to invoke when he told police that he was late for a vote at the House. But I don't see anything about searches and I have to think that bribery of a Congressman is a felony, but it seems that's not clear cut either. If so, can he really not be arrested for this? Some of this was known last August, is the House investigating?

I'm still not sure what papers they were looking for but they were subpoenaed last August and Jefferson ignored the subpoena. So the AG got a warrant from a federal judge and searched his office. Really, it does seems reasonable to me.

Democrats Corrupt Too

See it's not just the Republicans who are corrupt. William Jefferson (D-LA) was caught on film accepting a $100,000 bribe and the money (matching serial numbers) was found in his home freezer. And the idiot refuses to resign. And in spite of headlines like William Jefferson Responds to Bribery Investigation he hasn't said a thing about it. "Congressman Jefferson says his lawyers have advised him not to discuss it and he will not discuss any of the alleged facts of this case."

Update: Jefferson and some other Democrats are complaining that the FBI searched Jefferson's office over the weekend. They say this might have been unconstitutional. It seems this is probably the first time a congressional office was searched. I'm all for separation of powers but congressmen aren't above the law just like the president isn't. Video tape of the bribe and finding the money in his home is pretty compelling. We don't know what they were searching for but they did get a warrant from a federal judge. The other odd part is he hasn't been charged yet but his homes were search last August, I'm assuming that's the time they found the money in his freezer. If so, I have no idea what they are waiting for.

Bush and Climate: Denial

George Bush might not be looking forward to Al Gore's new film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, but I am.

I don't get those that deny global warming. What's in it for them? Do they just not believe any science? Since it's mostly Republicans who deny it, I'd think there'd be plenty of money to be made in trying to fix the problems. And I really wish there was a statistic like 98% of scientists agree. It really is at least close to that amount, but still much of the media puts on one for and one against which suggests it's a 50-50 proposition. I wish Gingrich didn't do away with the Office of Technology Assessment, maybe they could have stood up to Bush's denial.

Alias Finale - Sucked with Some Good Moments

I need to vent about the Alias finale. Spoilers galore follow.

The finale had so many flaws it was really annoying. Time was screwy throughout. They flew from LA to mexico to rescue Marshall and Rachel in a few minutes. They did the same thing over and over again. The opening of the whole team spread throughout the world taking pictures of the "twelve" of Profit 5 was cool until I realized that how did they know who to take pictures of without having seen their pictures before? But Jack posing for a tourist shot and not smiling was great. Syd shows up to kill mom without a gun. There was lots of stuff like that. It's like these are the only agents in the world and they got to where they needed to be instantly just to stand and talk for a while. Ugh.

New guy Tom sacrificing himself was ok, but it just pointed out how little I cared about him or Rachel. They were brought in as filler while Syd was pregnant and while they tried to develop them they never really did well enough to fit in with our heros. It was a riot how everyone (Sark, Sloane) commented upon seeing him that Vaughn seemed to be alive.

Nevertheless some stuff was good old Alias fun. Marshall saying "That was cool, I mean Empire Strikes Back cool." The various flashbacks of major events in Syd's life were cool. So we know that Rimbaldi was after immortality, that makes sense from the whole series. And the ending for Sloane was perfect. He achieved immortality but was buried alive, eternally. And that Jack did it too him was also perfect. Jack sacrificing himself was touching. He was perhaps the best character in the series. It took me years to be comfortable thinking he was good and not bad. Glad I was right on that. Glad also to see Syd and Vaughn happily ever after on a beach with two kids and Marshall happy too. Odd to see Dixon as deputy director, he gave up management to get back into the field and he had enough bad experiences with the CIA and Sloane.

Sark having second thoughts seemed odd. I guess he would be against global genocide but was that really the plan? Just seemed like DC and London blowing up to me. Doesn't seem like the end of nature. And what did the globe do? Sloane put it in the alter thing and got immortality, what was Irina going to do with it? If she was going to put it in the alter why didn't she go there instead of having the thing delivered to her? And this seemed to have nothing to do with the virus that ended last season or with Sydney being the key to anything.

So they resolved the characters, they got their just desserts, but they didn't explain the Rimbaldi thing and that's bad. Really bad. Makes me very worried about Lost. Well another season pass I can delete from my Tivo.

Monday, May 22, 2006

This Spartan Life

Here's something a little old that I just found and enjoyed. It's a machinima called This Spartan Life. This will take a lot to explain. Today video content is written, acted, recorded (on video, film or digitally), edited, and distributed (broadcast or shown in theaters, etc.). Think about all the steps in making a movie or a TV show. In some cases, there isn't a lot of writing, e.g., in an interview. Ok, now think of a Pixar movie (just cause they currently do the best animated films), all the steps are the same, but instead of acting, computer animators render the written scenes (characters and scenery) digitally using software. Now think about an online computer game like Halo or World of Warcraft. Using that software people manipulate avatars through a virtual world and watch the rendered results. Now imagine if instead of playing, they had their avatars act out pre-written dialog and actions and then recorded the rendered results. It's similar to animation but uses different software for the rendering. It's also closer to traditional filming because there are actors controlling each character and people controlling the cameras to capture a performance. That's machinima.

This Spartan Life is a machinima talk show. It's created in Halo 2, so all the characters appear as armored warriors with weapons. But they are in fact, a host, a DJ, guests, and even dancers. There's a point-counterpoint style debate (one was on gun control!) with two characters shooting at each other. Other avatars act as cameramen, recording the characters from their viewpoint. They just look funny. Remember this is recorded from the live game. The actors are logged in from all over and their avatars are in the same place in the virtual game. But others are in the game as well, and Halo is a violent game. Part of the fun of the show is seeing our cast avoid being killed by others "on the set". It's almost performance art. In the second episode there's a bodyguard competition. Most of the guests seem to be gamers and other machinima pioneers. I enjoyed the first episode but after that it got old, which is probably why they stopped. Nevertheless, I get the sense I saw the start of a new form of filmmaking.

Alias Opposite 24

ABC is showing the series finale of Alias tonight at 9pm. It's annoying that it's opposite the 24 finale. Moreso because all year the episodes have been shown on Wednesday and not Monday. ABC is showing a lot of 2 hour finales this year (Alias, Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives). If one of the biggest complaints has been to many reruns, and if all the 2 hour shows are really in two 1 hour parts to make future syndication easier, why not get an extra week ouf the season and avoid a rerun? Maybe they're trying to avoid going up against the American Idol finale, but I'm sure they could have arranged to show it on some other Wednesday. Sweeps are annoying.

The funny thing is that with Tivo I can record one and watch the other, which is what I'll do. But I like watching both of these shows live in HD and I'm still waiting for the freakin' HDTivo to ship.

Health Insurance Hassles

I left Novell in Jan 2005, it's been almost a year and a half that I've been on sabatical. That means my COBRA coverage will expire soon. Some health insurance companies have options for unemployeed people to be covered, it's called direct pay. So I've surfed around and settled on Blue Cross Blue Shield.

There are four plans to pick from. You have the choice of HMO or PPO which means you have a primary care physician or you can pick your own doctors per visit with different coverage if you pick in- (100%) or out-of-network (80%). You also have your pick of a Basic plan or not Basic which means do you have perscription drug coverage or not. Prices for the four plans seem to be based solely on your age and zip code and for me range from $333 to $700 a month.

First off, the perscription drug coverage. The coverage is the same for either plan but it costs $162 extra for the HMO and $367 extra for the PPO. Since I'm not on any perscription drugs now I don't think I need to pay $2000-4400 for the coverage. The next difference is PPO vs HMO. The PPO costs more since you have more freedom of choice. Without perscription drug coverage that costs you $33 more, with drug coverage it's $172 more. But the PPO has a $5000 yearly deductible! and the HMO had none. So it's HMO basic for me, $333 a month, basically what I'm paying now for COBRA (though I currently have perscription drug coverage and a $1500 deductible).

While filling out the form I see there's a 180 day waiting period after you signup where you only have emergency coverage. If you can show continous prior coverage you can have the 180 day period waved. So I need get to a letter from my current company showing "Proof of Prior Coverage". I call the number I have for COBRA benefits at Novell and leave a message. I look at the fine print on the Blue Cross application and it says to wave the waiting period I must send in the proof with my application at least 63 days before coverage begins. Why 63 days? I don't know. Maybe because two 31 day months in row would be 62 days? That happens only in July and August. Why couldn't they just say 2 months? And if the coverage is continuous why have a 2 month period at all? I thought was doing good, working on this two and half months before my coverage ran out, now I'm in a bit of rush and have to finish this this week.

Novell got back to me first thing next business day and the woman I spoke with was very nice and seemed helpful. It seems everyone uses a different term for Proof of Prior Coverage but we settle that quickly. To print the letter she has to terminate me from the system; that sounds ominous. Apparently it won't change my coverage with Aetna, just in the Novell system. But they don't normally like doing it until a couple of weeks before coverage runs out. But she says she can do it now. Well not right now, because PeopleSoft is being upgraded. Maybe after the upgrade you won't need to remove someone from the system to print a report showing the period of coverage, I doubt it. So I get to wait another day or so then I can come in and pick it up. Fingers crossed.

Update: So it all worked out. PeopleSoft came up and Novell could print the letter but not before I paid up for all my coverage through end of July. So I called back Blue Cross and found out that I misunderstood the form. I don't have to send it in with 63 days lead time, I need to send it in within 63 days from end of coverage. That is, I need to send it in later and early July, after I've made my final payment is just fine. And I asked, I'm not the only one who has been confused by their phrasing.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Movie Review: Thank You for Smoking

This was the funniest film I've seen in a long time. It's a satire about a big tobacco spokesman named Nick Naylor, played brilliantly by Aaron Eckhart. He's exceptional at what he does. He appears on a panel against a child dying of cancer and comes out ahead. He's divorced from his wife because she didn't like the influence his job and his moral attitude was having on their 12 year-old son. Nick narrates throughout the film. You want to like him and all you can do is laugh at how ludicris all the situations are. The problem is, they aren't that absurd.

Everyone in this film is jaded, it's why the satire works so well. Nick wants to have movies show smoking in a better light, like it was before only done villians and Europeans smoke, so he's off to Hollywood where he meets equally smarmy agent Rob Lowe. He frequently deals with a Senator's (William H. Macy) efforts to legistlate against smoking. He meets tobacco executives and the former Marlboro man (Sam Elliott) now dying of cancer. Once a week he commiserates with other "merchants of death" an alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and a firearms lobbyist (David Koechner), competing on which product is harder to pitch. Katie Holmes is a reporter interviewing him for a story. He thinks what he says in bed with her is off-the-record, she thinks sleeping with him is a good way to get a story.

It's probably out of theaters now, but you need to put Thank You For Smoking on your rental lists.

The Future of Television?

I'm a little emabarrased to say I heard about the following from a Wired story. I downloaded the free program, Democracy and I'm really impressed. I've only run it on my Mac but it's available on Windows and Linux as well, I'm not sure if all the features are on all platforms, I'm writing only about my experiences on the Mac.

Democracy is a video blogging client. To be more specific it's a BitTorrent client which (in the background) downloads videos published via RSS feeds and lets you play them. it automatically expires and deletes old videos like a Tivo does so that they don't take up too much room on your hard drive. To find good feeds Democracy gives you access to a well designed channel guide with categories and tagging capabilities. You can rate a video as "da bomb" (that's good) so that others can find highly rated content. The player has a full screen mode with translucent popup controls which remind me of features added to the last update to iPhoto. Democracy is a still in beta and I've run into a few glitches, but I'm really impressed to see an application which combines so many enabling technologies in such an easy to use way. No .torrent files to deal with, no remembering to delete large files, autodownloading of new content, easy ways to find new things of interest and to subscribe to future releases from providers you like. I haven't seen anything this complete since Tivo. And it's all free open source software.

So the real question is, is there good content? Well not all that much. First I should say that unlike most p2p file sharing sites, this content is free and legal, not pirated. You can enter any feed you find, but the channel guide is helpful in the same way the iTunes music store is helpful in finding music files and podcasts, just not as complete yet. You probably realize that TV will be very different 10 years from now. Democracy might be what it will look like.

Hands on with the New Macbook

I went to the Apple store and checked out the new MacBooks. The new keyboard has a really nice feel to it. There's little space between the keys and their openings so I suspect it's more difficult for dirt to fall into the machine (I use an iSkin on my PowerBook). The screen is bright and is similar resolution to my PowerBook (just 54 few vertical pixels). I didn't get a sense if the glossy screen produced more glare. The size is also similar to my 15" PowerBook which surprised me. It's only about an inch narrower and about a 1/2" shallower and just about the same height. The black model is definately nicer than the white, but I don't think it's $150 nicer.

Rice Lies on Meet the Press

Condoleezza Rice on Meet the Press this morning:

"Well lets remember first of all that the United States didn't go and say Iraq is a problem on the WMD side, there were resolutions within the UN Security Council that suggests everybody knew and believed that there was a WMD problem with Iraq."

I guess Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't represent the US. I wish Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

World's Longest Concert

Ever sit through something interminable? See you only think you have because you're no longer there. It finished, it just felt like forever. Then you can get to philosophy, what if it lasts longer than you live? Well not many things you sit through do, so it doesn't really come up.

In the small town of Halberstadt, Germany, right now, an interminable concert is going on. It's an organ concert. The piece is Organ2/ASLSP composed by John Cage. It started on September 5, 2001. It's not really interminable, it will finish in the year 2640. That's right it's a 639 year-long concert

Cage was known for composing odd works. 4'33" is a 4 and half minute long piano piece of silence. The ASLSP in Organ2 stands for "As SLow aS Possible". That has previously meant about 20 minutes, but some folks are taking it to the extreme. They picked the 639 year length since it had been that long since an historically significant organ was built in Halberstadt when this concert started.

And what a start it was. The concert began with a 17 month long rest. That means silence. On February 5, 2003 the first chord (3 notes) started sounding. Two more notes were added in July 2004 and released on May 5 this year. On January 5 of this year the second chord started (yes the 2 notes added in July 2004 overlapped two chords). The next new chord will be on July 5, 2008 and then another on November 5 of the same year. "Each movement lasts 71 years. The shortest notes last 6 or 7 months, the longest about 35 years. There's an intermission in 2319."

The organ is being assembled as the concert goes on. It has a solar-powered bellows. Notes are played by hanging "weighted sacks from the organ's bare, wooden levers."

Halberstadt, is a former East German city of 40,000 people which had a 20% unemployment rate, which might explain some of this. It also has "a collection of 18,000 stuffed birds and is the unheralded home of canned sausage, which was invented [there] in 1896." The concert is being performed in the St Burchardi church which "was built in the 11th century and turned into a barn around Napoleon's time. During the Cold War, it housed pigs. The city council agreed to turn over St Burchardi to a newly formed John Cage Foundation, as long as the project didn't cost the city anything."

Friday, May 19, 2006

More NSA Comics

Here are two more good comics on the NSA Surveillance Issue: Tom Toles and This Modern World.

More Daily Show Loses?

It seems Rob Corddry will star in "The Winner" a new sitcom on Fox starting mid-season next year. IMDB says. "A successful guy looks back to the time he spent living with his parents when he was in his thirties." With rumors of Lewis Black trying to get a sitcom as well, and the successful careers of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell will there be anyone left to give us fake news?

Funny Fake Trailer

This is a very funny fake movie trailer called 10 Things I Hate About Commandments. It's clips from the Charlton Heston 10 Commandments reedited as the trailer for a teen comedy. It's good, but it gets really funny towards the end when they start doing the credits.

Fake News, not The Daily Show

I've been good about going to the gym lately which means I'm listening to podcasts again. I've been listening to old episodes of NPR's On The Media. I heard an report from April about video news releases. They were interviewing someone from the Center for Media and Democracy who had just released a study called Fake TV News. It seems that companies are putting together their own video clips and news stations are airing them unedited, without any attribution (or disclosure) as to the original source, so they appear to be real news.

Companies have been hiring PR companies to produce these pieces to promote their products. News releases are hopefully picked up by the media and reported on. In an effort of make it easier for the customer, if you release a video clip that looks likes news, with a pseudo-journalist reporting on a "story", the the tv stations can air them more easily and are more likely too. In some cases the PR firm releases scripts for the real anchors to read to introduce the stories!

One example was about mp3 players. They had sensationalistic report that video iPods are being used for porn and parents have to protect their children. Then they talked about other mp3 players that are safe (because they can't play video). Who produced this? The three companies who's mp3 players were mentioned as safe, the only name I remember was Panasonic. Other segments come from pharmaceutical and car companies. Here's the beginning of the reports summary:

"Over a ten-month period, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documented television newsrooms' use of 36 video news releases (VNRs)—a small sample of the thousands produced each year. CMD identified 77 television stations, from those in the largest to the smallest markets, that aired these VNRs or related satellite media tours (SMTs) in 98 separate instances, without disclosure to viewers. Collectively, these 77 stations reach more than half of the U.S. population. The VNRs and SMTs whose broadcast CMD documented were produced by three broadcast PR firms for 49 different clients, including General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One. In each case, these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting. In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients' messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety."

Apparently the FCC does have disclosure requirements that say stations must cite the source of VNRs, but they aren't enforced much. Oh and to make it worse it's not just companies that produce VNRs the US government does as well. At least Congress' GAO says that if you don't report the source it's "illegal covert propaganda". That's good, but the Justice Dept and OMB of the Bush administration says you don't have disclose the source if it's informational. So, Congress says the Bush administration is promoting illegal propaganda to the US public.

So the news really is becoming infomercials and government propaganda. No wonder more people are getting their real news from the Daily Show.

The Eternal Value of Privacy

For all the outrage at the revelations about domestic NSA spying the most common response (from it seems the majority of the public) is "what do you have to hide?". If I'm not doing anything wrong, listen in on me if it will stop a terrorist. Of course this isn't correctly framing the argument.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has an article in Wired, The Eternal Value of Privacy, that tries to correct this. He says privacy isn't about hiding a wrong, "Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect."

I agree with him but like so often on this topic, don't find his argument very persuasive. He makes some good points. "Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with" and "Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance" and "Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state".

Look I want to catch terrorists too. If you need to listen to phone calls or do other things to catch them, do it. Just do it legally, get a warrant. If the system is broken, respond to Senators requests for ways to fix it. Don't listen to every phone call hoping to find a bad one, it's a huge waste. "They can listen to my calls" bleech. If they're listening to a harmless call it's a wasted effort. If they're listening to tens of millions of harmless calls its a huge wasted effort and it's ripe for abuse.

I know the domestic call database isn't listening, it's just call record info. But there was the report earlier this week that someone told ABC reporters "It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick". See the Bush administration has the FBI looking for leaks. They don't like when people report the truth, like Joe Wilson, and they'll go after the free press and out CIA operatives for revenge. Laws and government restrictions protect us from corruption, and we need that, especially lately. It's just doesn't seem to working very well.

Oh, the ACLU has a good page on What Can the NSA Do? It's summary of what we reasonably suspect their capabilities are.

Denial of Service Attacks

Brian Krebs has a blog in the Washington Post on computer security called Security Fix. In Wednesday's entry he talks about large scale denial of service attacks like the one that took out Akamai in June 2004. Interesting stuff.

The Da Vinci Code

Apparently the Da Vinci Code movie sucks. Rotten Tomatoes says 19% of reviewers liked it and only 11% of the lead reviewers. Why can't summer movies be good?

UN Tells US To End Torture and Close Guantanamo

The Times of London reports that the UN tells America to end torture and close Guantanamo. The ten members of the UN Committee Against Torture will release an 11 page report today calling for the shutdown of Guantanamo and for an end to the use of torture and cruel treatment. "The panel has no legal power to enforce the US to abide by any of its demands but it wields considerable moral authority." Apparently some of the charges if true, might be in violation of international law. I don't know which countries are members of the panel. Thank you Bush. Bleech.

Robotic Surgeon

I find this really hard to believe but it seems real. In Milan Italy, for the the first time ever a robot performed surgery on a human by itself. It was a 50 minute operation for atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. It's apparently done 40 previous surgeries but this is the first time it did the whole procedure by itself. Who did the QA on this?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Bush Job Approval

Bush has a positive job approval in just 3 states.

Collecting Nobels

Harvard is a pretty amazing place to be around. Tonight I went to the CfA Monthly Observatory Night. Professor Avi Loeb gave a lecture on "How the Universe Began, and How It Will End". Though it lost me a few times it was still very interesting.

When talking about the cosmic background radition left over from the big bang, he pointed out that the first person to hear it was sitting in the front row and that he got a Nobel Prize for hearing it. It was Robert Wilson and this is the 3rd time I've been at a lecture with a Nobel laureate in the audience (that I know of). I might start a collection.

I've also "met" Charles Townes who invented the Maser and Linda Buck who won the prize in medicine in 2004 for "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system", basically how smell works.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bush Election Official Guilty of Election Tampering

Back in August I wrote about Republicans and Election Tampering. James Tobin, Bush's 2004 New England Campaign Chairman was indicted for tampering in the 2002 New Hampshire election. Well today he was found guilty: "A senior official in U.S. President George W. Bush's re-election campaign was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Wednesday for his role in suppressing votes in a key U.S. Senate race.". The article also says "Tobin was denied bail and also fined $10,000 and given two years of probation." so I don't know how to reconcile that.

So why is this a big deal? Tobin was high up in the national Republican party. This brings up the question of who else knew about this and was it done in other places? Why do these questions persist? Because the national Republican Party paid $2.5 million for Tobin's legal fees. Why defend an election tamperer when the case against him was so strong? Perhaps because he could implicate others? It seems that Tobin and other NH Republican officials made 22 calls to the White House between Nov 5-6 (election day was the 5th). Some like Kathleen Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, suggest he might have reported to others on the scheme. The national Republican party (is this the same as the RNC?) says they were just routine calls. Anyway it stinks.

NSA Tracking Devices

On NSA Domestic Spying

Salon has an interview with intelligence historian Matthew Aid. He and james Bamford are the two experts on the NSA.

The NSA last did domestic surveillance in 1976 via Project Shamrock. It was this revelation that led Congress to pass the FISA act in 1978. After that most domestic surveillance was done by the FBI, but after 9/11 they were out of favor. The FBI's Carnivore program required approval from the Attorney General for every tap. To run it as the NSA's program has been run would have required approval from the AG as well both the Civil Rights and teh Criminal Divisions of the Justice Department. To avoid all that the administration used the NSA instead of the FBI for the program.

To me the most interesting point was about telling Congress:

"They can claim that they briefed individual members of Congress but there's a difference between briefing a few members of Congress and briefing a full committee...What happens is that you're [privately] briefed about the program, and then even if you object to the program, you can't do anything about it because you can't tell the whole committee. Our system only works when information is given to the full committee...They deliberately did it this way so the intelligence committees couldn't do anything about it."

So when the administration feeds you crap about Congress being briefed, don't believe it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More on Roberts

Bloomberg has this read on Roberts, at Ease in New Role, Puts Stamp on U.S. Supreme Court. Basically he seems comfortable in the role, has many unanimous opinions, asks some aggressive questions, and has had some public appearances where he's asked for no special privileges.

Bush Spoke on Immigration

Bush spoke on Monday night about immigration reform. I really don't know enough about the issue to have much of an opinion. I will say what Bush said sounded pretty reasonable.

Bush wants to increase the border patrol from 12,000 to 18,000 in the next 2.5 years. But while that's happening he's going to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to help protect the border. "The Guard will assist the Border Patrol by operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads, and providing training." In a following press conference it seems much of this will be via their normal 2 weeks a year training period.

Last Dec Bill O'Reilly interviewed DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and suggested using the National Guard to defend the border. His response was "Well, the National Guard is really, first of all, not trained for that mission" and "I think it would be a horribly over-expensive and very difficult way to manage this problem". So maybe that's not such a good idea. Since they won't be doing law enforcement I imagine it's not violating Posse Comitatus. It does seem an expensive way of getting fences built. Though this seems to be difficult, see one of my first rants in this blog.

He talked about a temporary worker program which seemed ok. "To hold employers to account for the workers they hire" he proposed a tamper-proof biometric id card for foreign workers. I'm not sure how this will work and I'm sure it will be expensive and forged at some point. I certainly don't see restaurant owners checking biometrics of bus boys.

The big debate seems to be about amnesty. Numbers USA seems to be an anti-immigration group, but they do have a decent page on amnesty laws if you'd like to know the history. The first Immigration amnesty was in 1986 by Reagan (so it conservatives should like this right?) and there have been a few more since then.

Bush said: "I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English, and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship, but approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law." That does sound reasonable to me, but then again, this seems like a lot of documentation for undocumented workers.

Of course Jon Stewart pointed out that Bush's popularity graph was shaped like the US-Mexico border and his speech tried to appeal to everyone: the right, the left, the sci-fi nerds, and the fishermen.

Apologies from Bush Supporters

Doug McIntyre is a morning talk show host in LA. He's Republican and voted for Bush in 2000 (though not in 2004). He recently wrote An Apology From a Bush Voter. It's a good read on what's wrong with Bush. "In historic terms, I believe George W. Bush is the worst two-term President in the history of the country. Worse than Grant. I also believe a case can be made that he’s the worst President, period."

New MacBooks, Black is a Ripoff

Apple has released a new low-end laptop to replace the iBook. As widely speculated it's called the MacBook. It comes in three models that I'll call low, med and high. First what's the same about them: 512MB RAM, 1280x800 13.3" screen using the onboard Intel graphics card, mini-DVI port, digital audio in/out, 2 USB 2.0, 1 FireWire 400, built-in iSight, wifi, bluetooth 2.0, and the new MagSafe power adaptor. All are the same size and weigh 5.2 lbs.

The differences. The low end model has a 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, the med and high end models have 2.0 GHz versions of the same chip. The low end has a combo drive (read/write CDs, read DVDs), the two higher models have super-drives (read/write both CDs and DVDs). The 2 low end models comes with 60GB drives while the high end one comes with an 80GB drive.

So if I were to buy one I'd get the faster processor, the super drive, 1 GB of RAM and a 100GB hard drive (120GB would be nice but it's $100 more). So if you price out the med model in the store it comes to $1550. If you price out the high end model it's $1700. A $150 difference really surprised me, particularly since I'm adding 40GB to the med model and only 20GB to the high end model. Really, that's the only difference. Oh wait there's one more difference, the high end model is black plastic, the other two are white plastic. $150 more for black. No thanks. I'd rather have another 20GB on the drive and $50 in cash.

Update: A note about Apple memory. It's expensive. Also Apple support is not kind to those with 3rd party memory. Apparently if you send in a machine for repair with 3rd party memory they just send it back saying to use genuine Apple memory even when it's not the problem. If I were getting 2GB I'd get 3rd party. For just 1 GB I don't think it's worth the hassle. Also if you add memory it costs more in person at the retail Apple Store then online at the Apple Store. The reason is the retail outlet got a shipment with the standard memory in it. If you upgrade they remove the 2 256MB memory cards and replace them (in my case with 2 512MB memory cards). But you still paid for the standard memory. If you order online you just pay for what you order because there's no extra shipping costs. It's a ripoff too, but if you buy it in the store, be sure to ask for the original memory so you can sell it on eBay or something, otherwise they'll keep it and rip you off again.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Much more on the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts

ars technica has Much more on the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts, including a link to Cryptome's collection on the topic.

Movie Review: United 93

United 93 tells one of the stories of 9/11 in an absolutely rivoting just-the-facts manner. About half the film is set in various air traffic control centers, the national FAA control center and NORAD. The other half is set aboard United 93 up until it crashes in Pennsylvania. There are a few minutes the night before as the hijackers prepare and some time spent in the airport as people board for a normal flight. I found it hard to believe this was almost 5 years ago and how different boarding a plane seems since then.

The film presents the story almost in real time. The actors are unknowns and in fact several of the people in the control centers are played by the real people who were there. That gives a lot of authenticity to the film. It's shot almost entirely at eye level and with a lot of handheld cameras to really give you the sense of being in the control room or on the plane. At some points I wanted a clock on the screen ticking away the time, but I think that would have been a constant reminder that we know what's coming.

This isn't typical Hollywood anything. There's no exposition, background stories, characterizations or even names. You know as much about the passengers as you would if you were flying with them, in other words, nothing. In other films this might eliminate the emotional impact, but when you show people calling their loved ones to say "I love you" just before they die, you don't need anything else. It's hard to keep a dry eye during those scenes.

A few things struck me: how ordinary the start of the day was, how disorganized the response was, how no one could remember the last hijacking, and how NORAD brought up CNN for information, how no one knew who were the perpetrators or what they wanted or how much more there was to come. There are some liberties taken with what happens on the plane but they seem reasonable. Did one passenger want to do whatever the hijackers said? Probably there was one. Did the leader delay taking the plane? Maybe. Were they targeting the Capital? Probably either that or the White House. There was nothing that seemed egregious or sensationalistic.

United 93 is completely absorbing from beginning to end. There are no political statements, just the events of that horrible morning, told as faithfully and honestly as possible. This is one of the best films of the year.

Let's have a Right to Privacy

The Harvard Crimson has an opinion piece Listen to Nino. "I have little use for Justice Antonin Scalia’s famous ornery manner and his contrarian flamboyance, but it’s nearly impossible to question his intelligence...he asserted his judicial principle: if it isn’t in the Constitution, it isn’t constitutional; if we want it in the Constitution, let’s add it. I agree. Let’s amend the Constitution to include the right to privacy." I agree too.

The hard part is writing the amendment. The article recommends the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation." A little vague, but a good start.

Friday, May 12, 2006

TSA's Constitution-Free Zone

Here's a first person account of someone who accidently had some kind of bad item in his luggage at an airport and was stopped. While he admits it was a stupid mistake and it seems to have turned out ok, he points out that that was just good fortune. Unlike when being stopped for speeding, he basically had no constitutional protections. "We're supposed to have a government of laws, not of men."

Roses Don't Smell as Sweet

Apparently over the years roses have been bred for larger flowers and the rose fragrance has diminished. New research might bring it back and might even make food taste better too.

BC Professor Quits Over Rice as Speaker

An English professor at Boston College in an open letter in the Boston Globe to the President of BC has quit because the commencement speaker this year will be Condoleezza Rice. His reasoning: "Simply put, Rice is a liar."

He cites that the House Committee on Governement Reform found "she made 29 false or misleading public statements concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda." He acknowledges her intellect and achievements but says she repudiates "the reverence for truth and knowledge that Boston College purports to champion." Apparently there was "widespread objection" to inviting her, but the president ignored it, and Almond says he's now too proud to admit the mistake, just like the administration.

This seems a bit drastic to me, after all she is the sitting Secretary of State, but you have to respect a guy for doing what he believes in. Oh wait, that would mean I have to respect Bush and Cheney and I don't. Ok, you have to respect a guy standing up for truth, yeah I guess that's it.

Almond has written a few books of (it seems mostly romance) stories. He also wrote Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America about his obsession with candy. He has 3-7 lbs of candy in the house at all times, eats a piece every day, and thinks about it "at least once an hour". Maybe this is all a sugar rush.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lost in 'Lost'

This is a really great article in USA Today about the TV show Lost: Lost in 'Lost'. Poor Hurley.

Background on Federal Judge Resignation

The Wall Street Journal has some background on U.S. Circuit Judge J. Michael Luttig's resignation. Breakdown of Trust Led Judge Luttig To Clash With Bush. Lots of details about the Padilla case, a pissing contest between a judge and the administration, and corruption at Boeing. It would make a good plot on the West Wing.

According to the article Luttig "argued to his colleagues that the government wouldn't have sought such extraordinary powers unless absolutely necessary" and then the government backed down in the Padilla case. So many things wrong with this. First the Padilla case was a mess, 2nd the administration was abusing it's power, 3rd Luttig trusted the administration instead of protecting citizens, 4th the administration shops it's cases around to favorable courts, and a Judge grows a spine and is lured by money. A good read, a depressing story.

Telco Liability

Think Progress has some of the details on how the Telcos Could Be Liable For Tens of Billions of Dollars For Illegally Turning Over Phone Records. It's $1,000 a record, tens of millions of records means tens of billions of dollars. The article cites the various statutes violated and points out that apparently Qwest knew it wasn't right so why didn't the others?

Roberts and Alito Update

Edward Lazarus writes What Kind of Justice Will Samuel Alito Be? A Recent Death Penalty Decision Provides Some Insights. He says that from some early (extremely inconclusive) opinions, perhaps it's Roberts who will be closer to Scalia and Alito who will be the more moderate. Only time will tell.

Domestic Spying Worse Than Thought

USA Today reports that the NSA has massive database of American's phone calls. They didn't listen in on the calls (as far as we know) they just have a record of who called who and when, like what you'd find on your phone bill...for every call in the US. Yes this includes US-to-US calls, even though Bush once told us that the program was only used when "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

Yes, it at least used to be the case that for the government to get this info they needed a warrant, just like the 4th Amendment says. This program started after 9/11 under the command of General Michael Hayden, Bush's new nominee for the head of the CIA. Apparently all the phone companies except Qwest willingly gave their records to the NSA.

Today, Bush defended this program. Bush said things like "the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval" and "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities" which is a nice mix up. The charge isn't listening, merely tracking and doesn't that violate your privacy? He also said "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans". What does "mining and trolling through the personal lives" actually mean? If you look at everyone I've ever called, isn't that data mining my phone records? Read it again, it seems to be carefully crafted words. If you watch the video it clear he's reading these sentences.

Well if the Department of Justice can investigate, and Congress can't seem to get their act together to do so, I'm glad at least one newspaper can get more info about this. Who have thought it would be USA Today?

Domestic Spying Inquiry Stopped

Say you're running a program that is spying on Americans which many think is unconstitutional. Now say that the Department of Justice starts investigating your program. How do you stop them so you can get back to work? How about
not granting the Justice Department lawyers security clearance to investigate. Yep, that's what they did. Please Congress, have a spine.

US versus UK Healthcare

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a JAMA study comparing U.S. versus U.K. health care. We pay more than double per person and aren't nearly as healthy as the British. He touches on the difficulty of making comparisons but still it's pretty clear.

I'd like to find a good health insurance plan that only costs $5274 a year.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cancer Resistant Mice

Researchers at wake Forest University report White Blood Cells From Cancer-resistant Mice Cure Cancers In Ordinary Mice. Apparently they found a mouse in 1999 that was cancer resistant. Amazingly this resistance is genetic and transferable to normal mice. Now they just have to figure out how it works and if it can be made to do so in humans.

Brian Williams Quotes Daily Show

Last night, Jon Stewart had a good clip on the Porter Goss resignation as CIA chief. I did particularly like bit about CIA being known for it's "secrecy and accountability". But the most fun was when he pointed out that Bush described the new CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden as "He’s the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation’s history" and then showed a clip of Bush saying the exact same line when he appointed Porter Goss two years ago.

Tonight Brian Williams on the NBC evening news reported about this repetition. At first I thought, hey he got this from the Daily Show. Then I thought, well the Daily Show must have gotten it from someplace else. Though I didn't see anything about it today on the net. Then much to my surprise, Brian Williams says that they weren't the first to notice this, they got this from the crack staff at Comedy Central on the Daily Show.

Life imitates art? The Daily Show as real news? Bush speech writers plagiarizing themselves? Or just too lazy to write something new? News covering something stupid rather than Hayden's actual qualifications. There's just too much wrong with this.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Bush's Best Moment: Fishing

This is moronic. Apparently Bush was asked by a German weekly newspaper what the best moment of his presidency was. His answer "I would say the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5 pound (3.402 kilos) perch in my lake,". Unbelievable.

Check out how Carter and Clinton answered for comparison.

Also someone dug up that the world record for largest perch caught is 3.5 pounds. So some say he lied and others point out that the White House has changed the transcript to read bass not perch. I can see it now, Perchgate.

Actually I can see Jon Stewart laughing. The Daily Show will be good tonight.

Identity Theft From a Boarding Pass

The Guardian has a story about identity theft and data collection: Q. What could this boarding pass tell an identity fraudster about you? A. Way too much. The author picked up a discarded airline boarding pass, and from that found out huge amounts about the flyer. It then describes the regulations that airlines must follow for data collection for your protection. It's really ridiculous and scary.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Defying Bush, Senate Passes Spending Bill - New York Times

So time for a budget bill. The Senate approved 77-21 a $109 billion bill which includes $71 billiion for military and foreign aid and $29 billion for hurricane relief. Seems like something that's important to pass. So what happens? Senators add pork to a must pass bill. Bush is upset with the extra spending, his limit was $94.5 billion.

Now it's not clear to me how much of the difference is really pork vs how much is just an honest accounting of what we need to spend. Regardless Bush has threatened a veto. My question is, why would he veto it instead of just adding a signing statement that says something like "I interpret this $109 billion to mean $94.5 billion".

But it's moot since Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has said the House won't pass something above the president's limit. Seems like Washington is moot these days.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Summer's Approaching

I just saw my first Ice Cream Truck of the season :) Why do they drive around at 5:10pm? Doesn't seem like ice cream time.

Bush's Limited Thinking

Bob Burnett writes in the Huffington Post about Inside Bush's Brain. He refers to the "classic study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Elements of Decision, Harvard Professor Graham Allison" which I actually read for a class in college (I think it was called Decision Making in American Political Institutions). His point is that Allison describes three modes of presidential decision making: rational, organizational and political. Burnett adds a 4th, "messianic" given Bush's statements that he's doing what God tells him to. Burnett points out that given the situation with Iran, we definitely need some more rational or organizational and less political or messianic, it's just we can't expect that from Bush.

Zakaria says Al Qaeda Seems Weaker

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: Osama Needs More Mud Huts. He notes that centralized Al Qaeda and their leadership seem much weaker and with smaller goals (asking " for a little money to build a few huts in Waziristan"). Also that Zarqawi seems to "appeal to a dwindling number of Iraqis."

Catholic Church to Allow Condoms?

Objective Justice had this: Catholic Church to allow condoms? "The church is expected to give a guarded, provisional blessing to the use of condoms by married couples when one of them suffers from Aids, as a way of protecting the health of the other partner"

That this is even a debate blows my mind. I don't get it.

Mac Security

There have been a few articles in the press lately about Mac Viruses. They've mostly been poorly written but I haven't torn them apart yet. Instead Daring Fireball beat me to it with Good Journalism.

The one bit of FUD that annoys me is that intel chips will make macs as vulnerables as PCs. That's completely untrue. Viruses use weaknesses in software to spread, that's applications and operating systems. Windows is vulnerable because of Windows, not because of Intel chips. Macs are safer because of OS X. They're not invulnerable but OS X is much more solid than Windows.

I was a little disappointed to see that Apple isn't quite as speedy as they should be in releasing fixes for found security holes. But you do have to realize that it seems fewer than 10 people have ever been affected by Mac viruses (I am not sure of that, but it seems right) and millions have been affected by Windows viruses. Even saying that Windows has the larger market, it's only maybe 30x bigger, that's not enough to explain the discrepancy.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

01:02:03 04.05.06

Tomorrow we get the interesting sequence 01:02:03 04.05.06. Well maybe not we, but everyone else who orders things day-month-year (which does seem logical doesn't it?).

Spector to Investigate Bush Next Month

Arlen Specter (R-PA), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings in June on Bush's 750 signing statements. 'What's the point of having a statute if . . . the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?" He'll bring in members of the administration and constitutional scholars to testify.

There's nothing on Specter's website about it, though there is a very old photo of him, when he had lots of dark hair.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What everyone missed in the Anna Nicole Smith Case

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a 4 page concurring opinion in the (former Playmate) Anna Nicole Smith case. Nothing unusual about that. He wrote that he doesn't believe in a "probate exception" to federal jurisdiction. Ok, apparently that means something to law geeks.

I'm surprised the following didn't get a mention on the Daily Show. In his opinion Stevens managed to slip in the word bosom, he just did it in latin. He used the latin phrase "in gremio legis" which means "in the bosom of the law".

No I didn't realize this myself, but I got it from How Appealing which got it from Steve Vladeck's Blog which is really about the "probate exception" issue.

Bush Sang National Anthem in Spanish

So I'm not sure which is worse, the fact that this stupid issue came up or that others are following up on it, or that Bush lied again (well at least flip-flopped). Think Progress found that Candidate Bush Would Sing The Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish at Hispanic Festivals, according to Kevin Phillips' book American Dynasty. This after Bush's remarks Friday that "the national anthem ought to be sung in English".

Monday, May 01, 2006

VP not an Executive Branch Entity?

We have the most secretive presidency ever. They've classified huge numbers of documents and we know this because the one thing they are supposed to publicly report is the number of documents they classify and declassify. This comes from the National Archives and an executive order issued by Bush himself in 2003. That order covers all agencies and "any other entity within the executive branch". This year more than 80 agencies have reported. One office says it's exempt. Cheney's. What's wrong with this guy? Maybe he does think he's King and not a member of one of the three branches of government.

Colbert Ignored

Shame on the media for not covering the amazing Roast of Bush by Stephen Colbert. I look forward to the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tonight, I'm sure they'll show up the main stream media yet again.

3 Years After Mission Accomplished

Think Progress has an article Mission Accomplished by the Numbers which lists various statistics from Bush's infamous speech on that aircraft carrier compared to now. It has things like US Troops killed and wounded, number of insurgent attacks, and approval ratings. I usually find such things manipulative (and this is no exception) but still the numbers are pretty damning.

I would have preferred if they didn't use ranges in some of the numbers to make them scan differently. Writing "7,000-9,000" for Iraqi Security forces next to "250,500" makes the 30x increase seem smaller. I would have believed it was just a coincidence but the next line does the same thing in reverse: "5,000" insurgents then vs "15,000-20,000" now which makes it seem bigger than the 3-4x increase it is. These numbers are rounded anyway, so averaging the ranges to 8,000 and 17,500 would have been fine.

Think Progress also has Mission Botched with some numbers from polling Iraqi citizens in late March 2006. They're not happy either.

Also for the 3 year anniversary we have Colin Powell saying he advised more troops and Condi Rice saying she doesn't remember that.

Bush Challenges More Than 750 Laws

The lead article in yesterday's Boston Globe was Bush challenges hundreds of laws about the 750 signing statements Bush has issued. It's long but it's a good read. Signing statements started under Reagan and were thought up by Ed Meese. Now Justice Samuel Alito wrote some memos at the time saying they should be used in areas of ambiguity.

However Bush has issued hundreds of them and uses them to say he can explicitly ignore parts of laws. Rather than veto a bill, which is then subject to a Congressional override (though with a Republican Congress that seems unlikely) he just signs the bill into law and then writes a signing statement saying he can ignore parts that he wants. A sidebar to the article lists scary examples.

11 Congressmen Sue Bush

Ok this is good. You thought Bush was ignoring the Constitution on things like domestic spying, investigating leaks, cooperating with congressional probes, or lying about going to war, well here's another one for the list. The issue is the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, which even though Bush signed it, might not be law.

It started in December, when "Vice President Cheney broke a tie vote in the Senate to win passage of a [budget] bill that would cut nearly $40 billion over five years by reducing Medicaid rolls, raising work requirements for welfare, and trimming the student loan program" It included "a provision to restrict Medicare payments for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Under the Senate bill, government-funded leases for such equipment could last only 13 months." It then went to the House in February but on the way "a Senate clerk inadvertently changed that 13-month restriction to 36 months. In this form it passed the House, 216 to 214. Not a single Democrat voted for the bill.

University of California law professor Vikram David Amar (and former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun) describes what happened next: "Rather than fix the mistake and have the House revote -- this time on a bill substantively identical to the Senate's -- which has been the protocol in past such situations, House and Senate leaders apparently decided simply to physically alter the already-voted upon House version to bring it in line with the Senate's rendition. The Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate then certified to President Bush that this version, containing the 13-month provision, had passed both houses. President Bush, after having been made aware of the debacle, nonetheless signed the measure."

So here's the dilemma, some of the House members are upset that what became law isn't what the House approved. While the bill is only different by two numbers, 13 vs 36, it's a $2 billion difference! That's not the way it's supposed to work. However, how do you fix this? Who do you complain to? Well since the President and leaders of Congress are involved it seems like you'd bring it to the courts to resolve, but there are a few problems with that.

To go to court you have to show real damages, not hypothetical ones, this is calle "dhaving standing". Jim Zeigler, a lawyer from Alabama filed suit in federal district court saying this law was not valid. Amar goes into it in detail but suffice to say, he didn't have a good case.

Rep John Conyers (D-MI) has found a group harmed by the whole bill, the members of the House. He and 10 other representatives are suing Bush and members of his cabinet and other federal officers on the grounds that they were denied their Constitutional right to vote on laws and that a bill not passed by both houses is not a law. The suit was filed Friday in US District Court in Detroit.

But wait, there's more. It turns out there was a Supreme Court case in 1892 calledField v. Clark. In that case, there was a difference between a bill passed by both houses of Congress and what the President signed. Plaintiffs wanted the court to exam the constitutionally mandated Congressional Journals to see if there was a difference. The court said no. Really! They gave two reasons. First, that the Journals weren't always accurate. Second, they said having the court checking the journal would basically be rude.

"The signing by the speaker of the house of representatives, and by the president of the senate...of an enrolled bill, is an official attestation...of such bill as one that has passed congress...when a bill, thus attested, receives [the president's] approval, and is deposited in the public archives, its authentication as a bill that has passed congress should be deemed complete and unimpeachable...The respect due to coequal and independent departments requires the judicial department to act upon that assurance, and to accept...all bills authenticated in the manner stated." So out of respect, the courts can't question actions, only if the resulting law is constitutional. "It suggests a deliberate conspiracy to which the presiding officers, the committees on enrolled bills, and the clerks of the two houses must necessarily be parties...Judicial action, based upon such a suggestion, is forbidden by the respect due to a co-ordinate branch of the government."

That all sounds ridiculous to me, but that's what the decision said. Amar describes various ways the court might back away from Field v. Clark.

So that's the issue. Is it merely Democrats finding a way to whine about the Republicans? $2 billion seems like a significant amount, but moreso, forcing another vote could defeat the whole bill. The real problem here seems to be the leaders of the House and Senate who certified the bills were the same when they knew they weren't. It might have been a typo, but they certainly weren't the same. And while that's not Bush, you know he must have known.

Tufte- Beautiful Evidence

I just ordered Edward Tufte's new book (his 4th) Beautiful Evidence. His other books on graphic design have been amazing and I'm looking forward to this one too.