Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best Films of the Decade

Ebert lists his 20 Best Films of the Decade.

Roeper lists his top 100 and bottom 100 films of the decade.

Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror

The New York Times reports on how Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror "The National Security Agency four months ago intercepted conversations among leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen discussing a plot to use a Nigerian man for a coming terrorist attack, but American spy agencies later failed to combine the intercepts with other information that might have disrupted last week’s attempted airline bombing."

So now the TSA is subpoenaing bloggers for posting their security directives and telling people they can't go to the bathroom or have anything in their lap for the last hour of a flight and now pushing for invasive body scans before boarding planes.

Apparently it easier to inconvenience hundreds of millions air travelers a year rather than get intelligence agencies to share information effectively.

But if you do travel, this is the experience you want when checking into a hotel.

Only one of Oscars' top winners added to National Film Registry

This Los Angeles Times article, Only one of Oscars' top winners added to National Film Registry spends more time on what wasn't nominated this year to the National Film Registry. Here's the list of what was nominated. Those with an * after them I've seen.

1) Dog Day Afternoon (1975) *
2) The Exiles (1961)
3) Heroes All (1920)
4) Hot Dogs for Gauguin (1972)
5) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) *
6) Jezebel (1938)
7) The Jungle (1967)
8) The Lead Shoes (1949)
9) Little Nemo (1911) *
10) Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
11) The Mark of Zorro (1940) *
12) Mrs. Miniver (1942) *
13) The Muppet Movie (1979) *
14) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) *
15) Pillow Talk (1959) *
16) Precious Images (1986)
17) Quasi at the Quackadero (1975)
18) The Red Book (1994)
19) The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
20) Scratch and Crow (1995)
21) Stark Love (1927)
22) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
23) A Study in Reds (1932)
24) Thriller (1983) *
25) Under Western Stars (1938)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fact Checking 2009 lists the Whoppers of 2009. "We review the choicest falsehoods from a year that kept us busy."

Six Kitchen Skills You Can Pick Up This Weekend

Lifehacker's Six Kitchen Skills You Can Pick Up This Weekend was kinda interesting. Particularly the first one about how to know if the pan is at the proper temperature.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

TSA Has Interim Chief Because GOP SC Senator Hates Unions

I had forgotten about this, Sen. Jim DeMint Blocks TSA Nominee

"An attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day would be all-consuming for the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration -- if there were one.

Instead, the post remains vacant because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, has held up President Barack Obama's nominee in an effort to prevent TSA workers from joining a labor union.

President Obama nominated Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and a counterterrorism expert, to head the TSA a few months ago. Southers is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence, and the associate director of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. Two Senate committees considered the nomination, and easily approved Southers with bipartisan support.

But the Senate hasn't been able to vote on the nomination because DeMint hates unions, and isn't sure if Southers might allow TSA workers to organize. Without that guarantee, DeMint not only opposes Southers' nomination, but prefers to leave the Transportation Security Administration without a permanent administrator."

Wired’s 20 Favorite iPhone Apps of 2009

Wired’s 20 Favorite iPhone Apps of 2009. I don't use any of them.

On the other hand, I use about half of these: 30 Top Free iPhone Apps for New iPhone & iPod Touch Owners

Pigeon: Impossible

Pigeon: Impossible is a Pixar-style short film that's pretty fun. It's all the more impressive that it was made by just one guy, Lucas Martell and took 5 years to make.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Specter Says Republicans Plotted Early To Stop Bipartisanship

Specter: Republicans Plotted Early To Stop Bipartisanship, Beat Obama In 2012 "During his appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) appeared to give out some inside dirt from his days as a Republican -- alleging that the GOP plotted early to stop any bipartisan cooperation with President Obama, and to instead look towards the 2012 election."

Of course we already knew this, but it's nice to see someone say it.

Photos of Turkey from 1890s

The Library of Congress posted a bunch of color(ized) photos from Istanbul, Turkey from the 1890s. Pretty amazing:


Things To Look At

Phillip Niemeyer in the New York Times charts, Picturing the Past 10 Years.

Fun and Fantastical Snowmen to Make Your Winter Bright ""

The That Is Priceless blog puts some very funny captions on some great art.

And the latest xkcd makes me really happy I have a new magic mouse that makes side scrolling easy.

Airline Terrorism

I was going to say something like this but Bruce Schneier beat me too it, Separating Explosives from the Detonator, "For years I've been saying this: Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers. This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded."

The only thing that saved lives on 9/11 was cell phones. Without them the passengers of United 93 wouldn't have known to resist. Cell phones are still mostly illegal to use on flights (particularly during takeoff and landing when they think terrorism is most likely to occur). The only thing that prevented more damage on Christmas was that a passenger noticed something and got out of his seat to do something about it. Now it will be illegal to get out your seat during the last hour of the flight.

I liked this addition by Schneier: "Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks."

Update: Schneier adds more (summing up what he's been saying all along) in CNN, Is aviation security mostly for show

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Schneier on Intercepting Predator Video

Bruce Schneier has commented on Intercepting Predator Video. I had wondered why the control channel was encrypted but the video feed wasn't. Schneier reminds me it's always a key management problem and more people are allowed to see the video than are to control the drone, so there are more keys to manage. He then adds public relations to the risk analysis.

House and Senate Health Care Bill Comparison

The Boston Globe offers a House and Senate health care bill comparison.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

China Wrecked the Copenhagen Deal

Mark Lynas wrote in The Guardian How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room. "Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful 'deal' so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen."

It's a must read.

Climate Change: A Consensus Among Scientists? | Information Is Beautiful

Information Is Beautiful writes Climate Change: A Consensus Among Scientists? "The Skeptical side claims 39,148 dissenters in their ranks, according to the That sounds like a lot. But is it?" There are 12,944,000 scientists in the US.


Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke

Wired had an interesting article Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke.

"Today, however, Sorensen spearheads a cadre of outsiders dedicated to sparking a thorium revival. When he’s not at his day job as an aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — or wrapping up the master’s in nuclear engineering he is soon to earn from the University of Tennessee — he runs a popular blog called Energy From Thorium. A community of engineers, amateur nuclear power geeks, and researchers has gathered around the site’s forum, ardently discussing the future of thorium. The site even links to PDFs of the Oak Ridge archives, which Sorensen helped get scanned. Energy From Thorium has become a sort of open source project aimed at resurrecting long-lost energy technology using modern techniques."

"When he took over as head of Oak Ridge in 1955, Alvin Weinberg realized that thorium by itself could start to solve these problems. It’s abundant — the US has at least 175,000 tons of the stuff — and doesn’t require costly processing. It is also extraordinarily efficient as a nuclear fuel. As it decays in a reactor core, its byproducts produce more neutrons per collision than conventional fuel. The more neutrons per collision, the more energy generated, the less total fuel consumed, and the less radioactive nastiness left behind.

Even better, Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. The design is based on the lab’s finding that thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts. This fission soup is poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction — the billiard balls colliding — happens. The system makes the reactor self-regulating: When the soup gets too hot it expands and flows out of the tubes — slowing fission and eliminating the possibility of another Chernobyl. Any actinide can work in this method, but thorium is particularly well suited because it is so efficient at the high temperatures at which fission occurs in the soup."

Cenk Uygur: The Irrefutable Stupidity of Sarah Palin

A couple of week ago Cenk Uygur wrote The Irrefutable Stupidity of Sarah Palin with some nice video examples. Fun stuff.

Fun Movie Poster Art

/Film writes Cool Mario Graciotti’s Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock and Pixar Poster Art. "Brazilian artist Mario Graciotti has created a few series of posters that showcase the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pixar Animation Studios."

I really like a lot of them. They take single element, often something that might be considered a spoiler but isn't in this context, makes it playful, and still adds more depth to it. Here's one, click it for more:

Magnolia ends with a literal rain of frogs. There isn't much else to do with rain in the film, but in the poster, it's raining the names of the huge cast, though just under the umbrella, not around it.

There Will Be Blood includes a bowling pin that has no meaning until the end of the film, but the puddle of blood is all that's needed to reference the title.

The Monster's Inc. poster includes the conveyer belt of doors from the film's climax, but the poster won't ruin anything. People will just see the children's doors and a monster peaking out from behind.

The Dial M for Murder includes a telephone cord (remember those). People will just get the phone reference, but of course the cord is actually used in the murder attempt.

The Ten Best Documentaries of 2009

Eberts list of The ten best documentaries of 2009 looks good. I've only seen Food Inc., but I liked it a lot.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If Wall Street Ran the Airlines …

The Baseline Scenario's If Wall Street Ran the Airlines … is pretty funny.

New Features in Wolfram|Alpha: Year-End Update

New Features in Wolfram|Alpha: Year-End Update

"When we launched Wolfram|Alpha in May 2009, it already contained trillions of pieces of information—the result of nearly five years of sustained data-gathering, on top of more than two decades of formula and algorithm development in Mathematica. Since then, we’ve successfully released a new build of Wolfram|Alpha’s codebase each week, incorporating not only hundreds of minor behind-the-scenes enhancements and bug fixes, but also a steady stream of major new features and datasets.

We’ve highlighted some of these new additions in this blog, but many more have entered the system with little fanfare. As we near the end of 2009, we wanted to look back at seven months of new Wolfram|Alpha features and functionality."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Ten

There are a lot of Top Ten lists being published now. Top Ten of the Decade and Top Ten of the year. I've seen a lot of movies this year and I've been keeping track so I will provide a long list of films, but I'm not ready yet. Film critics see a lot of films before their general release and a bunch of films don't open before Christmas, and even several of those will take some weeks before they make it to Boston.

But I want to get in on the fun. Here is a list of Ten Films I Have to See Before I Can Make a Top Ten Films of the Year List (in no particular order):

1. Me and Orson Wells
2. Brothers
3. Nine
4. Sherlock Holmes
5. Broken Embraces
6. Crazy Heart
7. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus
8. It's Complicated
9. A Single Man
10. The White Ribbon

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Best Films of 2009 According to Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert' lists The best films of 2009 and he cheats a bit.

"So this year I have devoutly limited myself to exactly ten films. On each of two lists. The lists are divided into Mainstream Films and Independent Films. This neatly sidesteps two frequent complaints: (1) "You name all those little films most people have never heard of," and (2) "You pick all blockbusters and ignore the indie pictures." Which is is my official Top Ten? They both are equal, and every film here is entitled to name itself "One of the Year's 10 Best!""

I've seen all but 3 on the mainstream list and his list won't match mine.

Of the independent films I've never even heard of 9 of them, but I have seen Sin Nombre and it was good, but I wouldn't say great.

Visualizing Bank Failures ( 2008 – 2009 )

Computational Legal Studies writes Visualizing Bank Failures ( 2008 – 2009 ).

Visualizing Bank Failures ( 2008-2009 ) from Computational Legal Studies on Vimeo.

"Three Takeaways
1. Acceleration: There were four failures in the first six months of 2008, followed by another 22 failures in the next six months. By January of 2009, there were 21 failures in the first three months of the year, followed by 138 from April to last Friday.
2. Magnitude: Failures in the past two years have cost the Depositors Insurance Fund an estimated $57B. The IndyMac failure of July 2008 accounted for $10B alone, followed by BankUnited at $4.9B and Guaranty Banks at $3B.
3. Spatial Correlation: There is a significant amount of spatial correlation in California, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Illinois. These states account for 77% of the total costs to the Depositors Insurance Fund. Furthermore, most of the losses in California and Georgia were concentrated highly around a few urban centers."

Tech Buyer's Guide from 2000 Is Pretty Hilarious

Gizmodo writes Tech Buyer's Guide from 2000 Is Pretty Hilarious. "Nine years ago, as a young tech reporter at Time Magazine, I co-wrote a buyer's guide with the latest and greatest gear known to man. Today, it sounds ridiculous."

The Decade in News Photographs

The Big Picture on describes The decade in news photographs:

"Call it what you will, 'the noughties', 'the two-thousands' or something else, the first decade of the 21st century (2000-2009) is now over. Looking back on the past ten years through news photographs, it becomes clear that it was a dramatic, often brutal decade. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks and wars were by far the most dominant theme. Ten years ago, Bill Clinton was ending his final term in office, very few had ever heard of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq - all that and much more has changed in the intervening time. It's really an impossible task to sum up ten years in a handful of photographs, but below is my best attempt at a look back at the last decade - feel free to let me know what I missed in the comments below. (50 photos total)"

They're all great photos. The more disturbing ones are blackened unless you click on them.

Movie Review: Invictus

Invictus is a dramatization of the story of Nelson Mandela as he took over the Presidency of South Africa, particularly his involvement with their national rugby team that won the World Cup in 1995. Directed by Clint Eastwood it's certainly minimalist even though it's two hours long. It's basically a sports film; underdog team improves over a year and half and wins the cup at the end (I don't think that's spoiling anything). But for a two hour sports movie I still have no idea how rugby is played (except there are no forward passes and a field goal is 3 points). I only know the names of two players on the team, the captain Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon and Chester, the team's only black player. I don't even know much about their path to the finals and their improvement over time or how they accomplished this feat, only that because South Africa hosted the World Cup they qualified automatically and weren't expected to otherwise.

The film is really about how this team's success was a factor in healing the post-Apartheid country. Rugby had been enjoyed by the whites, but everyone can appreciate an underdog. Mandela saw this and worked behind the scenes to inspire the players to succeed. In fact, Morgan Freeman's Mandela is probably has more screen time than Matt Damon. We see a bit of how Mandela inspired Pienaar via meetings and letters and just being himself. There's a great conversation where Mandela wonders about ways to inspire people to be better than they can imagine. What we don't see is how Pienaar then goes about inspiring his team. We do see various other people, security forces, secretaries, families, children all come together to root for the team. In fact we see that a lot. A few people I was with found that a bit heavy handed, and I somewhat agree, but I thought it worked.

The two hours went by quickly but I keep coming back to how little there was too it. It's mostly emotional beats and impressions that register. Early one there's a point about how at the stadium only the whites are flying the old flag and only the blacks the new one and Mandela wonders how to change this. I found it really odd that I didn't clearly see, and now couldn't tell you, what either of the flags look like. I now realize that's not necessary for the plot point but I don't think I could have conceived of telling the story that way.

Nevertheless, as a standard sports movie with a good payoff, the film works well. As an emotional story about the healing of a country inspired by a truly great man, it also works well. Well worth seeing.

More Movie Reviews

Up in the Air is really good film that's hard to categorize. Dramedy is the word I've most heard used but I'm not sure it's right. George Clooney plays a contract firer, who flies around the country and lays people off. In the standard version of this film, the work would be the funny part to go along with the dramatic relationship stuff, but the work stuff isn't funny, particularly now. Anna Kendrick plays the young up and comer who works with him and is trying to make the industry more efficient. Normally she'd fall for Clooney, but not in this one. Instead Clooney has frequent one-night stands with Vera Farmiga, another serial traveller avoiding commitment. The performances are all good and the script, which writer-director Jason Reitman has been working on for years, is true to the characters and their emotions, even if the characters themselves aren't true to them. It's a very good film, well worth seeing.

Elegy is another film about the nature of relationships but takes things much deeper. Ben Kingsley is a divorced professor who has had a series of short affairs with his students. This time he falls for one, probably because it's Penélope Cruz. But once you fall for someone you can be afraid of losing them, and that fear and lack of confidence can be self-fulfilling. The film goes in a number of different directions and there are strong supporting characters in his mistress, Patricia Clarkson and his son, Peter Sargaard. If you're in the mood for something serious and adult, this will do it.

The full title is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. I had never heard of the novel, but I'm not the target demographic. Precious is an overweight teenager, being brought up in incredibly abusive household, pregnant with her second child and hopeless. She dreams of being on the red carpet, but even that dream is via the eyes of a television which is the only way she's knows about that life. There's nothing in her dream that would allow her to actually achieve anything. Not being hit, or worse, by her parents would be a very reasonable dream to have, but that's even beyond her conception. When a caring teacher takes her in there's a great line she thinks, “These people talked like TV stations I didn’t even watch.” This is a really powerful tough film, though it's also merciful in how it tells the story. The worst parts aren't really shown, but rather are described by one character to another and with timely cuts to dream sequences. It lets you imagine the horrors without having to witness them. It's probably the only way to have done with it and still have it's intended audience willing to watch it. This is a film with a lot to say about the forgotten in society and should get a wide audience. Mo'Nique has best supporting actress sown up for her performance as Precious' mother.

The International - At times this is a fun political thriller and at other times it just gets too bogged down in conspiracy that's too large to handle. Clive Owen and Armin Mueller-Stahl are quite good and there are some fun set pieces, but it spins a little out of control in the end.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a Wes Anderson film and I have to say, I think most of his films are the same story over and over again. This has the same melancholy mood but in a stop-motion animated film with a Chicken Run like caper attached. Clooney voices a fox, and foxes are clever, so he's a chicken thief who after a narrow escape retires to take care of his family. But retirement doesn't suit him and like Danny Ocean he thinks he has one more in him. It's clever and I think Anderson should stick to animation as it gives him more freedom. Kids will probably like and adults will like it, if they like Wes Anderson.

The Day the Earth Stood Still remake is not very good. Shocker. There was no reason to make this though you could see some thought when into updating it. It just fails on every level. I'll give one example. They weren't going to but at Keanu Reeves' insistence they included the classic line "Klaatu barada nikto", twice even. However it's so unintelligible, it blends into the background sounds (battles and storms) and never even heard it until I looked up when it was said and rewatched those scenes. If you're going to include the reference, at least make it so people can hear it. Nope, they couldn't even get that right.

I never read The Road but by all accounts the film is a faithful adaptation. The operative word is bleak. A man and his son wander a post-apocalyptic world looking for something better. Plants and animals are also dead so food is definitely an issue. There are roving packs of surviving humans and the whole thing seems to be a fable about what it means to remain good while things get worse and worse. I can't say I got too much of that out of the film. The book's strength is supposedly the beauty of the prose and that's of course lost in the film. The visuals are well done and as I said bleak, but unlike prose, after 10 minutes you've got that down. There are some good performances, particularly Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall and Michael Williams (The Wire's Omar) but while I'm glad I saw it once, I have no need to see it again.

Ukraine's Got Talent - Sand Animation

Kseniya Simonova - Sand Animation (Україна має талант / Ukraine's Got Talent) It really gets impressive at the 2 minute mark.

Friday, December 18, 2009

David Simon Interview

Vice magazine has a great (8 page) interview with David Simon who you all know is the creator of The Wire. "Simon recently spoke with Vice from the Tremé production offices in New Orleans. This is the longest interview we’ve ever run by a long shot, but come on. It’s the guy who made The Wire. You’re lucky the entire issue isn’t about him." Great stuff.

First Evidence that Fructose is Bad

The (London) Times reports Child diabetes blamed on food sweetener. "Scientists have proved for the first time that a cheap form of sugar used in thousands of food products and soft drinks can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis."

"Fructose bypasses the digestive process that breaks down other forms of sugar. It arrives intact in the liver where it causes a variety of abnormal reactions, including the disruption of mechanisms that instruct the body whether to burn or store fat. ‘This is the first evidence we have that fructose increases diabetes and heart disease independently from causing simple weight gain,’ said Kimber Stanhope, a molecular biologist who led the study. ‘We didn’t see any of these changes in the people eating glucose.’"

The Physics of Space Battles

The Physics of Space Battles is one of the best such descriptions I've read. It's by Joseph Shoer, a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering.

"I had a discussion recently with friends about the various depictions of space combat in science fiction movies, TV shows, and books. We have the fighter-plane engagements of Star Wars, the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek, the Newtonian planes of Battlestar Galactica, the staggeringly furious energy exchanges of the combat wasps in Peter Hamilton's books, and the use of antimatter rocket engines themselves as weapons in other sci-fi. But suppose we get out there, go terraform Mars, and the Martian colonists actually revolt. Or suppose we encounter hostile aliens. How would space combat actually go?"

The Healthcare Bill

I don't really know what's currently in the Senate version of the Healthcare Bill. Howard Dean says it's crap. Paul Krugman and Nate Silver say it's much better than nothing. So far I'm listening to the Nobel winner and the election predictor.

The Known Universe Scientifically Rendered For All to See

The American Museum of Natural History has put together a short film, The Known Universe which seems to be inspired by Powers of Ten.

"After hovering over Mount Everest and the gorges that plunge to the Ganges, you are pulled through the Earth’s atmosphere to glimpse the inky black of space over Tibet’s high desert. So begins The Known Universe, a new film produced by the American Museum of Natural History that is part of a new exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

The magic of this film, though, happens as the inky black expands. Pulling farther and farther from Earth, you see the deep blue of the Pacific give way to night as the Sun comes into focus, the orbits of the solar system shrink smaller and smaller, the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio stretch and distort, and, as the Milky Way receeds, the spidery structure of millions of other galaxies come into view. Then, you reach the limit of the observable universe, the afterglow of the Big Bang. This light has taken more than 13.7 billion years to reach our planet, and you return, back to Earth, to two lakes that are nestled between Mount Kailash and Mount Gurla Mandhata in the Himalayas."

The Simpsons Turned 20 Yesterday

I missed this yesterday, The Simpsons turns 20 today. "Twenty years ago today, the first full-length episode of The Simpsons -- known as The "Christmas Special" -- aired on television. This episode was originally intended to be show number 8, but ended up being first after a series of production glitches and switches."

Happy Birthday Homer.

Hilarious Phantom Menace Video Review - Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review (Part 1 of 7)

Here's a YouTube Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review, actually part 1 of 7, but it's very funny and very accurate. Yes, the whole thing is 70 mins long, but once I started, I couldn't stop, I warn you...

Movie Review: Avatar

Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but I'm giving Avatar a solid B. I can potentially see it getting as high as an A- but I'm not there yet. Walking outside the theater we heard a young woman shout out, "I just saw Avatar and it was awesome!". My friend put it well, "I was in a awe several times, so 'awesome' is accurate." and I can agree with that.

First the good. The visuals are amazing. Cameron did a great job building a world and seemlessly introducing it to us. The characters, plants, machines, all feel real. The plot moves and the 2.5 hours do go by quickly. It's easy to follow what's going on, both as the plot introduces things and via the camera and editing. There isn't annoying shaky-cam or hyperfast editing.

The computer generated characters look real. The bizarre plants and animals all look real. I thought the sound wasn't particularly immersive but I'm not sure if that was the film or the theater. I did see it in 3D and while it was ok, I had some issues with it. I thought it often seemed a little weak, like there were several planes and the image was split among them. Also the depth of field seemed smaller than usual, things in the front and back were blurred. My friend, who does image processing for a living, didn't feel that way at all. We both agreed that while some scenes, particularly the flying scenes, were better because of the 3D, it was completely unnecessary to the enjoyment of the film.

This film is kinda like Dances with Wolves crossed with Star Wars and told via Aliens. Humans have explored a new world with an indigenous humanoid population. The corporate interests are there to mine "unobtainium" (literally) and the military is there to fight and the scientists are there to study and learn.

My issue with the film was that I wanted a bit more. The characters were all standard issue ones, you'll recognize standard character types from Aliens very quickly. And it seems that separate human groups never actually talked to each even though there were all there for the same thing (obtain unobtainium the easiest way possible and survive).

I kept expecting to learn more secrets about the world of Pandora and I never felt I got there. There are certainly reveals later in the film but I expected a bit more explanation. I admit that, going further could result in crap like midichlorians, but I don't think necessarily so. There are a bunch of times where the the native Neytiri says of the human avatar Jake, that "he doesn't see" and by the end of the film I'm still not sure what she meant by that and wish it had been explored further.

Jake is shown integrated into the native tribe, but I think it's more because he fell in love rather than he actually found them to be equals. He is just a dumb grunt marine (his wheelchair has a "grunt" bumper sticker on it), but I wish he was shown actually talking to the natives a bit more, it seems like that could have fit in 2.5 hours.

I haven't said much about the plot or characters and don't feel the need to give anything away. The film is worth seeing. You will be entertained. It's not my favorite of the year but it will make my top 10. I think Cameron invented a lot of new film making technology that others will use, but I don't think he changed story telling or movies like Star Wars did. Star Wars did change film making technology, but it did more than that.

So see it, and tell me what you think. I plan on seeing it again, probably in IMAX and I know I won't be disappointed, particularly now that my expectations are set.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why There is no Catcher in the Rye Movie

Letters of Note publishes a letter from J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield is unactable.

I can't say I've missed the film in the slightest. The letter is a fun read, but I can't say I agree with the ideas. The wikikepdia article has more on attempted film adaptations of it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Onions Top Stories

The Onions list of Our Annual Year 2009 "the top 10 stories of the last 4.5 billion years" was pretty funny.

Republicans, Religion and the Triumph of Unreason Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent

Johann Hari wrote a really good article in The Independent last August, Republicans, religion and the triumph of unreason. As succinctly as anything I've seen he sums up the current state of the GOP as divorced from reality.

"Since Obama's rise, the US right has been skipping frantically from one fantasy to another, like a person in the throes of a mental breakdown. It started when they claimed he was a secret Muslim, and – at the same time – that he was a member of a black nationalist church that hated white people. Then, once these arguments were rejected and Obama won, they began to argue that he was born in Kenya and secretly smuggled into the United States as a baby, and the Hawaiian authorities conspired to fake his US birth certificate. So he is ineligible to rule and the office of President should pass to... the Republican runner-up, John McCain."

He should have added to that "who was born in Panama". Here's another good paragraph:

"For many of the people at the top of the party, this is merely cynical manipulation. One of Bush's former advisers, David Kuo, has said the President and Karl Rove would mock evangelicals as "nuts" as soon as they left the Oval Office. But the ordinary Republican base believe this stuff. They are being tricked into opposing their own interests through false fears and invented demons. Last week, one of the Republicans sent to disrupt a healthcare town hall started a fight and was injured – and then complained he had no health insurance. I didn't laugh; I wanted to weep."

It's worth a read and point it out to your friends that might not be completely polarized.

Moon and Sun Updates

Universe Today reports Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Finds Some Surprises on the Moon.

"Imaging the Apollo landing sites have served a practical purpose," said Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator, "as we are using them in lieu of to calibrate the LROC Narrow Angle Cameras. Plus these images are much more fun than stars, because we get to see where humans used to walk. It's also much less stress on the spacecraft because you don't have to slew in and out to look at the stars...Robinson said the soil compacted by the Apollo astronauts and lunar rovers is darker than undisturbed soil. "Disturbing the soil changes the brightness by a factor of two," he said."

Also, New Images Provide Insight Into Our Sun's Ultimate Fate.

"When our Sun begins to die, it will become a red giant as it runs out of hydrogen fuel at its core. Astronomers have a pretty good idea of what will transpire: the sun will swell to a size so large that it will swallow every planet out to Mars in our solar system. Don't worry, though, this won't happen for another 5 billion years. But now, astronomers have been able to watch in detail the death of a sun-like star about 550 light-years from Earth to get a better grasp on what the end might be for our Sun. The star, Chi Cygni, has swollen in size, and is now writhing in its death throes. The star has begun to pulse dramatically in and out, beating like a giant heart. New close-up photos of the surface of this distant star show its throbbing motions in unprecedented detail."

They made this animation. Note the legend showing the distance between the Sun and the Earth (that is 1 Astronomical Unit which is about 93,000,000 miles).

Energy-Saving Stoplights Blamed In Crashes

The AP reports Energy-saving stoplights blamed in crashes.

"Cities around the country that have installed energy-efficient traffic lights are discovering a hazardous downside: The bulbs don't burn hot enough to melt snow and can become crusted over in a storm — a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death."

"Many communities have switched to LED bulbs in their traffic lights because they use 90 percent less energy than the old incandescent variety, last far longer and save money. Their great advantage is also their drawback: They do not waste energy by producing heat. Authorities in several states are testing possible solutions, including installing weather shields, adding heating elements like those used in airport runway lights, or coating the lights with water-repellent substances."

Weather shields? Don't all traffic lights have hoods above them to prevent glare?

"In Minnesota, authorities are more than halfway to their goal of upgrading the state's 1,300 or so traffic lights to LEDs. The Transportation Department occasionally gets reports of an obstructed light, but often by the time a highway crew arrives, the wind has knocked out the snow and ice, said traffic systems specialist Jerry Kotzenmacher. Minnesota is experimenting with weather shields."

The entire state of Minnesota has only 1300 traffic lights?!?!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Al Franken v John Thune

TPM writes Franken Challenges Thune: 'We're Not Entitled to Our Own Facts' "Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) challenged Sen. John Thune (R-SD) in a startlingly tense exchange yesterday, slamming Thune's apparent looseness with the truth by saying, 'We're not entitled to our own facts.'"

I haven't been following the health care debate too closely. I know my representative and Senators would vote the way I would. Unfortunately 58 other senators won't. Digby complains that this is The Best We Can Do.

Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009

Bad Astronomer Dr. Phil Plait lists his Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009. Sorry, you have to click through them one at a time, but the descriptions are good.

Atheists and Public Office

On last night's Rachel Maddow show I learned that in six states, North Carolina, Texas, Tennassee, Maryland, Arkansas, and Mississippi, atheists can't hold public office.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Of course as they say article six of the US Constitution trumps these state constitutions: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Golden Globe Nominations

The 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards Nominations. I've seen 83 films released this year and there are tons on this list I haven't seen.

By the end of the week I'll have seen all the best drama film nominations, but I've only seen 40% of the drama acting nominations.

I've seen 60% of the best comedy film nominations but only 1 of the best actress and 3 of the best actor in a comedy nominations.

I've seen 3 of the best animated film nominations and none of the best foreign language film nominations.

I've seen 60% of the supporting actress and actor nominations.

By the end of the week I'll have seen all the best director nominations.

And for the TV stuff, Breaking Bad was robbed.

The Muppets: Ringing of the Bells

Not quite as good as Bohemian Rhapsody but fun...and seasonal...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Reviews

I'm way behind on movie reviews, so here's some catching up:

Swing Vote - Kind of an interesting idea and had some nice playful political moments, but it was too long and too much of it was too stupid.

Pirate Radio - This was released as The Boat That Rocked in April in England and did badly. It was retitled Pirate Radio and shortened from about 3 hours to 2 hours for the US release. It's losely based on a true story but is really fiction. To me it played more as a collection of scenes rather than a story. The reason to see this is for the music. If you like the music you'll enjoy the time, otherwise skip it. And skip the soundtrack, the good songs aren't on it.

Babette's Feast - Saw this for the first time at the Coolidge Corner Theater with an opening food lecture by Guy Crosby from America's Test Kitchen and the actual dessert from the film provided by Finale. I found the film starts slow and tells a small story that had me wondering what the big deal was. Well it ends with a long feast that makes it all very worth while. I think the message is self-denial is crazy and decadent indulgence solves all problems.

The Men Who Stare at Goats - This had such promise but it didn't pay off. Clooney is entertaining as a former member of an Army ESP program led by Jeff Bridges basically replaying 'The Dude'. Though Kevin Spacey was perhaps my favorite. The flashbacks to the origins of the unit were the most fun, but the present day story couldn't find it's tone or center and didn't do much to keep me interested.

Red Cliff - I caught this on HDNet Movies just before the US theatrical release and loved it. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and it's confusing at times, but this shows epic battles that make the ones in the Lord of the Rings look small. You see real strategies thought up and attempted and it was great fun. There's also a bit of a romance and two female characters who really are necessary to the story (which is all too rare in war films). If you liked Crouching Tiger or Hero, this is a bit different (directed by John Woo) but just as great and beautiful to watch. One of the my favorites of the year.

The Messenger - tells the story of two men with one of the most difficult jobs. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is assigned to work with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and inform next of kin that their loved ones have been killed. Montgomery was recently wounded in combat and is still dealing with that and Stone is dealing with his own issues. They try to be the first to break the news so they operate on call. Everyone takes it differently and usually badly so Stone teaches Montgomery that it's best to do things by the book, though it doesn't usually help. This is a well done character study with strong performances and tells of a little known and difficult responsibility. I heard an interview and while all the scenes were scripted, Harrelson and Foster did not meet the actors or look at the sets before filming their notification scenes to add to the realism.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans - By all accounts this looked awful but it was directed by Warner Herzog and got very strong reviews. I saw it in a group of 8 and was the only one that didn't like it. It's Nick Cage doing all his over-the-top schtick as a corrupt cop in New Orleans trying to deal with his drug addiction, gambling debts, prostitute girl friend, sick but on-the-wagon father with an off-the-wagon girl friend while tracking down crime. I can understand how people could find this entertaining as the story does continually spiral further out of control just to be slightly reigned in, but in the end, I never cared at all about Cage's character so I didn't care what happened to him (well, I was rooting for him to die about two-thirds of the way through the film).

Amreeka - is a really good about a mother and son that immigrate from Palestine to Illinois. The first half hour or so show's their life in Palestine dealing with check points and the occupation. To escape that and so her son can get a better education, they move to Illinois and live with her sister's family. There they deal with anti-Iraqi prejudice (yeah they wonder about that too) and trying to fit in as well as just the difficultly of raising teenagers and finding work. It all works because of Nisreen Faour's strong performance and a good script.

Infernal Affairs - This is the original Hong Kong film that The Departed was based on and I'd seen it before. I think Scorsese added plot holes, made it an hour longer, stupidly combined all the women characters into just one, added way more choreographed violence and blood set to rock music, and weakened the ending. In sum he dumbed it down and glorified the violence. See the original, there's more to it, though it is a little harder to tell all the characters apart.

AFI Awards 2009

The American Film Institute has announced the AFI Awards 2009 (video with sound will play when you click the link). They list 10 notable movies and TV shows of the year. Here's the list:

The Hangover
The Hurt Locker
The Messenger
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
A Serious Man
A Single Man
Up in the Air

I haven't seen Sugar, but the others are all worth seeing.

The Big Bang Theory
Big Love
Friday Night Lights
Mad Men
Modern Family
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Nurse Jackie
Party Down
True Blood

I have seen Glee, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, or Party Down, but this list is clearly missing Breaking Bad and Dexter.

Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2009

I had missed this from, Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2009. These photos are amazing.

The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2009

Foreign Policy's list of The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2009.

What Krugman Said

Everyone should be reading Paul Krugman. Here are two recent pieces: Disaster and Denial and Samuelson, Friedman, and monetary policy

Drinking Water Quality

Environmental Working Group issued EWG's Drinking Water Quality Analysis and Tap Water Database

"Since 2004, testing by water utilities has found 316 pollutants in the tap water Americans drink, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) drinking water quality analysis of almost 20 million records obtained from state water officials.

More than half of the chemicals detected are not subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount. The federal government does have health guidelines for others, but 49 of these contaminants have been found in one place or another at levels above those guidelines, polluting the tap water for 53.6 million Americans. The government has not set a single new drinking water standard since 2001.

Water utilities spend 19 times more on water treatment chemicals every year than the federal
government invests in protecting lakes and rivers from pollution in the first place."

Boston came in 5th. :)

AT&T Takes the Fall for the iPhone’s Glitches

The New York Times writes AT&T Takes the Fall for the iPhone’s Glitches.

"Roger Entner, senior vice president for telecommunications research at Nielsen, said the iPhone’s ‘air interface,’ the electronics in the phone that connect it to the cell towers, had shortcomings that ‘affect both voice and data.’"

"The results place AT&T’s data network not just on top, but well ahead of everyone else. “AT&T’s data throughput is 40 to 50 percent higher than the competition, including Verizon,” Mr. Carter said"

"This year, Root Wireless ran 4.7 million tests on smartphones for each of the four major carriers, spread across seven metropolitan areas: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles/Orange County, New York, Seattle/Tacoma, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington. In every market, AT&T had faster average download speeds and had signal strength of 75 percent or better more frequently than did Verizon. "

I don't have much problems believing this. When the iPhone 3G came out, I didn't get signal in my house with one, in spite of the fact AT&T has 6 3G towers within 1.5 miles of me. A few months later when Apple updated the software to 2.1 I got some coverage at home (and I went out and bought an iPhone that afternoon).

Update: ars has a followup.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Voyeuristic Peek Outside Skywalker Ranch

I'll just repeat what Gizmodo said: "You should watch this video for two reasons. One, it's gorgeous, filmed on the Canon 5D/7D dSLRs at 1080p. Two, it gives you a peek outside George Lucas' famed workshop, like a more romantic, landscape-focused version of Cribs." What it in full-screen mode, it's beautiful.

Skywalker Ranch from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Chromoscope shows the Milky Way in various wavelengths. Very cool pics. Instructions:

Time's Top 10 Everything of 2009

Time Magazine lists The Top 10 Everything of 2009. There are a ton of lists (50 I think), most of which I don't care about. This page has them all as text.

In the TOP 10 MOVIE PERFORMANCES I've only seen six and agree they're all good.

In the TOP 10 MOVIES I've only seen 5 and I wouldn't put District 9 on the list though others would.

The TOP 10 TV SERIES is reasonable, though I haven't seen 8 or 9.

The Climate Deniers vs The Consensus

Information Is Beautiful produced this visual map of the arguments for and against human-caused global climate change.

"I deliberately chose not speak directly to any climate experts or leading scientists in the field. I used only publicly available web sources. Why? Because I wanted to simulate what it’s like for people trying to learn about climate change online.

My conclusion is “what a nightmare”. I was generally shocked and appalled by how difficult it was to source counter arguments. The data was often tucked away on extremely ancient or byzantine websites. The key counter arguments I often found, 16 scrolls down, on comment 342 on a far flung post from three years ago. And even when I found an answer, the answers were excessively jargonized or technical.

This has got to be one of the reasons why scientists and leaders are struggling to convince sections of the populace that the threat of climate change is real. Because they’re doing such a terrible job explaining it."

The Unbelievable World of Snowflakes

Treehugger has a slideshow: The Unbelievable World of Snowflakes.

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Jon Stewart Profiles Gretchen Carlson

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Friday, December 04, 2009

Andrew Sullivan: Leaving the Right The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is Leaving the Right. Of course I'm sure many of the right thought he had already left. What I want to hear from him is why he "cannot bring myself to call myself a liberal (because I'm not)". Just what about liberals doesn't he like? He lists a lot of positions that liberals like.

(I know it's possible to not like the current GOP and still not be a liberal, but I want to hear his actual reasons.)

Life on the ISS

Dwell wrote Life in Space: Email from the ISS. "For our December/January 2010 The Future issue, we asked science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to pen a piece describing The Future of Space Living. In addition to taking us on a step-by-step tour of what we’d experience—and what we’d need to pack—for a visit to the International Space Station (ISS), he also emailed NASA astronaut Nicole Stott from his home in Italy and received a reply back while she was floating in space aboard the ISS." It's probably the best such interview I've read.

Why Did Bank of America Pay Back the Money?

James Kwak explains Why Did Bank of America Pay Back the Money? though the answer is obvious, showing his math is interesting.

Sex, Secrets and Dollhouse

If you've been watching Dollhouse, here's a really good interview with Joss Whedon. Also, Dollhouse returns with 2 episodes tonight.

Law Enforcement Asked Sprint for GPS Location Data 8 Million Times in Last Year

The EFF writes Surveillance Shocker: Sprint Received 8 MILLION Law Enforcement Requests for GPS Location Data in the Past Year.

"Sprint received over 8 million requests for its customers' information in the past 13 months. That doesn't count requests for basic identification and billing information, or wiretapping requests, or requests to monitor who is calling who, or even requests for less-precise location data based on which cell phone towers a cell phone was in contact with. That's just GPS. And, that's not including legal requests from civil litigants, or from foreign intelligence investigators. That's just law enforcement. And, that's not counting the few other major cell phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. That's just Sprint."

There's detail in the article, but this is just wrong. Obama fix this.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Man 'finishes' World of Warcraft

Man 'finishes' World of Warcraft. "'Little Gray', as his character's known, is the first to successfully complete all of the MMO's 986 achievements listed in the armory, reports MMO Champion. To reach the milestone the Taiwanese power-player killed 390,895 creatures, accumulated 7,255,538,878 points of damage, completed 5,906 quests (that's 14.62 quests per day, apparently), raided 405 dungeons and hugged 11 players."

Religion and Monsters



So here's a really interesting article on narrative in comics. It's setup in this previous column but it's not necessary to read. But do be sure to click on the examples and read them.

Narrative isn't the story or the plot but how the reader relates to it. He compares it to the user interface of a computer program (as opposed to the function). I kept thinking of Where the Wild Things Are? while reading this.

Through-the-wall vision

A few weeks ago The Economist wrote Through-the-wall vision. I'm not sure if non-subscribers can follow the link but this is the gist:

"Radar works by recording radio waves that have been reflected from the object under observation. Dr Patwari’s and Mr Wilson’s insight was to look not for reflections but for shadows. Their device broadcasts a radio signal through a building and, when that signal comes out the other side, monitors variations in its strength. The need for variation means the system cannot see things that are stationary. When the signal is temporarily blocked by a moving object such as a person, however, it shows up loud and clear.

Using a network of small transmitters and receivers, the researchers have found it is possible to plot a person’s position quite accurately and display it on the screen of a laptop. They call the process radio tomographic imaging, because constructing an image by measuring the strengths of radio signals along several pathways is similar to the computerised tomographic body-scanning used by hospitals—though medical machines employ X-rays, not radio waves, to do the scanning."

Google Public DNS

Google had started their own Public DNS service, Google Public DNS.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

US Secret Plane Uncovered

Ares, a Defense Technology blog writes Gotcha! Desert Prowler Unveiled. "A photograph of the Beast of Kandahar, the classified stealth UAV first reported in April, has emerged on a blog linked to left-wing French newspaper Liberation."


"The photo confirms that the previous artists' impressions were largely accurate. The jet has long, slender outer wings, spanning as much as 80 feet, mated to a stouter, deeper centerbody with a pointed nose. One important detail:  the overwing fairings are not B-2-like inlets, but cover some kind of equipment - satcoms on one side, perhaps, and a sensor on the other."

(via Gizmodo)

Update: USAF Confirms New Secret Stealth Plane

30 Secrets Your Waiter Will Never Tell You

30 Secrets Your Waiter Will Never Tell You was kinda interesting.

New Microscope Reveals the Shape of Atoms

Scientific American writes New Microscope Reveals the Shape of Atoms

"Chemistry textbooks typically include illustrations of atoms, but with caveats. The drawings depict atomic nuclei surrounded by electron orbitals—fuzzy spheres, barbells, tripods, and so on—but those figures represent the probability of finding an electron at a certain place around the nucleus rather than an actual “shape.” Researchers have now managed to image the electron orbitals and show for the first time that, in a sense, atoms really look like those textbook images."

"The researchers fashioned a chain of carbon atoms, dangled it from a graphite tip, and then placed it in front of a detection screen. When they applied an electric field of thousands of volts between the graphite and the screen, electrons flowed one by one through the graphite and along the carbon chain, until the electric field pulled them off the last atom in the chain. From the places where the electrons landed on the screen, the investigators could trace back the points where they left their orbital on the last atom. The ‘denser’ parts of the probability clouds had a higher chance of emitting an electron, and the information from many electrons combined into an image of the clouds. ‘We really have an image of single atoms,’ Mikhailovskij says."