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

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Compensating Musicians in the Streaming Era

Being a responsible consumer is hard. There are so many factors to consider before you buy a product, and - a good percentage of the time - it's hard to know where to find honest information before you buy. One area in which it's quite difficult is determining if food is officially "organic" or not (you can include up to 5% of non-organic material in something labeled "organic"). Another is determining a way of streaming music in a way that fairly compensates musicians. Regular readers know that i'm a huge Pandora fan because i've discovered an incredible amount of new music through the service. As a Pandora Plus member, I listen to it  all of the time (including right now!). However, musicians that I respect are starting to rail against Pandora for being evil - why? Well, I've recently learned that:
  • The government sets rates for streaming (why?) that artists have to accept. As David Clowery writes:
    ...webcasting rates are “compulsory” rates. They are set by the government (crazy, right?). Further since they are compulsory royalties, artists can not “opt out” of a service like Pandora even if they think Pandora doesn't pay them enough. The majority of songwriters have their rates set by the government, too, in the form of the ASCAP and BMI rate courts–a single judge gets to decide the fate of songwriters (technically not a “compulsory” but may as well be).  This is already a government mandated subsidy from songwriters and artists to Silicon Valley.  Pandora wants to make it even worse.  (Yet another reason the government needs to get out of the business of setting webcasting rates and let the market sort it out.)
  • These rates are absurdly low. In the article above, Clowery published his income statement, revealing that "As a songwriter Pandora paid me $16.89* for 1,159,000 play of “Low” last quarter."
  • Pandora feels that these rates are too high, and - like any big corporation - is lobbying Congress to lower these "compulsory royalties." 
It's not just Clowery. The three surviving members of Pink Floyd just penned an article in USA Today (!) railing against Pandora's efforts to lower royalty rates (by 85%!) and what they feel are Pandora's deceitful marketing techniques. Here's Jeff John Roberts' neutral take on the situation. Money quote:
So who’s right — Pink Floyd or Pandora?
They both have a point. On one hand, it seems absurd that the royalty rate for a radio song should be different based on what sort of device it is played on: “Wish You Were Here” is great no matter if it plays on Pandora, Sirius or an old-school FM station. There seems to be no logical reason to discriminate against Pandora simply because it uses the internet as a delivery device.
As for the musicians, they are right to be concerned about dwindling royalties. The money they used to earn from CDs and records has dropped off a cliff and income from iTunes or Pandora is not making up for it.
Ultimately, this is a choice about how America wants to subsidize its musicians and other artists. On one hand, the multi-layered royalty system developed in the 20th century is not holding up well, and copyright law has become corrupt and over-extended — it makes sense to scrap parts of this system. But on the other hand, though Pink Floyd is doing just fine, it’s not clear if there is enough money in the system to support and develop young musicians.
The end result is that the consumer becomes confused by all of this bickering. All I want to do is listen to music while ensuring that the artists get their fare shake. This is why I pay for Pandora Plus for that reason, and continue to buy music from my favorite artists. I suspect that all that this continued obfuscation means that most people simply give up and ignore the problem... which (of course) doesn't make the problem go away. So what's a responsible consumer to do? Check out Spotify or some of the other services out there? Any ideas?