30 June 2010
Chicago was also host last weekend to Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, an event to benefit a drug treatment center in Antigua. "Crossroads" is a reference to a song by the seminal blues guitarist and singer, Robert Johnson. The festival features dozens of legendary blues and jazz guitarists. Clapton hosted the first Festival in Dallas, Texas in 2004 -- it was recorded for PBS, and is available on DVD. The 2007 and 2010 events were held in Chicago. Here is a review of this year's festival. Whether seen and heard live or on DVD, the Crossroads Festival is a jaw-dropping gathering of instrumental and vocal talent.
LONDON. On this day in 1894, London's Tower Bridge was opened, spanning the River Thames near the Tower of London. The bridge is a combined bascule and suspension design. Its entire center roadway section raises vertically to allow passage of ships beneath. After 116 years, the Tower Bridge still serves both road traffic and river traffic, and is an iconic structure in London. (Click on any image to enlarge.)
29 June 2010
25 June 2010
24 June 2010
23 June 2010
The dumbing down of curricula and of requirements to graduate has been going on in primary and secondary schools for a long time. "More graduates with higher grades" means continued federal financial support. Why aren't more school districts (and now law schools) willing to rise to the true challenge -- raising standards for both students and teachers, instilling an expectation of creativity and excellence. Small wonder that students in the US lag further and further behind students from other countries in their understanding of math, science and language. We do our children a shameful disservice, with ripple effects into future generations.
When I look at the credentials of an attorney, or a physician, or any other profession, I have a clear preference for accuracy of information. I would rather hire the best-qualified person, not someone who graduated last in his/her class. Grade inflation only muddies the waters, making it more difficult to separate the true qualifications among individuals. It is a form of fraud.
Here's a link to a funny, and painfully true, video -- The BP Oil Spill Re-enacted by Cats in 1 Minute. It's too bad we can't replace corporate heads with the same alacrity with which we replace military commanders. (McChrystal is out, Petraeus is in as commanding general in Afghanistan. See yesterday's post for more.)
22 June 2010
21 June 2010
20 June 2010
A FaceBook friend recommended an intriguing website in one of her posts. WolframAlpha is an online service that answers factual queries by computing the answer from structured data. This makes it an answer engine, distinguishing it from familiar search engines like Google, which provide a list of documents or web pages which might contain the answer -- you have to do your own digging from that list.
I followed the link to WolframAlpha's demo page, which provides dozens of examples of queries which anyone might want answered -- math computations, demographics, what the weather was like on your birthday, life expectancy, history, minutiae from the natural world -- it is an impressive list, and fun to explore.
However, when I emailed the link to an old friend who has been programming computers for decades, he cautioned me that WolframAlpha is not without its drawbacks. He noted that "This has been out for some time now [since 2009]. The tech community is not all that impressed with it, as it is quite easy to find problems for it that it should be able to solve. There are a number of goofy things with this site. For example, if you get it to solve a problem for you, they copyright the result. This means that you can't use it somewhere else without permission. The really odd thing about this site and other ventures is Wolfram himself. He wrote a book called "A New Kind of Science." The most common word in this tome is "I" .... one of the more, er, poignant reviews of this book can be found here, titled "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity," in which the author pretty much destroys any credibility Wolfram might have had .... "
One quote from this book review (which is well worth reading in its entirety) stands out -- "As the saying goes, there is much here that is new and true, but what is true is not new, and what is new is not true, and some of it is even old and false, or at least utterly unsupported." A briefer customer book review, which draws similar conclusions, may be found here.
Getting back to the website. My takeaway impression is that if you want to play with it for personal use only, it is a very versatile tool. But if you are doing research for a book or journal article, you could be courting (as it were) a lawsuit if you use Wolfram Alpha data without prior permission. My suggestion is that you check out the demo page for yourself, to see what the possibilities are for personal use. Bottom line -- a recommendation from a non-tech friend is no substitute for an evaluation from a tech person who knows more about the field. Which only makes sense. I wouldn't want my mechanic t0 perform heart surgery on me, nor my doctor to rebuild my truck's engine.
Footnote: It seems that BP's embattled CEO Tony Hayward is either astronomically clueless, or he simply does not care. After weeks of making insensitive, insulting and uninformed comments about the Gulf oil spill, even in moments when he is trying to act as a reassuring company figurehead, Hayward has done it again. Yesterday while the US Coast Guard, the Federal government, BP employees and Gulf Coast residents entered their 60th day of battling environmental degradation and economic ruin, Hayward spent the day attending a yacht race off the coast of England. This man, who sounds cultured and minimally intelligent, nevertheless can do nothing right. Whether he's stonewalling before a Congressiional investigation, appearing in insincere TV ads, or whining about wanting his life back, he might as well be trying to walk across an oily floor covered with banana peels. He's gonna fall on his face, he just can't help himself. I'm tired of his incompetence, which mirrors that of BP's corporate culture. I hope never to see even one more time that furrowed, vacuous face which gives the impression of total focus on his own intellectual constipation. As was true for GWB, Hayward (like his oil wells) is so far out of his depth that surely someone else is writing his lines for him -- perhaps a schoolchild from his home town in Kent.
For those who are so inclined, at this website there is a real-time counter which updates the number of gallons of oil which have hemorrhaged into the Gulf .... so far. It's important to keep track of units of measure. Some news sources use barrels, others use gallons. For the record, a barrel of crude oil contains 42 US gallons. The current flow is approximately 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons. If that figure were the total extent of the spill, it would be shocking. But that's the amount spilled each day for 61 days .... with no end in sight. There are no words.
19 June 2010
18 June 2010
17 June 2010
16 June 2010
15 June 2010
C'est la guerre.
TAKING CHANCE. Focusing down to the very human, very personal dimension of our current wars, the film Taking Chance portrays a real life journey -- that of a Marine officer who escorted the body of a Marine (killed in Iraq) to his hometown. The movie was understated and crafted with attention to detail, and I was moved to tears. In contrast to my war (Vietnam), the American public now respects and honors those in the military, living and fallen. The Marine officer encountered numerous small gestures of caring and support. Here is a video preview of the movie. And here is a summary written by the Marine officer himself. Spoiler alert -- if you plan on seeing the movie, you might want to do that first before reading the summary. The film stars Kevin Bacon, in one of his most riveting performances.
WESTERN TANAGERS. Missoula's cool, wet Spring has been welcome by all of us who dread the summer forest wildfire season. A week ago a bonus appeared -- sightings of migrating Western Tanagers have been numerous, especially along the Clark Fork River which runs through town. A Missoulian article does a good job of summarizing the event and the bird. On one of my daily walks, I was delighted to spot a pair as they fed among nearby trees. Even without my binoculars at hand, the splash of avian color was a wonderful surprise.
14 June 2010
13 June 2010
Last night I was enthralled by watching the tw0-hour PBS adaptation of Michael Pollan's eponymous book, The Botany of Desire. Pollan illuminates the symbiotic relationship between humans and four domesticated plants which mirror four types of human desires -- our desire for sweetness (the apple), for beauty (the tulip), for intoxication (marijuana), and for control (the potato). Click on the above image to enlarge. During our history with each plant, we have controlled plants through selective breeding and genetic engineering, and we have ourselves been manipulated by the plants' needs, serving their propogation and their spread as if we were human honeybees. The PBS program observes our symbiosis from the view points of both humans and plants, illustrating what we too often forget: that we are but a part of the intricate web of life.
Humans first discovered apples and tulips in central Asia, marijuana in India and China, and potatoes in the Peruvian Andes. Native cultures understood the benefit of allowing hundreds, even thousands of strains of each plant to flourish -- diversity provides resilience in the struggle for survival against herbivore insects, disease and adverse genetic mutations. Alas, European-derived societies have suppressed this diversity, preferring to breed just a few strains for specific traits, in mass quantities. This shift toward botanical monocultures has dire consequences when an insect or disease comes along which thrives on the single strain being grown. Witness the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Today's farmers rely heavily on pesticides and other chemicals to protect their monoculture crops, when the re-introduction of multiple strains, along with natural pest controls, would serve the same purpose. Man plans, nature laughs.
Here is a link to the PBS program's website, featuring bonus videos, interactive maps and timelines, and educational supplements. The program is available on DVD.
While on the subject on online resources, here are a few more, just for fun:
~~ Journey to the Stars DVD, a joint production of NASA and the American Museum of Natural History. If you are a teacher, or know a teacher, or have children in school, this is a wonderful introduction to the night sky and space exploration.
~~ The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a website where you can search for Vietnam War casualties by name, by city and state, or by military unit. Letters, poems and photos are posted for many of the service members listed.
~~ The Investigative Project on Terrorism, with news posts and analysis in an accessible format.
~~ 10 Essential Cheat Sheets to Download, to enhance the performance of an array of commonly-used computer programs (Google, Windows, Gmail, Firefox, Linux, etc.). A friend points out that access requires entering your email address, if that is a concern for you.
~~ Ink Pixie personalized tshirts and hats, fun themes you can add your name to.
12 June 2010
11 June 2010
SHAKESPEARE. Yesterday I watched the first installment of a British series from the early 1980s called "Playing Shakespeare." The series is a master class for both actors and audiences, conducted by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The discussion centered on how to interpret Shakespeare for contemporary audiences, while remaining true to the text and intent of the playwright. RSC actors (much younger in the series) who remain familiar names include Patrick Steward, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, and Peggy Ashcroft. The program is nuanced and delightful, rewarding undivided attention with insight into the plays and the man.
An example of illuminating information from the program -- in the decades before and after 1600 AD, most of Europe did not know how to read or write. Hence Shakespeare had to discover ways to convey to his actors and his audience not only the verbal content of his plays, but also the emotional thrust of every line of speech. He succeeded in doing so by brilliantly constructing dialogue with accents highlighting key words. While iambic pentameter was used extensively toward this end, it was only one of an array of creative tools at his disposal. It could fairly be said that Elizabethan audiences were much more finely attuned to verbal nuance than audiences of today, for the simple reason that they had no reading skills upon which to rely. Further, Shakespeare during the course of his career made up out of thin air over 2000 words which are still in common English usage.
ABW. As in, the Angry Black Woman, one of my absolute favorite blogs. The mayor of London recently made the news by whining to the American public in general, and President Obama in particular, over our outrage toward BP for its criminal negligence and malfeasance in causing the ongoing Gulf oil disaster. The mayor took exception to what he saw as Americans adopting an anti-British stance, while he minimized BP's responsibility. It did my heart good to read ABW's pull-no-punches response. You can check out her post here.
By the way, on the web I've come across certain misleading statements to the effect that BP is an American company. Not true. BP is based in London, and trades on the London and New York stock exchanges. It is the United Kingdom's largest corporation. It has a US subsidiary, BP America, with offices in Houston, TX. (Most Americans know BP as "British Petroleum," because that was the company's name for most of its existence. However, as part of its rebranding-greenwashing campaign, BP officially changed its name to "BP plc." plc stands for public limited company. The name's tagline is "Beyond Petrolem.")
10 June 2010
09 June 2010
FUTURE. You would think that we would have learned a few hard lessons from the practice of outsourcing by now. Taking advantage of cheap foreign labor not only takes away quality control, it also creates horrendous and sometimes deadly working conditions, all for the sake of more corporate profit. Now President Obama proposes to sidestep our country's traditional reliance on NASA, and turn space exploration over to private enterprise. As the space shuttle program winds down to a halt later this year, already private rockets are being tested. One company, Bigalowe Aerospace, is already developing alternative space station components (see image above). So why is this troubling? For starters, the company's founder, Robert T. Bigalowe, isn't a scientist. He's not only a bottom-line venture capitalist, his science credentials include a belief in UFOs, a belief in the power of prayer, and a lack of belief in the Big Bang theory. I don't know about you, but if I were perched in a transport capsule atop a rocket, about to be launched to enter a space habitat constructed by the lowest bidder, I'd want to know that something more astrophysically substantial than prayer and little green men was guaranteeing my safety. Bigalowe's corporate philosophy is summed up as "keep your work and the work of your co-workers very private from people outside the company." Quality control? Accountability? Experts in their fields of science planning for every contingency? Naw. After all, what's the worst that could happen? Can you spell "Gulf oil disaster in space"?