Saturday, June 28, 2008

On J.K. Rowling's Commencement Address at Harvard

J.K. Rowling was given an honary doctorate by Harvard. Often these are given for secondary services (such as to big donors or to political hacks that need pedigree authority), but in her case I can see the legitimacy: She's had the life experience and demonstrated success to have deserved such a title post-facto. Here is a selection of her commencement speech which evidences her wisdom:
I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
The rest is equally satisfying.


[image/quote] "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination: Harvard University Commencement Address" The Harvard University Gazette. June 5, 2008 (Accessed June 28, 2008)

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tiger Woods is my single interest in golf

There is short article on yahoo news about Tiger Woods on-going, 10 month injury during this season's play. I don't play golf, but ever since Tiger came on the scene a few years ago I have been casually watching golf on TV. His courage, focus, and realistic easy-going attitude is a great thing to behold. Of course, his life story is equally interesting, much of it documented in great detail by the media events following him.

Here is a guy who just had surgery to repair a torn ligament on his left knee for an injury which has been bugging him for a good 10 months, yet he outright won the last nine of his 12 tournaments. As if that wasn't enough, he then suffers a double stress fracture of his left tibia while preparing to return to the PGA Tour last month. As videos show, the guy is obviously in pain while he's playing -- but he still wins the U.S. Open!

My feeling has always been I needed to watch Woods play when I could; since, from what my untrained, uninformed mind can tell, he might just be the greatest golf player in history. (The last athlete which transfixed me was Michael Jordan during his Chicago Bull super-season years.)

When athletes rise to the very top of their field, they seem to become representative of that which is more than their sport, for they reveal something virtuous about the perfect mix of great talent, extraordinary self-discipline, and just barely fathomable performances.

There are a couple of links to good videos and a slide show on the Yahoo news story as well.


[image] Lewine Mair "US Open: Tiger Woods holds nerve to claim 14th major in epic duel with Rocco Mediate" Telegraph June 17, 2008 (Accessed June 17, 2008)

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sugarland (Country duo), and other great voices

I have head this woman's voice on the radio now and then, and only recently discovered that she is the singer for Sugarland, a group that's seen some success in the last couple of years. (Her name is Jennifer Nettles.) I have a long-time, listening ear for country music, though it's hard to follow the industry just by casual radio listening, since so much of country music is driven by a popular listening audience, and therefore not of much interest to me. It's not that recent country music is bad per say these days -- it's better than it was in the mid-90s, that's for sure -- but a lot of what gets airplay it is highly generic.

One of the things I listen for in country music singers, and probably in singers generally, is a uniqueness of voice -- one that cannot be duplicated merely by singing the notes on the chart. Anyone who watches shows like American Idol have no doubt observed that many people have excellent singing talent, but they could just as well sing one another's material, and there would be little to notice. (This is not as evident toward the end of Idol's talent contest, since product differentiation -- and the voice being a part of that -- becomes more pronounced.)

I happen to think Jennifer Nettles has a unique voice -- yes, somewhat nasally, but in a most pleasing way. And, really, I'd say about half of the greatest country music voices do have magical, nasally tones. So I am not complaining here; I'm complimenting her, you see. And there's a lot to like about the production of some of Sugarland's videos also. ("Baby Girl", for example.)

Again, one thing to carefully separate is a merely identifiable voice, from a truly unique voice. To use country music as an example, the 80s and early 90s, Garth Brooks, an easy to identify voice, dominated the country airwaves. Some of the record labels were trying to capture some of this market, and a few sound-alikes appeared. Clay Walker, for instance, could be very similar sounding to Garth Brooks. Garth was easy to duplicate, and thus not unique, as I'm using the term. And, true to my argument, I was a fan of neither. Garth had a few good songs, but the songwriter, not the singer, should get credit for that. I think quite a few singers could have made some of G.B.'s songs popular.

Finally, some of my favorite unique voices in country music (along with some video links) are as follows: George Jones, Vestal Goodman, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yokum, Loretta Lynn . Naturally, there are many more, but I lost too many hours of my life just swimming around on YouTube listening to great music videos already.


Okay, just one more: Patsy Cline.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Go with Kindle or stick with Guttenberg?

In my profession, one must read a lot of books. And one must not only read them; you pretty much must like the whole process -- that of acquiring them, reading them, recommending them to others, and even displaying them like trophies after a great hunt. Yes, there have been many people who wax eloquently about books; so, it is with some difficulty that I'll resist the temptation to do so myself.

I suppose I should count myself an exception to the otherwise standard American adult: "A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study reported that only 57 percent of adults read a book—any book—in a year. That was down from 61 percent a decade ago."[1] I was alive and reading a decade ago, and I assure you I read more now. (I have more time now.)

One implication of reading a lot of books is that one must maintain quite a bit of real-estate for a those books. I have an academic office with quite a bit of bookshelf space, but it's always pressed for space, and I am forced to hire a trustful, even persnickety undergraduate about every three to four years to rearrange everything back into a useable library. Sadly, in my study at home, family and friends are at risk of an avalanche, since I dutifly place books not only onto my floor, but into two, floor-to-ceiling shelves. But then, running out of space, I double stack them front and back on each self; and, finally, I start tucking them on onto the lip of the bottom shelf stacking horizontally, and eventually just sticking them whereever all mishmash. I've done this for two years. People are starting to remark that they fear looking at some book of interest, because to remove it is equivalent to risking an injurous jenga-like avalanch of books. (Anyone else want to fess-up to a similar problem?)

My continual acquisition of books also contributes to the overall badness of global warming and energy consumption:
Microsoft's Bill Hill has a riff where he runs through the energy-wasting, resource-draining process of how we make books now. We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. "Do you really believe that we'll be doing that in 50 years?" he asks. The answer is probably not, and that's why the Kindle matters.

And there it is -- the issue: The Kindle. What the heck is a Kindle? Well, here's the full synopsis, duly stolen from Wikipedia:
Amazon Kindle is an electronic book (e-book) device launched in the United States by in November 2007. It uses an electronic paper display, reads the proprietary Kindle (AZW) format, and downloads content over Amazon Whispernet, which uses the Sprint EVDO network. The Kindle can be used stand alone without a computer. Whispernet is accessible through Kindle without any fee.[1] On the release day, the Kindle Store had more than 88,000 digital titles available for download. Amazon's first offering of the Kindle sold out in five and a half hours and the device remained out of stock until late April 2008.[...] The Kindle features a 6" diagonal, 4-level grayscale electrophoretic display (E Ink material) with a resolution of 600×800 pixels (167 ppi), although the largest graphic image that can be displayed without being resized in a publication is 450x550 pixels. It measures 5.3 inches × 7.5 inches × 0.7 inches and weighs 10.3 ounces. The Kindle has 256 MB of internal storage, of which 180 MB is available on a new device. An SD memory card expansion slot is present, officially supporting cards up to 4 GB in size. It has 64 MB of RAM. The battery lasts roughly two days with wireless on, and one week with wireless off. The battery charges in about two hours. A USB 2.0 port (mini-B connector) is available for connecting to a computer (where it acts as a USB flash drive). [And] the Kindle features a headphone jack...."[2]

As Wikipedia articles on gadgets will, the description goes on and on. It recognizes all the text formats you ever heard of and, while a bit plain jane in looks, apparently works quite well.

Actually, I now know it works quite well. As I was writting this post, a collegue of mine called me into his office to see his new toy. Yep, it was a Kindle. My expectations of the Kindle and my experience of it matched. It is a nice device, feels just like you'd expect, and the on-screen text is superbly easy to read. It so happens my collegue is going for an overseas jaunt, and could not very well carry 20 books with him -- "It would be like packing another suitcase for the plane, and an overweight one at that!" 'Gotta give him that practical observation.

I might end up getting one of these, but at $350+, the cost is just a bit higher than I can see justification for at this time. I think the Kindle is the future of reading, though I wonder how long it will take all of these little carry-along devices -- phones, PDAs, bookreaders, laptops, etc. -- to integrate into a single universal information device. It's obvious that's where things are heading, but what's not so obvious is how a thrifty person is to make the transition in the mean time.



[1] Steven Levy, "The Future of Reading" Newsweek Nov 26, 2007 (Accessed June 2, 2008)

[2] "Amazon Kindle" Wikipedia (Accessed June 2, 2008)

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Mars Phoenix Lander mission white lies .

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that The Mars Phoenix Lander is the latest robotic spacecraft to make a planetary exploration mission on Mars. What I find interesting about the mission is that the scientists conducting the show are claiming that their instruments are only looking for environments suitable for microbial life on Mars, not for evidence of life on Mars. Essentially, their plug is that by researching the history of water on Mars, they can assess whether the odds are better or worse for life having arisen there.

Their plug is a white lie. Believe me, NASA scientists are doing both tasks simultaneously. (More on that in a moment.) The reason they must tell such a lie is that by so doing NASA can squeeze an extra mission or two of funding from congress for future landers. And, of course, by claiming that the Phoenix Lander was never meant to look for life, when none happens to be found, this doesn't get to count as a counter-argument for not sending any more landers there. Overall, then, this white lie is convenient political cover for keeping Mars exploration going, and convenient scientific cover for obscuring counter-evidence for a thesis that the vast majority of NASA scientists desperately hope is true -- that there was, is, or in the future could be, microbial life on Mars.

Let me now explain why the Phoenix lander is indeed well equipped to find microbial life on Mars. First, and I think sufficient in itself to establish my claim, the lander contains very powerful optical microscopes on board. For example, just yesterday, the lander took pictures of dust particles smaller than can be see by the human eye. As compared to other instruments on other landers, the resolution of the most recent images are "10 times that of previous pictures of the surface taken by NASA's Mars rovers"[1]. These microscopes can also return images with color differentiation, which adds a host of powerful analysis of information about the various objects of investigation. Furthermore, the imaged particle recovered from the lander's descent was a mere "three millimeter diameter silicone target"[1]

Second, the lander has not just optical microscopes, but also an atomic force microscope. From the mission website itself:
The optical microscope will have a resolution of 4 microns per pixel, allowing detection of particles ranging from about 10 micrometers up to the size of the field of view (about 1 millimeter by 2 millimeters). Red, green, blue, and ultraviolet LEDs will illuminate samples in differing color combinations to enhance the soil and water-ice structure and texture at these scales. The atomic force microscope will provide sample images down to 10 nanometers - the smallest scale ever examined on Mars. Using its sensors, the AFM creates a very small-scale "topographic" map showing the detailed structure of soil and ice grains.[2]
This kind of imaging can give conclusive evidence for the existence of microbial life. Here are some examples of microscopic fossils on Earth, fossils of just the type that could be resolved by the Phoenix Lander's equipment:

Note well that this is a 20 micron image,[3] but the microscopes on The Phoenix Lander are rated for images five times smaller than this! If we move up to "larger" microscopic fossils, then the whole issue is ludicrously obvious. For example, the picture below[4] is of some of the more commonly found fossil types which are in the 100s of micron size. Even a High School freshman could identify these as once-living creatures:

In conclusion, do not believe for a moment that The Phoenix Lander could not determine whether there is life on Mars. If any microscopic fossils are within reach of that arm, and if any of those happened to be resolved by the lander, the evidence for that life will be unambiguous.



[1] Catherine Elsworth and Roger Highfield "Nasa's Phoenix Mars lander takes most detailed pictures ever of alien dust" Telegraph (Accessed June 6, 2008)

[2] "Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory" Phoenix Mars Mission Site (Accessed June 6, 2008)

[3] "Index Fossils" Belvedere (Accessed June 6, 2008)

[4] "Introductory Micropalenontology" Site of Dr. Ramadan Abu-Zied, Geology Dept., Mansoura University (Accessed June 6, 2008)

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