Monday, February 28, 2011

Greenland Ice Melt Sets New Record

Greenland Ice Melt Sets New Record "So, in fact, our headline understates the facts. Greenland is losing a France-sized area of ice more than it was losing 30 years ago"

ISS and Discovery Before Docking FROM THE GROUND!

This is pretty insane, International Space Station and Discovery before docking. Thierry Legault took video of the Space Shuttle as it approached the space station, FROM THE GROUND!

"Passage of the International Space Station and Discovery 30 minutes before docking, taken on February 26th 2011 at 18:40UT from the area of Weimar, Germany. It's sunset on the ISS at the end of the video sequence. The video is accelerated 2.5 times (acquisition at 10 fps, video at 25 fps). The altitude of the ISS is 360 km (200 miles), for a size of a hundred metres. The speed of ISS is 17,000 miles per hour and its angular speed at zenith is 1.2° per second."

I've mentioned him before.

Infographic: Tax Breaks vs. Budget Cuts

Infographic: Tax Breaks vs. Budget Cuts "The chart below compares the 10 safety-net programs slated for deep cuts with the cost of the tax breaks that should also be considered for reduction or elimination to bring the budget into balance."

Nyiragongo Crater

The Big Picture wrote Nyiragongo Crater: Journey to the Center of the World "In June 2010, a team of scientists and intrepid explorers stepped onto the shore of the lava lake boiling in the depths of Nyiragongo Crater, in the heart of the Great Lakes region of Africa. The team had dreamed of this: walking on the shores of the world's largest lava lake. Members of the team had been dazzled since childhood by the images of the 1960 documentary 'The Devil's Blast' by Haroun Tazieff, who was the first to reveal to the public the glowing red breakers crashing at the bottom of Nyiragongo crater. Photographer Olivier Grunewald was within a meter of the lake itself, giving us a unique glimpse of it's molten matter. (The Big Picture featured Olivier Grunewald's arresting images of sulfur mining in Kawah Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia, in a December 2010 post.) -- Paula Nelson (28 photos total)"


The Oscars

So of course I watched the Oscars last night. I lost my pool, in fact I came in 8th, one of my worst showings (though I did get 18 out of 24 right, the same as the winner). I've heard a lot about how this was the worst Oscars ever and while I agree it was boring, I don't think it was that bad.

I did really like that they let the winners speak. Out of an average length Oscars (3 hours, 15 mins), 34 minutes were actual acceptance speeches. And they didn't cut off people too badly. Most winners got a minute and the music stayed low while they finished. The actors got two to three minutes. I think the bigger problem is that most of the speeches weren't particularly memorable. I think they should offer coaching to their speakers like TED does. The King's Speech winners all gave good speeches. Colin Firth, Tom Hooper, and David Seidler (the writer) were my favorites. There were a couple of politics moments but I thought they worked. If you win for Best Documentary you can say something political about what your film was about. I also noticed several of the technical winners thanked their union crews.

I liked the opening stuff. The pre-taped stuff with Hathaway and Franco inserted in some (but not all?) of the Best Picture nominees was good. I also mostly like their monologue (duologue?). It also was short. 11 minutes and we were off to the first award. I remember some Billy Crystal ones where he did the opening film, then sang and then did a monologue and it was a half hour before we got to an award.

I liked Anne Hathaway a lot. She was charming, funny, and beautiful. She also sang a lot better than Billy Crystal ever did. She is not a comedian and didn't have quick one liners between awards to move things along. Crystal would have done well with Melissa Leo.

So now the bad stuff. James Franco was awful, stiff, detached and rude. Saying "All right, congratulations nerds" after the 11 technical awards given out earlier this month got all of two minutes summed it all up for me. The crazy big special effects films get all the box office money and the people that make it happen barely get recognized and get called nerds. The real problem is that he meant it as a compliment.

I'm not sure about the whole idea of making it hip and appealing to the younger demographic. Okay fine, they should do that, but not by be so self-referential. And if that's the goal, don't move right into a quick tribute to Gone With the Wind. The theme this year seemed to be referencing when the Oscars first did things, that's not young and hip.

A lot of the standard stuff they really gave short shrift to. They've moved the lifetime achievement awards to another night, but they still mention it and they brought out Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach out on stage but didn't let them say anything. I don't get that. They spent time having Bob Hope tell a joke! They even told us to watch as the stage moved!

With 10 nominees for Best Picture I'm glad they stopped introducing each one throughout the show. The montage at the end was good, but it was odd that the sound for all of them was from The King's Speech. I think if you didn't know the films you didn't know what you were looking at. There was certainly nothing shown that would compel people to go see the wonderful Winter's Bone (and oh yeah, James Franco made fun of the title).

The In Memorium montage was also weak. They just showed the images of the people and their name and if they weren't actors their job title. Couldn't they have included clips or images of the films they worked on? Tom Mankiewicz wrote three (ok bad) Bond films and Sally Menke was Quentin Tarantino's editor. Wouldn't it have been far more interesting if they had told us that? Even putting the titles of some of the films they worked on up on the screen would have helped things a lot. And not having Celine Dion sing would have helped things even more. Could they have found anyone less appealing to the young and hip?

The bit where the president of the academy and of ABC came out and said how great it was that they signed a contract for the next 9 years was stupid. Really stupid.

They spend five minutes giving out two awards for sound that no one knows the difference between. It's still five minutes that bores everyone. Maybe if they explained what they were giving these awards for people might care a little.

I thought the presenters were overall pretty good. I liked Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, and Kevin Spacy. Steven Spielberg might have had the best introduction for Best Picture. "One of these 10 movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wraith, Citizen Kane, The Graduate and Raging Bull." Now that's how to make everyone feel good.

McConaughey and Johansson were awful and that shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. I think everyone agrees about Kirk Douglas. It was nice at first but then got awkward. Jake Gyllenhaal introduced short films and said: "Shorts are also the hardest category to predict on your home oscar ballot. One mispick could mean the difference between you ending the night in victory or defeat. So make it a point to see short films throughout the year, they'll inspire you and they might just make you a winner." I kinda like the reference to a home pool, but I was insult about being told to see shorts throughout the year. The problem is they don't play anywhere (except in front of Pixar films). If Hollywood wants me to see them (and I'd love to) then they should distribute them.

So here's what I would like. I think The Oscars should be about the best films and filmmakers of the year. They should not be about the Oscars. They did fine letting the winners speak, but they should help them be slightly more interesting speakers. They need a host who can work a live room and ad lib. The timings of things was right. It worked having presenters give two awards though they can break up the songs so they break up the evening a little bit. They should also stop kidding themselves and schedule the thing for three and half hours, it's going to be that anyway. Rather than having one of the hosts tweet throughout the night, how about they put the short films on their website so people can see them.

This year there were a lot of very good films nominated. All ten best picture films are worth watching. Only two of them (Toy Story 3 and Inception) were in the ten highest grossing films of last year. But, many of the nominees didn't come out till Christmas and their grosses are split over two years. This year, the ten best picture nominees did pretty well at the box office.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Monopoly: The Koch Bros. Game

The other 98% created this infographic, MONOPOLY: The Koch Bros. Game on the connections between the Koch Brothers and Scott Walker. Basically they gave money to his campaign via organizations and Walker's policies will favor Koch companies. No surprises but it's cute. Still I think it would have done better in this Glenn Beck world as a chalkboard...

Walker final

A shadow across the Shuttle

A shadow across the Shuttle. "This shot is from Paolo Nespoli, an astronaut on the ISS. He snapped it as the Orbiter approached the station — docking was achieved on Saturday afternoon Eastern time." The shadow is cast by the space station.

Iss shadow discovery 1

Microsoft’s Former CTO Takes On Modernist Cuisine

Wired wrote Microsoft’s Former CTO Takes On Modernist Cuisine. Nathan Myhrvold wrote a crazy involved cookbook, 50lbs worth of cook book. The description for the perfect french fry is insane. But I didn't realize he was behind some of the other crazy things I've seen the last few years like the laser beam mosquito killer and the pump sulfur into the atmosphere to stop global warming that was in Freakonomics 2. Good read.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Space Shuttle Launch: Viewed From an Airplane

Oscar Pics

If I could vote in the Oscars here's what I'd pick. This is not the same as what I think will win so you probably shouldn't use these in an Oscar pool (though feel free to do so in mine :)

Picture - Inception - This film just blew me away. It was big thriller action flick but also was intelligent and affecting. I could barely keep up with all of it and it made me feel like I was dreaming. Where the Wild Things Are made me feel like a 9 year-old and that was my favorite last year. Not many films change my state of mind.

Director - David Fincher, The Social Network - I'd rather pick Christopher Nolan because I don't think anyone else could have made Inception, but of the nominees Fincher sustained my interest for the entire film. There weren't any weak spots.

Actor - Colin Firth, The King's Speech - He should have won last year for A Single Man. He was great in this and pulled off the stammer. Bardem was also great in Biutiful in much more understated performance. Ryan Gosling should have been nominated over Jeff Bridges in True Grit. I don't know why he got nominated for doing old Lebowski in the west. I think Eisenberg did well if you've never seen him before. If you have, you realize he played the same character he always plays, only more serious. I think Sean Penn did a better job as a real life person in Fair Game. Or maybe Paul GIamatti in Barney's Version.

Actress - Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine - She blew everyone else away. I'd like to have voted for Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone who did a great job and carried the whole film herself but I think Williams did more. Natalie Portman also did a great job in Black Swan. She not only had to act and carry the film, she did the dancing. It's just that because of the role, she seemed more of a character than a real person.

Supporting Actor - Christian Bale, The Fighter - Did a great job with an over the top character. I liked the role more when I saw an interview with the real Dicky. And he pulled off being a boxer. I liked John Hawkes in Winter's Bone too. He started as a one note character and really added more depth to it. Geoffrey Rush was also great in The King's Speech. He had to say everything right before Firth said it wrong.

Supporting Actress - Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom - I think this was a good year for leading roles for women but not so much for supporting. Leo is (or at least was) the favorite for the tough townie mother. Weaver did that too but way over the top. If I could pick anyone it would be Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone who played a similar role but added heart to it without really changing the viciousness of the character.

Original Screenplay - Inception - The King's Speech is a great story but Inception is so deep, so layered and so original it's hard to beat. People complain about the exposition, but I think it provided a ton of information, at just the right time, in small doses and then let visuals carry the film.

Adapted Screenplay - Winter's Bone - I don't know the source material for any of these. I saw the original True Grit and thought it told some things better (like the opening setup being shown rather than described in the past tense). Winter's Bone made one-note characters three dimensional in really subtle ways (Teardrop, Merab). Ree's arc is short (she's strong at the start too) but captures her at just the point of gaining more confidence. The Social Network is the favorite and I love Sorkin dialog but the script had some holes for me. First off any female characters of note. Rashida Jones has some screen time but there's not much there. The one good Sorkin speech by a woman was over 10 minutes into the film. Also while the film does a great job at making hacking interesting (particularly the first hacking session shown) for the layman viewer, I don't believe all of Facebook was coded while drunk. I also think it probably wasn't necessary to take as many liberties with the real story. Creating facebook itself should have been interesting without adding drunk model prostitutes. I think Sorkin was remembering or probably misremembering his coke addict days too much. And if I'm wrong, maybe I shouldn't make assumptions about people's lives either. I suspect Sorkin's script has a some very interesting writing technique and unusual arcs but I'd need another viewing to pay attention to them.

Animated Feature - Toy Story 3 - I didn't like as much as the first two and aside from the last one I found the action sequences surprisingly predictable but it's still a very good film. it did have me convinced they would kill the toys off and it did make me cry.

Documentary - Restrepo - I had thought I had seen great war documentaries before Restrepo. I was wrong. Inside Job also did a great job of explaining the financial crisis. I also understand it's actually had some effect already in how academics deal with think tanks. My favorite doc of the year wasn't nominated, Teenage Paparazzo. It's bent over on it's own storytelling more than Exit Through the Gift Shop and kept my interest for longer as I didn't care for Thierry Guetta.

Foreign Film - Biutiful - I only saw two of these and hated Dogtooth. I think The Girl Who Played With Fire was my favorite foreign film of the year.

Animated Short - Day & Night - I loved the story and the inventiveness and efficiency of the storytelling.

Live Action Short - Wish 143 - All but one of the nominated films were quite dark. I though this one, about a cancer patient's "make a wish" to lose his virginity worked the best. I probably would have liked The Crush and The Confession better but both of them had issues that knocked them down for me. The Confession was obvious in a couple of places and didn't work for me while the lead was dealing with a weighty secret. The Crush was a fun (well darkly fun) story but one adult didn't really act like one.

Documentary Short - Poster Girl - This tells the story of an Iraq veteran who's now disabled and suffering from PTSD. She lets the filmmakers completely into her life and they tell an effective story. I still feel like I'm missing some important details about her time in Iraq but it's a great film. Strangers No More is a mostly feel-good story about a school for refugee children in Tel Aviv. They've lived through some horrendous experiences but the school is doing good work. Killing in the Name managed to get some fascinating interviews with real terrorists and their victims families but I don't think it's accomplished much (hopefully yet).

Original Score - Inception - I loved it. It kept me hooked the whole time and tied together the various plot lines. It's also the only one I remember. It also had a lot of depth just like the plot, watch this.

Song - If I Rise, 127 Hours - I didn't see Country Strong or Tangled but I listened to all the songs on YouTube. I See The Light from Tangled would be my second choice.

The following are the more technical awards and I'm really not qualified to judge but here goes:

Cinematography - Inception - Though it could be anyone of the nominees. I know True Grit is the favorite and even though I've liked Roger Deakins work in most everything, this was too washed out for me. Probably because I had recently seen the John Wayne version.

Editing - The Social Network - Nope, I've got nothing to say.

Visual Effects - Inception - It's even more impressive to me that most of them weren't computer generated.

Sound (Effects) Editing - Inception - This category is for sounds created for the film, think laser beams and foot steps. Knowing what it is doesn't really help me pick the film that did it best.

Sound Mixing - Inception - This category is blending together all the sounds, dialog , music and effects to create the scene and focus the audience's attention. Knowing what it is doesn't really help me pick the film that did it best.

Costumes - The King's Speech - Alice in Wonderland is another choice but I've just never really liked Tim Burton's aesthetic. I Am Love also did more with it's costumes than most films.

Makeup - The Wolfman - even though it was by far my least favorite of the three nominees.

Art Direction - Inception - It could be any of them but I thought these sets were the most inventive. I've seen period palaces and Harry Potter stuff and Burton stuff before. Inception was something new.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Books that will be Films in 2011

Books that will be Films in 2011 by Newtonville Books Community Blog...

March 4: The Adjustment Bureau, Philip K. Dick
March 11: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
March 14: Desert Flower, Waris Dirie
March 18: The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly
April 22: Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen
May 6: Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin
July 8: One Day, David Nicholls
Sept 23: Moneyball, Michael Lewis
Fall ’011: The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Fall ’011: We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Fall ’011: Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin
Dec 21: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson

Oscar Prep

Yesterday I saw Blue Valentine and with that I think I saw all the Oscar nominated films I'm going to get to before the awards on Sunday. I missed only 8 films. I saw everything nominated in 19 of 24 categories. The ones I missed:

Hereafter - Visual Effects
The Tempest - Costumes
WasteLand - Documentary
Country Strong - Song
Tangled - Song
Incendies - Foreign Language
In a Better World - Foreign Language
Outside the Law - Foreign Language

As near as I can tell the three foreign films have never played here, are not on DVD and are not online (legally). WasteLand has only played festivals so far and the others I just missed in the theater and aren't on DVD yet. I even managed to see to all all the short films in all three categories (I don't think I'd ever seen the doc short before). This might be the best I've done. Here are some reviews. Most of these are small dramatic films, meant for adults about relationships (usually gone bad).

Barney's Version - Paul Giamatti is Barney and this is his life story. Barney is kinda of an asshole though a description of his actions makes him out to be worse than he actually is. His problem is that he's selfish and takes others for granted. He does seem to be a good friend and a successful TV producer. It takes his three times before he's a good husband and even then he's not great at it. His being a good hockey fan and bar patron gets in the way of that. So I meant it when I said he was a good friend and a description of his actions makes him out worse than he is, here's an example; he might have shot and killed one of his friends. He certainly did hit on a guest at his second wedding, but he ultimately married her so he was just finding true love, right? So it's a complicated role and Paul Giamatti does a great job with it and in another year could have gotten an oscar nomination for this. Instead the film is up for best makeup in aging the characters over a few decades. Rosamund Pike is great as his third wife and Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father is as good as I've seen him in a while. Minnie Driver is good as the second wife, but the script makes her out to be too much of a Jewish stereotype. There was a "verklempt" that just felt too unnatural to me. There's a strong narrative here and even a murder mystery. Barney's an ass I was kinda rooting for him til the end.

Blue Valentine - Follows the relationship of Dean and Cindy. They're married with a young daughter, she's a nurse and he's a house painter. They seem to be just barely floating financially but they are not getting along. Flashbacks show how they met and got married, there's a lot to that story. But this film isn't about story. The direction is mostly handheld closeups, we barely even see the rooms they are in. It's purely a character study and really an acting class. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are amazing in these roles. They cover just about every emotion and feel like real human beings. Williams was nominated for Best Actress and Gosling should have been nominated for Best Actor. If you want to see great acting and can handle being depressed, this is the film to see...

Rabbit Hole - Well, or maybe Rabbit Hole is the film to see for great acting and a depressing story. David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the screenplay based on his Pulitzer Prize winning play. Becca and Howie are parents who's 4 year-old son died eight months ago. They are still having a hard time and each are dealing with in their own way. He's feeling better going to group therapy sessions, she hates them. He wants to have another child, she's not able to think about it. One wants to sell the house, the other doesn't. Nicole Kidman is nominated for Best Actress and she's great. Aaron Eckhart is also great but didn't get nominated. I think Dianne Wiest should have gotten a supporting actress nomination as Becca's mother.

It's interesting comparing Rabbit Hole to Blue Valentine. This has more of a story and you watch the characters go through an arc. In Valentine you see the beginning and end of a relationship and have to contrast the characterizations yourself rather than seeing the changes happen. Both films concentrate on the characters and don't make them deal much with the rest of the world. Rabbit Hole makes them wealthy in a big suburban house and of course he doesn't even mention a job and she doesn't work. Valentine makes them working class and uses their jobs as settings and excuses to talk or fight. Rabbit Hole is a little more Hollywood and has a more of a plot; Blue Valentine's performances are stronger.

Another Year - Where Rabbit Hole is about realistic characters in heavily constructed circumstances and Blue Valentine is about realistic characters in real but dramatic circumstances, Mike Leigh's Another Year is about realistic characters in real but uncomfortable situations. Tom and Gerri are an older happy couple. Unlike their cartoon namesakes, they really are happy and don't fight and the film doesn't make them. Instead they know people, most notably Gerri's co-worker Mary. Mary is single and drinks too much and is lost. But she hangs around and usually makes things uncomfortable for others and doesn't always realize it. She's the definition of pathetic. There are a few other characters that come and go and the thing is they are all real people. You could know of any of them, and if you're older than 30 you probably been in these circumstances. It's really nice seeing a film about real life.

I Am Love - I don't really know where to start with this one, Ebert loved this and I didn't really care for it. There's a wealthy Italian family and it opens with the announcement of the succession of who runs the family business. Edoardo selects both his son Tancredi and Tancredi's son Edo to share the role. There's some interesting conflict here but it mostly is dropped. Instead we start concentrating on Tancredi's wife Emma played by Tilda Swinton. She's Russian and has married into the family. She'll always be an outsider and keeps things bottled up as a result. She has an affair with someone she really shouldn't and then things go wrong. The film is in Italian and Swinton I guess does an admirable job learning Italian with a Russian accent but I of course had to read subtitles no matter how well she did. The film doesn't have a lot of dialog, instead it suggests emotions with its direction. Many complain that it turns to melodrama at the end but I think it's more like opera. Kartina Richardson on Ebert Presents: At The Movies describes the best part of I Am Love, the costumes, and why it got an Oscar nomination. I saw this before seeing the film and it didn't help me enjoy it any more.

How to Train Your Dragon - A pretty cute cartoon about a small viking and how he befriends and learns to fly a dragon rather than kill it. I heard really strong reviews of it when it came out and I think it's a great kids (boy) movie and adults will not be bored. There were 3D versions in the theater but I saw it on DVD in 2D, it still looked good with a lot of Avatar-like flying sequences. I don't think that adults need to see it without a kid (unlike some Pixar films or The Illusionist). My favorite part was that apparently Vikings spoke with Scottish accents so they got Craig Fergusson among others to do a voice, and he's always funny.

Best Animated Shorts

You can catch a few of the Best Animated Shorts here. A couple are just trailers but some are the whole film.

And I think they're all available on iTunes.

More on the Union Scatterplots

Ezra Klein How do unions affect state spending and taxation? ""So there is prima facie evidence that unions may be more effective in their advocacy for how tax revenues are spent rather than the fairness of the tax burden," concludes Pump. I don't want to read too much into these two graphs, as all sorts of other factors could be driving the results (and the non-results). But the findings make sense to me: Republicans (and allied groups) place a very high priority on keeping taxes on the rich down, while Democrats (and allied groups) tend to place a high priority on keeping social spending on the poor up. So in states where unions are strong, Republicans may be putting their energies into beating back progressive tax proposals while unions and Democrats focus on pre-K education."

Kevin Drum wrote about it too, Do Unions Advocate for the Greater Good?

Paul Krugman does his own scatterplot, state population versus the unemployment rate in December 2010. "Yep: small states in general had low unemployment. Not all, of course — there’s Nevada. But the correlation is clear. And this has an interesting implication. If Feyrer and Sacerdote are right, people in the Dakotas, Nebraska and so on are congratulating themselves on their good employment performance, a result of their rock-ribbed self-reliance — when what actually happened is that they got themselves an outsized share of the very stimulus they denounce."

Freedom Fry Humor

Kevin Drum wrote The Next Step in Union Busting.

"BREAKING: House Republicans demand that Union Station be renamed Management Station. "Elections have consequences," says Boehner."

"GOP-proposed Constitutional amendment would change the Preamble to 'in order to form a more perfect Management'"

"GOP proposes teh United Kigdom flies the 'Management Jack'"

Fox News Chief, Roger Ailes, Urged Employee to Lie

The New York Times reported Fox News Chief, Roger Ailes, Urged Employee to Lie, Records Show. Federal investigators were vetting Bernard B. Kerik for the job of homeland security secretary. Judith Regan had had an affair with him. Giuliani was thinking of running for president and Kerik was formerly his NYC police commissioner. Ailes supported Giuliani and didn't want him tainted by a Kerik "scandal" so he (Alies) allegedly urged Regan to lie to investigators about the affair.

I guess I don't care too much about Regan lying about an affair (just like I didn't care if Clinton did). I know for security clearances they ask about such things to know if you're blackmailable so maybe it's important, but this was I think the vetting process which is different. What I'm curious about is why Ailes knew about the affair?

But the article is a fun read because of the section that begins "The dispute involves a cast of well-known and outsize personalities; it also includes some New Yorkers who have had spectacular career meltdowns."

The Fibonacci Series: When Math Turns Golden

The Fibonacci Series: When Math Turns Golden is a nice short and interesting introduction to the series.

Wisconsin Again

John Sides created a scatter plot of states by union membership percentage and budget shortfall. "There is not much of a systematic relationship...Based on these measures, states with larger unionized workforces do not have larger budget deficits."

It got shown on Rachel Maddow. Mathew Yglesias commented as did Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein.

Sides a followup, More on Unions and State Budgets.


"But note that my claims in both posts are descriptive ("is associated with") and not causal. The associations that I document here may not reflect causation and may instead be spurious, given that I have controlled for nothing else."

Personally, I'd like the see the states color coded based on collective bargaining laws.

He also posted Unions and Fiscal Outcomes Round-up.

Drum also wrote this very good article Plutocracy Now: What Wisconsin Is Really About. "How screwing unions screws the entire middle class."

How Star Wars Changed the World

How Star Wars Changed the World [infographic] "This infographic is a web/timeline starting back to George Lucas. Although not everything on the list is directly affected or even known by him it shows a butterfly effect all beginning with the famous director. Another notable attribute of this infographic is what it decides to focus on- rather than simply focus on the people who always get the credit, it incorporates behind the scenes people as well. It splits the information into three main columns: sound, film, effects."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

MIT OpenCourseWare iPhone App

Mobile Learning Meets OpenCourseWare with the MIT OCW iPhone App. "The free MIT OCW app (iTunes link) lets you access the video lectures, but it also allows you to post discussions and leave ratings and reviews of individual videos. You can also download the video for offline viewing, as well as take notes and conduct searches while watching the videos. "

"MIT OpenCourseWare makes the materials from over 2000 of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses available on the Web, free of charge, to any user in the world. OCW receives an average of 1.5 million web site visits per month from more than 215 countries. To date, more than 100 million individuals have accessed its OCW materials."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's the Inequality, Stupid

Mother Jones wrote It's the Inequality, Stupid "Eleven charts that explain everything that's wrong with America."

Here are two:

Inequality page25 actualdistribwithlegend 1Inequality taxrate 3 1

Should Lawyers Be Able to Buy Judges?

Lots of state elect, rather than appoint, their judges. Sandra Day O'Conner has been speaking out against this practice. Politics by Other Means explains why this is important.

"Last week, the chief justice of the state of New York announced a new rule for the state's judges. Henceforth, if a lawyer who has contributed more than $2,500 to one of the judge's campaigns is slated to argue a case before the judge, the case will have to be reassigned. This rule, said The New York Times, 'is believed to be the most restrictive in the country.' What's truly mind-boggling, though, is the idea that lawyers who argue cases would ever be allowed to do so in front of judges on whom they have showered cash. Isn't the very fact that we elect judges self-evidently corrupt enough already?"

"It's true that the ability to buy a judge is not completely without limits, as we found in a case called Caperton v. Massey, involving the notorious mining company Massey Energy. Massey had recently been hit with a $50 million verdict in a lawsuit heading for West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals, so the company's chief, Don Blankenship, poured $3 million into the campaign of Brent Benjamin, a private attorney running for the first time, for chief justice in 2004. That amount was more than both campaigns spent combined. Benjamin ousted the sitting justice, and when the case reached the high court, Benjamin refused to recuse himself and cast the deciding vote in Massey's favor, tossing out the $50 million award. When the appeal reached the Supreme Court of the United States, the Court ruled that Benjamin should have recused himself. But what was so remarkable about the decision is that it wasn't 9-0 or 8-1 but 5-4. Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito -- the Court's conservative bloc -- actually thought it was OK for a judge to get $3 million from a defendant, then rule on that defendant's lawsuit."

Scott Walker Candid

Koch Whore on The Beast describes how Ian Murphy claiming to be billionaire David Koch called Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and actually got through. The conversation is pretty amazing.

Adam Weinstein talks about it in Mother Jones and confirms it's real.

"I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader, plus the other two Republican leaders—talk, not negotiate and listen to what they have to say if they will in turn—but I’ll only do it if all 14 of them will come back and sit down in the state assembly…legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day, and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have quorum…so we’re double checking that. If you heard I was going to talk to them that’s the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capital with all 14 of them…"

Ezra Klein wrote What a prank call proves about Wisconsin. "But if the transcript of the conversation is unexceptional, the fact of it is lethal. The state's Democratic senators can't get Walker on the phone, but someone can call the governor's front desk, identify themselves as David Koch, and then speak with both the governor and his chief of staff? That's where you see the access and power that major corporations and wealthy contributors will have in a Walker administration, and why so many in Wisconsin are reluctant to see the only major interest group representing workers taken out of the game."

SFWA announces the 2010 Nebula Award Nominees

SFWA announces the 2010 Nebula Award Nominees. I've not even heard of any of the stories. I have seen all but one of the "Outstanding Dramatic Presentations".

Six Pregnancy Tests in One Week

Cienna Madrid wrote Six Pregnancy Tests in One Week. "I visited Christian pregnancy centers that lure women in with false promises of medical care. Here's what they told me about abortions, breast cancer, shame, and death."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Clarence Thomas Silence

Just FYI, today marks five years since Clarence Thomas last asked a single question or in fact uttered a word during oral arguments.

Scientist finds Gulf bottom still oily, dead

Scientist finds Gulf bottom still oily, dead. "Oil from the BP spill remains stuck on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, according to a top scientist's video and slides that she says demonstrate the oil isn't degrading as hoped and has decimated life on parts of the sea floor. That report is at odds with a recent report by the BP spill compensation czar that said nearly all will be well by 2012."

Monday, February 21, 2011

More on Wisconsin

It turns out that the idea that the Wisconsin budget deficit was created by Walker's tax breaks (described by Rachel Maddow and Ezra Klein) is wrong. Politifact has details. "Here’s the bottom line: There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term budget deficit. But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it." Klein already posted a correction.

Ezra Klein answers Are Wisconsin's state and local workers overpaid?.


Joshua Holland describes 12 Things You Need to Know About the Uprising in Wisconsin

The Tea Party Is Winning

I mostly agree with E.J. Dionne, Jr., The Tea Party Is Winning.

"The media are full of commentary on President Obama’s ‘failure of leadership.’ There is some truth to the critique but not in the way the charge is typically made. Obama is not at fault for his budget proposals. But any fair examination of the news suggests that he is in danger of losing control of the national narrative again, just as he did during the stimulus and health care battles."

The Democrats did accomplish some good things legislatively, but they've done nothing to convince anyone of this. As a result, we're still refighting the same fights, even though they're the wrong ones.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Empire at the End of Decadence

Empire at the End of Decadence "America is great in many ways, but on a whole host of measures — some of which are shown in the accompanying chart — we have become the laggards of the industrialized world. Not only are we not No. 1 — ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ — we are among the worst of the worst."

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Planetary Nebula Project

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is very cool, Planetary Nebula Project.

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What if the villains were actually the good guys?

Salon has a nice list What if the villains were actually the good guys?. "Every once in a while, a writer or a filmmaker will revisit a classic story with a new perspective that makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about it. The destruction of the Death Star was a terrorist act. Superman was a spineless, corrupt tool of U.S. foreign policy. And Satan was misunderstood.

These are a few of the counter-claims made in revisionist versions of classic stories. We've assembled some choice examples in this slide show, which was inspired by 'The Last Ringbearer,' a Russian revision of 'The Lord of the Rings' that portrays Mordor as a haven of science and reason, and the wizard Gandalf as a power-mad agent of superstition. "

I'm intrigued by Klingons: Blood Will Tell, The Last Ringbearer and The Lone Ranger stuff.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Wisconsin is looking a little like the middle east now. Wisconsin protests continue against 'union bashing'.

Ezra Klein describes What is actually being proposed in Wisconsin. "In it, Walker proposes that the right to collectively bargain be taken away from most -- but not all -- state and local workers. Who's left out? "Local law enforcement and fire employees, and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from these changes." As Harold Meyerson notes, these are also the unions that happened to be more supportive of Walker in the last election. Funny, that."

"Walker tries to sell the change in collective bargaining as modest. "State and local employees could continue to bargain for base pay, they would not be able to bargain over other compensation measures." But that's not really true. Read down a bit further and you'll find that "total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum.""

There are other rule changes that are designed to weaken unions, making it harder to collect dues, etc. "The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year."

The other real problem with this is whole proposal is it's the result of a manufactured crisis.

"The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank. Instead, it's facing a deficit. Why?...The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda.""

Some protesters are calling for Gov. Walker to be recalled. That can't happen for another year, but Eight GOP State Senators In Wisconsin Can Be Recalled Right Now and only 3 need to change to Democrats they would have a majority in the Senate.

How Online Retail Is Starving States

I was wondering about this, How online retail is starving states. "One of the main ways state governments fund themselves is through collecting sales tax. But you can't collect sales tax on Internet retailers who aren't based in your state."

"There's an easy answer to this: Shift over to income taxes, or some other kind of tax. But conservatives in state government won't allow that to happen."

Hereafter Visual Effects Shot Breakdowns

I haven't seen Hereafter, but here's an interesting special effects breakdown showing why it's nominated for an Oscar for Visual Effects...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Khan Academy

I'm not sure how I hadn't heard of the Khan Academy until today. It's very impressive. A series of videos teaching math and science topics, free for anyone to watch. Amazing.

Bush Did Ignore Climate Science

I'm surprised I haven't seen more about this, Bombshell: Bush EPA Administrator said the science necessitated action on global warming — President “overruled” EPA due to “Cheney … and Exxon Mobil”.

"[EPA Administrator Steven] Johnson was ready to advance on greenhouse gas pollution limits but Bush overruled him after hearing counter-arguments from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Office of Management and Budget, the Transportation Department and Exxon Mobil Corp."

What's worse, "Energy Committee Chair Fred Upton has already drafted legislation to block EPA from these common sense, moderate steps to reduce pollution. He seems determined to play the Cheney role, while Koch Industries – a major polluter and Upton backer –fills in for ExxonMobil."

Is the Deficit a Crisis?

Kevin Drum asksIs the Deficit a Crisis?. As he points out, Republicans "don't think the deficit is a problem...Rather, they think federal spending on liberal social programs is a problem" and I agree with that. And he's not sure why Democrats think it's a problem, they've probably just let the Republicans control the conversation again. There's more in the short article and it's worth a read.

Yet Another Hockey Stick

Yet Another Hockey Stick "Study after study finds recent warming is unprecedented in magnitude and speed and cause.  The anti-science crowd keeps trying to debunk one or two old Hockey Sticks, but new ones crop up faster than a speeding puck. Science just published a new one, ‘Enhanced Modern Heat Transfer to the Arctic by Warm Atlantic Water’"

Watson Wins Jeopardy

The New York Times has a pretty good article On ‘Jeopardy!’ Computer Win Is All but Trivial. I watched all three nights of the competition and was very impressed but not blown away by Watson.

As I understand it, Watson is 2880 processor cores, 16TB of RAM and is populated with 4TB of info from the web (dictionaries, wikipedia, imdb, world fact book, etc.) I think it works by using each core to solve the problem using a different algorithm and then it ranks the most popular results. If you get the same answer a lot of different ways it's probably right.

The hard part from a programming point of view isn't necessarily finding an answer, it's understanding the question. And Watson doesn't really understand anything. In a final Jeopardy question with the category "US Cities" Watson answered Toronto. Programmers explained that it doesn't put a lot of weight to the categories because they aren't always precise. I think it's more because they're harder to parse because they're short.

i was really impressed with Watson after the first day but the second day I noticed something. A large majority of the questions have the word "this" right before describing what they are looking for. "This author", "This prisoner", "This city". While Jeopardy questions had previously seemed pretty complicated with puns and idioms, I now thought of them more like crossword puzzle clues which have their own common formats that you have learn to get good at them. I started thinking that if you searched for the nouns and found terms that were near them in different articles, it wasn't that hard to figure out which one the clue was asking for based on some parsing rules. That seemed to make the feat a little less impressive to me. In the third game I thought Watson came up with a lot of wrong answers (even though he won) and that somehow reinforced the idea that it wasn't that "smart" (though it also means parsing Jeopardy questions isn't that easy).

I was really impressed with the speed of Watson. That's still a lot of data to go through and to coordinate so many possible answers. 6-8 seconds is a lot of computing time, particularly with 2880 cores and a huge amount of RAM. With the data being only about a quarter of the memory, that means more than half was devoted to indexing and organizing it. There's a lot of programming going into making that fast.

Still though it did seem to have an advantage on pushing the button, even if it had to do it mechanically and as I understand that's key to winning the game.

Ken Jennings had this to say about the experience.

I was disappointed that so many of the articles written about this had to mention HAL or other sci-fi AIs that take over. This is AI the same way Deep Blue was with chess. It's doing a lot of brute force and using probabilities to come up with the answer. That's not how I think of intelligence but it does seem to be a great tool and a great accomplishment.

Contests like this are good to push people to build something new but I'm not sure how soon it will affect everyday life. They say they are looking into medical applications for Watson tech, but if it's talent is parsing the question (which I'm not so sure of) then isn't that much less of an issue when it's being used by doctors? Isn't it easier to teach the human how to phrase the query? Given some of the answers it gave, I really don't think it's anywhere near the point where a layman could query it for medical info.

Then again I wonder what Watson thinks about it?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Pennant is a pretty impressive iPad app showing graphical displays of every baseball game 1951-2010. I particularly like the game display in radial form.

The Hitchcock and Truffaut Tapes

The Hitchcock and Truffaut Tapes.

"In 1962 François Truffaut carried out a series of extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices in Universal Studios. They were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into Truffaut’s famous book Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock.

The half hour sessions were subsequently broadcast on French radio and in 2006 Tom Sutpen started posting audio files of the sessions on his blog ‘If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats‘. They can be downloaded in 25 parts by clicking on the links below (just right click and save):"

Is John Boehner doing a good job as speaker?

Rachel Maddow last night postulated that John Boehner is bad at his job.

"In the clip above, Maddow makes a detailed case that he's simply bad at his job. And she's got a lot of evidence: He's been rolled by the tea party again and again. He's had to break a number of his own rules. He's lost a number of key votes. He's made some serious verbal gaffes ("so be it."). He's used some funny numbers. Despite his promise to "disagree without being disagreeable," his Twitter feed is laughably partisan. He stuck something that looks a whole lot like an earmark in the spending bill. The House is a more chaotic, less predictable place under his leadership. Nancy Pelosi was clearly better at uniting her party and passing legislation than Boehner is."

That's from Ezra Klein's followup Is John Boehner doing a good job as speaker?. He adds that his being more open as he promised, even if it costs him things.

The Best Post on Social Security

Robert Reich wrote Why Social Security Isn't a Problem for 26 Years, and the Best Way to Fix It Permanently). Just read it.

Wow, Speaking With Dolphins

Wired wrote To Talk With Aliens, Learn to Speak With Dolphins.

"At the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, Louis Herman and his team taught dolphins hundreds of words using gestures and symbols. Dolphins, they found, could understand the difference between statements and questions, concepts like ‘none’ or ‘absent,’ and that changing word order changes the meaning of a sentence. Essentially, they get syntax."

"Herzing’s study is the first of its kind. No one has tried to establish two-way communication in the wild."

I don't know why they need the whole preface to communicating with aliens angle, it's impressive enough that we're talking with dolphins!

How "The Good Wife" became one of TV's best shows

I completely agree with this, How "The Good Wife" became one of TV's best shows.

Pro-Bank Report Discredited

Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in a New York Times blog, Vanishing Act: 'Advisers' Seek Distance From a Report. It seems Keybridge Research, "a seemingly independent economics and public policy consulting firm" has released a study that comes out against implementing regulatory reforms of the Dodd-Frank bill.

Here's the fun quote at the end of the article: "When I told Mr. Wescott of Keybridge about Mr. Stiglitz’s comments, he replied that “the client had asked us” to put the report together. “It was a hypothetical study.”" Wescott is the President of Keybridge, the client is apparently the Derivative End Users Coalition, and Mr. Stiglitz is Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz who was listed as an advisor to the firm but had not worked with them since May 2009 and had not heard of the study before it was published and now calls it "not a very good report".

I also liked reading that the Oscar nominated documentary The Inside Job is having a real effect. "The movie, which focuses on the financial crisis, raises questions about economists and their consulting arrangements with big business. Shortly after the film’s release, the American Economic Association voted to establish a special committee to create a professional code of conduct."

So yay! It seems in this case, industry lobbyists have been discredited fast enough.

The Budget

Ezra Klein wroe 2012 Budget: Like the Fiscal Commission never happened "What was notable about the Fiscal Commission's final report was the way it opened up the playing field on the budget. It went after tax revenues, tax expenditures, the military, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, domestic spending, government reform and more. Most everyone disagreed with some of the specifics in the report, but plenty of folks on both sides of the aisle were happy to see so many cows demoted from sacred status...The president's 2012 budget dodges on almost all of that."

He also wrote The Defense Department won the future, or at least the budget "The military made out quite nicely in the 2012 budget proposal. The administration is cutting $78 billion from the Defense Department's budget -- known as 'security discretionary spending' -- over the next 10 years. That's a bit of a blow, but compare it to the $400 billion they're cutting from domestic discretionary spending -- that's education, income security, food safety, environmental protection, etc. -- over the next 10 years. And keep in mind that the domestic discretionary budget is only half as large as the military's budget. So if there were equal cuts, the military would be losing $800 billion"

But I think my favorite description of the budget is this, The U.S. Government: An insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army. "Two of every five dollars goes to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, all of which provide some form of insurance. A bit more than a buck goes to the military. Then there’s a $1.50 or so for assorted other programs -- education, infrastructure, environmental protection, farm subsidies, etc. Some of that, like unemployment checks and food stamps, is also best understood insurance spending. And then there’s another 40 cents of debt repayment. Calvin Coolidge once said that the business of America is business. Well, the business of the American government is insurance. Literally. If you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army."

US Budget

He goes on to say, "And it’s a bad place to focus cuts. Politicians don’t take the axe to non-defense discretionary spending because they think Teach for America or the food safety infrastructure -- both of which the Republicans are proposing to cut dramatically -- is more wasteful than the Pentagon or the health-care system. They do it because Teach for America and the food safety system is less politically powerful than the Pentagon or Medicare beneficiaries." Seriously read the rest of this post, it's all good.

Here's a detailed analysis of 2012 budget proposal, agency by agency. It's not short.

Robert Reich has a very good post, The Obama Budget: And Why the Coming Debate Over Spending Cuts Has Nothing to Do With Reviving the Economy. "Republicans want America to believe the economy is still lousy because government is too big, and the way to revive the economy is to cut federal spending...Today (Monday) Obama pours gas on the Republican flame by proposing a 2012 federal budget that cuts the federal deficit by $1.1 trillion over 10 years. About $400 billion of this will come from a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending – including all sorts of programs for poor and working-class Americans, such as heating assistance to low-income people and community-service block grants. Most of the rest from additional spending cuts, such as grants to states for water treatment plants and other environmental projects and higher interest charges on federal loans to graduate students."

Comparison to Clinton/Gingrich are wrong. "But the 1995 playbook is irrelevant. In 1995 the economy was roaring back to life. The recession of 1991 had been caused (as are most recessions) by the Fed raising interest rates too high to ward off inflation. So reversing course was relatively simple. Alan Greenspan and the Fed cut interest rates...The Republican bromide – cut federal spending – is precisely the wrong response to this ongoing crisis, which is more analogous to the Great Depression than to any recent recession. Herbert Hoover responded the same way between 1929 and 1932. Insufficient spending only deepened the Great Depression."

He goes on to propose tax changes to revive the economy. Put more money in the hands of the poor (expand the Earned Income Tax Credit" and change the tax brackets so the rich pay more and the poor pay less.

Krugman also agrees, Obama's budget is basically a Republican one, though only slightly better than the Republicans actual proposal. He also goes after some conventional wisdom. First, there's been no structural shift in unemployment. Second, we never tried a real stimulous. "Once you take state and local cutbacks into account, there was no surge of government spending. Here’s total (all levels) government spending over the past 10 years:"


Meanwhile, Boener's district will do okay, House Speaker’s State May Get $450 Million Extra.

Where are Democrats?

Steve Benen wrote about McCain being on Sunday morning talk shows so much. He ended with this PS: "Looking over the guest lists for all of the Sunday shows, viewers will see two Republican senators (McCain, Graham), three Republican House members (Boehner, Ryan, Schilling), three likely Republican presidential candidates (Barbour, Gingrich, Pawlenty) ... and zero Democrats from Congress or the Obama administration."

I noticed this too and wondered why. Did no one in the administration or any Democratic congressman want to talk about it or were they not invited? Combine this with the debate on the budget (post coming) and you realize that yet again the Republicans completely control the debate.

American Schools Are Better Than 50 Years Ago

Kevin Jones wrote American Schools Are Better Than 50 Years Ago "This is a myth. The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter....[And] there has been no sharp decline—in either the short or long run. The United States performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) since 1995."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal: How It’s Spent

The New York Times has created a treemap of Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal. I'm not sure how useful it is without more detailed descriptions of the budget items.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Open Source Hardware

Boing Boing writes Open Source Hardware Definition turns 1.0 "Phil Torrone from Make Magazine writes in with cool news about the Open Source Hardware Definition: 'The Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0 and Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Definition 1.0 has hit 1.0 - Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is a term for tangible artifacts -- machines, devices, or other physical things -- whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things."

Krugman on House Budget Cuts: Eat the Future

In Eat the Future Krugman tries to understand the rationale behind GOP proposed budget cuts. "The obvious answer, once you think about it, is to eat the future: to cut spending in a way that undermines the nation’s long-run prospects, but doesn’t impose all that much pain on voters right now."

"WIC is nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children; let’s cut that, because the damage to the nation from malnourishment is a problem for future politicians. NOAA is weather and climate — hey, what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Nuclear nonproliferation — well, we probably won’t feel the pain of a terrorist nuke assembled from old Soviet fissile material for a couple of years. FEMA — well, how often do hurricanes hit New Orleans? CDC — with luck, by the time plague hits someone else can be blamed."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Miscellaneous Economist Articles

I caught up on a few weeks of The Economist. Here are a few articles I found interesting.

Orthopaedics: Plastic surgery "DARPA, the research-funding agency of America’s Department of Defence, approached a group of scientists at the University of Texas, Houston, two years ago. DARPA wanted something that army doctors could carry in their bags and use to mend injured limbs on the spot, before amputation became inevitable. The researchers, led by Mauro Ferrari and Ennio Tasciotti (who have since moved to the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in the same city) came up with an idea that could change orthopaedic surgery once and for all: a material that surgeons can implant or even inject; which fixes a fractured bone quickly; and which then leads to its full regeneration, with no need for nails and pins."

Climate science: A fistful of dust "The Sahara and other bone-dry places continually send dust up into the atmosphere, where it may travel thousands of kilometres and influence regional weather, the global climate and even the growth of forests halfway around the planet."

A nice interactive graphic of Which countries match the GDP and population of America's states?Liquid radio describes how "America’s navy is developing an antenna made of seawater".

The Constant Gardeners explains, "Metrologists will soon try to redefine the scientific world’s unit of mass". "The kilogram is the last bit of the International System of Units (SI) to be tied explicitly to an artefact. Once, the metre was too. It was the length of another platinum-iridium ingot stored in Sèvres. But the metre has been redefined twice since that ingot was deposited in 1889: first, in 1960, in terms of the wavelength of a particular sort of light; then, in 1983, as the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Which, of course, raises the question of what a second is. Not, as you might think, a sixtieth of a sixtieth of a twenty-fourth of the period of the Earth’s rotation. No. A second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of a phenomenon called microwave transition in an atom of caesium-133. The remaining four basic SI units, the ampere (electricity), kelvin (temperature), mole (quantity of atoms, molecules or other particles) and candela (light), followed suit—though the ampere, candela and mole are linked to the kilogram, and so indirectly to the Sèvres prototype. The reason why the kilogram has taken so long to ditch its historic deadweight is that Planck’s constant (h), the most promising candidate for its remodelling, pertains to the subatomic scale. On that scale, strange things happen and particles start behaving like waves."

What's On My iPhone

For those new Verizon iPhone owners I figured it's time to update this from my last list in July.

Echofon - my favorite twitter client. Free with ads, which aren't bad (the ad-free version is $5 which seems high though I just bought it on sale for $2). Does location, pics, completion, lists, searches, etc. I like it better than the official Twitter app (formerly Tweetie) because you can click on links directly in the main list instead of having to first select a specific tweet. Also it syncs with the desktop client which is fantastic. I don't know why this isn't the most popular Twitter client.
Facebook - works reasonably well for keeping up with facebook. Wish it supported groups
LinkedIn - I have it but don't use it much.
Faces Lite - lets you create up to two pages showing pictures of up to 12 contacts on each. Clicking can start a phone call, text message, email, map of their address, or whatever else you want. Works much faster for me than going to one of the apps (Phone, Mail, Messages) directly. This is the free lite version, the $2 version gives you up to 14 screens though development seems to have stopped. I love this, but I can't necessarily recommend it for others.

Instapaper - I use this app to access the web service that saves articles for later viewing. It's a great app for reading, with tilt scrolling and nice formatting.
Reeder - I use this to read RSS feeds. It syncs with Google Reader and there's a beta version of a mac desktop client that I'm using now. It's much better than NetNewsWire on the iPhone. It's fast and it has support for Instapaper and tweeting and facebook and other services. Great app.
Simplenote - I use this all the time for keeping quick text notes. There's a free web service and they have this native iPhone app. They have an API that various desktop clients support. I use Notational Velocity on the mac. The syncing is fast and wireless. It's great to take notes on the desktop and having them on the iPhone. I collect notes for shopping, brands I like or to try, and well reviewed menu choices for restaurants. Now supports tags.

Google - I use the voice search all the time and it works great, almost never makes an error.
Wikipanion - great formatting of wikipedia pages and does completion so you don't have to type out the whole search. I use the free version. I bought Articles on sale and don't like it as much as Wikipanion.
IMDb - Does well for movie info searches and formats things nicer than just surfing to the web page, but doesn't include all the info (though there is a link to display in Safari)
Wolfram - I don't use it much but lately I've been using it to find when the ISS is visible or when sunset is. The web site works well, but the app does better at knowing where I am which helps in those searches.

Yelp - Good for getting restaurant and business reviews, phone numbers, locations, etc.
Grocery iQ - I've been using this for a few months and it works pretty well. It's a nice grocery list app, with favorites, stores with custom aisles, and bar code scanning. Was easy to populate with items I buy and sort them store. I used HandyShopper on the Palm and this is the closest I've seen to it. If you give yourself time to populate it all it becomes much easier to use.
Lose It! - Pretty good for keeping track of calories and exercises and is free.
Amazon - I use this all the time when shopping to check prices and reviews of a product before buying it. Great feature is that you can take a picture of the product, upload it and amazon will figure out what product it is and link to the page usually within 30 seconds.. Works best on books but also on other things. Also gives access to wish lists. They also have a PriceCheck app and there's Google Shopper too.

NYTimes - I had problems with early versions, but the current one works well.
NPR News - Yes, you can get audio stories but this is also the app I turn to for text news.
AP Mobile - I use this occasionally but mostly for notifications of late breaking news. It's only about once a day but it's a little more than I'd like. Still it's good for finding out about tsunamis and revolutions.
Economist - A great app that downloads whole issues quickly and formats the articles simply and well.

WeatherBug - my favorite weather app. There's a free version and I bought the full one (I don't remember the difference and it was cheap). Shows forecasts and animated radar maps.
Bloomberg - great market info
Flixster - I used to use Now Playing for movie times but it seems to have died (no updated info). This works almost as well showing info by theater or movie and upcoming films. Also gives access to my Netflix queue and integrates with Facebook and lets you buy tickets (which I haven't used it for).
Sportacular - Gives me enough info about the sports I do follow and let's me know if local teams are playing in town so I can avoid traffic.

AppBox Pro - a collection of little utilities like a flashlight, tip calculater, battery meter. Cheap (there's also a free lite version I think) and replaced a number of apps, but I don't use it that much.
Solve - a cute calculator that lets you draw numbers and operations with your finger. Surprising good for quick calculations
PCalc Lite - a free RPN calculator
Tip Box - a tip calculator that does bill splits, rounding, tips without tax and even separating out drinks from food.
Ultralight - a free flashlight that uses the LED flash on the iPhone 4
ManyTimer - Supports multiple timers and is free
Now iSee It - it's like reading glasses for your iPhone. Uses the camera but can magnify the image 2-4x.
Google Translate - Just got it but could be useful when traveling.

Soundhound - Was originally Midomi and my choice for hearing a song playing and telling me what it is
Remote - a free iTunes remote from Apple. Works great when sitting in the living room away from my mac which is streaming to the stereo speakers over the AirPort Express
Pandora - everyone else uses it but I rarely do, I really should use it more

GoodReader - great reader that can handle very large PDFs with tons of well explained options. Also can read many other formats. I have some documents to read and maps to look at in it. I set it up as a file server and copy files over via the Finder, there are other ways too
Dropbox - a great web service for syncing files across various machines. Easy way to put files on your iPhone. I use SimpleNote much more than this but I don't have work files to deal with.
Kindle - I wouldn't want to read a book at home on my iPhone, probably on an iPad. Instapaper gives me plenty of long articles to read on the phone. But if I used a Kindle this would be a great additon

Starmap - my favorite astronomy app and by far the most expensive app I've bought ($12). I've even bought the iPad version already while it's on sale for $1 for when I do get an iPad at some point in the future. On an iPhone 4 (and 3GS) it's great with the compass, just hold it up and it shows you what's in front of it. I also use the Tonight feature to see what's interesting to look at. Great app. Stellarium is a free alternative.
iCSC - Shows a graphic representation of how good the viewing conditions are at night. Basically you want the squares to be darker and if so it's worth looking at the stars.
NASA - Nice news on various missions and great images of the day.

I don't play a lot of games an tend to play quick puzzle like ones. Since the last version of this list I've been playing very different games

Canabalt - Your character runs to the right along roof tops, you push to jump over gaps. Amazingly addictive and quick to play. As soon as you die, you click again to try again.
Flood-It 2 - Nice color puzzle. Much easier to play than to describe
Galcon Labs - I used to play the Risk-like Strategery. This is somewhat similar. There's a random board with various planets. You start off with 100 units on one world and move them to others to conquer them. Your computer opponent starts on another world and does the same. Quick and fun and hard at the higher levels. Variations make the world move around.
Call of Atlantis - A good bejewled clone
Angry Birds - The iPhone craze. Use a slingshot to shoot birds at building blocks and pigs. Many levels that get harder and harder. It's fun but I don't understand the craze for it.
Cut the Rope - Another puzzle game with levels
Fruit Ninja Lite - slice through fruit that seems to be bouncing up from a trampoline. Don't slice the bombs. Harder than it sounds.
Doodle Jump - Your little guy jumps up onto platforms. Tilt the iPhone to kinda aim him.
Osmos - Merge blobs together to make the biggest blob.

So what else is there that should be on my iPhone?

iPhone Password Hack Shows Flawed Security Model

ars writes iPhone password hack shows flawed security model. "The real problem, according to Zdziarski, is that Apple hasn't yet fully implemented a truly secure environment for iOS. 'Apple has—since introducing encryption—been relying on their DRM know-how, and just erasing the label that says 'DRM' and calling it 'security,'' he explained. 'The problem with this is that DRM only makes things a little more difficult for hackers.' 'Real security relies on the strength of the key, and the secrecy of the key,' Zdziarski continued. 'And as long as the keys are all stored on the iPhone and don't rely on a user password, they can easily be compromised.'"


Dear TiVo

You're still the best TV solution for me. I've had a Series 3 since it came out and found no reason to upgrade to the Premiere. I've got HD and Netflix streaming already, it's not adding much for me. Here's what I want.

First a simple thing. If you're not recording something and a show comes on the tuned channel that I've rated three thumbs down, change the freaking channel! If I have the TV on in the background, there's no excuse for me ever looking up and seeing All My Children!

Also, fix the bug so that if I organize the Now Playing List with folders (hit 2 in Now Playing), I can still use Channel Up/Down while viewing the details of one program in a folder, like I can when not in a folder.

This is the feature I really want. I want to be able to pause any show. You should get face recognition software from Apple (like they use in iPhoto) and look for faces in the frame. Get the cast list for the show and at the start of the recording (or playback), get images of the cast from IMDb or Google Image search (search for the cast and the show title) and tell me who the actor on screen is. Then give me access to IMDb so I can figure out where I know them from and how old they are now and when the show was made and if they got nominated for this performance, etc. I think this is mostly what I want an iPad for. This is the only thing I can think of that would make me buy a new model before this one breaks.

Tea Party Wins Their First Budget Fight, Kinda

Ezra Klein wrote Tea Party wins their first budget fight "That went fast. Yesterday's Wonkbook lede was about the $32 billion in cuts that the House Republican leadership had previewed for the rest of 2011. Today lede is about the $100 billion of cuts they're now searching to find for 2011. Why $100 billion? Because the campaign promise was to cut $100 billion in their first budget, and House conservatives revolted against efforts to cut even a dime less."

"They're going to need to propose three times as many cuts now. And this comes alongside a new Pew poll (pdf) showing that the only category of federal spending that a majority of Republicans support cutting is foreign aid. On everything from Social Security to education to crime prevention to scientific research, more spending is preferred."

State of Working America

State of Working America is an interactive infographic showing "how growth in average income was shared between the richest 10% and the other 90% of Americans. All figures are in 2008 dollars."

Between 1994 and 2008 Average incomes in the US grew by $8,880. The richest 10% got 86% of that growth. The bottom 90% shared 14%.

Between 2001 and 2008. The average income in the US fell by $432. The average income the richest 10% grew. For the bottom 90% average income declined.

It's easy to cherry pick. Between 2002 and 2008. The average income in the US grew by $2,388. All growth went to the richest 10%, Income for the bottom 90% declined.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Death and Taxes, the state budget edition: Massachusetts

Boing Boing writes Death and Taxes, the state budget edition: Massachusetts "Jess Bachman, designer of the incredibly detailed Death and Taxes graphic that shows how the US government spends American taxpayers' money, has produced a state level budget visualization for Massachusetts. 'I did this one on commission and it has as much detail as the original Death and Taxes,' he explains."

Icelandic Volcano Set to Erupt

Icelandic volcano 'set to erupt' - Telegraph "Scientists in Iceland are warning that another volcano looks set to erupt and threatening to spew-out a pall of dust that would dwarf last year's event."

Glass Melts Near Absolute Zero

Awesome discovery of the week: Glass melts when it gets too cold "The wild card turned out to be quantum mechanics. Once the atoms of glass became still enough, they stopped acting like particles and instead acted like waves. The wave-like atoms now were able to flow, moving through spaces too small for particles to get through. This motion, and this ability to fit through small spaces, causes ultra-cold glass to melt into a liquid."

1236 New Exoplanets

Kepler is the new space telescope designed to look for exoplanets. It checks the brightness of stars looking for if they dim (ever so slightly) when an orbiting planet passes in front of it. It just released its first data with 1236 candidates. Astronomers will know try to use other telescopes and techniques to confirm the candidates are in fact planets. "This is a visualization of the 1236 exoplanet candidates observed by Kepler."

HBGary Federal Hacked by Anonymous

Brian Krebs wrote HBGary Federal Hacked by Anonymous. And if the title isn't clear enough, here's the first paragraph: "A company that is helping the federal government track down cyberactivists who have been attacking business which refused to support Wikileaks has itself been hacked by the very same activists."

Still it's an entertaining read, particularly the screenshot of the social engineering.

Here's more from ars, How one man tracked down Anonymous—and paid a heavy price

A Republican parade of kooks and shills

Salon wrote A Republican parade of kooks and shills. "Testifying on the GOP's behalf today: A man who calls Lincoln a 'horrific tyrant' and an all-star cast of polluters"


The House Committee on Appropriations writes CR Spending Cuts to Go Deep "‘Make no mistake, these cuts are not low-hanging fruit.  These cuts are real and will impact every District across the country - including my own.  As I have often said, every dollar we cut has a constituency, an industry, an association, and individual citizens who will disagree with us. But with this CR, we will respond to the millions of Americans who have called on this Congress to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.’"

Boston vs. Potholes

The Boston Globe writes about new Weapons in the battle vs. potholes. They have an iPhone app in development that when in a car, senses potholes via the accelerometer and locates it via GPS and reports it via email. They also are buying a new truck that can do a permanent hot asphalt patch year-round (normally they need warm weather). Still the Globe only managed one picture in the article, that of a regular pothole. Why not show the neat new truck?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Movie Reviews

I'm doing well this year on the movies. So far 40 features in 40 days and I'm doing ok on Oscar nominations. Though this last week, I've been all over Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar. So, some reviews:

Biutiful - Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a good man living a tough life in Barcelona. He works as a go-between in illegal immigrant labor. He's a criminal but he cares about the people. He's a father of two cute kids but his wife is bipolar and a drug addict and prostitute sometimes with Uxbal's brother. So now we have a complicated life, lets make it moreso by making Uxbal dying of cancer. Oh and he can sometimes commune with the souls of the recently dead. There's too much story and yet not enough as I found it hard to find a non-obvious point. Still Bardem's performance is fantastic. Gravity and sadness and hope and compassion are in his every look. The camera work is mostly handheld and naturalistic putting you in the middle of seedy. Still it's long and a bit slow and needs some more to it. Bardem's acting nomination is well deserved, the Best Foreign language nomination less so.

Madame Curie - A biography from 1943 starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It's a great story and I didn't know much of it. It also did a nice job of explaining the science. A problem was that a lot of the dialog was really stiff. It could have come from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Still I think someone should do a remake, keep the science, maybe add a little more of her life (she did win two Nobels) and make the characters a little more human.

William S. Burroughs - A Man Within - A documentary on the author of Naked Lunch. Apparently a lot of people, particularly musicians, were influenced by him, but the film doesn't say how. Steely Dan was named from his book, but um, yeah, that's great. I don't know of a lot of other stuff done in the cut-up style. He also did a lot of drugs, maybe that explains all the shots of bands with him (he lived into the 1990s). He was gay and was out and writing about it and that wasn't at all done at the time. Still he resisted joining any movement but others were inspired by his openness. Oh and he shot and killed his wife playing William Tell. Literally. I'm still not sure how that squared with being gay. Potentially interesting subject matter, weak film.

Lust for Life - A 1956 biography of Vincent Van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas. He got nominated for Best Actor and
Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin won Best Supporting Actor. Van Gogh certainly had enough trauma in his life to fill a compelling biography. He also painted a lot of pictures. The film shows a lot of them, and his development as an artist. A lot of it is filmed on location and in a vibrant color process. Apparently they even painted some wheat fields the color Van Gogh used in his painting. It not only tells the story of his life, it really lets you appreciate his all of his work.

Dogtooth - This is nominated as Best Foreign Language Film from Greece. It's more a psychological experiment than a film. Two parents have raised their three late teen children in complete isolation. They've never left the house and the walled in grounds. They're misinformed on the meanings of words, e.g., Zombie is a yellow flower and think house cats are man=killers. They innocent and naive. It gets very weird very quickly. The father leaves each day in his car to work in factory and bring in supplies. He hires one of the factory guards, a woman, to sleep with his son occasionally. He had needs but the daughters apparently don't. She also accidentally lets some external contamination in. Anyway, it's bizarre with not much of a plot and no explanation whatsoever. I really hated this and am shocked it's nominated for an Oscar.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

100 Best British Films

Time Out London has created a list of the 100 Best British Films - "as chosen by a panel of 150 film industry experts."

I've only seen the following ones and I have to say, their ordering is ridiculous.

28 Days Later… (2002)
Zulu (1964)
Night and the City (1950)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Orlando (1993)
Dr No (1962)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Oliver! (1968)
Dracula (1958)
Topsy-Turvy (1999)
Blackmail (1929)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
Local Hero (1983)
Blow-Up (1966)
Sabotage (1936)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The Ladykillers (1955)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Great Expectations (1946)
Brazil (1985)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Nil by Mouth (1997
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Black Narcissus (1947)
The 39 Steps (1935)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Trainspotting (1996)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
The Red Shoes (1948)
The Third Man (1949)

Neutron Star Observed Creating Otherwise Impossible Form of Matter

Neutron star observed creating otherwise impossible form of matter "Neutron stars are the unimaginably dense remnants of collapsed giant stars. They get their name because the conditions inside are so fierce that atoms are smashed apart into a soup of protons, electrons, and, yes, neutrons. And now we have the first direct evidence that neutron stars are forming superfluids of neutrons - a totally bizarre state of matter that can't even be created in Earth laboratories.

A superfluid is sort of like a liquid, except its behavior can be very strange. Basically, a superfluid is where viscosity drops to zero and thermal conductivity becomes infinite, the upshot of which is the superfluid flows uncontrollably in all directions while maintaining the same temperature throughout. Even gravity is no longer a barrier for superfluids - it can flow right up the side of a beaker and escape. Superfluids essentially live in a world without friction."


How To See NanoSail-D From Your Own Backyard

I didn't know about this... How To See NanoSail-D From Your Own Backyard

"The night sky has many wonderful objects to look at on a clear evening, including many man-made satellites, and the always impressive International Space Station (ISS). Now there’s a new addition to these artificial delights: the first ever solar sail to orbit the Earth, NASA’s Nanaosail-D Satellite. Want to know how you can see it?

The 10m x 10m reflective sail is designed to act like a brake and gradually create drag in the upper atmosphere, slowly pulling a satellite down and de-orbiting it at the end of its working life. Nanosail-D is testing the potential of this technology to reduce space junk and debris."