Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No big whoop

I installed Vista on my home desktop about a month ago.
Some random observations...
  • While searching for drivers for my CHAINTECH AV-710 soundcard, I acquired a trojan within the first 10 minutes of operation.
  • It took several tries acquiring and installing the drivers for my somewhat dated Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-250 personal video recorder card. Tip: get the hcwclear.exe program.
  • My institutionally supported copy of Symantec crippled my computer every time it tried to run a system scan. Only recourse was to disable that feature.
  • I couldn't implement the Aero feature of Vista until I shut down the security camera software on my Logitech WiLife. Once Aero was enabled, the WiLife monitor worked ok.
  • Aero is incompatible with the recording function of my Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-250. The WinTV program crashes every time.
I know there's more, but this is all I can remember at the moment.
Vista? It's no big whoop.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

My mess says that I'm liberal

Apparently, even long before my politics had swung to the liberal, my lifestyle was screaming it for me.

According to a ScientificAmerican article online, Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings, some researchers think that they can tell someone's politial affiliation by looking at the condition of their offices and bedrooms.

I'm not sure about the metrics behind this study, but a casual stroll around cubesville belies this theory.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Secret of my success

A first-of-its-kind study at UCLA finds that computer-savvy middle-aged adults who search the internet are actually stimulating and improving their brain function.
"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience," said Small, who is also the director of UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center.

In fact, researchers found that during Web searching, volunteers with prior experience registered a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those with little Internet experience. The tiniest measurable unit of brain activity registered by the fMRI is called a voxel. Scientists discovered that during Internet searching, those with prior experience sparked 21,782 voxels, compared with only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.

Compared with simple reading, the Internet's wealth of choices requires that people make decisions about what to click on in order to pursue more information, an activity that engages important cognitive circuits in the brain.
Take that, whippersnappers.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Real Commander In Chief?

An essay that I had read, which compares the respective transition team efforts between Obama and McCain, got me to thinking about just how different those two people could be.

In synopsis, "Obama has organized an elaborate well-staffed network to prepare for his possible ascension to the White House, while Sen. John McCain has all but put off such work until after the election." Further,

The Arizona Senator has instructed his team to not spend time on the transition effort, according to the source, both out of a desire to have complete focus on winning the election as well as a superstitious belief that the campaign shouldn't put the cart before the horse.
I think it's a little bit ironic that McCain, the self-styled "military expert," is looking only at the battle but does not have any plans for long-term occupation. Perhaps this explains why McCain had graduated fifth from the bottom — 894th out of a class of 899 — from the naval academy.

Draw your own parallels.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Open Letter to the American People

Text of Open Letter to the American People (PDF), published on September 25, 2008.
This year's presidential election is among the most significant in our nation's history. The country urgently needs a visionary leader who can ensure the future of our traditional strengths in science and technology and who can harness those strengths to address many of our greatest problems: energy, disease, climate change,
security, and economic competitiveness.

We are convinced that Senator Barack Obama is such a leader, and we urge you to join us in supporting him.

During the administration of George W. Bush, vital parts of our country's scientific enterprise have been
damaged by stagnant or declining federal support. The government's scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations. As a result, our once dominant position in the scientific world has been shaken and our prosperity has been placed at risk. We have lost time critical for the development of new
ways to provide energy, treat disease, reverse climate change, strengthen our security, and improve our economy.

We have watched Senator Obama's approach to these issues with admiration. We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation's competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation's and the world's most urgent needs.

Senator Obama understands that Presidential leadership and federal investments in science and technology are crucial elements in successful governance of the world's leading country. We hope you will join us as we work together to ensure his election in November.
The letter is signed by 61 Nobel Prize recipients.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Scientific explanation for Red States

The Voice of Bad Science, an article by Ben Rothke, says what I've believed all along -- that Americans are dumber than a sack of hair.
... Americans are woefully uneducated in the rudiments of basic science. This ignorance makes these types of consumers prey for supplement companies. The fact that tens of millions of American’s believe in government conspiracies, Bigfoot and Roswell are dubious signs. Lawrence Krauss writes in “Stop the Flying Saucer, I Want to Get Off” that “mountains of statistics suggest that the public is far more susceptible to scientific nonsense than political nonsense. More than half of Americans are unaware that the earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do it”.
Although the article is ostensibly about radio advertising, I can't help but draw parallels to why there are so many John McCain supporters or why there are so many dittoheads.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Virtual telescope yields virtual image

A scientific consortium has managed to zoom in on the super-massive black hole, Sagittarius A* , which is at the center of our galaxy.
The astronomers linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona and California to create a virtual telescope more than 2,800 miles across that is capable of seeing details more than 1,000 times finer than the Hubble Space Telescope.

According to the article in e! Science News, the 2,800-mile angular resolution has the ability to actually see the event horizon of the black hole -- the point where nothing, even light, can escape.

I was somewhat disappointed that there weren't any pictures of the event horizon, so I've posted my own close-up image.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One Candidate on Science and Technology

Back on January 10, I had mentioned Sciencedebate 2008, which hoped to get the presidential candidate to weigh in on science and technology issues.

So far, only Barack Obama has stepped up to the plate. John McCain, however, is said that he intends to respond.

Scientists and Engineers for America has more on this issue.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why they're hot

A EurekaAlert.org piece, New research reveals why chili peppers are hot, offers an interesting evolutionary explanation as to why chili peppers are hot.

Conventional thought says that the fruit of a plant is tasty so that animals will eat and disperse the seeds. Chili peppers are sort of an exception to this rule. The current theory, which is based upon research on wild chili plants in Bolivia, indicates that the capsaicin in a chili evolved to protect the seeds from Fusarium infections. Fusarium, a fungus that invades fruits through wounds, is a leading cause of seed mortality.

At higher elevations, where moisture is high and Fusarium fungus is rampant, the scientists found that 100 percent of the plants produced hot chilies. In the drier lowlands, where fungus is less of a problem, only 40 percent of the plants produced fiery fruits. The remainder spent more resources developing thick seed coats, which protect against the devastating ant populations common to lower areas.

Capsaicin in chilies, one of the first plants domesticated in the New World, may have been used to protect human food from microbial attack long before refrigeration or artificial preservatives were available. So habanero peppers must be nature's super preservative.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Does Word 2008 Suck?

I've been using the new Microsoft Office 2008 Suite for well over a year, and I've been of several minds about it. My first reaction was one of dislike -- the new interface just didn't do it for me. Although I've since adjusted to it, I still thrash around looking for some commands. Styles, which I thought I knew pretty well, also threw me for a loop in the new version.

After producing some documents in Word 2008, however, I grew to like some of the improvements, such as the improved way of working with header and footers.

Recently, however, I was helping a student with his 670-page Master's thesis, which was produced in Word 2003. I couldn't open (or thought I couldn't) his file in Word 2008. My next-cube-neighbor couldn't either, but he could open it using Office 2008 on his Mac laptop. So, he created a 2008-combatible (i.e., docx) file for me, and I got the same results. It really turned out that the file could load -- it just took 17 minutes to actually open!

In an experiment, I used VMware to open another XP session within my current one. I have Office 2003 installed under that session. Despite all of the inherent disadvantages of running Office under a virtual machine, Word 2003 was able to open it almost instantly.

Making a long story short, I think that Word 2008 had a real problem with the styles that the student was using. Most of his styles were variations of the normal tag, and I've read on Woody's that this type of "direct formatting in very large documents usually causes corruption."

Apparently this corruption only flummoxes Word 2008.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dispatch from the Taliban Nation

In a bit of belated reading, I came across a March 6, 2008, item from gallup.com. Do Muslims Want Democracy and Theocracy? is an excerpt from the book Who Speaks for Islam?
The book is the product of a mammoth six-year study in which the Gallup Organization conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations — urban and rural, young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate. It asks the questions everyone is curious about: Why is the Muslim world so anti-American? Who are the extremists? Is democracy something Muslims really want? What do Muslim women want? The answers to these and other pertinent, provocative questions are provided not by experts, extremists, or talking heads, but by empirical evidence — the voices of a billion Muslims.

So, when asked about democracy, most Muslims want a democracy, but one based upon Sharia, which is a code of law based on the Koran.

In only a few countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, do the majority want Sharia to be the only source of legislation.

Interestingly, a 2006 Gallup Poll in the US finds that a majority of Americans want the Bible as a source of legislation.

  • Forty-six percent of Americans say that the Bible should be "a" source, and 9% believe it should be the "only" source of legislation.
  • Perhaps even more surprising, 42% of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55% want them to play no role at all. These numbers are almost identical to those in Iran.
Welcome to the Taliban Nation. Leave your sandals at the door.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Life in strange places

In Cosmos, The Science of Everything, Lauren Monaghan's article, Silent Spring, tells a strange tale of mutating fungi found in Ukraine's Chernobyl number four reactor.

Back in 1999, scientists had sent a robot inside to survey the reactor. The robot returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin.

Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, thought that the presence of the melanin might be significant. Melanin is typically associated with 'protective' properties. Melanin in skin, for example, absorbs and safely transforms different electromagnetic wavelengths, such as DNA-damaging ultraviolet light.

In an experiment scientist analyzed three different types of fungi, including Cladosporium sphaerospermum, the species abundant in and around Chernobyl. Using ionizing radiation from the radioactive isotope, cesium-137, they exposed the fungi to radiation doses similar to those inside the damaged reactor.

Melanin-containing fungi exposed to the radiation – even when deliberately starved of nutrients – grew significantly larger and up to 2.5 times faster than fungi without melanin and those not exposed to radiation.

Even though the melanin-containing fungus was starved of typical fungus nutrients, it prospered. Although still a tentative hypothesis, the evidence indicates that the melanin might be converting radiation into nutrients for the fungus, somewhat like how chlorophyll converts sunlight into energy for a higher plant. If true, this is astounding.

This is like the discovery of chemosynthesis around hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean. In the deep, dark ocean, a bacteria was found to metabolize hydrogen sulfide given off by the vents. A relatively diverse ecosystem (organisms such as shrimp, crabs, tube worms) was found to exist entirely upon the bacteria.

If it could happen there, perhaps it is possible that life could similarly evolve around a food chain fueled by radiation.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Worms are playing a new tune

An InfoWorld article today, New worm transcodes MP3s to try to infect PCs, reports on the appearance of a nasty little worm.

The worm, designated by Kaspersky as "Worm.Win32.GetCodec.a," takes advantage of Microsoft's Advanced Systems Format filetype for audio and video streams. If you play an infected file in that format, it prompts you to download a codec. Instead of the codec, however, you're downloading and installing a Trojan horse, which installs a proxy program that allows hackers to route other traffic through your PC.

Once it takes off, the worm will look for other MP3 files on your system,transcode them to Microsoft's WMA format, wrap them in an ASF container and then add links to more copies of the worm.

Kaspersky says:

Unlike earlier Trojans, which used the WMA format only to mask their presence on the system (i.e., the infected objects were not music files), this worm infects audio files. According to Kaspersky Lab virus analysts, this is the first such case. The likelihood of a successful attack is increased because most users trust their audio files and do not associate them with possible infections. It should be noted that the file on the counterfeit web page is digitally signed by Inter Technologies and is identified by www.usertrust.com, the resource that issued the digital signature, as trusted.

As Dr. Raymond Stantz would say, "This is a really nasty one!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moo On Over Greenhouse Gasses

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
and I'll give you a whole lot of gas.

PHYSORG.com reports on a study by scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in Argentina. By attaching plastic balloons to the backs of cows and running collection tubes from their stomachs, scientists were surprised to find that a standard cow produces between 800 to 1,000 liters of "emissions" (mostly methane) each day.

Why do this?

Well, if you must know, methane is 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The misguided scientists are now studying how changes in a cow's diet can reduce the amount of methane. It seems to me that capturing and using the methane as an alternative fuel would make a whole lot more sense. I'm studying this myself, and I'll give you an update on my findings.... as soon as I can get my feet back on the ground.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Musical Monday - Putin on the Ritz

A well-done musical parody, featuring Bush and Putin (my two favorite sub-humans).
Some little pop-up ads appear at the bottom of the play screen -- you can X out of them.

[It's gone  :-(   ]


(A tip of the hat to Marta for sharing this with me.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Sure Thing?

I remember having to do a history paper back when I was in the fourth grade. The title of my paper was Phoenicia, Land of the Arts. I illustrated it in an old-fashioned cut 'n paste style, with illustrations from old National Geographic magazines. In an inspired burst of creativity, I made the title page and headers out of assorted fonts and letters that I also clipped from magazines -- the colorful ransom letter effect worked well with my subject matter. It was a well-deserved "A," IMHO.
Some time later, when I had another paper to do, I used the same ransom note technique on the title page. I don't remember the paper topic or the grade, but I remember that it didn't go over that well a second time. Maybe if it had been another teacher...
The point (you're surprised that I have one?) of this anecdote is that it has a certain similarity to recent political activity. In the last presidential election, a lot of political hay was made of John Kerry's flip-flopping.
I Actually Did Vote for the $87 Billion, Before I voted Against It
Well, hey, it worked in 2004. Let's try it again. So John McCain supporters are making ham-fisted attempts at painting opponent Barack Obama as a flip-flopper on Iraq troop withdrawal (or anything else that might work, for that matter). I guess that this tiresome recycling of the "tried-and-true" is second nature for a conservative.
While we are at it, perhaps Obama has a Dukakis/Willie Horton-style spectre that we can raise.
Really, I'm only kidding.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Academic Freedom is Just Another Word

A July 9 New Scientist article, New legal threat to teaching evolution in the US, warns that "Intelligent Design" is once again worming its way back into education. Although Intelligent Design received a legal trouncing in Dover, Pennsylvania, back in 2005, the folks behind it have been hard at work putting new lipstick on that pig.

On the heels of Ben Stein's 2008 movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the new wedge issue has become academic freedom. But this isn't the academic freedom that grants academics the ability to do research and publish, it is the freedom to legislate that high school teachers must teach "the controversy" and "critical thinking skills."

Yes, I can see where one's belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible goes hand-in-hand with the exercise of one's critical thinking skills.

It's sobering to hear (actually, it makes me want to do a double) that the governor of Louisiana, who is a strong supporter of this bold new interpretation of academic freedom, is on the short list as a potential vice presidential nominee for John McCain. Praise the Lord and pass the snakes!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Left Behind -- and loving it

A fool and their $40 are soon parted -- the $40 will get left behind.
You've got to love this concept: a web site, http://www.youvebeenleftbehind.com, has been established for the purpose of getting one last message to the lost (at a time when they might just be willing to hear it for the first and last time).
Programmed and run by Christians, for Christians, this site will store your message to the unsaved and automatically release it to them six days after the rapture. The rapture will have officially occurred when three of the web site's five-member team fails to log in over a three-day period. A "deadman's switch," if you will. Another three days are given to failsafe any false triggering of the system.
For a modest $40 per year fee, God-fearing Christians can store up to 250 MB of documents and have a message sent to up to 62 individual email addresses.
The "Why" is simple. After the rapture, the Christians who have left the rest of us behind will have one last chance to bring us to Christ and snatch us from the flames.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hitting 'em where it hurts

The real reason why Australia has recently ended its ten-year opposition to the Kyoto Protocol: Climate change to impact beer.
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — The price of beer is likely to rise in coming decades because climate change will hamper the production of a key grain needed for the brew — especially in Australia, a scientist warned Tuesday.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.

The March 26 NewScientist online article, Beer bellies may double the risk of dementia, fires a deadly round in the senseless War on Beer. ™

The article states that fat build-ups around the waist during middle age may cause dementia decades later. That's just friggin' wonderful. On the one hand, beer consumption is linked to decreased cancers and on the other hand you'll be too out of it to know you're healthy. Can it suck any more than this? <--- (rhetorical question)

Researchers next need to study the impact that the molecules released by body fat have on the brain. If Whitmer's hypothesis proves right, the conclusions could be disturbing – those beer bellies may be silently damaging the brain, long before old age sets in.
Game over man... Game over!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of Scientists, Beer, and Statistics

A March 18 New York Times Science section article, For Scientists, a Beer Test Shows Results as a Litmus Test, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, says that the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher.
The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.
Oh dear, you might think. This study is rock-solid. The author of the study is Dr. Tomas Grim, an ornithologist at Palacky University in the Czech Republic. Grim's study, however, only looked at fellow ornithologists in the Czech Republic.
Some scientists suggest that biologists in the Czech Republic could prove to be an anomaly, given that the country has a special relationship to beer, boasting the highest rate of beer consumption on earth.

More important, as Dr. Grim pointed out, the study documents a correlation between beer drinking and scientific performance without explaining why they are correlated. That leaves open the possibility that it is not beer drinking that causes poor scientific performance, but just the opposite.

Or, as Dr. Mike Webster, an ornithologist and a beer enthusiast at Washington State University in Pullman, said, maybe “those with poor publication records are drowning their sorrows.”

All of this provides a classic example of how one must be careful to draw conclusions from any correlation.

Interestingly, the online article also had a sidebar link to an older (Dec. 14, 2004) article, which extolled the virtues of beer-drinking among geologists. Perhaps the poncy Czech bird-watchers are truly an anomaly.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Windows XP Users are Revolting

An interesting article in Computer Word, titled Windows XP: Going, going ... gone? talks about the twilight days of Windows XP.

One of the things that makes it interesting is that it speaks of "an incipient consumer rebellion." In the short history of computing, consumers couldn't get their updates fast enough. The product life-cycle was born, and Microsoft wallowed in profits. And Bill Gates said "It is good."

But then something happened. Windows Vista, with its demand for high-end hardware, and the difficult support for legacy hardware and applications, left consumers wanting... to stick with Windows XP.

Normally, when a new Microsoft OS makes it into production, the old OS would hit the dust bins after a couple of years. Interestingly, however, after consumer versions of Vista went on sale in January 2007, four months later companies like Dell were once again selling the majority of their machines with XP. This consumer rebellion subsequently prompted Microsoft to revise its product life cycle, and extend the freshness date of Windows XP a little longer.

Ah, but that Windows Genuine Advantage that you so willingly undertook to protect yourself from running pirated software is now going to bite you. Somewhere in that license agreement that you failed to read is a clause that says that there is a limit to the number of times you can activate your XP license on new hardware. Gotcha, sucker. This is a slight variation on the carrot & stick approach -- if you don't go after that juicy expensive carrot that's being dangled in front of you, then you get jammed from behind by the stick.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Health News I Can Use

I would normally be skeptical of a news report from a conservative, Republican-leaning publisher like NewsMax.com. However, sometimes a news item just feels right, and one must trust that it is legitimate. Such is the case with the March 18 story, Beer Fights Cancer, by Sylvia Booth Hubbard.

According to unnamed researchers at an undisclosed location, the chemical compound xanthohumol, which occurs naturally in hops, has been shown to be toxic to several kinds of human cancer, including prostate, ovarian, breast, and colon. It is said that beers that contain the most hops, such as ale, stout, and porter -- the darker the beer, the better -- provide the most benefits.

Quite frankly, I'm not about to wait for hop-based herbal supplements to hit the local markets. I'm going to renew my prophylactic treatments right after work tonight -- the natural way, as god intended.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Spamalot

Pity the poor spammer who's trying to ply his trade to an increasingly jaded audience. Maybe it's time that they took a tip from pharmaceutical companies and began combining their products. Is the market ready for a Hoodia-Viagra combo drug? If you're going to lose all that weight, you may as well plan on doing something, right?
Dear Sir:

I have been requested by the Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company to contact you for assistance in resolving a matter. The Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company has recently concluded a large number of contracts for production facilities in the sub-Sahara region, where we've merged with the leading national Hoodia grower. The contracts have immediately produced moneys equalling US $40,000,000. The Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company is desirous of selling our product in other parts of the world, however, because of certain regulations of the Nigerian Government, it is unable to move these funds to another region.

Your assistance is requested as a non-Nigerian citizen to assist the Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company, and also the Central Bank of Nigeria, in moving this product out of Nigeria. If the funds can be transferred to your name, in your United States account, then you can forward the funds as directed by the Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company. In exchange for your accomodating services, the Nigerian National Viagra Manufacturing Company would agree to allow you to retain 10%, or US $4 million of this amount (payment to be made in the form of our new combination drug, Hoodia Love).

However, to be a legitimate transferee of these moneys according to Nigerian law, you must presently be a depositor of at least US $100,000 in a Nigerian bank which is regulated by the Central Bank of Nigeria...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

High up on the Mountain

An item cited on Yahoo! News, Moses was high on drugs: Israeli researcher, has an Israeli space cadet/professor of cognitive psychology saying that he's been there and done that himself -- talk to God, that is.

Benny Shanon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says that Moses was probably high when he saw the "burning bush." Citing his own experiences with South American psychotropics, Shanon thinks that Moses might have been drinking a concoction based on bark of the acacia tree, which is frequently mentioned in the Bible. It's also an ingredient in Fresca and Barq's Root Beer. Of course, smoking Acacia bark is also thought to keep demons and ghosts away, so God was not likely in his/her Holy Ghost incarnation. One variety of the plant is also good for treating premature ejaculation. Moses did have a thing with his staff, didn't he?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Devil is in the Minutia

To see the devil in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wildflower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour.

Apologies to William Blake

According to a recent survey of Americans' attitudes about nanotechnology, only 29.5 percent think that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. This amazing factoid is written up on ScienceDaily.com.

The godless European nations,

  • United Kingdom: 54.1 percent
  • Germany: 62.7 percent
  • France: 72.1 percent
are much more enlightened, it seems.

In presenting his paper to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication, went on to say that Americans' concern about nanotechnology is not a matter of ignorance. The respondents are said to be well-informed about nanotechnology and its potential benefits.

"They still oppose it," he says. "They are rejecting it based on religious beliefs."

God help us.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Night at the Firefox

(re: the weird title -- sorry, I don't use the Opera browser)

Or a short history of clicking

Appologies for the weirdness of titles, but it's Friday afternoon and I'm feeling puckish.

I subscribe to Daily Rotation, a site that tracks feeds from a host of technolgy sites on the web. It's user-customizable, and one of my monitoring choices is del.icio.us hotlist. That site in turn pointed me to a piece on CollegeDegree.com titled 60+ Killer Open Courseware Collections for Web Designers. Are you still with me? Good stuff there, which led me to looking around a bit more, when I noticed another one of their feature pieces, 99 Resources to Research & Mine the Invisible Web. More good stuff here, all worthy of a bookmark.

At this point, web page wanderlust kicked into gear, and I tried their link for Top 25 Strangest College Courses. What's amusing about this list is that it featured two items from Alfred University, my old Elmer Mater:

  1. Tightwaddery, or The good life on a dollar a day: Alfred University's demonstratively anti-capitalist course attempts to debunk contemporary culture's popular myth: "Spend money and you’ll be happy." According to the official class description, "On a theoretical level, we will consider how living frugally benefits your mind, your body, your relationships, your community, and the environment. On a practical level, we will examine personal spending habits [and] sharpen bargain-hunting rip-off-detecting, and haggling skills." While they're at it, maybe they can help drive down gas prices?
  2. Maple Syrup: The Real Thing: Alfred University makes this list twice with its now famous course, Maple Syrup: The Real Thing. The course description reads, "the method of producing maple syrup is one of the things in our society that has endured even in today's culture of constant change," which is why it deserves an entire semester of attention and dissection. Students mustn't worry though, as the course comes with a neat disclaimer: "No prior experience expected."
Wow! When I was there in the early part of the 70s, Alfred used to feature a mini-semester during the month of January, when more sensible people took extended winter breaks. These "Allenterms," as they were called, were required for two of your four (or more) years. My two Allenterms were
  • a study of Lichens - running around in the dead of winter to collect and classify one of nature's strange and misunderstood life forms. "It's an algae. It's a fungus. No, it's both in one!"
  • "Tolkein and the Medieval Fantasy" - a reading of J.R.R. Tolkein's seminal fantasy trilogy.
Ah, such a stroll down memory lane.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Yeah, it's a sign all right

Reality can be strange.

I'm still on as an adjunct with my old employer, Fairmont State College, so I continue to get faculty announcements. Yesterday's made me do a double-take:


Subject: Deaf GLBT

Hello Everyone,

Our department, Disability Office and the Gay-Straight Alliance organization are very excited to invite you to attend a presentation by Ray Luczak on “The Deaf GLBT Community: Then and Now.”

The link to the information: http://www.fairmontstate.edu/images/userImages/tchiba/Page_4345/rayluczak.



I suspect that this is a very small niche market for a small state university. No doubt, they could hold their meetings in a tiny room -- say a closet.

Yeah, it's a sign, all right - "Going out of business."
Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) in Ghostbusters.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Stubbonrness is in the Genes

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig think they may have found a genetic basis for "stubbornness." A single genetic mutation, called the A1 mutation, is apparently found in approximately one-third of the the population.

The biochemical theory behind this mutation is that it reduces the amount of dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine plays a key role in the learning process, the feeling of pleasure, and in motivation and reward. "Motivation and reward" in this case is interpreted as "learning to repeat behaviors that maximize rewards."

The scientists tested a group of 26 men, asking them to select one of two symbols. Each selection was followed by positive (smiley face) or negative (frowny face) feedback. Brain imaging, which was being conducted while the men took the test, showed that the group of men carrying the A1 mutation had diminished neurological activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in monitoring errors.


As a casual observer of obvious phenomenon, I cannot help but wonder if the A1 mutation has a similarity to one of the more famously documented X-linked mutations -- hemophilia. Without another un-mutated X chromosome as a buffer against stupidity, the male gets the full brunt of the A1 mutation.

Compare the chart on the left with the family tree of George Walker Bush. It could explain how a profound case of diminished neurological activity could manifest itself itself in our current president, yet be relatively benign in his brother, Jeb Bush.

GW's mother, Barbara, is doubtlessly a carrier. Her mother, Pauline Robinson, died when her father's car slammed into a stone while while he was supposedly trying to stop a cup of coffee from sliding about (she was a passenger in the car, and not in front of the stone wall). While this isn't the legendary mushroom cloud for stubbornness, it could be construed as a smoking gun for diminished neurological activity.

I'll need to further investigate this matter.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bright Lights, Big Sneezes

I've read about the photic sneeze reflex before -- it is something that I am very familiar with. Now Scientific American has weighed in with their article, Looking at the Sun Can Trigger a Sneeze. They're telling me that I have my wiring crossed:
A sneeze is usually triggered by an irritation in the nose, which is sensed by the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve responsible for facial sensation and motor control. This nerve is in close proximity to the optic nerve, which senses, for example, a sudden flood of light entering the retina. As the optic nerve fires to signal the brain to constrict the pupils, the theory goes, some of the electrical signal is sensed by the trigeminal nerve and mistaken by the brain as an irritant in the nose. Hence, a sneeze.

I believe this. The effect of sunlight does feel like an irritation in my nose. According to the article, 10 to 35 percent of the population are photic sneezers. It is said to be an autosomal-dominant trait that can be inherited from either parent.

The article hints that it's an embarrassing trait. Perhaps. It's also terrifying at times. Imagine being in fast, heavy traffic and having a violent, seven-sneeze fit. :-(

Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome, or, ACHOO!

Subordinate science and reason to faith

Nobody wants the Inquisition!

Pope Benedict XVI, a.k.a. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is not a wanted man in Italy.

Sixty-seven professors and researchers at Rome's La Sapienza university's physics department, as well as (free) radical students, joined in the call for the pope to stay away on Thursday, the start of the university's academic year. They fault the intellectual, conservative and tradition-minded pope for a series of positions he has taken that they say "subordinate science and reason to faith."

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi condemned the professors and students for "intolerance" towards the pontiff, who has said that Galileo had it coming: "The concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents... a very direct path that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb."

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”
I'm not sure how this bit of enlightenment jibes with the words of papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of CĂ®teaux, who learnedly counseled “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own.”

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Vinyl Solution

I was amazed to read a Time.com article, Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back, by Kristina Dell. It says that LP record albums are making a bit of a comeback, with one company,Warner Music Group, showing a 30% increase in LP sales last year.

The article cites three primary reasons: sound quality, extra material, and socializing.

Sound quality -- LPs generally exhibit a warmer, more nuanced sound than CDs and digital downloads. MP3 files tend to produce tinnier notes, especially if compressed into a lower-resolution format that pares down the sonic information. "Most things sound better on vinyl, even with the crackles and pops and hisses," says MacRunnel, the young Missouri record collector.

Album extras -- Large album covers with imaginative graphics, pullout photos (some even have full-size posters tucked in the sleeve) and liner notes are a big draw for young fans. "Alternative rock used to have 16-page booklets and album sleeves, but with iTunes there isn't anything collectible to show I own a piece of this artist," says Dreese of Newbury Comics. In a nod to modern technology, albums known as picture discs come with an image of the band or artist printed on the vinyl. "People who are used to CDs see the artwork and the colored vinyl, and they think it's really cool," says Jordan Yates, 15, a Nashville-based vinyl enthusiast. Some LP releases even come with bonus tracks not on the CD version, giving customers added value.

Social experience -- Crowding around a record player to listen to a new album with friends, discussing the foldout photos, even getting up to flip over a record makes vinyl a more socially interactive way to enjoy music. "As far as a communal experience, like with family and friends, it feels better to listen to vinyl," says Jason Bini, 24, a recent graduate of Fordham University. "It's definitely more social."

The sound quality issue is a bit odd. A pristine record may sound wonderful, but the majority of goods you'll get used are going to be damaged goods -- dirty, scratchy records.

Now maybe it's my imagination, but I do think there's something to the "superior" sound argument on a clean record. I've been running my LPs through a stereo pre-amp to my PC's soundcard and then processing the files with some software. With the record noise removed, the raw files do have a richer, warmer sound to them.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The FBI's Prodigious Ineptitude & Other Snarks

If I were snark hunting, I think I might have stumbled upon the national breeding ground and sanctuary.

Its location is in an Ars Technical piece, Unpaid bills lead phone companies to hang up on FBI wiretaps, by Ryan Paul.

According to a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), it seems that telephone companies have terminated FBI wiretaps and FBI surveillance lines because of chronically unpaid bills.

The OIG summary says that "late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence including an instance where delivery of intercept information required by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order was halted due to untimely payment."

The FBI says that this did not significantly affect any of the cases. No doubt they were what the intelligence community calls "slam-dunks."

Here's a particularly fetching snark:

During the recent controversy over whether or not the phone companies should be granted retroactive immunity for their involvement in potentially illegal government surveillance, the Bush administration insisted that phone companies should not be punished for their patriotic cooperation in antiterrorism activities. Apparently that patriotism only lasts as long as the government can afford to foot the bill.

Ah, but don't stop here, dear reader. There be snark signs the likes of which god has not seen throughout this article.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hoping They Will Take Debate

"As you watched the scores of U.S. Presidential debates, did you ever wonder why there has been no debate devoted to policy surrounding what may be the most important social issue of our time: Science and Technology?"
Well, the folks at Sciencedebate2008 did, and they're trying to do something about it. Here are the topics they'd like to see addressed:

The Environment

  • Climate Change
  • Conservation and Species Loss
  • The Future of The Oceans
  • Fresh Water: Drought, Pollution, Ownership
  • Population Growth and Its Effect on Environment
  • Renewable Energy Research

Health and Medicine

  • Global Diseases and Pandemics
  • Stem Cell Research
  • Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
  • Drug Patents, Generic Drugs
  • The Genome
  • Bioethics

Science and Technology Policy

  • Scientific Innovation and Economic Growth
  • Improving Science Education
  • Space Exploration
  • Preserving Scientific Integrity in Government
  • Energy Policy
Signatories for this project compose an impressive selection of laureates; government leaders; organization leaders; college and university presidents, deans and directors; leading scientists; and other thought leaders.

What will come of all of this? Will we really see such a debate? Ah, hope springs eternal. Realistically, however, I figure there would be a better probability we'll see an ecclesiastical debate.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wanted, Dead and (Alive)

Chinese inspectors: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking mice on this motherfucking plane!"

On a United Airlines flight to Beijing, Chinese inspectors found "Eight mice, dead and (alive), ... hidden in pillows."

The report prompted an "emergency team" to rush to the aircraft, Xinhua said, to "put rat poison and mouse traps at every possible corner on the aircraft, including the cockpit."

I suppose biological control in the form of rodent-eating snakes will be out of the question.

Perhaps one of the reasons that I'm amused by all of this is because someone has just pointed me to a site that has frame grabs of a Chinese version of a recent Star Wars film. Sub-titles are in Engrish. One cannot convey in a few words the inscrutable humor of Darth Vader saying "Do Not Want!" when he is actually shouting, "Nooooooooooooo..."

Friday, January 4, 2008

They have had it with these motherfu**ng lithium batteries

With the safety and inconvenience of air travelers in mind, the Transportation Safety Administration kicked off the new year with a ban on spare lithium batteries on a plane. Could this be another movie spin-off for Samuel L. Jackson? I just can picture his character, Neville Flynn, saying "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking lithium batteries on this motherfucking plane!"

The good news is that if you want to try to blow up the plane with your installed laptop battery, you're good to go.

BTW: It won't be long before the batteries come rolling in. Be sure to check eBay regularly for battery bargain madness.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Dearth of High Fidelity

Robert Levine's Rolling Stone magazine online article, The Death of High Fidelity, is another good example of how music quality is diminishing in the age of MP3s. Citing This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession:
Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.
It's sad to read that "newly re-mastered" music, such as Led Zeppelin's recent "Mothership" collection has been subjected to this form of audio compression. Not everything "new" is better. Here we're getting margarine for the ears.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

When Everyone is a Criminal

According to a December 30 article in washingtonpost.com, record industry goon squads are now going after people who make single, personal-use copies of music that they have legally purchased on CD. The case is against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who had a collection of approximately 2,000 music files on his personal computer.

As the article says, some of the legal grounds are murky. Court rulings in the past have "found no violation of copyright laws in the use of VCRs and other devices to time-shift TV programs," i.e., making personal copies for the purpose of making portable a legally obtained recording. Musically speaking, this practice goes way back to recording audio cassette backups of LP records. By these criteria, everyone is a pirate. Arrgh!(TM)

Recording industry shills smugly point out that "there are consequences for breaking the law" -- even if that law was written by and paid for by the recording industry itself. There is a long history of stupid, immoral laws being on the books. If ever there were a situation to warrant jury nullification, this would certainly be one of them.

Update 1/3/08: Cnet's News.com reports that this story might be bogus. Washington Post, however, is sticking to the story.