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January 2009 Archives

BSG is back (no spoilers)

After tonight's episode of Battlestar Galactica, there are only 7 episodes left in the series. The show hit a slump in the third season which lasted into the early fourth season, but it's started to hit its stride again. Tonight's episode, in particular, pulls out an old plot device, but what's good is how they explore the little details of that event, the human side of what goes into something like this, and what comes out of it. Decisions have consequences on this show.

I started to lose faith in the show when it got all mystical; I'm glad to see the human element return (and in a more complex way than the early fourth season "Who can we trust?" gimmick). Tonight's episode wasn't one of the best by any means, but it is the kind of Battlestar I like.

Here's hoping the show can end on a high note! (Qualitywise, anyway. I don't necessarily expect this show to end on a high note storywise. :P)

Hit by a fishbot

I just got an IM on AIM from "nephewofacoho", whom I don't know: "THIS MESSAGE VIOLATES THE CYBER-BULLYING ACT OF 2007!!!!! PLEASE REPORT IT TO THE FBI!!!!!!". I occasionally get spam/phishing IMs on MSN, but this one contained no links, so I found it odd, and I searched for the username.

Turns out it's a harmless prank system. According to this blog post, the idea is that Person A (with screen name randomly guessed from various placed on the Internet, like Twitter) gets a fake message under a fake screen name. If they reply, the message goes to Person B, but with a different fake screen name, and this is the first time Person B has heard from Person A. Person B's responses appear under the original fake screen name, and Person A thinks that Person B IMed first. They then accuse each of spamming the other. Hilarity ensues?

Sadly, my Internet instincts prevented me from responding to the initial message, so I have no conversation to report. :P Now if you get a random IM from a screen name ending in Coho, Salmon, or Trout, you'll know what happened.

Happy Year of the Bovini!

[Water Buffalo]So a friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago: What exactly is the Chinese word used for "ox" in "Year of the Ox"? Apparently, oxen are castrated. So are steer. Cows are of course female. Bulls are male. I said that the Chinese word, 牛, (pronounced kinda like "neo" with the emphasis on the O) emcompasses all of them. In English, the closest we come to that is "cattle", but that's always plural! Is there a singular form of "cattle", meaning a single member of the Bos taurus species?

It seems that "ox" used to be that word, but these days it specifically means cattle used as draft animals, which are typically castrated males. In Australia and New Zealand, they sometimes use the term "cattle beast". And in the US, we often use the word "cow" in a gender-neutral way, possibly because most cattle here are cows, but that's only colloquial; saying, "That cow is a bull," still feels totally wrong. There really just isn't really a singular form of "cattle".

While we can't even come up with a word for the species, it occurred to me that the Chinese 牛 can encompass multiple genera! Bison, water buffalo, yaks, and musk oxen are all considered 牛. (Water buffalo (to your left) in particular are what come to mind when I think of the word in Chinese, and they are Bubalus bubalis, a totally different genus. They are specifically called 水牛, where the first character means "water".) In Wikipedia, the entry for 牛 maps to tribe Bovini (within family Bovniae, subfamily Bovidae).

(That was the first I've heard of tribes, actually. They didn't teach us subclassifications in school. I'm guessing my classes just simplified things, and tribes aren't some new thing? And interesting note is that our only surviving tribemates are chimpanzees. :D)

So the closest word in English to the Chinese 牛 might be "bovine", which can be used as a noun. Oddly, different dictionaries don't agree on what it includes. Random House and Merriam-Webster map it to subfamily Bovinae, as does Wikipedia, but American Heritage and Webster's Unabridged map it to genus Bos. I don't know about the latter, but I feel that the former isn't quite right, because, in addition to tribe Bovini, subfamily Bovinae also includes the tribes Boselaphini and Strepsicerotini, which are antelope-like! Antelopes don't colloquially feel like bovines to me!

Unfortunately, I haven't found any Chinese dictionaries that attempt to map 牛 to scientific classification, but I think tribe Bovini is the most reasonable. Perhaps appropriately, the Oxford English Dictionary maps "bovine" to "the ox tribe". Imprecise, but I like it better than the subfamily or the genus.

Oh, and Happy Year of the Bovini, everyone! :D

Quick notes on the inaugural speech of our 44th President

Just a few thoughts on Obama's inaugural address:

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath." My friend Paul points out that this statement is technically false. Obama is the 44th President, but Grover Cleveland is counted as both the 22nd and 24th Presidents due to his non-consecutive terms, so Obama is only the 43rd American to take the presidential oath. He only just took the oath of office, and he's already lying to us! :D ;)

"We will restore science to its rightful place..." Obama's respect for science is perhaps the biggest reason I support him. Just about any scientist will agree that climate change, not the Middle East or the economy, is our most pressing concern, though of course all three are linked.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers." I doubt the word "nonbeliever" has appeared in any of Bush's speeches, let alone his inaugural address...

Despite what people feel about Bush, I think we need to keep in mind how remarkable it is that we can have a peaceful transition of power like this. We usually take that for granted. Anyway, I wish our new President the best of luck. He's going to need it!

Sam Rockwell, space miner?

Hm, Sam Rockwell as a space miner, in an upcoming movie called Moon, directed by David Bowie's son? Count me in.

Live Movies and Football

I've ranted to my friends about the idea of live movies. I guess that live episode of ER was probably along those lines (though I didn't have a chance to watch it), but it's certainly not common. ... Or is it?

I just realized that we actually see live movies every week, more or less, but it's called football. That Atlantic article goes behind the scenes of a football broadcast, where a director watches a dozen video feeds at once and calls out which camera to switch to. The article gives us a glimpse of what his job is like:

“Aaaand go!” shouted Fish, a wiry man in faded blue jeans and a loose-fitting, long-sleeved cotton shirt, a headset clamped over a baseball cap. He was leaning up and out of his swivel chair, choosing shots and barking orders, arms elevated, snapping his long fingers loudly with each new command. “Go fan shot! Ready four. Take four! Ready eight. Take eight! Ready one. Take one! Ready 12. Take 12! Ready five. Take five! Ready thre—ready two. Take two! Ready three. Take three!”

Camera three, which Fish returned to just before the snap of the ball, offers a wide angle from above that’s used to frame the play. In this case, with one eye on the play clock, Fish snuck in one last scene-setting image—Burress lined up and looking back toward his quarterback—before returning to the wide angle as the ball was snapped.

This was just 30 seconds. The entire broadcast would last more than three and a half hours.

The article calls the director a "virtuoso", and I certainly agree. I've done some video editing, and it's quite an effort when you're doing it non-linearly with all the time in the world; I can barely imagine trying to edit to capture the right moments while presenting the right pacing and energy, all in real-time.

Unfortunately, the article misses the opportunity to give us a deeper look at this obscure art. It shows us a few examples of the directing. It quotes this director, "Fish", as being frustrated by the directors of other networks who have prioritized fan reaction shots over what's happening on the field. But I would love to find out more about how he chooses his shots. What considerations go into the cuts? When is it good to show a close-up of a player, and which ones? How often does the audience need to see a wide-angle view to maintain a mental map of the players during a play? What are his techniques for maintaining tension when not much is happening on the field? And who is managing the audio feeds, for that matter? The audio switches from players to fans while mixing in the commentators; the live-mixing of that feed must be just as demanding.

Sometimes when I've told friends about my live movies idea, they say it's just like filming live theater. I think the difference is that the camera is not an integral part of live theater. Even in a typical multi-camera sit-com, the cameras are mostly there just to capture the action; you typically have close-ups of the actors talking, and then mostly wide-angle shots beyond that. The camera is not, in a sense, an integral part of the performance. I would say that camera plays a much bigger role in football. Tight closeups of the action and precisely chosen montages both might raise the excitement if done just right. There are many more choices of characters to focus on, too, so the selection of shots adds meaning and effect to the broadcast that would not be present for the audience attending in person.

Another aspect of "live movies" in my opinion would be the use of special visual effects. I want to see live use of green-screens, sort of a Sin City in real-time kind of thing, so the actors can be in scenes with backgrounds that aren't made of cardboard. :) If you think about it, football already does this! That's what that yellow first-down line is! The entire field is a giant green-screen! :D Ars Technica once published a popular article about the technology behind football broadcasts. They have to start laser-scanning the field hours before each game to calibrate the first-down line drawing. Crazy.

I don't know if live movies with special effects will ever really take off as more than a novelty, but millions of people watch football every week. It's not quite a live movie, but it's pretty close!

Satellite Photo?

[Satellite Photo?] This is a photo shot by a friend of mine. What does it look like to you? At first glance in thumbnail form, I thought it was a satellite photo shot at night, with city lights, rivers, and a few small clouds. But that's not what it really is.

All the world's water and all the world's air


Credit: Adam Neiman / Science Photo Library

Original caption: Global water and air volume. Conceptual computer artwork of the total volume of water on Earth (left) and of air in the Earth's atmosphere (right) shown as spheres (blue and pink). The spheres show how finite water and air supplies are. The water sphere measures 1390 kilometres across and has a volume of 1.4 billion cubic kilometres. This includes all the water in the oceans, seas, ice caps, lakes and rivers as well as ground water, and that in the atmosphere. The air sphere measures 1999 kilometres across and weighs 5140 trillion tonnes. As the atmosphere extends from Earth it becomes less dense. Half of the air lies within the first 5 kilometres of the atmosphere.

Blogger Dan Phiffer double-checks the math and decides it works out. I discovered it via the Long Now Blog.


[Khan graph]

flashman on flickr made this graph of repetitions of the letter A in "KHAN" to Google search results. The highest peak after the initial dropoff is 48 As, at 1310 results. Let's bump that up then.



R.I.P. Ricardo Montalban...

P.S.: Ted, who sent me this link, told me I should link to this ytmnd as well. :P

Editorial from the grave

I don't know that much about the conflict between the government and Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but I found this very affecting: Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga was assassinated recently, and the paper he runs has published an editorial that he wrote, to be printed on the event of his assassination. It's an amazing read. I found it via this WaPo article, which gives a bit of background.

Banana Republics and Public Relations

Chiquita Banana Spokesbanana So I came upon this image of a Chiquita Banana spokesbanana, and I was thoroughly disturbed. Here's a YouTube video of a commercial she starred in! I ended up copying that picture as my daily doodle.

One of my Latin American friends commented that he wishes I had chosen another subject. I assume he was referring to Chiquita's history as United Fruit Company, and its history of starting wars and molding governments in Central America to maximize its bottom line, thus leading to the term "banana republic". I had in fact earlier today been reading about banana republics because of this drawing, and I replied with a comment so long I'm going to make it part of this blog post:

Actually, drawing this led me to read up on the United Fruit Company and its role in inducing the CIA to topple the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala (Operation PBSUCCESS), based on faulty intelligence that Arbenz was in league with the Soviets, when he wasn't, and thus leading to 52 years of civil strife in which hundreds of thousands would die, and millions would be displaced.

It was really interesting and sad, especially how the CIA at the time saw Guatemala as the gold standard of how to stage a coup, but it's now clear that it was a total disaster.

And actually, one of the most fascinating parts of it all was how the coup was staged in part with the propaganda services of Edward Bernays, self-styled "father of public relations" (though that title was in itself a bit of PR). The coup was a military failure until large portions of the Guatemalan army defected, so Bernays' work may well have been instrumental. He was a big fan of influencing "third party authorities", who would then convince the public of the good of the product. (One example is how he got doctors to tell patients to eat bacon and eggs because a heavy breakfast was important.. in order to sell bacon.)

The concept of PR is fundamentally disturbing to me because it's all about hacking our brains.. and the public has the short end of the stick in the arms race. (Then again, the public has the short end of the stick in any arms race, but brain-hacking seems especially unfair. :\ )

* * *

[Diego Rivera's Glorious Victory]

This is Diego Rivera's sarcastically titled, "Glorious Victory", depicting nominal coup leader Castillo Armas shaking hands with CIA Director Allen Dulles in the center, while Dulles holds a bomb with President Eisenhower's face on it. (Allen Dulles was on the Board of Directors of United Fruit Company at the time of the coup.) Next to him is US Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy, handing money to various military men. Meanwhile, people are being butchered and tied up while others load bananas onto a ship.

* * *

Oh so this stuff isn't just history. From 1997 through 2004, Chiquita paid protection money [official DOJ release] to the Colombian terrorist organization AUC. The AUC was designed as a terrorist organization by the US government in 2001, and Chiquita kept making payments even though some of their lawyers advised them not to. Their board of directors eventually self-disclosed to the DOJ, but they kept on making payments until they finally plead guilty and paid a $25 million fine. (They have since sold off their Colombian division to a local company.)

Top 12 of 2008


Some people on the photography list at work were posting their top 10 photos of 2008, so here's my stab at it. (You might also want to try this scrollable flickriver view.) Didn't quite manage to get it down to 10, but oh well. :) It's sorted in chronological order.

* * *

I thought I'd take this chance to mention that if you don't want to follow every photo on my photostream, you can see a smaller subset of the more visually interesting ones in the Everything Good set (currently 236 photos) or the even smaller Only the Best set (currently 78 photos). Both are sorted in reverse chronological order, so you can always see the latest ones at the beginning.

Keep Back 500 Feet

Keep Back 500 Feet

The sign on the back of this fire truck says "Keep Back 500 Feet". That's a whole city block! One and a half football fields! There's no way I could possibly read that sign from that distance! So I'd have to get up close to even read it! Wtf? Is this a joke?

That was my reaction, and why I took this picture while stopped behind the truck at a red light. Upon further research, I discovered that it really is the law to keep back 500 feet from a fire truck, but only if it is responding to an emergency, with lights flashing.

But in that case, why doesn't the say "Keep Back 500 Feet When Siren Is On" or something like that? It would only take up one more line, and of course they clearly don't expect you to read it from 500 feet away anyway. :P

Stupid design choices: Wi-Fi switch

A while back my cousin told me the wi-fi on her laptop stopped working. I looked all over the control panel, network settings, and I couldn't figure it out for the life of me. Eventually, she figured it out herself: There was a wireless networking on/off switch on the bottom of her computer, next to the battery release.




I had failed to diagnose the problem because I had no idea such a thing existed.

Today, a friend had trouble with getting wireless working, and again it turned out to be the wi-fi switch again, this time on the front of the computer at least.

What on Earth is the purpose of this switch? So you have an easy way of disabling your wireless for airplanes I guess? Or to save battery? As far as I can tell, the only purpose is to confound people whose wireless suddenly stops working.

(Perhaps my indignation is misplaced. Perhaps the switch is necessary because of the poorly chosen system tray icon that Windows uses for wireless? There's just a generic networking icon consisting of two computers. Maybe the laptop manufacturers had no faith in the ability of users to find the setting to disable wi-fi?)

Doom and Gloom! (A rambly review of Dino Run)

I'm here to review the awesome Flash game Dino Run, but I'm going to talk about Ebert first.

Roger Ebert has a blog now, and his last entry of 2008 was very doom and gloom, about how the world is really messed up. He replies to a lot of comments, and when one commenter said, "Basically, short of an asteroid the size of Texas hitting this planet, I remain optimistic that we will survive it all and find the way," he responded with a YouTube clip from Discovery Channel animation of an asteroid impacting Earth. Cheery guy. :)

Over the holidays, I've been playing a number of Flash games*, and, that very day, I encountered Dino Run, a game where you play an adorable pixelated velociraptor trying to outrun an asteroid impact. When the game starts, you see the extinction-level asteroid land in the distance:

[Dino Run Asteroid Impact]

Your main job is to run like hell. There are lots of other dinosaurs running along with you, on the ground and in the air, while meteor chunks crash around you:

[Dino Run with Triceratops and Pterodactyls

You want to collect some eggs (to preserve the species) along the way, and you can eat some smaller dinosaurs, (It's every dino for itself!) but you have to be careful not to dawdle; if you do, you'll have an intimate encounter with the Wall of Doom, essentially the wavefront of the asteroid collision that's always chasing you:

[Dino Run Wall of Doom]

Dino Run does a great job of imbuing you with an overwhelming sense of urgency and dread. You want to collect eggs, but if you accidentally miss one, you don't dare go back for it. You have to press on, lest your greed cause you and the eggs you've collected perish in the flames of doom. This game somehow seemed very apt in light of Ebert's blog post and comment reply.

Ironically, Ebert is notoriously harsh on the artistic merit of video games. :P While I respect him greatly when it comes to movies, I have to disagree with him there. I think this game is a great example of using the unique qualities of the medium. The sense of dread as I work frantically to outrun the Wall of Doom is much greater because I control the dinosaur than if I were watching an animated movie about a dinosaur outrunning a Wall of Doom. (In video game critical theory, this sense of control is called "agency".)

Doom and gloom! It's the zeitgeist! I bet if this game came out ten years ago, I would've found it to be just another game. I probably wouldn't have read that much into its theme. Then again, it might not have been made ten years ago; the game itself is quite likely a product of our times.

Btw, Dino Run is by PixelJam. They also made a space shooter called Gamma Bros. That's worth playing, too, though I don't have as much to say about it. :)

* * *

P.S.: I decided to start doing a doodle every day. Today's my first one, and it's inspired by Dino Run.

* * *

*I've mostly been playing Flash games on the game hub Kongregate. A lot of them are rather lame, but there are some gems. My friend Paul (linked to on the side) has turned his blog into nothing but reviews of games on Kongregate, so if you want to read more Flash game reviews than you can shake a stick at, you can go check it out.

I first discovered Kongregate through a number of platformer puzzle games. I'd recommend Chronotron, where you can go back in time and interact with previous copies of yourself, Portal: The Flash Version, a fan-made 2D game inspired by the awesome game Portal [YouTube trailer]. There's also the rather original Shift series, which has nice self-referential sense of humor. Finally, this isn't a platformer, but another good puzzle game with a sense of humor is SolaRola.

On the "art game" front you might want to check out I wish I were the Moon and The Majesty of Colors. They're both very quick to play. I also found Aether rather beautiful, though that takes a bit longer to get used to.

Finally, the prize for most ridiculous game every goes to You Have To Burn The Rope, which tells you what to do right in the title, and that's about all there is to do. :)

About January 2009

This page contains all entries posted to the klog in January 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2008 is the previous archive.

February 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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