Saturday, March 31, 2007

Republicans are Pro-Troops like they're Pro-Child

Thought for the day:

Republicans spend a lot of time saying that their opponents don't "support the troops". They also say that they (the Republicans) are "pro-life" and "pro-child". They do seem to be "pro-troop" in about the same measure as they are "pro-child". Here's a quick rundown of their positions:

We need lots of children so we don't get overrun by brown people. We need lots of troops so we don't get overrun by Muslims (who are mostly brown).
But I mostly care about other people having kids. But I want it to be other people's kids going off to fight.
I only care about children till they're born. I only care about the troops till they're deployed.
Education and health care for born children is optional. Training, armor, and health care for deployed troops is optional.
Cutting (really) rich people's taxes is more important than actual children. Cutting (really) rich people's taxes is more important than actual troops.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Synchronicity is hitting me today. I ran across this article in Nature (linked via slashdot) about a pair of twins who aren't identical twins nor fraternal twins -- they're both chimeras. One of them is a "true hermaphrodite" (having both ovarian and testicular) tissue. This leads to an obvious question: how many intersex children are chimeras?

(And how many anti-science right-wingers heads are exploding over this? It's got a bunch of stuff they clearly can't handle: science, evolution, gender ambiguity.)

And then there was article in the New York Times (linked via Carl Zimmer's blog) that details the discovery that marmosets are almost invariably chimeras -- they are almost always fraternal twins who basically hybridize at the cellular level in utero.

The world is far stranger than we could ever imagine.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I saw 300 last night with Dan and a crew of others. (This is not a movie to see with only one other person -- you need a crew.)

Quick responses:

It's an enjoyable eye-candy flick, though clearly not for everyone. ("It's about the battle of Thermopylae. You know, a date movie.").

This is what all the political posturing and kerfluffle is about? What a slender reed, to carry all that weight.

Gerard Butler (as Leonidas) is impressive, but his Scottish accent slipped in a number of times, making him sound almost as out of place as Sean Connery playing an Egyptian-by-way-of-Spain in Highlander. "Shpaahtans! Tonight...we dine...on haggis!". Or something like that.

The most over the top moment: the narration at the very end. It might have made sense in the graphic novel, but there are moments where you have to actually break from your source material.


Dan and I agree that Lena Headey and more importantly her costumes have knocked Princess-Leia-in-a-bronze-bikini off the nerd pedestal.

After the 30th or 40th "sword time" shot (in analogy to the Matrix's "bullet time" -- start a shot in normal speed, slow down to show dismemberment or impalement, then speed up as the blood spurt flies off), that got a little, well, boring.

I feel sorry for the foley artists (sound effects people) who had to come up with the hundreds (thousands?) of blood squelches. Eeuuww.

More seriously, I pretty much agree with Aram (and his linkage to Penny Arcade) that there is a clear political context to the movie coming out now. It's just unclear how that plays out, is all. I mean, the U.S. invaded Iraq -- does that make Bush Xerxes?

Update: best mashup trailer ever. (Via Will Shetterly.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

I am never the first to think of something

I should get used to this. I will never be the first to think of something. Or at least, something cool that anyone other than, say, my boss would care about.

Case in point: I was listening to the radio a few days ago, really half-listening, probably in the kitchen making lunch, and someone says "semi-automatic weapons". Because I was not really fully listening, and because I'm, well, weird, my brain parsed that as "semiotic weapons".

Semiotic weapons. What a great phrase! I could build an SF story around that. (Unless Iain M. Banks already has -- Use of Semiotic Weapons? Or maybe he named a ship that at some point.) Or it could be a great name for a punk band. Or...wait a second....

Sigh. (Okay, this query only gets 53 hits, instead of 466,000, but still.)

Once again, I am way behind the times.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Possibly the Nerdiest Thing I've seen in Weeks[1]

Bub, bar cher flap!.

[1] Short of the email thread at work today comparing the oldest files we have in our homedirs -- mine date from my first day at work, over ten years ago.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Review Roundup

I've read a number of books and recently (and some not so recently), and I figured I'd do some quick writeups.

First up: China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. This is Miéville's first novel aimed at young adult readers. He acknowledges his inspirations in the acknowledgements, including Neil Gaiman, who seems to hover over the first third of the book like some inverted Marley's ghost. Once past that part (mostly setup and exposition), though, Miéville hits his stride, and so does the book.

The story follows two London girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find themselves drawn into an alternate city, UnLondon (which has counterparts Parisn't, No York, Lost Angeles, and Romeless). Zanna, it seems, is the Shwazee (a bastardization of choisee, the Chosen One), who, it is prophesied, will save UnLondon from great evil.

At some point, this neat standard alternate-world urban fantasy goes off the smoothly greased rails, the Gaiman hommage dissipates some, and things get really interesting.

Favorite bit: animals apparently can move back and forth between London and UnLondon at will (so they all stare at Zanna, 'cause, you know, she's the Shwazee); all except cats, who it turns out are really stupid and only care about looking cool, not about anything like the survival of the world against great evil. Oh, and watch the giraffes.

Least favorite bit: the pun magic. It's funny once, but as a system of the world, it can get infuriating if it's not deftly handled. I felt a bit bludgeoned by it in the first third of Un Lun Dun, but it got better later.

Bottom line: recommended.

Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. I had bought this last year, but finally got it off my shelf last weekend, while grumbling about the stupidity of moving the daylight-savings-time shift date.

The book is basically a light history of Daylight Saving Time (note: not Daylight Savings Time -- it's a timekeeping that, when in effect, is saving daylight, not banking savings of daylight).

The most obvious bizarrity of the story is the sheer number of different political players that have pushed for (or against) DST changes to benefit themselves. Obvious candidates: the New York Stock Exchange, which kept NYC doing Daylight Saving Time so they would have an hour of overlap with the London Stock Exchange (London later returned the favor, resisting Double-Summer time); the candy manufacturers, who wanted DST to start in November, so that Halloween would stay light later (they got their wish in this latest round); farmers (often blamed for DST although they in fact resisted it mightily); golfers; and Richard Nixon (who imposed year-round DST in 1973/1974 -- I vividly remember my mom driving my brother and sister to school [and me to preschool] in the dark; now I actually know why).

Perhaps the most vivid thing about the book is that it illustrates how insane timekeeping was (and still is) in the US and around the world. If nothing else, computers have made it effectively impossible to go back on that. I hope.

Bottom line: recommended for anyone who is interested in little corners of history.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. I am a fan of Johnson's blog, and this book doesn't disappoint. It's a retelling of the classic urban planning story about stopping a cholera epidemic in London, with the legend teased apart, explained, and expanded.

It's not for the delicate of stomach (London in 1854 was apparently a really disgusting place), but it's a fascinating story, and Johnson has an ear for illuminating anecdotes to go along with and illustrate the main story.

My only real complaint is that the book seems a bit loose -- like it's not sure whether to be a straight forward detective story or a day-by-day history or what. That's minor, though.

Bottom line: recommended for anyone interested in cities.

I read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann last year, and was mightily impressed. I just picked up the paperback version (having given my hardback copy to a friend), which includes a new afterword. I re-read the first and last chapters again for good measure.

This is a fascinating book, and an exemplar of the "passionate amateur synthesis" genre. It puts together 50-60 years of research in varied fields (mostly New World Archaeology) and paints a compelling picture of North and South America before the collision with European culture (and most importantly, its germs).

If there's any criticism I have of the book, it's that it doesn't label as well as it might which presentations are established facts, which are well-established and widely-accepted theories, and which are contentious hypotheses. (It does do some of that, but it's hard to tell if it does enough.)

Overall, though, it's a fascinating and mind-blowing picture of North and South America filled with tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, with highly complex civilizations that were wiped off the map by smallpox and other virulent diseases that the invading Europeans were more immune to. These were civilizations that are only now coming to light because (a) by the time settlers made it into the center of the continent, the civilizations had long since collapsed and been overgrown; and (b) Indians Are Noble Savages, don't you know?

The sheer scale of the societies that existed in the Americas before Columbus's voyages is amazing. Anyone interested in humanity should read this book. Anyone interested in SF should find this fascinating from the standpoint of first contact situations. The "what if" stories or obvious and multitudinous. What if the indigenous Americans had been more disease resistant? (A couple hundred guys with guns will only go so far against millions of well-armed warriors with longbows -- see also Jared Diamond's Collapse, specifically the section where he talks about the Vikings who landed in Labrador and tried to get a foothold -- they ran off, basically saying "Stay away! Those guys are fierce, and dangerous, and don't want us there!"). What if there had been endemic disease in the Americas that had gone back to Europe and spread across the "Old World" as pandemically as smallpox did in the "New World"? I leave other scenarios as an exercise for the reader.

Bottom line: highly recommended.

To summarize:

ObjectArtistRating (out of 5 stars)
Un Lun DunChina Miéville4.0
Spring ForwardMichael Downing3.9
The Ghost MapSteven Johnson4.5
1491Charles C. Mann4.9

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Okay, I Concede. GMOs are a Bad Idea. Especially by Monsanto.

Aram has been mocking me for years for my optimism that GMOs could be useful. Well, I formally throw in the towel on this one.

Scientific American is reporting that Monsanto has a GMO corn that causes liver and kidney damage, and that they knew about this and marketed it anyway.

In my defense here, I always said it was a bad idea to trust the company that brought you dioxin and aspartame.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Clever Passwords Considered Harmful

I currently have a set of really nifty passwords, so nifty in fact that I really want to show off how clever they are. Which kinda sorta entirely defeats the purpose of having passwords.

Must. Resist. Urge. To. Show. Off. Niftiness. Of. Passwords....

Sunday, March 04, 2007

IT Folks, the Advice Columnists Have Your Back

In today's Boston Globe Magazine, the "Miss Conduct" advice column has this sidebar:

What computer people wish everyone knew: Asking an IT professional to take a look at your malfunctioning laptop (for free) is akin to asking a doctor for medical advice at a cocktail party. And not all "computer people" do the same thing. Asking a Web designer to fix your malfunctioning hard drive is like asking a lawyer for medical advice at a cocktail party.

I think we IT geeks are finally <sniff> accepted!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Go Kiwi Geeks!

If WETA wasn't geeky enough for you, try out this heartwarming tale of a Kiwi engineer who made his own broadband link out of a $10 wok.