Thursday, January 24, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- Complex Videogames

I just finished Half-Life II on the PS3 and had a few thoughts. I realize that the game has been out for a couple of years but this is more about my impressions, not a review.

First Person Shooters used to be the only place you had the character’s POV but that’s long gone. With the advent of ubiquitous 3D there isn’t a single type of game that hasn’t adopted a first person or over the shoulder aspect. Half Life is a Doom-type first person shooter, but is far more varied than most with the platforming, puzzle, and vehicle driving aspects that have become standard in FPSs. The graphics are extraordinary, easily competing with Bioshock which was released almost two years later. The environments are varied- indoors and outdoors, Dystopian city landscapes (with a couple of excellent rooftop areas), underground (mines, sewers, partially flooded tunnels), a gothic village (Ravenholm), beaches, and even a truss arch bridge platforming level that will induce vertigo in the strongest stomach. The vehicles consist of a long set of airboat levels and a shorter dune buggy ride interspersed with the more typical small arms fighting and throwing switches. The puzzles are predominantly of the stacking boxes to reach something type, and the similar tedious areas where you use the gravity gun to build a roman road across some dangerous surface (sand or radioactive water mostly). Likewise the platforming elements are rather simple (such as running along Father Gregori’s elevated pathways in Ravenholm) and used to break up the monotony of the virtually non-stop skirmishes.

None of this is the problem with Half Life. The play mechanics are solid. The objectives are reasonable. the environments are interesting and varied. The problem for me is one of focus. I’ve been playing FPS games since Doom. There was a time when an advanced game engine or better graphics or new weapons were enough for a game where the whole point was pretending to kill a lot of stuff because, well, killin’ was what they needed. If this is what you want in a game, then Half Life is top of the heap. In fact, in the Orange Box configuration it’s probably the best deal ever in a console FPS.

But what if you want more than that? I keep seeing demographics that indicate the average gamer is in their late 20s or even early 30s now. Is it still enough to simply run down hallways and blow up NCPs with nifty weapons? I’m afraid that growth of the videogame market is hitting a plateau. And I’m afraid it’s because of repetitiveness and superficiality. Half Life 2 does a good job of setting the stage, but then nothing interesting really happens in the world they’ve worked so hard to build. The game winds up being about the levels and the story winds up being about the setting.

Not all videogames are like this. Bioshock, for instance, tried to tie story and location together to give the player the feeling that they were involved in something bigger than whoopin’ the bad guys. Halo (before it degenerated into an excuse for multiplayer deathmatches) had enough plot that it might have made a decent science fiction short story. In fact, most games make some sort of swipe at trying to involve the player in a narrative of some sort. Even racing games sometimes try to give the NPC drivers personality. But the games themselves are about the games not about being a vehicle for storytelling.

But what if we put the story first? Oh, it’s been tried. You might say ZORK was an attempt. There was a myriad of point-and-click PC games that were story based in the wake of MYST. There were even the abysmal interactive movies on the Sega CD and others. But what games lack is real dialogue and characterization that would carry the narrative. In fact, most of these degenerated into ZORK with better graphics. The technology wasn’t right for real immersion and most games wound up being about the quest or the mystery and that involved walking around and finding a bunch of objects and killing stuff.

Make games more like novels where the player is the protagonist. I hesitate to say movies or TV because so much of those media are caught in the same sort of trap that games are. How many TV shows are procedurals? Cop or doctor shows? Boringly similar? How about games set in exotic locales with interesting characters and surprising plot twists where killing someone has the same moral gravitas that it does in real life? How about a game set in Ancient Rome where you have to decide whether to run for the Senate while negotiating the social hierarchy? Where making the wrong enemy can help or thwart you? How about a game based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld that starts you off at your 200th birthday party and winds up with you trying to get home from beyond the end of known space in the company of a small group of aliens on the largest artifact ever discovered? How about…well, you name it. Videogames have acquired the technology to be a lot more than games. They can be complex experiences told in real time and first person perspective. We all know this is where interactive entertainment is eventually going to go. So why are the gaming companies so caught up in the tired military and fantasy genres? Why is the main purpose of the game to have me jump up on something or shoot someone?

Mass Effect seems to be a big step in the right direction. I haven’ t played very far in but the way the game is laid out gives it the potential to have a real story. Alas, for those of us tired of being in the military in every game, it hasn’t been able to forsake that major cliche. Still, the graphics are good enough for a true immersive quality, the plot attempts complexity, and the idea of having you direct the gist of the conversation is a good idea. Hopefully it will be successful enough that other companies will start with story first and build the game around it, rather than vice versa.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

SCIENCE- The Scientific Method in Action (part III)

So we pick up the story where we left off...

The ancient Greeks had surmised that everything in the world was made up of elementary substances and that those elementary substances were comprised of tiny particles surrounded by interstitial spaces. It took two thousand years but eventually people were able to show that this natural philosophy was an actual verifiable fact. But the question remained as to what these primary particles were and how they worked to form the universe.

By 1799 Joseph Louis Proust had formulated the Law of Definite Proportions. While working with copper carbonate he found that no matter how much of each of the raw materials he started with, they would only combine in certain proportions to form that compound- 5 parts copper, 4 parts oxygen, and one part carbon by weight. This lent further credence to the theory that everything was made up of tiny indivisible units. If the ratios had ever changed then that might mean part of an atom was being used in the compound. But that never happened. So it seems that Democritus’ idea that atoms could not be broken down any farther was right. (There are exceptions but we’re only dealing with chemical means of disassociating compounds.)

Still, you couldn’t see these teeny little particles, you had to infer their existence in a sort of indirect way, so not everybody was convinced. Another Frenchman named Claude Louis Berthollet said that he had done experiments that showed compounds forming in varying proportions. So what was going on? Was somebody lying? Perhaps they were just mistaken. After all, scientists are only human and are just as capable of making mistakes or unconsciously skewing their data to verify their presuppositions as anyone. It would take a Swede, Jons Jakob Berzelius, to carry out a series of experiments that in the end would verify Proust’s observations to the rest of the chemical community. But as yet no one had formulated a theory of why this happened and what the nature of these tiny particles was.

So enter John Dalton. Dalton was the gifted son of a Quaker weaver. He decided he wanted to be either a doctor or lawyer (The dreams of weaver’s sons haven’t changed so much, have they?) but that was pretty unlikely. Not for the usual reasons (or maybe exactly for the usual reasons) but because Dalton’s family were desenters. Back then that didn’t mean that they refused to go to war, it meant that they thought the government had no right deciding what religion everyone should be. Instead they thought that it was up to the individual and his conscience when it came to the questions of their relationship to the almighty and the government had no right to intercede. In a world where it was common that government established a religion that all citizens were obligated to follow the tenants of that religion, this was both heresy and treason. So John Dalton’s beliefs about individual determination kept him from pursuing his chosen career path. He wound up teaching at a desenter university and published papers on weather, the nature of heat and light, colorblindness (A paper so influential about an ailment from which he suffered that for quite a while color blindness was called Daltonism. And which it turned out that he was almost completely wrong about.), and grammar.

He was also interested in gasses and was familiar with the work of Lavoisier and Proust. Dalton knew that you could make compound gasses with differing amounts of the same primary gasses. For instance you might combine three parts carbon with four parts oxygen (again, by weight) and get one compound gas, or you might combine three parts carbon with eight parts oxygen and get a different compound with radically different properties. However he did verify that the proportions remained constant throughout the reactions. He figured that if you accounted for the different particulate weights of each this would mean that each atom of carbon was combining with one atom of oxygen in the first example and two in the second. (As to the difference one atom of oxygen makes, the second compound is what you exhale and the first is what kills you if you leave the car running in a closed garage!) He even took to calling these particles atoms just as Democritus had. And in 1803 he published both a paper, which called this the Law of Multiple Proportions, and a rudimentary list of elements and their atomic weights. But he didn’t stop there. In 1808 Dalton took all the evidence for atomism that he knew and tied it all together in a book called The New System of Chemical Philosophy. In it he stated that each element was made up of distinct atoms, that each atom of a given element was the same as every other atom of that element, that each element’s atoms had a distinct weight, that these atoms could not be broken down or created by chemical means, and that these atoms combined with other atoms in regular proportions to form compounds. This was pretty much atomic theory as we understand it today.

Of course Dalton got a few things wrong. He believed that the simplest compounds were always in a 1:1 ratio, which caused him to underestimate the atomic weight of oxygen by half. That’s the way a theory in science works. It’s a framework for understanding all the data available about a certain group of phenomena. It doesn’t have to be right in every facet, but it does have to explain why observed phenomena are happening, be useful in making predictions about further phenomena that have not as yet been observed, and not be contradicted by any other observable phenomena.

Dalton’s unverified assumption about simple compounds didn’t invalidate his theory. And it’s a good thing because the evidence that this was wrong was already available. Several years earlier a British chemist named William Nicholson had passed electricity through water and found that by doing so he could disassociate the component parts into hydrogen and oxygen. Funny thing was that he got twice as much hydrogen by volume as he did oxygen. Now because we already know Boyle’s law we can infer that if you have twice as much volume at the same temperature and pressure then you must have twice as much stuff (twice as many atoms). Dalton knew about all this but he had a strong belief in the basic simplicity of the universe and that blinded him to what was really going on. Oddly it’s not that uncommon for a scientist who makes a great leap in logic to be incapable of taking the next step in the process. After revolutionizing science’s understanding space, time, gravity, and light, Einstein was unable to wrap his head around quantum mechanics for some time. (This is what prompted his famous “God does not play at dice” quote.) It would eventually take our old friend Jon Berzelius to do the experiments and work out the actual atomic weight of oxygen correctly. He also worked out the atomic weights of a great number of other elements and concluded that each element had a unique atomic weight and that every atom of an element had the same atomic weight. He published his findings in 1828 and, of course, even that wasn’t the whole story because he was unaware of isotopes that are instances where an element has a slightly different atomic weight.

Of course, the story doesn’t even end there. The story of science never ends because there is always something new to discover about the universe. Some ideas are even dismissed or not noticed. Not because they aren’t right, just because that is the way human beings do things. For instance (in this instance), an Italian chemist named Amadeo Avogadro hypothesized that any given volume of a any gas (at the same temperature and pressure) would have the same number of molecules in 1811. (A hypothesis is an educated guess based on observations which is advanced to see if is has actual rigorous validity when scrutinized.) And while it may seem that while Berzelius made use of this idea in doing his experiments, he probably didn’t actually realize it because his table of atomic weights is wrong in places. In fact, nobody paid much attention to it until almost fifty years later when, in 1858, another Italian, Stanislao Canizzaro, rediscovered Avogrdro’s work and corrected the numbers for several atomic weights. He became famous when he explained Avogrdro’s Hypothesis (as it would forever be known) in a big convention of chemists from all over Europe that was held in 1860. This would lead Jean-Servais Stas to publish an even better list of atomic weights and that would prompt Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev to spend hours with little cards in front of him with everything he knew about every element written on them. Mendeleev arranged them this way and that way, trying to see some way that they fell into groups that would explain the character of each element and associate that character with their atomic properties. After weeks of trial and error it came to him. And the final arrangement would result in what we now call the Periodic Table- the big poster that hangs to this day in the front of virtually every chemistry class on the planet. Mendeleev’s arrangement of elements had holes in it where there were spaces for elements that he didn’t even know of at the time, but it would predict the characteristics of those elements so well that it assisted the scientists looking for them to know what they were looking for.

So, learning about atoms and molecules we see that the process of science is self correcting and methodical. We start with an idea- that the universe is made up of tiny bits of a few basic substances. That these bits combine to make complex compounds. That those tiny bits are surrounded by mostly empty space. That they follow certain rules in how they combine and that even though they are each distinct, the compounds they form can have novel properties, different from what any of the components exhibit by themselves. That the universe is structured and orderly and there is no supernatural intervention required for it to function. Along the way we discard incorrect ideas through experimentation and observation. We come to understand that elemental components are not infinitely reducible. Later we realize that elements combine the way they do because of their sub-atomic structure. And we use that knowledge to infer even greater truths about the structure of the universe and everything in it, including ourselves, based on that knowledge. And we gain greater control over our surroundings by applying that knowledge to increase our technology.

None of this answers the basic questions about human existence. It simply lets us know that if the universe is an artifact that it was made on a plan that we are able to comprehend. As Einstein said, “The most amazing thing about the universe is that we can understand it at all.” Science can have no opinion on whether this is because the basic structure of the universe is so simple that even our primate brains can comprehend it, because we are the product of a universe developing sentience to enable it to understand itself, or because we have a link to the creator who set this universal machine in motion. Those are questions for religion or philosophy. Science is for figuring out how the universe works and nothing does a better job.

POLITICS- Ron Who? Takes Second Place in NV

Almost as interesting as watching the political races or trying to parse the platforms lately has been watching the media scurry around trying to simultaneously predict, report, and interpret the elections. Clinton and Guliani were almost a forgone conclusion before the first elections. Then Huckabee and Obama were just as favored. Now McCain and Romney are back in the thick of it. But through all of this there remains one candidate who, while having been interviewed on numerous talk shows and having done well in every election so far, is never mentioned in the same sentence with a possible win. In fact he could almost run on the slogan “You know you can’t win” because it seems to be the one thing every interviewer says to him right away.

Suppressing and ignoring Ron Paul has been a national pastime for months now. He won the online polls after the first debates, which only obliged pollsters to omit him from later polls. He amassed the most campaign donations in the months leading up to the first primary, which prompted television pundits to grow suddenly quiet about how important money was to the campaign. He’s beat “front runner” Guliani in EVERY SINGLE PRIMARY so far and was second only to Romney in Nevada, and the only mention anywhere except the actual number spreadsheet on the CNN page was to say in one line that he “edged out” McCain there. Edged out the man who won in two other states. Routienly bests Thompson and the other second tier candidates. But who do you hear more about? If I didn’t know better I’d say that the people who really run America are afraid of Ron Paul.

I’m not usually the conspiracy minded type but I’ve always been quick to say that people with the same goals have a confluence of interests. Reuters omitted Paul in their headline “2008 Republicans back war”. ABC news neglected Paul in their online polls and then was caught actually deleting posts mentioning Paul from their online debate forum. MSNBC ignored Paul in their post-debate coverage in spite of the fact that he was 2nd or 3rd in each of their online debate poll questions. Yahoo failed to mention Paul in their Republican candidate round-up and, when called on it, lied that he wasn’t an announced candidate at all. The Washington Post suggested denying Paul a spot in future debates. Pajamas Media grew so frustrated with Paul’s winning of their online polls that they simply deleted him from contention. Fox has banned him from their televised debates. All of this in spite of the fact that the web site TECHNORATI shows that politically minded web surfers are doing more searches for “Ron Paul” than for YouTube, MySpace, American Idol, or even Paris Hilton!

Ironically, several liberal publications, such as the Nation and the Keene Free Press, cannot help but notice Paul as a defender of individual liberty even if they don’t agree with his free market policies.

Who is Ron Paul and why is he so frightening to the established powers? Well, He is a doctor, an OB/GYN who has delivered over 4000 babies. He writes his own speeches. He has written several books, most recent of which is “The Foreign Policy of Freedom”. He has won numerous awards from the American Taxpayers Union. Rated by CNET as the legislator most favorable to the Internet.

Ron Paul believes in small government, favors a non-interventionist foreign policy which uses trade rather than the military to further democracy, champions lower taxes and the abolition of the IRS as too broken to fix, supports true laissez-faire market reforms, and is so poor a target for special interest lobbyists that most don’t waste their time with him. He has earned the nickname Dr. No from special interest groups because he is so immune to being purchased by them. He thinks that 60 years after the Second World War that perhaps the billions of dollars we spend keeping military bases in Europe would be better spent here at home.

The media seems bent on portraying the upcoming presidential race as black vs. white, red state vs. blue state, hard headed warmongering conservatives vs. fuzzy headed commie-pinko liberals, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people I talk to aren’t really that divided in their opinions. Most of us say we want smaller rather than larger government, less rather than more war, lower rather than higher taxes, more rather than less personal freedom. Most Americans seem to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. We want a government that spends less and meddles less. So why do we find both parties and the media ignoring the one candidate who embodies these qualities? Why has the biggest coverage of Paul lately been about “bigoted” articles in a publication he edited years ago? (Which many people say were not bigoted at all but rather just defenses of state’s rights and doing away with race based preferences, both usual planks of the republican platform.)

The simple answer is that neither the political parties, theocratic influence groups, or big corporations and their associated media empires have any real use for the type of freedom that the constitution describes. You don’t attain and exert power by leaving people alone and simply doing the job of government (which Ronald Reagan described as paving the roads and delivering the mail). You gain and exert power in the time honored fashion that tyrants and dictators have since time immemorial- you get people stirred up to fix something that somebody else is doing wrong. A new book about Liberal Fascism has unleashed a lot of blogk (blog talk- pronounce it as if you are retching) but it does bring up one basic truth without realizing it- both the political parties in America today are basically fascist. They both wish to interfere with free market economics, dictate personal behavior, sustain a militarily interventionist policy around the globe, and intervene in even the most personal and arbitrary decisions of their citizens. There is no party of individual freedom and minding your own business because there isn’t any big money or media interested in that.

But Ron Paul’s campaign proves that there are still Americans that are.

Friday, January 18, 2008

POLITICS- Science Debate

This has never been more important. But they say it far better than I could:

A Call for a Presidential Debate on Science and Technology

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy.

Please visit the Science Debate 2008 web site and sign up. I don’t expect that any of the candidates from either party would get within a million miles of a debate where buzzwords, jargon, canned answers, and the usual 100% pure bullshit just won’t work, but it’s worth a try.

POLITICS- Keep Off the Grass

Following the mantra that more government is good government, Murfreesburo, Tennessee has passed a couple of new laws that are sorely needed to protect our lives and homes. It is now illegal to put living room furniture on your porch or park your car on your yard. For sheer inanity this rivals a new zoning ordinance passed year before last in Franklin, TN that told homeowners which way their garages should face. One can only imagine what serious problems of public policy these stalwart defenders of freedom will undertake next. Perhaps one of these elected aristocrats will decide what color shirts we should all wear on Wednesdays. There are simply no words to express how silly this seems to me. Is it really what we elect people to do? According to the online poll at the time I last looked, people who think so are outnumbered by the sane in a 3 to 2 ratio.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

SCIENCE- The Scientific Method in Action (part II)

So we see that science is not a belief system or a dogma but actually a system for observing the universe and attempting to place those observations into a reasonable framework for understanding the underlying causes for those observations.

Let’s follow just one path of the scientific method through history. To see how this works out in the real world.

We have our first recorded instances of something like science in ancient Greece. There, people started to give credence to the idea that natural occurrences might have natural causes. There wasn’t really much in the way of experimentation back then. This embryonic science was actually more like philosophy. But they were attempting to explain the universe without resorting to explanations involving gods or the supernatural. They still believed in gods and the supernatural, they just thought that there might be some explanations that didn’t involve them directly. This is sometimes referred to as natural philosophy. One of these early ideas was that things weren’t each completely individual. That all matter (though they didn’t call it that) might be made up of a simple material or small number of materials. The first person we know of that hit upon this idea was a fellow named Thales who, at the end of the 6th century BC, decided everything was made of water. Over the next century or so other Greeks got into the act. Anaximenes thought that basic substance was air. Heraclitus decided it was fire. Finally, by the middle of the 5th century BC, Empedicles hit on the diplomatic solution that everybody might be right and instead of one thing, the world was made up of a few things. They had no way to test any of this, but it seemed reasonable. Aristotle added a final basic substance, called Aether, to account for the stuff that bright extraterrestrial objects such as the sun and the stars were made of. The Greeks called these basic materials Elements.

So if everything is made up of earth, air, fire, and water (aether being different because it was for celestial objects), how were they mixed? At the start of the third century BC, Leucippus speculated that if you were able to take the smallest component of anything you would find something so small as to be impossible to divide further and that there was space between these tiny particles even in the densest substance. One of his students, Democritus, thought that the idea of tiny particles surrounded by voids (empty spaces) explained how things could move and change. He decided to call these smallest bits of anything Atomos (unbreakable). Not everybody bought into this however. Aristotle and another big brain of the time, Plato, thought that what made primary elements primary was that they were infinite. Not made up of smaller particles but a basic part of the fabric of the universe. And since they were considered among the wisest men in Greece, their theory carried popular opinion (remember, no body had figured out how to do experiments on this stuff yet).

Nevertheless, in spite of popular opinion others thought what Leucippus and Democritus had said made a lot of sense. Among these was Epicurus (who is familiar to us through the term Epicurean) who was the leader of one of the philosophical schools in Greece around the start of the third century. He made this idea that everything was made up of extremely small, indivisible particles with space between them a basic part of his teachings. Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman follower of the Epicurean school in the first century BC, wrote a poem explaining Epicurus’ views on the subject in great detail. While none of the writings of Epicurus survived into modern times (there are indications that he wrote over 300 books), Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) was a smash hit in old Rome and wound up being extensively copied. Unfortunately, a few centuries later the Christian church decided that Lucretius was an atheist and the copies of his book were burned or lost.

Then, in 1417, a single copy of the poem was found and a few years later was one of the first books published with that modern wonder of the time, the printing press. Once again the poem was a smash hit. At the time people in Europe were crazy for any learning from the Ancient World and the fantastic idea that everything was made up of tiny particles with space in between was the 14th century version of The Matrix. French philosopher Pierre Gassendi became a major proponent of the idea and through his extensive writing one of the budding new experimental scientists, Robert Boyle, decided to see if he could put it to the test.

Boyle figured that if everything was made up of tiny particles then the difference between states of matter must be how far apart those particles were. If that was the case there must be some way to press the particles closer together. He did this in 1662 by taking a hollow glass rod shaped like a “J” with the small end closed and pouring mercury into the open end. The mercury trapped air in the short end of the cylinder and by pouring more mercury into the open end he could compress the air and increase the pressure. Taking careful measurements of how the air was affected, he was able to figure out that increasing the pressure of a gas caused a proportional decrease in the volume of the gas. This made perfect sense if the gasses were made of tiny particles with space between. Squeezing the particles closer together made the gas smaller. It also led to the conclusion that, if everything was made up of tiny particles with space in between, the reason that a given volume of lead was heavier that the same volume of air was because the particles were closer together.

Not everybody was convinced. But there were no better explanations of the experimental results and anybody could do the experiment for himself (or herself) if they didn’t believe the results. Atomism provided a logical and simple explanation of what was going on.

(Now I know what you’re thinking. Big whoop. But it turned out to be important in all sorts of ways. For instance, if you scuba dive. In the 1940’s a Frenchman named Jacques-Yves Cousteau invented the demand-valve aqualung allowing divers to inhale freely in spite of the increasing pressure found at any significant depth underwater. Advanced SCUBA divers can calculate Boyle’s Law in their heads knowing that about 33 feet of water is equal in density to all the air in the atmosphere over their heads at sea level. And yes, it’s THAT Jacques Cousteau, the one who made all those underwater documentaries.)

So two thousand years after the debate started, Boyle proved that Lucippus was right and the representatives of the common wisdom, Plato and Aristotle, were wrong. It seemed that everything was made up of little particles. Ah ha, but what were the little particles made of?

Well, if the Greeks were right about atom perhaps they were right about elements. But it was pretty obvious by this time that the elements they had picked weren’t actually elemental. It was already known that a lot of things could be broken down into simpler things by chemical reactions. But how far could this be carried? How would you know when anything had been broken down as far as it could go? Boyle thought that the whole question could only be proved by experiment and in 1661 wrote a book, called The Skeptical Chemist, in which he said so. So for years after that, chemists took chemical compounds and did everything they could think of to break them down chemically.

In 1789 chemist Antoine Lavoisier realized that whenever a compound when through a chemical reaction the end products weighed the same as the compound did originally. And that it worked both ways. Whether a reaction combined things or disassociated them, you wound up with the same amount of stuff as you started with. This led him to decide that matter was conserved through the reaction. Nowadays we call this the Law of Conservation of Mass.

Ten years later, in 1799, a chemist named Joseph Louis Proust was working with copper carbonate. True to form, he never lost any copper, carbon, or oxygen whether he was adding them together or breaking them down. But he realized that he also wound up with the same proportions every time the reaction occurred. This led him to surmise that certain elements combine with other elements in constant proportions.

But nobody knew why.

Because nobody knew the nature of the particles themselves.

And the answer to that mystery was waiting for a fellow named John Dalton to unravel it.

MOVIES- 3:10 to Yuma

The historic taming of the West was a brief span in American history. If you took all the Westerns made in the last 100 years they would take longer to view that the period actually lasted. While it may be hard to believe nowadays, the genre was a staple from the earliest days of film. It was able to fit all types of stories from simple melodramas, to comedy, to the narratives of complex antiheroes. Then suddenly, the western died. In the last three decades only a handful of westerns have been made. A genre that had served as a vehicle for every kind of story suddenly found itself unable to connect with the audience.

I think that as much as anything, Star Wars, and the onslaught of science fiction films in its wake, killed the western. America was no longer an agrarian nation with most people living close to farms and being familiar with animals and open spaces. Instead we were a technological juggernaut with people spending more time in cities and usually seeing animals in a zoo. Star Wars reflected that technological and environmental change. Star Wars borrowed heavily from Japanese Samurai movies, but before it came along those movies were the inspiration for many westerns. Star Wars replaced horse opera with space opera, black hats with black helmets and horses with spaceships. The paradigm had changed. We were more comfortable with our morality plays cloaked in high tech than the high plains.

But such a primary part of American film doesn’t die easily. Nowadays westerns are rare but each western is an event. They aren’t willing to settle for simplicity. In the modern era two westerns were able to catch the popular zeitgeist. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves remade the classic cowboys vs. Indians story into a tale of an isolated man going native and seeing the conquest of the west from the viewpoint of the conquered. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven laid the old western stereotypes to rest for good, turning each upside down. The protagonists were criminals who stood for virtue. The lawmen were sadists and egomaniacs. The gunplay was brutal and final. And Hollywood noticed. Both Costner’s tale of racial understanding and Eastwood’s postmodern deconstructionism won Oscars for best picture and best director.

3:10 to Yuma pulls back from this complete abrogation of all the old archetypes. It’s a more classical western with good and bad guys and a lot of the old familiarity. There is a rancher about to lose his land to the bank, the building of the railroad, the character of the landscape, an Indian attack, a stagecoach robbery. But don’t think that they are just pulled out as set pieces. The ingredients may be familiar but director James Mangold uses all this action only as the backdrop for a character study of the two protagonists- one an injured veteran dealing with his own self image and a rebellious teenaged son, the other a charming sociopath being taken to his death. The relationship of these two men and how each causes the other to reassess his own life is the heart of the movie.

With all that western scenery, it’s easy for an actor to be overwhelmed. That isn’t a problem here. Russell Crowe gives another nuanced performance as Ben Wade, a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rolled into one. He’s the leader of a gang of train robbers who rules with a combination of brains and brutal violence. In an early scene he shoots one of his own men rather than have a robbery thwarted. Yet after his capture he sits down to a meal with his jailers and shows a charming ambiguity that makes you wonder if he is as ruthless as he seems. Most of the drama results from never knowing which of these personas is going to win out in a given situation. And Crowe’s performance keeps you guessing which way the character will finally go right up to the end.

Balancing Crowe’s performance is Christian Bale as Dan Evans, a rancher who has to deal with trouble at home and the loss of his lower leg in the war. Evans son is attracted to Wade’s alternative to the workaday life on the ranch; his wife is ambivalent to him; and the bank is about to take his land because he’s having a bad year and the railroad makes his land worth more than his ranch. Bale doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with, his character’s stoicism provides a counterpoint to the charm of Ben Wade, but Bale has no problem acting with his face and eyes. In the end the story is as much about his redemption as it is about the redemption of the villain.

Westerns have always been famous for interesting supporting casts and 3:10 to Yuma is no different. Peter Fonda is the old Pinkerton who may be as sadistic as the men he arrests. Ben Foster plays his standard crazy-eyed psychopath as the gangs second in command who is perhaps a little too loyal to his boss. Logan Lerman and Gretchen Mol are a plausible rancher’s family- attractive but not too gorgeous. And Alan Tudyk turns in yet another interesting character performance in a role that has become a western stereotype- the alcoholic doctor who winds up being pressed into gunplay by circumstance.

There are a couple of groaners. For instance, in once scene a wounded Pinkerton is hustled into the doctor’s office and someone asks “Are you the doctor!?!” The town looks to have a maximum population of about 50 people so the idea that anyone wouldn’t know who the town doctor is seems pretty implausible. And the direction sometimes succumbs to the modern affectation of close ups and quick cuts in the action scenes. This may make it easier to shoot action sequences but it often makes the sequence confusing and is simply counterproductive when dealing with large action pieces such as the crash of a stagecoach. But these are minor quibbles in a movie that does so much right.

3:10 to Yuma is an old style Western with new age sensibilities. The action never drags but there is enough here to keep anyone interested even if they are not hypnotized by gunplay and explosions. The performances of the two leads are riveting, elevating this from being just another movie to being really worth watching.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

PERSONAL- Yesterday was Donald Fagen's Birthday

January 10, 1948. Donald Fagen turned sixty years old yesterday. I'm sorry I missed it because I consider Mr. Fagen's solo work and his collaboration with Walter Becker in Steely Dan some of my favorite pop music. Steely Dan (named for a self pleasuring device in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch) has an immediately recognizable sound that mixes elements of pop and jazz and combines smooth upbeat melodies with stingingly satirical lyrics. The music is complex and Fagan never shied from allowing his prodigious intellect to shine through the lyrics.

Happy birthday, Don. (Now how about a new album!)

In this, the title track from the 1982 album THE NIGHTFLY, Fagen waxes nostalgic about late night radio DJs from his youth.

SCIENCE- What is Science?

There has been an ongoing debate in our society for the last several years about the theory of evolution. And about the only thing that has been learned from this conflict is that even here in the 21st century, where every person daily uses the products of science, the general public understands darn little about science. Now, by understands I don’t mean is up on the latest in scientific theory or the current work in particle physics. I mean they don’t even understand what science is! Some think it is a belief system, others a conspiracy to confuse the masses and strip them of their faith in God, still others think it is a series of guesses that are as apt to be wrong as right. So in the face of this massive ignorance, I’d like to share my feeble understanding in the hopes that it might contribute to a small general increase in scientific literacy.

First of all, SCIENCE IS NOT A BELIEF SYSTEM, IT IS A METHODOLGY. There are people who don’t understand science who believe in it, however. But belief in a particular theory is irrelevant to how science works. In its most simple form the scientific method is a way of testing ideas about the universe to see if they hold up. Religious people say that there are some ideas about the universe that science cannot test. This is completely true. Science deals only with observable, testable, repeatable phenomena in the natural world. Anything purely subjective- supernatural occurrences, purely personal experiences and feelings, anything cannot be observed and measured objectively, is outside the purview of science. And science deals only with natural explanations for these objective phenomena. Anything that cannot be explained by a natural process is also outside the scope of science. Several examples of this might be thought, imagination, emotion, or religion. In other words, science can tell you about biochemistry but not about love. About sound but not about music.

This SCIENTIFIC METHOD is the classic problem solving methodology. It works for more than science. Police use a variation to solve crimes, doctors to diagnose patients. Virtually everyone uses a variation of the scientific method to understand their surroundings.

So what is the scientific method? It goes something like this:

(1) GATHER DATA. Another way to say this might be- observe the universe around you. These observations can be direct (Newton getting hit on the head with the apocryphal apple) or made with the aid of devices but they have to be repeatable. This means that if you and I make the same observation we will see the same thing. Observations have to be constant enough that they are not debated. In other words, facts. All science starts with observation.

(2) FORMULATE A HYPHOTHESIS. Having observed as best you can, you must now formulate a theory as to what is going on. This theory should tie the data together in such a way that you can extrapolate what other, as yet unobserved data might exist. The analogy is that data is a group of points drawn on a piece of paper to signify locations, the theory is the map that ties them all together. But it is more that that. Such a map would have to include new points that exist but haven’t been found yet. It also has to account for any as yet unobserved data that might not be directly predicted. Tricky, huh?

(3) DESIGN AN EXPERIMENT TO TEST YOUR HYPOTHESIS. Now that you’ve decided what seems to be going on, figure out a way to disprove it. That’s right, I said disprove it. It is impossible to prove a theory. All theories are conditional because there is always the possibility that new data will later be found which does not fit the theory. But they have to include all available data. In the map analogy, You know where three things are so you’ve drawn your map predicting where a fourth thing will be. An experiment is to go out and find or not find that fourth thing.

(4) EVALUATE THE DATA. Did you find the item on the map that you expected? If it is there then the theory is sound. If it is not then the map must be discarded.

(5) REASSESS THE HYPOTHESIS INCLUDING ANY NEW DATA. Sometimes you will find both the expected outcome and new data you didn’t expect. Only if the theory can also account for the new data is it sound. Otherwise you return to Step 1 and start over. But actually you return to step 1 either way. Since science is a method, it is never really satisfied with any answer. Only after years of experimentation and observation is a new theory accepted and then that acceptance is always contingent on finding some new data that renders the theory obsolete. This has happened countless times through the history of science. The best that science can do is say that from everything we’ve observed this is what seems to be going on. Science offers no absolute answers.

So lets look at how this has actually worked in the past.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

POLITICS RELIGION- Torture, the Jack Bauer Strawman

The Hairy Fish Nuts blog brings up the question of torture in referencing an article by Joseph Farah. Hairy is one of my favorite blogs but often his rants are built on simple answers to complex questions. While I find that he is a wealth of common sense (and frequently damn funny), I also realize (quoting Voltaire) that common sense is not so common.

So I've been thinking about this a lot and trying to figure out how anyone can think that it's all right to torture someone. The answers boil down to- desperate times require desperate measures, our enemies don’t deserved civilized treatment, waterboarding (replace with whatever action you wish to justify) isn’t REALLY REALLY torture, or the school lot favorite- they did it first. All of those things may be true. But are they really pertinent.

The “desperate times” argument is conditional. How desperate are the times? But the real question is DO desperate times require desperate measures. Conditionally, yes. If your life is in danger most people would agree that you are justified in killing the person trying to kill you. But killing is not torture. And the War On Terror isn’t that type of situation at all. We are not in danger of being exterminated, occupied, or subjugated to the fringe elements of Islamic culture. The Soviet Union might have done it. The Nazis had no other goal. And we opposed both to preserve our right to self-rule, the basis of America. But there is no real danger that Al-Queida is going to overthrow the US government. So this war is one of attrition. And the last half of the 20th century proved that wars of attrition are not desperate, they are endless. Ireland, Palestine, Chechnya, all support the idea that the only way out of a war of attrition against a guerilla force can only end when the parties decide to compromise. And of these, the only place the terrorism has stopped is the place where the parties have decided to talk the most- Ireland. Torture does nothing to further this single solution. In fact, it does and is the opposite.

A corollary to the Desperate Times argument usually employs what I call the Jack Bauer Scenario. Mr. Farad’s article reiterates it without anything new. You’ve all heard it. Some terrorist has been caught and we have info that indicates something terrible is going to happen shortly if we don’t stop it. Sort of like every season of 24. While this passes for plausible on television, the only instance I can find of something like this happening is during a war. Yet we don’t torture prisoners of war. Even when it is clear that the lives large numbers of troops are at stake. Why not? A military man will say because you can’t trust what you are told by someone under duress. Our legal system sees this as a truism, saying that contracts cannot be entered into by anyone under duress. This is why the Jack Bauer argument fails so completely. Even when you invent a circumstance where every variable is slanted towards justifying your methods, they still don’t work. Take the scene in Star Wars where Princess Leia is tortured. (If fiction is going to justify the argument then the only rebuttal has to be fiction.) Leia gives up the position of the Rebel base as Dantooine. But even Peter Cushing knows this is hogwash and has already decided to blow up Alderan since it makes a better statement about the Empire’s intent. The Empire’s real motive for torture is sadism. In Empire Strikes Back*, Han Solo is tortured but when returned to his cell he exclaims “They didn’t even ask me any questions”. So fiction justifies torture, rebuts torture, and eventually exposes torture for what it really is. Torture is sadism.

Argument two is that our enemies aren’t civilized so they don’t deserve civilized treatment. This is an empty syllogism. Not only does it use the age-old method of dehumanizing the enemy to justify atrocities, it completely misses the point. So, our enemies are savages. Take that as a given. The question is- ARE WE? I leave that argument to the words of Thomas Jefferson, “We find these truths to be self-evident. That ALL MEN are created equal”. Our ideals extend beyond our borders. That is why the United States has been a beacon to the rest of the world. What about practical reasons? We say that we don’t do it so our own troops won’t have to undergo the same sort of treatment, but that argument doesn’t hold up either. There are many instances when an opposing force has used hunger, mock executions, simulated drowning, or much more heinous methods of extracting information. Some cultures believe that torturing captured opponents is only just. We consider this viewpoint inhuman. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. If we are to be humane, civilized, enlightened, then we have to act like it. Talking the talk and not walking the walk is why so many people around the world have lost faith in the United States as the bastion of freedom and civility in the world.

Waterboarding is not torture. This argument is both a definition of terms (it depends of what the definition of is, is), the oldest and most hollow of the first year debating student’s mistakes, and negates itself by it’s intrinsic assertion that waterboarding is effective. If it isn’t physically stressful then it isn’t effective. Physical stress is what delineates torture from other interrogation methods, such as questioning. If it isn’t effective, then there is no reason to use it. Imagine a courtroom where questioning attorneys could administer physical pain when they didn’t get the answer they wanted. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?

It sounds horrific but it isn’t outside what we could do. History is full of incidents of the US government employing torture to achieve some end. And if you believe that the ends justify the means then you should have no qualm with torture. In fact such a philosophy naturally endorses it. However that is not a morally based argument. Instead it is the purist form of cynicism and dangerous in the extreme to anyone who finds themselves outside the mainstream on any issue. This is the heart of the argument that we don’t torture because we don’t want our own troops tortured. It is simply the Golden Rule. Someday the shoe may be on the other foot. This is the basis for morality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind. And if your morals are do disposable then you aren’t really moral at all?

Now I know that some conservatives will consider this a blame America defense. Shame on you. What has always made America great is that we are at the forefront of espousing the defense of human rights. The two finest moments of the American era were (first) the idea that government was a servant of the people and not the other way around and (second) to fight a war to free a subjugated people in our own country. It is a shame that we were the last modern country to abolish slavery. But we did and we paid the greatest price to do so. Now we find ourselves in the position of finding certain American citizens arguing for a barbaric practice again. Shall we make the same mistake a second time? People who love America love an ideal, not the flag or land or any other manifestation of fealty. Of such things are dictatorships and atrocities built. If your love of America goes not deeper than that, it’s no better than support for your favorite sports team. “I live here. This team represents this place. This team deserves my absolute support.” Of such are brawls on playing fields made, not reasoned policy for the direction of humanity. It isn’t blaming America to point out a poor direction the country is taking any more than it is hating your car if you correct its tendency to go off the road by moving the wheel. Both correct the same natural tendency for things to go awry. That’s the essence of democracy.

So we are left with “they did it first”. The schoolyard defense. I hope by now you realize that saying that is juvenile and only lowers you to the level of the thing you hate. If the actions of the people who hate us are the barometer of what we do; then we are already lost. The difference between America and any other country boils down to different colors on a flag. It is the definition of the lowest common denominator. You might as well say that the difference between Soviet Russia and America boiled down to economic systems. Or the difference between Communism and Fascism is who exploits the workers. (Okay, that one might be true.) The real difference between Muslim extremism and western phylosopy has to be our protection of the smallest member of the society. Otherwise we are a Christian theocracy and they are a Muslim theocracy and the only difference is how we force our citizens to worship.

You may want to say that America is built on Christian principals but that means nothing if you aren’t willing to espouse the principles of Christ. He was tortured. Did he say to do unto others as they have DONE to you. Nah. He took it all and said “turn the other cheek”. The message of Christ is one of forgiveness and truly shows the path to God’s kingdom on earth. It isn’t more of the same. It’s a guideline for a better humanity. Do unto others and you would have them do unto you, not as they have done. Do you hail only your brothers? Do not the publicans the same?

There are a lot of reasons not to torture anyone. But they boil down to what your actions make you.
The only justification for torture that I've been able to come up with is that folks that advocate this kind of behavior have the same mindset as the terrorists themselves. They feel that something terrible has been done to them and that justifies a secession from the laws of human decency, giving full vent to their own inhuman impulses. This is not the way we want to go. This is not the path to a better world. This is just more of the same.

America is better than that. It has to be if it wants to be any better than its enemies.

(* Corrected from Return of the Jedi. Thanks to G. F. for catching a mistake that would have gotten me drummed out of the geek union posthaste. That is, if using words like posthaste hadn't already earned me a lifetime membership.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

POLITICS- Hillary Clinton Loves Change

Hillary Clinton is the candidate of change and she can prove it because she’s been changing things for the last 35 years. Who has experience in leadership which stretches all the way back to…

…the year 2000.

Completing an extraordinary metamorphosis from political neophyte to polished candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the first first lady ever to run for office -- defeated Representative Rick Lazio yesterday in a closely fought race for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Senate seat from New York.

I’m beginning to understand why people hate the Clintons. Do they even hear themselves speak? Hillary continues to run on a platform of:
“I’m against the war even though I voted for it.”
“I’m against the war but plan to keep the troops in Iraq.”
“I’m the person to change healthcare because I failed so miserably when I tried to do it the last time.”
“I’m strong enough to stand up to terrorism unless they gang up on me in a debate or ask me how I do it.”
“I’m the experienced candidate who never actually got around for running for anything until just lately.”

And the Democrats are thinking of nominating her. Keeping intact their platform of: turning victory into defeat against all odds,

POLITICS- Post Office Obsolesence

Several states have adopted a NO JUNK MAIL list similar to the no-call lists for telemarketers. It’s hard to imagine why this wouldn’t be a good idea. First class postage increases almost every year now and the only thing I get in my mail box are bills, advertisements, Christmas cards, and Netflix. (About once a week one bank actually sends me the same credit card offer twice on the same day!) And only one of these is paying the going rate at the post office. Producing transporting and disposing of all this crap is a huge waste of time and money. Why not do away with junk mail?

Because the post office is against it.

Postal Service spokesman Al DeSarro said half of the mail his agency handles is direct marketing mail, and reducing its volume could cost thousands of Postal Service jobs.
"This is an infringement on commerce and an infringement on free speech," DeSarro said.

So now the purpose of delivering the mail is to employ postal workers, not the other way around. Good to know that. And free speech?! Suddenly stuffing my mailbox with credit card offers and news of car dealer overstock that I don’t want and using my tax money to do it is guaranteed in the constitution. (BTW, the ban expressly exempts political mailings.) I wonder how long we’re going to keep the post office running? Email is cheaper, easier on the environment, quicker, and almost ubiquitous.

I guess until the last postal worker retires or dies.

POLITICS- Why New Hampshire, Why?

So New Hampshire’s primary is history and the question on every pundit’s lips was “How can I shoehorn the results into my pre-written script”. Hillary Clinton has been the front runner for the last year but then something odd happened. Somebody got to vote. And it seems that Americans wanted change. And they got it. Overnight every poll changed to make the election of Obama a fait acompli. Clinton got choked up answering a question. The vultures circled. The crack in her voice was reported as anything from crying to breaking down. Drudge started wondering when she would get out of the race.

And then some other people voted. And now all that’s over. Back to script #1- Clinton can’t be beat. The comeback kid! And why? Conventional wisdom says it was because women didn’t like her being “ganged up on” during the debate or felt sorry for her when she got choked up or women are angry or people didn’t like being told what to do by the press.

After the reelection of the president last time, newsmakers don’t have a clue what makes the electorate tick. The comparisons between voter turnout and the number of people who vote for American Idol has been made, now the media has gone the second step and decided that we are voting for the same reasons we vote for American Idol winners. You like the kid that looks the most like you. Somebody has nice hair, or you feel sorry for them, or you like the way they talk.

God help us, it might just be true.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- One Big Mother

I can haz this?

Better start saving now.

Monday, January 7, 2008

POLITICS- Republican candidates as an 80s boy band

Huckabee- the Jebus freak- he doesn’t’ want to nail you, he just wants to be your friend
Paul- the crazy one- who appeals to the intellectual in you
Guliani- the dangerous one- who will keep you safe, even though he hasn’t so far
Romney- the dreamy one- the human chin
Thompson- the Thing- scary but huge
McCain- the sullen, angry one- he’s old but he’s a rebel.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

RELIGION- Does Atheism Require Faith?

Chuck Colson, the Watergate conspirator who found God in prison, writes a five part series on atheism vs. Christianity and fills it with the kind of obfuscation and poor logic that has been characteristic of the current state of religious defense against the onslaught of the "new atheism". In the final article of the series his thesis is the currently popular “atheism is no different from any other faith”, a new paint job on the old ‘secular humanism is a religion’ bromide. This argument is so disingenuous that it seems tailor made for preaching to the choir, designed only as an attempt to bolster the faithful in their beliefs but not an actual attempt to address the issue in any kind of honest debate. It pains me that the best religious leaders can do is stage vain attempts to control the discussion with rhetorical tricks. Just as if secular humanism, the belief that people can make good decisions for themselves without resorting to any supernatural power, is a religion then it’s a religion without services, clergy, dogma, a deity, or a collection plate. (I could believe in a church without any or all of these but the last.) Likewise, the idea that a lack of belief is a kind of belief is just another attempt to set the agenda for the discussion. Thinking that observations about the universe are no different than beliefs without any such empirical evidence reduces the debate to the level of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If the whole thing just boils down to belief then anyone’s beliefs are as valid as anyone else’s. Of course the idea is absurd. While the universe may be an artifact, made by a creator, the idea that observational evidence about that universe is no different than faith is one I’d like to try the next time I’m in court.

Colson writes:
All of this begs the question: “Is faith, in particular, Christianity, irrational?”
Neither Dawkins nor Krauss comes close to proving this. Instead, Dawkins and Krauss simply assume that materialism—the idea that there is nothing besides matter—is true. Thus, what makes a faith “rational” is whether it can be proven empirically.

Colson seems to be taking issue with the idea that beliefs not based on rationality (reason) are, by definition, irrational. This is a ridiculous argument that the definition of words are not what they mean. I would expect this kind of stuff from some blogger, but Chuck Colson? While using the word irrational isn’t very kind, it is correct. Religious belief is based on faith. Faith is “things hoped for and not seen” by the bible’s own definition (Hebrews 11:1). Things believed without empirical evidence are not rational. QED.

Of course the irony that at the same time the religious are trying to say that science is a belief system, they are trying to have their creation dogma labeled as science. It's beginning to look like many believers will believe anything but reality.

Colson then trots out another old saw that “many of the greatest scientific discoveries were made by people of faith—not scientists who happened to be Christians, but people whose faith inspired and informed their scientific endeavors.” This is a guilt by association argument and the only reasonable response would be “So?” It’s a nonsense non-point. Newton (for instance) spent the last years of his life pursuing his own spiritual quest, and alchemy. I don't know how the spiritual thing went but I'm pretty sure that he never was able to turn base metals into gold. It might be that he was one of the greatest thinkers of all time, but that didn’t make him right about everything. Likewise, saying that there are religious scientists means nothing except that there are scientists who believe. It isn’t proof of anything.

So in the final article of his series on atheism Colson settles for denying the definition of the word rational, challenges empiricism as a way to understand the universe, and asserts that not all scientists are atheists. If this is the best the believers can do then I’m not surprised at their terror of the atheists. He then ends with this clincher. “If you meet someone who says your Christian faith is irrational, ask him to explain the basis of his faith.” If the answer you get isn’t “Observable reality, which requires no faith to work” then I’ll be surprised.

I blanch at blanket declaration that there is no God. There are many things about the balance of the universe that might indicate it is more than a product of chance. But I have to respect the viewpoint that where there is a lack of evidence, skepticism should be in order. What I have no respect for is anyone who’s only defense of their position is the kind of bad debating tricks that don’t hold up to even the most cursory examination. Many Christians have a chip on their shoulder, saying that atheists are arrogant or think that believers are “ignorant, stupid, or insane” as Dawkins is quoted in the article as saying. But if Colson’s rebuttal is the best that believers can do it’s going to be hard to shake that characterization.

PERSONAL- A Soldier's Requiem

Andy Olmstead was killed in Iraq on January 3rd. I really have no words to add to this. Just read it.

TECHNOLOGY- Wireless HD Specification

The WirelessHD consortium has agreed on a standard! Now you are going to be able to hang your flat screen television wherever you want and not have to worry about hiding the wires (except for the power cord, of course). And when you want to rearrange the room you just spackle in the holes from the old mount and off you go. It also spells the end of the egregious TV and equipment cabinet/stand that is sitting in virtually every living room in the country. Stereo equipment, videogames, DVD players can sit anywhere in the room that they are more convenient. I expect my equipment will now find a spot in a custom coffee table, out of sight but right at hand. Projection aficionados should also rejoice. As projectors get brighter, smaller and now are wireless the number of places they can be comfortably installed increases greatly.

It’s not impossible to envision camcorders using the tech to synchronize video to computers, though I haven’t seen any plans for such applications. The world will be a better place when, after being out shooting video and still pictures all day I can just tell my cameras to sync with the computer and all the data would be transferred wirelessly. It’s easy to see other applications.

In addition to carrying 2 1080P streams the standard can also carry audio and includes universal remote control specs. It should have a range of about 10 meters and not pass through walls.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

POLITICS- Obama's Victory Speech in Iowa

It’s hard to listen to this and not like the man.

I’m not an Obama supporter, but I think that he’s the best the Democrats have to offer. Sure he doesn’t have much experience but considering what decades in Washington does to people I don’t know if that’s really a bad thing. (I’ve decided that doing the devil’s work for a lifetime can be read on your face. Ted Kennedy used to be a good looking man, now he looks like a cross between Jabba the Hut and the poop monster from Dogma. And he isn’t the only one.) We could do a lot worse than to have a smart honest well-intentioned man in office (and have more often than not). We could sure use some new ideas, the old ones are outdated and the world keeps changing faster and faster. And the guy sure can give a speech. Be a nice change of pace from the smirking and mangling of the language that passes for a presidential address now.

TECHNOLOGY- Warner goes Blu-ray

Bad news if you got an HD-DVD player for Christmas, Warner Brothers is now a Blu-Ray exclusive studio. This news doesn’t actually shatter the earth since Warner was expected to go exclusive on June 1 of this year. Nevertheless, the idea that Warner felt that pressing any HD-DVD disks for the next 6 months was a waste of time is a sort of handwriting on the wall.

Paramount and Dreamworks remain HD-DVD exclusives until the end of this year, thanks to a 150 million dollar incentive paid by the HD-DVD consortium (essentially Microsoft, who has declared war on all things Sony and is promoting an internet distribution business model for high definition movies). How long they stay exclusive after that is anybody’s guess but a moot point because any format disagreement should be pretty much decided by then.

Personally I have no dog in this fight since I own both an HD-DVD player and a couple of PS3s so either way I’m covered. That having been said, I think that Blu-Ray is going to be the winner, Pyrrhic victory that it may be. Whoever wins, I don’t see there being another disk format after this one. Eventually the idea of everyone maintaining their own libraries of movies, music and books will be as quaint as cuneiform but a move to an online distribution system is still premature. Anyone with good display technology and access to all the formats can tell you that there is no contest between HD content from Xbox network and a movie on Blu-Ray (which seems to hold a slight edge over HD-DVD in picture and sound quality as well as storage space). I’m only buying HD content on Blu-Ray for now, so guess I’ve made my choice after all.

Friday, January 4, 2008

POLITICS- Post Election Roundup

Well, after enduring a campaign that is starting to rival actual terms of office, the American people have finally had their first say about who should be the next president. The Iowa election results are in. CNN has a breakdown of everything demographic you might want to know about which voters choose whom and it does make for some interesting generalizations, many of which might extrapolated to apply to a much larger electorate. Perhaps even as far a Lincoln, Peoria, or Sioux Falls.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama just won by a hair, but he led in almost every demographic group. Both sexes found him preferable, as did all income groups, and union as well as non-union members. A couple of other things that stand out are that he had the lead with both folks who had decided who they were voting for a month or more ago, as well as people who had decided in less than the last week. He also showed one of the widest margins in the poling with the preference of first time caucus goers for him. But the big surprise was that he was the preference of women. Only married women as a subset chose Clinton.

Non surprising was that the older you are, the less likely you are to vote for him. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that this was motivated by race but it does follow trends that when race is important to people it is less important to younger people. Good news for the future.

Hillary Clinton was preferred by married folks by a slim margin and married women overall. And surprisingly to me, by rural voters rather than urban and suburban (who preferred Obama). Most people said that experience was the reason they voted for her, something which has always puzzled me. While it is indubitable that Clinton was important to her husband’s decision making, I don’t think that being married to the president is really the same as experience at being president. Although I have known many doctor’s wives that think their marital status confers medical knowledge to them.

John Edwards was preferred by return voters to the caucus, people from 46-65 years old (no doubt due to rampant hysterical Kennedy nostalgia among that age group), and folks calling themselves conservative democrats (nobody on the Republican side calls themselves liberal republicans in the poll). His top qualities were electability and caring.

The subject of electablility is an important one for the Dems, I think. More people choose that as their reason for voting for Clinton than Obama but that seems to be because she has been elected by the press as the front runner. In the real world of a general election Pat Robertson might have said it best when he opined that Satan might not mobilize the Evangelical vote more strongly.

On the Republican side, CNN’s polling didn’t disprove the fractionation of the party. Huckabee won in most categories, being cited as tops in all age groups, both genders, and in all geographic areas. After that the Cerberus heads of the Republican party seem to start choosing sides. If you are a rural or suburban, evangelical conservative, who doesn’t make a whole lot of money and thinks your president’s religious beliefs are very important as long as you agree with them, you probably voted for Huckabee. If you are a rich, non-evangelical who thinks that experience and electability are important, you probably voted for Romney. And if you are independent and pissed off at how things are going, you probably voted for Ron Paul. So there are the three groups of the modern Republican Party laid out for you. People who vote for religious reasons, people who are rich, and the libertarians and Goldwater conservatives who are wondering if the Grand Old Party is over.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

SCIENCE- Don't Miss the Meteor Shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower is tomorrow morning just before dawn. It’s going to be a little cloudy and damn cold (20 degrees!). But it will be right before time to go to work and we shouldn’t get rained on.

POLITICS- Guilty Pleasures

Tonight’s ABC television news had a segment on the candidates’ guilty pleasures. No, it isn’t what I was thinking either. They asked the politicians what their guiltiest pleasures were. The results were so predictably banal that it was unintentionally funny.

Joe Biden’s guilty pleasure was ice cream. No mention was made of plagiarism or padding his academic resume, so I guess he doesn’t feel guilty about that stuff.

Fred Thompson confessed to “a cigar of questionable origin”, at least being honest enough to tacitly admit that he thinks nothing of breaking federal law when it suits him. Guess his conscience is clear about all the white collar criminals he defended as an attorney or helping to cause the Savings and Loan crisis by lobbying for passage of the St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 when he was a paid lobbyist.

Hillary Clinton said that chocolate, especially the dark kind, was her Achilles heel. Plans for world domination and a socialist utopia, again, nothing she’s ashamed of. (I cant find a link for that but it’s really self evident, isn’t it?)

Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that his guiltiest pleasures were cigars AND chocolate. Better to steal your rivals’ guilt than to admit to any of the stuff Rudy has done. After suggesting Bernard Kerik for Head of Homeland Security, hurrying the cleanup after the bombings, and putting his anti-terrorism headquarters in the World Trade Center complex after the first bombing attempt, Giuliani is running on a platform of being the best to keep us safe! Obviously the man doesn’t know that the word guilt means.

Mitt Romney also admitted to a love of chocolate, “M&Ms, Hershey bars, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Nutella” especially “Nutella and peanut butter on toast” Hating atheists and flip-flopping on abortion, OTOH, is cool with him.

Christopher Dodd came the closest to honesty by saying, “I love a good wine, probably too much.” (I don’t have a snarky remark for this. It’s Chris Dodd, for pity’s sake, who cares?)

And finally John Edwards decided that “sleeping late” was his guiltiest pleasure. Guess it isn’t reading the National Enquirer.

Barack Obama said that he no longer sneaks a cigarette, so his new guilty pleasure is Sportscenter. My heavens, saying you sneak a cig is almost as politically incorrect as saying you might like wine a little too much. So Obama gets a pass. Plus, I can’t really find anything that he ought to be guilty for. Just like Chris Dodd.

And perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned right there. Maybe the guys who will tell the truth about the little things are more likely to tell the truth about the big things.

Oh, and predictions for the Iowa caucus (predicting that voters haven’t learned their lesson about electing folks with no foreign policy experience):

Obama and Huckabee

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

PERSONAL- Happy New Year

Not really a lot to post about today. Been spending my time alternating between Portal and Half-Life 2 out of the Orange Box for the PS3. Best buy in gaming right now, this Orange Box thing.

So as soon as it loads I'm back for more. In the meantime, here is something cool. In fact it's about the only thing Quicktime VR is still used for, as far as I know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Health- Fast Food Advertising

I think the hamburger is one of the greatest American inventions. Properly prepared they taste great, are a convenient handmeal, and can be customized in a nearly infinite variety of ways. They aren’t even that unhealthy, eaten in moderation. And they are a symbol of America. What I’ve never been able to understand why with a hundred different fast food burger franchises, each having an outlet on virtually every street corner of any commercial district, not one can manage to make A DECENT HAMBURGER. They all taste like the cardboard box they come in. They didn’t used to. When I was a kid you could go down to the local burger place and get a fire grilled burger that somebody called “Pop” would cook in front of you and cover with fresh lettuce, pickles, onions, and a slab of tomato. Hell, if you were a regular he might even toast the bun. When you were served you could add mustard, mayo, or even (ugh) ketchup to your taste from containers that sat on your table and enjoy this uniquely American treat.

Then one little shop decided to sell the formula for making a business out of this iconic American dish to thousands of other people. And before you know it we have a fast food industry with huge corporations forcing “Pop” and his handmade burgers out of business in favor of economies of scale, and standardization. Cattle farms became Cattle factories where cows were injected with more steroids than a professional baseball player. And the only way to set yourself apart from the dozens of other mega-franchise food factories was by million dollar ad campaigns.

So lets start the year with a true sign of the times- Burger King has a new ad campaign in which they refuse to sell Whoppers to their customers.

Now I would generally think of such an innovation as a good thing. Hell, I’d go ‘em one better and just say close all the damn Burger Kings and do your customers a real favor. But this series of ads is pure genius. In fact, seldom has such truth in advertising been evident on national television. Here’s the message- Burger King thinks you are an idiot who is good enough just to be screwed with if you’re dumb enough to eat their “food”. Talk about reality TV.

Last night I saw the newest iteration of the Burger King ads. Now instead of refusing to sell to their customers, they are filling orders for Whoppers with BigMacs. The commercial shows people going into apoplectic rages that they didn’t get the crappy foodlike Soilent Green product of their choice (ostensibly with all the people who turn around and say “Damn, this is the best Whopper I’ve ever eaten” edited out). The last shot in the commercial even shows that hideous Burger King thing that was chasing people around like Leatherface in the last campaign coming out and laughing at the distraught patrons. Joke’s on you if you walk into one of these places. I just wonder how many people didn’t notice their burger was any different.

The only time I can remember such open contempt for customers were those Ford ads that proclaimed “Nine out of ten Fords are still on the road today”. (The tenth one seems to have made it back home.)

Realizing that their customers can’t tell the difference between a fast food burger and the real thing, Hardees (for those of you outside the south it’s called Carl’s Jr - a name rivaled in stupidity only by Ruth’s Chris Stakehouse) has decided to market The $6 Restaurant Burger. This is supposedly a real hamburger like one you might be served in a restaurant. Of course it doesn’t cost $6 and it isn’t anything like a real hamburger in anything except size but Hardees is betting on the fact that you’ve never eaten a burger in a real restaurant. And with other menu items such as the 3 Pound Crapburger, and the Hearstopper Combo with Curley Fries this apparently follows the old salesman’s mantra “The more shit you throw at the wall (of your arteries), the more will stick.”

Carl’s Jr. had the previous record for the most truthful fast food advertising a few years ago with their “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Eating” commercials. Each of these would show some poor pre-diabetic rapturously wolfing down one of their products while a sort of creamy white sludge dripped out of it all over them. It was a masterful visual metaphor, evoking simultaneous thoughts of crack addiction, low flying pigeons, and the money shot in a porn film. The entire fast food experience in a nutshell. And it was accurate. Somebody at corporate had obviously decided that using quality beef and cooking each hamburger individually could be replaced with equally fabulous results by adding a quart of mayonnaise to each burger. What is this- Europe? I also assume this was ordered on penalty of firing since asking for a burger without mayo was ineffectual. Never once was I able to get a dry burger in Colorado, though I did have one employee offer to scrape the mayo off my incorrect order once. And you wonder why people call you a loser if you work in fast food. How you gonna be trusted to do anything important if you can’t manage leaving the mayonnaise off a burger? Keep ‘em where they do the least damage, I say. (Why this rule doesn’t apply to politicians I have no idea.)

What I’m waiting for is the last commercial in the series where the camera sits on a Burger King with an empty parking lot and a sign in front that says “Come back! We were only kidding.”