Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Years Eve Tab Dump!

So I can start the year with a clean browser. So here goes, in no particular order:

Tim Kreider argues that Kim Stanley Robinson is our best political novelist:
Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:
  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.
Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.
Cayte Bosler, in an examination of the benefits of awe, quotes Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota explaining the concept:
"The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world," explains Vohs. "People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned."
What’s really fascinating is that with this shift in understanding comes a profound shift in how we as a society are deciding to respond. There will be no shrugging of the shoulders and tossing around the word “hard-wired” to rationalize women disappointing male expectations of passionate monogamous sex. Instead, as Daniel Bergner writes [in the New York Times], a ton of money is being spent on developing a drug women can take to restore their desire for their husbands. The drug, called Lybrido, is in clinical trials now with the hope of writing an FDA application by the end of the year.…
When people believed that boredom with monogamy was a male trait for women to endure, interest in fixing it was pretty low. Now that we understand boredom with monogamy to be a female trait for men to endure, it’s suddenly a Problem—with possible solutions. Though frustrating, this is ultimately probably a good thing. Since most of us want to be monogamous, it’s about time we took seriously the need to keep it interesting.
The video for Boards of Canada's "Reach for the Dead" off of their amazing (seriously, go buy it right now) Tomorrow's Harvest.

Jack Gilbert's great response to the question "What, other than yourself, is the subject of your poems?"
Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.
David Atkins, writing at Hullabaloo, analyzes some of the current libertarian thinking out there about technological advances are leading us and comes to a different conclusion. 
The history of middle class societies that lose their footing in an age of mass inequality and labor destabilization suggests that a more progressive social contract will emerge under the threat of revolution. The other, only slightly less likely possibility is a fascist regime that attempts to lay all the blame on "The Other". A slow, comfortable descent into class-based Social Darwinism seems less likely than either option, though it's certainly possible.
But these are indeed the questions we will be compelled to answer. The fact that we will have to confront this decision one way or another makes it hard to take seriously the massive fights over, say, Obamacare. In 15 years a natural unemployment rate of 15% accompanied by unimaginable devastation due to climate change will necessitate the sorts of programs, solutions and political turmoil that will render most of today's arguments utterly obsolete.
The future will belong to those who prepare public policy for that eventuality, and who work to put politicians in power who are ready to enact that policy when the time comes, and when the demographics of the nation have altered enough to make it possible.
Whatever happens, the libertarian fairy dreams of men like Tyler Cowen must not be allowed to become realities.
Brain Pickings has an excellent "best of the year" post. From that, I found this amazing analysis of how we experience time, mainly based on Claudia Hammond's book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. You really have to read the whole thing, but here's part of the conclusion:
We will never have total control over this extraordinary dimension. Time will warp and confuse and baffle and entertain however much we learn about its capacities. But the more we learn, the more we can shape it to our will and destiny. We can slow it down or speed it up. We can hold on to the past more securely and predict the future more accurately. Mental time-travel is one of the greatest gifts of the mind. It makes us human, and it makes us special.
The Indian supreme court is debating if it should allow compulsory yoga in its secular schools. This could be problematic because, as Mark Movsesian explains:
In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn't try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.
Personally, while there's an element of spiritualism in most yoga practice that I find interesting, i'm a dilettante in this respect. I certainly don't find the poses in and of themselves to have a higher meaning - to me, it's more the breath and combining that with the poses (i.e., finding a meaningful rhythm of breath and movement) than anything. Plus, as my relative Adam pointed out, there are so many different types of yoga out there it's impossible to lay judgement on the whole field of movements.

In an interesting Tor series exploring the sources that led Gary Gygax to create Dungons and Dragons, an article on HP Lovecraft contained a good summation of the author's appeal:
Lovecraft seems less like a storyteller and more like a historian or an archeologist of the cosmically terrible. He’s in touch with forces beyond our reckoning and he’s conveying that truth to us. That’s the game he’s playing as a writer, but he’s damn good at it.
Words can't express the experience of watching this. Ah, celebrity singers:

Thanks for reading! See you next year.

Book Review: Issac Asimov's "Foundation"

Foundation, the first novel in Issac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, speculates how to use a scientific sociology (here called “psychohistory”) to predict (and control) future events. As with most of Asimov’s writing, the prose is frequently leaden, but this is secondary to the ideas and plot. Indeed, the whole fun of this book is seeing how Hari Seldon’s plans to reduce a coming “galactic dark age” from 30 millenniums down to one plays out on an epic scale. And it is fun seeing Seldon's original hints and insinuations come to fruition, even if I didn't find it as engaging during my second reading. Still, I've read a fair amount of epic “space operas” since Foundation and very few of them stack up to the original. Recommended.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book"

A fun, fairy-tale like YA novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is filled with magic, both literally and figuratively: many scenes are constructed such that you truly experience as sense of wonder. Magical books are a cliché, yes, but reading TGB reminded me of the books I loved as a kid, and how the world seemed new and filled with opportunity afterwards. What is magic if not that?

Not surprisingly given its title, the book starts with a murder. A boy’s parents are killed, and the only thing that saves the boy is being adopted by the ghosts and specters of the local graveyard. They raise him as one of their own, and his ongoing education is a fun take on the myths and history of these supernatural creatures.  (It's apparently loosely based on Kipling's The Jungle Book.) In particular, Silas, a vampire that takes the boy – now named Nobody Owens – under his care, is wonderfully depicted in how his fatherly nature and vampiric nature conflict and complement each other. My only criticism is that the story can occasionally feel a bit too pat, but that's probably the result of the genre more than anything, and certainly a minuscule price to pay for this little gem of a book.

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam"

Ever since I stumbled across an old paperback of Cat’s Eye, I've loved reading Margaret Atwood. Everything that I've read has been well constructed, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining. So I'm a bit surprised to have to report that MaddAddam - the final entry in her Oryx and Crake dystopia - is not the slam dunk I expected it to be.

Don't get me wrong: Parts have the propulsive narrative and interesting ideas that made the previous two books in this trilogy – Oryx and Crake (the best!) and The Year of the Flood - so compelling. But I’d be lying if I didn't say that I thought the characterization of the female characters – especially Toby, such a strong woman in TYotF – to be weak and inconsistent compared to their previous lives. Hell, Toby spends a good part of this book pining for or wallowing in jealousy for a man! In addition, parts of this book are - sadly - boring. This may be to the fact that she's revisiting scenes we've seen before in previous books, but also it's due to her framing devices, in which events are depicted at a distance. This is especially problematic with the climax of the novel, which is told as an afterthought and thus so removed from real-time action that it feels like a dream, and makes its repercussions (which were also blatantly foreshadowed beforehand) seem unreal.

This doesn't mean that the book isn't worth your time! On the contrary, any time spent in Atwood’s O&C world is worth it. It's a place where humanity has come to a horrible end through the efforts of the titular biologists who both design an ideal human being (the “Crakers”) and also unleash the apocalyptic virus via a designer vitality drug. There are so many fascinating and scarily prescient ideas here that exploring them is half the fun. MaddAddam in particular really gets rolling when she starts exploring Zeb’s story, the fascinating tale of this preacher's son who ends up intertwined in the lives of all of the main characters in what lead to the end of humanity.

Overall, though, what I found most interesting about MaddAddam was it's strange combination of hope and rebirth to what had been a relentlessly grim series. (The previous books read like The Road as written by Kurt Vonnegut.) The main arc of this third book is humanity’s efforts to rebuild and reestablish itself, perhaps most importantly with how to define its relationship with the Crakers and the other GMO beings (especially the pigoons: a pig with implanted human stem cells who escaped from their organ-harvesting fate and how are one of the most intelligent post-apocalyptic species).  And while I read the end of the book to be a delightfully snarky and ambivalent take on where all this might end up, overall MaddAddam is an interesting (if uneven) take on what happens the day after the world ends.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Only an Hour

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much - how little - is within our power

Emily Dickenson

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Extraordinary Claims

"What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

- Carl Sagan

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Pale Blue Dot

I never get tired of this one.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What is Music?

Music is noise submitted to order by wisdom.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Best Thoughts

The best thoughts are the most delicate,
Fastest, trickiest to capture. 
Lepidoptera so different on the wing, 
Than when caught, killed,
And proudly displayed.

-Randy Road

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The New "Cosmos"

This looks cool: Neil deGrasse Tyson's update of Carl Segan's famous Cosmos TV show. My impression is that since the show is going to be on Fox - and produced by the Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane - it will be a show more for the masses than perhaps it was before (being originally shown on PBS). deGrasse Tyson isn't always my cup of tea - he can be a bit abrasive and clown-like (at least in his StarTalk Radio show) - but he knows his science cold, and has an amazing voice one could listen to all day.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Hunter

The hunter crouches in his blind
'neith camouflage of every kind,
And conjures up a quacking noise
To lend allure to his decoys.
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck
Is hoping to outwit a duck.

- "The Hunter", by Ogden Nash

Friday, November 1, 2013

First Lines of "The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years"

"The hungry vixen had to be patient as she searched for prey among the dried-out gullies and the bare ravines. Following along the intertwining, giddily wandering tracks of the small burrowing animals - now furiously digging out a marmot's lair, now waiting until a small jeroba which had been hiding in an underground storm channel jumped out into the open where he could be quickly dispatched - she moved quietly as a mouse, slowly and purposefully working her way towards the distant railway."

- Chingiz Aitmatov, from The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.

I"m 67 pages into this one and really liking it so far. It came to my attention in an article describing Aimatov as the Kyrgyz García Márquez. So far it's playing out as an interesting juxtaposition between standard Russian "village prose" and speculative hard science fiction. Fascinating stuff, with engaging prose despite being translated from Russian.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988)"

What an interesting book. Vonnegut's 1987 novel is about many things, but it's essentially the diary of Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed failed Abstract Expressionist painter and how he learns to accept his weaknesses and creativity towards the end of his life. The story skips back and forth between the present narration and the past – his growing up with his Armenian immigrant parents, struggling through an art apprenticeship, his rise and fall in the serious art world. Vonnegut, as always, entertains while pulling off something deep – his glib prose belies the depth behind the thoughts and experience it details. What I found most interesting about the book was the conflict between its generally cynical tone and, in the end, its generally positive message. In this respect, it’s an old persons novel. I'm not really sure how to express it, so let me include some examples. The cynicism:
“A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily communication with nothing but world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name or him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”
And the humanity:
"I think--it is somehow very useful, and maybe even essential, for a fine artist to have to somehow make his peace on the canvas with all the things he cannot do. That is what attracts us to serious paintings, I think: that shortfall, which we might call "personality," or maybe even "pain." "
(More quotes here.) 
Other than Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s other books haven’t always spoken to me. But this little gem of a novel blew me away.

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

See also: First Lines of Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Race Report: TARC Fall Classic

thx to GoMotion and Topham Photography
It’s funny how things evolve. A few years ago, not only was I not running on a regular basis, but the idea of running on trails was something I had relegated to the closet with my high school XC mementos. Fast forward a few years and now I’m addicted to running as much as I can – and running in my first trail race since my senior year of high school. The event? The TARC Fall Classic – a loop through Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle MA on an absolutely fantastic fall day – a clear, chilly morning fading into unseasonably warm temps by late morning. I did the half-marathon (two loops) but runners could also do a 10K, marathon or a 50K. Most of the course was relatively smooth trails with some rolling, rooty hills, alternating with a few miles of fields and a highly technical 1.5 mile stretch towards the end (the Woodchuck Trail).

I had run the course a week before with Eric and Adam, so I knew what to expect. However, the race was structured so that the ultrarunners would go directly onto the trails while the half and full marathoners needed to do an extra field loop or two before hitting the trails. This meant that for good positioning, I needed to haul ass in order to get ahead of as many ultras as I could before hitting the single-track. As evidenced by my pace the first two miles, I did my best, but an unfortunately-timed loose shoelace meant that I lost valuable time and was stuck behind a fair number of runners by the time I started up Indian Hill.

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for passing runners on trails. In my high school days, I would have just bushwacked into the woods to pass someone, but now I don’t want to thrash up the wilderness and am much more aware of the risk of turning an ankle. So when I found myself behind someone on the single-tracks, I typically hung behind them, only passing when a suitable place presented itself. I’m sure I annoyed some foax but it I felt like I essentially stayed on pace.

A clear majority of the race was comfortable, striding up the hills and hammering the downhills. However, the extremely challenging Woodchuck Trail and its immediate aftermath was windy, extremely rocky, and with a lot of quick ups and downs. I traversed it the best I could, trying to keep my feet up, but you can see by the slow pace times how different it was from the rest of the course (miles 6 and 12).

At the end of the day, I scored a 5th place finish with a time of 1:42:25. I didn't really know what to expect, given that I felt my training was just adequate—I wasn't doing a lot of speed work and certainly not as much technical trail work as (in hindsight) the course demanded--so I was pleasantly surprised by my performance. (Full results here.)

I’d be remiss if I didn't mention the DIY food tables – easily the best I've ever seen at a race. Kudos to the TARC folks for throwing a great event – a challenging race with an atmosphere a perfect blend of friendly competition and campfire party. Perfect weather, good friends, solid run: you can’t ask for more than that!

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

I finally picked up Richard Matheson’s famous 1954 novel I Am Legend because I kept hearing how all three movie adaptations (The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007)) were good but not only missed the point of the book but fucked up the ending. Thousands of geeks can’t be wrong, so I set off to investigate.

What I found is a book that reads like a fast-paced thriller, but in which not much really happens. Robert Neville is the last survivor in a world filled with vampires. His house is a fortress in which he (impatiently) waits out his nights before staking as many vampires as possible during daylight. While this situation doesn't feel new (especially the detailed biological research on the cause of vampirism) that’s only because of how many books and movies have built upon Matheson’s creation. In other words, this is the original post-apocalyptic zombie text (the vampires might as well be zombies—to the point where Night of the Living Dead was inspired by it). Despite a (now) over familiar subject, IAL holds up well. It’s an emotionally honest work that depicts Neville’s struggles with apathy, anger, alcoholism and many other emotions resulting from his life of isolation and horror.

The ending is a twist that is so cynically powerful that I can see why movie execs are scared of it. (Spoilers!) By showing how Neville’s quest for “good” turns him into “evil” from other points of view, RM taps into an uncomfortable truth of human nature: that we’re all capable of the darkest deeds—while telling ourselves that we’re behaving altruistically.  And in a world ruled by vampires, Neville is guilty of the most heinous genocide. Now picture Will Smith or Charlton Heston committing these acts and becoming the poster boy of evil! The movies can’t (or don’t have the guts), and so entirely miss the point of Neville’s unwinnable scenario. After all, who among us could have handled Neville’s situation any differently? Few – if any – of us, I suspect, and so we’re forced to rethink all of Neville’s actions from the lens of the ending – not a comfortable experience.

I’m happy I read this book, although I have to admit to being bored at times; parts of Neville’s investigation take too long, and Neville and Ruth’s discussions are extremely dated.  But overall the book is a powerful touchstone for a lot of current popular culture – and it’s always good to go to the source rather than relying on the pale imitations. And you gotta love that ending!

Cross posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Majesty of Saturn

Gordan Ugarkovic recently created an absolutely stunning composite image of Saturn.

You'll really be doing yourself a disservice if you don't go here and check out the incredible new high-rez shot of Saturn where you can see all of the cool details. Bad Astronomy runs down some of them:
"Cassini was high above Saturn to the north, looking “down” on the ringed world when it took these images. You can see the bizarre hexagonal north polar vortex, the six-sided jet stream flowing around Saturn. The subtle but beautiful bands mark the cloud tops of Saturn’s atmosphere. Unless I'm mistaken, the thin white line you see wrapping around the planet at mid-latitude is the remnant of a vast storm so huge it completely dwarfed our own home world of Earth. And if you look carefully (you can measure it!) you can see that Saturn is highly flattened, its equatorial diameter wider than through the poles."
Click through for lots more. Incredible stuff.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

- Denise Levertov

Friday, October 11, 2013

Clown Show in Buffalo

A few free minutes to entertain you with a Bills rant:

Last Thursday, EJ Manuel, the Bills valuable starting QB, didn't slide at the end of a run for some inexplicable reason and suffers a sprained knee. So what does the team do? They decide to promote a QB from their practice squad and name him the starter against an extremely tough Bengals defense. So wait. If Thaddeus Lewis was good enough to be a potential starter, then why hasn't he been the backup quarterback all of this time? What about our current backup - Jeff Tuel? Keep in mind this is a team who only keeps two QBs on the roster - if they didn't think "Tuel Time" was going to be the man, why not put him on the practice squad? I'm not really buying the explanation.

If that's not enough for you, last year, the Bills cut one of their most popular players - Brian Moorman, their long-time punter - in favor of a young guy. (That's right, the Bills have been so bad, many of the jerseys you see in the stands is of their PUNTER.) The only problem being that Shawn Powell sucked. So after an historically bad special teams day against Cleveland last week, they dump him and sign - wait for it - Moorman! Who is still a decent punter, despite being out of the league this year. But how is signing a 36 year old punter supposed to prepare the team for the mythical future in which the Bills actually are competitive?

And just so you don't forget, Jarius Byrd, our all-pro safety franchise player who has been quarreling with the team all season over his contract while showing up with plantar fasciitis in BOTH feet. He's been out all season. But just as he's getting healthy enough to play, all of a sudden NOW we're open to trading him?

I love the Bills but it does seem at times that it's being run by a bunch of clowns. In the meantime, our odds of having a winning season, much less making the playoffs, are getting dimmer and dimmer.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Best Thing for Being Sad

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Friday, September 27, 2013

Water on Mars

Pretty amazing news from Curiosity - Mars does indeed have water! according to the report, there's a decent amount too: "[Curiosity] found water molecules bound to other minerals in Martian soil...  Researchers say that every cubic foot of Martian soil contains about two pints of liquid water. All things told, about two percent of the Martian soil is made of up water."

What's most exciting about this is it makes future expeditions to the red planet even more plausible. Money quote:
"We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars," says Leshin. "When we send people, they could scoop up the soil anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water."
Bring on the space colony!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

It's, Like, Pictures? But of Space?

io9 has a great space porn collection up called "The Most Spectacular Astronomy Images of the Past Year." My favorite: "Green Energy" by Fredrik Broms.

Friday, September 20, 2013

First Lines of Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge"

"It's the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, through some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school. Maybe they're past the age where they need an escort, maybe Maxine doesn't want to let go just yet. It's only a couple blocks, it's on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?"

- Thomas Pynchon, first lines of Bleeding Edge.

I have a tradition that started with Mason & Dixon where I go to my favorite independent bookstore and pick up the latest Pynchon joint the day that it drops. So while I've had the book since Tuesday, life has conspired to limit me to only about 35 pages so far. So far, it's somewhat similar to Inherent Vice in that they're both about private detectives and are chock full of TRP's trademark long sentences, humor, and worldview. What's very different is the vibe - this is a very New York novel, filled with attitude and unfamiliar (to me) Jewish terms. But there is a Zima reference - what more can you ask for?

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Sound of Interstellar Space

The JPL has officially determined that Voyager has left our galaxy and is now travelling in the empty space between stars. The video above is the synopsis of how they figured it out. If you want an isolated soundtrack of the eerie sounds of "dense, ionized gas (the "interstellar plasma" that fills the space between star systems...)", check out this i09 article. Cool stuff.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

First Lines of Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard"

"Having written "The End" to this story of my life, I find it prudent to scamper back here to before the beginning, to my front door, so to speak, and to make this apology to arriving guests: 'I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen. It turns out to be a diary of this past troubled summer, too! We can always send out for pizzas if necessary. Come in, come in.'

I am the erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed man."

- from Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard. Fantastic book so far.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spying is Everywhere

While it looks like the privacy conversation that Obama promised in the wake of the NSA spying scandals will be superseded by the absurd run up to a Syrian war (how convenient!), the revelations of corrupt NSA efforts just keep on coming. These are my favorites from the last few weeks:

1. Good to know that there isn't a national domestic spying program, and that safeguards are in place to protect us from it's misuse. Oh wait:
"National Security Agency officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests, U.S. officials said. The practice isn't frequent—one official estimated a handful of cases in the last decade—but it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT."
Because everyone knows that giving people secret powers with little to no oversight doesn't possibly incentivize misbehavior.

2. The NSA bugged not only the United Nations' New York headquarters, but also...
"...spied upon the European Union's legation in New York, and included "plans of the EU mission, its IT infrastructure and servers." In addition, the NSA monitored the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The documents also detail bugging programs in more than 80 embassies and consulates called "Special Collection Service." Der Spiegel writes of the program that the "surveillance is intensive and well organised and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists."
And big media wonders why we have problems getting international support these days.

3. More recently, we found out that the NSA has compromised many internet encryption standards in the interests of making it easier for them to spy on everyone:
"The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that internet companies have given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.
The agencies, the documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – “the use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet”.
Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break encryption with “brute force”, and – the most closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves.
Through these covert partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software."
This last one is the most worrying because if a "back door" exists, it will soon be discovered and utilized by malevolent forces - that is, people more malevolent than the NSA.

As if it wasn't clear, everything about the NSA leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. As we learn more and more about the NSA's unconstitutional, illegal, and cynical tactics, it makes me sad to know that all of these deeds are being performed in our name. How far our once idealistic nation has fallen. At least people are aware of the problem now, even if the solution appears to be as daunting as "rebuilding the internet." In the meantime, here are five ways that you can use to try and regain your privacy. Aside from, you know, going offline completely.

Friday, September 6, 2013

First Lines of "I Am Legend"

"On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back."

- Richard Mathenson, from I Am Legend. Actually finished this good little book a while back and will post a review shortly.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Review: China Miéville's "Railsea"

Imagine… a world… where oceans…. don’t exist. In their place are deserts covered with massive amounts of train tracks twisting every which way – a maze of tracks spanning the majority of the globe. Welcome to Railsea, a fantastic yarn by everyone’s favorite New Weird author China Miéville.

At its core, Railsea depicts the quest of Abacat Naphi, the captain of the “mole train” Medes, who is in obsessive pursuit of an ivory-colored “moldywarpe” (think monstrously large mole).  But it’s also a coming-of-age story of Sham ap Soorap, who starts off as an inept doctor’s assistant but through a combination of luck and self-growth finds himself at the center of a race to the edges of the Railsea in pursuit of mythical lands – and treasure! It’s a compelling story that blatantly lifts ideas from other books – the captain’s quest is from Moby Dick, the abandoned alien tech (called alt-salvage) that litters the landscape is from the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, etc.) – so creatively that the story never feels derivative or uninspired. In fact, with only one or two exceptions I didn't know what was going to happen next, a rare quality that makes all of his books extremely compelling.

I’m told that it’s a YA novel, a relatively meaningless distinction but does explain the (pre?) teen narrator and lack of serious swearing and sex. Regardless, all of the things I love about Miéville re here: unfettered imagination, linguistic wordplay, ample demonstration of his fierce intellect, unapologetic left-wing politics, and (of course) gigantic monsters. Relax and pour yourself a nice drink because this one’s a fun ride.

Related Posts: Book Review: "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Transit of Venus - in Ultraviolet

Last year, I posted a picture of the 2012 Transit of Venus and mentioned that it was the most dynamic picture taken of the event. I was wrong.

You're looking at the sun, filtered for three types of ultraviolet light, with the black dot of Venus crossing it. Damn! Check out the NASA website for a larger picture and a description of how the image was created. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Telling in the Language of Metal

I watched Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim a few weeks back. What a fun movie! Respected it's B-movie origins while updating the genre for our time. What's interesting to me about the movie is that the movie felt like so much more than the fun action scenes and the cool mecha. But most of the dialog in the flick is pretty bad. Cliche-level bad, to the point where Stacker Pentecost's speech at the end of the movie has inspired a lot of parodies. So what set the movie apart? I didn't really understand it until I read Storming the Ivory Tower's excellent post "The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim." It's worth a read in its entirety, as the author details exactly how del Toro uses visuals to tell a lot of his story. In addition, I loved the post's close:
"...a film like Pacific Rim is treated as somehow naive or insignificant because it dares, gasp!, to have not just a unified message, but a quite positive, affirmative message, spoken not in the language of Lifetime movies or this year's crop of Oscar-bait, but in the language of Metal, the language of force and bombast and people in giant fucking robots punching Godzilla in the face.
We have reached a point, and really let this one sink in because it gets more flooring the more you think about it, where it's more radical and unacceptable to say, "Humans can accomplish amazing things when we set aside our differences and disagreements and work together to make the world a better place," than to say something sour and bitter and cynical.
Cynicism used to be the radical thing.
Now it's as mainstream as Greenday.
So, what I'm asking is that you give the film a second look, if you're not already one of us fanatics who loved it the first time through. Give it a chance to speak to you in its own language. Be the Raleigh in this situation--just as he surprised Mako by knowing and speaking Japanese to her, undermining her skepticism, enter a dialogue with the film that speaks in images. Open yourself to alternate ways of thinking and understanding."
Well said. Can't wait to see this one again at home.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Polished Black Bone

"The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately."

First lines of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has the skill to make the most banal things seem magical, which makes this YA book a really fun read so far.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Calvin and Hobbes Live

It's indisputable that Calvin and Hobbes is the best comic strip in existence. That fact is self-evident, but if for some strange reason you need proof, check out Progressive Boink's collection of 25 classic C&H strips.

Bill Watterson, we miss you.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Astounding Transportive Magic of Words

The Dish pointed me to Mark Edmundson's poignant appreciation for us English majors:
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once?
The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.” …
What [the English major] feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations. It is the creation of great souls like Shakespeare and Chaucer to be sure. But language is also the creation of salesmen and jive talkers, quacks and mountebanks, hookers and heroic warriors. We spend our lives, knowingly or not, trying to say something impeccably. We long to put the best words in the best order. (That, Coleridge said, is all that poetry really comes down to.) And when we do, we are on the lip of adding something to the language. We’ve perhaps made a contribution, however small, to what the critic R.P. Blackmur called the stock of available reality. And when we do, we’ve lived for a moment with the immortals.
A bit pretentious, perhaps, but i'd much rather be pretentious and fun than boring!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mmmm.... Sugar

Check out National Geographic's fascinating article on sugar. Along with an analysis of the history of the sugar trade (involving, unfortunately, lots and lots of slaves and subjugated colonies), it's surprising just how many doctors assign blame for Americans' continued poor health on too much of the sweet stuff:
"fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular fructose.
According to [Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver] and his colleagues... excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic.
“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”
Johnson summed up the conventional wisdom this way: Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” he said, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”

Friday, August 9, 2013

Paramilitary Raids

The statistics quoted in Sarah Stillman's article SWAT Team Nation are insane:
In 1972, America conducted only several hundred paramilitary drug raids a year, according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the early nineteen-eighties, there were three thousand a year; by 2001, Alexander notes, the annual count had skyrocketed to forty thousand. Today, even that number seems impossibly low, with one annual count of combat-style home raids hovering around eighty thousand.
The federal government continues to invest in SWAT gear for the smallest of police departments as part of a massive permanent infrastructure to fight the War on Drugs. Is it any wonder that given such tools they're being used more and more? And yet the problem SWAT teams are ostensibly formed to solve are as pervasive as ever.

Even worse, these tactics seem inexorably linked to questionable civil-forfeiture laws. Click through and read the whole thing - it's eye opening.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I Learned to Swear

I learned to swear
twenty minutes before my first child was born.
Since then, it's been a handy habit
to have around, and I expect God
to turn his head. After all,
he owes me one. It's a trick
to make babies look so good.

The truth is they leak.
And of all horrors, they grow.

They only speak whine;
they cry and complain and wipe snot
on their sleeves. They spill dinner.
They stir pasta into their milk cups
and squish spinach between their teeth.
They eat crayons and toothpaste.

They call constantly. They call
constantly. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mo-om.

They inhale money, bang down stairs,
and store dirty socks and sandwich crusts
like hidden treasures in their closets.
They lipstick walls; they swallow marbles.
They break things.

Yet, God (no doubt in his wisdom) has ordained
that these crude creatures
should sleep incognito:

I am fooled easily.

Each night as I tuck covers around them
and bend to kiss their sweet, sleepy faces,
I don't care that they used
all the silverware in the garden.

Let's fill the house with angels,
I whisper to my husband
as I slip between the sheets.

- Pam Vap

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Paradoxes of Evil

The Dish pointed me to this thought-provoking quote from James Dawes, the author of Evil Men, a collection of interviews with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War , about the paradoxes inherent in studying evil:
Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.
This is very well stated. I remember thinking along these lines when I read Richard Lourie's The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (read the first chapter here) and was confounded by what I felt was a surprisingly flat attempts to detail the human life of such a monster. The book itself is excellent when dealing with the ying/yang relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, but now I recognize that the novel's weakness probably lies in how to addressing the Dawes' paradoxes while writing a first person perspective of Stalin's upbringing childhood. Fascinating stuff.

First Lines of "Railsea"

"This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

There he stands, swaying as utterly as any wind-blown sapling. he is quite, quite red. If only this were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they once were, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.

Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost gleams against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour at nothing."

China Miéville, from his novel Railsea. To me, this novel started out slowly, but has really picked up steam as it enters Part II. The man really knows how to build a world!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

RIP J.J. Cale

J.J. Cale, a fantastic musician, played his last note last Saturday. He was 74.

Famous for authoring some classic rock n' roll tunes such as Clapton's "Cocaine" and "After Midnight," he also was a talented musician and guitarist in his own right. I've got copies of the Guitar Man and To Tulsa and Back albums and enjoy them both very much. His "mellow rock" sound feels like it influenced Dire Straits, among others, and while this "heels up" attitude isn't for everyone, I find it a refreshing antidote for the stereotypical rock bombast. He'll be missed.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tough Times

I knew the economy was bad for people that aren't as fortunate as me, but these numbers are astounding:
Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.
Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.
That's a huge majority of the country! It's amazing that that this fact isn't the single-most reported story in the media, not manufactured deficit-alarm or other esoteric beltway "news". Regardless, the story continues:
Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.
The gauge defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.  
This is essential context when considering recent events like the recent GOP efforts to continue big Agriculture subsidies via the Farm Bill without funding food assistance (the SNAP program).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Celebration of the Pedroia Contract Extension

I'm a huge Red Sox fan, and you may have heard that Dustin Pedroia signed an extension with the Red Sox that will keep him playing in Fenway until he's 38. At first glance, this seems like another one of those absurd long-term baseball contracts that never seem to pan out at the end (A-Rod, Pujols, etc.). But there's a couple of mitigating circumstances that seem, to me, to make the deal a good one. They are:
  • The compensation is a bell curve. Rather than the most expensive years of the contract coming at the tail end, Dustin will be making his most money in the middle of the deal (2017-2019) and only (only?) 13 and 12 mil respectively in 2020 and 2021. This becomes even more important when you take into account the endlessly escalating salaries for players. if Pedroia is an average player at the end of this contract, the Sox will most likely be paying for an average player.
  • The Sox are averaging out the cost of his early years. Most arguments against these types of deals is that the teams are "paying for past performance. While i'm sympathetic to that argument, the fact is that Pedroia was a steal for many years. Fire Brand of the American League took at look at his 2008:
    In 2008 he had 213 hits, 54 doubles, 17 home runs, 20 stolen bases (and was only caught stealing once), and an outstanding .326/.376/.493 slash line. He posted an outstanding 6.9 WAR and was the starting second baseman for the AL All Star team. In addition to that, he took home the Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and MVP awards. All of this from a player who celebrated his 25th birthday during the season, and pocketed a salary of just $457,000.
    So we can see his bigger salaries as evening out the cost of his earlier years. Of course, there's no guarantee that Pedroia will continue to be the excellent player that he currently is. But even if he becomes average, the value of the contract can be averaged out by looking at how much of a bargain he was for many years. 
  • He'll be the face of the franchise. Currently, the only reason Dustin is not the main man on the Sox is the presence of one certain Large Father. But as impressive as Ortiz' late career resurgence has been, he won't be wearing the B for much longer and then Pedroia will be the main man on the team. Does this make sense from a baseball perspective? No. But from a business perspective - from the eyes of the owners who need to sell the team - it's a big deal to have a much-loved role model as the face of the franchise. I love the fact that "our guy" will be a 5'8" firecracker rather than some "perfect" player that has half of his personality.
  • Attitude. As a fan, I love how Pedroia plays the game. With passion, spunk, and unrelenting effort. I love the fact that he has never once talked or complained about his contract or how much money he has made. I love the fact that despite he's one of the best players in the league, he actively pursued a new deal that made him a Sox for live, regardless of the money. As he put it himself:
  • It was a no-brainer to me. This was a place where they gave me an opportunity to play professional baseball. I want to make sure I do all I can to prove to those people who take a chance on me right. I'm not here to set markets or do anything like that. I want to make sure the team I'm on wins more games than the other team's second baseman. That's the way I look at it.
Anyways, that's just details. In the end, I just love watching the guy play. I'm excited to know that Pedroia will be in Boston until he retires - it's just no fun watching your favorite players go to other teams. So for the next 10 years, you'll find me wearing my #15 shirt and rooting for the little guy!

Originally Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Friday, July 26, 2013

Frozen Light

Now this is cool:
In what could prove to be a major breakthrough in quantum memory storage and information processing, German researchers have frozen the fastest thing in the universe: light. And they did so for a record-breaking one minute.
It sounds weird and it is. The reason for wanting to hold light in its place (aside from the sheer awesomeness of it) is to ensure that it retains its quantum coherence properties (i.e. its information state), thus making it possible to build light-based quantum memory. And the longer that light can be held, the better as far as computation is concerned. Accordingly, it could allow for more secure quantum communications over longer distances.
Needless to say, halting light is not easy — you can't just put in the freezer. Light is electromagnetic radiation that moves at 300 million meters per second. Over the course of a one minute span, it can travel about 11 million miles (18 million km), or 20 round trips to the moon. So it's a rather wily and slippery medium, to say the least.
More details here. Makes the quantum computers in Kim Stanley Robinson's work sound that much less outlandish!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It's Up to Us

Loved this Carl Sagan quote, as posted by Brain Pickings.

“We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Presence of Still Water

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. H/t The Dish.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

It Only Happens Once

"In a computer, everything is recallable all the time, but life is a succession of events that only happen once."

- Thomas Bangalter, of Daft Punk

Friday, July 19, 2013

Block Island Running 2013

Block Island is a small island off the coast of Rhode Island that is only accessible by ferry. Perhaps for that reason, it is, in my opinion, the perfect ecosystem; a perfect mix of town, open space (over 43% of the island is protected from development), beach, and shrubland.

On my vacation the last two years, I focused on running on the road or beach. This year, however, I really wanted to take advantage of Block Island’s trails. The Greenway, named after the famous UK walking trails,  consist of ~25 miles of trails that wind all over the island – a lot of coverage for an island that’s only about 10 square miles. Since I knew from previous experience that the trails were not well marked, I spent a lot of time studying the maps before I headed out. I was helped by the fact that our rental home was in the heart of the island right next to a major trail (near Turnip Farm).
Trail Entrance
Block Island trails feel incredibly remote, even when paralleling roads. The only other beings I saw on the trails was one runner, numerous deer (BI has a serious deer overpopulation, countless birds, and an a rooster defending his chicks.

My first outing was a combination of roads and the Fresh Swamp Trail. This served as my introduction to the themes of Block Island trail running: extreme humidity, lots of bugs, rolling terrain, and lots of brush to duck and weave around.

On my second run, I hit the beach around the southwest corner of the island. As you can see, the bluffs are dramatic and served as a nice backdrop as I labored through the sand. I had assumed there would be a trail up the cliffs to the Elizabeth Dickens Trail, but this did not exist, so I had to run to Black Rock Point where I found a path up to what turned out to be Black Rock Road. Unfortunately, there were no markers and I turned left when I should have turned right and ended up hopelessly lost in the meadows.  (It didn't help that I had no GPS signal!) Eventually, I made my way Lewis Farm Road (with a minimum of bushwhacking) which lead me back home. The lesson: verify your beach access points before you start out!

The third run I hit up the Rodman’s Hollow loop, a dramatic basin that's only 20 feet above sea level. Despite laboring up and down some intense hills in massive humidity it was a nice run with a fantastic view north towards the end. Afterwards, I ran down Black Rock Road - a disused dirt road perfect for hiking - and enjoyed the views of the southern part of the island.
Path down to the Beach
My favorite run was heading north through Turnip Farm past the Island Cemetery and all the way to the Coast Guard Station. These trails were the most poorly marked, mainly because there are a large number of small spur trails. Still, these were perhaps the most fun, and led to at least one amazing view over the airport towards Old Town. These trails were diverse, and mainly went along the stone walls that you see wherever you look.
One of many Stone Walls
As much as I'd like to say I finished off with a bang, by the end of the week the hard living was catching up with me, so my last run was a short a short run to and from Dories Cove for a (extremely cold!) swim. On the way back the trail took me past old Dodge Cemetery which lived in the bushes above our house.

The Trail past Dodge Cemetery
In conclusion, if you find yourself on Block Island, there's no doubt you should explore the trails - they're fun, challenging, and lead you to areas of the island that feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the town and famous beaches. Just be sure to take along a map and a compass!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Elephant Consciousness

The Dish pointed me to this touching video of a group of elephants in captivity saying goodbye to a dead baby. I highly recommend you read the entire post and it's links, but here's a taste:
...elephants, the only other known creatures that — whatever it may mean to them — purposely commemorate their dead, in a way [Coming of Age with Elephants author] Joyce Poole calls “eerie and deeply moving”: “It is their silence that is most unsettling. The only sound is the slow blowing of air out of their trunks as they investigate their dead companion. It’s as if even the birds have stopped singing.” Using their trunks and sensitive hind feet, the ones they use for waking up their babies, “they touch the body ever so gently, circling, hovering above, touching again, as if by doing so they are obtaining information that we, with our more limited senses, can never understand. Their movements are in slow motion, and then, in silence, they may cover the dead with leaves and branches.”
After burying the body in brush and dirt, family members may stay silently with it for over a day; or if a body is found unattended by elephants not related to it, they may pause and stand by for some time. They do this with any dead elephant, recently deceased or long departed with only the skeleton remaining. “It is probably the single strangest thing about them,” [Elephant Memories author] Cynthia Moss writes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Where Big Data Meets Entertainment

Andrew Leonard takes a look at how Netflix is ordering its content and is troubled by a few things. Firstly, by the bizarrely detailed analysis of viewers media consumption habits:
The scope of the data collected by Netflix from its 29 million streaming video subscribers is staggering. Every search you make, every positive or negative rating you give to what you just watched, is piped in along with ratings data from third-party providers like Nielsen. Location data, device data, social media references, bookmarks. Every time a viewer logs on he or she needs to be authenticated. Every movie or TV show also has its own associated licensing data. The logistics involved with handling every bit of information generated by Netflix viewers — and making sense of it — are pure geek wizardry.

Netflix doesn't just know that you are more likely to be watching a thriller on Saturday night than on Monday afternoon, but it also knows what you are more likely to be watching on your tablet as compared to your phone or laptop; or what people in a particular ZIP code like to watch on their tablets on a Sunday afternoon. Netflix even tracks how many people start tuning out when the credits start to roll.
A bit creepy, but not all that surprising, right? What's strange is what they're doing with all of that information - they're using it to reduce the risk of the content they produce:
For at least a year, Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. ... For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of ["House of Cards"]. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

“We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits,” Netflix communications director Jonathan Friedland told Wired in November.“We want to continue to have something for everybody. But as time goes on, we get better at selecting what that something for everybody is that gets high engagement.”
But what does this mean for the future? Leonard suspects - quite accurately, IMO, that it could result in very questionable artistic decisions:
The interesting and potentially troubling question is how a reliance on Big Data might funnel craftsmanship in particular directions. What happens when directors approach the editing room armed with the knowledge that a certain subset of subscribers are opposed to jump cuts or get off on gruesome torture scenes or just want to see blow jobs. Is that all we’ll be offered? We've seen what happens when news publications specialize in just delivering online content that maximizes page views. It isn't always the most edifying spectacle. Do we really want creative decisions about how a show looks and feels to be made according to an algorithm counting how many times we've bailed out of other shows?
I sure don't want to see any sort of optimization of the art that's produced for me. I'm not a voracious consumer of television and movies, but I love being surprised by the unpredictable nature of a District 9 or Children of Men. I don't mind if it means I need to wade through a load of crap to get there - after all, it takes seeing the bad to make the good really shine.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Only Soul

"A beach is a place where a man can feel
He's the only soul in the world that is real."

- Pete Townshend, from "Bell Boy" off Quadrophenia

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Harrison and Han

Get your Star Wars geek on with this history of Harrison Ford's relationship with Han Solo - apparently he was hoping that Lucas was going to kill off Solo in the assault on the new Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Which actually would have given that movie even more emotional heft! Regardless, it's interesting to see how his fame and success changed his viewpoint towards the famous character.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

One Man to Appoint Them All

On the heels of my "Trusting Governement to do the Right Thing" post, comes the scary realization that all of the FISA judges are named by one person: John Roberts, who looks to be in this position for a long time to come:
The 11 FISA judges, chosen from throughout the federal bench for seven-year terms, are all appointed by the chief justice. In fact, every FISA judge currently serving was appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, who will continue making such appointments until he retires or dies. FISA judges don’t need confirmation — by Congress or anyone else.
No other part of U.S. law works this way. The chief justice can’t choose the judges who rule on health law, or preside over labor cases, or decide software patents. But when it comes to surveillance, the composition of the bench is entirely in his hands and so, as a result, is the extent to which the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can spy on citizens.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Modern Zombies

Can't say I'm a fan of The Walking Dead, but I do like me a good zombie movie. That's why I found this post so interesting:
Sara Davis conceives of the still life and the artistic portrayal of zombies as two forms of memento mori – a symbol of death’s inevitability:
For the 17th century Dutch merchant class, a still life was a shrine to the beauty and pleasure that money can buy: luxuries, delicacies, fine things that could be held in the hand or captured in oils, a small and fine possession in itself. But for contemporary society, the ultimate shrine and symbol of prosperity is the well-kept body — that is, a body that falls into a fairly narrow category of healthy, beautiful, and athletic. Despite all the goods and brands and tech toys, so much more of our collective wealth is sunk into sculpting or tightening, brightening or darkening, coloring and trimming, running, counting calories, and swallowing gallons of “smart” water. 
It makes sense, then, that today’s bogeyman and morality tale is a decaying body, a walking (or running) death’s head that all the cardio and training in the world can’t outrace. Zombies mock us, like the half-eaten fruits of the Dutch golden age and the weary speaker of Ecclesiastes, that though we may define ourselves by what and how we consume, it is all a pretty distraction from how we will be consumed.
An interesting take, no? I've always liked the "Zombies as a symbol of disease" idea, which is in line with the genre being a stylized reaction to our fear of death. What I haven't heard a good explanation for is why the sudden shift from the zombies of old, which slowly lurched around, to the newer zombies who can run and sprint and basically do everything a normal person can do. (Although I like Jeff Bryan's take: "When we're always gulping down caffeine and 5-hour energy tablets, that's going to have an effect on how we behave in our second life as zombies.") Perhaps it has something to do with the scary super viruses that seem to loom over our future...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Exposed upon the mountains of the heart. See how small over there
the last outpost of words, and higher up,
just as small, one last farmyard of feeling.
Do you recognize it? Exposed
upon the mountains of the heart. Stony ground
under the hands.

Something still blooms here, on the dumb cliff face
blooms an unconscious weed, singing.
But where is the conscious one? He who began to be conscious
now is silent, exposed upon the mountain of the heart …

- Rilke, Uncollected Poems