Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Driest Wisecrack Ever

In his pan of Eddie Murphy's latest drek, "A Thousand Words" (in which Murphy's character is forced to communicate without speaking), critic Roger Ebert, who's been mute for several years due to health troubles, embedded this sparkling bit of deadpan:
"I'm thinking, what I'd try is writing notes."

Googling indicates no one's caught it yet...

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cool Mars Mission Lands Next Week!

Opportunity and Spirit, the two rovers that began exploring Mars in 2004, vastly exceeded expectations. They were on a 90 day mission, but Opportunity is, incredibly, still going strong!

But the next Mars rover, Curiosity, will be way better. It's a bigger, much more capable rover (sporting rock-zapping lasers!), and it'll be landing in a crater, where it can explore the goings-on beneath the dry, deserty surface.

Curiosity will be landing just a week from today, next Monday morning, at 1:30 am Eastern time (that's also Earth time; the spacecraft actually lands 15 minutes earlier, but radio signals are, of course, delayed).

The sexy/crazy thing about Curiosity is its insanely complex landing system, involving humongous supersonic parachutes, slow-motion sky cranes, and no fewer than 76 precisely timed explosions. Don't miss this cool explanatory video (which will help explain why I'm so geared up about all this):

It's hard to imagine how this scheme got NASA approval, but the engineers seem confident (the problem they're working around is that Mars' atmosphere is just thick enough to present challenges, yet just thin enough not to offer any help).

I plan to follow coverage in real time. CNN, et al, will likely cover it, but I'd prefer to avoid the anchorman happy talk by tuning in early to the raw feed. The previous information is available all over the web, but I haven't found the following info explained anywhere: NASA has two television channels (one in standard-def, the other in HD) which cover this sort of thing (and which fill in with general nerdy good stuff at other times). Neither are available via my provider, FIOS, though they may be available from yours. But owners of ROKU boxes can easily add the standard-def NASA channel via the Roku Channel Store (look under the "science" heading), or add the HD channel via this obscure link (once you've added it, click into then out of the channel store to view the new channel). Both are free.

You can also view the NASA TV live broadcast via online streaming along with chat starting at 11:30pm on August 5th. The video quality won't be the greatest, but there won't be live video of the landing, anyway (obviously, no second camera will be there to record the event)...just talking heads and (hopefully) exultant scientists!


Great BBC web page about the mission.

The spacecraft is Tweeting!

Mext Monday's landing has, naturally, its own Facebook page.

And here's Curiosity's main NASA page.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Open and Close

To do anything artistic, you need to open up.

To get through life, you need to guard.

For some reason, most people get this backwards.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Really Bad + Really Brief = Not So Bad

I watched the weather radar on my iPhone last night as the big storm passed over, and have never seen anything like it; it seemed to move at "alien invaders" pace. Each time I'd reload the image, the storm had moved half a day's worth of distance. One weatherman called it the fastest-moving storm he'd ever seen. It hardly had time to damage anything...but, man, it sure did look dangerous in this shot from a new (but not very good) Peruvian restaurant in Bay Shore, Long Island:

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Slippery Slope of Assault Rifles

Longtime Slog readers know I like to try to explain different groups to each other. One useful tool for unknotting conflict and cultivating empathy is to search for symmetry. A tug-of-war only appears to be symmetrical from outside the contest; if you're pulling on the rope, it appears to be righteous defense against outside aggression.

Whenever I find myself in conflict and unable to inhabit the other point of view, I expand my perspective until I spot the symmetry - until I see the conflict less personally and more objectively. Until it looks like a tug-of-war.

For example, I'd been horrified by the right's science denial in recent years. I just couldn't understand it. But things clicked - and I love when things click! - as I came to realize that both left and right toss aside science when it impinges on their moral values. There's symmetry, after all, even though it's nearly impossible to spot when you're caught up in the binary "us versus them" mindset (indeed, if you do it right, the result is almost nauseously disorienting...like the rug's been pulled out from under you. I defy you to read the above linked article without feeling a little queasy!).

In the wake of the Aurora shootings, I've tried to apply this approach to the legality of attack rifles, and to the puzzling intransigence of the right on that. By framing it as a Constitutional issue, a freedom issue, a self-defense issue, the right appears to be flailing. And for what? Do they truly feel that assault rifle availability is a good thing?

No, I think they actually do not. But they can't say so publicly, because they perceive themselves to be backed against a wall. Few may prefer to see such advanced weapons freely out there, but there's an obligation to staunchly, stridently defend the availability, because submitting to any discussion of what's beyond society's pale, weapon-wise, would erode the larger argument against gun control. By giving way on assault weapons - or by drawing any distinction - treasured institutions such as hunting and self-defense would be vulnerable to arguments from the left. And so those arguments must be deflected reflexively, and with zero tolerance for nuance.

Jason Alexander, of all people, just wrote a wonderful, cogent piece filled with persuasive arguments against the legality of assault weapons. If you're a liberal, it reads like pure common sense. But once you've read it, spend a moment considering the ramifications. Most of those same arguments could be applied to other firearms - even, in the end, all firearms.

The right, loath to approach that slippery slope, finds itself defending the legality of assault weapons, which they, in their heart of hearts, may actually prefer to see restricted. They must dig in their heels, lest they unravel the wider argument. If you've spent decades screaming "firearms: good!" while the other side screamed "firearms: bad!", then you will never submit to a discussion predicated on the assumption that maybe freely accessible firearms aren't necessarily always a great idea after all.

So they are, basically, lying. But it's a strategic sort of lying, and it's rational. One result of binary conflict is that reasonable parties become less and less willing to expose their reasonability. This is what feeds the vicious circle of extremism (see Israelis vs Palestinians), and both sides inevitably share responsibility for the escalation to unreasonableness. The only way to unwind things and to reinstitute reasonableness is for participants to clearly see the dynamic for what it is. You can't transcend the grip of conflict without establishing a more objective perspective. It's all about acknowledging the symmetry, however queasy-making that might be.

There's almost always symmetry*. So...yes, there's at least one issue where liberals strategically lie about their private feelings because they fear a slippery slope leading to the erosion of a cherished right. See my next posting (give me a day or two).

* - There are rare exceptions (e.g. Jews and Nazis were not engaged in symmetrical conflict). But everyone embroiled in conflict deems their side to be an asymmetrical exception (this, among other things, explains Godwin's Law)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

From the Big Bang to the Nobel Prize and the End of the Universe

Here's a dynamite 80 minute seminar on cosmology by Nobel laureate John Mather, lead scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope project (which launches in 2018 and will be great, sort of like Hubble on steroids).

The lecture is for laymen; it's not at all technical, but some basic knowledge of cosmology might be helpful.

To start, fast forward the audio to 3:25 in order to bypass the super-dull introduction. And don't worry; the audio distortion settles down after a few minutes (sending a telescope into deep orbit is easy, setting a mic level's difficult).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Commenter Kudos

There's an interesting discussion going on re: my recent article about "The Enemy of My Problems", in the comments beneath that article.

Still going strong, so you may want to bookmark and follow along.

How Can An IRA Be Worth Tens of Millions?

See this excellent Bloomberg article accounting for Mitt's magical IRA:
The most mysterious of the unexplained mysteries about Mitt Romney’s considerable wealth is how he was able to amass between $21 million and $102 million in his individual retirement account during the 15 years he was at Bain Capital LLC.

How did he do it, given the relatively small amounts that the law permits to be contributed to such a plan on an annual basis?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

BOREF Caution

A couple of weeks ago, I passed on a tip for BOREF, which is another undiscovered company with mature, sock-o technology that's remained beneath radar. I bought it at $5 last year, and it shot up to $17 (on news that a number of airlines signed "intents to buy" Wheeltug after a trade show demonstration) before setttling back to $13.10.

The Slog's resident banker-wanker looked into BOREF, and notes that it's not only a parent-of-a-parent company, as I knew, but that its specific structure affords maximal leeway to do as they'd like with wheeltug revenue - e.g. disperse it to the various sub-companies without passing into BOREF itself. Big red flag (and ripe for "pumping and dumping" - which I'd never do, hence this warning).

The current run-up in the price is halo effect, but at some point, there may be a horrendous reckoning if the money goes everywhere but into BOREF.

That said, it may still be a smart investment. If contracts are actually signed, this $65M market cap company will surely go way above $17 on the news, and it will take a while before the fine points of internal corporate accounting are revealed. But we've got to be careful with this one, and get out on the early side, even if potential profit is left on the table.

Thanks, banker/wanker.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Enemy of My Problems is My Enemy (If I Identify With My Problems!)

I have one burning desire for myself and for the world: for things to get better. For pain to be relieved, for happiness to increase, for delusion to drop, for ever more opening and ever less contraction. For subway riders to smile more. For the owners of Danbury's Kabab Grill to attract the clientele they deserve. For my feet to stop aching. For you to fully grok what I'm straining to express in this article. In all these things, and more, I ache for change. I want the future to be better!

Show me where I'm going wrong - with anything! - and you'll have my gratitude. Tell me my favorite restaurants are second-rate, and I'll hyperventilate waiting for you to reveal your superior ones! Point out my false assumptions so I can get through my day more efficiently and enjoyably, with less self-defeat and more sanity. Above all, remind me, constantly, that my happiness level in any given moment (regardless of how negative circumstances may appear to be) is entirely my own choice.

Doesn't everyone want all these things? Isn't this what we're all working toward? Don't we all want it to get better?

No. After a half century of close observation, I've seen that most people want the exact opposite. What they truly want - even if they insist otherwise! - is to be reassured that exactly what they're doing and thinking is right on the money...even as they live lives rife with pain, longing, and disappointment. They're so in love with their problems that they'll defend them with fierce tenacity. The only thing people detest more than their own lives is the prospect of changing their lives. They don't just lack clarity, they actively eschew it (Leff's Law applies internally, too!)

One can, on rare occasions, help someone fix a problem. But the only safe route is to cajole and flatter (as if coaxing them to do you a favor), offering constant reassurance that their previous approach was absolutely smart, and requires only very minor tweaking. People only accept change, in other words, if it's tarted up to look like the same old stagnation.

But here's the thing. If change is the worst conceivable thing, then anyone hellbent on change is the enemy. For those in love with their problems, problem-solvers are the enemy.

This, at last, explains the friction.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Really Cool Web Sites

I burned out on "really cool web sites" (RCWs) back in around 2000. A number of factors contributed:

1. More and more RCWs seemed to have been devised solely to get placed on RCW lists, inevitably resulting in less genuine wonderment and more shticky desperation.

2. The sites devoted to recommending RCWs (Digg, Reddit, etc.) were too heroin-like, and I had to stop visiting them.

3. I'm increasingly out of step with the mainstream, which means many supposed RCWs don't strike me as being all that cool (I still don't get Facebook, for example...and, conversely, no one besides me seems to derive the least joy from my profile picture there.)

4. Even novelty itself eventually stales (I've been through periods where my palate has grown so jaded that stuff like unsalted, unsweetened oatmeal and steamed kale tasted exciting).

That said, these are some damned cool web site tips (disregard the shticky/desperate mousetrap crap), none previously known to me.

There's no need to take notes during the video; links are offered just below the frame.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Surprising Fact About Airlines (plus stock tip)

Did you know airlines make a net profit of under $164 per flight? Like, total?

Weird, no?

FWIW, I learned this from today's Andrew Tobias column, touting Borealis Exploration (BOREF), which has developed a gizmo allowing jumbo jets to move to/from gates without being towed. Towing costs money, and cutting that cost would improve airlines' bottom lines...which are, per the above startling fact, breathtakingly tight. For more info, see Tobias' previous columns on BOREF.

I bought some shares months ago (hey, he invested in SIGA, so I owed him) and already doubled tripled, but I think it's headed way higher than this.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Grass Is Greener...

I love this:

The car, as a whole, was pretty great:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Happy Fifteenth Birthday, Chowhound



Bob(TM) and I opened Chowhound.com on July 1, 1997. To honor the anniversary, we prepared this look back, including links to the first two Chowhound discussion threads (dated July 2, 1997, because it took an extra day to get the message boards up and running): eating on I-78, and Congratulations.

And, from July 1, here's the first installment of "What Jim Had For Dinner":

Pheww...what a day (Tuesday July 1)

Breakfast pork sandwiches at Astoria's Stick To Your Ribs BBQ (5-16 51 ave 718-937-3030 and going WAY downhill--I've got to remember to add it to the Downhill List) with a ravenous friend, then out to the Javits Center (ironic: the most corrupt building in NYC named after one of the most honest, idealistic politicians in NY history...) for the Fancy Food Show.

Lots of good bites (but also plenty of silly Nutella knock-offs and low fat EVERYTHING--Lord, how I despise low fat), but then over to Cupcake Cafe (522 9 Ave @39 St 465-1530). Everything evoked the same adjective: homey. If you rolled your eyes at that word, forget this place. But it feels like a Missouri kitchen, the food tastes grandma, and I liked the lumpy yellow split pea soup, the amazingly unsweet buttermilk doughnuts (widely acknowledged to be the city's best cakey doughnuts), course-grained apple coffee cake and whole-wheat crust pizza.

Then to Mocca Restaurant (1588 2nd Ave, 734-6470), NYC's only Hungarian. Way-charming; like an Eastern European cafe, with all manner of characters stocking the place. Food's very authentic--if not particularly subtle-- and the peaks are lofty. Stuffed cabbage was unbelievably satisfying (even better: Szekely gulyas, an off-menu version served with sour cream--mix it in--and with meat and cabbage prepared separately). This dish is transporting, evocative cooking; I dare people to keep their eyes open while tasting it.

Chicken paprikash was only fair; ultra satisfying in an elemental way, but not prepared with the canny skill and balance of the paprikash I tried at the UN's Hungarian Food week.

A bean soup was full of paprika and pork flavor...what could be bad?

They heated the strudel (cherry) in a microwave (the scourge of my existence) so the pastry was ultra mushy, but the crepes (darn... forgot the Hungarian name) were just WONDERFUL.

It was a three Tums For The Tummy day (I can't go on like this much longer, yet I have a book due in October). Tomorrow, back to the Fancy Food Show, then Greek for dinner (we're going to an ultra-secret place...I've got to withhold the address from y'all, but I will give hints). Stop by tomorrow for the story

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