Bruce Momjian

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Arts "I've Been Everywhere"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I have always been impressed by the Johnny Cash novelty song, "I've Been Everywhere", which melodically lists 92 cities. Surprisingly, the song originated in Australia, and the North American version was originally sung by Hank Snow. There are also Pennsylvania, Germany, and Iraq versions.

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Thoughts Rational Faith?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A recent sermon at my church argued that faith in God is rational, and non-belief irrational, which initially sounds backwards. In the past faith was often considered irrational because incomprehensible natural forces (weather, astronomical phenomenon, etc.) where explained as acts of God, and therefore faith, while the belief that all natural phenomenon have physical explanations was the rational approach.

However, the sermon argues that assuming physical explanations for all phenomenon also extends to human activity, and if all human activity is merely physical processes then there is no basis for good, bad, justice, mercy, or love. and that that itself is irrational and defies all human experience.

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Technology TSA posts document on airport screening procedures online

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In a surprising security breach, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) subcontractor posted an airport security screening manual online with improperly redacted information (another article, document).

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Thoughts Does the Vaccine Matter?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This article exposes the uncertain benefits of flu vaccinations. Particularly interesting is not the uncertainty, but the risks experienced by any medical professional who questions its benefits.

Update: There has been less flu activity this year than usual.

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Arts Mistakes in Typography Grate the Purists

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This article interviews typographers who see subtle font issues others do not — to quote, "I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy".

Update: This web site has some examples of movie font mistakes. Update: Good typography history video 2013-07-23

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Technology This is so true - the UK plug is ridiculous

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Having seen many electrical outlets in my travels, the United Kingdom electrical plug has always intrigued me because of its heft — what could that plug be doing that smaller plugs cannot. As part of a discussion about different electrical plug standards, this forum posting dispels the idea that the UK plug does anything magical, and states "The UK plug is the nanny state run wild".

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Humor 50 Worst Gadgets You Can Buy in SkyMall

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Being a frequent flyer, I am often staring at the cover of the SkyMall catalog. This "anti-guide" (print version) dispenses necessary justice to many of the catalog items — my favorite, the SkyRest Airplane Pillow, "Sleep the restful sleep of a man who has given up on his dignity."

Update: An interview with SkyMall's purchasing agent 2010-09-21

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Humor The Office Christmas Party

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This fictitious, humorous email thread illustrates the challenges of planning a company Christmas party.

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Technology Ten Things Mobiles Have Made, or Will Make, Obsolete

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This article considers which devices will become unnecessary once mobile phones become more common and powerful.

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History Portrait of 9/11 'Jackal' Emerges as He Awaits Trial

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Last month there was an interesting article about the trial of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (image). The article revealed some new facts about the 9/11 attacks and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

  • He went to college in North Carolina and earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1986.
  • He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which was funded by the US CIA.
  • The goal of the attacks was to wake up Americans to the impact of supporting Israel against the Palestinians.
  • The original plan included landing one plane and emerging to deliver a speech condemning American policy supporting Israel.
  • He regrets the death of children during the attack.
  • He was surprised by the United States response of attacking Afghanistan and beginning a world-wide hunt for Al Qaeda.
  • He was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a city I have visited.
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Flight China Visit

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I was in China last month and experienced a few interesting things:

Two months ago I read an article about Chinese smog and its health effect, largely out of academic interest. Having returned from Beijing, I reread the article. The smog in Beijing is much more palpable than I imagined — it is like the smell in the air outside when your neighbor is using his fireplace, except that it covers the entire city, indoors and out, and the smoke is less mellow and more acidic. Visually it looks like a mist or light fog which you normally see during periods of high humidity, like when snow is melting, except it is slightly colored — you can see the smog in the background of this press image. I suppose this is a mild example of the air quality during the Industrial Revolution.

The good news is that article found few documented long-term affects from the smog — however, I wouldn't recommend wintertime Beijing to people with breathing problems. Interestingly, I got used to the air quality within a day, like you get used to fireplace smoke in a room.

During a Beijing seminar I picked up a pencil labeled "Made in China", and thought, "Oh, a domestic pencil". That is not the reaction I would have had if I had picked up the pencil at home, "Oh, another item made in China."

I was interviewed by four Chinese computer industry journalists, and they asked the most difficult and probing questions I have ever received. It seems Chinese journalists are analytical and probing, unlike many Western technical journalists who only react to news, rather than do their own research — I often wonder if US journalists avoid forward-thinking analysis, particularly with open source, to avoid upsetting advertisers.

Being a tea drinker, I was excited to try Oolong tea, particularly Longjing or Dragonwell tea (images). It is a mild, green tea, but without the grassy taste common in most green teas.

Update: Here is a video about environmental issues in Linfen, China.

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Technology Web Authoring Tools

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I recently mentioned my focus on web authoring skills, so here is a list of web sites I have found helpful:

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Arts Two Things You Did Not Know About 2001

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a complex film that is impossible to understand without reading the book of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke. (explanation).

Even if you read the book, there are two things that are still not obvious and that I learned only recently. My first discovery was the cause of the HAL 9000's computer malfunction. This was revealed in 2010: Odyssey Two, published fifteen years after 2001. The book 2010 explained that the computer was given contradictory goals (truthfulness and maintaining secrecy about the missions goals) which caused a fictional Hofstadter-Moebius loop. In hindsight, this should have been obvious because the defect erroneously reported by the computer dealt with the antenna used to communicate with Earth, i.e., it dealt with the flow of information.

My second discovery is the meaning of perhaps the most famous movie jump cut — an ape throwing a bone into the air that becomes a space satellite. Most people assume the space satellite is a space station, but in fact it is an orbiting nuclear weapon, and in hindsight its shape clearly suggests that. The jump cut is contrasting the first weapon, a bone, with perhaps the last weapon. In fact, the book ends with a nuclear war (but not the movie).

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Community It's Always Ugly in Philadelphia?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

This interesting article summarizes a survey where Philadelphian's ranked their city as having the ugliest people. The article cites a Philadelphia "self-imposed inferiority complex" as the cause, which makes sense — the city is nestled between New York City and Washington, DC, and its Quaker founding still exerts a certain asceticism and humility on the city. This article comment sums up the Philly attitude quite well.

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Technology The 'WiFi At Conferences' Problem

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Joel Spolsky (Joel on Software) has an interesting blog about the complexities of creating a sufficiently large wireless network for technology conferences. My personal experience is that the WiFi at conferences is pretty good, but I don't expect it to be as good as a home or office network.

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Technology Web Authoring Skills

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When I started this web site in 1999, I read a book about web site creation. In the intervening years, web site technology has advanced, but I haven't kept up. When I needed to add something to my web site, I did a web search and found code examples that helped me implement what I needed, but I didn't fully understand what I was adding.

After years of only partially understanding my web site, I decided I needed to update my web authoring skill set. I believe web site technology is a must-have skill for hard-core programmers, similar to knowledge of operating system concepts, optimizer design, and the C programming language.

I chose to start by reading Mastering integrated HTML and CSS. The book gives a thorough practical introduction to XHTML and CSS (review). When I first learned web site authoring, only HTML existed. I learned a little about CSS as necessary over the years, but always as an add-on to HTML. This book gives a fresh presentation of XHTML and CSS as complementary tools, and gives practical advice on how to use them together. (The only negative aspect of the book is its repeated mention of issues related to web site usability for people with disabilities — at first it was annoying but by the middle of the book it became oppressive; accessibility details should have been placed in their own chapter, as was done for mobile device specifics.) Having finished reading that book, and improving my web site based on what I have learned, I am now reading CSS: The Definitive Guide, which is a more formal treatment of CSS. Once I am done with that I will read Practical JavaScript, DOM Scripting and Ajax Projects, which should fully update my web authoring abilities.

My web site, like most web sites, use several technologies: XHTML for web site content, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for web site appearance, Common Gateway Interface (CGI) for dynamic content, JavaScript for browser interaction, and Apache Server-Side Includes (SSI) for web server macros. The reason several technologies are necessary is because each technology affects a different part of the web site's behavior, and it is hard for a single language to be flexible enough.

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Thoughts US Dollar's Decline

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

This interesting article explains the decline of the dollar's preferred currency status and the challenges of stemming that decline.

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Arts Star Wars Photo

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I am not a big Star Wars fan, but I thought I would share this epic image with those who are.

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Thoughts Urban Explorer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

During an Internet search, I came across this web site devoted to urban exploring, namely the exploration of abandoned man-made structures, like office buildings, hotels, amusement parks, and missile silos. The web site has an interesting analysis of why explorers are drawn to these sights, and I realized I share a similar fascination, which I have never heard so well expressed:

A building's beauty is often best brought out when it's empty. All too often we walk through active buildings and take little note of the care that is taken into its construction. At night, and while empty, is a building's moment of glory. If a building's best moment is when it is empty, its worst moment is reaching the final set of stairs. It is a moment of loss; a moment when one realizes there is nothing left to discover and this brief escape — like all escapes — will have its end.

Update: The video series Uneven Terrain highlights urban explorations. Update: This video is about the rise and fall of the Salton Sea community. 2011-05-15 Update: Good photo series 2011-09-08

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History Hungarian Picnic Leads to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Twenty years ago this month, a picnic to celebrate cooperation between Hungary and Austria resulted in the escape of 600 East Germans to Austria. The event was celebrated recently, and new details have been released about the political forces that led to the escape, including stories from the border guards on duty at the time.

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Community Neckties

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

This interesting article reports a new Bangladeshi government order for male government employees to stop wearing suits, jackets, and neckties. It also includes a history of how neckties wearing became fashionable.

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Community Economy Rebounding?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

This article suggests that the U.S. economy might be recovering from the recession.

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Technology Dubai

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I have read about the building expansion in Dubai, but this photo essay captures the enormous scale of the projects.

Update: It seems Dubai is now having problems.

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Technology Your Laptop Is Lying to You

Friday, August 21, 2009

This article discusses the inaccuracy of many battery and signal strength meters found in consumer devices.

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Thoughts The Certainty of Uncertainty

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I just watched the video Dangerous Knowledge. It follows the lives of Georg Cantor (infinite sets, Continuum hypothesis), Ludwig Boltzmann (entropy), Kurt Gödel (incompleteness theorems), and Alan Turing (Halting problem), and shows how Cantor's work on the infinite finally led to Gödel's discovery that no logical system can solve all true statements, that is, logic can never solve all problems.

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Technology XBox 360 Should Be Called XBox +50

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A new survey reports that Microsoft XBox 360 users experienced a +50% failure rate (54.2%). This is an unheard-of failure rate for a consumer device, and coined the term Red Ring of Death because of the red ring on the display after failure.

Microsoft will pay 1.15 billion dollars to repair XBoxs under an extended warranty. You can imagine how this happens when a software company begins selling hardware. They are used to fixing products after release with updates so they cut corners, but then they find out that hardware can't be updated as easily as software. Certainly they knew this at some level but the rigorous approach needed by hardware manufacturers was not second-nature for them.

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History Adolf Hitler's Private World

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two months ago, Life Magazine released unseen photos of Adolf Hitler taken by Hugo Jaeger. The photos give a rare away from the crouds view of Hitler's private world. Though not one of the new images, the photo Phone, Flowers, Hat is indicative of the depth of the photography; the objects suggest an "eerie domesticity".

Update: This video is about an amateur color movie made during the 1939 Munich summer festival attended by many Nazi leaders. I believe the hat seen in the photo mentioned above is the same hat seen on Hitler in this video.

Update: This video adds sound to Hitler's silent movies. 2010-05-18

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History Chernobyl Videos

Saturday, August 15, 2009

There are several online videos available that explain many of the details of the Chernobyl disaster and cleanup:

  • Surviving Disaster: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: By far the best of the Chernobyl videos, this episode from a BBC series captures the drama of the accident and the difficult decisions made in the following weeks. The central figure is nuclear scientist Valeri Legasov, chief of the Chernobyl investigation committee.
  • The Battle of Chernobyl: This video highlights the massive cleanup effort after the disaster, which involved 800,000 people, often called liquidators. This article also covers the cleanup effort.
  • Seconds From Disaster: Meltdown in Chernobyl: This is a very factual account of the accident, but lacks the drama and analysis of some of the other videos.
  • Disaster At Chernobyl: This video does a good job of recreating the events that led up to the accident, though the lack of English subtitles during the Russian dialog mars its effectiveness.
  • Radiophobia: This video follows former residents of Pripyat as they return to visit their homes after a twenty years absence. Lack of English subtitles also diminishes the effectiveness of this video.

If you ever wanted to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat, this first-hand tour account might be helpful.

Update: I received a private copy of Radiophobia with English subtitles from the producers.

Update: Here is a new video of someone visiting Chernobyl.

Update: Seems Chernobyl and Pripyat visits are now officially possible 2010-12-16

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Flight International Cell Phone Coverage

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

This excellent article explains the complexity of trying to use a USA-based cell phone internationally. Personally I use a special cell phone from Mobal that works in 170 countries.

Update: This is an excellent article about international cell phone frequency use.

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History Soviet Television Spy Miniseries

Monday, August 3, 2009

I just finished watching a fourteen-hour television miniseries produced in 1973 by the Soviet Union called Seventeen Moments of Spring. It chronicles the life of a Soviet spy working in Nazi Germany during the final months of WWII. The spy, Stirlitz, tries to prevent a separate peace between Nazi Germany and the USA which would limit communist advancement and leave Nazi leaders in power. Loosely based on actual events, the series is interesting because:

  • a Soviet spy is the protagonist, and you are hoping for his success
  • it was a very successful Soviet television production, with a creative and engaging plot
  • its portrayal of the inner-workings of the Nazi leadership is realistic and illuminating

These user comments encapsulate why it is such an interesting series, like James Bond but more realistic, and without the gadgets. You can watch the entire series with English subtitles online.

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Technology Technical Support Excellence

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Tuesday at noon, landscapers accidentally damaged the cable line into my home, and Internet became unreliable. I was traveling to Massachusetts that day, so it took me until Wednesday morning to determine there was a serious problem. I called Comcast Business Class technical support at 11 AM to report the problem. Within two hours, Comcast was at my home, and had the damaged line temporarily repaired. The next day they came to survey burying a new cable line deeper under my lawn, which will be completed in 5-10 days. I was very impressed by their prompt service; this validates my choice of business-class Internet service.

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Technology Learning Nuclear History Through Computer Games

Thursday, July 2, 2009

When playing Stalker, I was surprised to find that the Chernobyl nuclear reactor vessel was empty (video), i.e., there was no uranium fuel, only graphite blocks and metal rods, though there was much radioactive solid lava in the basement underneath, which also confused me. After doing some research, I found out that when the reactor exploded, the bottom blew down from the reactor vessel, allowing the uranium fuel to mix with the sand surrounding the reactor and flow into the basement where it eventually hardened (real image). That certainly explains what I saw in the game, though it is odd to be learning about historical events from a computer game.

The reactor fuel flowing downward was so unexpected that it took six months to find the nuclear fuel in the basement of the reactor building. This video describes the heroic work of the men who found the reactor fuel.

I asked a nuclear engineer about the Chernobyl accident, and he said that the Soviet (RBMK) reactors use a "running downhill" design, meaning the reactor tends to favor increasing its power. I was unclear what that meant, but I found that this chapter explained it well (other chapters). Soviet reactors use:

  • natural uranium
  • graphite to enable the nuclear chain-reaction
  • water for cooling and to reduce the nuclear chain-reaction

Non-Soviet designs use:

  • slightly enriched uranium
  • water for cooling and to enable the nuclear chain-reaction

The running downhill aspect of the Soviet design is that the uranium and graphite in the reactor are enough to cause a nuclear chain-reaction; water is not needed for the chain-reaction, and is used for cooling. In fact, in the Soviet design, water actually decreases the nuclear chain-reaction. This leads to the downhill effect — as the reactor heats up, water is turned to steam, reducing the liquid water cooling and increasing the nuclear chain-reaction and temperature, turning more water into steam. There are safety systems which can avoid an uncontrolled nuclear chain-reaction, but those safety systems were turned off at Chernobyl while they were running the test that led to the accident.

In non-Soviet reactors, water is necessary to continue the nuclear reaction; as the reactor gets hotter and turns water to steam, the liquid water necessary for the nuclear reaction decreases, decreasing the nuclear chain-reaction and reducing the temperature; with no water, a non-Soviet-designed reactor cannot sustain a nuclear chain-reaction.

Interestingly, both the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents happened while running tests, reinforcing the truism that performing tests and adding safety devices does not always increase safety. What really hurt nuclear reactor adoption was the nuclear industry's pre-accident assertion that reactors were completely safe, and that accidents were impossible, rather than saying reactors were reasonably safe and accidents exceedingly rare. Since people can be injured in their bath tubs, nuclear reactors can never be completely safe, and being more honest about the possibility of failures would have allowed the nuclear industry to better weather these accidents. The lack of nuclear plant expansion has increased the use of non-nuclear electricity generation, causing known deaths, e.g. due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The uncertainty of how to dispose of decommissioned nuclear plants and their fuel has also hurt nuclear power adoption.

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Technology Next Version of Stalker

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I have started the next version of Stalker, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky. The game is a prequel to the game I previously played, with half the environments reused from the original. Reused environments would usually be undesirable, but I am looking forward to returning to some of the places from the original game because the environments were so detailed that I didn't get a chance to explore them fully.

Update: This article talks about the lack of good immersion games. 2010-08-11

Update: Seems another version is coming out in 2012. 2010-08-14

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Community Rain, Rain, Gone?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

June was a very wet month for Philadelphia, with rain falling almost every day with twice the usual rainfall, and April and May were wet months too. This pattern was true all along the east coast of the United States. I was starting to think my house had moved to Seattle, but the constant rain seems to have stopped and normal sunny weather has finally returned.

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Technology Game Finally Over

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I mentioned previously that the computer came I thought was over was not. The enemy in the game fooled attackers into incorrectly believing they had reached their goal, and game players thought the same thing — talk about live imitating art.

Anyway, I have finished the game and confirmed it by watching some gameplayer-produced videos. The first two minutes of one video combined the end-of-game summary with video from earlier parts of the game; a second video (part 1, part 2) is a collection of all cut scenes and endings from the game. There is also a good music video based on the game.

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Community Pretzel Explosion

Friday, June 12, 2009

There seems to be new demand for pretzel stores. Everyone knows Auntie Anne's pretzels (850 stores, details); they are nation-wide, and I have even seen their stores in Asia. They are more Pennsylvania Dutch/German style, rather than Philadelphia-style. The new Philadelphia-style pretzel stores appearing in my area include Philly Pretzel Factory (159 stores) and The Pretzel Boy's (9 stores).

On a related note, I usually choose pretzels with the most salt, but Unique Pretzel Bakery (review) has a Extra Salt pretzel that has almost too much salt for me. I can't eat those pretzels at night because I get too thirsty.

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Arts Making Star Trek

Friday, June 12, 2009

I just watched a 90-minute fan-produced movie based on the original Star Trek series, called Star Trek: Of Gods and Men (details). Unlike some other fan-produced videos I have seen, this movie has good acting, polished sets, and an enaging story (image, trailer). This is not surprise because the producers and many of the actors are professionals, and many were involved in previous commercial Star Trek productions. You can view the movie online. It seems there are a handful of other fan-produce Star Trek productions too.

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Community Chocolate Cake

Monday, June 8, 2009

Two years ago I mentioned a newspaper article about my brother Chris finding the family that made a chocolate cake that he had many years ago, and they baked him one. Well, after many years of trying, it seems my brother has rediscovered the recipe and has reproduced the cake himself. He brought a cake to my house for Catherine's birthday party and the cake was identical to when I had it decades ago. He might reveal the secret to recreating the cake someday.

The cake was described in an October 4, 1976 article in The New Yorker as "black, not brown — the sort of black that in some lights looks almost blue". There are also clues in the article about the cake's makeup:

The origin of the chocolate-cake recipe, she told me, was the misdelivery of some dark chocolate to a restaurant she once ran — an accident she had the wit to exploit, the way some particularly alter chemist might take advantage of the fact that the medicinal substance he accidentally spilled had a remarkable cleansing effect on the suede of his shoes.

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Arts Opening of Up

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Many people have already seen the Pixar movie, Up; it has received good reviews. My family saw it last week. In talking to people about the movie, including my brother, one thing really stood out: the first ten minutes of the movie (video). A Christian Science Monitor's movie review captures its essence:

"Up," the new animated feature from Pixar, opens with an extended sequence, lasting no more than ten minutes, that is probably the best thing the studio has ever done. Little Carl Fredericksen meets Ellie, his rambunctious soul mate, and, in quick, lyrical progression, we watch them grow up and marry and live a life together into old age, until Ellie's death leaves Carl a glum widower.

As a piece of poetic compression, it ranks with the opening of Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons."

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Technology Wireless Wireless Internet

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Internet access has seen great strides since I went online in 1991. (Web sites didn't exist back then so my first posting was actually to the Usenet discussion network.) I have avoided too much Internet connectivity, lest I suffer from Crackberry addition (funny video). However, one new device (video, review) that is tempting me is something from Verizon that creates a wireless hotspot anywhere using the Verizon wireless network. Not only does it allow multiple laptops to be online, but allows connections from any wireless device, like my iTouch. This seems like a more flexible solution than laptop-specific wireless devices. My brother's Sprint cellphone has this ability too but it is a high-end model.

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Technology Oops, Game Not Over

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I just wrote that I finished the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl game, but I was wrong. I decided to read some game reviews to see if I missed anything and found that the game is not over. The enemy in the game fooled me into choosing a fake ending to prevent me from destroying it; that is quite a creative game. I will continue playing the game to get to the real ending.

This web site has some interesting analysis of the game and the fake ending, and another perceptive posting about the real ending. I mentioned previously that the game world detail was amazing, and someone else has blogged about it too, but they have a more penetrating analysis of the game's uniqueness. It seems just piecing together the storyline requires major analysis. My interest in playing the next S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game has greatly increased.

Update: It seems the game is now free.

Update: A video of the four false endings and the two true endings 2010-12-12

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Technology Game Over

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I just completed the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl game I mentioned back in December. There is a prequel I might try, and a sequel coming out in six months.

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Community Fast Food Service

Sunday, May 3, 2009

I was in three fast food restaurants this week: once at Wendy's, and twice at Chick-fil-A. The Wendy's staff seemed so uninterested in taking my order, even though there was no one else in the restaurant, that I eventually left for another restaurant. (I did email Wendy's to report the poor service.) My two experiences at Chick-fil-A exceeded my expectations; in fact every Chick-fil-A I have visited has been a pleasant experience. The food court at the nearby King of Prussia Mall always has a line at Chick-fil-A, while the other food vendors are giving away free samples trying to get customers.

I would love to know how much Chick-fil-A's statement of corporate purpose has to do with their success (their stores are closed on Sundays for religious reasons). I bet it is quite a bit. I assume they also treat their employees well, which directly affects how they treat customers.

Update: This video (part 1, 2) explains the Chick-fil-A customer approach, and this video explains why the store is closed on Sundays.

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Arts Return to Wonkaland

Friday, May 1, 2009

This episode of the UK series After They Were Famous (parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), follows the child actors from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as they return together to Munich, Germany, where the movie was filmed. They revisit many of the places where they spent time as young teenagers working on the film, places they haven't seen in over thirty years. There is something both charming and romantic about their recollections from so long ago, and some unspoken sadness too; you could call it nostalgia, but it is beyond that.

I think the episode is emotionally compelling because as they revisit these locations, viewers also remember seeing them as children in the movie, but not since. The thrill of being plucked from normal life to be part of a movie classic, then back to normal life again, had to be a difficult adjustment, and the episode shows their normal lives today. But with their lives there is the "I was" — the quiet acknowledgement of fame, that something they did long ago makes them special — a feeling everyone wants to have.

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Thoughts A History of God

Friday, April 24, 2009

I just watched the ninety-minute online video A History of God. The video studies how the concept of God has evolved through time. Hebrew patriarchs, like Abraham, lived in polytheistic cultures, and their encounters with God reflected that. Moses experienced God in a more complex way, and the Hebrew prophets, like Isaiah, even more so. The understanding of who Jesus was also evolved over hundreds of years. The video also covers Islam and explains many of its beliefs, traditions, and values. The video is based on a book of the same name. (book summary, reviews, contents)

The video lacked much of the drama (gravitas) inherent in the subject; probably the most interesting part was a monk mentioning an inscription he had seen on a skull, "I was once as you are, and you will be as I am" (Latin, tu fui, ego eris).

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History Armenian Massacre Statement by Obama

Friday, April 24, 2009

President Obama made a powerful statement today in commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Some complained he didn't use the word genocide, but I thought it was nice.

Here is a video about the Armenian Genocide and a video about the controversy of recognizing the genocide.

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Thoughts Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, April 20, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars, but the real story behind India's vagrant children is far more sinister and disturbing.

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History Area 51

Monday, April 20, 2009

There have always been consipriacy theories about the activity at a U.S. Air Force installation called Area 51. Some people who were there in the 1950's and 1960's are now able to talk about their work.

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Thoughts Proofreading Redux

Monday, April 20, 2009

I mentioned an issue with proofreading text with jumbled letters in a previous blog entry, and I am sure others have seen this text independently. It turns out some of the details of this item are an urban legend.

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History Jewel Heist

Monday, April 20, 2009

This article describes in great detail perhaps the most elaborate diamond robbery in history, which happened in Antwerp in 2003. The details of how the robbery was planned, the break-in, and how the crooks were caught was fascinating.

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Arts Inside the Philadelphia Orchestra

Sunday, April 19, 2009

This candid interview with Concertmaster David Kim offers a rare glimpse inside the Philadelphia Orchestra. One of the most interesting topics is a discussion at the end about the balance between new works and more well-known orchestral pieces.

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Community Somali Pirates

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I read two very interesting newspaper articles today; one was about how the Maersk Alabama fought off Somali pirates, and the second was about how the U.S. Navy Seals killed the pirates. I wondered why only three of the four pirates were killed; it turns out the fourth pirate had already surrendered.

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Transportation New Celica Rims

Monday, April 6, 2009

A year ago I realized one aesthetic defect of the Celica — the wheel rims. I waited for the tires to need replacing, and a few weeks ago bought new tires and rims for the car from Pep Boys. You can see that it greatly improved the appearance of the car (image, image). I think I have crossed the line where the car looks better now than when it was purchased, which wouldn't be a big deal, except the car is 23 years old.

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History Soviet Study Complete

Monday, April 6, 2009

I have completed my study of Soviet history, at last for the time being. I have read five books and saw four movies, and I certainly have learned much about the former Soviet Union. If I return to this topic it will be to read autobiographies from authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Victor Kravchenko.

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History Soviet Assassinations

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Today I was looking at Victor Kravchenko's book, I Chose Freedom, which I mentioned earlier. Kravchenko reportedly died of suicide in 1966, but his son claims that the Soviet assassins, SMERSH killed him.

So I started to wonder what is known about Soviet assassinations. The Soviet archives on this topic are still closed so the only available information is from defected assassins, failed assassination attempts, and recollections of former Soviet officials. This recollection describes the activities of SMERSH in chilling detail, including the murder of Trotsky, the kidnapping of an ex-patriot in West Berlin, and a communist-sympathizer from Philadelphia who became a Soviet assassin in Europe. This article corroborates many of the details, and confirms Soviet involvement in the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. It also draws a parallel between Soviet assassination practices and post-Soviet assassination attempts, including Alexander Litvinenko, suggesting that assassination is still a sanctioned Russian activity.

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History How Did Soviet Citizens Survive?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

People often wonder how Soviet citizens tolerated the vast restrictions placed on them by the communist government. Citizens of democratic societies think they live under no such restrictions. Of course there are traffic laws and criminal codes, but there is a perception that democratic citizens would not tolerate limits on free expression. However, talking about certain racial, ethnic, gender, and religious topics can lead to unemployment or imprisonment. Now, this might be a good thing (I certainly don't want people yelling "fire" in theaters), but we can't pretend such restrictions don't exist in democratic societies.

Soviet citizens accepted restrictions immeasurably worse because they were building socialism; a novel experiment that might require extraordinary sacrifices. Perceived enemies where everywhere, trying to sabotage their experiment.

For Soviet citizens, there was no clearly-defined limit about which expressions were safe and which would lead to demotion, a mental hospital, a labor camp (Gulag), or execution. In fact, the labor camp punishment was unusual because in a way the Soviet Union was one big labor camp, so punishment to a gulag was just a transfer from one large labor camp to a more restrictive one.

Update: In case you questioned the existence of restrictions in a democratic society, today's news includes a report about a Philadelphia police officer who got in trouble for saying something.

Update: The policeman mentioned above has been fired.

Update: The officer has been reinstated.

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History New Soviet Book

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

During the time of watching Soviet films, I started a new book, Faces of a Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991. Nominally about Soviet photographer Dmitri Baltermants, the book covers Soviet history in an engaging way, with many photographs and personal stories.

One minor problem with the book is the author's inability to reconcile Stalin's success at industrializing the USSR with his indiscriminate terrorization of the population. The author suggests that terror was necessary to further industrialization and prepare for battle against Hitler, but Stalin's purge of the military is only the most obvious example of how Stalin's terror hurt the country and its defense.

In the end, the author was expecting rationality from Stalin, but to expect perfect rationality from anyone is itself irrational. It would have been better if the author accepted the terror for what it was: the evil actions unleashed when a man has unlimited power, like Hitler, Mao, and many others. (The science fiction film Forbidden Planet covers this issue well.) And with no religious beliefs, all-powerful men really are gods, though history shows men make lousy deities.

Update: This 1931 article by Nicolas Berdyaev also explores the effects of spiritual denunciation on Soviet society.

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History Soviet Films

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I have watched the Soviet films I mentioned earlier. Three Songs About Lenin was standard propaganda fair, and White Sun of the Desert was humorous, as intended. The Fall of Berlin was the most interesting film, being a huge vehicle supporting the Stalin cult. Khrushchev mentioned it in his secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress:

In the same vein, let us take for instance our historical and military films and some [of our] literary creations. They make us feel sick. Their true objective is propagating the theme of praising Stalin as a military genius. Let us recall the film, The Fall of Berlin. Here only Stalin acts. He issues orders in a hall in which there are many empty Chairs. Only only one man approaches him to report something to him -- it is [Alexander] Poskrebyshev, his loyal shield-bearer.

(Laughter in the hall.)

And where is the military command? Where is the Politburo? Where is the Government? What are they doing, and with what are they engaged? There is nothing about them in the film. Stalin acts for everybody, he does not reckon with anyone. He asks no one for advice. Everything is shown to the people in this false light. Why? To surround Stalin with glory-- contrary to the facts and contrary to historical truth.

(The speech itself was a watershed event in Soviet history, marking the start of de-Stalinization.)

Solaris was the most emotionally moving of the films, often called a masterpiece, and rightly so. In the film, aliens read an astronaut's mind and recreate his long-dead wife. She is so real to him that he loses his sense of reality and decides to live among the aliens, to live with his own memories.

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Community Newspaper Meeting

Monday, March 30, 2009

I met with a senior staff member at the Philadelphia Bulletin last week to discuss their approach to reporting and local new coverage. I subscribed back in October after receiving several free copies of the newspaper on my driveway. I originally thought the newspaper was delivered by mistake, but after it appeared a few times I realized they were free sample issues. I took a copy with me once to read over lunch and found the reporting engaging and read a high proportion of the articles. Matthew also liked it and asked that we subscribe.

I have been impressed by the paper and feel more connected to the city of Philadelphia. Their performing arts reporting is excellent and I have read many reviews that helped me appreciate performances I have attended.

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Community Last Daily Print Edition of The Christian Science Monitor

Monday, March 30, 2009

I have been a The Christian Science Monitor subscriber since 1982 and the last daily edition was printed on Friday; there will now be a weekly edition and more emphasis on their web site. The editor had an interesting message about the changes.

The Monitor always has great photos from around the world so I have set up an RSS feed that references their daily photo collection.

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Community San Diego F/A-18 Crash

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Details of an F/A-18 jet crash three months ago in San Diego have been released. The jet was experiencing engine trouble but chose to land at more distant airport (audio) rather than a closer one, reports indicate (article, article). While traveling to the more distant airport, the second engine failed, causing the pilot to eject and the plane to crash into two houses, killing four people (video).

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Thoughts Circus

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When I was eleven years old, I had a very demanding 5th grade teacher named Mr. Groff. I worked very hard that year to complete everything asked of me, but at the end of the year I wondered why I had worked so hard and whether my effort was worthwhile.

Then that summer, the prettiest girl in our class, who sat next to me and lived a block away, died in a plane crash in London while on vacation. I remember seeing one of her friends in a bowling alley and asking about her; he turned white and walked away. I asked someone why that happened and they said, "Haven't you heard? She was on that flight that crashed last month". I had seen a report about the crash on television, and remembered she was going to Europe for vacation, but I never suspected she was on that plane.

After a tough year at school, and seeing a friend just disappear like that, I started to wonder what was the purpose of school, of life. I then realized school was just a circus, making children jump through hoops and do tricks to get good grades and awards. Why would adults do this to children? I realized the circus was designed to get children to learn. From that point onward, I saw the circus for what it was and focused on learning and finding meaning in life.

When I became an adult, the circus was still there — be a success, get a good job, drive a nice car, look good, you will be happy if you buy this — these were the adult circus acts, and I tried to avoid them. And once you see the circus, you start to wonder what is beyond it.

I am reminded of the "Allegory of the cave" from Plato's Republic (text, diagram, video). People are chained in a cave, seeing only shadows projected on a cave wall. They spend their days analyzing the shadows. Eventually, someone escapes and sees the projection mechanism, and then leaves the cave to see the outside world. When he returns to the cave, he cannot focus on the shadows anymore and his stories seem fantastic, so the rest consider him mad and resolve to kill anyone who tries to unchain them. (A more contemporary example would be The Matrix; video).

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Community Economic Rebound?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

After a rough few months for Obama, it seems the economy might have hit bottom and might now be recovering. Just as 9/11 changed the course of the George W. Bush presidency, the economy might change Obama's (article, article).

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Technology iPod Touch

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A few weeks ago I decided to purchase an iPod Touch, also called an iTouch; I made the purchase for several reasons:

  • Compactness: I wanted something small enough to carry in a pocket, yet powerful enough so I could log into my servers at home to check email and do other simple tasks; having my laptop with me all the time isn't practical.
  • Apple product: I have heard much positive feedback about Apple's design decisions; I wanted to see what the excitement was all about.
  • Consumer device: Almost every computing device I have is server-oriented, meaning I can do anything I want with it. I wanted to try a consumer device with its limited user interface to understand how non-technical people deal with technology.
  • Touch screen interface: The touch screen seemed creative and I wanted to see how applications made use it.
  • Games: I knew my children would appreciate a small game computer, so I was sure the device would get used even if I found I had no use for it.

Impressions

  • Size: The iTouch is certainly a good size; it easily fits in my pants or jacket pocket. There are a lot of small-form-factor computing devices available, like the iTouch and netbooks. I looked at netbooks but they didn't seem significantly smaller/lighter than existing my T43 laptop.
  • Applications: There are thousands of applications for the iTouch, and many make creative use of the touch and tilt interfaces of the iTouch. For example, many games are better on the iTouch than they ever could be on a PC, similar to how Wii games are more intuitive than PC games. Typing using the touch interface is certainly easier than I thought, and you get good feedback about which key was pressed.
  • User interface: The iTouch interface is certainly different. On a continuum between complex/powerful and intuitive/limited, Unix/Linux would be on the complex/powerful end, Microsoft in the middle, and Apple on the intuitive/limited end. This video humorously explores Apple's limitations; even simple things like setting background wallpaper using web images are unusually complex. Apple provides a simple interface for transferring photos/videos/songs, iTunes, but transferring other file types requires add-on software. Saving files attached to email also requires nonintuitive steps. There is also no copy/paste of text between applications so you can't copy text from a web page and save it in a file, for example. Saving the contents of a web page for later viewing while offline is also not possible. These are considered trivial tasks for normal computers but not supported on the iTouch.
  • Kindle: Amazon's announcement that Kindle-formatted ebooks can be viewed on the iTouch certainly increases the usefulness of the iTouch. I doubt I would spend $360 USD for a Kindle but I might consider purchasing books for the iTouch. I have already tried a few free Kindle ebooks on the iTouch and the reading experience is acceptable. (article, article)
  • Internet access: The iTouch can only use the Internet via wifi, like at home or in the office. It can't access the Internet via a cell phone data service. The iPhone can do that, but I prefer to keep my good cell phone provider, I wasn't interested in adding another monthly fee, and I was worried an always-connected Internet device might be a distraction/temptation. (video)
  • Jailbreak: The iTouch has limited abilities; at some point I will probably jailbreak it so I can install server tools to make it more powerful (video instructions), but for now I will continue using my iTouch as Apple intended.

Update: It seems copy/paste support is coming in a few months when a new version of the software is released.

Update: I found I can save web images was wallpaper by holding my finger over an image for few seconds.

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Technology Dynamic Telephone Routing

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I have always felt that telephone call routing was unnecessarily rigid, e.g. it is difficult to route phone calls from one phone number to another, let alone change routing dynamically. It seems Google agrees and has created the Google Voice service to allow a single phone number to be routed to specific telephone devices programmatically. (article, article)

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Technology OSCON Talks Accepted

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two of my talks have been accepted for OSCON 2009, Preventing Data Loss Through Prudent Archiving and Practical Computerized Home Automation.

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Thoughts Working From Home

Monday, February 9, 2009

This interesting blog post describes the disadvantages and advantages of working from home. Having worked from home since about 1994 and having worked in an office only a few years of my life, I thought the analysis was creative.

When I did work in an office, I found the environment too quiet, but I also found a lot of my time wasn't productive. Working from home, I find it easier to work uninterrupted, but also more rewarding when I do take break.

Update: Useful statistics about telecommuting 2013-03-05

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Thoughts Irrational Bubbles

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This Atlantic article explains how the combined decisions of rational people almost guarantees the creation of irrational economic bubbles.

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History Soviet Films

Monday, February 2, 2009

Having finished several books, I am now going to watch a few Soviet films:

I have already seen Battleship Potemkin (1925) (movie). This is a summary of Soviet film history. Seems I am going to be reading lots of subtitles.

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History Fourth Book Finished

Monday, February 2, 2009

Two-thirds through my fourth Soviet book, Age of Delirium, I thought I understood the title — I thought it was about the elaborate fake reality created inside the Soviet Union. The last third of the book showed me I was wrong.

The "delirium" is not about the Soviet façade, but about the irrational desire of Soviet citizens to accept the façade as reality. The daily experience of every Soviet citizen should have made it clear that communist indoctrination was not changing fundamental human behavior, and that the communist system was a failure. Empty stores, lethargic factory work, irrational government rules, arbitrary arrest, travel prohibitions — every experience should have reinforced the sense of failure, but the Soviet press touted the USSR as the greatest country on earth (and life in the West as oppressive), and people believed it, because they wanted to believe it. Perhaps it was the desire avoid the pain of realizing the communist experiment started in 1917 was a waste, or that all the suffering had been in vain, or the desire to live for a larger, heroic goal. Only when the press became open about Soviet failures was the population no longer able to delude themselves and finally abandon the hope of a bright communist future. This book excerpt explores this behavior.

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History The Bomb You Never Knew

Monday, January 26, 2009

When the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, it ushered in the Atomic Age. The materials used in the bomb were generally well understood, but the mechanical details have never been officially reported. Through tireless research, John Coster-Mullen, a self-described amateur atomic archeologist, has overturned 50-year-old assumptions about the bomb's design. For example, the fact that the bullet was hollow and the rod was stationary was discovered only in 1996 based on John's research; formerly, it was assumed the rod was the projectile.

Update: This is a video interview of John Coster-Mullen. 2011-03-30

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Humor Hey Man, You Got A Second So I Can Fire You?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

With all the job cuts, this humorous article seems appropriate.

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Community Obama: The Completion

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I heard this opinion piece on the radio yesterday about the Obama inauguration and thought it was good.

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Technology HD Clarity Beyond Reality

Monday, January 19, 2009

This interesting article suggests improving your eyesight to appreciate the advantages of high definition (HD) video. What this is basically saying is that people are satisfied with a certain clarity when living in the real world, and non-HD video delivers a similar resolution. HD delivers resolution beyond the clarity people consider satisfactory for living in the real world, which might explain its lack of appeal.

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History Thoughts on Fourth Book

Monday, January 19, 2009

I am two-thirds through my fourth Soviet book, Age of Delirium. The book reads very quickly because of its narrative format.

I now understand why that title was chosen; the book focuses on people tangled in the Soviet façade during the last ten years of the USSR. The façade was created by the communist government to keep the population compliant, and included many fakes: citizen rights, laws, arrests, trials, trade unions, five-year plans, mental hospitals, labor camps, elections, news. The façade reinforced the belief that the Soviet Union was strong and just because of communism.

Soviet society was made up of the following four groups:

  • Idealists: believers in the Soviet system
  • Party Members: benefited from the Soviet system
  • Majority: accepted the Soviet system
  • Dissidents: tried to fight or flee the Soviet system

The façade helped to prevent revolt, and people who did resist were taken to the fake mental hospitals and labor camps; just the threat of arrest kept many people compliant. Once openness (Glasnost) exposed the façade, the majority no longer accepted the Soviet system because they understood its real structure.

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Technology Using RSS

Monday, January 12, 2009

Last year I blogged about RSS feeds. Well, it seems using RSS is still considered difficult, so Google has produced several videos about how to use RSS; several unofficial videos are also available.

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Technology Water Towers? Who Knew?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

You have probably noticed water towers on the top of New York City buildings. Well, believe it or not, they are still in use; this article has the details.

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Thoughts The Ineffectiveness of Airport Security

Thursday, January 1, 2009

This article argues that airport security can only catch dumb terrorists, and that smart ones can easily bypass the system.

Update: This article argues for more intelligent/flexible airport security has rules. 2010-08-04

Update: This article suggests dismantling the TSA completely. 2011-07-07

Update: A former head of the TSA speaks

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Technology Why I Blog

Thursday, January 1, 2009

This article from the The Atlantic explores why blogging is different from and complimentary to traditional print journalism. His description of how the immediacy of blogging generates unique contents is particularly interesting.

I should also mention I dislike the term "blogosphere". The term seems both pretentious and reflecting insecurity, like community "pride" events. When I hear "blogosphere" I think of a girls club created to share secrets on the playground; I can hear, "I joined the blogosphere. I joined the blogosphere. Blog pride now!".

I should also mention that while I use RSS to read news sources, I don't read many blogs myself, so maybe I am not part of the "blogosphere" at all (wow, it hurts to use that word ).

Oh, in case you didn't notice, I added an "Index View" option to the top of this blog page; it should make it easier to skim old blog entries.

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