Friday, February 27, 2009

Solar powered cell phone

This seems like the way of the future. A cell phone with solar panels on the back, so you can recharge it. That could be brilliant.

Not only useful to all of us who get some of our electricity from coal and gas, in making our phone more environmentally friendly. But also in making it totally unnecessary to plug in a phone at all. You can take it to Africa and India and anywhere there's reception, and charge it up in the midday sun.

Granted, I spend most of the daylight hours in an office with no sunlight at all. And by the time I go home, there's nearly no daylight left. But still, it's a fantastic idea that makes loads of sense. I think just as most calculators are now solar powered, some day the idea of a mobile phone that's not solar powered will seem ridiculous.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

30 Rock

I watched the first 2 episodes of this show when it first debuted. I didn't care for it.

Recently I watched several episodes via Netflix when I was home sick, and now I'm hooked. The rhythm and wit and strong characters have endeared me to them. I think the show is a great show, and it's just the sort of thing that works better week-to-week rather than in a pilot.

When you write weekly TV, even novelic stuff like this where the characters grow and build and change, the stories leave off each week with the world basically the same, this week's struggle ended with victory or defeat. In a pilot, you create that world for the first time, with your heroine coming to a new town to take her first job since the war and her father dying. Or whatever. The rhythm of creating that world is much different than the rhythm of living in it. And it takes a cast time to create a rapport and awesomeness.

Which is why it's a shame that good shows too often aren't given the time to build to the awesome. So people like me can't come back later in their run and discover them. I wish me, and everyone else, had watched Firefly and given it the ratings to survive. But I didn't even realize it existed until it was dead. At least some good shows, like 30 Rock, survive.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Supreme Courtship

From the author of Thank You for Smoking, this book is an over-the-top ridiculous satire. It's hilarious. The character names alone are worth perusing. President Donald Vanderdamp, and his consigliere Graydon Clenndennynn are stuck in quite a pickle.

I was vaguely aware of this writer before, but now that I've read one of his books, I'm going to read them all. If they're half as entertaining, it'll be awesome. It is a farce - halfway through the book I realized the characters were going to embrace the worst possible choices they could make, and I stopped cringing and just enjoyed the ride. Read this book, laugh at the characters not with them, and hope for the worst outcome of their schemes. You'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Eyre Affair

How have I not written about this book yet? It's fricking awesome!

The Eyre Affair is the story of Thursday Next, British intelligence officer in the Literary Crimes division. In a world where airplanes were never invented, Wales is an independent nation, and Richard III is as popular as the Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, the investigation of literary crimes is a very big deal. She joined the police probably because her father is a cop, although he's a time traveling cop.

This book is the first in a series. I've read the first 3, and he gets even more imaginative and weird in the later books. I had looked forward to exploring more of the bizarre world revealed in the first book, but he goes further up and further in, giving you more surreal landscapes to imagine than you can handle, dashing across the literary landscape in a mad chase to save literature from the forces of evil.

A very weird book, but also very awesome.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Compound

This book is fascinating. Very much a page turner of excitement. A family hunkers down in a nuclear fallout shelter, struggling to survive in the post-apocalypse. It's an entertaining read - I'm sure if you look beneath the surface the characters have their two-dimensionality, but the suspense of the story kept me hooked until the final page.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


A novel from the author of Jennifer Government, Company is a Dilbertesque novel, but with a wonderful chaotic lord of the flies twist. I enjoyed it very much. It starts off with a chaotic, dysfunctional work environment, and then it spirals into destruction and violence and awesome.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Water printer

In a mall in Japan, they have a fountain that can display words. It's actually something like 100 fountains, I supposed, dropping water from above in highly controlled patterns.

I wish I had one of those at work. Even one of the basic ones that they have at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mythbusters parallel painting

This is awesome. The Mythbusters paint the Mona Lisa with a paintball gun. First they do it in series, then in parallel.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bad Google! No!

Google released an update for Google Earth for Mac. It includes an updating program that checks for new versions. ALL THE TIME. Which is dumb.

Hopefully they'll fix it soon. But until they do, I ain't installing Google Earth.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's not the crime, it's the coverup

Just like Portland's current mayoral scandal, not to mention our past senatorial scandal, it seems like Illinois' new junior senator is in trouble. And not necessarily for what he did, but for lying about it.

First, "I never talked about fundraising for Blagojevich".
Then, "We talked about it, but I refused."
Today: "Well, I did try to raise money for him, but I didn't succeed."

God help us if this guy gets reelected. Politicians never learn from Jerry Springer's example. If caught doing something bad, admit it, apologize and move on. Trying to cover it up just makes it worse in the end.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gut Feelings

This fascinating book is by a psychologist who studies decision making processes. He argues that we make decisions typically based on simple rules of thumb, and not by the complicated weighing of pros and cons that is usually suggested. In fact, he gives many examples of how simple judgments which we are evolutionarily adapted to make very quickly, can be as accurate or even better for making decisions than much more complicated formulae.

He also gives several great examples of overthinking, when people who interrupt their natural process of gut intuition with rational thought decline in performance.

It's a good book. A very interesting read, with lots of fascinating examples explained in a very clear way. I do feel like the book needs a counterbalance - not against the truth of the argument, but about how good it is that we use intuition to decide things. The Science of Fear is a book all about how we use rules of thumb to make intuitive judgments, and how they lead us astray, or allow people with selfish motives to manipulate us into acting against our best interests.

Either way, it's interesting and useful to know more about our unconscious processes of decision making. But no book has been written yet that perfectly balances the story about this feature of ourselves.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rhinovirus Genome Project

Scientists have completed sequencing the genome of the common cold. (The RNA of the cold?) All 99 strains of it.

Maybe someday we'll figure out how to cure it. Or we'll use our power for evil.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

World Development Data

This guy has some pretty sweet graphs and animations.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Methane buses

The transportation of the future is here! The source of the new wonder fuel, which is powering Oslo buses? It's people!

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I wish the lottery had games that were like this.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Her Morning Elegance

This is an awesome stop-motion animation music video.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Video games linked to breastfeeding

A new study shows a correlation between playing video games and breastfeeding your children.

A surprising link, at least for me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Light at the Edge of the World

I did not like this book. It's a preachy book by an anthropologist about how we need to save all the native cultures around the world that are dying out because they have knowledge we can benefit from.

If he had made a case about botanical knowledge that traditional cultures possess, that would be a great book. But his contempt for science and Western ideas is so immense, and his sketchy descriptions of the cultures he mentions are so brief and shallow, I was deeply dissatisfied. He describes people who have visions as being able to see the future uncritically. My least favorite part of the book is when he claims that a native tribe can explain firewalking spiritually and that scientists can't explain it. He's wrong.

He's not wrong about the richness of human diversity, or the priceless knowledge in native cultures and the need to preserve it, he just makes a crappy argument for it. I wish he had written a book about just one of the cultures, going into great detail about all the complexity and richness of their culture, instead of shallowly surveying many. I longed for a book that was as good as Things Fall Apart, a detailed accounting of the many people in an indigenous culture, their ancient knowledge of the nature they live amidst, and the threats that modern society pose. Instead it's just skimming across the surface of some of the places he's visited. What he did was at the level of complexity of a TV show, not a book. (It's good that it also exists as a coffee table book with pretty pictures and TV show, but don't read it without pictures.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lie Detectors suck

"Lie detectors" don't work. They are easily fooled, with lots of false positives and false negatives. That's why they're not admissible as evidence in court. The only thing they are good for is tricking people into telling the truth - scaring people into thinking you know they're lying.

A recent scientific study found as much - the "lie detectors" they looked at performed no better than random chance at detecting lies.

Unfortunately, the bastards that make the machines are screaming lawsuit all over the place, which among other effects has led to removal of the paper in question from the online version of the journal.

If the Israeli manufacturers want to sue me for slander, bring it. Trying to sue people into intimidation is a crappy way to run a business. If your product works, you shouldn't be afraid to debate its effectiveness. Shutting down debate is the tactic of people whose product is crap.

There are people researching other ways to detect lies besides a polygraph or bullshit voice analysis. Training a person has promise, as does the MRI machine. But the classic lie detector is a psychological tool, not a scientific one.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


A book about dead people. Awesome. Despite being a catalog book, where each chapter explores another bizarre way your corpse could make itself useful after you're not using it anymore, it's a totally engaging and highly entertaining book.

From real-life crash test dummies to medical schools to museum displays, Mary Roach explores all the different things to do after you die. There are a few chapters that are particularly gross, like the description of the decomposition lab in Tennessee. But if you're up for that, you should read this most excellent book.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Your Inner Fish

This book is a typical science catalog book. The author takes a single idea: you can see our evolutionary history in the structure of various body parts, and then devotes a chapter to each one. See your history in your hand. See your history in your eye. See your history in your jaw. And so on.

It's pretty interesting, and there's a lot of cool stuff. But about 3/4 of the way through, it starts to get repetitive and boring. Early chapters break up the monotony with stories about particular scientists and how they discovered the various things we know about fossils and DNA and developmental biology. I wish more of the book were that story.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dr. Tatiana

There are two kinds of science books that I've read lately. They tend to be catalogs: a single idea repeated in a series of variations from chapter to chapter, or they tell a narrative story about an adventure of discovery. I usually prefer the second kind, because the excitement of what will happen next moves the story along and keeps me reading.

A good book of the first kind, however, catalogs something awesome and amazing. And Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation does that very well indeed. Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, reviews all the insane variety of reproductive strategies the animal kingdom has to offer. And it's wild. If you can imagine it, there's an animal that does it. Banana slugs are among the weirder creatures, in fact. Not to mention species where the male is 100 times smaller than the female, and for years was mistaken for a parasite or an organ.

The book generally takes the style of an advice column, telling spiders and squids that their bizzare sex lives are in fact normal. The finale is a description of a pan-creation Jerry Springer show, which is even more engaging than the rest of the very enjoyable book.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Botany of Desire

This book is pretty good. An engaging series of tales, about 4 plants and the entwining of their fate with human history. We have involved ourselves in their evolution, and they have obliged our desires by evolving new properties to suit us.

The four plants are the apple, the tulip, the marijuana and the potato. There's lots of fascinating stuff to be learned, particularly about the genetics of these plants. And plenty of interesting anecdotes about people and their desires for what these plants should be.

The only flaw with the book is the Chaucerian structure. There is a thread that connects the four stories together, but it's a very thin one. Each story is good, but the parts are greater than the whole. It's a good book, and I recommend it, but it's not the best of the books that I've read recently. To put it another way, I enjoyed it very much, but I COULD put it down.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Where Wizards Stay Up Late

I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting this book was. I thought that a good book should exist about the creation of the internet, but I also secretly feared that it would be too nerdy and not human enough.

I am biased, being a huge computer nerd, but I found it totally engaging. The book does contain a large number of technical details, but explains them all with very accessible metaphors. And the story of the various people and personalities is very interesting. It seems like the internet could very easily have never been built - that there were lots of reasons for it to not happen, lots of competing interests that had to compromise, but that they just managed to pull it all off. All in all, I think it's a pretty good book.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Nonprofit news

I'm not the only one who thinks that the future of journalism is in the non-profit sector. It's a tough problem. Our government needs a robust press watching it to keep it honest. But most of the real work of journalism is done by newspapers, and several factors are driving newspapers out of business.

We need to keep journalists on staff, even as running a newspaper ceases being profitable. Even if newspapers go fully electronic, like the Christian Science Monitor, they still won't be profitable.

So we should stop expecting them to be. The New York Times should become a charitable non-profit. 501c3. You'd still sell copies of the paper, and you'd still sell ads (although you'd call it corporate sponsorship or partnership like public radio and TV do) but you'd accept donations and give tax deductions and stop trying to make a profit. Over time, the paper will go away and it'll all be online, and the fact that the profit evaporates won't matter so long as you can at least pay your bills.

It's problematic to try to get all the local city papers to do it too, but at least their future selves won't have to carry national news because the national news foundations will.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Wrong Priorities

I started reading this story about the White House dress code because of prurient interest in the Obama administration. I'm curious about how the President thinks, and what he takes as important.

But the most amazing part to me was the story about the Bush policy. President W. Bush spent 15 minutes chewing out a staffer for showing up to the oval office without wearing a coat and tie on a Saturday. Now that Obama is permitting a more relaxed dress code, they are horrified.

Their shock would be more believable if their insistence on discipline in clothing had carried over into competency in work. If "Brownie" had been as efficient a manager as he was a dresser, then New Orleans would still be a gleaming city instead of a gaping wound. It's a singular example of the Bush administration's focus on image over reality, style instead of substance. Honestly, I don't care if everyone in the White House is wearing muu-muus or bathrobes, so long as they get the work of governing done well.