Wednesday, February 29, 2012

TSA: How Large?

I'll admit it: the uselessly bizarre way in which the TSA uses its power scares me. Boing Boing points to an aptly-named article called "TSA: Fail" that points out some of the agency's more egregious flaws. Money quote:
"...the virtual strip search screening machines are a failure in that they cannot detect the type of explosives used by the “underwear bomber” or even a pistol used as a TSA’s own real-world test of the machines. Yet TSA has spent approximately $60 billion since 2002 and now has over 65,000 employees, more than the Department of State, more than the Department of Energy, more than the Department of Labor, more than the Department of Education, more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development---combined. TSA has become, according to the report, “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy more concerned with……consolidating power."
I had no idea it was that large. God help us.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dreaming of the Heilosphere

Click here for a fascinating artist's rendering of what the edge of the solar system might look like, as envisioned by plasma physicist Merav Opher. John Rennie describes it as:
A tenuous, invisible wind of ionized gas billows off the sun at a million miles per hour, carrying with it the sun’s magnetic field. It does not radiate out infinitely: far beyond Pluto’s orbit, this solar wind abruptly slams into the thin interstellar medium and the scattered gaseous remnants of exploded stars. That border defines what astronomers call the heliosphere.
...Opher is interpeting data that suggests that part of the heliosphere’s edge may be a churning magnetic froth, which could have broad implications for astrophysics.

Casing our Critical Deciduous Infrastructure

James Fallows makes an astute point in relating the tale of someone who ran afowl of homeland secuirty while taking pictures of a tree (a tree!):
...the challenge in dealing with any threat, from international terrorism to domestic crime to infectious diseases to mayhem of any sort, is to maintain a balance between the steps you take in the name of security, and the steps you deliberately don't take, in the name of preserving liberty and some kind of normal unmonitored life. Over the past ten years, "security" measures have too often worked like a ratchet, being added in the name of thwarting some new threat ("no liquids or gels") and very rarely being removed. As a matter of practical politics, this is easy to understand. A politician runs practically zero risk in urging new "protective" measures, but faces tremendous risk in urging that we lighten up (since the politician will be blamed for whatever accident / crime / attack later occurs).
Thus it's worth continuing pressure against further movement of the ratchet. American society is becoming steadily more policed, monitored, and suspicious, which will continue unless we resist.
He also points us to Later On, who points out the "strange juxtopsition" of going to absurd lengths to protect airplanes while actively rejecting any notion of gun control:
Timorous about flying, but willing to be shot to death in malls and schools. Strangely fearful on the one hand, fatalistically accepting frequent stupid deaths on the other. Going to any lengths—regardless of privacy, humiliation, intrusive searches—when around airplanes, but rejecting any hint of control of firearms.

Friday, February 24, 2012

In a World... Made Entirely of Steam...

I want to know more about the newly discovered steam world, where:
"...its surface temperature is... an average 446 degrees Fahrenheit, according to estimates from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center.
That means that the water on the surface of GJ 1214b is doing weird things besides turning into steam.
“The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’, substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience,” Berta [a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics] explained."
When's the movie?

Spooky Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga (and her hut on the chicken legs) has always disturbed me, as does most of the bizarre Russian mythological creatures. Aeron at Monster Brains has a picture of her here.

Losing My Mind (remix)

Now Playing: The St. Etienne remix of Summer Camp's "Losing My Mind."

At What Cost CCTV?

Boing Boing points out a big governmental program at its best:
"The Price of Privacy: How local authorities spent £515m on CCTV in four years" is a new report from Britain's Big Brother Watch, and it documents how the skyrocketing expansion of Britain's police and local government surveillance has resulted in over 4,000 fewer patrolling police officers, less privacy, and no appreciable reduction in crime.
The report goes on to detail many of the inefficiencies of the program, including that in many cases "...cameras [are] regularly not working or turned off, footage being deleted before it can be used and pictures of insufficient quality for court purposes." and also points out that "...the United Kingdom [is] the most watched nation of people anywhere in the world"

Sounds like a great program. But hey - at least the terrorists haven't won.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do I Not Bleed?

One of the things that made the X-men comix great was the idea of these amazing heroes succeeding despite all of the odds against them (after all, in the great Marvel tradition, all of them were quite flawed), but also of being despised by society. In fact, in the classic Chris Claremont run (which I consider to be the definitive X-men - I know that i'm not telling you something you don't already know), the X-men were actively prosecuted for their being mutants, and thus not human. We're just like you, the X-men always argued, we just happen to have special powers (and kick-ass uniforms). It was powerful and moving and served as a great analogy for being a teenager - for after all, what teenager doesn't feel that they're uniquely different than everyone else, but still long to be accepted by their peers?

All of which makes Marvel's recent arguments in court all the more ironic. As usual, we follow the money, which pointed the folks at Radiolab to obscure tarrif regulations that state:
"Dolls," which represent human beings, are taxed at almost twice the rate of "toys," which represent something not human - such as robots, monsters, or demons.
So now Marvel is arguing that the X-men are really monsters, and not humans after all, all so they can save some money on their tax bill. Poor, poor X-men, rejected by their makers.

Boing Boing gives us the sad, rational denouement:
The solomonic court divided the mutants into varying degrees of humanness. In the human camp were the Invisible Woman, Punisher, Daredevil, U.S. Agent, Peter Parker, and Jumpsie were humans. The remainder (including the Fantastic Four) were mutants.
And no, I don't know who "U.S. Agent" or "Jumpsie" are either. Nor why the Invisible Woman is human while the rest of the Fantastic Four are mutants. Law is very strange in that way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You've Just Had a Dose of Electroshock Therapy

The Last Word on Nothing asks the question:
Have you ever wanted to take a vacation from your own head?
You could do it easily enough with liberal applications of alcohol, weed or hallucinogens, but that’s not the kind of vacation I’m talking about. What if you could take a very specific vacation only from the stuff that makes it painful to be you: the sneering inner monologue that insists you’re not capable enough or smart enough or pretty enough or whatever hideous narrative rides you. Now that would be a vacation. You’d still be you, but you’d be able to navigate the world without the emotional baggage that now drags on your every decision. Can you imagine what that would feel like?
The answer, of course, invovles coursing electricity through your brain. A great read.

What is Cold?

"Cold is an element unto itself, with a whole physics of its own, and even a metaphysics, if he remembered what Boehme had written--that the Deity, at its innermost kernel, is dark and cold, 'like winter, when there is a fierce, bitter cold frost, when water is frozen into ice,' and that is what holds the Creation together. Deity or not, the universe was certainly at heart a cold and dark affair, and [80d latitude] here was the best place to never forget it.
Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorama, p. 247

I was going to save this quote for the depth of winter, but since it appears that winter isn't coming this year, thought I should share it now before it slipped my mind.

How Much Coffee Should I Drink?

I'm picking up this app today: How to Optimize your Caffeine Intake

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

America: More Conservative Than Ever

Barry Ritholtz points us to a Gallup report that details exactly how America is steadily becoming more conservative. I'm a bit surprised to hear this, even after all of the damage the Conservative brand has undergone lately, although i'm not all that shocked by the data points mentioned in the study, with the exception of this one: "There is no correlation to race or ethnicity, however, whether measured as percent white, percent black, or percent Hispanic."

Review: The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts

On a whim, I started downloading the free New Yorker Fiction Podcasts available from the iTunes store. I was skeptical at first because my impressions of New Yorker fiction have always been somewhat negative; my impression was that they were always too impressed with themselves or too urban (read: about NYC) to consistently appeal to someone living outside of the big apple. And there are certainly some stories like this here: James McCourt’s depiction of a cinematic femme fatale in “Avenged” was to my eye overwritten and boring. But I have to eat some crow here: I was completely mistaken. Most of the stories are not only really entertaining, but cover a wide range of fiction: you can hear stories from such notables as Jamaica Kincaid, Denis Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Monroe, James Salter, Roberto Bolaño, and Donald Bartheleme. I’ve also been introduced to some writers that I had never heard of before: two of Stephanie Vaughn’s excellent tales about a military family stationed in Fort Niagara and - my favorite one so far - Stewart Dybek's hypnotic Russian-doll of a story called "Paper Lantern."

The podcasts are hosted by the fiction editor of the New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, who sets the scene by introducing and interviewing  the narrator for a few minutes before (s)he reads any story of their choosing from The New Yorker archives. After the presentation then the two of them discuss and analyze the story. For non-professional narrators, the stories are almost always engaging, and their insights into the stories both thoughtful and enlightening. My favorite reader so far is either Salman Rushdie’s pitch-perfect take on Donald Barthelme’s “Consider the Bodyguard,” a difficult tale composed entirely of questions, or Orhan Pamuk’s rich Slavic baritone narration of Vladimir Nabokov’s “My Russian Education.” Some of the parings don't seem to match at first, like Allegra Goodman's bubbly voice reading the very-male narration of John Updike's "A&P" or Anne Enright's thick Irish brogue presenting  John Cheever's very American "The Swimmer," but in both cases the narrator won me over in the end. I'm not sure why this is - it might be that since the narrators are all authors themselves, their love of the words carries over into the recording. All I know is that I've been really enjoying them and plan on checking out the entire series. Next up: David Means reading Raymond Carver's "Chef's House."

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where's Winter?

I'm starting to resign myself to the fact that there won't really be a 2011-12 winter. Check out these stats from Boston's whdh:
December 5.3 degrees above normal
January 5.2 degrees above normal
February 4.8 degrees above normal
Andrew Sullivan reminds us why the warm weather isn't a good thing: other than the lack of snow, the plants become confused and start growing early, making them extremely vulnerable to cold snaps of even a half hour:
As Dr. Carroll explains, "A spring freeze event is very bad because plants have begun to grow, or their buds have started to swell and are less cold hardy." The line between "rough" and "disaster" on those days is razor thin. In apples, the difference between a frost that causes a 10 percent bud loss and one that loses 90 percent can be under 10 degrees’ difference, held for just a half-hour.

African SciFi

Boing Boing pointed me to the writing of Jonathan Dotse, an African who grew up during the heady days of cyberpunk:
This early exposure to high technology sent me scavenging through piles of discarded mechanical parts in our backyard; searching for the most intriguing sculptures of steel from which I would dream up schematics for contraptions that would change the world as we knew it. With the television set for inspiration and the junkyard for experimentation, I spent my early childhood immersed in a discordant reality where dreams caked with rust and choked with weeds came alive in a not-so-distant future; my young mind well aware of the process of transformation occurring in the world around me; a world I was only just beginning to understand.
The whole thing is worth reading, as he argues that the future of scifi lies not in outer space but in the neglected corners of our planet. Interesting stuff!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bizarre Animals

Nature is endlessly fascinating. Just when you think you've seen it all, you read about some completely bizarre corner of the natural kingdom that blows your mind. Take these two examples:

1. Tiny Madagascar chameleons. Seriously small - about the size of a match head. You've got to click through for the pictures.

2. The Screaming Budgett's Frog. From Andrew Isles:
"In overall appearance it resembles the turd that a herbivorous mammal has left on the side of a muddy pool - good protection perhaps from frog-eating predators. The species gets its name from its threat display. If its turd-like disguise fails it, it rises up on its toes, inflates its body and screams loudly, mouth agape, like a woman in distress. Budgett's frogs have some other unpleasant habits too. They bite whenever they can and are generally unclean creatures, which leaves them susceptible to infections and sores when held in captivity. They are also cannibals."
Got any other good examples for me?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Put Your Cash Away!

In his introduction to Jim Dodge's Stone Junction, Thomas Pynchon wrote:
Equally difficult for those who might wish to proceed through life anonymously and without trace has been the continuing assault against the once-reliable refuge of the cash or non-plastic economy. There was a time not so long ago you could stroll down any major American avenue, collecting anonymous bank checks, get on some post office line, and send amounts in the range "hefty to whopping" anywhere, even overseas, no problem. Now it's down to $750 a pop, and shrinking. All to catch those Drug Dealers of course, nothing to do with the grim, simplex desire for more information, more control, lying at the heart of most exertions of power, whether  governmental or corporate (if that's a distinction you believe in).
This thought, written in 1997, proved prophetic. Take, for example, a recent edict by SLATT. I wasn't aware of this either, but the FBI runs a "Communities Against Terror" program that is "part of a program run by the Dept. of Justice called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program (SLATT)." SLATT warns citizens to be vigilent for behaviors that might mark terrorists, and ruins its credibility by interdispersing among its useful advice the most commonplace of activities, like:
Using Google Maps to find your way around a strange city, to view photos of sports stadium or the cities themselves or installing software on your PC designed to protect your privacy online are all solid indications not that you're a terrorist, rather than a web-savvy traveler.
The latest revelation from the FBI files? Paying in cash for coffee.
Using cash for small purchases like a cup of coffee, gum and other items is a good indication that a person is trying to pass for normal without leaving the kind of paper trail created using a debit or credit card for small purchases. The most recent update asks coffee shop owners, baristas and other customer-service specialists to be on the lookout for the enemy who walks among us.
In my more generous moments, I think that absurd information like this is a result of well-meaning governmental employees who, quite simply, need to do something with all of the time and money they have on their hands, and so spend their days over thinking things. In my more cynical moments, I wonder - like Pynchon - if advice like this is designed to drive people away from cash so more information is gathered and/or credit card companies can collect more from businesses in absurdly overpriced "processing" fees. But the reality is more along the lines that once a populace is controlled by fear, they start searching for evidence to justify that fear. Put more colloquially, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. It's sad that we've come to this, since the reality is that at the end of the day, no person should be suspected for anything by the simple act of using cash.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

First Lines of Palimpsest

"On the corner of 16th street and Hieratic a factory sings and sighs. Look: its thin spires flash green, and spit long loops of white flame into the night. Casimira owns this place, as did her father and her grandmother and probably her most distant progenitor. It is pleasant to imagine them, curling and uncurling their proboscis-fingers against machines of stick and bone."
- Catherynne Valente, from Palimpsest.

Only 21 pages into this magical novel and am already entranced. Fascinating words and images just flow from her pen. Hope she keeps it up for the whole book!

So Much Trouble in the World

Two disturbing things I read on Boing Boing this morning:
  1. The story of Dr. Jen Gunter who receives a patient who has undergone an unsafe abortion, and is bleeding to death. As the Boing Boing folks put it: "Required reading in this year of presidential elections in America, in which so many candidates would have us return to the dark era in which abortion was illegal. Outlawing abortion doesn't end abortion, it just makes scenes like this more common."
  2. What China is doing in Tibet is just wrong. "The Guardian's Asia correspondent Jonathan Watts sneaks into Aba, a remote town on the Tibetan plateau, and captures this video report of how Chinese authorities are trying to stamp out dissent among ethnic Tibetans through military security, propaganda and forced 're-education.'"

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The World of Ideas

Other than the mystifying 1969 version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I've been missing my Alan Moore fix. Did find an interesting interview with him in which, in response to the question "Is there a conflict between what can and can't be proven by science", he offers this tidbit:
I would prefer a two-state solution. My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of 'two lives'. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we've developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real - they're just real in different ways. The concept of a world of ideas, yes it's intangible, it can't be repeated in a laboratory, but pretty much the evidence for it is all around us. In that, every detail of our clothing, our mindsets, of the buildings and the streets and cities that surround us - that started life as an idea in someone's head.
His idea, borrowed from the kabbalah and the Tarot, of the Immeteria - a common world of the imagination - has been a lot of fun to ponder since I encountered it in his excellent series Promethia. I'd highly recommend that series, particularly up until Sophie travels through the godhead of existence. Yea, it's pretty deep stuff.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Who Changed My eBook?

I’m finding it hard to get too worked up about Jonathan Franzen’s comments about eBooks being a threat to our society. I’m not sure that anyone really took them too seriously. (As Eric mentioned, the best reaction to this is from the comments of that article: "While I actually agree with him, not through any coherently constructed argument but on simple instinct and principle, he is such an insufferable bore that I am inclined to go out and purchase a Kindle out of sheer spite." Note that IMO his New Yorker fiction podcast solidified my opinion of him as just that.)

However, I believe he did make some good points around the archival of digital versions of content that got lost in the shuffle. Luckily, Alyssa Rosenberg writing in Think Progress takes up some of the arguments here, and while she makes some good points, I’d like to rebut with a few of my own:

  • She mentions some of the more egregious content changes in recent memory (Han shot first: still infuriating) but the flip side of this argument is that sometimes content changes are made for the better. To choose a few examples just off the top of my head – can anyone honestly argue that the Director’s Cut of Bladerunner is honestly better than the commercial version with that godawful voice over? Or that one version of the numerous versions of Walt Whitman’s Blades of Grass is better than another? (And don’t tell me that you’re read and compared the different versions because you’d be a liar.) Content change is neither implicitly good nor bad.
  • I think she’s being naive when she twrites that “people’s vigilance will keep content providers honest.” She writes this when the technology is new and people are fascinated with it. When the technology gets old and commonplace and people take advantage of it – as they invariably will – this vigilance will either end or be the province of a small group of people who can’t possibly keep track of everything.
What do you think?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stat of the Day

A startling statistic: "[D]espite the fact that only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, 80 percent of the world’s prescription narcotics are consumed here."

Underwater Seals

Amazing seal calls from underneath the Antartica ice.As taken from the excellent Herzog Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

 See also: The Quote of the Day for 9/1/10

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: The Night Circus

I picked up Erin Morgenstern's debut novel on the strength of a mesmerizing excerpt  that started out: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” Dramatic, is it not? The first part of the book continues in this vein, telling the story of how the le Cirque des Rêves comes to be and detailing how it’s connected to a contest between a pair of mysterious star-crossed magicians. It’s easily the most entertaining part of the novel.

But like a dull superhero with a fascinating origin story, the novel rapidly loses steam after the circus opens. A love story emerges, but despite Morgenstern's best efforts, it lacks passion. You read many, many descriptions of the Night Circus' fantastical attractions, including an ice castle, an elaborate labyrinth, a room filled with scents that transport you to different places in time, impossibly intricate clocks, and so on. Taken in isolation, some of them do indeed transport you into another place; taken together, they all meld together so that no one scene really distinguishes itself. The result is a perfect circus, effortlessly pulled together, with no failures or picture of the sweat and blood that must have occurred behind the scenes. The circus is like a diamond without flaws, and you walk around it, vaguely stunned by its shiny perfection, but kind of bored because of the lack of drama in it all. It's capped off by a rather predictable ending.

This came off more negatively than I meant, but all in all, while The Night Circus was a diverting read, it never lived up to the promise of the beginning. Here's hoping Morgenstern can keep her momentum next time!

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox.

The Man behind the Magic

Bill Wyman's take down of Spielberg was interesting reading. I can't claim to have watched all of his movies, but I will say that despite all of his faults - and they are many! - you can't take away the magic that he creates when he's on. The entirety of Raiders of the Lost Ark; hell, any of the Indiana Jones movies. The T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park. The invasion of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. I'm sure there's more i'm forgetting. 

The problem to me is that his later movies have become more spectacle than anything else. Before the specticle was grounded in some good character writing that I personally don't see in many of his latter movies. Think of what he did to Minority Report - he allows Tom Cruise to operate that absurd wall-computer in a skin-tight biceps-revealing shirt, and lets him run around for the entire movie, but doesn't give him any of the quiet or humorous moments that let us love Indiana Jones. As Wyman points out, not only was most of the War of the Worlds sound and fury that didn't hold up to close examination, but the subplot of the parent who can't connect to his kids has become so hackneyed for him and thus doesn't add any depth. In short, he seems to have lost something along the way, and perhaps Wyman's onto something. Until then, i'll watch Raiders for the thousandth time - and love it just as much as the first time.