Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bookworming: 2012 Summary

Facing a shortage of writing time this year, and with some inspiration from those around me, I decided to start keeping track of what I was reading and provide some capsule reviews. Thus the Bookworming category was born. I have rather liked it and I suspect it will continue next year. In the meantime, here is a summary of the year's activity.

My rating scale:

* I didn't care for it.
** Meh
*** Good for those who like that sort of thing.
**** Just plain good, likely to be read again some time.
***** Destined to be a personal favorite, likely to be read over and over again.

The books of 2012:
A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs, ***
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, ****
Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, ****
Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins, ****
24 Hours That Changed the World, Adam Hamilton, ****
The Gospel According to Science Fiction, Gabriel McKee, **
Blood Rites, Jim Butcher, ****
Dead Beat, Jim Butcher, ****
2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, *
This Alien Shore, C. S. Friedman, ****
Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher, ****
White Night, Jim Butcher, *****
Small Favor, Jim Butcher, ****
Turn Coat, Jim Butcher, ****
When Christians Get It Wrong, Adam Hamilton, **
The Adventures of Robin Hood & His Merry Outlaws, J. Walker McSpadden, ***
Changes, Jim Butcher, ***
Ghost Story, Jim Butcher, ****

Well, let's see what we have here. Eighteen books in twelve months, leaning heavily on the Dresden Files series. That will change for next year as I have finally caught up (to the paperbacks at least). I got a couple of "roots" adventures stories in there, and only a small amount of sci-fi. Thanks to my church small-group, there were several religious books in the mix. No programming books on the list this year.

Looking at it now, it is not quite comprehensive of what I have read, but it's reasonably close. At least one game book (Tremulus[sic]: A Storytelling Game of Lovecraftian Horror by Sean Preston) didn't make the list. Of course, those are quite hard to review since they aren't really self-contained experiences. I can't wait to see what 2013 will bring.

Bookworming: Changes and Ghost Story

Changes, Jim Butcher, ***
Ghost Story, Jim Butcher, ****
I am still working my way through a much longer book I selected for my October reading, but an end of the year vacation caused me to seek some lighter reading, and thus, more Dresden Files.

Changes reportedly marks the halfway point of the Dresden saga, and while Butcher's kinetic writing propels a story that has huge implications for the world of the stories, it also abandons some of the things that make the stories so strong. This book begins with an out-of-nowhere MacGuffin that propels the rest of the story. The tone immediately becomes so deadly serious that the usual humor has little or no place to insert itself. Harry is forced by the time frame into being manipulated by forces beyond his pay grade and making irrational decisions at every step. It is a testament to Butcher's writing skill that this even remotely holds together and that the ties into the world he has created manage to make the story almost seem a logical outcome. The story does provide non-stop action, and it's a real page-burner, but it somehow does not feel quite as good as the standard the series has set.

Ghost Story brings the relative calm after the storm. In the aftermath of the events in Changes, this tale brings a far more introspective tone to the series, admittedly punctuated by many of the series's trademark action scenes. It's strengths are in the personal moments, especially those of the two women Harry is closest to, and in Harry's self-examination that shows Butcher knew what he was doing in the previous novel. It does retain the bleak and desperate tone started by Changes and in many ways feels almost like it's setting up a new world. In spite of this virtually none of the long-running threads are even addressed more than in passing, let alone resolved. Still, this feels much more on-form and I eagerly look forward to the next book in the series.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Quote of the Moment

In honor of tomorrow's so-called Mayan Apocalypse:

"If the apocalypse comes, beep me."
—Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Quote of the Moment

"Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again..." —C. S. Lewis

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pondering the Meaning of the 'Blog 2012

Every once in a while I feel around to see what this little corner of the Internet means to me. Obviously, 2012 has been a relatively quiet one on the posting front. That's due to the real world intruding on my free time.  A change of jobs has led me into a commuting lifestyle. I don't recommend it, by the way. (It's also worth noting that I am very grateful to have a job. There are way too many that don't right now.) Until something changes on that front, my time and more importantly my mental energy will remain in short supply.
I still have a laundry list of things I would like to be working on, and a fairly hefty backlog of articles to post about. When I can get to them... is beyond my ability to predict.

I have been trying to keep at least one meaningful post a month, and I'm admitting now that it has not been happening, and won't be for the foreseeable future (which seems much shorter than in times past). I'm not finished here, not by a long shot. But it just can't be a priority for me right now.

In the meantime I am considering my "social media strategy" and wondering if this can be the hub of my internet production. The web wherein you go to someone's site has fragmented into facebook, linkedin, twitter, and others. This leads to all sorts of questions about how best to use the various venues. Does it make sense to keep up a "long-form" blog in the face of the social sites and "simpler" alternatives like tumblr? Would the stuff I usually put in my facebook statuses make sense as blog posts? Should I fragment my content for the presumptive audiences of the variety of different sites? Is posting nothing but links to a blog on the social sites bad form? Getting my pictures off facebook and onto this site would have the benefit of allowing me to retain copyright, but it would have the downside of losing most of the interaction that I get from people on that site. I'm certainly not going to move long posts to facebook, it lacks the facilities to handle it properly, but Google+ might be a candidate, if I were to go that route. Of course that puts a block around people being able to randomly discover the content (should content actually ever materialize).

Anyway, things will remain rather unfocused around these parts for a while yet. I guess it's another instance of "the more things change, the more they stay the same".

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Videos of the Moment

I'm loving that more traditional folk and gospel sounds appear to be coming back into vogue. Today's addition features two very different songs from Delta Rae. The videos both evoke the weird with Day of the Dead imagery in "Dance in the Graveyards" and some serious Southern Gothic flavor in "Bottom of the River".

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Monday, October 8, 2012

Is Doctor Who a Religion

Some of you will find this amusing. Others may find fodder for their agreement with Romney's take on PBS. A few might even see a deeper truth. Then there are those who will look you straight in the eye and say "listen, your life could depend on this: don't blink."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Quote of the Moment

"Shake off your shoes, leave yesterday behind you. Shake off your shoes, but forget not where you've been."
—Sara Watkins, Take Up Your Spade

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bookworming: Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood & His Merry Outlaws, J. Walker McSpadden, ***
It can be interesting sometimes to go back and look at the legends. I had never actually read the real tales of Robin Hood before (or at least as real as they can get rendered into prose from the original verbal tradition). It is almost surprising how much of the tales have come down intact. Of course there is plenty that I had never seen as well. Most interestingly to me, the stories of Robin Hood clearly show many of the characteristics of the "pulp" stories I enjoy now, whether they be Howard's Conan or HBO's True Blood. Robin and his band are boisterous, enjoy their violent sports, carouse, and otherwise show all the base nature of humanity. Yet they remain indomitably honorable in the face of injustice and insane circumstance. Sounds like a great many characters now, doesn't it.

I'd like to say that says something about the constancy of humanity, but I doubt I have wide enough experience to prove anything. I will say that while James Joyce remains a right of passage for literary types (and no, I couldn't finish Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), it's Batman that keeps getting comics, movies, and TV shows. And the songs about Robin Hood are still being sung.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Watching the Watchers: Global Warming

Global warming remains an issue that I don't much like to touch on because of how overly political it has become. At this point, the scientific consensus seems pretty well dominantly on the side of "it is happening", and that is pretty well good enough for me. It also changes nothing at all about industry and government. Still, every once in a while an article comes along that gets my attention. For instance this one from Rolling Stone. Yes, it is heavily political, hitting both the Obama administration and especially the fossil fuel industry hard. That isn't what caught my eye about it. Running numbers of the sort presented in the article shows what many have long suspected. Climate change is no longer something that can be prevented. The proverbial die has already been cast. So the question becomes more practical: what will  the consequences be? The scientific consensus appears to same something to that as well: everything so far has been worse than expected.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bookworming: When Christians Get It Wrong

When Christians Get It Wrong, Adam Hamilton, ***
My church small group has now read several of Hamilton's books together, and I seem to detect a running theme of attempting to put Christianity into context. In this case, he explores reasons young adults are removing themselves from the church. The topics range from the fairly obvious (the church's response to homosexuals, friction between science and religion) to the deeply theological (dealing with other religions, the nature of evil). Obviously, as a Christian, I believe these are all discussions that should be undertaken, and Hamilton provides a good starting point for having them. If nothing else, it can highlight the differences between thinking Christians regarding some very practical current topics.

By its nature, it lacks the strong narrative path of his Bible-stories-in-historical-context works. This works for a discussion group where people can come and go, but does mean I connected with it less than the others of his I have read. As a Methodist reading the work of a Methodist preacher, not much in the book runs very counter to the way of thinking I am used to, so there was also perhaps less mental processing needed on my part. (The huge exception being the question of why Bad Things happen, which is one of the hardest ones in all of theology.) I suspect the book may be more challenging for Christians of a more conservative bent than me.

More Power, Better

The universe runs on energy and time. I seem to have little of either these days. Happily, research into power generation and storage technology marches on unaffected by my whining.

Microbial fuel cells. I had no idea such things existed. Scientists at Ohio State University know all about them, and have made what appears to be a big boost in their ability to generate electricity from waste water. If their process proves out in the field, it could lead to waste water treatment plants actually producing a net positive amount of power. The same process can apparently be used with animal waste and even the waste produced when brewing beer.

Meanwhile over at UCLA, the boffins are working on transparent solar cells. This is more impressive than it may sound at first. After all, solar cells must contain the electrical components to gather the power, and the very act of absorbing light results in a visibility degradation. The transparent cells absorb their power from infrared light rather than visible, and the description of the electronics involved contains multiple uses of the prefix nano-.

Generating power is all well and good, but you have to be able to either do it continuously, or you have to store it somewhere. Supercapacitors remain excellent performers in their realms, but have far lower energy capacity for their weight than batteries. Stanford researchers are studying a new electrode material made from a polymer hydrogel that enables both cheaper manufacture and higher energy density.

Battery researchers are not standing still either. Another group at Stanford is working a new electrode material for Lithium-air batteries which they believe has the potential for an order of magnitude increase in storage capacity. That is the kind of thing that could transform a 45-mile range electric car into a 400-mile range or create a smart phone that could go for more than a week between charges.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Brightshadow Memos: The Phantom Anomoly

The condition of the Turkish F-4 shot down over Syria fits the general pattern of the Triangle Effect on the surface. However, we do not believe this is the entire explanation. Though the discrepancies in reported and actual flight paths and the disappearance of the crew follows the pattern of a Triangle incident, there are neither the lingering electromagnetic distortions nor methane traces which are usually found in such cases. We have received permission to acquire samples of the superstructure and cockpit seats of the plane as well as one of the remaining articles of clothing from the crew. Those are on the way, marked for material and energy signature analysis. Naturally, getting copies of the surveillance is proving more difficult. At least one officer on site has hinted that an "equipment malfunction" may have made acquiring the tapes pointless. We are attempting to find out whether this "malfunction" happened in flight or after the crash.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Quote of the Moment

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
—Vincent Van Gogh

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bookworming: Turn Coat

Turn Coat, Jim Butcher, ****
Number 11 in the Dresden Files. The pattern continues to hold. This one feels even more transitional than the previous installments, despite a few major character developments.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Brightshadow Memos: The Clintonville Incident

As you can see, sir, the media coverage of the mysterious ground events in Wisconsin has been effectively blanketed. The data provided by our friends at the “Geological Survey” were enough to fend off the reporters. Of course, a portable seismograph array happened to be in the area because of the leads we were following regarding a branch of the Cult of the Diggers. The actual size and boldness of the group, including dressing several of their actions to make it appear that their victims had simply moved away, not to mention the palpable evidence of their near success, should show once again that such things are a clear and present danger to the country. This is real terrorism of an even more horrific sort, and even harder to predict to boot.

Once again, I urge you to allow Project Brightshadow a freer hand. The Digger cults in particular have been more active of late, and the assets we have are stretched very thin. Cleanup actions such as this consume valuable resources. Might I suggest that the continuous deadlock on budgetary matters in Congress be viewed as an opportunity rather than a hindrance?

Bookworming: White Night and Small Favor

White Night, Jim Butcher, *****
Small Favor, Jim Butcher, ****
Still catching up with The Dresden Files, and they are still excellent. The great strength they have this far in, aside from Butcher's excellent writing, is the ability to derive much of their plot momentum from organizations and actors already established in the world of the series. Obviously that great strength would be a great weakness to anyone who tried to pick up the series nine-plus books in.

The buildup of a major shadow force in the setting continues. Harry's power level is creeping up again, as is probably necessary given the antagonists arrayed against him, but the urge to continually top the last outing is always a danger in genre series. So far the suspense remains mostly intact, again due to the strong world-building that has grounded Harry's motivations. Both are excellent entries in the series, and White Night gets the five star nod for resolving long-standing plot threads while having a well contained story itself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bookworming: Proven Guilty

Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher, ****
Yes, I'm still trying to catch up with The Dresden Files series. This is the eighth installment, and for my money the strongest in a while. The main plot is fully contained in this book, the motivations are highly tied into the characters that readers have seen developed over the series, and there are a couple payoffs for long-running threads. And though it certainly sets up for the series to continue, it only does so in fleeting moments and in the denouement of the book rather than leaving the main threads of the story hanging. If it wasn't so tied into the continuity of the series, I could easily give this one five stars.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Quote of the Moment

You don't have to move that mountain, just help me Lord to climb it.
—Nickel Creek, "You Don't Have to Move That Mountain"

I've had this quote in my collection for a while, but for some reason it's been at the front of my mind recently. I love Nickel Creek's bluegrass version, originally written, as far as I can tell, by Trisha Yearwood, but clearly the roots go farther back. After a bit of digging around on the 'net it appears that the original late-50's gospel song was written by Doris Akers and Mahalia Jackson. It will not displace the version I'm used to in my rotation, but as is often the case the original is even more raw and powerful than the newer version.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Quote of the Moment

You know, when you're a kid, they tell you it's all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that's it.  Ah.  The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, it's so much darker, and so much madder, and so much better.

—Doctor Who episode "Love and Monsters"

One of the least effective episodes of the new series, but they still have a handle on how life goes.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bookworming: This Alien Shore

This Alien Shore, C. S. Friedman, ****
A mix of cyberpunk and space opera, This Alien Shore is a magnificent example of world building around a central chase plot-line. Standout elements include human mutations in place of aliens and the plausible hatreds and motivations that brings, a unique and sympathetic main character, and a well drawn high-tech setting full of political machinations. Throw in a nice job of building the suspense at it goes, and for my money you get a quite enjoyable read.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Doctor Who Audio Reviews

I want to give a brief plug for a new blog: Big Finish Doctor Who Reviews. The new incarnation of Doctor Who is wonderful in and of itself, but fans of the old series (or the new) who aren't aware of the continuing adventures of the classic incarnations of the Doctor are in for a treat. But with well over one hundred and fifty stories already published and new ones coming out monthly, it can be a daunting thing to dig into without some guidance. That's where John comes in. Drop by and give him some encouragement.

Regarding Stories About Games

Some games try to tell a story in the gameplay. Other games allow you to project your own story onto the game. I enjoy both kinds, but there really is something special about being given the tools to create your own narrative and constraints that provide built-in motivation. Strategy games tend to go for that feel as do "open world" games. I wish MMOs were going that direction, but they aren't. Role playing games, online and off, can go either way. Using someone else's creation and rules to tell your own stories is, I think, one of the facets that separate games from other forms of entertainment. It is also a big part of the social aspect. Tales from around the table abound even for board games.

The internet is fertile ground for finding the stories that emerge from such experiences. Heck, I even did one myself (poorly) a while back. You can also find gobs of Minecraft stories, tales from Dwarf Fortress, and X-COM after action reports. The list is long, and so are many of the stories. The distopian tale of a game of Civilization II that someone kept revisiting over the course of a decade blew up on reddit this week. Gamers passed around a save file, examining a simulated world of ecological disaster and eternal nuclear war that has striking parallels to the background presented in 1984. Naturally, the internet also promptly provided a way out of the seemingly intractable situation. I rather hope there's a real-life metaphor there somewhere.

These days, I'm squeezing in a little Diablo 3 when I can and not doing much else on the gaming front. That's about as far from a deep story-generating game as you can get. What can I say, acquiring a commuting lifestyle has taken a massive toll on my free time. But I do miss the games, especially the involved ones that I haven't really had time for since college. If there's one thing that we can learn from the Age of the Internet, it's that creation is good for the soul. And I believe that anything that gives people the tools to create, no matter how frivolously, is a good thing.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bones, Joints, Bionics, and More

Science continues to struggle against the frailties of the human condition. Damaged limbs are a reality for many people, from kids on the playground to soldiers at war. There have been quite a few stories in the news over the past couple months looking at the new technologies on the horizon aiming to aid damage to the body.

Researchers at the University of Georgia are aiming to reduce the recovery period associated with broken bones from months to days. They are using adult stem cells that produce proteins involved in bone growth to stimulate the body to rapidly generate bone tissue.

For sufferers of arthritis, the Tampere University of Technology is working on replacements for the cushioning between the joints that could allow the joints themselves to remain intact in conditions that would usually require replacement with artificial ones. The implants are biodegradable and stimulate the body to produce material that eventually replaces the implant, essentially growing a new joint.

Rock climber and double-amputee Hugh Herr believes that even the total loss of limbs will not be a problem for much longer. It helps that he is also a bio-mechanical pioneer at MIT.

Over at Sandia National Labs, they are working on a technology that may help Mr. Herr reach his goals, a microscopic dimethicone structure that might be usable as a physical scaffold for interfacing mechanical devices with nerves in the body.

If all this limb fixing wasn't enough to give you encouragement for the future, how about news of a single drug that appears to hold promise in treating a wide variety of cancers? What about finding the mechanism by which Alzheimer's spreads within the brain?

If any one of these possibilities come to fruition, countless lives will be improved, and it's hard not to get a little hope from that.

Bookworming: 2001 A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, *
2001 is an adaptation of the famous screenplay by the same name. While being fleshed out as a novel allows more detail to be added to the story, especially the beginning and end, it suffers from the same problems the movie does. It is boring. Attempts to increase the tension by foreshadowing fall flat. The most interesting character, the HAL 9000 AI, gets essentially the same treatment the alien monolith does: it's an unknowable alien thing, but the implications and parallels between the alien artifact and the human one are not explored. That said, the book also shares the strengths of the movie: a hard science fiction look at space travel using nearly real-world technology, a sense of awe over the vastness of creation, and the potential to stimulate thoughts along a host of rather deep philosophical subjects.

So yeah, not one of my favorites from Clarke. It does have one of the more interesting coincidences in sci-fi. If you advance each of the letters in the acronym for the HAL computers one step, you get IBM. The book states that HAL is short for "Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer." Clark himself is reported to have stated in his book The Lost Worlds of 2001 that he and Kubrick would have changed the name had they noticed the parallel.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bookworming: Dead Beat

Dead Beat, Jim Butcher, ****
The seventh book in The Dresden Files series continues the pattern of the previous books. It feels even more like a transitional book than its predecessor. It is still a fast paced, fun read like the rest of the series, but there are enough threads from the previous books referred to but left dangling to detract a bit from it. One plot line in particular overshadows the primary plot for large sections of the book. So, a weaker four stars, but still enjoyable for those into the series.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bookworming: Blood Rites

Blood Rites, Jim Butcher, ****
As the sixth book in the Dresden Files series, Blood Rites is not a good starting point for people unfamiliar with the preceding novels. Fans already know what they are in for, as this follows the Dresden formula nicely. It is a fast paced and entertaining read, but while the main thrust of the story is completed with aplomb, there are several threads that remain unresolved. This is not surprising for a long-running series, and serves to pull you on to the next volume.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quote of the Moment

"I didn't stop pretending when I became an adult, it's just that when I was a kid I was pretending that I fit into the rules and structures of this world. And now that I'm an adult I pretend those rules and structures exist.  All of our make-believe is tied up in important stuff like keeping our [selves] together."
—Ze Frank, A Show "Make Believe"

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bookworming: Introduction

I have decided I would like to try and keep better track of the books I read, but I really don't need another "social" site in my list of too-occasionally visited web pages. (Yes, I'm talking about Goodreads.) And by a happy coincidence, I have this nifty little blog that can always use more content. Thus...

Welcome to the first installment in the Bookworming category! I plan on writing impressions of books I read as I finish them. Most of the time I expect I will be quick and non-spoilery, but I may indulge in longer ramblings from time to time. For ease of analysis, I will give each a rating on a five asterisk scale:
* I didn't care for it.
** Meh
*** Good for those who like that sort of thing.
**** Just plain good, likely to be read again some time.
***** Destined to be a personal favorite, likely to be read over and over again.

Having just decided to start keeping these records, I have some catching up to do from the year so far. Normally I expect to only post one book at a time, but today you get half a dozen.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs, ***
I have not seen the movie yet, but it did inspire me to read the book. The price did not hurt either. (It is in the public domain, and thus you can easily find it free in e-book form). Having gone on a Conan kick last year, I decided reading more pulp would not be a bad thing. Plus, the book has some significance in the roots of science fiction/fantasy. It is a bit uneven in the story department, as first novels often are. Providing a rollicking adventure romp was the goal, and I think it succeeds admirably in that department. It did not immediately inspire me to pick up the next book in the series, but I may some day.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, ****
Most everyone has heard of this by now, and in my opinion its popularity is well deserved. It takes the post-apocalyptic death-match tv-show tale formula and twists it around enough that I was never able to predict what would happen next. The first person narrative took me a bit to get used to, but it provides focus by only ever allowing you to experience the story through the perceptions of the main character. It also nicely heightens the emotional impact of events.

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, ****
The second book of The Hunger Games trilogy. Everything I said about the first one applies again. Emotions are heightened, the tone gets even darker, and you start to get a surprisingly realistic feeling treatment of someone who has been put in intense, repeated, life-threatening danger. I read this one quite quickly and there was never any though that I wouldn't move directly into the next volume.

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins, ****
The third book of The Hunger Games trilogy. The story picks up right off of the second volume, and this time the tone is downright bleak. There is very little I can say about the book that isn't a spoiler of some kind, but I will mention there is a moment near the end that absolutely wrecked me. Beware, this is one of those books you will desperately want to read in a single sitting.

24 Hours That Changed the World, Adam Hamilton, ****
My Bible study group read this one for lent this year. Hamilton examines the traditional story beats of the Easter season, providing historical context and his own perspectives on the people and places therein. It seeded some good discussions, especially given the inherent difficulty of examining the darker side of humanity through the lens of the crucifiction story. I quite like the focus on the reality of the times, and the mature discussion of the Biblical sources and traditions, including where they differ from each other.

The Gospel According to Science Fiction, Gabriel McKee, **
This is a scholarly overview of religious themes in science fiction. As a science fiction fan, I found myself skimming over the summaries of stories I had read or seen before. You might find it a good source of potential reading material, but it also necessarily spoils the stories it summarizes. The writing is perfectly good, but I would rather read the stories cited in the book and examine the themes there than have them presented to me in this summary form.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Headline Hunting

"Cruise ship to retrace voyage of Titanic"  Let us hope they don't follow the historic itinerary to the letter...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rounding up the Power

Power generation remains the cornerstone of our modern society, and that is not changing any time soon. Today I have a selection of things from recent news ranging from innovation to research, and all pointing to a future I want to see.

First we go to Rwanda where Nuru Energy is using rechargeable LED lights coupled with wall socket, solar, and even pedal powered recharging systems to displace kerosene lamps. Sounds to me like a brilliant step forward, using today's technologies in an innovative way to help solve common issues and drive economic growth. Honestly, I think the US could use more stuff like this too.  Would it encourage you to exercise if your bike or elliptical had a system that meant an hour of use could charge your iDevices, phones, and laptops for days?

Next ArsTechnica presents a survey of nuclear power in the US based on a report from the Federation of American Scientists. With a new reactor approved for construction for the first time in decades, the increasing age of existing reactors, and the shadow of Fukushima lingering, nuclear power remains a divisive issue. It also remains a cornerstone of the power industry, but for how much longer?

Moving up the technology spectrum a bit to solar power, a company in Mississippi claims to have created a manufacturing process that can nearly halve the construction costs of photovoltaic panels. While announcements like this seem common, Twin Creeks Technologies says their development is ready for sale today. And while their initial focus was on solar panel manufacturing, they claim the technology has potential to be useful in the manufacturing of LEDs, electronics, and image sensors as well.

Moving into the realm of theory, fusion research continues. Even starting a fusion reaction is difficult, and scientists have long been looking at both inertial and magnetic methods for confining fusion fuel long enough to get it to actually fuse. Now they are looking at using magnetic fields to boost the efficiency of inertial confinement methods. And if none of that made any kind of sense to you, the article gives a brief overview of what inertial confinement means: lots of lasers making things go boom.

And now off to the land of the science fiction future where we meet some scientists in England who are researching ways of harvesting radio waves to power low-power devices such as remote controls and clocks. I love this idea. OK, I like any idea that could get rid of batteries, but this one just sounds like the proverbial "sufficiently advanced technology." Couple this with the current power-saving trends in computer chip manufacturing and you could see a Tesla-esque future where most devices harvest broadcast power.

Finally, I can hardly write round-up like this without including some news about my favorite not-quite-there-yet technology: supercapacitors. A recent Science article seems to be describing a method of using graphene (single molecule thick sheets of  carbon) to create flexible, high energy supercapacitors. Reports on this paper seem a bit light on the details. Specifically, there is no number attached to the all-important energy density of the capacitors, so this may not be the big breakthrough we need, but fingers crossed and all that.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Watching the Watchers: The Gibsonian Now

"...gazing down, into the pool of data that reflected her life, its surface made of all the bits that were the daily record of her life as registered on the digital fabric of the world." —William Gibson, Idoru, published in 1996

Having just come off a binge of re-reading William Gibson's novels, this Forbes article describing how Target tracks customer's buying patterns and attempts to manipulate them came as no real surprise. Governments have been keeping records, births, deaths, census, taxes, and so forth for ages, but our increasingly digitally-driven world exposes details of our lives that we don't ever really think about. And it exposes them to corporations, especially credit card companies, in ways unprecedented in history.  Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. After all, Target was using the data to provide coupons that would lower the cost of goods for the expectant mother. The coupons benefit the customer, the repeat business benefits the company, and everyone is happy.  Right?

I think it's quite telling that the truly targeted coupons generate a feeling of creepiness. Like we are being watched. And of course we are, at least in aggregate. Throw in that Target was easily able to disguise the targeting by throwing a little noise into the signal, and you get a rather interesting view into the human psyche.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

WebROWS: An Old Friend Reborn

"Luke, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." —Ben Kenobi

Once upon a time, back in the last century, I was working with a programming language called C and attempting to learn a little bit about making computer graphics. The first little graphics program I wrote was a three-layer false parallax star field. I revisited that idea a couple of months ago when learning Javascript and the HTML canvas API. After doing a few small exercises to get some familiarity with the language and API, it was time to do something a bit more ambitious. I decided to try my hand at recreating something else I did back in the 90s in C: a simplistic Columns knock-off that I called ROWS.

Re-implementing something I had not looked at in a decade was an interesting experience. The browser model is quite different than the old C direct-to-graphics-memory method. In fact, you basically can't do the old way anymore thanks to the evolution of operating systems. Still, re-solving a known problem gives you the advantage of knowing at least one way it will work. That does not mean I did not make any mistakes along the way.

I wrote a few years ago about a defect in one of my programs at work. The solution involved looking at the problem I a new way. I ran into a different kind of issue when implementing the program in the browser. After working through each piece of the application, finding errors along the way and removing them, everything looked like it was working. And then I tested embedding it in this blog. It still worked, but I had made one rather egregious oversight. I had used the cursor keys to control the game.

Perhaps this sounds reasonable to you; I know it did to me. After all, the old version used the cursor keys, why shouldn't the new version. Well, you see, the cursor keys already have defined uses in the browser environment, namely to scroll web pages around. That didn't matter when the game fit on the page with no scrolling needed, but as soon as I put it in a page larger than the browser window those cursor keys moved the page again, shifting the game around with it. All in all a rather unacceptable situation when trying to actually play. Off I went to search for people's solutions to this problem, and I found a few that purported to fix the cursor key behavior. I even tried out a couple, to no avail. But I also found other people saying that using the cursor keys was not the way to behave. The browser, and more importantly the browser's user, already expects those keys to perform a specific function. Breaking it is bad form, they said, perhaps you should consider another way. And of course they were quite correct.

I moved the controls for the game to a different set of keys and the thing I perceived as a problem was revealed for what it was. My program didn't have an issue, I did. In attempting to override the browser's desired behavior I had created difficulty for myself that shouldn't have existed in the first place. And isn't life just like that sometimes? How often do we cause problems for ourselves by projecting our expectations onto others without really stopping to consider them? Admitting you are wrong can be hard, but sometimes it can help too.

Now I am not going to finish this post without putting in the link to the WebROWS page. The link is also over in the sidebar. I hope you enjoy playing around with it, and I would be happy to answer any questions about how it works or how I built it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Quote of the Moment

“A pervasive emphasis on the expectations market,” writes Martin, “has reduced shareholder value, created misplaced and ill-advised incentives, generated inauthenticity in our executives, and introduced parasitic market players. The moral authority of business diminishes with each passing year, as customers, employees, and average citizens grow increasingly appalled by the behavior of business and the seeming greed of its leaders. At the same time, the period between market meltdowns is shrinking, Capital markets—and the whole of the American capitalist system—hang in the balance.”
— Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, quoted in "The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value" via Forbes

And if you will permit a smidge of editorializing, let me say yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!

Watching the Watchers: Leaders, Manipulators, and the Panopticon

Welcome to 2012 everyone!  Personally, 2011 was a rough year, and I am hoping that the new year will bring a brighter future for everyone, we sure could use it. For that reason, I'm not going to bother with a retrospective or resolutions this year.  Nope, let's start it off with some nice, ambiguous stories about what our Big Brothers are up to.

Whatever your opinion of the public schools, you will be hard pressed to argue the proliferation of standardized testing over the last couple of decades has not caused changes. Recently a member of a school board in California tried his hand at the tenth grade standardized reading and math tests. Of his performance on the math test he had the following to say, "The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly." He performed at a D level on the reading test as well. This prompted much derision from the usual suspects, especially after his identity was revealed and it showed his degrees to be in education. One expects that from the internet, but the article itself is knocking the testing itself. So the trick to this story is figuring out where you believe the incompetence lies.

Over in Washington, the SOPA bill which seeks to give the big media companies the right to break the internet and potentially put people in jail for five years for a first copyright offense is generating jobs.  Lobbying jobs that is. Are these people fighting on in the private sector for the things they believed in while in public service, or are such things evidence of corruption and quid pro quo relationships between the government bureaucracy and large corporations?

Meanwhile, people still want to know what you are up to, for your own protection of course. The proliferation of personal technology and the sensors and data that go along with it have created a market wherein shady, potentially malicious exploits are used in products sold to corporations, governments, and police forces around the world. Also unsurprisingly, military drones are trickling down into police use. Are these the necessary steps needed to protect a technologically advanced society from crime, or bricks in the metaphorical panopticon wall of a controlled society?

The choices my friends, are yours.