Friday, June 30, 2006

Guest Book Review: The Revealers

Today I introduce what I hope will be a continuing series of guest book reviews! The first entry is from my daughter Julia. The Revealers is a young adult novel by Doug Wilhelm, and it has gained a fair amount of attention in middle schools because of its theme: physical and psychological bullying among adolescent kids, especially in schools, mostly under the noses of teachers and administrators. Here's the review...

The Revealers
by Doug Wilhelm
reviewed by Julia Carver

"This book was wonderful to read. There are hundreds of stories out there about people who get back at their bullies, but this book gives a wonderfully unusual angle on it. In this particular case, the middle-school kids getting bullied take a scientific approach, studying their tormenters to find out such useful information as why bullies bully, how bullies chose their victims, and, (drum roll please) how bullies can be stopped. I love reading stories like this, probably because I never got back at my bullies. I think that is why such stories are so popular - while a person is being bullied they don't have the confidence to get a bit of their own back. By reading (or writing) books like these, they can do so in retrospect."

Thank you, Julia. I might add that the author has created an online resource center for people who would like to know more about the subject, or who'd like to use the book in their schools to address the issue of bullying. He's also turned it into a play, which has been performed in a couple of middle schools in Vermont.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Stolen Flowers?

Today's Boston Globe has a story that should chill the heart of anyone hoping to break into Hollywood by writing a screenplay.

Maybe you've seen last summer's acclaimed movie Stolen Flowers, starring Bill Murray and directed by Jim Jarmusch. I saw it on DVD, and enjoyed it very much. But perhaps all is not as it seems, where the creative origin of the movie is concerned. So claims author Reed Martin, who is suing the film's producers as well as his former agent, who Martin says shopped around his screenplay for years before abruptly and inexplicably dropping the project. The movie, according to Martin, bears way too many similarities to his screenplay to be a coincidence. According to the Globe:

"When Reed Martin saw "Broken Flowers," he wasn't laughing or applauding. Martin, a freelance journalist and adjunct professor of film marketing at New York University, left the theater with a knot in his stomach.

Virtually all the film's characters, scenes, and sequencing were his creation, or slight variations thereof, Martin concluded, from the ex-girlfriend who talks to cats to the pink envelope that propels Murray's odyssey."

It's not just an idle or frivolous claim, or so believes John Marder, a top Los Angeles attorney specializing in entertainment copyright and contract law, who filed suit on Martin's behalf. Martin registered various early drafts of the screenplay with both the Writer's Guild and the U.S. Copyright Office, so he should have plenty of evidence to support his claim.

This will be an interesting one to watch. But sobering, very sobering, if you were thinking of writing a screenplay on spec and shopping it around.

Tomorrow, something cheerier—my first guest book review!

P.S. If you liked the "N.S.A. Wiretapping" I mentioned in the entry below, there are more Walt Handelsman animations where that one came from. I especially liked "No Place Like Home."


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Satirical Animation

You gotta play this animation on It's by Walt Handelsman: "N.S.A. Wiretapping." (Thanks to Keith Truesdale for passing this on to me.)

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Is It Live Or Is It Photoshop?

The following picture has been emailed to me twice now. Maybe some of you have seen it, too. The caption that came with the photo said, in part: "This is the sunset at the North Pole with the moon at its closest point."

It's a lovely picture, isn't it? Don't you envy the people who were up in the Arctic and saw this? Or wait—did they? Hmmm. What do you think? Is it real or not? Why?

Think about it. I'll wait. And don't do a web search on it—that's cheating. See if you can figure it out from the internal evidence.


I think it's staring you in the face.

What do you think?

(Don't make it too complicated.)

I'll be down below here where you're ready to talk about it.

Hoom hom.

Okay, that's long enough. Answer: It can't be real. The moon is the same angular size as the sun when viewed from Earth--which is why we get beautiful solar eclipses when the moon moves in front of the sun. Its apparent size in the sky varies only slightly due to the eccentricity of its orbit around Earth.

Images are very powerful, aren't they? And we're all conditioned to believe that if they look real, they are.

Changing world.

P.S. Only after writing this did I do a search on the image and found that it has some interesting history. It's a work of art called "Hideaway" by Inga Nielsen. You can read a bit about it at, and see some of her other beautiful artwork. This one was even featured on June 20 on Astronomy Picture of the Day, which I look at regularly; but I guess I missed it that day.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Drive-By Photography

I stumbled onto this through an email from Orion Magazine. For a nifty slide show of some very cool nature photography, take a look at Drive-By Photography of Dewitt Jones.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Some People Just Like Living on the Edge

This video came to me in an email, but it wasn't hard to find a web site where I could link to it. In case you wondered whether animals like to have fun (I don't know why you would doubt that, but some people do), watch this clip of a monkey and a couple of tiger cubs. (Here's the blog where I found the link.)

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Meme Therapy

Meme Therapy is the name of a science-fiction related blog that's pretty interesting. They've wangled a fair number of mini-interviews of authors, and everyone knows authors have interesting things to say. (cough cough) And—oh!—I forgot to mention!—they have a mini-interview with yours truly today. So, instead of writing a real entry here (that would require work, after all), I'm going to send you over there instead.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Is Our Electoral System in Danger?

Much has been written about the 2004 presidential election, and questions have abounded about whether or not the election was stolen. The issue is far from settled, though not so much talked about now. But what reawakened my interest was a recent article posted online by Rolling Stone Magazine: "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. It's a long article, and heavily annotated, but it's well worth reading. If even a fraction of the allegations about voter fraud in the state of Ohio (the state I grew up in) are true, then the implications are staggering.

I won't try to summarize the many points, but here are a few quotes:

The reports were especially disturbing in Ohio, the critical battleground state that clinched Bush's victory in the electoral college. Officials there purged tens of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, neglected to process registration cards generated by Democratic voter drives, shortchanged Democratic precincts when they allocated voting machines and illegally derailed a recount that could have given Kerry the presidency.... In Warren County, GOP election officials even invented a nonexistent terrorist threat to bar the media from monitoring the official vote count....

In what may be the single most astounding fact from the election, one in every four Ohio citizens who registered to vote in 2004 showed up at the polls only to discover that they were not listed on the rolls....

''Ohio was as dirty an election as America has ever seen,'' Lou Harris, the father of modern political polling, told me. ''You look at the turnout and votes in individual precincts, compared to the historic patterns in those counties, and you can tell where the discrepancies are. They stand out like a sore thumb...."

...In the battle for Ohio, Republicans had a distinct advantage: The man in charge of the counting was Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of President Bush's re-election committee. As Ohio's secretary of state, Blackwell had broad powers to interpret and implement state and federal election laws -- setting standards for everything from the processing of voter registration to the conduct of official recounts. And as Bush's re-election chair in Ohio, he had a powerful motivation to rig the rules for his candidate. Blackwell, in fact, served as the ''principal electoral system adviser'' for Bush during the 2000 recount in Florida, where he witnessed firsthand the success of his counterpart Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who co-chaired Bush's campaign there.
My sister, living in Ohio, remarked: "Ohio Republicans as a whole have put on an amazing display of corruption for the past year or more..." while another Ohio-dwelling friend said, "From where I sit...Ken Blackwell is the Darth Vader of Ohio politics.... How #$@&ing long can we waste our energy on the bullcrap issues and ignore the fundamental disintegration of our physical, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual infrastructure?"

You must of course draw your own conclusions. I personally am convinced that there was more than enough chicanery in the Ohio elections alone to account for the outcome of the 2004 election. Regular readers know well enough by now what I think about the current administration. But more important even than the consequences we face down the road from current policy is the risk of losing our democratic process altogether from rigged elections.

I'll just end by quoting Robert Kennedy's closing paragraphs:

If the last two elections have taught us anything, it is this: The single greatest threat to our democracy is the insecurity of our voting system. If people lose faith that their votes are accurately and faithfully recorded, they will abandon the ballot box. Nothing less is at stake here than the entire idea of a government by the people.

Voting, as Thomas Paine said, ''is the right upon which all other rights depend.'' Unless we ensure that right, everything else we hold dear is in jeopardy.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Die, Big Bird, Die!

They just can't leave Big Bird alone, can they? This is from last Friday's Washington Post:

A House subcommittee voted yesterday to sharply reduce the federal government's financial support for public broadcasting, including eliminating taxpayer funds that help underwrite such popular children's educational programs as "Sesame Street," "Reading Rainbow," "Arthur" and "Postcards From Buster."

In addition, the subcommittee acted to eliminate within two years all federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which passes federal funds to public broadcasters -- starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB's budget for next year, from $400 million to $300 million.
Are they just afraid of large, yellow avian life-forms that talk funny? Or, hmm, you don't suppose they're afraid of balanced public-affairs broadcasting, do you? PBS still produces some of the best programming on TV—not just children's programming and public affairs, but science and the arts as well—and NPR remains the best source of varied and balanced public-affairs talk radio. Here we go around the block again to save Big Bird!

You can read more about it on, and there's a petition you can sign at


Cat Chases a Bear Up a Tree, and Other Interesting Stories

The following items come to me courtesy of other people—I don't have the time to surf the web and find this stuff!

Cat trees bear...
Our title story is one of the odder ones I've heard recently. But the picture sure looks real. In West Medford, NJ, a black bear was treed by a territorial tabby cat named Jack. (If you click on the picture, you can see an enlargement that shows Jack a little more clearly.) Can we trust AP that it's true? I dunno—it's too good a story not to be.

Teenagers turn a "teenager-repellent" sound into a ring-tone...
This is from the NY Times: "In that old battle of the wills between young people and their keepers, the young have found a new weapon that could change the balance of power on the cellphone front: a ring tone that many adults cannot hear." Very handy in classrooms where cell phones are forbidden—a tone inaudible to the teacher, which signals an incoming text message or email.

"The cellphone ring tone that she heard was the offshoot of an invention called the Mosquito, developed last year by a Welsh security company to annoy teenagers and gratify adults, not the other way around... It was marketed as an ultrasonic teenager repellent, an ear-splitting 17-kilohertz buzzer designed to help shopkeepers disperse young people loitering in front of their stores while leaving adults unaffected."

The Mosquito depended on the fact that most adults have already lost enough high-frequency hearing that they simply wouldn't hear the sound, while to teenagers it would be an irritant.

We tried it out here. (You can download an MP3 of the sound from the NY Times page.) My wife played it on her Mac laptop, and I couldn't hear it, while my daughter said, "Sure, I can." Then I played it on my PC laptop, with the volume all the way up, and I could hear it as a faint, unpleasant keening sound. My daughter said, "Augghhh!" and immediately left the room. (My other daughter said she found it unpleasant, but not enough to work as a dispersant.)

New Careers for Dogs...
This also from the NY Times. Dogs have now been trained to sniff out bedbugs, cancer in people, cows in heat, and potentially pirated DVDs in cargo containers, among other things. Good boy!

Droids on the International Space Station...
Remember the trainer-droid in Star Wars—the little hovering robot that Luke had trouble whipping with his light saber until he finally "used the Force"? Well, from NASA's Space News comes this:

"Six years ago, MIT engineering Professor David Miller showed the movie Star Wars to his students on their first day of class. There's a scene Miller is particularly fond of, the one where Luke Skywalker spars with a floating battle droid. Miller stood up and pointed: 'I want you to build me some of those...' So they did. With support from the Department of Defense and NASA, Miller's undergraduates built five working droids. And now, one of them is onboard the International Space Station."

It doesn't actually fire little laser beams. But it does maneuver, and they're working on teaching them to rendezvous in space. Hm, I feel an urge to pit one against my Roomba.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

World Wind from NASA

Okay, enough with the politics for a while. I've got something cooler. It's free software from NASA, and it's called World Wind.

By now, I expect most of you know about Google Earth. It's a sort of World Wide Earth browser that lets you see the surface of the Earth from satellite imagery and turn it all around and zoom in close enough and clearly enough that, depending on where you live, you may be able to pick out your own house and tell whether you (or at least your cars) were at home when the photo was taken. In fact, here is a picture of my house, taken from Google Earth.

You can't quite see how cracked the driveway is, but I can tell it was taken before we rebuilt the deck, so it must be a few years old. (That faint fuzzy patch to the right of the deck that looks like a giant grey dandelion puff is actually a pretty good sized pin-oak tree.) If they get a little better with it, we could use it to inspect our roofs and chimneys! My office window is high on the end of the house overlooking the deck. You can't quite see me hard at work.

World Wind from NASA is similar, but different. You can rotate and zoom in, and add all sorts of fancy overlays—but you can do it not just with Earth, but with the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. Also the stars. (And someone added a plug-in for the Death Star.) The resolution of Earth isn't as fine, but I like it better for the planets, anyway. For Mars and Venus, it'll show you where all the spacecraft have landed. (I was amazed how many there were.) Here are two pix of Mars. You won't see it here, but if you mouse over the icons, it'll tell you the spacecraft names and dates. It also has a bunch of scientific overlays if you're interested.

This second one is the landing site of the Opportunity robot buggy.

The software is Windows only, I'm afraid. And although I found the installation easy, I had to reinstall something called .NET framework from Microsoft before it worked. But the instructions are pretty clear if you speak even pidgeon-geek. Give it a try!*

*But if it breaks your machine (heh-heh), you didn't hear about it from me!

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Read the Comments

Since I know lots of people probably skip over the comments, I just want to note that the posts below this one have a number of interesting comments from readers, some of which I have responded to. I invite other readers to contribute, also, lest it become the Jeff/Tim/Marco show—and that invitation goes double to those of you from other countries around the world, who might have different views to offer. We'd like to hear from you.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Bipartisan Sleaze Report

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't much like the Republican government that's currently in charge of ruining this country. But today I want to cast aspersions fairly and in a bipartisan manner.

Let's start, for a change, with stupidity, greed, and ethical blindness on the part of a leading Democrat. Yes, I'm talking about Senator Harry Reid, who "accepted free ringside tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to three professional boxing matches while that state agency was trying to influence him on federal regulation of boxing." (Washington Post) Yes, this leading Democrat who has been assailing the Republicans for ethical lapses thought it was A-OK to take these tickets as a gift, even while working on legislation that could affect the givers. I mean, how stupid can you be? Even if you, personally, thought there was nothing unethical about taking the tickets, wouldn't you think—just for a moment—that maybe it would look bad for yourself, and especially for the political party you represent? Jeez.

Of course, that's not as bad as the Congress rolling over and playing dead yet again for Mr. Bush, by confirming Gen. Michael V. Hayden to lead the C.I.A.—yes, the man who as head of the National Security Agency oversaw the illegal, warrantless wiretapping of the phone calls of American citizens. One just has to wonder, will the Congress ever show any spine in defending the rule of constitutional law?

And finally, there's the new U.S. Embassy going up in Baghdad, the mother of all embassies. According to MSNBC, "The embassy complex — 21 buildings on 104 acres, according to a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report —" will occupy six times the acreage of the UN compound in New York, and will be self-supporting, with a pool and a food court and all the luxuries of home. Now, it's not that I begrudge U.S. diplomatic officials a decent place to live, but given that most of Iraq is still in shambles, and reconstruction of hospitals and basic infrastructure is way behind schedule, doesn't it seem just a little off that the one project that's rumbling along hugely and on-time is the building that will symbolize U.S. presence and influence in Iraq? Of course, we're not occupiers anymore, so there's no reason that Iraqis might resent this presence in their no, that would just be paranoia.

Well, one final bit of paranoia-feeding-news comes with the word that Budweiser is buying the Rolling Rock beer company. Man, can't anything be left alone anymore? Not that Rolling Rock is great beer—it's decent, a good light summer beer, but hardly a craft beer as this article calls it—but still, I hate it when little brands disappear into the maw of big brands. Don't even get me started about how the Hershey company bought out Switzer's Licorice only to put it out of business.

(But...I just learned that heirs to the Switzer company have relaunched the Switzer Licorice company, and made the original Switzer Licorice available again! Hallelujah! Now, if I can just find a store that sells it....)