Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Conservatives Legislate from the Bench

Sichuan Peppercorns - There's a War in my Mouth

That has to be one of the best post titles ever.

Sichuan peppercorns apparently contain hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which create "numbing and tingling sensations" when you eat them.


There's a link to an entire scientific abstract if you like to engage your inner chemistry geek.

Sichuan peppercorns: "There's a War in my Mouth"
, via BoingBoing

Taxi Meter for Freeloaders

Now that gasoline prices are on the rise again, it's time to start thinking about ways to keep the old gas tank topped off.

If you end up being the designated driver for your group of freeloading friends, it can be awkward if they allow you to shuttle them around but never chip in for the fuel.

Sure, you could ask them nicely to help out, but where's the fun in that?

Go the passive-aggressive route with this replica Japanese taxi meter. As they hop in the car, start the meter, and glance in the rearview mirror to catch their look of surprise and horror. They'll be confused, too, because the meter reads in yen.

I hope your friends have currency converters on their iPhones. Otherwise, they'll die from shock when they see the bill.

Microsoft - You'll Puke Without Us

MIcrosoft has had a rough run lately, what with Vista going face down in the cake and continued loss of market share in the Office, operating system, and browser arenas.

Their advertising campaigns have been as hard to figure out as deleting a folder in Vista due to the UAC controls. Their new ideas to pitch Internet Explorer 8 are no better, especially when the best they can come up with is a vomiting wife who is disgusted by the sick, twisted porn her husband views on his laptop.

Really - convince the dude to hide his browser history in IE8 as one of the benefits? That's what it has come to?

h/t to Gawker

Update 7/4/09: Microsoft has pulled the offending ad after really catching it from the bloggers. Turns out it was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. So, yeah.

My quarter pounder tasted like hegemony

Hilarious post from Michael Goldfarb from The Weekly Standard. The linked article includes a reference to McDonald's in France.

In case you don't know what hegemony is, click here.

Solar Vest - Be a Well-Charged Geek

I thought it was weird when Dockers came out with the pants that had all sorts of pockets in which you could conceal your various and sundry electronic gadgets.

That was apparently only the tip of the nerd fashion iceberg.

I'm all for greening up the world, to the point of contemplating a hybrid for my next car, but I draw the line at walking around in a solar-collecting vest that can charge my personal electronics for me. First of all, too much sun exposure is bad for me long-term. Secondly - it's a solar vest! C'mon, man!

Besides, just how much solar energy can one collect while running for their lives from the bully mobs?

Solar Vest uses the sun to charge your gadgets, via Dvice

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mmmmm, Spaghetti Cake

Cake is wonderful, but let's admit it. Aside from those Ace of Cakes dudes (and dudettes), cake has become pretty boring, especially those supermarket bakery confections that they decorate right there in plain view, the yeasty deliciousness of sundry baked goods wafting out from behind the counter....

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, yes. Cakes have become boring. So this is a great way to have your cake and admire it, too.
A banana cake covered with frosting shaped like spaghetti noodles and topped with chocolate truffle “meatballs” in a strawberry sauce.
Mmmmm, frosting spaghetti noodles topped with chocolate truffle "meatballs" in a strawberry sauce. Yum.

Spaghetti Cake
, via Neatorama



Thought Controlled Wheelchairs

Toyota would like us to know that they have developed a Brain-Machine Interface that can control a wheelchair for motion and turns.

The robot army squeals in delight.
The brain waves are processed every 125 milliseconds and they're said to be 95% accurate.
This is very disconcerting, because I don't hit 95% accuracy in the things my brain tells my body to do. At least not consistently. And I'm almost 50. There's nowhere to go but down from here.


Thought-controlled wheelchairs: What's next? via Dvice

Sunday, June 28, 2009

David vs. Goliath: The Media Wars

The recent CNN televised cat fight between Dana Milbank and Nico Pitney (video posted here) is an excellent example of the struggle in progress between the traditional, mainstream media and the emergence of alternate information sources, like bloggers, news/opinion sites like The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and countless others.

In his book, "Taking on the System", Daily Kos chieftain Markos Moulitsas Zuniga explained, in depth, the concept of "gatekeepers", those who for decades have controlled the flow of information to the general public, accumulating an enormous amount of power in the process.

In the last ten years or so, the Internet has allowed hundreds and thousands of new voices to be heard, effectively circumventing the gatekeepers. Have all of these newcomers graduated with journalism degrees? No. Do they dangle their participles and shift tenses from paragraph to paragraph? They do. Does anyone (outside of journalism professors and graduates) really care? Not really.

And not everything written by the blogging crowd has been accurate or adequately researched, either. Some in the mainstream media point to this as the reason why it's important for the old-school news organizations to survive and thrive. They have an elaborate framework of researchers, editors, fact-checkers, and others that places rigor in the news presentation process.

But does that provide a better, or more accurate, news product? Not always, as evidenced by the media's complete flop in how they covered the run up to, and the execution of, the 2nd war in Iraq, the follies of the George W. Bush administration, and other well known and highly publicized missed opportunities. The prosecution points to William Kristol as Exhibit A. The prosecution rests.

In my mind, there exists this uncomfortable, almost incestuous relationship between the mainstream press and the targets of their coverage. Whether it's the White House correspondents dinner, the Radio and Television correspondents event, or countless other examples, many have questioned just how close the reporters have gotten to those they cover, and whether there's an underlying problem with journalists pulling punches in order to maintain privileged access to key policy and decision makers.

Now, more than ever, there's a need for  independent fact-gathering and reporting. Challenging those in power is never easy, and not always successful, but some of the best-in-kind news reporting has come out of, if not adversarial, then well-respected reporter-reportee relationships. When was the last time anyone sitting in that White House press room, or traveling on Air Force One, broke a major story or held up the truth to power? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

People tend to gravitate toward information that supports previously-held views, and avoid coverage that challenges those same positions. Psychologists and analysts refer to this as reinforcement bias. As the political discourse has become more polarized, we've seen prime examples of news organizations tailoring their coverage (and message) toward certain points of view. There's a danger here that if this trend continues, it could lead to an inverse bell curve of media outlets, heavily populated at both extremes but minimalist in the center. Truth becomes secondary to the message.

Watching my local television news team struggle to maintain relevence (and audience), I've seen so many swings and misses that it's becoming difficult to watch. Walking around the news room during story setups and throws, and reading what people are emailing or Twittering or Facebooking isn't the same thing as bridging the gap between old and new media. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the chasm between old and new media, and comes off like the one middle aged man in every neighborhood who tries to appear hip by wearing inappropriate clothing and spewing jargon that makes his teen children wince.

One key driver of this struggle has been how Barack Obama has chosen to communicate, both during his campaign and now in office, often taking his message directly to the people instead of lobbing it to standard media centers for filtering and delivery. This has to be causing angst among those who are more stenographer than reporter, because there's apparently a value proposition in the information after all. What differentiates your (story, paper, magazine, newscast) from the rest? It's no longer enough to be first, or to be "the paper of record" or a venerable network anchor.

As this transition shakes out, it will be interesting to watch what changes and what stays the same. Eventually, if the past is a reliable predictor of the future, a hybrid model will develop,and we readers will benefit. But until that day, look for much teeth-grinding and back-stabbing. Old power never cedes position voluntarily.

Mainstream Media Whines

I have an idea - get rid of the assigned seating in the White House press room, taking away ALL advantage, and select questions at random using a bingo ball cage.

Wave Goodbye to Arctic Sea Ice

Here's a picture of arctic sea ice in 1979, and in 2007.

Any global warming denial goofballs want to weigh in?

h/t Paul Krugman

Stuart Scott's Left Eye Moves to Fox Sports

As usual, The Onion nails it:
"Though we did our best to hide it, usually by using thicker than normal glasses, I think people could easily tell that my left eye and I had been going in different personal and professional directions for some time," Scott said during a press conference at which the eye was present, but elected to remain silent throughout, staring off to one side as Scott spoke."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Foray into Facebook

I've been holding off venturing into the social networking sites for a couple of reasons.

First, they have a seedy history of scary privacy practices with terms of service that either change noxiously with little warning, or give away the personal information farm as a matter of course.

Secondly, social networking sites are surpassed as locations for phishing, social engineering, links to malware-loaded locations, and other sundry evils only by porn sites and web urls that offer freebies of some sort.

With many friends (real ones, not just social networking friends) already on "The Facebook", as I like to call it, I decided to take the plunge and set myself up an account, the thought being that I could use it as another avenue to drive traffic to Red Gecko. There's only so much Digg and Reddit can do for a fellow, y'know?

So as we begin this adventure, I'm keeping an open mind about where this may go. Already, my Facebook friend list is a mixture of actual friends that I speak with regularly and high school classmates that I haven't seen or talked with in (exactly) 30 years. That strikes me as kind of odd.

Shouldn't there be something in the middle? Maybe people I worked with in 1994, or Army buddies I haven't seen since taking off the pickle suit in 1982. Perhaps some of the scores of folks I incarcerated during my 15 years of corporate investigation, or a trio from Microsoft engineer school.

I'm at the tail end of the Boomer generation, probably the dividing line between people who remember 5 channel television and leaded gasoline, at the crossroads where if you're on one side of the street you need your kids to help you program that newfangled VCR, and if you're on the other, like me, you have your own data center in an downstairs office and pre-ordered the new iPhone 3G S because you wanted to have it last Friday but there was no way you were going to stand in line outside of an Apple retail store with those idiots that slept on the sidewalk the night before.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

We'll see how the whole privacy thing progresses, too. I'm a little disconcerted that I can see pictures and wall writings from friends of friends of friends, and frankly, I'm sometimes disinterested in the things that I write, let alone missives coming from 16 degrees of separation away. And I'll let Gmail deal with the flood of spam that gets generated as the result of the harvesting bots roaming through the Facebook site.

I'll probably use Facebook mostly to be an instigator, a talent long held but with endless possibilities in electronic mediums. At Red Gecko, you've made an effort to come read my words, so you deserve whatever you get. On Facebook, I can sneak up behind someone who doesn't even know me and annoy by proxy.

Oh, the places I'll go.

Unfortunately Named Firm

What could possibly go wrong with a joint venture between Russian energy giant Gazprom and Nigeria's state operated NNPC?

Naming it Nigaz, for one thing.

Wasn't there anyone in room willing to raise their hand on this one?

Gazprom seals $2.5bn Nigeria deal , via BBC News

Hot Chile Grenades

No, that isn't a euphemism for my testicles, although I can see how many of you would make that mistake, given my proclivity for the hot & spicy.

I'm referring to plans announced by India's Defense Research and Development Organization scientists to fill hand grenades with powder made from the Bhut Jolokia pepper, known as the world's hottest.

It's easy to see the value proposition here - you've already stashed away a supply of the powder for other uses, so why not put it in some plastic grenades and use it for crowd control purposes?

I've been on the receiving end of similar grenades filled with CS powder as part of training exercises back in my Army days, and if getting doused by Bhut Jolokia powder is worse than that, then we have a winner, ladies and gents.

In case you were wondering what eating one of these babies is like, here's a sample:

Health Insurance - Show Me the Money

Insurance companies and the politicians they employ (did I say that out loud?) are throwing an enormous hissy fit over the possibility that a "public option" will be included in whatever health care reform eventually occurs.

They have every reason to be concerned, since having a lower-priced, competition-driven, dare-I-say free market alternative to the legacy insurance offerings that have thus far been part of the problem is singularly the largest threat to the profitability and survival of the health insurance industry.

There are several arguments being tossed about like over-inflated beach balls at a 4th of July picnic. One is that a public option is tantamount to government wresting control of health insurance away from the private sector, with all the usual doom and gloom associated with federal intervention into, well, anything.

A public option, say the doom-and-gloomers, will put the private insurance industry out of business because they can't compete with a government-subsidized program. D&G-ers also claim that employers will end their practice of providing private health insurance and shift workers to the public plan, saving millions of dollars at the expense of the poor insurance biz.

Health insurers have yet been unable to adequately reconcile these claims with the other concept they are floating, which is that government is ineffective and unable to do anything right, which if true should be advantage private health insurers over time.

Let's face it - insurance is nothing more than risk analysis and playing the actuarial odds. When I buy life insurance, I'm betting that I'll die sooner than most men, and the insurance company is betting that I won't. If I have risk factors such as family history, high blood pressure, jumping out of airplanes, or racing motorcycles, my insurance rates will be sky-high, if I can get insured at all.

Similarly, if I'm a good driver, the insurance company wants to keep me as a customer, because I constantly pay into the kitty and never submit a claim. Slap a couple of speeding tickets, a DUI conviction, or a traffic accident every two years onto my record, and suddenly I'm not the meal ticket I once was.

It's the same with health insurers. Their profit model only works if they insure mostly healthy people who pay in a lot more than they take out in claims. That's why the industry relies on a medical-loss ratio, or how much they take in from customers versus claims payments, to determine how much is left over for administrative costs, salaries, and yes, profit. The best way to tilt the ratio in their favor is to not insure sick people. Illness costs money.

So you have an industry predicated on not spending money to keep folks healthy, because it cuts into their profits. Are people surprised that they deny coverage or toss you out for pre-existing conditions, or raise the rates to such an astronomical level that you are effectively purged from their system, leaving them with their base of basically healthy, profitable clients? They shouldn't be.

There's no way for health care reform to be meaningful unless some component addresses this dysfunctional relationship of patient to profit. By its very nature, health insurance is something that everyone will need to use at some point, and the fear is that once the 46 million or so uninsured get some sort of policy, they will actually begin to use medical services, which throws the whole equation out of whack.

The American Medical Association, which currently represents only 19% of physicians, doesn't support the public option, which on the surface seems strange when you think that doctors should welcome the chance to heal and positively impact such a large population of previously underserved patients. Given the fact that the AMA has opposed virtually all public plans, from Harry Truman's plan in the 50s to Medicare and Medicaid in the early 60s, it's not that surprising, but it does cause some head-scratching about whose side the AMA is on - and the answer is clearly that they are on the side of the insurance industry.

As long as profit is the key factor in health insurance, private insurance will never deliver on a model of quality care at a lower price. It's not in their business model, and don't expect them to add it, because they are accountable to their shareholders, not to patients. There are only two other options that make sense - a single payer system, which neither side really embraces, or this hybrid model of public and private insurance, where we rely on the time-honored spirit of competition to drive down costs.

Health insurance co-ops will never catch on, because they don't effectively address the root cause of the problem. Remember when HMOs first hit the scene, and we were told that the solution was funneling everything through primary care physicians, so they could treat patients at a lower cost and serve as a tollgate before more specialized (and costly) care was approved? How did that work out for us?

Support the public option. Unless you think you're going to win this high stakes game by going all in with a pair of 2s.

HP Classic Calculators on the iPhone

In what will turn out to be either a wonderful, nostalgic emulation adored by millions, or an overpriced, needless add-on that makes a sensational explosion when it crashes, Hewlett Packard is releasing an iPhone application that puts an exact replica of a classic HP calculator at your disposal.

According to reports, if you use the app when holding your iPhone in landscape mode, you will get a visual replica of one of HP's classics - the 12C Financial, 12C Platinum or 15C Scientific. That's the good news. The bad news is that these apps will set you back $14.99, $19.99, and $29.99 US respectively.

Nostalgia usually comes with a price, whether it's revisiting fashion horrors, bad hair styles, or other embarrassments you'd rather forget. At least this time the price is quantified.

Hewlett Packard Brings Classic Calculators to iPhone App Store , via The iPhone blog

Indian Thriller

Anti-stab Knife

Add this to the list of things I did not know - there's apparently an epidemic of stabbings in the UK.

So many, in fact, that the Home Office has approved this anti-stab knife. I think this is unfortunately named, however. I can still stab you with it. Perhaps some marketing guru can come up with a more suitable moniker.

Alton Brown would frown on this item, since he's a firm believer that kitchen tools should be multi-taskers. If all I can do with this knife is cut something, what the heck good is it, anyway?

Anti-Stab knife - is this the answers to Britain's knife crime epidemic? via Dvice

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Adobe Re-patches Shockwave, So Should You

Software maker Adobe (motto: security is hard) has announced that they've released a fix for a critical flaw in their Shockwave multimedia player. This flaw could allow remote exploitation of a vulnerable computer.

Adobe claims that the flaw had been fixed in an earlier version of the product, and recommends uninstalling whatever Shockwave version is currently being used, rebooting the machine, then installing the latest version.
"This issue was previously resolved in Shockwave Player; the Shockwave Player update resolves a backwards compatibility mode variation of the issue with Shockwave Player 10 content," the company stated.
Adobe is currently unaware of any exploits for this particular vulnerability.

Security Update Available for Shockwave Player

Pac-Man on Twitter

Via ForeverGeek

Prius Hearse

I can't imagine a time when I'll care less about the environment and global warming than the day they stick me in the ground and cover me with sod.

So a Prius hearse isn't part of my funeral pre-planning - sorry to disappoint Ed Begley Jr. and Larry David.

Besides, I want to be cremated so that little pieces of me waft into the atmosphere and fall onto your head with the gentle rains of spring.

Hearses to be made from Priuses , via BoingBoing

Conservatives Like Democracy in Iran but not America

Am I the only one who remembers that back when Bush-Cheney were campaigning during the 2004 election cycle, not only were protesters kept away from the candidates by police, but several hundred were arrested for exercising the very same freedoms being played out in Iran?

Someone needs to explain to me how conservatives reconcile the fact that they want Iranian citizens to have freedoms that conservative candidates specifically disallowed in this country.

Freedom to protest your government without retribution is either a right of democracy, or it isn't.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Compassion for Conservative Gov. Sanford

Listening to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's epic apologetic meltdown today, yet another in an absolute deluge of politicians who have pontificated to the citizenry about how to lead their lives while personally going face down in the cake, I kept coming back to this thought.

Humans are flawed, imperfect beings, struggling against ego and id, temptation and captivation, and when it's obvious that we've fallen short, we cry out for compassion and understanding, for assistance, knowing full well that it makes no sense to judge a person's life by their worst moment.

If only those who profess to have an elevated moral compass could exhibit compassion and understanding to the rest of us imperfect humans in their roles as leaders prior to failing so spectacularly in public, then perhaps humanity would replace hypocrisy as the political tour de force.

Sanford: Poster Child for Gay Marriage

From Mike Potemra in the corner blog over at the National Review Online:
"The anti-gay-marriage forces are stuck making a slippery-slope argument when, in fact, we’re already at the bottom of the slippery slope. Here’s a guy, Sanford, who has not just not a moral and religious incentive to keep his marriage vows, but also a political-survival incentive. Yet the public sense of the sacredness of marriage has declined to the point that even he couldn’t do it. How much more could this institution be eviscerated, by letting a tiny, tiny minority of same-sexers join it?”

Hipster Crib - Austerity is Cool

As Americans hurtle down the back slope of reckless consumerism like Will Ferrell balancing on one ski, there are signs that hipsters have found a way to limp their way out of the economic ditch in a manner that exudes frugal style.

Nothing says, "I'm struggling, but in a boffo way!" more than this hipster crib, designed to emulate a cardboard rectangle, or, for some, an empty Teva sandal box.

Too little attention is paid to the time-honored tradition of handing down the hipster legacy. Oh sure, toddlers and hipsters often wear the same style of hats, and both groups find it impossible to coordinate pieces of clothing without the aid of Garanimals, but stuffing your tyke into the furniture equivalent of a plain brown wrapper is a great way to indoctrinate the littlest hipsters of all into a world of irony and self-identification.

Hipster Crib is a Cardboard Box , via Gawker

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Poop on the Moon?

I was but a youngster, barely housebroken myself, when our Apollo astronauts began landing on the moon. I didn't fully comprehend the intricacies of space flight, but there was one thing of which I was certain - after a really long trip, the first order of business was to find a bathroom!

I know what you're thinking - Neil Armstrong should have taken care of that before he left the Earth. But c'mon, man! Sitting on top of an Atlas 5 rocket as it rumbles off of the launch pad is enough to make anyone fill their shorts with Tang.

As it turns out, Neil left a couple of deuces on the lunar surface. It's all very scientific - it's not like you can drop your spacesuit pants and dangle off the side of a crater - so there are assorted "defecation collection devices" around the landing site.

Apparently Neil drew the line at splashing down with bags of poo in the spacecraft, which makes sense, and unless some cosmic event takes place to disturb the relative tranquility of the lunar surface, that moon-poop should remain undisturbed for generations.

Or will it?

Some conservationists are concerned that neither NASA nor the federal government has 1) interest, or 2) budget to preserve the landing site, including the astro-droppings. They fear that when moon travel becomes commercial, we'll all be tromping around, ruining the poo-scape for everyone.

I think it's a little presumptuous of us to think there's necessarily value in preserving the landing site, since we live in an ever-changing universe. If anything, we should send a pooper-scooper, lest we become known as a group of explorers who trek great distances, leave behind our trash, take a dump, and go back home.

Just like we do at our national parks.

Poop on the moon, and how to protect it , via BoingBoing

July 2009 - Month of Twitter Bugs

Hey, all you 140-character characters - better hold on to your hats during July.

A nice group of techies has decided to continue the tradition of "Month of 'X' Bugs" to bring you a full month of flaws and vulnerabilities that reside in Twitter.
Each day I will publish a new vulnerability in a 3rd party Twitter service on the twitpwn.com web site. As those vulnerabilities can be exploited to create a Twitter worm, I’m going to give the 3rd party service provider and Twitter at-least 24 hours heads-up before I publish the vulnerability.
Should be an interesting month, given what happened when this occurred for browsers.

Month of Twitter Bugs

Cosmic Radiation Can Be Cozy

Believers of the "big bang theory", which posits that the universe went "boom" and has been expanding from its dense, molten core ever since, will be the first to tell you that the cosmological model can be a bit stiff and Poindexter-ish.

What better way to get close to the primeval atom than to make it plushy and approachable?

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation toy is perfect for those who wish to lay back comfortably as they stare at the heavens, wondering, as we all do, what Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were thinking when they accidentally discovered this radiation in 1964.

Good times.

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation , via Neatorama