Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Solutions Looking for a Problem

Some products are solutions looking for a problem. (The The Snuggie and the The Grater Plater come to mind...)

But The Office Kid is not such a product.

"The Office Kid" provides childless workers with the very same luxury that people with kids have known for years, the built-in excuse.

"Sorry boss, kid's got a dentist appointment..."

"Can't stay late today, my son's got a soccer game..."

"You know I'd love to pitch-in on the project but the nanny called in sick..."

The Office Kid comes with a welcome letter with step-by-step instructions and starter excuses, a framed picture of a kid, original kids artwork for cubicle display and a menu of additional materials such as your image photoshopped into a kids sports team picture and a doctor's note on authentic stationery.

Heck, I'm using my actual kid to leave work early today and now you can too!

Monday, August 24, 2009

One more thing...

The fair is in town and Littlefoil loves the carousel...and so do I.

And then while I'm away...

We're getting ready for another summer trip, this time to Sebago Lake in Maine.

I'm sure that I'll have images to share next week but it might be a bit quiet around here for a few days.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for a short distraction from your work day, I offer this link to cut you down to size geographically.

Ever hear about surveys of US schoolchildren who can't identify the US states on a map? Don't be so smug next time!

I expect honest reportage of your scores in the "Comments" section of this post.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Aptly Named Bolt

Over the course of my undistinguished athletic career, I have played organized baseball, soccer, football, basketball, tennis and even volleyball. In each I achieved a reasonable level of competence if never excelling in any of them.

For the most part, I never really dreamed of greater things. I never wished that I was taller or stronger. I would have liked to have been better at hitting baseball or shooting a basketball but for the most part I was happy being good enough just to get some playing time.

Except for one thing. I always wished that I was fast. I would have loved streaking down the sideline, increasing the gap between me and everyone else. I wanted to stretch singles into doubles and fly diagonally across the field to lay out the kick returner just before he reached the end-zone.

I can visualize myself hauling-ass across a ball field…a totally graceful, economy of motion, locked-in-the-groove picture of speed. I don’t know what “fast twitch muscle fibers” are but I've heard of them and I imagine that my legs are full of them…twitching like crackling electricity, potential energy just boiling to go kinetic!

I wish I had speed.

Usain Bolt has speed. I first heard of him last summer during the Olympics and yesterday he broke the world record in the 100 meters at the World Championships in Berlin.

Check out this video and watch him…speed as pure joy. And dig the Italian commentary too!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Feeling significant?

You're not. You're just the tiniest spec in an impossibly huge universe that might just be the tiniest spec in a foamy sea of universes...

That brings to mind Douglas Adams' novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe , in which he conjures up the most insidious torture device in the universe - The Total Perspecive Vortex.

"When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."

The effect, of course is to melt the brain of anyone who experiences it. (Except for Zaphod Beeblbrox who survives and even thrives for reasons that I won’t delve into here,)

Adam’s summed up the genius of the device by saying that "In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, 1915-2009

Pneumonia killed Les Paul today . He was 94 years old.


Give us two minutes and we’ll give you the Big Bang.

Got it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Still Super

I have seen Elle McPherson naked. Not naked. But topless. S'true. This goes back about 10 years. I was with a group of friends staying at a house on a private beach and Elle McPherson lived next door.


One our first day we all walked down the trail to the beach and literally had to step around Ms. McPherson who was sunbathing topless. I think one of us said "hello" and we set up camp about 100 feet down the beach.

What I can tell you is that Elle McPherson is right neighborly. Very nice in fact. Since she knew the owner of the house we were staying at, she came over after a couple of hours to introduce herself and say hello.

She was, by this time, no longer topless.

What I can also tell you is that she was really beautiful. Strikingly, naturally beautiful. And that was without make-up or a hair-stylist or anything. She just was.

That day came to mind when I came across these portraits by photographer Peter Lindbergh. For the September issue of Harper's Bazaar, Lindbergh shot eight super-models without make-up, excessive retouching or complicated styling.

Turns out that pretty is just pretty.

(Click on the pictures to embiggen...)

Tip of the cap to Fashionologie via Jason Kottke's blog .

Jello Instant Depression

This might be the most depressing commercial I’ve ever seen. After the existential despair of the first 25 seconds, our harried housekeeper appears to have just two choices - hang herself in the closet or make some Jello Pudding.

Who knew that “The Busy-Day Dessert” could head off despair? Who knew that Jello Pudding was “nourishing?”

Seriously. The angry scribbling over the face of the harried housekeeper, suggestive enough of self-harm, combined with the bizarre, stilted cadence of that disembodied voice..."din-ner time oh din-ner time" is incredibly scary!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gog and Magog?

An article by James A. Haught for the Council for Secular Humanism recounts a conversation between George W. Busch and French President Jacques Chirac when the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” in preparation for the Iraq invasion.

Bush apparently told Chirac that “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

Err, Gog and Magog? Turns out that the Old Testament book of Ezekiel contains two chapters (38 and 39) in which God rages against Gog and Magog, mysterious forces menacing Israel. God vows to “turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws,” and slaughter them ruthlessly. In the New Testament, they show up again in the book of Revelation, this time gathering nations for battle, “and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”

Think of that. In the eyes of The President of the United States, the war against Iraq was nothing less than a religious war based on Biblical prophesies of agents of the apocalypse.

Holy shit right? I mean HOLY SHIT!

The conversation between Bush and Chirac is reported in an article in the French-language Swiss newspaper, Le Matin Dimanche as well as France’s La Liberte. Canada’s Toronto Star has reported the story but the only US newspaper to cover it so far is The Charleston Gazette out of West Virginia.

(The article from the Toronto Star can be found here . The article from the Charleston Gazette can be found here but it should be noted that it was also written by James Haught and is therefore not an additional source. Further it was posted as an opinion column. I was unable to locate the articles in La Liberte , possibly because I don’t speak French. How ‘bout that dear readers? Dig the work I do so you don’t have to!)

Chirac himself confirms the conversation in a long interview with French journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, who relates the story in his book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai (If You Repeat it, I Will Deny), released in March by the publisher Plon. ( Here is the link to the book on Amazon’s French site.)

I don’t care how deep or shallow your religious convictions are, this is clearly fringe-element stuff. Did you think that we invaded Iraq to find and destroy their weapons of mass destruction or did you think that we were fulfilling biblical prophesy?

This is not the first piece of evidence that the Bushies were pursuing religious madness. This 2005 article from the UK’s Guardian details conversations that Busch had with the Palestinian Foreign Minister in which he said "I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."

God talks to George W. Bush. Or he’s hearing voices. Either way…

Earlier this year GQ Magazine broke a story that revealed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to present daily intelligence briefings to Bush that featured apocalyptic bible verses side-by-side with battle photographs from Iraq. Here are some examples of the cover sheets of those reports . (Click each image to embiggen...)

It is becoming clear that the war in Iraq was about one gang of religious fundamentalists bent on destroying another gang of religious fundamentalists. These guys are all far-side nut jobs who, getting off on a John Wayne vibe and gobbling up freedom fries, led us into a war that didn’t have to happen and cost the lives of over four thousand Americans and the lives of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians .

I’m just having such a hard time swallowing this. It is so outrageous, so…outlandish that I can hardly believe that it’s true. I keep thinking back to an earlier paragraph in this post where I said that this is “clearly fringe element stuff” but I wonder, is it really?

Because to me, this is bat-shit crazy medieval mythology. You would have to be completely nuts to believe in any of it much less act upon it as the leader of the free world. Gog and Magog? Are you serious?

Apparently Bush was.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Big Picture Doing What The Big Picture Does...

... on the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima , Japan.

There are gut-wrenching images therein.

He Gave Us Duckie But Steff Remains Iconic.

Just read that John Hughes died. 59 years old on a morning walk in New York City and pow, heart attack.

Ferris Bueller, Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Home Alone, Pretty In Pink, Uncle Buck, Sixteen Candles...

It all seems pretty light-weight until you consider the impact he had on the popular culture...it was pretty darn big.

So there it is. John Hughes.

I know. I know. That's not John Hughes. But I can't resist showing Steff. I just can't.

Ruby News Day

We just got word that Ruby has a new home.

Recall that we had to give our dog Ruby away last week (you can read about her here and here ).

We just received an email from PAWS New England that says she's doing great with a family with a fenced in yard and another dog. No behavior problems of any kind.

The new family even joked about her being under-foot ALL the time which is funny because she was. ALWAYS under foot.

Happy news that makes a hard thing a little bit easier.

How To Get Involved In Real Live Research

Also unrepentantly stolen from Wired’s Science Blog

This is a pretty painless and novel way to make a contribution to science and research. Donate your spare processing power!

Solving the climate change problem or curing cancer can seem like Everest-scale problems that anyone who isn’t a millionaire philanthropist or brilliant scientist can do nothing about. But now you, and all your Facebook friends, can pitch in.

Intel has created an application for Facebook that allows people to donate their computers’ spare processing power to scientific research.

“The more computers we have, the better calculations we can do,” said biochemist David Baker of the University of Washington, who uses volunteer computing for his research via Rosetta@Home , which is working on cures for cancer and myriad other diseases. “There is no upper limit.”

Volunteer computing for science has been around since 1999 when SETI put lay people to work searching for ET , but the strategy had limited reach.

Since then developers have created a general version of the SETI@home software, called BOINC (Berkeley open infrastructure for network computing), as a tool for any type of scientific computing.

The biggest remaining hurdle is that people don’t know about volunteer computing. Worldwide, there are about 50 BOINC projects that engage only about 317,000 volunteers.

But now the same strategy can tap into massive preexisting social networks and marshal far more computing power.

This could be a major help for scientists who are limited by the processing power available to them. For University researchers and other scientists who don’t work at a national lab with a petaflop supercomputer, this can be quite limiting indeed.

“We saw Facebook as a great way to bring large numbers to volunteer computing,” said John Cooney, online programs manager for Intel.

Facebook users can choose from three projects: Rosetta@Home, Climateprediction.net , which is predicting the Earth’s climate and testing the accuracy of climate models; and Africa@Home , which is studying simulation models of malaria transmission and the potential impact of new anti-malarial drugs and vaccines.

“To me, the interesting thing is how this gives people a way to practically and constructively engage in major issues of the day,” said Matt Blumberg, executive director of the nonprofit Grid Republic, which developed the application, called Progress Through Processors , with Intel. “It’s better to be part of solution than to be sitting on the sidelines and throwing up your hands.”

To address potential security concerns, BOINC creates a folder on volunteers’ computers that has no access to the rest of the file system. Data is transferred using state-of-the-art cryptography. And the program takes a backseat to volunteers’ demands on their processors.

“No third-party site ever contacts your computer,” said Blumberg. “It’s only your computer that reaches out. In terms of security risk, it’s comparable to browsing the web or reading email.”

To keep scientists feeling secure as well, the software duplicates processing to make sure volunteers don’t alter data. Even if volunteers do glimpse research topics, the risk to the projects is minimal.

“In the case of Rosetta@home, which has about 150,000 people participating, each person only gets 1/150,000 of the problem,” Blumberg said.

A Murder of Crows*

Unrepentantly stolen from Wired’s Science Blog

Clever Crows Prove Aesop’s Fable Is More Than Fiction
By Hadley Leggett, August 6, 2009

Aesop’s fables are full of talking frogs and mice who wear clothes, but it turns out at least one of the classic tales is scientifically accurate.

Researchers presented four crows with a challenge from Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”: a container of water not quite full enough for the birds to reach with their beaks. Just like Aesop’s crow, all four birds figured out how to raise the water level by dropping stones into the glass. The crows also selectively chose large pebbles over small ones, and quickly realized that dropping rocks into a container of sawdust didn’t have the same effect.

“The results of these experiments provide the first empirical evidence that a species of corvid is capable of the remarkable problem-solving ability described more than two thousand years ago by Aesop,” wrote the researchers in the paper published Thursday in Current Biology. “What was once thought to be a fictional account of the solution by a bird appears to have been based on a cognitive reality.”

The researchers took four adult rooks, a type of intelligent crow, and tempted them with a tasty worm floating on top of a glass of water, just out of reach. Then they placed a pile of small rocks next to the crows. After they assessed the height of the water from the top and sides of the glass, the crows dropped stones into the glass until the water level rose enough for them to grab their prize.

Once they’d caught the worm, the birds didn’t keep putting stones in the glass, and they didn’t try to grab the worm until they’d dropped in a certain number of stones. “This number was strongly correlated to the number of stones needed to raise the water level to the correct height,” the researchers wrote, “suggesting that, having assessed the starting level of the water, rooks translated this into an estimate of the number of stones needed.”

Before this experiment, the birds had never been exposed to a glass with water in it, and they’d never used stones as tools. According to the researchers, the only other animal known to perform this kind of task is the orangutan, which has been recorded spitting into a tube to bring a peanut into reach.

Corvids are remarkably intelligent, and in many ways rival the great apes in their physical intelligence and ability to solve problems,” said biologist Christopher Bird of the University of Cambridge in a press release. “This is remarkable considering their brain is so different to the great apes’.”

The antics of the four birds — Cook, Fry, Connelly and Monroe — can be seen in the videos below. Cook and Fry snagged the floating worm after just one try, while Connelly and Monroe succeeded after two attempts. Unfortunately, Fry had a bad reaction to one of the worms and gave up in the middle of the experiment.

Connelly captures the worm…

Monroe picks out the larger stones…

Cook realizes that it doesn’t work with sawdust…

*A group of crows is called a "murder."

Summer Vacation

Last year JillFoil and I went to Block Island for a quick two-day vacation…you can read about it here .

We had such a good time that we returned this summer with a big chunk of the family in tow and spent a whole week.

It already feels as if it were ages ago...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dog Day

You might remember our dog Ruby from my post last September about treating her for heart worm.

Ruby came to us at the end of last summer from PAWS New England , a rescue group who works to place un-wanted or abandoned dogs in safe, caring homes.

When we first met her, she was over-weight and her coat was pretty ratty and patchy but her winning personality shined right through. She’s a bit of a doofus and she’s constantly under-foot but she’s a real sweetheart and is amazingly tolerant of LittleFoil who has been known to yank on her ears, tail and even her tongue.

And never a snap or a growl from Ruby.

With a regular, healthy diet, she dropped the excess weight and her coat is now a gorgeous, deep, shiny, chocolate brown.

It’s hard to write about her in this way – and in the present tense – because yesterday morning we had to give Ruby away.

Over the past two months, Ruby had become very territorial in our yard. When walking in the woods or at the beach, no problem. She was friendly with other dogs and people.

But in our yard, she would get very aggressive - even with people just walking by on the street. Finally, several weeks ago she took a shot at a young kid from our neighborhood. She didn’t break the skin but she definitely snapped at the boy.

Two weeks after that she took a shot at another neighborhood kid (ironically the cousin of the first boy) and this time she broke the skin. Right on the buttocks no less.

As much as I love having Ruby around and as much joy as she brings us, we simply can’t have that kind of risk, that kind of liability, in our lives. It’s a crazy, litigious world and I don’t want to be vulnerable to that kind of thing.

Most importantly, we're concerned about the possibility of her hurting LittleFoil and I just can’t have that.

So we got back in touch with PAWS and I dropped her off at a temporary foster home on Saturday morning. The foster home was a good environment, way out in the country, lots of room to run and play and a couple other dogs for company.

The foster parent told me that there were already four families interested in Ruby so I’m hopeful that she’ll find the right situation with the right people before too long.

I’ll admit to blubbering as I drove away. She’s a sweet, sweet dog and I could hear her yowling as I pulled out of the driveway.

Damn. These are the shitty parts of being a grown-up.

Good luck Ruby.

The New York Times Eats Their Own

In a comment on my July 29 post about a correction printed in the New York Times , good friend Bob points out that the Times has published a “what the hell happened?” article about the entire incident.

Alessandra Stanley, the writer of the original, riddled-with-errors story comes off even worse. She is described as a “television critic with a history of errors…”

Sounds pretty bad right? Then they drop this bomb: “For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts.”

By the time they get around to calling her a “prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television” there isn’t much of a reputation left to salvage.

Fifteen years ago it would have been interesting to see the internal machinations of a major news outlet dealing with issues like this. However now that the "new media" is pushing newspapers to the margins it almost seems quaint to watch the NYT editors wring their hands and gnash their teeth over all of this.

Truth be told, this is least of their worries.

And so, I present the article below for your convenience.

August 2, 2009

The Public Editor
How Did This Happen?

THE TIMES published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes. The Times seems to have particular difficulty in writing about people after their deaths. In addition to the appraisal in the Arts section, a front-page Cronkite obituary had two errors of its own, and the paper has suffered through a recent string of obits with multiple errors. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said late last week that an editor is being added to the obituary department to fact-check and work with the staff to reduce “unacceptably high error rates.”

The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

June 19 was a Friday, a heavy time for the culture department, which was processing copy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

When his father died on July 17, Chip Cronkite said he called CBS and then The Times, at 8:01 p.m. Laurel Graeber, who was running the culture copy desk, said she didn’t get the word for half an hour. Work had just finished on the Saturday Arts section, and most of the editors had gone home. Past deadline, Amy Virshup, a deputy culture editor, decided to put Stanley’s appraisal across the top of the Arts front. Graeber said she was worried about a headline, photos and captions. “I was not focusing on details” within the story, she said, thinking those had been handled. Graeber did make one fix, changing the first name of ABC’s anchor to Charles Gibson from Charlie in the title of his program. But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8.

And, it could have been worse. Nicole Herrington, a late-shift editor reading the appraisal casually, decided to check a fact near the top — Cronkite’s age when he retired. It was wrong. He was 64, not 65. Virshup then headed off the same mistake in the Page 1 obituary.

Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust.

Chip Cronkite seemed philosophical about all the errors. He said his parents had a joke ashtray with the inscription, “Just give me the facts: I’ll mix ’em up when I quote you.”
To The Times, this isn’t a laughing matter. Whitney said: “We cannot tolerate this, and have tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence. I have spoken with those involved, and other senior newsroom editors and I will monitor the implementation of these measures.”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Get Bach

Amazon's MP3 store is running a pretty special deal: "The 99 Most Essential Bach Masterpieces" for just $2.99 .

That's over 8 hours of beautiful music for about the price of a Happy Meal.

I don't know how long the special will run so you might want to jump on this quickly. I'm downloading my tracks even as we speak.

Thanks to Kottke.org for the heads-up AND for the wise-crack about Happy Meals!