Archive for June, 2010

Lance Armstrong is afraid of looking like a wuss

June 29, 2010 7 comments

Faced with the need to take some load off my joints, I’m trying to lose 20 lbs or so.  So I am using a calorie-counting application on my iPod, or “iPad Nano” as I like to call it.

Anyway, at the end of each day you look at your totals and think; “Holy crap, where did all the calories even come from?”  And you look at the food log like a shopper standing in the parking lot at Wal-Mart incredulous that all those little items added up to eighty bucks when you only went in for some envelopes.  But sure enough, they do.

I’m kinda stuck at 214 right now.  My goal is to lose one pound a week for twenty weeks.  To do that, you have to knock down your calorie total by 500 each day.  They’re really kilocalories, which derives from “kilotons”, which is what you feel like you weigh when you get older and are still carrying extra weight.

It’s a depressing exercise, even speaking as someone who likes to exercise.  You have to watch like a hawk for self-deception, which isn’t easy because it’s you who is doing the watching.  And your favorite foods (I promise it will be the foods you like) all go through a process where underpaid, exploited workers carefully fold the calories and wedge them into the food sideways to run up the total.

The calorie-counting app I’m using is from Lance Armstrong, who according to people I’ve mentioned this to, is apparently either highly admired or a big fat cheater.  Whatever; it was the first app on the list when I searched for one.  But I was annoyed by his ad on the back of this week’s Parade magazine, in which he points at the camera and gave this stern advice:

Men over 30 shouldn’t use emoticons.  Period.  That means no smiley faces, semicolon hotwinks or carrot noses.  The Shack and I are just looking out for your best mobile interests here.”

Bite me, Lance.  What’s the matter, are emoticons too girlie for you?  I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the insecure type. ;-)

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

June 27, 2010 4 comments

Last night MrsDoF and I went to The Normal Theater to see Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, an awesome mystery-thriller set in Sweden.  The main characters (Salander and Blomkvist) are on the trail of a rapist/serial murderer, or so they come to believe. I read several reviews after seeing it, and they all focus on the excellent storytelling, the intensity and plot twists.  None of them seemed to be able to say right out that it just might be too much for anyone who had experienced personal assault, so I will. 

I guess It’s really hard to write without revealing too much – that’s part of the movie reviewer’s craft.  Not being a professional movie reviewer, I won’t try, except to say that Salandar wouldn’t really be the safest target for an aspiring rapist.  At about 90 lbs dripping wet she may not look like much, but she has an exceptional talent for comeuppance.

The movie begins with a wealthy industrialist receiving a pressed flower in the mail on his birthday.  He believes it is, like the 39 previous ones he has received, his niece’s killer, taunting him.  He hires a famous journalist (Blomkvist) to delve into the case and bring him some closure before he dies.  Journalists are accustomed to working on deadline, and Blomkvist has only six months to resolve 40 years of investigation, before he must himself go to prison for a libel case that he lost.  He crosses paths with a hacker (Salander) and they begin unwrapping the past, which turns out to be very much horrifyingly present.

It’s the first of a trilogy.  I will be seeing the rest of the trilogy.  I will not bother with the inevitable lame Hollywood remakes.


  • We left the theater devising a short list of people who should definitely see this movie.  And who probably shouldn’t.

  • The original title was Men Who Hate Women.  There’s more than one horrible bad guy in this film, and they’re not all connected. 
  • One thing the movie got right is that there’s only so much enhancement you can get from a blurry, degraded photo.
  • The last two of the three novels on which the trilogy is based, were published posthumously.
  • You just have to see a few foreign mystery thrillers to understand what a bad job Hollywood usually does in that genre.
  • The film is in Swedish with English subtitles.  Give me that any day over dubbed-in translations.  Much of the emotional content of a scene is in the voice, independent of language.
  • If Swedish white-collar prisons really are anything like the one in the film, sign me up for a six-month stay.
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Mark Pendergrast: “Inside The Outbreaks”

June 25, 2010 2 comments

A few days ago, the Science News Book Club offered a free copy of Inside The Outbreaks: the elite medical detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service for the first seven people to respond.  So I did, and I was, and today the book came in the mail!  Yipee!

There’s a lot of weird stuff on my bookcases but certain themes indicate a personal fascination with disaster and failure.  There are lots of books about structural engineering and collapses, about plane crashes, about industrial explosions and toxic leaks, about big projects gone horribly wrong, about forensic crime investigations, and maybe twenty books on disease and epidemiology.  It’s not a new thing with me; I even have a book about Kuru that predates the discovery of prions.  Call me ghoulish but for some reason I like knowing about this stuff.

Inside The Outbreaks is about teams of CDC investigators who are first on the ground to face horrors most people would rather not think about. The agency dates back to the Korean War, and in “lives saved per dollar” they’re a fantastic investment.  In one way or another they’ve probably saved your life or that of someone you love, but hardly anyone knows about them.  They worked around the world before the word “globalism” was even a thing. 

UPDATE: I’m now four chapters into the book, and it reads as if it were written by Joe Friday from Dragnet; unflinching and crystal-clear.  Considerable drama, but no speculative descriptions of someone raising an eyebrow and pondering what was around the corner.  No punches pulled, either.

UPDATE: Chapter 11, on the final push to eliminate Smallpox, is incredibly moving.  I sort of knew abstractly how complex it had to be, to get into little villages in Bangladesh and vaccinate people who are afraid of strangers and foreigners, but it takes on a whole other dimension in this story.  The narrative style of the book is well suited to focusing the intensity of events.

Pendergrast and other contributors to the book will be on the Science News Book Club site over the next few weeks, answering questions from readers.  Thanks SNBC!


  • Review of the book by Steve Schoenbaum, former CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service investigator.

  • Yeah, awful as the BP spill is, you know I’ll be studying it for a long time to come.  There’s just so much to know.


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New financial unit of measure: the “TDJ”

June 24, 2010 7 comments

I’m tired and grumpy and my shoulder hurts but this has been bugging me.  What’s up with that church in Ohio that made a giant metal and fiberglass statue of Jesus?  It got hit by lightning and burned to the ground, without hurting the church, and they’re going to rebuild it for a quarter-million bucks.  image

Yes, you heard me right: they’re going to whip out a stack of Franklins nearly a foot high to build another tacky graven image of Jesus, only this time, fireproof.  That’s a lot of simoleons, folks.  In fact, I couldn’t resist doing some numbers. 

That pile could vaccinate over three thousand kids.  It’s a hundred and thirty thousand school lunches.  It’s nearly twenty-four thousand hours of teacher assistant pay for overworked teachers trying to handle too many kids.  It’s thirty-five thousand HIV tests. It’s more than four thousand solar-powered cell phones for remote villages. 

In short, it’s a hell of a lot of “unto the least of these”, and they’re spending it on a statue that directly contradicts scripture?  Because I’m pretty sure Moses would be really ticked off about this one.  He’d grind it up and make them eat steel and fiberglass.

Early Christians weren’t big on representational art either.  The ἰχθύς fish, in addition to being a clever acronym for “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ” was also a symbolic abstraction.  You could pick up a rock and quickly scratch the shape onto a wall and split before some Roman with a pointy sword showed up.

Oh well, whatever.  In any case, I propose a new unit of measurement for non-profit settings: the “TouchDown Jesus”, or TDJ.  The cost of any humanitarian thing you want to do can be expressed as a fraction of, or a multiple quantity of TDJ’s. 

You can make one hell of a donation to the local food pantry for just a tenth of a TDJ, for instance.  A new million-dollar church sanctuary would be four TDJ’s.  Or you could fund a local campaign to rid River City of the scourge of pool tables for… well I couldn’t find that figure but it would be worth it, Yessiree!


  • A friend of mine, a devout Christian, was watching a news report on the TDJ fire.  He saw a woman in the congregation exclaim to the news creature; “Our Lord and Savior burned down!”

  • I’ve probably been amused by bizarre units of measure since learning to read 2400 fruit-fly generations or so ago.  I wonder how many TDJ’s it would take to study the reason for that?
  • I figured a quarter-mil in $100’s would be just under a foot high assuming that the bills were not wrinkled and averaged .004375” thick.  That figure I got by measuring eight one-dollar bills (making an assumption that they are the same thickness as hundreds), which came to .035”.  If anyone wants to give me an equivalent stack of $100 bills, I’ll repeat the measurements in the pure interest of empirical accuracy.
  • I’m not late commenting on this: I’m really, really early commenting on the unveiling of the new, improved fireproof TDJ, I guess.
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On the office furniture racing pit crew

June 22, 2010 4 comments

I was crawling under some desks today, unhooking filthy cables from dusty computers to move them (an activity that is not getting easier as I get older), and had a little epiphany about the people who design office furniture.  But first, a thought about auto racing.

Back when Soichiro Honda was in direct control of the motor company (and it may still be this way), you couldn’t become a top engineer without first working a few months in the pit crew for the Honda racing teams.  You handled wrenches, under time pressure, and you got to see how stuff held up under extremes.  Spending time in school learning moduli of elasticity for aluminum alloys, or fuel injector computer programming, you still had to actually be involved with car guts.

Back to office furniture: I picture the people who design it as being design-school graduates who learned to use CAD terminals and to think in terms of metal panels and pressboard laminate tops.  But they should have to work in computer tech support for a college or large office building before they get to design any furniture.  Here are a few principles to get them started:

  • Cables, while small, have ends which are large, and which must pass through openings and passageways where there are other cables.

  • Cables are living things: they multiply.  When possible, they tangle.  I think they’re having sex under the table top.
  • “Cable management systems” must be easier to use than a row of simple plastic conduit clamps under the desk.  At least, that’s the standard to beat.  The fancy stuff that actually comes out of Herman Miller and Steelcase should be called “cable tangling systems”.
  • Under-desk computer mounts must be easier to use than a strap with a clamp.  At least, that’s the standard to beat.  Steel shafts with little pullies and ratchets and such… more trouble than they’re worth.
  • Think carefully about the cable route for the mouse cable.  It must be supported above the mouse platform, and be short, because mouse cables are (inexplicably) often shorter than keyboard cables.
  • It might make sense to incorporate a power strip into the underside of the desk – and it should be designed so that converter blocks can plug in without bumping into each other or covering other outlets.  A typical desk needs at least 7 outlets, so make it 10.
  • On second thought, forget designing “cable management systems”.  Just put a row of 1.5-inch conduit clamps on the underside of the desk for its whole length.  Screw them down on only one side, so the other side can be pulled down to slip in cables.
  • Find out how high up on the wall a typical outlet or network jack is – there’s probably a standard for it.  Make sure that your “modesty panels” clear that height.  Instead of covering it by a frustrating quarter-inch.

No need to thank me, office furniture manufacturers; cash will suffice.

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Canon G11 first photos and impressions

June 19, 2010 3 comments

No camera does everything, and my photographic needs have evolved a bit.  So as stage one of a long-term strategy to bring my digital camera toolbox up to date I bought a Canon G11 digicam.  My particular interest was that it be light enough for me to hold (my hands are no longer strong enough to easily hold a heavy camera) and to perform well in low light.  I’ve had the camera a few days now and here are some observations.

First, the picture below.  It’s a small cropped section of a larger photo, and I took the pic in early morning before sunrise… handheld.  This camera does indeed perform well in low light.  (By the way, I only use flash as a last resort.)

Photo Album:  On Digital Photography

I’ll invite you to click through to the example photos as we go.  Many of them have been resized smaller because we’re looking at how the camera handles light, not whether you can use it to make money counterfeiting plates.

The coffee shop interior looking out to sunlit exterior is a super-difficult high-contrast shot, as is the construction shot of the building with gaping windows.  In both cases, the camera had to preserve some shadow detail even though there were sunlit areas in the picture.  It did so very well, without the shadows becoming green or muddy. 

The two nighttime shots and the store interior show the camera excellent for night and commercial interiors.  With minimal post-processing, those pictures would come out fine.

More impressive is the way the camera handles dimly-lit areas like the pizza shop.  It was really dark in there, but you wouldn’t know it from the snapshot.  Shoot indoors with lights off, and you’ll get pictures that give the impression of well-lit rooms.  It also handled mixed-light areas like the coffee shop well.  It’s going to be incredibly useful for interiors. 

One feature I love is the knurled aluminum click-stop analog controls for exposure control, ISO and shooting mode.  These are controls I use a lot so it makes sense not to bury them in a screen menu somewhere. 

On interior shots the camera detected and prioritized faces, both in exposure and focus.  That’ll be handy.

The camera is NOT strong on outdoor sunlit pictures with ideal lighting.  At its default settings it tends to blow highlights and bend greens to yellow, as you’ll see in a couple of the exterior shots.  A partial solution is to set the “MyColors” control from “Off” to “Neutral” as you’ll see in the comparison shot.  The Neutral setting does a good job of representing colors as my eye sees them, at least.

But I don’t take very many pictures in sunlight, and I have a couple other digital cameras that do fine in bright conditions.  So this is not a big deal to me but if you take a lot of pictures on sunny days, think twice before buying the G11.  It is optimized for, shall we say… “interesting” lighting conditions. It has something I’ve never seen before: a built-in neutral density filter.  As optimized as the camera is for low and mixed light, you’ll use the ND in bright light where it does help.

The folding viewfinder is excellent for macro use, candids, and in lots of other ways.  I found it takes some practice to handle the camera without bumping vital controls, but the most important ones are real analog wheels.  Manual focus is usable but not great though, so hold out for a dslr if you need that.

In black&white and night mode, it’s like a small rangefinder with push-process Tri-X, very nostalgic. 

Canon has had a lot of practice creating solid, well-made cameras and this is one of their better examples.

So here’s the short version:

  • Not a substitute dlsr, not for everybody

  • Is very strong in mixed or low light, handles high-contrast situations well
  • Stumbles in very bright lighting
  • Very light weight
  • Folding viewfinder is incredibly useful, best of any manufacturer that I have seen.
  • Some of the controls are annoying but I love the analog exposure controls.
  • Wasn’t super-expensive, and I’m going to use the hell out of it.

My next camera will probably be a Sony NEX5, but it won’t be available until July and I plan to let it be on the market for about a year before getting one.  Then the G11 and NEX5 would be my two main cameras.

UPDATE: 26 June 2010: OK, I’ve had the camera for a while now and with experimentation am learning to capitalize on its strengths and manage its weaknesses.  I would have to say it is the biggest image-quality + professional flexibility bang for the buck in its price range.  And check out this panorama that I made the other day!

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Two videos: Time and Small Stuff

June 16, 2010 7 comments

Phillip Zimbardo on how cultural and personal perceptions of time affect how we learn, do business, have relationships and decide what’s important:

Important, heavy topic, sure.  But notice how cool the presentation technique is!  Yes, it probably takes about a half hour of production time for every minute of a video like this, but it’s amazing and actually very instructive.  Makes you wonder what classrooms could be like if we were starting from scratch.

And now, for the lighter side of the customer experience, ad man Rory Sutherland:

This video, though it’s about small things, has HUGE implications for government, business, sales and support.  Think about those little changes that, while costing little or nothing, make a big difference in the user experience.

I especially like the part about how applying more force or spending more money might have a perverse effect.  Sometimes a kilo of lentils makes all the difference.

And think for a moment about the software business.  It’s almost as if they go out of their way to make their customers feel stupid.  But for monopoly, this would be a staggeringly stupid business model.  Even when their software works the way it’s supposed to, it seems to be saying to us; “Well!  You managed not to screw it up today.”

Now a subset of the software business, Apple.  Their stuff is as simple as they can make it.  You might think; it’s a computer for dumb people, but the opposite is true.  Using a well-designed computer, though simpler, makes you feel smart.  This could be why 1) Apple computer users say; “I love my computer” while PC users seldom do, and 2) why Apple’s market cap just surpassed Microsoft a couple weeks ago.

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Knowing whose ass to kick is crucial

June 11, 2010 6 comments

In dealing with the BP oil spill disaster, NBC’s Matt Lauer suggested to President Obama this week that “this is not the time to meet with experts and advisers,” but rather, it’s a time to “kick some butt.”

The president explained, “I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick.”
Washington Monthly: Kristol The Clown

And Bill Kristol’s response?  “Real men don’t need experts to tell them whose asses to kick.”

President Obama can’t catch a break on his response to the catastrophe but he hit the right note for me.  If there’s anything I want leaders to do, it’s think twice before they start kicking ass.  Get all the facts, and find out who’s really responsible.  For that matter, ask yourself if kicking ass is even the right response.  And then think about it some more.

Our country’s history of ass-kicking does not reflect that level of reflection.

Take the War On Drugs, please.  In 1970 the US incarceration rate was about 150 per 100,000;  today it is over 700.  In practice this means that instead of waging a war on poverty, we’re waging a war on the poor.  And since “the poor” (defined as people who can’t afford good lawyers) are disproportionately black, that’s a war on the African-American family.  According to The Economist;

Between the ages of 20 and 29, one black man in nine is behind bars. For black women of the same age, the figure is about one in 150. For obvious reasons, convicts are excluded from the dating pool. And many women also steer clear of ex-cons, which makes a big difference when one young black man in three can expect to be locked up at some point.

The article quoted is about the effect on black families, but imagine the effect it has on the black workforce as well.  There is no more certain road to entrenched poverty than a prison record, and poverty feeds back into crime.

That, friends, is kicking the wrong asses, and it’s using ass-kicking as a blunt instrument to boot.  It’s stupid, it’s unjust and counterproductive, and while it undermines our economy it also takes away any moral credibility we could hope to have on ethnic justice issues anywhere else in the world.  But hey, it makes politicians look “Tough On Crime™”

Want more examples?  How about No Child Left Behind, which penalizes under-performing schools in poor neighborhoods by taking away their funding?  How about… well just about every war we’ve blundered into since World War II?  How about Gitmo and Bush’s recent admission that he violated international law by approving torture, and he’d do it again?

Yeah, he’s a “real man”, as Kristol would say; he doesn’t need to consult any experts to know whose ass to kick.

Wisdom literature from every culture is full of warnings that anger is a direct cause of self-defeating stupidity.  Most of that literature is hard-won knowledge; compiled by someone languishing in defeat and humiliation, or sitting in the ashes of a Pyrrhic victory.  It’s no sign of manhood to be mastered by your anger. To the contrary, lack of self-mastery means you’re vulnerable to any enemy who knows how to exploit your weakness for bluster and chest-thumping.  We need to get hold of ourselves.

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Camera shopping is very frustrating

June 4, 2010 8 comments

I use a Canon S5IS for many shots, a digicam with a vari-angle LCD screen and an eye-level digital viewfinder.  Ergonomically, it’s perfect, but it has poor low-light capability.  Since I take a lot of pictures under less than perfect light, I want something with a less noisy chip.

Notice I did not say; “more megapixels”.  I want better signal-to-noise ratio when the light is only so-so.  I can’t be setting off a flash in classrooms while someone’s trying to teach, for example.  And I do love to take pictures at night.

The Canon PowerShot G11 is quite a step up in image quality, but ergonomically it’s only so-so.  Nevertheless it does have Canon’s superb vari-angle LCD screen.  And it’s in my price range.

There are other cameras with interchangeable lenses and even better low-light capability, but most of them are SLR’s with fixed viewfinders.  Some cameras with folding or variangle viewfinder are “planned” or “will be introduced soon” by various manufacturers including Sony, like the NEX-5.  It has a tilting, rather than vari-angle viewfinder display but I could live with that.image

Test shots from the NEX-5 suggest it beats the Olympus EP-1 (which has a fixed viewfinder anyway) for image quality, and and is just… barely within my price range.  But I do hate the idea of buying the first release of any model line.

The Nikon D5000 looks promising.  A bit bulky and heavy though, which nods back towards the Sony.  Which hasn’t been released yet and will be a first-release when it finally is.

Anyone have any suggestions?  Not necessarily for a camera – perhaps drugs I could take that would make waiting for the ideal camera less of a chore.

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Concrete stalactites

June 3, 2010 1 comment
From my photo album; Illinois State University

Under this plaza is constant leakage, a problem that was not even solved by the… interesting… canopy structure.  Each day I go up the stairs to the plaza and get a close look at some concrete stalactites that form where water makes it through cracks to the long walkway below.

From my photo album; Beautiful Evidence

The walkway has white and brown stalactites.  My guess would be this one is stained by rust from re-bar.

From Beautiful Evidence

People reach up and break them off; it’s interesting how quickly they re-form.  No corresponding stalagmites can form because the water falls where people walk. 

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