Saturday, December 15, 2007

Happy Birthday

Today's Writer's Almanac reminds us that today is the 216th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.  With the social pendulum having swung as far as it has, it is worthwhile to reread the Bill of Rights and remember there are values that define us a nation that transcend fear.

It was on this day in 1791 that the Bill of Rights was adopted by the United States, thanks in part to a man who hasn't gotten a lot of credit, George Mason. He was a lifelong friend of George Washington's who wasn't interested in politics, but when Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, George Mason reluctantly took over his friend's seat on the Virginia legislature. And then Mason was assigned by chance to the committee to write the new state constitution.

Mason had read the philosopher John Locke, and he liked Locke's idea that all people are born with certain rights, and that government's purpose should be to protect those rights. George Mason believed that the best way to protect those rights would be to list them in the constitution itself. And so he put together Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," the first government document in history that specified the absolute rights of individuals. Mason's ideas about rights and freedom influenced a 25-year-old legislator named James Madison, who passed them along to his friend Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson would go on to use Mason's ideas in his own draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Mason was asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention after the war, but he disagreed with the other delegates on numerous issues, especially slavery, which he thought should be outlawed in the new constitution. He fought for the inclusion of a list of rights, like the "Declaration of Rights" in the Virginia Constitution, but his idea for a bill of rights failed by a wide margin.

And so, when it came time to sign to the new U.S. Constitution, George Mason was one of the only men there who refused. He said, "I would sooner chop off [my] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." His decision ruined his friendship with George Washington. The two men never called on each other again. But he hoped that his protest would encourage an eventual passage of a bill of rights, and it did. His former protege, James Madison, introduced the Bill of Rights into the first session of Congress in 1789, and Madison used Virginia's Declaration of Rights as the model.

Even with the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution didn't provide full citizenship to blacks or women, among others, and it has had to be amended again and again over the years. But when we think of what it means to have a free country, most of our ideas about the meaning of freedom come from those first 10 amendments, adopted on this day in 1791, which include the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a fair trial. George Mason died in 1792, a year after those freedoms and rights became law.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Wonderful when a single image captures so much (thanks AJ). 

Thursday, November 29, 2007

2007: Album of the Year

Much to my surprise, my album of the year is a concert recording from 36 years ago, followed closely by an album that was never released.

Neil Young's spectacular "Live as Massey Hall 1971" is a remarkable recording from what must have been a magical evening. Solo Neil, with a small Toronto audience that braved the January cold.

Listening to this recording, one realizes how amazingly powerful and evocative Neil's voice is. The concert was between "After the Gold Rush" and the chart busting "Harvest", with Neil singing many "new" songs, like "Heart of Gold", "Journey Through the Past", etc. Can you imagine being in the audience that night and hearing these songs for the first time?

The recording is outstanding, really capturing the depth and subtlety of the guitar/piano and singing. Listening to this album, one realizes how extraordinarily good Neil was back in the day.

Going through the album, it has the definitive versions of classics like "Old Man", "Journey Through the Past", "Heart of Gold", "On the Way Home", "Man Needs a Maid", "See the Sky About to Rain", and "Tell Me Why".

Needless to say, any Neil Young album that has 7 definitive tracks is a must own and a must listen. Neil Young "Live at Massey Hall 1971" is my 2007 album of the year.

The close second is another Neil Young album, but one that was never released. "Chrome Dreams" is the mythical never released Neil Young album from 1977. Always discussed in hushed tones, some of the tracks made it into subsequent albums, but not all.

A little over a month ago, Neil release Chrome Dreams II, a "sequel" to that 1977 album. A mixed bag, but notable for having the 18 minute epic "Ordinary People", which had been cut from the "This Notes for You" album 20 years ago. Worth purchasing just for that song (wow!)

The hype leading up ti Chrome Dreams II worked its magic on the internet, and (via this post by Fred Wilson) I finally got to fulfill a dream and hear the album.

What an amazing album!

The definitive version of Pocahontas (one of the best songs ever made), a great take on Too Far Gone (one of the better songs on the Freedom album), the unbelievable Stringman (which I had never heard before), a definitive acoustic take on Powderfinger, and familiar versions of classics Like a Hurricane, Homegrown, and Captain Kennedy.

Taken together, Massey Hall and Chrome Dreams may bump After the Gold Rush and Freedom from my "You only have 2 Neil Young albums you can take to the deserted island" list

As an aside, back in the early 80s, right after I discovered Neil Young, my best friend Terry's mom let us know that Rolling Stone had had a great interview with the man a couple years before (kind of surreal rereading that article after all these years). In that interview, he hinted at the treasures that were waiting in his vaults, waiting for the day when he was all done:

One of Young's long-standing jokes is that he's saving his best material for his "Bus Crash" album. The few who have heard samplings of Young's tape vaults -- songs that didn't fit into the flow of his albums, entire unreleased works, live tapes, Buffalo Springfield tapes -- agree that some of his most compelling performances are among the unreleased material.

"All those songs," he says, "they're still there. They're there. And they're in an order. They're not gone. But, you know, they're old songs. Who wants to hear about it. They're depressing. They are. It's like ancient history to me. I don't want to have to deal with that stuff coming out."

"Until," I ask, "you're not around to deal with them coming out?"

"That's right," he says. "Then they're there. I think every artist plans for the future like that. I have things in a certain order, so that if anything ever happened to me it would be pretty evident what to do."

With a discography that included (at the time) Harvest, After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, Decade, etc etc, we sat there in awe imagining what might be in The Vault. The image of " would be pretty evident what to do" haunted me then, and I've thought about it often in the years since.

Fast forward 25 years. Neil is releasing a whole series of live performances (volume 3 of which is the Live at Massey Hall gig from 1971). If you get the version of Massey Hall with the DVD, there is actually an old film of the concert (wow!). The vault is loosening up.

Inside the packaging is a nondescript insert saying:

Neil Young
The Archives Vol 1

8-CD, 2-DVD collection. The first volume in the definitive audiobiography.

After 25 years, the vault is finally opening. Terry my friend, this note's for you.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christmas wish list

For those looking for ideas for what to get me for Christmas, you should check out the latest Profiles in History auction and look for lot #1128. I'll gladly arrange shipping (thanks)

LOT #1128
Original screen-used full-scale model T-800 endoskeleton from Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1128. Original screen-used full-scale model T-800 endoskeleton from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Carolco/TriStar, 1991) This iconic figure was constructed for the opening scene of the film, when the T-800 makes his dramatic appearance in the frightening future world of Los Angeles, 2029 A.D., in the Future War battle with John Connor and his small band of survivors.

Measuring fully 6 ft 2 in. tall, the figure is hand-crafted of chrome-plated resin over a steel and aluminum armature. The feet of this intricate T-800 are the original feet used in the first Terminator film, and are the only real metal feet made for any of the films. The eyes illuminate in an errie red (powered by a small battery), and the figure is posed on a custom-built diorama of "scorched earth" to complete the display. This is a 100-percent complete screen-used figure; only the mechanical elements have been removed to make it suitable for studio display.

An impressive and iconic figure from this groundbreaking film, which received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1992. This is the first time this piece has ever been offered publicly, and may be the last opportunity collectors will ever have to acquire what is probably the most instantly-identifible visual effects character of the last 30 years of film history. $80,000 - $100,000

Monday, November 19, 2007

Top Five TV Moment: The Thanksgiving Turkey Drop

TVSquad has a post on one of my top 5 TV moments of all time: the WKRP Turkey Drop episode.

The clip in the TVSquad post is classic. However, you need to get the epilogue to the scene as well. After you watch the clip on TVSquad, here is the link to YouTube for the epilogue.

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly"

I can't talk about WKRP (one of my favorite shows of all time) without raising hell for the decision to dub generic music into the DVD collection. I am patiently waiting for the day that some enterprising youths from the Church of Johnny Fever dub the original music back into the DVD rips.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mac'ing It: Two Months In

As discussed in earlier posts, I recently made the switch back to NEXTSTEP Mac OS.

A couple months in, I'm settling into the new environment. For the benefit of those that are considering a change, here are the key apps and tidbits that I've settled on.


I use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone my internal drive to a partition on an external firewire drive once a week or so. This partition is fully bootable in case I ever have trouble with the internal drive, or have a botched install or OS upgrade.

For incremental backups, I use the Mozy on line backup service. Free for a couple Gb of off site backup, and working well.

When I upgrade to Leopard, I'll be using TimeMachine to backup locally to the aforementioned firewire drive (different partition for the TimeMachine backups), and keeping Mozy for off site backups

I also figured out how to keep directories in sync between my Mac and our PC file server. I use Foldershare, which is a amazingly useful P2P directory sync program that works between PCs and Macs. Only down side is a 10,000 file limit for an sync pair, but it works very very well (at least after I turned off encryption). Other downside is that it is such a clever and appropriate use of P2P, that I wish I had thought about it.

Useful Utilities

Every Mac user should have Growl installed. A unified system notification service, which lots of apps use to post message ("New Mail", "New IM", "Backup Started", etc.) Having some challenges with Leopard but working well with Tiger

Workspace clutter is a huge problem on Macs (too many windows everywhere). Sticky Windows provides a great solution in letting you configure certain apps to auto collapse to tabs on the side of the screen when they are not active. Great way to manage support apps like Address Book, IM tools, iCal, iTunes, etc, and significantly cuts down window clutter. Highly recommended.

One of the most useless legacy features of the Mac is the stupid menu bar at the top of the screen. It may have made sense back in 1984 with the first Macs with limited screen resolution, but even the NeXT machine back in the day knew enough to get rid of this thing. With a large resolution screen, it is a pain in the ass and a waste of screen real estate.

Since it is up there, may as well make good use of it. iStat menus puts a lots of system stats on the menu bar (CPU, memory utilization, etc.)

One of the things I miss from Windows is being able to Alt-Tab to a particular document (vs an application). Witch is a nice tool that replaces this functionality on the Mac.

Quicksilver is a must (see my earlier post)

Plaxo also has an amazingly nice service for synchronizing your Mac Address Book and iCal calendar with your Yahoo address book/calendar and your Google address book/calendar. Extremely useful, and a must have. After the disaster that was Plaxo's first attempt to become the addressbook for the internet, they've got it right this time.

Disk Inventory X is a nice tool to see what is taking up all the disk space on your system.

iStumbler is a great tool to show you your local wireless networks, bluetooth devices, and bon jour connections)

1Password is an interesting password manager with good integration with Safari and Firefox

VNCViewer (free VNC client...use it to remote connect to our home PC file server)

Productivity Applications

I've been using NeoOffice (a Mac version of OpenOffice) for Excel/PPT/Word type things. Works reasonably well with good interoperability with the dark side, but a huge memory hog. Good news is that I don't use Vista (under Parallels) for anything other than occassionally using Internet Explorer when I run into a site that doesn't play well with Firefox or Safari. OpenOffice for the Mac just didn't work for me.

I recently purchased Apple's iWork '08. Numbers isn't quite up to Excel levels yet (even for advanced basics). Keynote and Pages seem nice, but I haven't done a lot with them yet. Dirt cheap compared to Office.

For outlining and clipping management, I'm using Notebook. Very useful and works for me to keep my thoughts and web clippings organized (to do lists, notes, outlines, web clippings, annotated audio recordings, etc.) Having first used Notebook in beta under NEXTSTEP 15 years ago, great to see Jayson still advancing the app. Must have app for anyone that works primarily in the digital domain.

Twitterrific is a nice Twitter client that I'm just starting to play with

Adium is the multi-protocol IM tool of choice

Physical Things

After a lot of research, I ended up with the Tom Bihn Empire Builder laptop bag, with the fancy Tom Bihn absolute strap. By far and away the most useful and best designed laptop bag I've ever had. Extremely intuitive (things just appear where you expect them to be). The strap has a slight elastic give that makes it easily the most comfortable strap I've ever used. Can't recommend this bag highly enough

One nuance of the Tom Bihn bag is that there isn't an obvious slot for your notebook in the bag. Tom Bihn does sell a padded "Brain Cell", that looks like it is designed to let you drop your laptop from a 2 story building. I got one of these, but it was just too bulky in the bag for me. Even when I took it out, it was sufficiently bulky that I may as well have kept it in the bigger bag and carried the bigger bag around. I ended up returning it.

In its place, I purchased a Waterfield sleevecase. It fits in the Tom Bihn bag perfectly, and easily comes in and out when all you want to do is take your laptop around. Incredible service and shipping times too.

I do have an Apple wireless mighty mouse in my bag. Don't use it that often, but it is nice to have (and works well)

I recently upgraded the laptop to 4Gb of memory ( Firefox is an amazing memory hog, and NeoOffice sucks it down like only a bloated Java app can. Of course, if you are running virtual machine(s) in Parallels, you can never have too much memory.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Giving Thanks

Every year at around this time, I have a tradition of sharing a Thanksgiving "thank you" with my coworkers. If the work is worth doing, it is inevitable that you're asking a great deal of those you work with. Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge the value and meaning and decency of that work, and why it is worth doing.

This Thanksgiving, I find myself a ronin, so I stepping back from grand corporate themes to something more personal.

I come from an immigrant family. Growing up, my parents knew nothing about Thanksgiving. It wasn't until we moved to the US in 1970 that we first became exposed to this holiday. My father was a graduate student at Penn State, and my mother was learning how to speak english and function in this strange place, many thousands of miles from family and home, with a three year child.

Looking back, it is incredible how so many in that small college community embraced our young family, so far from home and all that was familiar. In particular, the McCarl family (my father's graduate advisor) made a point of inviting us to their home every Thanksgiving, to share the holiday with them and their kids. It is there we learned about the holiday, and the real meaning of giving thanks for your blessings, and sharing those blessings for others.

Over the years, Thanksgiving grew to be (by far) the most important holiday for me and my family. My parent's Thanksgiving table was always open to others who were far from home, alone, or new to the community.

Fast forward to 1987. I am in England working on my masters and for the first time going to be away from home at Thanksgiving. One of my fondest memories of my year in England is borrowing pots and pans from the college kitchen and preparing a full Thanksgiving meal for 50 other expatriots and English friends. Sharing the meal and the meaning of Thanksgiving with so many friends is a blessing I will never forget.

Last year, we were all at my parents house in Washington DC for the holiday. Around the table, we were blessed with 14 people, with our family, my sister and her family, my sister's husbands parents joining us from Nevada, and a coworker of my father's from Japan. After 35+ years, it was incredibly moving to see what our family had grown into since those very first Thanksgivings with the McCarl family.

This past January, Dr. McCarl passed away at the age of 79. In his nearly five decades at Penn State, Dr. McCarl had made many contributions to science, the community, and the university. For this immigrant's son, I will always remember him and his family for being the first to show me, through their kindness and how they lived their lives, what it means to be an American. Thank you.

As you sit down with friends and family this holiday, remember those who through their decency and example have touched your life, and be mindful of the opportunities you have to touch others. It is through these touches that who we are echoes and ripples through time.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, thoughtful, and reflective Thanksgiving with friends and family.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Thanksgiving 2001

From the pre-blog days, another in a series of posts "From the Archives". In this case, heart felt thanks for all our blessings during the Thanksgiving immediately after 9/11 (as I'm sure you remember, it did not seem like we had much to be thankful for in those dark days)



Best wishes for a happy, healthy, thoughtful and reflective Thanksgiving with friends and family.

As we enter this season of Thanks, of Penance, of Light, of Miracles, and of Rebirth, I find myself ever more grateful and appreciative of what Stephen Jay Gould calls the "Everest of decency" (see appended).

No matter how hard we are on ourselves and each other, we are blessed to live in a Golden Age:

  • We consider ourselves in a recession, even though we enjoy an economy and opportunity that were beyond the dreams of most people just 10 years ago.
  • We are (justifiably) at war to defend life and liberty, at a time when nearly everyone on this planet enjoys a level of freedom and opportunity that is well beyond the wildest imaginations of Jefferson, Lincoln, and even Kennedy and King.
  • We are concerned about our future, even though the last 60 years has demonstrated an unbroken and ever accelerating blossoming of human achievement and self-actualization that exceeds the sum total of all that came before it.

We stand tall, at the pinnacle of civilization, on the sacrifices and accomplishments of those that came before us. By our deeds, we raise those yet to come even higher, one grain at a time.

Thank you for all you have done (and will do) to build that fortress ever taller.

Best wishes for the holidays...



Excerpted from "An ode to human decency" by Stephen
Jay Gould, 9/20/2001

In an important, little appreciated and utterly tragic principle regulating the structure of nearly all complex systems, building up must be accomplished step by tiny step, whereas destruction need occupy but an instant. Ten thousand acts of kindness done by thousands of people, and slowly building trust and harmony over many years, can be undone by one destructive act of a skilled and committed psychopath.

"For this reason, a documentation of the innumerable small acts of kindness, the good deeds that almost always pass beneath our notice for lack of "news value," becomes an imperative duty, a responsibility that might almost be called holy, when we must reaffirm the prevalence of human decency against our pre-eminent biases for hyping the cataclysmic and ignoring the quotidian. Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one, and we will not grasp this inspiring ratio unless we record the Everest of decency built grain by grain into a mighty fortress taller than any breakable building of mere concrete and steel."


And for posterity, full piece from the late Stephen Jay Gould....

From the Toronto Globe and Mail, 9/20/01

The Globe Review

An ode to human decency

Bless the good people of Halifax, writes pre-eminent American scientist STEPHEN JAY GOULD, one of 9,000 travellers forced to land in Nova Scotia during the terrorist strikes


The Globe and Mail

"All material Copyright (c) Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved."

NEW YORK -- Images of division and enmity marked my first contact, albeit indirect, with Nova Scotia -- the common experience of so many American schoolchildren, grappling with the unpopular assignment of Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline, centred on the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755.

My first actual encounter with Maritime Canada, as a teenager on a family motor trip in the mid-1950s, sparked nothing but pleasure and fascination, as I figured out the illusion of Moncton's Magnetic Hill, marvelled at the tidal phenomena of the Bay of Fundy (especially the reversing rapids of Saint John and the tidal bore of Moncton), found peace of spirit at Peggy's Cove and learned some history in the old streets of Halifax.

I have been back, always with eagerness and fulfilment, a few times since, for reasons both recreational and professional: a second family trip, one generation later, and now as a father with two sons aged 3 and in utero; a lecture at Dalhousie; some geological field work.

My latest visit among you, however, was entirely involuntary and maximally stressful. I live in lower Manhattan, just a mile from the burial ground of the Twin Towers. As they fell victim to evil and insanity on Tuesday, Sept. 11, during the morning after my 60th birthday, my wife and I, en route from Milan to New York, flew over the Titanic's resting place and then followed the route of her recovered dead to Halifax.
We sat on the tarmac for eight hours and eventually proceeded to the cots of Dartmouth's sports complex, then upgraded to the adjacent Holiday Inn. On Friday, at 3 o'clock in the morning, Alitalia brought us back to the airport, only to inform us that their plane would return to Milan.

We rented one of the last two cars available and drove, with an intense mixture of grief and relief, back home.

The general argument of this piece, amid the most horrific specifics of any event in our lifetime, does not express the views of a naively optimistic Pollyanna, but rather, and precisely to the contrary, attempts to record one of the deepest tragedies of our existence.

Intrinsic human goodness and decency prevail effectively all the time, and the moral compass of nearly every person, despite some occasional jiggling prompted by ordinary human foibles, points in the right direction. The oppressive weight of disaster and tragedy in our lives does not arise from a high percentage of evil among the summed total of all acts, but from the extraordinary power of exceedingly rare incidents of depravity to inflict catastrophic damage, especially in our technological age when airplanes can become powerful bombs. (An even more evil man, armed only with a longbow, could not have wreaked such havoc at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.)

In an important, little appreciated and utterly tragic principle regulating the structure of nearly all complex systems, building up must be accomplished step by tiny step, whereas destruction need occupy but an instant. In previous essays on the nature of change, I have called this phenomenon the Great Asymmetry (with uppercase letters to emphasize the sad generality). Ten thousand acts of kindness done by thousands of people, and slowly building trust and harmony over many years, can be undone by one destructive act of a skilled and committed psychopath. Thus, even if the effects of kindness and evil balance out in the course of history, the Great Asymmetry guarantees that the numbers of kind and evil people could hardly differ more, for thousands of good souls overwhelm each perpetrator of darkness.

I stress this greatly underappreciated point because our error in equating a balance of effects with equality in numbers could lead us to despair about human possibilities, especially at this moment of mourning and questioning; whereas, in reality, the decent multitudes, performing their 10,000 acts of kindness, vastly outnumber the very few depraved people in our midst. And thus, we have every reason to maintain our faith in human kindness and our hopes for the triumph of human potential, if only we can learn to harness this wellspring of unstinting goodness in nearly all of us.

For this reason, a documentation of the innumerable small acts of kindness, the good deeds that almost always pass beneath our notice for lack of "news value," becomes an imperative duty, a responsibility that might almost be called holy, when we must reaffirm the prevalence of human decency against our pre-eminent biases for hyping the cataclysmic and ignoring the quotidian. Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one, and we will not grasp this inspiring ratio unless we record the Everest of decency built grain by grain into a mighty fortress taller than any breakable building of mere concrete and steel.

Our media have stressed -- as well they should -- the spectacular acts of goodness and courage done by professionals pledged to face such dangers, and by ordinary people who can summon superhuman strength in moments of crisis: the brave firefighters who rushed in to get others out; the passengers of United Flight 93 who apparently drew the grimly correct inference when they learned the fate of the Twin Towers, and died fighting rather than afraid, perhaps saving thousands of lives by accepting their own death in an unpopulated field. But each of these spectacular acts rests upon an immense substrate of tiny kindnesses that cannot be motivated by thoughts of fame or fortune (for no one expects their documentation), and can only represent the almost automatic shining of simple human goodness. But this time, we must document the substrate, if only to reaffirm the inspiring predominance of kindness at a crucial moment in this vale of tears.

Halifax sat on the invisible periphery of a New York epicentre, with 45 planes, mostly chock full of poor strangers from strange lands, arrayed in two lines on the tarmac, and holding 9,000 passengers to house, feed and, especially, to comfort.

May it then be recorded; may it be inscribed forever in the Book of Life: Bless the good people of Halifax who did not sleep, who took strangers into their homes, who opened their hearts and shelters, who rushed in enough food and clothing to supply an army, who offered tours of their beautiful city and, above all, who listened with a simple empathy that brought this tough and fully grown man to tears, over and over again. I heard not a single harsh word, saw not the slightest gesture of frustration, and felt nothing but pure and honest welcome.

I know that you good people of Halifax have, by long tradition and practice, shown heroism and self-sacrifice at moments of disaster -- occasional situations that all people of seafaring ancestry must face. I know that you received and buried the drowned victims of the Titanic in 1912, lost one in 10 of your own people in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, and gathered in the wreckages and remains of the recent Swissair disaster.

But, in a sense that may seem paradoxical, you outdid yourselves this time because you responded immediately, unanimously, unstintingly and with all conceivable goodness, when no real danger, but merely fear and substantial inconvenience, dogged your refugees for a few days. Our lives did not depend upon you, but you gave us everything nonetheless. We, 9,000 strong, are forever in your debt, and all humanity glows in the light of your unselfish goodness.

And so my wife and I drove back home, past the Magnetic Hill of Moncton (now a theme park in this different age), past the reversing rapids of Saint John, visible from the highway, through the border crossing at Calais (yes, I know, as in Alice, not as in ballet) and down to a cloud of dust and smoke enveloping a mountain of rubble, once a building and now a tomb. But you have given me hope that the ties of our common humanity will bind even these wounds.

And so Canada, although you are not my home or native land, we will always share this bond of your unstinting hospitality to people who descended upon you as frightened strangers, and received nothing but solace and solidarity in your embrace of goodness. So Canada, because we beat as one heart, from Evangeline in Louisiana to the intrepid Mr. Sukanen of Moose Jaw, I will stand on guard for thee.

Stephen Jay Gould is a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University and an internationally renowned author, whose books include Questioning the Millennium and The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth. He lives in New York. Special to The Globe and Mail

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veteran's Day

Given all that our armed forces have done for us and for the betterment of the world, Veteran's Day is a day that should have more import for us Americans. While Canadians wear their poppies, for many in America it is almost an after thought.

Every year, for me an important part of the holiday is to visit the Medal of Honor site and read about the recipients. As an example, the citation for Master Sergeant Gary Gordon:


Rank and organization: Master Sergeant, U.S. Army. Place and date: 3 October 1993, Mogadishu, Somalia. Entered service at: ----- Born: Lincoln, Maine. Citation: Master Sergeant Gordon, United States Army, distinguished himself by actions above and beyond the call of duty on 3 October 1993, while serving as Sniper Team Leader, United States Army Special Operations Command with Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu, Somalia. Master Sergeant Gordon's sniper team provided precision fires from the lead helicopter during an assault and at two helicopter crash sites, while subjected to intense automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade fires. When Master Sergeant Gordon learned that ground forces were not immediately available to secure the second crash site, he and another sniper unhesitatingly volunteered to be inserted to protect the four critically wounded personnel, despite being well aware of the growing number of enemy personnel closing in on the site. After his third request to be inserted, Master Sergeant Gordon received permission to perform his volunteer mission. When debris and enemy ground fires at the site caused them to abort the first attempt, Master Sergeant Gordon was inserted one hundred meters south of the crash site. Equipped with only his sniper rifle and a pistol, Master Sergeant Gordon and his fellow sniper, while under intense small arms fire from the enemy, fought their way through a dense maze of shanties and shacks to reach the critically injured crew members. Master Sergeant Gordon immediately pulled the pilot and the other crew members from the aircraft, establishing a perimeter which placed him and his fellow sniper in the most vulnerable position. Master Sergeant Gordon used his long range rifle and side arm to kill an undetermined number of attackers until he depleted his ammunition. Master Sergeant Gordon then went back to the wreckage, recovering some of the crew's weapons and ammunition. Despite the fact that he was critically low on ammunition, he provided some of it to the dazed pilot and then radioed for help. Master Sergeant Gordon continued to travel the perimeter, protecting the downed crew. After his team member was fatally wounded and his own rifle ammunition exhausted, Master Sergeant Gordon returned to the wreckage, recovering a rifle with the last five rounds of ammunition and gave it to the pilot with the words, "good luck." Then, armed only with his pistol, Master Sergeant Gordon continued to fight until he was fatally wounded. His actions saved the pilot's life. Master Sergeant Gordon's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest standards of military service and reflect great credit upon him, his unit and the United States Army.

I encourage everyone to take some time and read the citations of our Medal of Honor winners. I am awed and humbled by the courage and commitment and bravery of these soldiers. For every story that is told, there are thousands of other stories (large and small) that we never hear.

Many are skeptical of our current war or the judgment of our political leaders. While there are many sides to that discussion, we should have only one side in our gratitude and respect for those brave few that stand forward for us all. My deep and enduring thanks to the friends and family of Sergeant Gordon for his example and service, and my thanks and respects to all those who have bravely served our country.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Best Show on TV

I'm not watching too much TV these days. My beloved Cubs exited the post season far too soon, I'm not yet sucked into football, and Lost, 24, and Battlestar Galactica don't kick off their seasons for another couple months.

With the rumors flying around that Battlestar Galactica (far and away the best show on TV right now) may not start it's new (and final) season until spring, I am most sad.

That being said, by far the best TV on TV right now is every Friday night from 8:58-9:00 pm (central) on the Sci Fi channel, squeezed between Flash Gordan and Stargate Atlantis. Those 2 minutes are better than any other program on TV right now, and (thankfully) are viewable at the Sci Fi Channel web site.

Leading up to the 11/24 premiere of the Battlestar Galactica Razor movie on Sci Fi, they are running a series of 2 minute vignettes to help set up the movie. Watching this little snippets, you realize how much BG is head and shoulders above all over shows (the last couple weeks are make-you-sit-up-and-whisper-"DAMN!" television). Fragging good TV.

Even during the lame season premier of Bionic Woman, one of the best sequences was when Jamie Summers walked into her apartment, and there was a TV in the background playing a space battle scene from a Battlestar Galactica episode. Made you realize just how bad Bionic Woman really was.

For those who are not BG junkies yet, run (don't walk) to your local Blockbuster or Netflix and start renting season 1. You won't be disappointed, and should be caught up by the time the new season starts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tart Tatin

NPR recently had a wonderful segment with cook book author Dorie Greenspan, with Ms. Greenspan sharing her recipe for tart Tatin.

Since we picked ~40 pounds of apples at the local orchard a couple weeks ago, it was time to give it a go.

The tart turned out remarkably well, and was extremely impressive to serve. We paired it with a fresh batch of serious vanilla ice cream, and some friends to help eat it.

Apple Tart Tatin
(with thanks to Dorie Greenspace)

1 stick butter
3/4 cup sugar
~6-8 firm/sweet apples (we used Firesides)
1 sheet (8 oz) frozen puff pastry
dash of cinnamon

Thaw out one sheet (8 oz) of frozen puff pastry (in the freezer section of your local supermarket). On a floured surface, roll out sheet so that 1-2" larger than your pan. Trim sheet into a circle shape (can be sloppy...doesn't matter), poke all over with a fork, and keep in fridge until ready to put in oven.

Find an oven proof 8-10" fry pan. Melt the stick of butter. Swirl butter around to cover the sides of the pan. Sprinkle sugar over melted butter and remove from heat. Peel, quarter, and core apples. Arrange apples, rounded side down, around frying pan. Try to arrange apples nicely, and pack in as much as you can. Apples will shrink during cooking, and the apples will be the visible presentation for the dish. Once one layer is laid down, cut remaining apples into smaller pieces and fill in cracks and even out the apples. Depending on size of apple and pan, the number of apples you need will vary. Sprinkle cinnamon to taste over apples (I went on the lighter side so as to not overwhelm the flavor of the apples).

Return pan to heat and cook over medium high heat until caramel turns dark. This will take about 15 minutes. Initially, will go very slowly. When color starts to change, will change quickly. You may need to reduce the heat towards the end so as to not burn the caramel.

Cover apples with puff pastry. OK to tuck pastry in at edge. Place on a covered cookie sheet (to catch drippings) and place into a 375 degree oven. Cook for 40-50 minutes, or until puff pastry is done.

Remove from oven, cover pan with a rimmed serving dish larger than pan, and CAREFULLY but quickly turn pan upside down to transfer to serving plate. If any apples stick to pan, carefully put back on tart.

Let tart cool for 10 minutes or so (caramel is too hot and too liquid to serve right away), and serve with your favorite ice cream.

I had no troubles with sticking or with the transfer to the serving dish. Visually, the dish was extremely impressive (the apples had a wonderful color). The tart was sweeter than I thought it would be, but absolutely delicious. Our local food critics (ie, our girls) enjoyed it a lot, although our younger one still refuses to eat apples that aren't apple sauce.

This one could become a family standard.

Twitter and Fires

I've never quite "got" Twitter. Interesting distraction, but it seemed like a lot of attention and time being put into something that didn't quite have a return (exception is some of the services that combine twitter like entries with address books, so you can see what your contact is doing immediately before you call them)

With the fires in San Diego, I've been very concerned for family, friends, and former neighbors (horrifying to see neighborhoods you recognize burning to the ground on TV, and folks talking about some fires pushing all the way to the Pacific). Tracking things on line has been spotty and confusing.

The clear exception has been the KPBS twitter. KPBS is the local public radio/TV station. Their twitter feed is by far the most useful and timely information source I've found. Even though they have lost their transmitter to the fire, they continued to stream online, maintain blogs and Google maps, and have since moved to broadcast on another radio station. They are to be commended for providing such remarkable public services during this crisis.

The twitter service and format seems particularly well tuned to streaming commentary, which is exactly what you need during fast changing situations like wildfires.

For friends and colleagues in So Cal, be safe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Site of the Decade

If there was any doubt to the socially redeeming value of the internet, this site should end all arguments. Clearly the site of the decade (my inner twelve year old geek is beside himself with giggles)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Karma is a Callin'

Recently, launched their new digital music download service. I have never bought into the "legit" digital download services (iTunes, etc.). Generally speaking, the audio quality has been piss poor, and the digital rights management (DRM) protections have been worse that ridiculous (limiting playback to iPods/iTunes, or Windows (yada) Ultimate (yada) Live (yada) 360).

I have never understood how otherwise rational people could create a business model predicated on pissing off and annoying your paying customers with an inferior product, while people who steal unprotected MP3s (conveniently ripped from non-protected CDs from the same music companies) from file sharing sites get better quality, no DRM hassles, and the ability to use the music anywhere they want.

What caught my attention with Amazon is that they sell standard MP3s, with no DRM nonsense. Nice! In poking around the site, content is still limited. However, the songs are ripped using basically the same settings (highest quality VBR or 256mbps) using the same high quality encoder (LAME) that I use to digitize my own CDs. Double plus nice!

I immediately dove into my digital music archives, looking for files that (ahem) had slipped in there over the years when karma had its back turned. To my (pleasant) surprise, there were only about 15 songs where the RIAA and I may have had something to talk about (sorry, I could never justify purchasing a full Carl Douglas album to get a legit rip of "Kung Fu Fighting"). My rule of thumb had always been that if I had more than one song from an album, it was time to purchase the album. I was pleased to see that it had worked out in practice.

A very pleasant (and convenient) 30 minutes later on Amazon, and I had brand spanking new, DRM-free, high-quality, and karma approved versions of ~10 of these songs in my music library (including "Kung Fu Fighting"!).

Amazon is continuing to rip albums into its collection. I'm sure some labels will continue to fight selling legit DRM-free content (even though they already sell that same DRM-free content on CDs), same as I'm sure some people believe the world was created 6000 years ago or that the Cubs actually have a chance to win the series next year.

I'm looking forward to the death of DRM as the music industry rationalizes. Look for some thoughts on how to accelerate that process in future posts.

In the meantime, the Amazon end user license does have some unfortunate limitations on traditional fair use rights for things you purchase (for example, you're not allowed to sell the MP3 you purchase from Amazon to another person). If you're the sort of person that believes karma reads the fine print, you may want to do the same.

For those that have been held back by DRM nonsense, get on over to Amazon, start going legit, and make your preferences heard with your $$.

Friday, October 12, 2007

New TV Season

I normally don't start watching new TV shows until well into the new season. It is usually a lot easier to wait to see what gets momentum, then catch up by grabbing older episodes at the "usual locations"

This year, with Lost and Battlestar Galactica not starting until January, and Survivor just too lame to stomach another season, started watching Bionic Woman and Pushing Daisies.

Bionic Woman (aside from the pure old school geek appeal) is being done by the same crew that does the spectacular Battlestar Galactica (top 1 or 2 show on TV right now), including having Starbuck as an evil bionic woman.

First couple episodes were surprisingly lame. I kept hoping that Starbuck would open a can of bionic whoop ass on the incredibly lame actress playing Jamie Sommers. Writing has poor, uninteresting production, generally awkward acting, and the obligatory insanely annoying kid sister.

Thankfully, episode 3 this past week was actually pretty good! I'm hoping that the quality continues to build, and that the producers/actors don't end up with two mediocre series instead of one great one. Still hopeful for this one.

Pushing Daisies is a remarkable series for TV, much more film-like than anything else on TV right now. First couple episodes are director Barry Sonnenfeld channeling the Cohen brothers, but with a sweetness that is quite charming. Have no idea how long a TV show can maintain this level of visual/production creativity, writing, acting, humor, and pacing.

I'm signed on for as long as this ride lasts, and highly recommend every one join this ride.

As an aside, is anyone else struggling with this season of Heroes? Way too many stories and too little humanity. I pity those that are joining the show this season and struggling to keep up.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Pierre Franey's Mac and Cheese

Way back before the day of Food Network and celebrity chefs, all we had was public TV and the likes of the late Julia Childs (blow torch and all), Jeff Smith (before we knew of his real tastes), and the late New York Times columnist Pierre Franey.

While recipes come and go, our favorite Mac and Cheese recipe is courtesy of Mr Franey. No Velvetta in this one. Lots of very nice Gruyere, red peppers and ham sauted in butter, and red pepper for some kick. This is a very grown up Mac and Cheese.

With our kids finally getting to the age where we can contemplate food with flavor and varied texture again, fired up a patch of Mr Franey's Mac and Cheese for the first time in over a decade.

Recipe is appended, and highly recommended as we move into the fall...
Pierre Franey's Grown Up Mac and Cheese
(from the NYT 60 Minute Gourmet)

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
2 sweet red peppers, cored/seeded and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 lb country ham, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Red pepper flakes to takes
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 pound Gruyere cut into small cubes
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil, and add the macaroni. Stir frequently, and cook until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet. Add onions and red peppers. Cook and stir until wilted. Add the ham, cook briefly, stirring.

4. Add the milk, cream, salt and pepper, red-pepper flakes, nutmeg, the drained macaroni and the Gruyere cheese. Cook, stirring for about 5 minutes or until the mixture thickens.

5. Place the mixture into a flat baking dish. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.

6. Place in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Place under the broiler until nice and brown.

Yield: 4 servings.

For this recipe, I like to use a really nice ham, like what you get at Honey Baked Ham. Try to under cook the noodles slightly, since it will continue to cook in the sauce and in the oven. When you saute the onions and peppers and ham, you can give the whole dish a very nice roasted flavor, but be careful not to burn. The Gruyere and ham were really meant for each other, esp. with the freshly ground nutmeg to bring it all together (these three flavors really make the dish). You can't have too much Gruyere in this dish (in the heavily French accented words of Mr Franey, "I Love Gruyere!").

Last Lecture

(thanks to Paul for pointing me to this)

A couple weeks ago, Randy Pausch (a pioneer in virtual reality and professor at Carnegie Mellon) gave a lecture at CMU on "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams". Although dying from pancreatic cancer, Prof. Pausch gave one of the most moving and uplifting lectures I've had the pleasure of seeing.

The lecture is long (over an hour), but pays the viewer back with a glimpse into a wonderful outlook on the world, how to live your life, and our responsibility to those around us to help them live theirs.

As I was watching it, I was reminded of how J. Michael Straczynski (aka, JMS or create of Babylon 5) described actor Andreas Katsulas after he passed away last year. After describing the party Andreas hosted for friends a couple months before his death, JMS shared that by how he lived and laughed and shared the last months of his life, Andreas had shown him the right way to die. With the gift of this lecture, Prof. Pausch has done the same.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Posted to Flickr

For those (few) of you that haven't discovered it already, one of the best web comics out there is xkcd.

About 6 months ago, they posted the following comic with an embedded longitude and latitude (a park in Cambridge MA) and a date/time (yesterday).

In true geek culture, a couple hundred people showed up.

Nerd nation is upon us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Finally, rational behavior...

After many years of head scratching and cursing the industry whenever I bought a new cell phone (and had to buy a new car charger) comes the news that the mobile phone industry has agreed on a common connection/charging standard based on micro USB connectors.

A small victory for rationality, but hopefully indicative of a trend of governments creating economic disincentives for wasteful behaviors.

Now if the automobile manufacturers would agree to always put the gas cap on the same side as the steering wheel...


Wednesday, September 19, 2007


My contract with Verizon has just come up, and my two year old cheapo Motorola phone just signed up for AARP. Time to play the field and see what's shaking in telephone land.

As much as a geek as I am, most people are surprised that I have never owned a smartphone. For me, phones are about making phone calls. I want the phone to be reliable, have great battery life, have a contact list for speed dial, and get great reception. Bonus points for voice activated dialing. Don't care about cameras (they suck), MP3s (have them on my laptop), web access (it sucks, and I have my laptop), texting (email), etc.

WAY back in the day, I was addicted to my beloved Psion 3a as a portable device. Used it for calendaring, meeting notes, to dos, etc. When laptops matured to the point of being desktop replacements, I couldn't justify carrying two devices any more and reluctantly gave up the Psion. To my mind, they have been one of the few players to actually "get it" and "get it right"

With the iPhone out, I am again tempted. If it had 3G connectivity, I would own one already. Still I'm tempted.

In doing some research, I found the surprise of all surprises: an absolutely brilliant post by the actor (and apparent gadget freak) Stephen Fry on all things smart phone. Excerpt below, but the whole piece is a must read for any self-respecting geek.

Design matters
By design here, I mean GUI and OS as much as outer case design. Let’s go back to houses. The sixties taught us, surely, that architectural design, commercial and domestic, is not an extra. The office you work in every day, the house you live in every day, they are more than the sum of their functions. We know that sick building syndrome is real, and we know what an insult to the human spirit were some of the monstrosities constructed in past decades. An office with strip lighting, drab carpets, vile partitions and dull furniture and fittings is unacceptable these days, as much perhaps because of the poor productivity it engenders as the assault on dignity it represents. Well, computers and SmartPhones are no less environments: to say “well my WinMob device does all that your iPhone can do” is like saying my Barratt home has got the same number of bedrooms as your Georgian watermill, it’s got a kitchen too, and a bathroom.” … I accept that price is an issue here; if budget is a consideration then you’ll have to forgive me, I’m writing from the privileged position of being able to indulge my taste for these objects. But who can deny that design really matters? Or that good design need not be more expensive? We spend our lives inside the virtual environment of digital platforms - why should a faceless, graceless, styleless nerd or a greedy hog of a corporate twat deny us simplicity, beauty, grace, fun, sexiness, delight, imagination and creative energy in our digital lives? And why should Apple be the only company that sees that? Why don’t the other bastards GET IT??

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Best Media Center Box On the Planet

Lifehacker has a very nice comprehensive guide to how to mod an old school Xbox so you can run Xbox Media Center. Things have come a long way from the "crack open the Xbox and solder in a mod chip" days.

We've been running XBMC for years, and it is the best reason to own an Xbox. We actually have an Xbox that has never played a video game, but only runs XBMC at 1080i to our HDTV.

Get a cheap used Xbox on eBay, the Xbox DVD remote, and a wireless adapter, and you have the best media center box on the planet for <$100 (if that).

I keep all music, photos, vids, etc. on our file server, and access the files on the XBMC boxes (yes we have a couple of them) Having photos randomly cycle on large flat panel display at 1080i is amazing...

If you're feeling brave, the hack is even easier if you have a friend that has already modded their xbox. They can FTP the save file to their xbox, and use the xbox memory card management features to copy the save to a memory card (don't need Action Replay to do it from a PC)

As an added plus, many console emulators have been ported to the Xbox. Once you have the Xbox modded, you can FTP files to and from the Xbox. It is a nice diversion to play old Atari 2600 or NES games with a real console controller (alas, 1080i HD resolutions don't help them much ;-)

UPDATE: Lifehacker has a followup post on some advanced features of XBMC that is also worth a read

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mac'ing It: Living in a Multi-Computer World

With the new Mac in the house, it's been time to adjust how I manage basic logistics (backups, email, calendars, etc)

The situation is complicated by also running MS Vista on my new machine (via Parallels Desktop in a virtual machine)

Clearly, we're all going to have to deal with more and more virtual computers over time, even if they're all running on the same hardware. Virtualization is amazingly powerful and convenient, but keeping the basics (contacts, files, bookmarks, etc.) in sync between all these environments becomes a challenge.

Here is what I've settled on to keep my OSX environment in sync with my online environment, and MS Vista and MS Windows XP environments.

Email, Calendar, and Address Book
Email is probably the easiest. For years my primary personal email environment has been Yahoo Mail. With near infinite storage and universal access via the web, it has worked great. Have had the downside of no off line email access when traveling, but the convenience of having email on any computer I walk up to has made up for it.

(Un)Fortunately, the Mac has some pretty powerful integration between the built in Address Book app and the built in Mail app. Honestly, having lived in NeXT Mail for almost a decade, not using in OSX was never an option.

I configured to download my Yahoo mail via POP, and leave messages on the server so I can still have web access from Vista and other environments. The only annoyance is that does not delete mail on POP servers when you delete in Instead, you have to bring up the info panel for the Yahoo mailbox, find all the messages that are deleted on the Mac but still on the server, and press a button to delete them from the server. Works fine, and I'll probably set up a script at some point to automate it.

Addresses/Contacts and Calendar entries are another issue. Fortunately the latest version of Plaxo is spectacular in sync'ing various environments. I have a free Plaxo account that keeps my Yahoo, Google, and OSX environments in sync for calendars and address book (also supports hotmail and Outlook sync, but I don't use those). Works like a charm. I highly recommend it for everyone. (FYI, Plaxo has come a long way from their amazingly annoying incarnation several years ago...this is a first class service)

Web browsing and Bookmarks
Internet Explorer and Safari are both nice browsers, but I've been a Firefox user for a while. So I don't go crazy, my requirement was the same brower (with same plug-ins) and same bookmarks under both OSX and Windows.

Solution was to stay with Firefox. All my favorite extensions work in both environments. Experience is essentially the same.

Wish I could have fun with all those cool Safari'isms, but the Windows version would have to mature a lot before I give up Firefox (OSX version as well)

One of my favorite Firefox extensions is OnlineBookmarkManager. It syncs you're Firefox bookmarks with an on-line service, and lets you keep multiple systems aligned. There are other services as well, but I wanted something simple and reliable (I don't need social networking around bookmarks, thanks).

There is the added benefit of always having an off site backup of your bookmarks in case you lose your hard drive.

Files and Backup
I haven't yet put together a clean hybrid solution for file and backup management.

When I had a pure windows environment, I used the "Offline Files" feature of Windows to cache a copy of my files on my home file server to my laptop. While at home, I connected directly to my file server. While away, I would still have access to the local copy on my laptop, and any changes would get sync'ed back to my file server when I got home.

Backup was a simple matter of backing up the file server (with the added benefit that files were usually on 2-3 hard drives in 2-3 different machines at any given time if I lost a drive).

Backups of the file server involved cloning the internal drive to an identical external drive. Recovery would involve popping the new drive in and rebooting. Ditto for my laptop.

Unfortunately, OSX does not have a notion of off line files. There are a variety of options to keep folders in sync, but I haven't found a good one. The .mac service apparently provides for syncing between Macs, but that doesn't help me.

My current hack involves sync'ing files from my file server to my MS Vista virtual machine partition. Using Parallels, I can at least have access to the files. Need to come up with something more rationale. Please give a holler if you have a workable solution to keeping ~20Gb in files in sync across multiple environments.

For system backup, I'm experimenting with the Moxy on-line backup service. So far, so good (2Gb free backup storage, $5/month for unlimited). If you want to try it out, follow this link. I get 256Mb additional storage for every referral ;-)

Carbon Copy Cloner seems to be the app of choice for clone Mac hard drives. I have a MyBook Pro external drive on order (has USB, Firewire 400/800, and eSATA connectors) that I will start using for clone backups of my various system drives. Given the Unix roots of OSX, I can't imagine any issues with CCC.

We currently have an HP all in one printer attached to a Netgear wireless print server. Works great from our Windows boxes, but no Mac support for the Netgear.

Fortunately the Netgear uses standard LPD for communicating over the network, and the Mac is a Unix box under the hood.

Fortunately, our HP has Mac drivers. Unfortunately, the drivers are only for when the printer is connected directly to the Mac via USB. HP does not offer LPD drivers, and the various linux sites doesn't have a LPD driver that works either.

Solution right now is to walk up to the printer and plug it in when I want to print. Long term solution will be to find a printer that is well supported via LPD, or is a PostScript printer.

So far so good. Need to get the sync issue sorted out, but that should be addressable.

Get Out the Hot Cocoa in Hades

In the shocker of all shockers, Sun Microsystems, the company that recently changed its stock ticker from SUNW to JAVA to emphasize that it grown beyond its hardware roots as Standford University Network, has become an OEM for Microsoft server OS's to help them sell Sun hardware.

Ars Technica captures the Sun strategy map far better than I could ever hope to.

And of course, Fake Steve Jobs has his say. (fair warning: stop drinking your coffee/soda/whatever before looking at the 2nd link)

Modern Day Alchemy

bunnie (of hacking the original Xbox fame) has been posting a series of absolutely fascinating pieces on his blog about working with the manufacturing processes in China.

The video clips really give you a sense of what's happening, and bunnie is an excellent engineer/correspondent. His new company Chumby is ramping manufacturing in China, and he's bringing us along for the ride (before you ask, I've already filed a grievance with their VP Product for getting on the "First 50" list).

If you have any interest in the ghost in the (global economic) machine, definitely worth a read.

There are countless "wow" and "a-ha" moments while reading these posts, but one that really sticks out is his post on what is required to keep all the factory workers fed:
Again, the scale of some food operations is pretty impressive. I heard that Foxconn–the place that makes the iPods and iPhones–consumes 3,000 pigs a day. I saw this truck of pigs going off the exit on the highway toward Foxconn, and it reminded me of that factoid.

From pigs to iPhones! It all happens right here in Shenzhen.

Clearly, modern day alchemy is no longer about transmuting lead into gold, but rather pigs into iPods.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I was going to say something, but Fake Steve Jobs beat me to it.

Really REALLY big holes...

For those of us that wasted their elementary and middle school years seeing how deep you could dig a hole, deputydog has put together an amazing collection of 7 really really big holes...

The Bingham Canyon mine in Utah is particularly impressive. Apparently, the locals started digging the thing in 1863, and they're still going. So far, 3/4 miles deep and 2 1/2 miles wide (a damn darn big hole, as the locals would say)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Form over Feature/Function

One of the extraordinary things about being in the Mac world is the different mindset that you see in the applications and the application community. Design philosophy not only matters, but people actually know what it means.

After years in the PC space, I had gotten used to the relentless focus on feature/function in the various applications. "Things" were defined by long lists of features and the details of the functions they supported.

If you're lucky, these feature/functions may be grouped by some metaphor. Alas, you usually had to deal with competing metaphors from the 5 different teams that worked on the app (or 100 teams if you're talking MS Office)

If you're extremely lucky, the application designer may have applied some goal-centric design to streamline the app.

More often than not, competitive pressures in the PC application space required developers to put an insanely number of features into the app to remain competitive with the other folks that had 1000s of features in their app.

With that grounding, I was overjoyed to stumble upon the game changing Quicksilver for OSX. Although I'm sure the iGeeks could describe what it is (I'm still an apprentice), I find it a very difficult application to describe.

Thankfully, the author gave a very interesting (and must see) tech talk at Google on the subject that is available for viewing. There are also some nice on line tutorials available, which may be a better place to start.

What I find most interesting about Quicksilver is the movement from applications from a collection of feature/function (spell check, email, etc.) to application as a metaphor (desktop, recycle bin, etc.) to application as conversation based on a grammar.

Rather than interacting with a program (feature function) or a proxy for a thing (metaphor), you are now have a conversation with the application using a simple grammar.

In the case of Quicksilver, start typing a noun (word, file name, application name, etc) and pick your "thing" from a list, then pick the verb for what you want done to that "thing". For example, "Birthday photos.jpg", "Email to (compose)", "mom".

In selecting your noun, you're invoking a desktop search engine that intelligently adapts to your search style based on what you select. For example, if you type "pd" and select "Parallels", next time that app will be at the top of the selection list as you type "pd".

Based on the type of noun, there are then a fixed set of verbs that are appropriate things to do with that noun. As you plug in additional capabilities, the list of verbs grows.

The neat thing is that working with Quicksilver feels a lot like working with a person for the first time. Early on you need to make extra effort to make sure you're on the same page when discussing things, but over time you move to a kind of short hand. Human/computer interaction as conversation.

The authors Google tech talk video briefly alludes to the author's work on Abracadabra for gestural control (non-verbal) as a complement to the text focus of Quicksilver, and speaks to the minimalist philosophy behind the app. By using hotkeys and gestures as short hand for "sentences" (for example, circle to select, and a loop to delete), you can get to the next level of transparency in communicating your intentions.

Definitely worth checking out.

...Going to Party Like It's 1989...

After many many years of Windows purgatory, I recently purchased on of the new 17" MacBook Pros. Last several days have been a lot of fun, and definitely a nostalgia tour.

I haven't owned an Apple since my trusty Apple ][+ WAY back in the day (my first computer). I believe it was one of the very first Apple ][+'s sold in the state of Florida. Somehow persuaded my parents to give me a loan to get it ($2000 at the time was a lot of coin!), but it led to all sorts of good work through junior high and high school, teaching community college courses in BASIC, etc. Eventually sold the beast to get an Atari 800 (far better for gaming and game programming...amazing computer back in the day).

I was a Mac user through college, but was never able to afford my own. In grad school, my good friend Terry was going on and on about how amazing the new NeXT computers were. They were also insanely expensive. Finally in 1989, he convinced me to take the plunge with the new NeXT slabs. At the time, my campus and research group was heavily Unix-based, with everything from VT-100 terminals (real ones) to the just emerging DEC workstations for those lucky enough. I managed to persuade my advisor to move our lab from VT-100s and a couple shared Macs to NeXT machines.

At the time, the NeXT machines were amazing. I figured they were at least 10 years ahead of their time. Now, 18 years later, in playing with OS X on the MacBook Pro, it's clear that it was at least 15 years ahead of it's time.

Managed to stay with NEXTSTEP through 1998, then VERY painfully forced myself to switch to Windows NT (was in a corporate environment by then and it was too difficult to work with others). At the time, one of the more difficult things I had ever done.

Now, 9 years later, it is very surreal to pop open and fire up emacs and fiddle with NetInfo from the command line. The surface is a whole lot prettier, but the core is the NEXTSTEP that I never quite got over.

As an aside, I'm loving this new box. Using Parallels, able to run Vista in a virtual machine under OSX so maintaining the best of both worlds. OSX and the Mac apps are of course gorgeous. As I get up and going, I'll post some lessons learned for others that may be considering switching. Also, some tricks to keep all these various environments in sync with one another (virtual machines are awesome, but it is really hard to keep them aligned).

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

All I want for Christmas is a Super Capicitor

From Ars Technica comes a bit of geek news I've been waiting for years to read.

Apparently a company in Texas is working on a new type of capacitor that would replace traditional batteries. Capacitors make incredibly good sense for power storage, except for that pesky charge density problem (they just can't store that much umph unless they are huge). The Texas company is rumored to have a solution to that problem.

Having a viable solution to portable power storage would be game changing. Unlike computation power, memory, storage, etc. that have all enjoyed explosions in capacity, batteries have not been riding a wave of innovation.

A viable clean, high density, instant charge capacitor-based power storage system would turn a lot of what we currently do (from driving, to phones, to solar/wind/wave power to load leveling of power consumption in large offices) completely upside down.

Let's hope it actually works.

Peach Ice Cream

(NOTE: Since my sister informed me that these ice cream posts were becoming a bit obsessive, this is my last ice cream post for the season. Fortunately, it is also the end of ice cream season ;-)

With coffee, vanilla and chocolate hazelnut ice cream under our belt, and the freezer well stocked with chocolate hazelnut for the kids, I wanted to take advantages of the fresh peaches we get this time of year to try a fruit ice cream.

Once again, I used the previously successful vanilla ice cream recipe as a starting point, and experimented until the flavors seemed right.
Serious Peach Ice Cream
(with apologies to Alton Brown)

2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 12 oz. jar of high quality peach preserves (not jelly)
2 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 1 high quality bean)
1 1/2 fresh peaches, peeled and finely chopped (1 peach if large)

Combine all ingredients except the fresh peaches (including the beans and their pulp) in a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Attach a frying or candy thermometer to inside of pan. (see note below) Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to 170 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Remove the hull of the vanilla beans, pour mixture into lidded container and refrigerate mixture overnight to mellow flavors and texture.

Freeze mixture in ice cream freezer according to unit's instructions. The mixture will not freeze hard in the machine. 5-10 minutes before freezing is complete, put fresh peaches in the mixer and start up again. Once the volume has increased by 1/2 to 3/4 times, and reached a soft serve consistency, spoon the mixture back into a lidded container and harden in the freezer before serving (8 hours in our freezer).

NOTE: If you do not have a thermometer, bring the mixture just barely to a simmer. As soon as you see a bubble hit the surface, remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil.

For this recipe, make sure to use a high quality peach preserve (this is where most of the flavor comes from). I went with a fancy Swiss brand. Cut the sugar back from 1 cup to 1/3 a cup because of the sweetness already in the preserves

For this batch, I used 2 vanilla beans instead of one. This is because the new batch of beans I purchased are no where near as fragrant and intense as the first batch. Lesson learned: vanilla beans can vary by factors of 2-3 in flavor and intensity.

This batch was nice, but I was hoping for more peach flavor. Larger chunks of peach were also fairly unpleasant, since they came across as frozen chunks of ice (at least until the meltd)

For the next time, I think I'm going to give up on the peach perserves, and puree a large amount of fresh peaches. My hope is to get more peach flavor, and keep things smooth.

The girls do not care for peach ice cream. Even the little bit of peach in the vanilla recipe was enough to put them off. Looks like dad is going to have a lot of peach ice cream to eat this winter.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Wireless Surround Sound Headphones (4/29/06)

From the pre-blog days, another in a series of posts "From the Archives". In this case, a report on wireless surround sound headphones from Apr 29, 2006


Several months ago I asked many of you if you had any experience with wireless surround sound headphones.

After some research, ended up buying a pair of the Pioneer DIR800c (actually, a base station/headphone set, along with a spare set of headphones).

Application is for our upstairs TV, so that we don't disturb the kids after they've gone to bed (and the spouse when she's gone to bed)

the headphones work remarkably well, even for surround sound. The decoder does a very nice job of taking surround sound feeds (for example, from our DVD player) and mapping them to the left and right ears on the headphones.

Sound quality is excellent with good base response. Two sets of headphones have no problem being driven from the same base station. There is independent volume control on each headphone.

Basestation use IR to communicate with the headphones, so no interference issues with phones/wlans/microwaves/etc.

Extremely low noise floor (surprising), and comfortable to wear for a full movie. Pretty decent battery life, and the base station has a convenient battery recharger built in (it comes with rechargeable batteries)

A tad on the pricey side, but several dealers on ebay sell new sets for considerably less than list.

It is difficult to find a set of these headphones without the basestation (ie, a 2nd set). I got mine from:

Ended up coming from Japan(!), but shipping was prompt and inexpensive. They also have some cool Japanese science toys. For instance, the inner geek in me loves this puppy:,+Games_Gadgets/product/Gakken_Cup_Phonograph_Kit_in_Edison-style.html

When the girls are a little older, I may actually let them play with it ;-)

If anyone ends up with 2 basestations and wants to get rid of one, let me know. I'd like a basestation for the downstairs TV for gaming.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: Wii Report (1/14/07)

From the pre-blog days, another in a series of posts "From the Archives". In this case, a report on the Nintendo Wii from Jan 14, 2007


We finally got our Nintendo Wii this past week (used off eBay...only a slight premium). Like many gamers, we're now a dual Xbox 360/Wii household. With the weekend finally upon us, we fired it up yesterday.

Not surprisingly, the girls had a great time making up their avatars (called "Mii's" in Wii land). Some games actually use the avatars in the game, which was a thrill for them.

The sports games that came with the unit were a big hit. Our 10 year old had a great time with tennis (you swing the controller like an actual racket), and even has a sour elbow today (!). Our little one enjoyed the bowling game, and everyone had a good time with the boxing game (all these games use the Mii's, which added to the fun).

The Wii Rayman game is also lots of fun. A very large number of minigames, each one using the Wii motion sensing controllers in different and unique ways (ie, spin the controller over your head to spin and then launch a cow as far as you can, move the controllers up and down to run as fast as you can, draw pictures
on the screen, etc.) Clearly Ubisoft used the game as an excuse to explore different control strategies using the new controllers. Like every Rayman game, very high production values and humor content. A definite winner.

I must say that I'm very impressed with the precision and naturalness of the motion sensing controllers. When I first heard what Nintendo was planning for the Wii, I shook my head thinking this was the end of a great company. On the contrary, this is a rebirth, based almost entirely on a new way of interacting
with games. The unit itself is remarkably underpowered by modern standards (basically 2x the power of the old Gamecube). The value is purely in the games and the elegance of the human interaction. I am very excited to see what type of creativity this inspires.

Already, it looks like some interesting things are coming. In particular, the next installment of the SSX series (one of my favorite games) looks like it's really going to take advantage of the new controllers:

(check out the video)

I can't wait to hit the virtual slopes using these controllers.

On the other side, the Wii incarnation of the Godfather game hints at a level of interactivity that is actually frightening for me:

(check out the video)

I've commented to others that I'm actually afraid to see how the next installment of Grand Theft Auto uses the controllers.

One of the nice parts of the Wii is that finally gives me a chance to check out all those Gamecube games that I always wanted to play but never could (this is my first Nintendo console). The Wii is basically a Gamecube with updated parts (cpu, graphics, etc.) so backward compatibility is complete. Have Zelda on the
shelf waiting for time, and I'm also looking forward to Metroid.

However, the Gamecube game that I have been most looking forward to playing is none of the big hitters. For those with a Wii (or thinking about getting one), or those with a Gamecube, you absolutely MUST pick up Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for the Gamecube:

This is a brilliant platformer (running around as Donkey Kong jumping and grabbing bananas), made 10x more so through the use of the bongo controllers for movement. You use the right bongo to move right, left to move left, both at the same time to jump, and clap to "attack" opponents. In terms of sheer fun
factor, this is the most fun we've had with a video game in a LONG time (the girls were besides themselves with laughter, as was dad).

To make decisions even easier, EBGames is liquidating the game and bongo controllers:

For $15, you get the game and 2 bongo controllers. Use the coupon code "SAVER" and get free shipping as well. (Greg, ordered one for you already). Game only uses one controller, but the Donkey Konga rhythm games are quite fun as well (the bongos are used in a rhythm game, with up to 4 players at once).

Have not had a chance to check out the Wii Virtual Console games yet (emulated versions of classic arcade games). I've purchased Super Mario 64 from the Nintendo 64, but have the Classic Controller on order (required to play it).

All in all, the Wii is an outstanding piece of family entertainment, and ideal for those that are looking to get a broader group involved in gaming/each other. I love my Xbox and 360, but these aren't games that you can really enjoy as a family. The Wii really follows through on the promise of "we", and I've very
excited to see where the developers will take things.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Billions and Billions...

If you're looking for something to make your head hurt, contemplate a 1 billion light year wide hole in the universe:
Astronomers have stumbled upon a tremendous hole in the universe. That's got them scratching their heads about what's just not there. The cosmic blank spot has no stray stars, no galaxies, no sucking black holes, not even mysterious dark matter. It is 1 billion light years across of nothing.

The late night comedians will have a field day with this one...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

It might be, it could be...

This past week, we made our annual summer pilgrimage to Chicago.

I have a deal with my daughters: we spend a day at the American Girl store on Michigan Ave, eating fancy lunches, seeing shows, getting the dolls' hair done, and shopping for 6+ hours. Afterwards daddy gets to eat pizza at one of his favorite Chicago pizza shops (Gino's East, Duo's, Giordano's, etc.) and no one gets to complain when we go to Wrigley for a Cubs game.

One of the great things of going to Wrigley for a game (aside from the spectacular history and feel of the place) is that I get to watch a baseball game with 40,000 other people that react and cheer at the same time I do. Normally in our house, I cheer the TV or the internet radio broadcast, and the family looks at me like I'm crazy.

Unfortunately, things were a little more complicated this time, since we decided that Kit and Elizabeth (my daughter's American Girl dolls) wanted to come to the game. Kit had her new Chicago Cubs outfit on, and Elizabeth had her traveling clothes. To complicate things further, the give away at the ballpark was a stuffed Snoopy doll with a Cubs uniform on. More often than not, I was holding several dolls and a blankie and unable to stand up to cheer a home run. Such is the price of fatherhood when you're a Cubs fan.

In looking around the park, I was shocked at how many boys had Cubs jerseys with Sammy Sosa's name and number of them (a clear majority of those with jerseys had a Sosa jersey). Sosa hasn't played for the Cubs in years, and left with a bit of a steroid cloud over his head. However, his continued presence says much about how youngsters learn to love to game, and the power of the definitive home run to focus attention in a game that is otherwise full of gray and subtlety.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chocolate Hazelnut Ice Cream

After our spectacularly successful first batch of home made vanilla ice cream, it was time to appease the masses and give chocolate ice cream a go.

Rather than mess with a good thing, I used the previously successful vanilla ice cream recipe as a starting point, and experimented until the flavors seemed right.

Serious Chocolate Hazelnut Ice Cream
(with apologies to Alton Brown)
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Nestle's)
2 tablespoons seedless strawberry jam
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons Torani hazelnut syrup

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Attach a frying or candy thermometer to inside of pan. (see note below) Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to 170 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour mixture into lidded container and refrigerate mixture overnight to mellow flavors and texture.

Freeze mixture in ice cream freezer according to unit's instructions. The mixture will not freeze hard in the machine. Once the volume has increased by 1/2 to 3/4 times, and reached a soft serve consistency, spoon the mixture back into a lidded container and harden in the freezer before serving (takes 8 hours in our freezer).

NOTE: If you do not have a thermometer, bring the mixture just barely to a simmer. As soon as you see a bubble hit the surface, remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil

I used vanilla extract since I wasn't sure how much vanilla would be enough/too much for the mix. For next time, I think I'll go back to using a full vanilla bean. If it works out, I'll update the recipe.

I substituted seedless strawberry jam for the peach preserves to avoid the dreaded "chunks of peach" problem that got me in trouble with my daughters last time, and because I thought the taste of strawberry would complement the chocolate better. Got it right on both counts, but I think it could use a little more acidity from more jam.

I am a sucker for malt flavor in ice cream, so I snuck some in this time. I think I can get away with a lot more next time (very subtle...added depth without slapping you upside your head)

We're a Nutella household, so our kids are already used to the wonder of chocolate with hazelnut flavor, so adding the Torani hazelnut syrup was a no brainer, and really added a nice depth to the flavors.

This batch turned out extremely well (my 5 year old even gave me a medal for being the best ice cream maker, declaring it a "Top 10" ice cream moment). Nice balance of flavor that jumped out at you.

With the first batch under my belt, this one was embarrassingly easy to churn out (ouch). Took about 10 minutes the night before to get the mix made (including all the experimenting to get the balance right), next morning poor it in and get the mixer going while eating breakfast. By the time you're done with your tea, ready to go to the freezer, and the kids get to fight over the ice cream beater for dessert.

For the next time, I think I'll back off on the sugar (like the vanilla, this recipe is extremely sweet). The flavors are strong enough that it can take a lot more malt flavor and a real vanilla bean. The girls still insist on crumbled Oreo cones on the chocolate hazelnut ice cream, but I prefer a traditional sugar cone.

Next time: coffee ice cream!