Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Moment to Reflect

I took this picture this past December. Seeing a magnificent sunrise like this on an otherwise ordinary weekday morning left me with two very clear thoughts:
  1. God's creation is full of beauty and wonder, and we don't stop to admire and enjoy it nearly often enough.
  2. I'm late for work.

Space Stuff: Eyes to the Sky

NASA is about to launch a new space telescope. This one's mission is to look for planets outside our own solar system using a digital camera with a one meter lens to look for the minute brightness changes that occur when a planet passes across a distant star's face. Slashdot has a nice link roundup. Finding other planets is crucial to searching for alien life, not to mention finding a new place to put our stuff if this one goes south.

If any of your friends are in a crazy comet cult, you may want to distract them for the next couple of months, because comet Lulin is going to be visible to the naked eye in February. I remember when Hale-Bopp came through quite vividly, and not just because of the poor people in Heaven's Gate. The sight of it in the cold winter skies over Clemson back in 1997 was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Hopefully, I'll be able to catch a glimpse of Lulin as well.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An Annoying Blogger Deficiency

Since I joined Facebook a few weeks back, I have been pondering whether to import this blog there. Normally, it would be a no-brainer to do so in an effort to get more readers. Unfortunately, I want people who might make comments to make them here on the blog site rather than through Facebook. The obvious answer to that problem would be to syndicate just the titles of the posts rather than the entire text, forcing people who wanted to see the posts to click through the link. But blogger doesn't offer title only as a feed option, and the only alternative, the so called "short" feed, is a terrible format that cuts off posts at an arbitrary point and gives readers no indication that there may be more to the article than what they see.

So what do you guys think? Is anyone out there reading this via the feed or is everyone just using a web browser? Do my faithful readers who are also Facebooking want to see silly things like this appear over there?

And yes, I expect all three of my regular readers to answer in the comments.

And while I'm begging for information, anyone out there in Internet land know a simple way to get blogger to syndicate just post titles? My preference would be not having to sign up for yet another service to do so.

Watching the Watchers: Business, Taxes, and Where Your Money May Be Going

Google has been a huge success, based primarily on the services it provides. But once a business grows to a sufficient size, things start to change. Google has powerful enemies, and there is a reason why some people consider "The Art of War" to be a book about business strategy. Wired gives us a long article covering why the government is crucial to Google's continued success, and the tactics some older companies are using to ensure Google doesn't grow any farther. It's a rare glimpse into the (rather depressing) realities of large business tactics in America today.

In this time of economic downturn, the government is going to be looking everywhere it can to get money. People are still advocating virtual economies as one untapped (e.g. untaxed) resource. I find it rather amusing on a couple of levels. After all, we are living the consequences of having the economy driven by imaginary money in the form of home loan speculation, and I just can't picture how adding a tax burden to an emerging market will help. Then again having World of Warcraft gold appear on the markets beside the dollar and euro would be completely hilarious.

Speaking of taxes, Obama's stimulus plan has been unveiled. I'm going to make like a reporter and not post any judgments about it myself. I'll just point you to one real reporter's post of some spending examples from the plan and you can decide for yourself if you like where you money might go.

Steampunk Lego

Artists come in many shapes and sizes. Some use traditional materials, and others use little plastic building bricks. Today's selection brings all sorts of subjects all filtered through the stylings of steam-powered sci-fi. Of course, for most people, I could have just said, "look here for cool lego creations." The link credit for this one goes to The Daily Illuminator.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Prisoner: A Classic Sci-Fi Show Available For Free

A secret agent resigns in anger. When he gets home, he suddenly feels faint then collapses. Some time later he wakes up in an idyllic, completely self-contained village where nobody has a name, just a number. Everyone calls him Number 6, and a mysterious person known as Number 2 wants to know why he resigned. Pervasive cameras, double agents, and a malevolent weather balloon make sure he doesn't stray, and nothing is quite as it seems on the surface.

This is the setup for the classic sci-fi show The Prisoner. I could attempt to describe the show by making some sort of Alias by way of 1984 reference, but really, the show defies easy comparison. It's a masterpiece of paranoia, and a very, very strange ride. Personally, I think it's well worth your time. It's main theme of a man who refuses to be "pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, or debriefed" holds up very well today. For your viewing convenience AMC has all the shows' episodes available online.

If you don't want to watch it, that's fine too. It's your choice. Of course, sooner or later you will watch the show. Sooner or later you will want to. Be seeing you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Watching the Watchers: A Moment in History

I was able to see the new President's inauguration speech this afternoon, and as some random guy who posts stuff on the 'net, I can't help but comment on it. Only time will tell how Mr. Obama's term turns out, but it's hard not to recognize that something special happened for an enormous number of people today. My world is a small one; I've never lived in fear, never been consumed with hatred, and never known true oppression. What happened today doesn't have the depth of meaning for me that others will find in it. But I can recognize a symbol, and I can see the power that Obama's campaign and election has within it. Now, with the ceremony behind him, the real work will commence. My own message to the president is this: I will be praying for you, because brother, you've got a bumpy road ahead. And I will also pray that we all remember that our role in America's future doesn't end when we cast our vote. It's up to all of us to build a better tomorrow, one tiny step at a time.

Also, if you missed the inauguration, YouTube has you covered.

Quote(s) of the Moment

Scott Adams' post about the future of genetic engineering on The Dilbert Blog entitled
"The Future is Winged Monkeys" gives us these two gems.

"The most exciting part of this wonderful future is that when you can fly, the whole world is your toilet."

"The smarter you are, the more easily bored you will be. I want to be happy all the time so I'd trim 40% off my IQ and get some new hobbies such as collecting rocks that are roundish, or running for Congress."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

One Person's Solar Power Example, Six Months Later

I linked to Extreme Tech's report by Loyd Case about his early results installing a solar panel system in his home back in June. He has posted an update on how things stand after six months and how the panels are performing during the winter months. Once again, t's nice to see a real example of residential solar power in action.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Seeds of the Future

While this sounds a bit like the Titanic not being sinkable, Norway is going to build an end-of-the-world-proof storage shed and keep all the seeds they can think of in it. No word on whether it will also contain a beehive to allow said seeds to be pollinated properly.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rambling About Harry Potter

There isn't really anything I can say about the Harry Potter series that hasn't already been said. But since I finished the final book recently, I'm going to say some things anyway.

I started out as a skeptic. After all, how could a childrens' book series ever be as good as people were saying. In retrospect, that was a fairly stupid thing for me to think. After all, I love Doctor Who, which is every bit as "made for children" as Harry Potter was. Heck, being elitist about my age was every bit as silly as some religious people objecting over the use of magic as a plot device. The writing quality is unimpeachable. The invention of a second vocabulary for the wizarding world of the books, while not quite as detailed as the linguistics in The Lord of the Rings, adds a huge amount of verisimilitude in the same ways.

Speaking of which, comparisons to The Lord of the Rings are inevitable. Tolkien's work grew out of the era of the World Wars. Harry lies astraddle the new century, with all the turmoil of events from Y2K to 9-11-2001 happening as backdrop. In spite of this, Harry seems to me to be even less a product of its time, even more of a self-realized world than The Lord of the Rings. The story is both more complex and more personal. And crucially, for me at least, Harry Potter is a story about the characters. The Lord of the Rings emphasizes the setting, leaving the characters to be filled, with the exception of the crucial few primary actors, with stereotyped representations. Harry and his friends (and enemies) all have developed personalities. Only time will tell if Harry's wizardry will hold up as well as Gandalf's for the wider population, but then I think that too much comparison with Tolkien is the wrong way to go.

No, for me the comparison for Harry that I can't escape isn't Frodo Baggins, it's Dorothy Gale. L. Frank Baum's creation is the earliest extended series I remember reading myself, and it left a few elements permanently etched on my psyche. I suspect there are already a couple of things from Harry Potter that have stuck for me in similar ways. Dorothy's stories didn't have the overarching continuity of the Potter books, and they were much more targeted at children. But both are about normal children entering a world they didn't know existed and becoming a pivotal part of it. Though admittedly, that's where the direct comparisons must end.

Frankly, all this analysis and comparison I'm indulging in doesn't really pass on how wonderful I think the Potter books are. I can confidently say that the Potter books are the best fantasy series I've read since The Lord of the Rings, and in the fullness of time, they may surpass that lofty pinnacle. It will take a decade or two, and a half dozen readings to tell, but certainly the Potter books have found a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you haven't read them yet, give 'em a try, you might end up wanting them on your bookshelves too.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Orange Juice and Toilet Paper

There are two things one should never try to save money on: orange juice and toilet paper. In my experience the difference in quality between the low end and high end for both of these products is so overwhelmingly vast that spending a little extra can make your whole day better. But quality is a funny thing; we all say we want it but only to a point. Real quality costs money, sometimes big money. It can be hard for consumers to tell the difference between quality features and luxury features, and it is even harder to get someone to pay for quality that you can't see versus luxury that you can. (The car market is the perfect example of this in action.) In the business world high quality often is put alongside rapid delivery and low cost of production as desired goals. But quality is far, far harder to measure and tends to make the other two metrics get worse. Naturally, the quality target quickly becomes "good enough."

There are even times when quality shouldn't be a concern. In his book Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson points out, when you are learning to draw, quality is just an adjective. Really, doesn't that apply to learning in general? When you are at the stage of trying to learn how, trying to create high quality can be counter productive. Attempts to achieve high quality always involve more complexity, and as a result time and effort, than just doing the minimum necessary. The additional frustration involved can lead to heightened self-criticism, which easily translates into giving up. Computer programmers have a maxim, "build the first one to throw away." This acknowledges that for any complex undertaking, the first step should be to learn how to do it at all. Doing it cleanly and/or robustly can wait.

Judging when to pursue quality is a big factor in life as well. When Nike tells us to "Just Do It" there is some irony. After all, their shoes are of notably poor quality. However, the athletics they support require one to get out and practice, strive to simply start doing and get better through the learning process rather than be good immediately. One can't, just for instance, wait to become a good writer before starting a 'blog. We have to write volumes, consciously evaluate ourselves, and apply the feedback to improve. What does the word quality even mean if we try to apply it to our personal relationships? Is not "quality of life" the most elusive of all pursuits?

To the business world, quality is a key differentiator and a huge factor in the value equation. Deciding how much quality is necessary and how best to achieve it can make or break a product, a company, or a career. Business is all about competition, and quality is extremely important when there is a competition going on. Luckily, life is not business. At a personal level, collaboration and cooperation is usually much more important than competition. The difference between someone who can't dance and someone who is a poor dancer is far vaster than the difference between a poor dancer and a good one. In life as in art, quality is often just an adjective.

But there is no excuse for subjecting anyone to cheap toilet paper.

[Editorial note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a re-post of something I wrote back in June of '07. Superior search and navigation of the stuff I have written was one of the primary features that drew me to Blogger, and because this is easily my favorite of the things I wrote in the old location, I wanted it here so I can find it in the future.]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Monday Musings

The person trying to save the failing players in our last Rock Band session was cursing more than those of us who were failing. We didn't have time to curse. In related non-news, Expert difficulty is rough. And I have only enough Live points left for one song. Naturally, they pick this week to release Roy Orbison tracks.

I'm not exactly a trend follower, as evidenced by just joining the social networking crowd recently. However, the record for my unwillingness to follow a trend is still held by the ATM machine. I've never used one. And don't hold your breath for me to start texting you either. I'm not paying enough money to get data from a space telescope just for a modern version of a telegraph message. Especially not when I have a phone in my hand.

Switching from holiday (lack of) schedule back to the normal work day leads to my stomach reminding me that breakfast at six in the a.m. is significantly farther from dinner time than nine. And now if you will excuse me, it's apparently dinner time.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Another Sign of the Apocalypse

Well, it finally happened. I've joined the social networking crowd. As if I needed more things to keep up with on the Internet... If you have too much time on your hands, you can find me on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Headline Hunting

Once again the BBC gets the nod for this headline from their RSS feed: "How the Norse God Thor thwarted a home intruder." The story headline is, "Godly reckoning for home intruder." Please allow me to quote, "...[the thwartee] may have been intimidated by the costume [the thwarter] made of the god of thunder out of tin foil."

Programming Humor, Not for the Easily Offended

Ones preferences in programming language are often referred to as "religious" choices, but what if programming languages really were religions? I'm easily a month behind the curve posting this, but some of the descriptions are too hilarious (and accurate) to pass up.

It's a Sci-Fi World, We Just Live in It

Normally, I wouldn't post a blog link that didn't feature a source for the information. This time, however, I will note the potential usefulness of a home appliance that condenses water vapor from the air to create drinking water. It costs about thirteen hundred dollars and probably looks nothing at all like a moisture vaporator...

Breaking up is hard to do. Especially when superheated plasma is involved. Ars Technica presents a brief piece about the technical hurdles that scientists are facing trying to build a fusion reactor.

The Mars rover Spirit has reached its five year anniversary on the red planet. Opportunity's will follow later this month. Not bad for a couple of devices with an operating lifetime design of three months. They may be cold and dusty with some joints that don't work so well anymore, but they are still on the job.

Major Study Comparing Different Energy Sources and the Elusive Supercapacitor

Both Slashdot and Ars Technica mentioned a major study of alternative power sources coming out of Stanford University a couple of weeks ago. The summary puts wind as the big winner, photovoltaic in the middle of the pack, and ethanol at the bottom of the pack behind even nuclear (fission) and so called "clean coal" methods. It's an interesting study of the technologies as they stand now, especially since it looks at the total cost including environmental and human impact. I still think the biggest barrier for people will be changing their vehicles. The generation-side power changes should be a cakewalk compared to creating an electric or fuel cell pickup truck.

Speaking of converting vehicles, secretive startup EEStor recieved a U.S. patent grant for its supercapacitor design. Supposedly, the Canadian company Zenn will be producing electric vehicles using the supercapacitors by the end of this year. If this doesn't turn into vaporware, it could be a huge game changer. But then, I've been wanting chemical batteries gone for a long time.

Watching the Watchers: Promises, Promises

As the days until inauguration tick off, the Obama camp is still offering things that they will do to help the economy. It looks like they are going for a public works campaign that includes modernizing and increasing the energy efficiency of public schools, hospitals, and even a revamp of the Internet infrastructure in pursuit of a national broadband policy. So what do y'all think, is the current economic crisis a good opportunity to make some needed changes, or are they just making work to look busy?