Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Too Much Social Media? Maybe...

Breaking news: the White House has not been attacked.

Facebook and Twitter are just two of many social outlets, microblogging and connectivity services that many many people increasingly use these days.  And because they're services, that means they generally aren't directly controlled by the people who use them.  They rely on infrastructure.

Infrastructure is a fancy word meaning "equipment."  It's a little weird to call, for instance, a road "equipment," but really a road is a device built and installed to create a smooth, reliable surface for high-speed travel.  You might not think 60 miles per hour is fast, but compare that to the traditional 1-3 miles per hour of getting someplace on foot.  And modern roads can of course sustain better speeds than that.

Twitter is susceptible to attacks.  Like a building, you have to have a key - a password - to get in, but once you're in the rest of what goes on inside isn't really well controlled.  A clever hacker with time, software and nothing better to do can discover your account name and eventually work out your password.  Put those two together and that hacker can then pretend to be you.

That by itself isn't a big deal.  But when you're an entity that has a bit of a reputation, like the Associate Press, then someone pretending to be you can do some damage.  And that's what's happened now, just a few minutes ago.   And the thousands upon thousands of subscribers who follow the twitfeet from Associate Press got a message that the White House had been attacked.  "Not so fast," says AP.

While newspapers are subject to an ongoing erosion of their market share and relevance in the world's daily news production, they have a few advantages.  First, they're a lot slower.  That's a disadvantage compared to the instant-on news of twitter feeds, but it also would have come to light that the twitter reports were falsified long before the first sheet came off any newspaper press.  Slower is better in many ways.  It permits time for fact checking, for denying false rumors.  For winnowing out the chaff.

They're also a harder target.  Sure, a lot of story filing happens electronically so by that token a newspaper has no more security than Twitter.  But when you're an editor about to commit words to several tons of paper, you tend to pick up the phone when the story looks a little weird.  You call the name called out in the byline and ask that individual, "Did you write this drivel?"

"What drivel?  I'm on vacation in the Bahamas."

"Okay.  Change your passwords.  There's a story under your name about flying cars, I'm deleting it."

"Good plan, since I'm usually an entertainment columnist."

I don't spend much time on facebook.  Maybe a grand total of an hour per month, at the absolute most.  I don't do Twitter at all.  I don't use them because generally what I see bandied back and forth on these sites doesn't really need to be told.  It's just little stuff, random thoughts, minutiae.  Noise.  And in light of what's going on in the news, maybe we should all push back from these social media sites a little bit.  The old infrastructure has its downsides: slower, subject to editorial bias, less democratic...but due to its less democratic nature, it is also a much tougher nut to infiltrate and compromise.  It's worse, but it's also better.  There's a lot less noise.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Won't You Believe You're Beautiful?

I love my wife dearly.  I think she's the most beautiful woman in the world, perhaps the smartest person I've ever met, funny, strong, and flat-out dangerous with a frying pan.  Not that her cooking will hurt you, but like I said she's strong and that skillet is cast iron.  If she hits you with it, you're gonna die.

As much as I admire her for her smarts and accomplishments, I wish she were more forgiving of her own appearance.  In recent years Sweetie has come to realize that she is somewhat face blind.  There isn't any official diagnosis of that and like lots of face blind people she has developed many coping mechanisms that enable her to identify people with accuracy comparable to that of people with unaffected perception so in functional terms it doesn't give her any trouble.  But it makes her, at best, ambivalent about her looks.  It turns out, however, that that may not even be face blindness, at least not in the clinical sense.

It seems that a lot of people are face blind about themselves.  Dove has taken selected glances askance at the way people perceive themselves in the past, women in particular, and has come away with two basic truths: we are generally attractive people, and we don't believe it.  Pointing this last fact up even more clearly than I thought possible, Dove conducted a little study.  It isn't scientifically rigorous but it is certainly suggestive of what deeper research might reveal.

Dove hired a face sketch artist.  Not just any ol' artist like you see at the amusement parks, but an FBI artist.  This is a guy whose stock in trade is creating a useful likeness based on a verbal description.  First he does a sketch based on the description of the person herself, and then he does one based on a description from someone who has recently become acquainted with that same subject.  The results are amazing.  They're like before and after pictures of the person, before vacation and after, before getting good news and after.  It's the same person on the same day, and just shocking in what it points up: we tend to use unattractive language to describe ourselves, unflattering terms.  You can see the two sketches are of the same subject, but the demeanor of the person in the image is very different.

So I finish today's missive with this exhortation: if other people see you so positively, who are you to gainsay that popular opinion?  Be confident, be proud, be joyful.  Life's more fun that way.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rebecca Black: Back in the Limelight. And the limelight is for everyone.

You might remember Rebecca Black.  Pretty girl, pop star voice, laughable song.  Friday

The song isn't going to light up the world - though it was a hell of a lot of fun when Glee covered it for the prom episode - but doing a little research on it pointed up that young Ms. Black had a steady head on her shoulders.  And digging a little more into Ms. Black, we find that she actually can sing.  It's not a bunch of autotuned vocals or lip syncing, she's actually singing and she sounds pretty good.

Back when that song came out, I said as much.  And if you'll recall, I said she was  a name and a face we probably ought to keep our eyes peeled for in the future, because we'd most likely be seeing them again.

And now we are.

Black is pairing with Dave Days, who is himself an extremely popular Youtube star, an indie rocker who does lots of covers and lots of stuff by himself, and has done more duets with other rising independent musicians than I care to think about: Mystery Guitar Man, Megan Nicole, Kimmi Smiles and many others.  The guy is everywhere. 

And by golly, she sounds pretty good.

As the internet becomes more and more the primary channel of pop culture and entertainment, Rebecca Black, Dave Days and other independent producers are becoming the primary sources of the entertainment we see.  And as that happens, the democratization of entertainment, the ascension of independency of production becomes the most significant element of that entertainment.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mining the Past for New Ideas

...or old ideas, if you prefer.

As a kid, I never actually witnessed any of the Apollo launches.  I was old enough to see some on TV but I honestly cannot recall ever having seen one.  I do, however, recall seeing a photo of Skylab in orbit around the Earth, the photo taken from an approaching Apollo capsule.

What do these things have in common? 

 The mighty Saturn V.

The mighty Saturn V is one of those things you can't just name and leave it alone.  It requires a modifier, a nod of respect.  It was never just the Saturn V, is was and must always be mighty, or stunning, or amazing.  No other rocket launched has ever been bigger or borne a single larger payload to orbit.  Nothing, not ever.

Just looking at the Saturn V is an exercise.  If you're close, you have to lean waaaay back.  It's over 360 feet high, and when the assembled rocket was rolled into the sunshine only two man-made structures in Florida stood taller: the Miami-Dade Courthouse and the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building.

Fun fact: due to its wide-open nature inside the VAB is, although over 520 feet tall, generally agreed to be only one story high.  And in the above image we see the VAB has the capacity to assemble not one but two Saturn V stacks simultaneously.  The garage doors are the largest in the world, and the cartoonishly large crawler is one of the largest self-mobile manmade objects in the world, and still the largest that carries its own power.

Clearly the Saturn V and everything about it is a constellation of superlatives.  When at full power during launch in the late 60s, a Saturn V generated as much power as the entire peak energy demand of Britain.  Not London: Britain.

You can see I'm kind of jazzed by all this.  It's just a big, dumb rocket, not especially sophisticated in its design or mission, just throw something big into the sky and tune up the flight on the way.  Steady-voiced men in the air and flinty-eyed men with slide rules on the ground will make it all work.  And they did.  With as blunt a tool as the Saturn V and no more computing power than I currently wield in my Texas Instruments calculator, NASA sent up a whole bunch of moon missions, launched a space station the size of an intercity bus, landed a couple of robot laboratories on Mars, et cetera.  Very American: big, dumb, ambitious, immensely powerful, successful.

The mighty Saturn V rode into the skies atop five similarly boggling rocket engines: the Rocketdyne F-1.  The F-1 almost didn't come about.  Originally part of a project requested by the US Air Force, the project was scrapped when the USAF decided they didn't actually need an engine that big.  Considering each engine was good for over 1.5 million pounds of thrust, that's not a hard realization to come to.  All five F-1s firing together generate enough thrust to lift, for instance, the US Coast Guard's 240 foot long heavy icebreaker Mackinaw completely out of the water.

But when you want to send humans far away and get them home before they run out of air and water, you need to send them fast.  And a lot of thrust is good for that, too.

Modern NASA engineers are digging back into the F-1.  They are well and truly impressed with the built-up-from-parts nature of the old F-1 but using modern manufacturing techniques are pretty sure they can reduce the parts count by a factor of 10.  Not thousands of parts, but hundreds.  And with better materials, better processes and better manufacturing, they're pretty sure they can ramp up the peak thrust to an even higher level, high enough to eclipse even the Russian RD-170.  Strictly speaking the RD-170 is "one" engine that generates more thrust than the F-1, but it's four combustion chambers running from a single fuel pump, whereas the F-1 is one huge bell.  Seriously huge, the expansion nozzle of the F-1 is over 12 feet across.  It was designed, through trial and error, to be reliable, robust, flexible and powerful.  The F-1 hit all these goals.  There were some spectacular failures during the design process but what finally came out had been progressively tested, improved, and tested again.  It was about as good a rocket engine as humanity knew how to make in its day and even now, nearly sixty years after it was first commissioned by the military program that ultimately decided it wasn't needed, comes awfully close to defining the state of the art.

When climbing to heaven, perhaps it's best if we put our feet on steps we know and trust.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thinking About Cars: Volvo 240

Certain cars become icons of the science and art of automaking.  Ford's Model T brought the automobile to the masses when other manufacturers were making cars that were largely for the rich.  Ford Motor Company eventually built over 15,000,000 of them, and the last six rolled off the assembly line in 2002, built using parts left over plus as-new parts manufactured from original engineering plans.

A couple of decades after the last T came off the (original production run) line, Volkswagen started cranking out the Type 1, which eventually became known and loved under various names, including the one we know best in North America: the Beetle.  And if a 19-year run of over 15 million seems like a lot, the VW Beetle's run cast a deep shadow over the humble T: 65 years and over 21 million units produced.

Significantly less prolific but still coming from a long production run, we find the Volvo 240.  To be completely upfront, the 240 was actually a mild rebody and mechanical upgrade of its predecessor the 140 - the genealogy from one model line to the other is easily recognized.  And when it was time for Volvo to retire the staid, stodgy 240, nearly 3 million examples had been produced.  If you want to include the 140 series as part of that total (and I do) it's over 4 million, and the 240 was produced as a distinct model for over 18 years.

My car
Not really.  But mine looked exactly like this one.

My Volvo came to me as a gift from a former coworker and all-around good guy who has since both left the office and the town.  He moved off to Chattanooga with his equally charming wife and now they are raising their young family there.  Please, Chattanooga, be nice to him.  But Nate had heard my kids were going to college and simply gave his old Volvo to me for them to use.

Son #1 liked the car for its robust simplicity.  Not being a gearhead, he doesn't want to be challenged with a complex car, and on that front the Volvo really delivered.  It doesn't look complicated, it doesn't drive complicated.  No problem.  Son #2, however, is a gearhead and loved the Volvo's huge support in the aftermarket.  If you want to keep an old Volvo alive for decades - might as well point out now that the last 240 was produced in 1993, so if you see a Volvo 240 on the road, it is already literally decades old - you can.  Parts can be had.  I had had a couple of small problems with ours, and one supplier in particular brought a raft of experience and parts to fix the niggling little things that kept it from making the leap from merely good to great.  Bothersome visor clips that break: no problem, pack of two for a couple of bucks.  Failed overdrive solenoid on the automatic tranny: block-off plate, $40.  That's a pretty broad spectrum right there and really doesn't begin to cover iPdUSA's range of support just for the 240 - and they support lots of other Volvo models too.  And Son#2 was just eating up working on the car, investing a little effort and ingenuity and seriously taking ownership of the car in a much more visceral way than 90% of all Americans take with their cars.

So Son#1 was on his way home from visiting friends in Nashville, coming through Oak Ridge TN and nearly home, slowing for a light that was changing when wham, he was rearended.  The guy behind had simply crashed into him.  Not paying attention or following too close, something like that.  Bonk.  When I got there, my first question was, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay.  Little scratch on my arm but that's nothing."  And indeed it was, I've wounded myself more grievously shaving...and I use an electric shaver.

Second comment:  "I just bought these damn taillights!"  And indeed, they were destroyed.  The 240 wears a constellation of lights at each rear corner and can be the source of quite a frustrating search for the cause of the annoying LIGHT indicator on the dash.  But it is a rewarding sensation to make the indicator go out, and when the brake lights go on they really light up traffic behind you.

We went for coffee to decompress, and when we got back to the car I gave him mine to drive so I could feel out the situation with the Volvo.  High idle, ugly noises from out back, it didn't feel safe to drive.  I parked it, called for a tow, we went home.

Long story much shorter, the 23-year-old Volvo was handed a death certificate by the other driver's insurance company.  That's a terrible shame because frankly there aren't that many cars on the road that are 20 years old or older.  Funnily enough I drive a couple of them even after the Volvo is gone, but the point is that the Volvo's greatest strength is its longevity.  If you were never looking for fancy, if you valued safety and reliability, the 240 was everything you needed.

That singular construction, the we'll-build-it-our-way-thanks philosophy that wrought a car that made few compromises, may never come again.  And that's too bad.  As a 240 owner, I felt like a member of a club, of a group of people who would wiggle fingers from atop the steering wheel at each other as we passed, like Jeep owners.  With the passing of this car, my membership has been withdrawn.

Well.  I still have a geriatric Toyota, and that's another club.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Squeaky Wheel Gripes Loudly

Unfortunately this blog post means I'm going to give this young woman a little more airtime, but I salve my conscience with this: I get a little airtime of my own by writing about it.  Not that mine gets much recognition, but hey - something to write about is something to write about.

Her name is Suzy Lee Weiss, and she's got a bone to pick.  Looks like Ms. Weiss is having difficulty getting accepted at one of her preferred schools, and is mad as a wet hen about it.  Looks like she has to be satisfied with some or one of the second stringers.

Right about now I'd be wondering, if I were the "lucky" school Ms. Weiss deigned to reluctantly accept as some of the higherfaluting ones wouldn't have her, whether I'd been so wise in accepting her application.  It looks to me as if Ms. Weiss has a lot of sour grapes and doesn't mind getting vocal with them.

Here's where, as a former high school student applying to schools and as a current dad to college students, I say "suck it up."  Okay, your resume didn't rock them back on their heels.  Whose fault is that?  If they're looking for higher-achieving students and you didn't clear the bar, whose fault is that?  You made the choices when you made them, not to set up a charity or go on the mission trip or make an art film about what you did last winter, and now you're dissatisfied with the longer term ramifications?

Whose fault is that?

Not the school's.  Get a clue, Ms. Weiss.  You're jealous.  You admit to being bitter at the end of your little tirade and that surely shows through, but really what you are is jealous and resentful.  If you want what those other students have, you're going to have to work harder.  Mom and Dad not rich enough to send you to Africa, bust your ass on your summer job to buy a spot on the mission trip.  Whoops - too busy watching "Desperate Housewives," my bad.  Can't be bothered, huh.  Oh well.  Maybe if you whine and rail about it enough, someone will feel sorry for you.

Not me.  And whose fault is that?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Irony in the News

NRA Says More Guns in School = Safer Schools.

Proving that certain people are willing to believe anything if you just pay the right researcher enough money to say it, the NRA has just released the results of a study that they helped fund.  The most significant of these findings was that the children of American schools would be safer if all the schools had more armed personnel inside them.

The report also mentions that murder in schools has been a problem in the US for almost "300 years."  Well, that pretty much covers the entire American history.  Maybe it's not so much an American problem as it is a white people problem.  Should we ask the Native Americans?

Oh, wait, we took advantage of a huge plague that nearly wiped them out by nearly wiping them out some more.  And then lied about it.  Maybe we'd just better leave the Native Americans alone, they're still pissed.

Hey, here's a thought: with more guns in schools, how long before we find some nutcase who's all het up to commit "suicide by school?"  Yeah, sure...the kids will be safe, and will never, ever be quite right again.

LiLo's "Pregnant" Tweet Isn't Funny!

For some reason the formerly-pretty, formerly-somewhat-talented train wreck with poofy lips that is Lindsay Lohan can't get a laugh.  On April 1st she tweeted that she was pregnant, then a few hours later recanted the statement with the traditional "April Fool!"  And somehow that didn't get much appreciation.

Well, Lins, it's like this: we're waiting for you to get knocked up.  It would fit with your performance to date. Not "pregnant," mind, but "knocked up."  It has that certain declasse element that fits your current lifestyle.  Between assorted trips to court, somehow dodging out of jail (proof that celebrities really do get unrealistic treatment, the rest of us would have plenty of hoosegow experience by now), finding fashions that don't clash with your ankle monitoring bracelet and yet somehow don't quite stay completely on, is it any surprise that you're having trouble finding a sympathetic or appreciative audience?

It's True!  Politicians Really Are Crooks

I'm mostly a moderate-to-conservative Democrat and have been secretly enjoying watching the Republican party twist itself into knots, trying to understand where and how it went so completely off the rails that its candidate for President couldn't hardly get voted Dishwasher in Chief.  And yet now there's a story out of New York that a Democratic candidate, one Malcolm Smith, was trying to buy a spot on the mayoral race, apparently on the Republican ticket.

The most significant quote in this story has less to do with the facts of the case than it does about corruption in New York politics, possibly in politics in general:  "Based on the cases that we have brought and continue to bring, it seems downright pervasive."

Suing the Hand the Fed You

An American climate scientist is quitting his cushy, high paying job ($180K per year) so he can sue the government for failing to police industry's effects on the world's climate.  This isn't as much ironic as it is a little weird - he's been working for the government all these years, and now's he's going to sue it?  What good can that possibly serve?  The damage is done.

Couple of things to remember: 1) the US isn't the only country with industries and 2) assorted past administrations *cough*Republican*cough* wouldn't want to police industry in any case, because it's "bad for business."

Not being able to see the sun because of all the smog, is that bad for business?  Or having to move your operations inland because your nifty coastal location is now underwater, is that bad for business?  Just questions worth asking, and not directed at Jim Hansen.