Friday, September 30, 2005


Mother of pearl and son of all things holy, I can't believe Serenity. Joss Wheedon did things with and to the characters that defy expectation and convention. I laughed--hard. I cried--hard (then again, I cried during Jersey Girl). There was one point when I thought, "This can't possibly be happening." Okay, that one happened twice. The first was when the theater inexplicably showed the trailer for Serenity right before they showed the movie Serenity. The second time...I'm not going to tell you when the second time was. Suffice it to say the Alliance isn't the only one who ain't gonna see this comin'. Never before in a movie have I ever sat there, mouth agape, completely surprised by what just passed on the screen.

Click here to watch the trailers. My suggestion is Trailer 2. Stay away from the clips until after you see the movie. Only "River" actually spoils a plot point, but the clips are better when you see them as part of the movie. Go see it.

Study: Small Children Hazardous to Your Health

OK, that's not exactly what it says. They found that toddlers and preschoolers lead off flu epidemics, with 3- and 4-year-olds presenting flu symptoms up to a month before the illness starts showing up in adults. Preschoolers generally start showing signs about the end of September, which for those of you paying attention to the calendar, is right about now. Flu-like symptoms in the under-5 set, particularly in the 0-2-year-old set, are a good predictor of how deadly a flu outbreak will be. In short, children are adorable, but they're basically influenza's Typhoid Mary. Or, as the paper's lead author says, "The data indicate that when kids are sneezing, the elderly begin to die."

Which brings us to the practical application of the paper's findings. Currently immunization policy is to push flu shots hard on people most at risk for dying of the disease: the very old, the very young, and those with underlying respiratory ailments. The paper's authors suggest a different approach: make a priority of immunizing the toddling germ factories that are spreading the virus to Grandma, Grandpa, baby, and pretty much every set of homo sapien lungs in screaming distance at the supermarket. Right now, we're trying to limit deaths, when it might be a more efficient use of resources to try to limit the overall scope of an outbreak. Why fight a pandemic when you can keep it from becoming a pandemic in the first place?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Something Driven Life, All Right

Remember the gal who got all the huzzahs for her role in capturing the guy who shot up a courtroom in Atlanta a while back? She's the one who said she gained the guy's trust during a 7-hour hostage ordeal by reading to him from The Purpose Driven Life. Comes out--now that she's gotten the book deal--that she shared a little more than just her faith during the ordeal. Specifically, she also shared her stash of crystal meth.

She's waited six months to tack on the little addendum to the story line, and that was probably the smartest move she made since getting him high. The Power Of Faith And Getting Your Captor Strung Out On Meth just isn't as compelling as faith alone. The media likes a young widow a lot more when she isn't a druggie.

People who keep their stashes of illegal drugs next to their Bibles are one of the reasons I gave up religion. Churches are full of too many people who think an hour on Sunday absolves them of the rest of the week, and people who look the other way.

Brief Penguin News

Gentoo penguins are finding leftover minefields from the Falkland War make excellent breeding grounds. The penguins, weighing in at about 10 pounds, are too light to detonate the land mines.

Quote of the Day: Joss Wheedon on the Pale Friendless Virgin

"They're a diverse group, fairly well-adjusted socially, and I expect that a lot of them are even having sex. I really think the line between geeks and the rest of the world is blurring."
-Joss Wheedon, on the fans of Firefly and Serenity, from an article you can read here.

I'm a certified, card-carrying geek. I'm gradually redecorating my house into an homage to the two great geek pursuits: science fiction and comics. I'm thinking of replacing the froofy floral entryway curtains with window decals of the Coruscant skyline. Elie picked out the living room drapes and curtain rods based on a vague resemblance to Jaffa Staff Weapons. I'm trying to put LEDs into a Boggle timer. I don't think they make lines blurry enough to get my grandparents on my side of that.

The Firefly marathon is showing on the Sci Fi Channel today starting in an hour and a half. The tagline for the marathon: "Whoever said there's no honor among thieves never met these guys." Firefly is the show about what happens when you throw two soldiers from the losing side of a war, a mercinary, a geisha/courtesan, an average hawaiian-shirt wearing guy, a sunny young woman, a priest, and two federal fugitives (a doctor and his mentally unstable younger sister) together on a small boat--not even a ship--at "the corner of 'no' and 'where.'" What happens is great sci-fi, and great sci-fi means that you learn more about being human.

Serenity opens in movie theaters Friday. I will give you my spoiler-free impressions when I get back Friday night.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Military Porpoises

They're the next best thing to Dr. Evil's sharks with frikkin' laser beams attached to their heads: dolphins armed with toxic darts. However, unlike the sharks with frikkin' laser beams or the ill-tempered sea bass, the armed trained attack dolphins are real. Oh, and they might be missing. So long and thanks for all the fish.

It might be just a rumor. Trained attack dolphins are one of the worst-kept military secrets since Area 51. Unnamed government sources "close to US government marine fisheries" have supposedly told a "respected accident investigator who has worked for the government and industry" that the dolphins escaped. Suspicions arose when the Navy--which operates the Cetacean Intelligence Mission--helped a local seaquarium to locate some of their resident dolphins that got loose into the Gulf of Mexico during the hurricanes, but were very keen to examine the prodigal cetaceans before returning them to the care of the seaquarium. It isn't a big jump to the conclusion that the Navy was making sure those were the unarmed dolphins. We wouldn't want to go through all the trouble of training an anti-terrorism marine mammal just to have it jump through hoops for herring.

UPDATE: has put this story in the "dubious" category owing to the lack of reliable (or multiple) sources that I alluded to above. As amusing as the story is, it is rather fishy. One would think if the military had trained attack dolphins, they probably would take steps to make darned sure that, hurricane or no, they don't get out and mix with wild populations. Particularly in light of the recent observations that dolphins can learn behaviors from other dolphins.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sunday NY Times Tackles the Tough Subjects

At the moment, it escapes me what question Lewis Black once said should rank "right above 'are we eating too much garlic as a people?'" We must be, and that has overwhelmed any of the other issues of the day, because today's Sunday New York Times editorial page devotes not one but two articles to a debate over the relative merits of purchasing pre-peeled garlic vs. peeling garlic cloves by hand.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hot Coffee

Emp. Peng.'s curiosity finally got the better of him and he installed the Hot Coffee mod on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In case you forgot, Hot Coffee is the thing that got the Congress' collective knickers in a knot because it unlocked some content in the video game that showed two characters supposedly having unpixelated sex. Had the rating board known of the content, they might have given it a different rating. The game was originally rated M, the video game equivalent of a movie's R rating, "for blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs." After the mod went public, the ratings board re-visited the rating, giving the game an AO (Adults Only) rating, which is essentially equivalent to a movie's NC-17 or X rating. In practice, this means most retailers won't get anywhere near it, even for behind-the-counter sales with ID. The ratings change also added the content descriptor "nudity."

Thing is, there's no nudity in the new content. Emp. Peng. found the unlocked content, and I watched the full scene. Not only are any naughty bits obscured by other body parts, it bears repeating that NO ONE GETS NAKED. Throughout the entire supposed sex act, the girl is still wearing her panties (which you can tell are still completely on) and a t-shirt, and the guy doesn't remove so much as his wristwatch. Closest thing to digital indecent exposure is some buttcheek visible around the girl's thong panties. There's some bumping and grinding in various positions, but I've watched the scene 3 times now and I can confidently report that there is more accurately simulated sex in the commercials for Axe Body Wash.

Egg Timer Modding

The dental hygenist mercifully skipped most of the floss lecture today. It isn't that I don't know how to floss properly; it's that someone put a bunch of between-teeth crevices waaaay back in the back of the mouth where it's hard to reach. You'd think intelligent design would have made the plaque-prone parts of the body easier to clean.

You'd also think that dental product manufacturers would make a wider variety of flavors, considering they're used so close to the taste buds. I have a rather intense distaste for artificial mint or cinnamon flavors, and today was the first time a dental hygenist actually thought to connect that with my somewhat lax brushing habits. Instead of just lecturing me on technique, she gave me suggestions for some palatable workarounds. However, having worked out ways to make preventative care less yukky, she was absolutely insistent that I have to brush for a full 3 minutes after every meal. Which brings me to why I now have an egg timer in my bathroom.

I was hoping for something with whimsy to match the rest of the house, which is mostly a mix of sci-fi and comic books. Unfortunately, I couldn't find whimsy, so I settled on the standard under-$ 2 white-sand hourglass in a wood frame. I'm looking for suggestions on mods for my egg timer to give it a little more personality. Something like installing some LEDs or the like. Please post any suggestions to the comments. I'll post before and after pics when I get the modding done.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Speaking of Birthdays

Sunday was June Foray's birthday. You may know her better as Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Warner Brothers' Granny and Witch Hazel, or about a thousand other cartoon voices. I've never met her, but I did sit right behind her during a panel at last years Comic Con International. Aside from marvelling that I was sitting right behind June Foray, I couldn't help wonder just how old she was. If she had voiced the Warner Brothers cartoons as a fetus, she would still have to be in her 50's, and if I had to give a description to the police, that would have been about the age I would have fixed her at. She looked like she was aging well for a woman pushing 60. Really well for a woman who just turned 88.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Happy Birthday :- )

Today marks the 23rd birthday of the :-)

On September 19, 1982 at 11:44 a.m., Professor Scott Fahlman proposed the smiley to signal a joke, after a post on a Carnegie Mellon University bulletin board was not taken for the joke it was. A few years ago, Microsoft techs who had too much time on their hands got a hold of the old Carnegie Mellon backup tapes and a machine capable of reading them, and tracked down the moment the smiley was born. Click here to read the entire thread that gave birth to the smiley. Personally, I prefer some of the other options that were floated about as early emoticons. My personal favorite is {#} if only because I have a soft spot for the octothorpe (that would be the pound sign for those of you who spend too much time on automated phone systems). That mark has been repurposed and renamed so many times, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for it, particularly since people call it pretty much everything except its actual name.

Todays Winner of the "Completely Missing the Point" Award

Saw about a half dozen rolling 401(k)'s in the grocery store parking lot today. They're the ones that look like if the owner put half as much time into doing something productive as he does with his car, we'd have cured cancer, and if they invested half as much money in something that pays dividends as they've put into chrome, Social Security would be irrelevant. They're also the kind of cars one frequently finds quadruple parked to avoid the possibility that someone might open a door too far and ding their paint job.

These people did not disappoint. However, insofar as there is a point to quadruple parking one's pimped out ride, these people seem to have missed it. While all six cars were parked squarely over the junction of four parking spaces, they'd all pulled up right next to one another.

And The Winner Is...

The type of fruit fly trap I'm using--a paper funnel set atop a cup with bait in the bottom--is making it difficult to get an exact count of the flies before they're released to the wild outdoors. However, preliminary results after the first 12 hours of trapping show the vinegar trap with what I will estimate as "some" flies and the honey trap with what I will estimate as "no" flies.

Again, these results are preliminary, but it seems that you do in fact catch more flies with vinegar than with honey. Take that, conventional wisdom.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Honey vs. Vinegar as Fly Bait

I firmly believe that there is no reason why one should just do housework when one can make it into a fun science experiment. No comments from any of you who have eaten my cooking after Clean Out The Refrigerator Day.

My kitchen is beset with a minor infestation of fruit flies, which gives me a perfect situation to test whether one can, in fact, catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I have set out two traps, identical except that one is baited with apple cider vinegar and the other is baited with honey. They're right next to each other in the area where most of the flies seemed to congregate before I removed the ripening fruit from the counter. Preliminary observations show more flies clustered around the funnel of the trap that is baited with vinegar, but we won't know for certain until the infestation clears and I observe the contents of the two traps before I dispose of them. Stay tuned for results.

Can We Kick All These People Out of the Gene Pool?

A Washington man and his girlfriend had been trying to have a baby for nearly 3 years when they turned to in vitro fertilization using the man's sperm, being as nothing was happening naturally and the girlfriend wasn't getting any younger. Acting as a responsible father, the man took out a life insurance policy with the child as the beneficiary, signed an affidavit of paternity and paid his girlfriend $650 per month in informal child support. The child was given his surname. All signs seem to indicate he was very involved in the child's life. Three years later, she bore a second child using the donated sperm, and he increased child support payments to about $1,000 per month.

Shortly thereafter, the man's wife found out. No word on just how she discovered this situation after more than 6 years and who knows how many thousands of dollars of general mistress support, child support, IVF bills, etc., but she probably would have found out eventually even if the man had been very careful about covering his tracks. When an affair goes south, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but that's nothing compared to the blackmail value of two genetic offspring.

What's a married man to do when he's caught having fathered and supported his mistress's two children? This man's strategy was to immediately cut off contact and financial support and try to claim he just donated sperm to a friend. Yeah, the state Supreme Court didn't buy that, either.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

In Defense of Insurance

Now that cleanup is underway, there are the predictable rumblings against the insurance companies. A lot of the editorials seem rooted in the assumption that insurance companies are going to try to screw over their insurees to deny every claim.

Here's the thing. Insurance companies are not social programs. Insurance companies are businesses that exist to turn a profit for their owners or stockholders. Profit is not a dirty word; everyone lives on profit. Furthermore, insurance is not charity. Insurance is a contract by which a person agrees to pay premiums to so that someone else will pay for damages if A, B or C happens. The contract only requires the insurance company to pay for A, B or C. If D happens, it may be unfortunate, but it is not part of the contract and the insurance company is under no obligation to pay. Since their ultimate obligation is to owners or shareholders, they are beholden not to pay claims for losses not covered in the contract.

The thorny issue arises when B and D happen concurrently. Even thornier, the issue of what to do when a reasonable argument can be made that B was a contributing factor to D. In the current situation, the fact that flooding occurred should not absolve the insurance companies of their responsibility to pay for damage caused by the hurricane. By the same token, the presence of a hurricane should not require the companies to pay for flood damages someone was not insured against.

Given that the president has generously offered that the federal government will pay for the rebuilding, minus whatever insurers pay, the suggestion has been raised that we should make sure insurers pay as much as possible. Bad idea. The more insurance companies have to pay out, particularly on questionable claims of damage for which they may not have collected premiums, the more they have to raise premiums across the board to make up the bottom line. In effect, requiring a bigger payout from insurance companies will penalize the responsible people who purchase all the appropriate coverage and who are least likely to require federal disaster assistance. On the other hand, having the federal government pick up the slack (or god forbid anyone actually incur a loss) spreads the financial burden across the entire tax base, including to people who do not purchase adequate insurance coverage for their homes and property.

Most insurance is a gamble between the policyholder and the insurance company. Uninsured or underinsured people are effectively betting that they will not incur losses greater than the amount of premiums they would have paid. Sometimes people lose that wager. Let's not assume the insurance companies are the only ones welshing on a bet here.

Demise of the Cosine

An Australian mathematician has rewritten trigonometry. The sine, cosine and tangent are completely gone, taking with them the need for calculators and tables we've relied on to figure those. What's more, the new Rational Trigonometry is more accurate than the sine/cosine/tangent model we've been using for the past few millennia.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Fun With EULAs

I've spent the past three days deep-cleaning my laptop by reformatting and reinstalling everything. This time, I decided to actually read through all of the End User License Agreements as I reinstalled the software. If you ever have time, you should do it. Spybot Search and Destroy, aside from being a great piece of anti-spyware software, has the most entertaining EULA. It's written in a very conversational tone, and actually begins with a dedication to "the most wonderful girl in the world" and, as it is a free program, pleas for donations to the programmer and the aforementioned most wonderful girl in the world. It's worth dowloading the software just to read the license agreement.

Here are actual excerpts from Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition's EULA.
Internet Gaming Features...By using these features, you explicitly authorize MS, Microsoft Corporation and/or their designated agent to use this information solely to improve our products or to provide customized service or technology to you. MS or Microsoft Corporation may disclose this information to others, but not in a form that personally identifies you.
My question there is, just how can they provide customized services or technology to me if they're not disclosing the information in a way that personally identifies me? If it's customized, somewhere along the lines, I pretty much have to be personally identified.
After upgrading, you may no longer use the SOFTWARE that formed the basis of your upgraded eligibility.
So, if I'm reading that right, if I upgrade anything in the software and it causes problems, I am actually prohibited from rolling back to the earlier edition.

And my favorite:
You may not copy the printed materials accompanying the software.
So, remember, xeroxing your EULA is a violation of the EULA. As would, presumably, bloggi--oops. About that. Gotta go.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Marmota Watch

Just in from picking some more pears and apples, and the groundhog definitely has a preference in his fruit. The ground under the pear tree is picked clean except for one pear sitting upright with most of the top gone and some very rodentlike teeth marks. However, the apple trees still have plenty of fallen fruit under them, very little of which shows woodchuck bites. He may have no choice but to switch over or find a new feeding ground soon, though. I stripped all the fruit I could reach with my improvised 6' Fruit Picker (a gardening rake and plastic cup duct-taped to a mop handle). There are probably a dozen or so pears left high up that I'll let drop for him, but after that, the all-you-can-gnaw pear buffet is closed for the year.

In other marmota news, I'm taking suggestions on what to name the groundhog (please, not Chuck).

More Penguin Family Values

During my last discussion of how the Emperor Penguins (the species, not to be confused with Emp. Peng.) are being held up as paragons of conservative family values, you may have been asking yourself, "Just what is the divorce rate among penguins?"

One of our many mottoes here at Penguin Perspectives is, "You have a question; we have an answer." While we usually do not guarantee that the answer provided will match the question, in this case it does. Someone actually did a study on the divorce rates of aptenodytes--that would be the King and Emperor penguins--and no, you did not have to pay for it. It appears to have been sponsored by a couple of French research agencies. Man, those French like their penguins.

Turns out that the vaunted emperor penguin has a year-to-year mate retention rate of 15%. The study did not show any penguin couples retaining the same mates for longer than 4 consecutive breeding seasons. In sum, emperor penguin divorce rate after 1 year: 85%. Penguin divorce rate after 4 years: 100%. Makes humans look downright good at 50% (I cite that with the usual disclaimer that I disagree with the methodology by which that figure is arrived at).

Interestingly, the study also indicates this isn't just because one penguin in the pair is late back to the rookery site, so the other takes on another mate on the assumption that the last year's mate has been eaten or is otherwise not coming back. In 19 cases where penguins did not renew pair bonds and the researchers knew the arrival dates for both birds, in only 7 cases the first-arrived bird already had a new mate when the old one arrived. In 12 cases, the first-arrived bird knew that last year's mate was there, but still opted for a different mate.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Now If I Can Get Him To Chuck...

I think I've finally pinned down the species of the mystery creature I've spotted eating the fallen pears in the early evenings. He's a squat, nondescript brown rodent/mammal-type critter about the size of a large housecat. For a while, I suspected he was a badger, but it turns out we're too far east for that, plus he's clearly diurnal, which eliminates most predatory mammals his size. I can't be certain since I haven't gotten closer than a couple hundred feet, but he seems to match the physical and behavioral descriptions of a marmota monax, your basic woodchuck (aka groundhog). This should save me some time come February 2.

The Passion of the Penguins?

Social conservatives have adopted March of the Penguins, calling it a strong case for intelligent design and a passionate affirmation of traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing (or should we say chick rearing?). They point out that the filmmakers glossed over evolution and global warming, which makes it even more conservative-friendly.

Are these people talking about the same movie I saw about the same penguins?

Let's take this in order:

Intelligent design. I don't think I can say it any better than George F. Will: "If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?" You'd think an intelligent designer who had plotted this out from the beginning would have made ease of species propigation a priority. See below, discussion of evolution and climate change.

Monogamy. The movie pretty much glossed over this, too, but while the penguins will stay together as long as there is a chick to rear and neither parent gets eaten, they're really only as monogamous as their options and will part ways at the first sign of trouble. If a male penguin is a day late returning to the rookery, it is likely to find its previous season's mate has moved on, given the narrow window when successful breeding can occur (by the way, also the reason they converge at the same time). Of note to these penguin-morality advocates, species of coastal-nesting penguins will literally prostitute themselves, allowing mating favors for any male with nesting materials (puts a whole new spin on The Pebble and the Penguin).

Sacrifice. When did getting eaten by a leopard seal become a family value?

Chick-rearing. They're birds. They propigate the species. That's what they do. Chicks don't rear themselves when its -70 out. Also, apparently these people missed the scene where all the adult penguins stand around while the juvenile is chased by a gull intent on dining on penguin chick.

Evolution, or lack thereof. Actually, this was one of my petty complaints about March of the Penguins. They do gloss over the evolutionary theory, in a (successful) attempt to make the film as broadly appealing as possible. They give one short toss-off line, "For millions of years, they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windist, and coldest continent on Earth. And they've done it pretty much alone." Barely even a nod to evolutionary theory, since all it really says is that penguins are more than 6,000 years old. Early protopenguins evolved around 50 million years ago, but these were not the Emperors. The first protopenguins were closer to the size of a full grown man, while Emperors are more analogous to a husky 7-year-old. Granted, March of the Penguins is supposed to be an 80-minute trek into the mating and chick-rearing habits of the Emperors, not a comprehensive primer on penguin behavior and history. However, since they do leave us out in the cold as to possible reasons why the penguins would go through all this to breed, there's the chance that the penguins come off as insane. After all, other penguin species breed with just as much success in far more hospitable areas of the continent. Nature doesn't create pathos for pathos's sake, but logic doesn't make a good film.

Climate Change. Again, while there really wasn't space in the movie for it, climate change and how it relates to penguin behavior is actually quite interesting. Around the time the first protopenguins were establishing themselves, Antarctica was segueing from a temperate climate to the current coldest-place-on-Earth status. The evidence is all there in the ice cores and the fossil records for at least 8 cycles of glaciation over the past 740,000 years. There is a chance that when the penguins started making this trek inland for breeding, it wasn't a 70-mile trek over ice, which would make it much more sensible. The penguins' trek may have been an adaptation at one point, and they've simply kept doing it since no other adaptation has taken its place. But that gets into evolutionary theory, and that turns off the people who print out the downloadable form to write down how God speaks to them as the penguins waddle across the screen.

Don't get me wrong. March of the Penguins was one of the best movies I've seen, and in spite of the anthropomorphizing, certainly one of the better penguin documentaries. Very few nature shows deal so frankly with chick loss, the ineptitude of adults in their first couple of mating cycles, or the myriad other ways mating can fail. Most nature programs go no further than the obligatory predation shot. I just don't see where all these conservative values fit in the penguin species. They're penguins! I love them, but they act on instinct.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Penguin News

The 19 penguins housed at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans have all arrived safely at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where they join their penguin bretheren who have been on loan from New Orleans for some time now. The Louisiana penguins are in quarantine in Monterey as a precaution against spreading anything they may have picked up, but it looks like they might join the Splash Zone exhibit as guests once they're given a clean bill of health. If that happens, they'll be on the Monterey Bay penguin cam.

Here's more news on the penguins from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Two sea otters from the Aquarium of the Americas are also finding temporary quarters in Monterey. Unfortunately, the hurricane claimed most of the aquatic specimens, a racoon, and two river otters.

Thanks to Emp. Peng. for pointing me to the story.

Just an Observation

I don't quite know what to make of this, but I think it is worth noting anyway.

There seems to be a vocal (if not actually large) contingent out there questioning the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans when large chunks are below sea level. I don't recall anywhere near this level of sentiment against rebuilding something even bigger at the site of the World Trade Center even though the center had been the target of two separate terrorist attacks in the space of a decade.

Like I say, I'm not ready to venture an opinion as why the sentiment is so different about rebuilding the two disaster sites, but there does seem to be a disparity there. Whatever the reason, I'm pretty sure it's more complex than "Black people live there, so let's just cede the place to the sea."


Back in July, I plugged the SETI screensaver that allows you to donate your idle computer time to processing data gathered in the search for a signal from intelligent beings in outer space.

I was not aware at the time that SETI is actually a fairly generic acronym, and there are many Searches for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that use the term. The screen saver is part of the University of California-Berkeley's SETI project. It is not affiliated with the SETI Institute, which is what most people think of when they hear SETI, since it once had a rather complicated relationship with NASA (for more on that, click here). The nature of the SETI Institute's search projects require that the data be analyzed in real time as it comes in, so that project is not farmed out. However, in the SETI Institute's podcast, they did go on record as being in favor of Berkeley's project and the screen saver.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Recommended Listening

Click here and give a listen to the song "BrainsBodyBoth." You won't regret it. For starters, he not only uses the word "soporific," but he also rhymes it. Twice. The lyrical thrust of the song is that guys like girls who are both smart and sexy.

I don't quite know how to describe the musical style. It's from George Hrab's album fourth album, Coelacanth, which he describes as "a collection of philosofunky biolojams for the skeptical zoologist's dance party."

Headlines to Blow Your Mind

FEMA Bested by Wal-Mart

Turns out those commercials touting the efficiency of Wal-Mart's distribution network are not just blowing smoke. Wal-Mart used its distribution network to get relief supplies to rural Louisiana before FEMA or the Red Cross could get in.

Ain't Technology Grand?

Elie recently got me into podcasts, which are basically radio-show type programs that can be downloaded to an MP3 player (hence podcasts, though there is no special requirement for an iPod). My favorites are The Signal, Skepticality, NOVA Now, and SETI Radio. I have been listening to them on an old Rio 600 from the early days of MP3 files when 64 Mb was a lot of storage space on a player and shrinking it down to the just over the size of a deck of cards was quite an achievement. Menus were for weenies, though it did have a black and white (OK, grey and greenish) LCD display. The Rio holds about an hour and a half of podcasting--except for SETI Radio, which manages to compress an hour program into a file about half the size of the others. Also, it runs on a AA battery, so I've been constantly reloading my player and replacing the battery.

Not anymore. I just took delivery of a 1 gigabyte Mobiblu 1500i. In addition to being an MP3 player, it has a clock, can receive and record FM radio signals, takes voice memos, and even functions as a jump drive. It has a bright backlit OLED screen (take that, iPod Shuffle!) and a rechargable battery that, ideally, runs 10 hours on a 3-hour charge. It has a single cable that takes care of charging and data transfer, and a single portal that accommodates both the charging/data transfer cable and the headset.

All of that, and it's the size of a cheese cube. Really.

You can check it out or buy it over here.

Free Stuff

Check out this link for how to get a free Sony PSP.

The general principle is that the Free PSP people are partnered with advertisers. You get the free PSP by signing up for one of the trial offers, and getting five other people to do the same. Simple, to the point, and while not always technically free, it's definitely cheaper than the $250 the PSP actually costs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Since You Asked

Since so many of you have asked, I figured I should post a clarification. No, the trip to Cedar Point was not for Elie's birthday. It was a work-related thing. As much as Elie likes watching what happens when I get pushed to the edge of my comfort zone, one does not take me to the amusement park to have a rip-roaring good time. With the acrophobia and the propensity for motion sickness, the only way I could be less fun at an amusement park is if I were a pregnant dwarf with a heart condition. On his birthday, we just had a nice day at home then went to Cleveland forhis birthday dinner.

Adventures with Science

If any of you reading this have small children (and I know at least one of you does), I offer you a free response to the complaint, "This science stuff is so boring/stupid/hard. Why do I even need to know it, anyway?":
You want a big house with a big yard, right? Then you are going to need a riding lawn mower. When that riding mower gets stuck on top of a log with its wheels spinning in the air and you're home alone with no one to help you get the tractor down, you'll be glad for science.
We'll gloss over exactly how I got myself into this situation, as that was one of the least entertaining parts of my day. We'll just start with me and the riding mower five feet from the barn door with the right set of tractor wheels suspended a good six inches above the ground, owing to a chunk of firewood lodged firmly under the mower deck. A half hour of yanking and shoving were getting me nowhere. I could get the tractor tipped over far enough that it was no longer resting on the log; however, that took all available limbs, leaving nothing left to remove the offending piece of wood. I could shove the tractor back and forth a little, but that really only pivoted it around the log. I even tried to dig under the log, only to find that a previous owner of the house had at one point laid something asphalt-like by the barn entrance that had since been covered by about 3/4 inch of dirt. Obviously, brute force was not solving this problem. I could wait for Elie to get home, but the last thing I imagine he wants to do after a day at the office is heave lawn equipment. Also, he might ask questions I couldn't answer, such as "Why is our lawn mower on top of a log?"

Wait a second, I said to myself as I tried to heave the tractor up by another angle. You may be a borderline-unemployable housewife, but you're smarter than this. I always talk to myself in the second person.

This is where that science comes in. The lever is one of the six simple machines (the others are wheel and axle, inclined plane, screw, wedge, and pulley). I may not have been thinking torque equations, but I did finally remember that if you wedge a 2x4 under the tractor and over a log, you can lift the lawn tractor up with a minimal effort, while maintaining an angle that allows one to remove the obstruction under the tractor.

Then, of course, I got the tractor wedged on the lever, having placed the fulcrum a little too close to the load. Maybe I should have been thinking about torque equations after all.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Help is Help

Fidel Castro has offered to send 1,586 doctors and 26 tons of medical supplies to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina. I wouldn't go so far as to say this falls under "bury the hatchet," but at least he's willing to put the hatchet on the shelf while fellow human beings are dying and he has resources that can help them to, well, not die. I'm sure he is aware, and possibly amused on some deep level, that the offer puts the US government in the rather awkward position of accepting aid from a country which it designated a "State Sponsor of Terrorism" in March 1982 or rejecting badly-needed aid just because we're not fond of who is giving it.

So far, our government has gone with the latter option, putting political principles above human lives (please, no snide comments about how "pro-life" Bush is--I think the inaction says it all). By all accounts, Castro made the offer some time Friday. As of news reports Monday, there has been no response from the US government, either accepting or rejecting the offer. I can't imagine this is because we have all the doctors and medicine we need in Louisiana/Alabama right now.

As an interesting sidebar, here are some links to how various news outlets are covering this issue. What a difference perspective makes.
CNN (United States)
Click here for CNN's coverage of the initial offer
Trabajadores (Cuba)
Pravda (Russia)
Al Jazeera (Arab world)
Reuters UK (British subsidiary of US news company)

Monday, September 05, 2005


I forgot to mention one of the other rides we went on, the aptly-named Demon Drop. I think it is NASA surplus, with a former life as a device to see if the astronauts would throw up when the Apollo capsules hit the ocean. Picture, if you will, being strapped in to an open-front, open-sided steel cage that is hoisted to the top of a 10-story tower, then dropped. Just dropped. At some point in the pullout curve, the cage tips you on to your back, then turns you back vertical again. I think I tasted my own esophagus. I'm also pretty sure I got someone else's vomit residue on my shirt.

We did that ride just before lunch. Did I mention that this was a quasi-group outing? Someone else coordinated this, bought all the tickets, and arranged for lunch, although we didn't stick together as a group at the park. I'm not sure at what point during lunch that it occured to the trip coordinator that a buffet was not necessarily the best idea at an amusement park. I figured it out yesterday, when we got the luncheon arrangements. All-you-can-eat + roller coasters. Yeah, this does not end well.

Happy Labor Day

I am not a thrill seeker. My idea of death-defying is waking up in the morning. When I moved to a third floor apartment, I wouldn't go out on the balcony for months owing to my dread fear of heights. I find nothing entertaining about seeing how many vector changes it takes to throw my gastrointestinal tract into reverse or how high/fast I have to go before my adrenal glands cry for mercy.

Which explains why I spent today at Cedar Point, a place that bills itself as "The Roller Coaster Capital [sic] of the World." I still can't explain how I ended up clamped into something called the Power Tower, an open-air ride that leaves one's feet dangling over the abyss while shooting one directly vertical for 240 feet, then reversing the G-forces to let one bounce back down like a paddle ball. Elie says I just squealed, but I'm pretty sure I shouted at least six things that would be bleeped on network television. I very nearly opened my eyes. I'm feeling a little queasy even now just thinking about it.

While I let Elie fly solo on the big coasters (the Gemini and the Magnum XL-200), I did go on the Cedar Creek Mine Ride, which at only 48 feet tall is pretty much the bunny hill of coasters. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in the car chanting the mantra, "Isaac Newton will not let me down." So I'm a geek. Most people ignore how physics keeps them in their seats on a roller coaster. Me, I count on it. If I was better at math, I'd really count it.

In the arcade, I managed to find both the broken Whack-A-Mole and the broken skee-ball machine. I got my quarter back on the Whack-A-Mole, but I figured the arcade manager, who looked to be about 15, wouldn't believe that I had the rotten luck to get my quarter eaten by the skee-ball not three minutes later.

Next time, I'm wearing a swimsuit. The flume leaves one's shorts uncomfortably soaked.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Holy Friggin' Crap

Chief Justice Rehnquist has died.

Normally, I would not just post the big news of the day, commentary free, but being as I got word of this through News From ME, I thought I'd pass it on to others like myself who have stopped reading the news in the past week. There's only so many versions of escalating tales of woe that a person can handle.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I Stand Corrected

According to an article in Wired Magazine, the Sci-Fi Channel does in fact have rights to air all the episodes of Firefly, including the ones that went unaired in the original 2002 run on Fox. The Sci-Fi Channel's website indicates that the 10-hour marathon on September 27 will air the first 10 episodes of the series, transposing episodes 9 and 10. This, much to the chagrin of some of the fans over on the forums. Episode order is a bit of a sore subject with die-hard fans, since the original run of the series on Fox botched the episode order so badly the series barely made sense. Unlike a lot of TV shows, Firefly has actual story arcs and character development. A lot of the drama in the pilot, which Fox saw fit to air as the final episodes, depends on the audience not knowing how the series works out. The cliffhanger between Part 1 and Part 2 of the pilot, for instance, is, "Whoa! That crate contains a cryogenically frozen naked teenage girl! Who is she and what is she doing with a guy who--now that you mention it--seems a little too uptight?" When that is used as the resolution to the characters instead of the introduction, you can see how it wouldn't quite play the same.

My guess it the order switch for the marathon is to provide a better lead-in to the "Inside Serenity" special, since the episode they end with in the marathon contains a key development in the plot line that plays an important part in the movie.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Finding Serenity

Only 28 more days until the release of Serenity, the movie continuation of the cancelled TV series Firefly.

Unlike so much of sci-fi, Firefly is character driven. There's a nine-member ensemble cast of characters whose only real commonality is that they've all, for one reason or another, come to travel on a dinky transport vessel that is mostly used for borderline or extralegal transport operations. Five are the ship's crew, three are paying passengers (smuggling doesn't always pay the bills), and one is a sort of Space Geisha who rents out one of the shuttles in a "mutually beneficial business relationship"--she expands her client base, and having a respectable Registered Companion on board means the ship is welcomed in more places than it otherwise might be. One of the paying passengers is a priest who seems to know an awful lot about non-priestly things like what various caliber weapons will do to human flesh. The other two passengers, a doctor and his genius younger sister, are wanted fugitives with bounties on their heads. Seems the doctor bribed and smuggled his sister out of a government facility where they were doing bizarre medical experiments that left her a telepathic paranoid schizophrenic with remarkable aim.

Tonight at 7 p.m., the Sci-Fi Channel is showing the episode, "Our Mrs. Reynolds." The captain of the ship finds out he has inadevertently gotten married during a party. Actually, it's more like he was given a wife as partial payment for a job. This, you may recall, is a plot device also used in Stargate, though in Firefly, it ends much, much differently. Also, the new Mrs. Reynolds turns out to be a very different kind of wife than Sha're was.

If you don't have the DVDs, set your TiVo. On September 27, the Sci-Fi Channel will show a marathon of all the aired episodes of Firefly and a special behind-the-scenes look at the movie. There are two episodes that were made but never aired originally, and it seems Sci-Fi doesn't have rights to those last two. Shame, though, because those last two are great. At least watch the pilot episode, Serenity, which may be broken up into two parts. After that, I guarantee you'll be lining up at the theater.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The new Mazda concept car has a USB port that not only starts the car, but can download programs to the car's hard drive.

Now that's universal. I'm looking at you, Sony, with your "universal" media disks that play only on the Sony PSP.

I've linked to Mazda's press release about the vehicle, but only because it is the most informative piece I've found on the net dealing with the car's features. Please ignore the writing of the piece, which manages to use the phrase "zoom-zoom" as an adjective four times in a six-paragraph release.