Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Warming of the Tibet Plateau

Warming of the Tibet Plateau
Chinese scientists of the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, are sounding the alarm over the rising temperatures on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. Over the last 30-years, as temperatures have risen at a steady clip of 0.42 degrees Celsius every year, the plateau has been losing an average of 131.4 square kilometres annually. The loss of more of the glaciers is causing temperatures to soar to record highs in China, resulting in thousands of deaths, droughts, floods and major economic losses. The plateau glaciers are also the mountainous source for some of the mighty rivers of China -- the Yellow, Yangtze, the Indus and other rivers -- which provide water to hundreds of millions of Chinese. As the glaciers disappear, scientists are warning that these rivers, some of the longest in the world, may also dry up, and are predicting major disasters by the end of this century.

That's global warming for you. Will the Chinese react to this warning with good sense? I'm holding out hope that with their economy on a blitz, they won't be blinded by short term thinking and risk it all.

Bush is Above the Law

New York Times is carrying an op-ed by James Bamford, a journalist who writes about US intelligence agencies, which argues that Bush is not above the law. On August 17, 2006, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the US District Court in Detroit, ruled in a case brought by the ACLU, that Bush had "undisputedly violated" the US constitution, statutory law and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in authorizing the tapping of phones and email of Americans without warrant. The problem of course, was there was no consequence. Nothing happened. There was no mea culpa from Bush. Justice wasn't served. Justice didn't even do a little jiggle in response. It was all conveniently ignored. As a result, a huge disservice was done to Americans and America. The powers that were in Congress last year, the Republicans, in effect, sanctioned the abuse of America by one of their own by their inaction.

So what does this all mean? Well, Judge Taylor commented that, “there are no hereditary kings in America.” She's wrong however. Bush does see himself as the Emir of America -- and he is above the law.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

YouTube is so Yesterday

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Beast (of War) (1988)

The Beast is an interesting anti-war movie. It tells the story of a small band of Mujahadeen fighters hunting a Russian tank in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. The tank, initially part of a larger tank group, had just erupted in a small Afghanistan village, hunting Mujahadeen fighters. The result is a decimated village, with few survivors, and hardly any Mujahadeen casualties. When the village fighters return to view the aftermath, they vow revenge, and set out across the desert in pursuit of the tank -- the one in question, that strays from the others in its group.

In the tank, the commander, Daskal (played by George Dzundza), slowly descends into madness. He trusts no one, not even his crew. The tank driver, Koverchenko (played by Jason Patric), reads Daskal like a book, and knows what is coming can't be good. When Daskal turns on his crew, Koverchenko finds himself abandoned -- left for dead, chained against a rock in the desert. Here's where the story takes an interesting turn. Koverchenko is rescued by the Mujahadeen, who spare him as he pleads for nanawatay -- the Pashtunwali concept of sanctuary, given to enemies who have surrendered. Taken in by the Mujahadeen, Koverchenko joins them in the hunt, knowing that he is the only one who can kill the tank with the Mujahadeen's RPG.

Koverchenko's transformation from Russian soldier to Mujahadeen fighter happens slowly through the movie. Koverchenko is disillusioned with the war -- disillusioned with the way it's being fought, and doesn't see a whole lot of point to it. He doesn't follow orders like a good soldier, but thinks and questions, earning for himself a series of demotions from where he was in army intelligence. The audience is led to empathized with Koverchenko, and see the fruitlessness of the war from his perspective. The filmmakers also uses the clever device of having the Russians speak English in the movie -- making it easier for the audience to get to closer to the Russian characters -- but then, having the Mujahadeen speak Pashto, which isn't subtitled for the audience. The audience has to work to feel for the Mujahadeen fighters, but sympathizing with their plight is easy.

Seeing this movie now, with the recasting of the Mujahadeen fighters as Taliban terrorists is interesting. The US propaganda machine has worked hard at transforming old allies in the cold war to enemies of today. Like this movie, the world is hardly black and white, and there are hardly good guys and bad guys -- just lots of shades of grey. The movie makes you think -- about a group of people who we in the west sometimes fear, sometimes hate, sometimes want to rescue and sometimes just want to have go away. The Beast of War is largely unknown war movie -- but it shouldn't be. It has a message, and it's right -- war sucks and sometimes, makes no sense.
Koverchenko to Daskal: Sorry, sir. Not much of a war. No Stalingrad. How is it that we're the Nazis this time?

Galunggung Gliding Club

On June 24, 1982, on British Airways flight 009, the pilot came on the plane's speakers to announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress." An understatement to be sure. What followed is not what you would expect. There was no panic on board. Everyone remained calm. The flight attendants moved some passengers around so they could be sitting beside someone. With no engines, there was only one predictable outcome for the flight which was 10,000 km over the sea, on its way to New Zealand. The engine had caught fire and died, then the plane went into freefall -- a freefall that would last about 30-minutes before hitting water. With no future in sight, a miracle occurred. To save the passengers from oxygen starvation, the captain dropped the plane 6,000ft in one minute -- and the engines came alive.

So what happened? The engines was choked by fine dust from a volcanic eruption of Mount Galunggung. When the plane came under the dust cover where the air was free of dust, the engines kicked back in. The dust was so fine, it couldn't be seen, yet it almost downed flight 009. Since then of course, pilots have been trained to recognize the signs of volcanic dust in the air, and how to take precautions. Good to know if you travel by air across the oceans, cause you won't believe how often volcanoes let loose puffs of smoke around the world.

A Global Warming Winter

Winter Panorama PhotographyMy wife and I went out a couple of weekends ago, when we first had a little accumulation of snow. Worried that we may not get much more this winter, we took the cameras to record the snowfall. It's a good thing there weren't too many people out at the local park we were at, cause we were being just silly. Check out more from the shoot at my Webshots gallery.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

We Must Become Them

The situation in Iraq is one that demands more blood before there's resolution. Resolution will not come from a clear and decisive victory, rather, it will come from sheer exhaustion. There has to come a time eventually, when people will just grow tired to killing each other, and the killing will stop. We're at a fork on the path to end the strife. On road leads to more US troop deployment, the other to complete withdrawal from the region.

The road to more US troop deployment is the one that the Bush Administration seems to have accepted. Bush has declared that Congress be damn, he's the decision maker, and no matter what Congress does with what legislation, as the commander-in-chief, he's going to send more GIs into the quagmire. To complicate matters, the Pentagon has recently increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf by sending more warships and fighter jets – and Bush has authorized the ground troops to engage Syrians and Iranians in Iraq who are lending a hand to the insurgency. In effect, the sectarian violence will continue, with the natural scapegoat for all woes being the easily targeted American troops. Far from fighting terrorism, America's continued engagement in Iraq only increases the resolve of terrorists and gives credence to their cause. Moderates who wouldn't otherwise take sides and being pushed by anger to adopt extremist views.

The complete withdrawal of US troops from the region would be an immediate disaster. Warlords with private armies would topple the Iraqi government in no time. Iran extend its influence and in effect, win the Iran-Iraq war that has been in a stalemate for the past forty years. Iran may be able to bring stability to Iraq, but not after a whole lot of people were killed – which would be the same price the other path would have to pay. Iran's influence in the region would grow and most likely result in increased hostilities, as Israel is compelled to launch first strikes at the least provocations. Other Arab nations would be none too happy either, as their regimes are threatened by the Iranian brand of republic. What would the Middle East look like down this path? Well, not a whole lot different than how it was before Iraq was invaded.

The sad result from all of this is that the American government – the Bush Administration – knows that Arabs are as rich in their diversity as Americans are. As a people, they are not terrorists or enemies of western civilization. This isn't a conflict between ideologies. This isn't about democracy or totalitarianism. The American government continues to embrace certain Arab states, even as it denounces others. Global trade continues to be the arbitrator of cultural differences between the Arab states and America. Yet – the American government needs to demonize the Arabs in order to sell an unpopular war and ensconce greater government presence in the lives of American citizens. Bush and Co. sell fear of the Arabs, while at the same time, they continue to bring the genie out to grant wishes of personal wealth.

Saudi Arabia is the key to a whole lot of the latest strife, and surprisingly, doesn't look a whole lot different from the Bush & Co. destiny for America. Saudi Arabia lives in two worlds. One that supports radicalism and incubates disenchantment – and the other that is a global player in finance and trade. This dualism is a tightrope that the Saudi government needs to walk in order to stay in power and have things remain unchanged. This is what Bush & Co. seek for America. I charged that secretly, this is what George W. Bush seeks. He admires the Saudi princes and emirs. With them he is a man. With them, he too is a prince – and since the opportunity of 9/11, George W. Bush was been playing the role of a Saudi prince in America. And if America is to have a prince, then Americans must be like the Saudi people.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cheney on Iraq

Cheney and Reality
In an interview with CNN, Dick Cheney summed up the-giving-the-finger response to Americans and Congress' resolution opposing more US troops for Iraq, with just a few words: "It won't stop us." That about sums up the attitude of the Bush administration's reign over the American empire. Sickening.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sweet Revenge

BusinessWeek is carrying an article on "the power of retribution, spite, and loathing in the world of business" -- and unfortunately, it's not the lurid Shakespearean stuff you'd really enjoy reading -- it is a business magazine after all -- but there is enough examples of how payback is dished out in the c-suite -- enough to make those of us cubicle warriors rub our hands in glee. Ahh ... revenge ... getting even, or seeing just retribution being meted to the deserved gives us such satisfaction. It is biologically wired into us to feel real good when someone who has done us wrong, gets what's coming to them. It is a response to perceived injustices -- whether purposeful, or indirect.

At the executive level, emotional responses are just as common as they are around the office, in the classroom, on the factory floor or in the playground. It doesn't matter how mature we are, the response to perceived injustices is universal. While we no longer go for the throat like our ancestors may have -- our observed civility only goes so far. Executives don't talk much about it, but being passed over for a promotion, being dissed by market analysts, being fired ... it can be an amazing motivator to give some comeuppance to someone or a business. For some, it's the primal driver that keeps them going at breakneck speeds to achieve, to beat the competition and prove themselves.

Related reading:

Monday, January 22, 2007

5 Minutes to Midnight

It's official -- the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) have moved the Doomsday Clock to five minutes to midnight, declaring that we now "stand at the brink of a second nuclear age" -- as evidenced by North Korea's nuclear weapons test, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the US renewed interest in the military utility of nuclear weapons, and the existence of large nuclear arsenal in the US and Russia. For the first time, the BAS have also concluded that, "the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons."

The course of the clock however can change, but "will depend on humanity’s ability to think in new ways about how to cooperate to achieve common goals." The BAS calls on everyone to engage in dialogue to bring action towards the fight against nuclear proliferation and the climate change. Specifically, the BAS sites major progress in the following areas would make the world a safer place:
  • The US and Russia reducing their nuclear weapons cache and destroying more than 20,000 in the next 10 years;
  • Increasing efforts and transparency in the storing and securing of nuclear materials around the world;
  • Stopping the development of nuclear weapons and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- which the US, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel are the only holdouts;
  • Enact the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and stopping the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium;
  • Engage in a serious dialogue about the use of nuclear energy as an alternative fuel to fight climate change;
  • Creating the ability to distribute safer nuclear fuel for energy production around the world that couldn't be used to create nuclear weapons;
  • Make it more difficult and harmonize the trade and shipment of nuclear technologies and materials;
  • Giving more power to the IAEA to police the global nuclear industry.
(You can read the entire BAS Board statement online for the details.)


Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Stuff (1985)

A couple of miners in some forsaken small town discover some white goo bubbling out of the ground. Being the experimental sort, they immediately stick their fingers in it and take it straight to their mouths for a taste. Turns out the stuff actually tastes pretty good, and once you get a taste for it, you crave more and more and more. It turns out that the stuff also does something weird with people's brains -- mind control -- making people who've taken the stuff wanting to see others do likewise so the whole world can be taken over by the stuff. In short order, the miners who discovered the stuff, make a hostile takeover of Chocolate Chip Charlie's business, hire a marketing genius to sell their wonder-goo, and partner with an unethical distributor to get the stuff out to the masses.

As America succumbs to the stuff being sold as an ice cream/yogurt alternative, it's up to our heroes who know something is wrong with the stuff to save the day. Enter Jason (Scott Bloom), the kid who refuses to eat ice cream that moves on its own; David 'Mo' Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), ex-FBI agent turn corporate saboteur; Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the TV commercial director that sold the stuff to Americans; Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris), a cookie businessman with deadly hands, that saw his relatives sell out his company to the stuff; and Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino), a right-wing nut-job with his own army, who know the commies have been putting stuff in the water for years in order to control Americans.

The Stuff is a b-movie masterpiece. The effects, mostly white-goo purposely flowing, are OK for this sort of fare. The acting, quite memorable, especially Moriarty, Morris and Sorvino. This is a movie made for late night viewing, with loads of popcorn and friends. The movie isn't the least bit scary -- just plain fun.

Underlying this movie is a social commentary on American consumerism and food consumption habits. It wasn't a message that was delivered with a heavy-hand -- rather, it was subtle, and ran throughout the film. The message is especially relevant today, as obesity has reached epidemic proportions. I won't dwell on it in this review. If you're going to watch the movie, you may chose if you want to see the message or not.

Crazy for Zeus

Zeus & Hera
The Orthodox Christian Church is going crazy over some believers in the twelve gods of ancient Greece, who are trying to stage a ceremony at the Temple of Zeus. The religion got the official recognition from the Greek courts last year and was allowed last year to perform a religious ceremony at the Temple of Hephaestus. This week, the followers of the Olympians wished to hold a ceremony to pray for international peace. Father Efstathios Kollas of Othordox Christian Church is getting his robes in a knot however. He has described the followers of the Olympic gods as a "handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past."

Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

Burma Hates Christians

Burma's military government has enlisted the Buddhist monks in the country to systematically wipe out Christianity specifically -- all other religions, and any ethnicity that exist in the country today. The Burmese government is seeking uniformity in the population. Everyone must speak Burmese and practice the Buddhist religion. Looks like the country is in dire need of a Chinese invasion.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Shanghai Noon

In the fall of 2006, the US quietly released an unclassified document summarizing their national space policy [PDF]. In the document, the Bush Administration provides some directional statements which alarmingly points to their goal of un-tethering the military to utilize space as a platform for national security activities.
  • The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, "peaceful purposes" allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests;
  • The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights;
  • The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;
  • The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.

In keeping with their foreign policy of belligerence during the reign of Bush Jr., the US has been living the spirit of this policy for sometime. They have derailed nuclear non-proliferation talks in recent years, and have ignored Russian and Chinese pressure to not pursue the militarization of space. True to their intentions, the space policy document clearly states that the US intends to point missiles down at our little nest that is the blue marble. [Read more in the Washington Post.]

Elsewhere in the world, Japan which has long had a military policy that was governed by the concepts of self-defence as enshrined in their constitution after the second world war, is starting an uneasy metamorphosis of their military. In a 2005 policy document on defence, Japan sets the direction of its military. Notable in the document is strengthening of the US-Japan alliance to maintain US dominance in the Pacific, and Japan's new found interest in a ballistic defence system. Japan also recognizes that China's influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

China meanwhile has embarked on efforts to modernized its military. The direction seems to be for a smaller conventional force, with more modern capabilities in strategy and effectiveness. China is figuring to leapfrog adversaries on its way to superpower-dom. Playing a large role in this strategy is China's continued need to keep Taiwan in check. Taiwan remains independent even as it grows economically closer to the mainland. However, a declaration of independence would trigger a cascade of dominoes from Bejing, to Washington, to Tokyo. Containing Taiwan is in everyone's interest, including the US, but preparedness for a declaration of independence is prudent.

Complicating matters in China is politics. Hu Jintao has yet to consolidate complete power of the Communist Party under him. Hu is not a military man, unlike his predecessor -- and he has yet to secure control of the military. He needs to demonstrate that he can also command the military, and is looking out for their interests. The military is very much the core of the Communist Party's strength in China. Without the military, the Communist Party doesn't have a hope in hell of staying in power. Without the Communist Party in power, China would most likely suffer an economic collapse, and take most of the world with it.

With all of these cards in play, the Chinese recent demonstration that they can bring down an orbiting satellite with a missile can be put into horrifying context. Hu Jintao is demonstrating that he's a military man, who isn't afraid of sending a US administration -- hellbent on antagonizing the world by militarizing space -- a message. China is developing the capability of rendering a missile defence shield useless. All of this of course, makes the world a little more of a dangerous place, as nuclear proliferation continues and tension between the superpowers increase. I don't expect that the US or China will start lobbing missiles at each other -- but when and where will their proxy war be fought?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Heidi Cullen vs. Quack-Meteorologists

Dr. Heidi Cullen of the Weather Channel has come out with hash criticism of her peers in the weather business, on her blog. Cullen suggested that climate change skeptics who are meteorologists should lose their seal of approval from the American Meteorological Society because they are denouncing a scientific fact -- that the rapid climate change we've been experiencing in recent times, is a direct result of human activities on the planet. Meteorologists are in the powerful position of being in everyone's living rooms on the issue of climate change, and using that position to evangelize a political position is irresponsible. Not surprisingly, there are many who are now willing to lynch Cullen. Just check out her blog.

It's puerile that what was a quiet scientific debate in the past decades, has turned into a public battle in recent times. Scientific progress on issues usually have dispute, as evidence is gathered, analyzed, interpreted and published. The process opens scientific findings to debate, and it isn't until irrefutable evidence is gathered, that the debate settles on some firm conclusion as accepted fact. Even then however, opinions continue to be voiced. That's science for you. In recent times however, science has been caught unawares by political and religious opinions inserted into the debate. Science doesn't have the faculties to deal with politics and religion. Science deals with facts. Politics and religion deal in emotions and dogma. Never should they mix.

What is disconcerting is how the political and religious debate has ensnared science and is misusing it to confuse and mislead the public. It is irresponsible. The result can only be bad for science, as the public loses confidence and trust in the scientific community, at a time when science is very much needed.

How Yahoo Blew It

Wired is running a story on how Google edged out Yahoo in the search game, and now has nearly 70% of the search advertising market, while Yahoo continues to lose ground and now sits under 25%. Back in 2002, when Google was only a fledgling giant, and two years before it went public, Yahoo made an offer to buy Google -- for $3 billion. Google refused to sell. Yahoo's CEO, Terry Semel, wasn't about to offer the entire valuation of Yahoo to get Google, as his staff was advising. That would have been a merger. Instead, Semel decided he was going to buy competing technology and go against Google and trash them at their game. As history now tells us, Yahoo didn't quite make it, and today, Google is a giant, valued at $147 billion. The story is a great read.

The Imagination Challenge

Alexander Manu of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and the Beal Institute for Strategic Creativity, gave a talk titled, The Imagination Challenge: Strategic Foresight and Innovation in the Global Economy at the UofT Rotman School of Management this evening. The talk was informative, thought provoking and entertaining.

Synopsis: Companies constantly present technological developments -- new materials, new mechanisms, and new ways to enhance existing products and services. Yet these seldom lead to truly new ideas. Why? Humans are all born with imaginative instincts, but in the interest of efficient and predictable productivity, institutions such as schools and businesses routinely hinder those impulses. The most innovative products and services, author Alexander Manu argues, arise out of behaviours of play -- the ability to imagine, without limits, the question "What if ...?"

Manu was pushing his latest book, The Imagination Challenge. As suggested by the synopsis above, the talk focused on the importance of imagination and the behaviours necessary to realize new capabilities -- which his book delves into, complete with a toolkit to get you started on freeing your imagination. To achieve new capabilities, Manu suggests that we must first recognize the existence of possibilities. The possibilities are right there in our faces, yet we don't see them. Our curiosity is needed to bridge the imagination gap that exists between the current capabilities and possibilities -- yet most of us either lack the curiosity or it isn't encouraged in our work environment. Imagination is a challenge for businesses, as they have organized the death of imagination. The imagination gap can be overcome by unlearning what we've been told people want and fostering an environment where temporary play is encouraged. Manu sees the behaviours associated with play as being the fulcrum necessary to boost our imaginations and foster creativity.

Manu spends a lot of time playing during his talk, which made it engaging and entertaining. He recalled his sister rushing in to announce that Yuri Gagarin made it into space when he was a child -- his grandmother's remark was, "Will this help the Jews?" (Manu is Jewish.) He used this as an example of how we've learned to close ourselves to curiosity, further observing that the people who admonish us to not play with our food are the ones who also taught us to fly food into our mouth when we were children. As we grow up, schools and work teach us that play is dichotomy of adulthood. So much so, that we have sub-contracted our play to the likes of Tiger Woods. Play, Manu implored, is much needed -- especially in the context of businesses, where creativity should be valued. To achieve what he calls strategic foresight, Manu proposes that possibility, behaviour and capability must all align.

When aligned, Manu claims you will have an ecology of imagination and be able to invent the future. He used many examples in his talk to suggest what is possible with strategic foresight. Barbie dolls for instance. Manu has twenty-two of them. (Not sure I want to know why.) He claims that one is sold every 2-seconds around the world and expects that in the near future, Barbie dolls will outnumber humans on the planet. Mattel, the maker of Barbie, have some strategic foresight. They are now the number four producer of women's clothing in the world. Their clients of course are Barbie dolls. "What if ...?" With strategic foresight, you will be able to ask many "what if" questions, and not feel silly. "What if your toilet could speak to you? What would it say?" What about your mirror? Your toothbrush? You would be amazed at the possibilities.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

HD DVD Pirated

HD DVD discs, in a format war with Blu-ray discs, has just taken a hit from the pirates. A copy of the HD DVD version of Serenity, has hit the BitTorrent network -- all 19GBs of it. HD DVD was developed for greater capacity and higher resolution movies, but also to enforce studio control on how content is viewed by their customers. DRM protects the audio and video content of HD DVD discs, and the studios are looking to develop region encoding for dics -- the make it so that discs purchased in North America for instance, won't play on players in Europe. It's all about control. Enter muslix64 and BackupHDDVD, which provides a process to decrypt HD DVD encryption, as long as the decryption keys are available. After muslix64 posted the BackupHDDVD utility on Dec. 26, last year, it only took a few weeks before ways of obtaining HD DVD keys were being revealed. So, it should come as no surprise that someone has ripped an HD DVD movie and made it available via BitTorrent. I don't think it's entirely feasible to download a whopping 19GB -- just to see a movie. In this instance, this is more of a the pirates proving a point. It can be done. Developing better locks isn't going to stop it. Developing a better business model however just might.

No Pants 2K7

Every wanted to just take your pants off on the subway and ride the car just in your underwear? Me neither. But there are some people who will go for such a thing. Improv Everywhere organized just such an event recently, in NY City, on the 6 line subway. The event is an annual event that has been running since 2002, and while breaking no laws, the participants regularly get busted for going public in just their underwear, boxers, or whatever. Why they do it? Because.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Quantum Physics as a Computer Science

Quantum Physics
Scott Aaronson, a postdoc at the University of Waterloo, teaches a class on the history of quantum computing -- starting from time of Democritus -- or so the course title claims. He has made his lecture notes available online, and lecture 9 provides an interesting perspective on quantum mechanics, that most of us who took QM, may not have encountered previously. I don't know about you, but if you were like me and had the joy of studying QM, you may have been thrilled to have been part of that fine class of students who could boast about being in QM, while at the same time, secretly harbouring doubts -- maybe the whole thing was just a joke physicists were playing on the world.

Aaronson sets out the make it all clear to the masses -- well, mathematicians and computer scientists anyway -- by doing something quite unremarkable -- something I've always wondered about. Do you remember how you were taught science? You were taught it the way it was historically developed -- including mad rushes down blind alleys that led only to dead ends, and had you gibbering like a mad idiot in the dark. That's how quantum mechanics is taught -- and that's how every QM book I've seen has laid out the concepts.
You have to dutifully follow along the historical order in which the ideas were discovered. So, you start with classical mechanics and electrodynamics, solving lots of grueling differential equations at every step. Then you learn about the "blackbody paradox" and various strange experimental results, and the great crisis these things posed for physics. Next you learn a complicated patchwork of ideas that physicists invented between 1900 and 1926 to try to make the crisis go away. Then, if you're lucky, after years of study you finally get around to the central conceptual point: that nature is described not by probabilities (which are always nonnegative), but by numbers called amplitudes that can be positive, negative, or even complex.
So Aaronson has decided to clear the air. His lecture drops the history, starts at the conceptual core then add the physics. It makes for an interesting read. Except for the math -- which still hurts -- especially if you've been away from it for years.

Comet McNaught

Comet McNaught, the brightest comet to fly into the inner solar system in the past forty years is putting on quite the show -- for those who can see it. McNaught, appearing low in the horizon, can be seen in the eastern sky at dawn and the western sky at dusk. It was visible last week to those of us in the northern hemisphere, and this week, has bowed out to be visible to those in the southern hemisphere. During its close encounter with the Sun, McNaught became visible to the naked eye during the day.

McNaught was discovered last year, on August 7, by Robert McNaught. The animation above was taken by the LASCO C3 camera, on board the SOHO space craft currently orbiting the Sun.

Updated: January 19, 2006
  • Comet McNaughtComet McNaughtHere's are some cool photographs of Comet McNaught. The second was taken by Jamie Newman of Papakura, Auckland, New Zealand, yesterday. It's amazing that the comet with such an amazing tail can be seen in daylight, over a city. The first was taken by Gerhard Kupfer of Bopfingen, Baden-Warttemberg, Germany, on January 13th. You can find more images by amateurs on the SpaceWeather's website.

Doomsday Clock to Move Closer to Midnight

The Doomsday Clock, maintained by the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago since 1947, is set to move closer to midnight this week. The clock is symbolic of the humanity's vulnerability to destruction by nuclear war or other threats. The initial setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight, to reflect the state of the world due the threat of the cold war. It has since moved back and forth seventeen times in response to the vulnerability of the world to nuclear war. The clock was last moved in 2002, forward by two minutes, and now sits at seven minutes to midnight.

On Wednesday, January 17th, at two events -- one in Washington, DC, and the other in London -- the clock will moved. The movement reflects the growing concern the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have over the escalating threat of nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age. The US and Russia continue to wield launch-ready nuclear arsenals, while Iran and North Korea continue to build towards their nuclear ambitions. This, combined with the threat of terrorism and the expanded use of nuclear power, could increase proliferation risks.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Procrastination Equation

University of Calgary professor, Piers Steel, has published a paper on procrastination in American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin, in which he has defined procrastination in mathematical terms. The equation explains what Steel terms as Temporal Motivational Theory, and is defined as:
Utility = E x V / ΓD,
where Utility is the desirability of the task; E is the expectancy a person has of completing a task; V is the value of completing the task; Γ is the immediacy or availability of the task; and D is the person's sensitivity to delay.

Steel concluded that procrastinators have less confidence in themselves and don't expect they can actually complete a task -- and unlike the advice of most self-help books, perfectionism is not the root of the problem. Steel found that perfectionists procrastinate less, they just worry about it a whole lot more than other people. Procrastinators are averse to work, impulsive, easily distracted and are not motivated to achieve.

So what advice does Steel have for procrastinators? Willpower. If you believe you can do something, there's a good chance you can do it. So procrastinators need to force themselves to do what they set out for themselves. The more they do, the more their expectancy of completing tasks will increase.

It should be noted that Piers Steel took 10-years to research this topic before publishing his findings.

Updated: January 21, 2006

The Plague (2006)

The Plague, otherwise known as Clive Barker's The Plague, is a movie that capitalizes on the zombie resurgence. Barker served as a producer of the movie, and that was about it. Sticking his name on it is bit of marketing spin, but it did little to help this movie make it to the theatres. The movie itself wasn't all that bad. The acting was OK for this sort of thing, and the cinematography was good. The premise was a battle of the generations, with a zombie twist to spice things up.

Ten years ago, the story goes, children around the world were infected by a plague. Doctors know nothing about it, and have never found out what it was that infected the children. The infected children, all nine years old or younger, went into a coma. Since then, they've been cared for -- some at hospitals, in large wards -- some at home, by parents who still love them and are waiting for them to wake up.

Fast forward to today, and all hell breaks loose when the children wake from their ten year slumber, in a pissed off mood. Around the world, they're out hunting everybody who were not struck by the plague. They share some collective intelligence. Each learning from what the others are experiencing. That means in no time, they've disabled all vehicles and have learned to use guns. They also seem incredibly strong and can withstand a few good blows, and sometimes bullets. Yup, zombies.

The first half of the movie moves with a slow, steady and almost uneventful pace, with characters being developed. For some reason, there's repeated references to Grapes of Wrath, but I can't figure out why. When the kids wake up however, the pace of the movie jumps in high gear. The running, the screaming, the hysterics and purposeful zombie gait of the murderous children. It's a battle of the generations, as one seeks to obliterate the other.

This would have been alright for a zombie movie, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, religion is introduced. And I don't mean the, "Oh God! Oh God! We're all going to die!" sort of religion. I mean suddenly, this isn't about a plague, this is about retribution of some sorts, with the almighty pulling the strings to push the restart button on humanity. Or so I'm guessing. The movie is not quite clear on the whole idea. The end just comes abruptly. The kids suddenly stop their killing because one guy gives himself as a sacrifice to the kids. There was something about "having no fear when the children come." Something like that anyway.

The end threw, what was shaping up to be a good zombie movie, into sheer confusion. It took the entire movie away from the zombie-crazy audience, and left them with, WTF? Some people over at IMDB [registration required] think they can explain the movie, but I don't buy the explanations. Too many holes.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Bone Snatcher (2003)

Ah, what cheap thrills b-movie horror poop can be. The Bone Snatcher is set in some desert somewhere -- filmed in South Africa -- where a monster is accidentally awaken by some diamond prospectors. There are characters, none of them really anything special. They're typical of this fare. There is the girl. There is the nerd. There is the crazy guy who breaks all the rules, acts first and may think later. And there is the superstitious one. They're all going to die so only the nerd and the girl will live to be happy ever after. Of course, that's going to take two hours.

The monster is introduced when it's awaken in the desert and it immediately grabs one of the mine prospectors and strips him of his flesh. Another two quickly follows. Others are sent in to investigate, and in short order, finds two bodies and start hunting the third, believed to be a murderer. In no time, they find the third body, a slinking skeleton covered with a black moving mass that looks like dust. Being simple people and having guns, they shoot, shout and scream. Not in that particular order. Then they run, when the guns prove to be ineffective.

The desert is hot in the day, freezing at night. Trucks break down mysteriously. A monster hunts people. And a magic gizmo seems to beep whenever the monster gets close. The monster is eventually explained by the nerd as being ants, that are governed by a queen that rules the nest. Their original nest is disturbed, so they need bones to to create a body to move around. Don't try to make sense of it. It's silly. But it's a b-movie, what did you expect? If you're into this sort of thing, you'll have fun with it. If you're not, well ... don't bother.

Friday, January 12, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore just can't catch a break, even in the reality that's slowly dawning over America. Frosty Hardison, a parent with a child attending a Seattle area school, has complained to the school board, that:
Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher. The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD.
Frosty Hardison you see, believes the Earth is 14,000 years old, supports the teaching of creationism and opposes sex education. The school board in response, did the right thing. They've placed a moratorium on the film, as it represents a controversial issue. Any teacher wishing to show the film in school must also be ready to present the opposing view of what the film depicts.

Controversial issue? What controversial issue? Every science body in the US accepts that climate change is happening and that humans have directly contributed to the galloping pace at which its happening. There are critics of course, but they stand squarely on political grounds in their opposition of truth. Schools exist to educate future generations, not present ill-formed conclusions as acceptable alternatives to facts.

The school board in its defense, is simply following their established policy, which is in place to ensure that "public schools are not used for indoctrination." That's exactly what the school board in question is doing however. They are indoctrinating the presentation of untruths as alternative views to malleable minds. The only end that comes from this is the disservice to future generations.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Yoga Offensive

Everyday, it appears, the world gets more and more stupid. The latest stupidity comes from Quesnel, B.C., where Christian parents are complaining to the school board that has included the practice of yoga at school. Says the local paragon of enlightenment, Audrey Cummings:
There's God and there's the devil, and the devil's not a gentleman. If you give him any kind of an opening, he will take that.
The school board on the other hand, is introducing the yoga practice in an effort to combat childhood obesity. Children however, don't have to practice yoga. They can do other exercises, or remain close minded, fat, and Christian.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

2006 in Buzzwords

BuzzWhack has published their list of 13 "most fun" and "most dreadful" buzzwords of 2006. So, without much ado, here they are:
Most DreadfulMost Fun
leveraging our assetsblamestorming
mission-criticalDeath by Tweakage
information touchpointmuffin top
price-optimizedprairie dogging
targeted completion datecarbon-based error
computeratedeja poo
critical pathbobbleheading
Professional Learning Communityringtone rage

Monday, January 08, 2007

Share the Truth

An Inconvenient Truth
I've seen an Inconvenient Truth a number of times. There are many people I know however, who've never seen it. So I've ordered a copy of the film for free. I would have otherwise bought the movie -- but I found the free offer something I just couldn't pass up. Share the Truth was created by Eric Pan of Santa Cruz, CA, and he's on a mission to make as many people as possible see the movie. So are, apparently, a lot of the visitors to his site. Visitors contribute money to Pan's cause, and in return, Pan ships free movies to anyone who requests one. Once I receive my free movie, I think I just might donate to the cause.

This is one remarkable idea, and I think it could be used for so many other must see documentary films. If you haven't seen the movie, here's a great opportunity to see it -- for free. If you're like me, and you have seen it, request it for free, contribute to the cause, then like I plan on doing, make everyone you know watch it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

6174 & Kaprekar's Operation

Take any four digit number, rearrange the digits so you have the largest possible number and the smallest. Subtract the smallest from the largest. Take the result, and likewise rearrange the digits to get the largest and smallest numbers. Again subtract the smallest from the largest. Continue doing so. At the most, but the seventh iteration of this operation, you will get the number 6174. If you rearrange 6174 to the largest and smallest and repeat the operation, you will get 6174. It doesn't matter which four digit number you start with, you will always end with 6174.

5200 - 0025 = 5175
7551 - 1557 = 5994
9954 - 4599 = 5355
5553 - 3555 = 1998
9981 - 1899 = 8082
8820 - 0288 = 8532
8532 - 2358 = 6174
7641 - 1467 = 6174

How weird is that? This was discovered by D.R. Kaprekar, an Indian mathematician in 1949.

The Universe in 1 Billion Light Years

The universe is huge. It's humongously huge. Hugely humongous too. This map of the neighbouring superclusters, shows what it looks like out to a distance of 1 billion light years. It may or may not be interesting to you. What should be interesting however, is that you're looking at is only 7 percent of the diameter of the entire visible universe. So what are you looking at? There are 100 superclusters in this image, of which there are 250,000 trillion stars. That's big! Colossally enormous in fact!

If you look out to 14 billion light years, this is what the universe looks like [below]. And if you look really, really carefully, you will not see me waving from the centre of it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Mr. Rogers and the VCR

Mister Rogers
Mr. Rogers was a good man. Not only did his Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television show entertained and educated children in North America, but the man himself was also a great advocate for the use of media by the general public, beyond the control of its creators. Mr. Rogers provided key testimony at the US Supreme Court, in support of the VCR, which was widely objected to by the entertainment industry, as they saw it as infringing on their copyright. His testimony was acknowledged by the Supreme Court decision in a footnote:
Some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the "Neighborhood" at hours when some children cannot use it ... I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the "Neighborhood" off-the-air, and I'm speaking for the "Neighborhood" because that's what I produce, that they then become much more active in the programming of their family's television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been "You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions." Maybe I'm going on too long, but I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.
What a concept. The entertainment industry, MPAA and RIAA especially, could learn something from Mr. Rogers.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Apocalypto (2006)

Mel Gibson's Apocalypto was rated "R" for the violence and gore. It didn't have to be rated "R." But I suppose that Gibson wanted to convey the brutality of the Mayan empire. He did so quite successfully, although he didn't need to. The film would have been even more successful had he toned down the violence and gone for a "14A" rating. The movie could have been the impetus for a lot more dialogue on the history of the Mayans than it now will. Oh well.

Apocalypto a simple story, set in the larger context of the decline of the Mayan empire and impending arrival of the Spaniards. The story follows Jaguar Paw, played by Rudy Youngblood, as his village is raided by Mayan warriors in search of human sacrifices and slaves. Jaguar Paw's village is decimated, but his pregnant wife and young son, Turtle Run (I love the name) survive by staying hidden. Jaguar Paw with the surviving adults are taken to the Mayan city, where the men are to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw escapes, and is hunted in the forest by Mayan warriors.

The first half of the movie establishes characters from the village, and even gives some dimension to the Mayan warriors. The pace is slow, but more rewarding than the latter half of the movie that is taken up by the chase through the forest. Gibson actually does a pretty good job with the characters in the first half of the movie, in conveying a story about a group of natives in a village, without the need to have Europeans in the mix. The people could have been from any culture, any context. He treated the characters as people, no different than people of today -- with the same aspirations and concerns. It was a pleasant surprise. It was beautiful. The second half of the movie however, from the Mayan city to the chase through the forest was brutality mixed with beautiful cinematography. You can't go bad rainforest and beautiful people -- all of whom were virtually unknown actors from Mexico, the Yucatán, Canada and the US.

The movie is a work of fiction, and Gibson does take liberties with his portrayal of Mayan culture. He did however, opt to use Yukatek Maya language for the entire movie -- so the entire movie was subtitled. The acting was superb. The dialogue well written, and the story not all that bad. Gibson intended the movie to be a political message on the fate of empires, but I think some of that may have been lost in translating the story to an action film.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

18 Secret Armies Of The CIA

Have a quick review of this list of the US playing war games in other countries. They all end in disaster. So much for foreign policy.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Googbye, and Hello

2006 is over, and the BBC's William Crawley would like to say goodbye to it by naming the person of the year 2006 to be none other than Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, the Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, was in everyone's face in 2006, denouncing religion as the most dangerous thing the human species ever invented, and pushing his latest book, the God Delusion. Like him or hate him -- and there are many that do both -- Dawkins has never wavered in his arguments, and his science fundamentalism was a welcome pebble in the sea of religious fundamentalism that has swept the world in the last few years.

2007 however isn't looking so good if you believe the results of this AP-AOL poll of how Americans feel about the new year. It's just short of the end of the world, with the doom and gloom over the war in Iraq, potential military draft and ... wait for it ... "25% anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ" in 2007. Seems like Dawkins has his work cut out for him. [Thanks DH, for the link.]

On other things equally as important as the end of religion and the coming of Christ ... my wife and I were doing a crossword puzzle the other day, as we so often do over a cup of coffee at the local caffeinated watering hole. The clue for 41-across was, "ham radio enthusiasts." My answer: "hamsters." Surprisingly, it didn't fit.
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