Archive for December, 2011

My New Year’s wish for you

December 31, 2011 7 comments
Earthrise, from Apollo 8

We live in the thin veneer - a two-mile layer on a globe 7,000 miles across

The World

In the new year I’d love to wish for a sudden attack of good sense among the world’s leaders. Maybe a full-on effort to develop clean energy for example. And cut the US military budget by half, so we’d only be out-spending the next largest mil-budget by a factor of three instead of six. Or if you prefer, outspending the next five countries combined instead of the next 20. I suppose it could happen, but planets don’t generally win lotteries. So my wishes will have to be more personal in nature.

And us…

I love movies, and especially ones where the main character is changed by the story. Which is to say, they learn something that deepens their humanity, often at a terrible price but sometimes not. This is called character development, and it marks the difference between James Bond and Wikkus from District 9 or Sarah Connor from Terminator. In Bond movies, a bunch of stuff happens, but 007 himself is no better than when he started. In a good movie the main character is edified by the experience.

Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” So I guess that makes you and me actors in our own little movies.

So my wish for you is that your character development this year be an inspiration to your audience, whoever that may be. And that the ratio of benefit to cost be high. As happy a New Year as can be, may it all add up in December, and many sequels.

Idle question for New Years’…

What percentage of New Years’ posts do you suppose use the “Earthrise” picture?


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Trying to explain why this sort of thing bothers me

December 29, 2011 2 comments
Chevrolet ad featuring new Sonic

Chevrolet ad featuring new Sonic. Click to watch the video

It’s actually a rather lovely video, for a car ad. You see the car falling, with skydivers alongside it, and you think; “Huh. Wish Galileo could have seen this.” But then it appears on the net, with the caption “0 to 60 in .4 seconds (when dropped from a plane)”.

Not even on Jupiter. Because if you drop a car out of a plane on this planet, it’s going just under 9 miles an hour in 0.4 seconds. After one full second, it’s about 21 miles an hour. Takes almost three seconds to get up to 60. Which would still be pretty damn fast on the ground, but there are few cars that can accelerate at 1G, let alone almost 7G.

It’s hard to explain why this bothers me, but I’ll try.

“If you want to get technical about it…”

You might think, “What difference does it make?” But I can’t help picturing a bunch of advertising creatures sitting around a table brainstorming new slogans for the campaign. And apparently not one of them would admit to knowing that the acceleration due to gravity on our planet is about 32 feet per second per second.

This is not exactly esoteric information – it has been known to fairly high precision for hundreds of years. You can damn well bet the engineers who designed the car’s inner workings knew it. Maybe even the stylists who sculpted the sheet metal did. But why should I not be bothered by one more data point in the scatterplot of scientific ignorance in US culture?  It wouldn’t cost anything to say; “0 to 60 in 3 seconds (when dropped from a plane)”, and our recognition of reality would go up a notch.

There’s a price we pay for having no sense of the proportion of things. Our kids grow up not knowing a million from a billion, and preferring simple answers to complex realities. We vote for Senators who get glassy-eyed listening to testimony about food safety, environmental hazards or the damage SOPA will do to the Internet. We think we’ll just brace ourselves, hold on to something, rather than buckling a seat belt.

Hey, I struggle with numbers as much as anyone. More, probably, since I am dyslexic and they keep jumbling up on me when I work with them. But damn it, there’s a real world out there. And there are real consequences if we don’t at least try to understand it.

“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
- Carl Sagan


  • Rick Santorum says science “should get out of politics”. But anti-scientific populism isn’t just sideshow entertainment anymore. It might actually threaten the human race.
  • Acceleration due to gravity is awfully important: it influences the thickness of your bones, the size of bird (and airplane) wings, the action of waves, the maximum height-to-base ratio of a gravel pile, the size of a building, everything to do with architecture, the weather, bridges, our chances of ever getting into space… the list is endless.
  • Of course we’re ignoring the forward momentum of the car: the plane wasn’t just hovering in place.
  • I recently watched the movie October Sky. It is a moving tribute to science as a way out of toil and darkness for humanity.


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The other nations among us

December 28, 2011 2 comments

As a child I remember being told various things that “separate us from the animals”: we were thinking, learning, playful, tool-using, language-using, social, compassionate, loyal, forward-looking creatures. They don’t really have emotions like we do; we have souls. But over the years I have seen all these things to one degree or another in animals. Including every indication of a soul, defined as a sense of self.

Squirrel and fallen friend

Then the squirrel looked up from her fallen friend, saw our stopped car, and hurried on to safety.

A couple days ago we came upon a squirrel that had just been hit by a car. That isn’t rare, but his companion was venturing out onto the road. I stopped our car as she walked around him, nudged him. Then she looked at us, stopped thirty feet away, and made her way to the safety of the curb.

You read about elephants mourning their dead, and you think; “Oh, well elephants are a special case.” But when our girl cat died last year, her brother became visibly depressed. This year, he is showing signs of senility, and going around the house looking for her in all her old places, making the sounds he used to make to entice her to come out and play.

You read about crow intelligence and octopus intelligence and people’s dogs and how pigs can solve problems, pigeons can count, and that scientists have at long last concluded we need much greater restrictions on primate research, and it dismantles all the old assurances that we are somehow not part of the animal world. For some reason this really upsets religious people who want to think Man is special. I suppose it fits the pattern that they think our world is special, our country is special; why wouldn’t our species be cosmically favored?

But, we aren’t that special. We are different in matters of degree, not in substance. I’m not a vegetarian or an animal-rights activist – my calendar is full enough already. But when I have a choice I often find myself looking for the reduced cruelty option. Cage-free organic eggs cost a bit more for example, but if they succeed in the marketplace it can carve out a better niche. If I have a choice between a tested-on-animals product and one that isn’t, I can choose the one not tested on animals.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start. I don’t know where the finish line is; it may be an ethical consensus that follows my generation.

Your thoughts?


  • Illusion-busting: from a cruelty perspective cage-free eggs are only slightly better than the regular kind. Organic, again a little bit better for the chicken (no antibiotics requires more space). Not ideal; not the idyllic country life of farmer Brown and his horse and tractor. I’ll reward even small improvements, and look for brands that promise more.
  • I don’t know either squirrel’s gender; the narrative above is simply a guess.
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December 27, 2011 4 comments
The Femisapian robot

"Powered by Personality -- The perfect friend" "Dances, walks, and 'emotes' with sophistication" "Access over 56 functions and interactive routines by touch, sight and sound" (Click to embiggen)

I promised something more horrifying than Martian Barbie, and here it is: WowWee Robotics’ Femisapien. The question I can’t get out of my mind is “Why? Why? Why?”

Actually that’s three questions. #1 is “Why do robots have gender?”. The answer may be that if we see something vaguely anthropomorphic, we’re uncomfortable until we’ve attached gender to it. People even assign gender to their cars – usually their own gender which should keep a Fruedian busy for a while.

#2 is “Why are the secondary gender characteristics so pronounced?” I mean, proportionally what is that – a 40 D-Cup?

#3 is “Does she nurse little robots with those?” (Do they produce 30-weight motor oil?)

OK, that went a little too far. My bad.

As a culture we’ve only recently begun to consider the idea that our fixation on gender could be a bit overdone. There’s hardly any product you can imagine that isn’t targeted to one specific gender or the other. As if there were only two; nature sometimes produces ambiguities, not all of which are visible in a medical photograph. Heaven help the young person who can’t feel at home in the gender that was culturally assigned to them at birth.

We’re not less gender-crazy than “primitive” cultures we look down on – we just apply more technology, and media, to our insanity.


  • Think a robot this small couldn’t be horrifying? Remember “Talky Tina” from The Twilight Zone? When the subetheric signal goes out to “Kill all humans”, little Femisapien here will be wiring up your house mains to the bathtub faucet – count on it!
  • It was pointed out to me that Wall-E and Eve from the movie Wall-E were gendered robots who exhibited a strong attraction to each other. Neither had pronounced anthropomorphic secondary gender characteristics, other than that Wall-E was boxy and angular and Eve was graceful. But their primary motivation seemed to be companionship; they were geeks who liked the same things.
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Barbie’s people

December 26, 2011 3 comments
Barbie's neck

I hope these alien-looking faces are painted by machine. Either that or picture Chinese workers painting thousands of tiny little Barbie faces all day.

Not sure what planet her people evolved on. Mars, perhaps: darkness selecting for larger eyes and lower gravity for freakishly long limbs and neck.

Martians are naturally bald, but there’s a current fashion for hair based on Earth television, which they get together to watch for laughs.

H.G. Wells speculated that Martians wanted to invade Earth, and perhaps Barbie is the first wave of that invasion. When her people step off the spaceships, little children would run up to them with glee. “Look, mommy! It’s Barbie!”

Tomorrow: something even more horrifying than Barbie…


  • Have you read War Of The Worlds? That is a seriously awesome book. Here I’ll get you started: “…across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…”
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Merry Christmas to all UPDATE

December 25, 2011 1 comment

Everyone will be writing about Christmas. MrsDoF and I are having the lowest-key Christmas ever – no kids at home, she’s going to church and I’m staying home.  So here’s a wood shaving.  I’m sharing it with you because I think wood shavings are pretty.

wood shaving

I was making a desk for my son (not as a Christmas present – just a desk because he needed one) and the maple trim around the edge didn’t quite line up with a short section of the top surface. I could have gone back in the garage to find a chisel, but it was just a little section and my pocketknife was right there. I put the curve of the blade right along the trim so it barely grazed the desk surface and drew it toward me. The maple wood shaved off into a 12 cm curl as you see here. The background for this picture is my Lenovo tablet.

Anyway, wherever you are, whatever you are doing – have a wonderful Christmas! And may the New Year find us all happy and healthy.

UPDATE: The day did not work out quite as planned. MrsDoF requested I accompany her to church, and then we went to lunch at MerryAnn’s.

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Murder On Campus

December 24, 2011 2 comments

Our campus is a winter vacation spot for thousands of crows. Here are at least three hundred of them.

Crows at Illinois State University

Walking under these trees is nervous work

No, I didn’t actually count them. I just enlarged this pic to full-screen size, noticed six trees had more than fifty crows in them, and guessed.


  • The collective noun for crows is “murder”. Check out this Joshua Klein video on The Intelligence of Crows. Their natural habitat is wherever we are. They’re adapting to us – and Klein suggests we might be able to adapt to them.
  • Crows are best known for loud, raucous noises but sometimes they make soft, eerily almost-human sounds.
  • No idea why the stadium lights were on; the whole campus was deserted. And this was right after I’d gone through our entire building turning off every light I could find for Christmas break.
  • Wonder why they roost 100 feet in the air in cold,  windy weather? Seems like maximum exposure to the elements.
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Death in the parking garage

December 23, 2011 2 comments

It was a windy day. These two (?) bird skeletons fell out of a nest in the concrete structure:

Bird skeletons in parking garage

From the looks of them, they might have died last winter – which wasn’t extraordinarily cold. Why did they die together, in the nest? The only thing I can think of is that the extreme snowfall last February might have made it impossible for them to find food.  A creature that weighs an ounce or two wouldn’t exactly have a lot of reserve.

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Thank you Rick Perry

December 13, 2011 Comments off

I’ve been loving the wonderful parodies of Rick Perry’s idiotic campaign video.  This one is my favorite:

(h/t Greg Laden)


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A lovely bit of information technology

December 12, 2011 2 comments

Yes, once all electronic information conveyance was analog.

Valco guitar amp

When this old your computer is, work this well it will not!

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