Thursday, June 28, 2012

Kubrick Links

Great behind-scenes photos of Kubrick's 2001

2001, the Making of the Myth; a superb video tribute to the film. Not just for geeks; if you liked the film, watch this!

Kubrick's daughter had unprecedented access during the shooting of "The Shining", and was clever enough to whip up a making-of film. She was 17 then, but here she is today laying down a commentary track on the same little documentary. Really, don't miss both.

"Stuff About Stanley Kubrick"

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Free Textbook on Economic Analysis

It's over my head, so I can't really judge, but a brilliant fellow named R Preston Mcaffee went to the trouble of authoring a textbook on economic analysis, and has given it away for free over the Internet. Here's one of several articles about it.

If you're at all into this sort of thing, I have a hunch it will make you pretty happy.

Alec Baldwin's Radio Show

Alec Baldwin's WNYC radio show, "Here's the Thing", is absolutely brilliant. Like so many revolutionary concepts, it boils down to a really simple and obvious move: he interviews interesting people he knows, and they talk as if there are no microphones. It's such a "duh", and yet the impact is just slammingly fresh and irresistible. People love to overhear truth a lot more than they like being "presented to".

Subscribe to the podcast and don't miss any of them, but definitely don't miss the interview with David Letterman.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Funcussion

This is not farce. It's all true.

Nobody likes hitting their head, but it's worse for me. First, I'm tall. So my head gets hit more often than most. Also, I hit my head a lot as a kid (which might explain a lot). So, when my head gets hit, deep emotional memories are triggered. It's more drama than I'd prefer.

I'm not sure how it happened, but sometime on Friday I found myself sprawled on the ground, moaning, with a Viewmaster-clear recollection of every previous hit to the unbroken lineage of pain and woe since toddlerhood.

But I was late to leave on a road trip to hear Dub Apocalypse up in Hartford that night, and then hit the incredible SheltonFest (best beer festival in North American history) on Saturday and Sunday in Worcester, MA. I had a big day ahead of me, but I only wanted to crawl to the nearest couch and whimperingly clutch an ice pack to my swollen skull.

It was the worst one ever. The blow was directly to my left temple, and I felt as if I'd had fifty I.Q. points shaved off. My brain was utterly vacant, and as I packed my things to get going, I was making lots of dumb mistakes. I was a moron. I called one of the friends I'd be hanging out with, and my sentences kept stopping in the middle. Hmm.

Likely concussion, albeit mild.

I certainly didn't want to drive if I was incapacitated. So I figured I'd pack the car, ice down my head, and then try a short local drive to see whether I was road-worthy. And that's when the first miracle happened.

As I was packing my car, a dog I'd never before seen strided up my driveway, as if she'd done so a thousand times. She came straight up to me, and stared, with what could only be interpreted as concern, right in my eye as I pet her. From that moment forward, she hovered protectively. I went back in the house to get another bag, and she stood anxiously at my door, watching my every move. Then she accompanied me back out to the car. She didn't seem to desire anything (I tried giving her a bowl of water, because it was a hot day, but she wouldn't so much as sniff it). I was convinced that she was my fairy dogmother.

I checked her tags, but there was no address. I tried to lure her up the hill to where most of the other houses are, but she kept following me downhilll as I attempted to sneak away, never letting me out of her sight. But I was late, so I slipped quickly into my car and carefully backed down the driveway. She was frantically looking for me, and, eventually, figured out I was driving the car, and followed me, running, as I drove off, for about a half mile. I felt terrible, but, again, I was late, and couldn't devise a more graceful way to ditch the dog. I wasn't, after all, smart.

My driving coordination and reaction time seemed ok, so I proceeded, and, finally, reached Connecticut, where a friend asked whether I'd been hit by a truck (there was a huge knot on the side of my head). I answered him inarticulately. He looked concerned. I pulled my hat over the lump.

The concert was great, and it was time to check into a hotel. The clerk, noticing my confusion, smilingly slowed down and was careful to confirm that I understood everything. I'm not the type of person who's often patiently helped by random strangers. I was deeply touched. The next morning, we all went out for takeout coffee before the beer festival, and I got a little flustered trying to remember which cup was mine. The coffee lady reminded me - twice - and finally placed my cup around my hand* so I wouldn't forget again. Her smile was angelic.

It was at this point that I started looking around the room for some blunt object to swing at my other temple.

I was told that I should have gotten angelic coffee woman's number; she seemed to have taken a liking to me. And over the rest of the day, women seemed strangely drawn to me. I didn't have anything clever to say to any of them; I just smiled goofily. And that seemed to be enough. I'm not handsome (and these days that matters a lot more for guys than it once did) so I usually have to work hard and turn up the charm to get the time of day from women. But now, thanks to a sharp blow to my skull, I was turning heads, ala Brad Pitt. I'd stumbled upon his secret!

The next day, driving a convertible through western Worcester, some Hispanic workers yelled over as I waited at a light, "Hey, man, cool car!" I couldn't think of what to shout back, so I just yelled "Yeah, I cut the top works great!" This wasn't funny, at all. In fact, it was a pretty stupid thing to say. But it was perfect. They chuckled and waved. Life was going smoothly! My life never goes smoothly. I have lots of fun, good laughs, a bunch of nice friends, but I'm not much of a smooth liver. Never have been.

Now it's Monday and my cognitive juju has been returning. Yesterday, I felt as if I was living a reverse "Flowers for Algernon" - bright guy gets stupid, rather than vice versa. But today I'm able to type this all out coherently. Apparently my funcussion is waning. And I'm not sure how happy I am about that.

If you see me walking down the street, would you please do me a favor and slam me squarely in the back of the head with a brick?

* - "placed my cup around my hand"??? I'm leaving in this weirdly dopey construction just to document that I'm still not all here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

iOs Audio Miracle

Closing out iPhone/iPad tips week....

Bongiovi DPS is a free app that makes music on your iPhone or iPad sound much, much, much better, whether played through the built-in speaker, with earbuds, or bluetooth. Miraculously better. Like, good enough that you'll actually enjoy listening to music through your crappy little iPhone speaker.

It doesn't work for music purchased from iTunes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Polls Are Silly

They just released results from a Gallup poll questioning whether Americans would vote for a Mormon. Blah blah blah....and then this (as reported by CNN):
"Bias against a Mormon candidate is significantly higher among Democrats and independents than among Republicans, Gallup found.

Twenty-four percent of Democrats and 18% of independents said they would not vote for a well-qualified Mormon who was nominated by their party, while 10% of Republicans expressed such opposition."
Gallup apparently figured the phrase "...who was nominated by their party" would cut, like a scalpel, through Democrats' antipathy toward the current Republican candidate, who happens to be Mormon. Just insert those five magical words, and people will precisely clear their cognitive slates and offer crisp, meaningful data for precisely the case at hand. And we can, therefore, draw a clean conclusion that Democrats have this ever-so-puzzling prejudice against Mormons. Fascinatingly counter-intuitive! And the press, of course, passes this on without question.

Human cognitive slates are foggy at best. Our emotions and outlooks defy even our own conscious understanding. Even the language with which our emotions and outlooks are probed seethes with unconscious associations. We're not clean there, under the hood. So the conceit of rendering that primordial goo as precise data is, in the end, laughable.

Hmm. Am I being anti-science?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Perfect Articulation of Our Economic Moral Peril

Why does JP Morgan's $2 billion loss matter to the rest of us?

While Morgan boss Jamie Dimon has tried to spin the basis for the error as a hedge (i.e. a prudent investment move) gone wrong, it was actually, quite clearly, an Enron-ish mad speculation. Such speculation can wreak havoc with the economy. And if so, taxpayers not only have to cope with the fallout, but also bail out the perpetrator, since an operation like Morgan is too big to fail. That's the moral peril, but the full picture hinges on the political component.

I've never heard all the strands tied together so clearly as they were by Lawrence Lessig on Saturday's "Up w/Chris Hayes". Finally, a concise and completely coherent explanation of the issues the Occupy movement keeps blurrily railing against:
"The real story here is the fact that these guys are gambling because there's a government that's going to back them up. There's a bail-out that's going to come. And the most striking thing...for me was: here's a guy who's already demonstrated they can blow up the economy. And now another explosion goes off.

The fundamental reason why we should be afraid of them is the regulatory structure that makes it so that when they blow up we all go down with them. And the Senate is filled with a bunch of people who only want to make this guy happy. Now why is that?

It's because they know that this guy has the power to blackmail both the Democratic and Republican Party parties because if you don't have some kind of support from Wall Street, you lose the election! So it is the power he has in the political system that makes this so terrifying. This is the first financial crisis in the history of United States where the people who caused the crisis have enough power to block any effective reform that led to that crisis. And that's what we should be terrified about."
Here's the entire segment (as I've previously noted, you really need to stay on your toes to follow discussion on this show...or at least I do!):

iPad Tips

Apple gadget week continues with three iPad shortcuts I only just learned about:

Have you been hitting the "123" key to do apostrophes and quotes on iPad? Well, stop that! Instead, just hit and hold the period/question mark key for quotes, and the exclamation/comma key for apostrophes. You're welcome!

And for other stuff normally hidden in "number mode", hit "123", hold, and slide to the key you need. Hit it and you'll be snapped back to the alpha layout.

And a bonus tip you probably know: recent versions of iOS (for both iPad and iPhone) allow you to create custom keyboard shortcuts. You can set it to type out, for example, "Jesus Christ, the lasagna was incredible" each time you type, say, JCLI. Just go to Preferences/ General/ Keyboard.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Using iPad As Your Laptop

Yesterday, I wrote:
"iPad serves well on the road (if you bring a wireless keyboard). I'm a longtime Mac laptop user, but only very rarely lug around my laptop anymore."
Reader "Dave" commented:
"What wireless keyboard do you recommend for the iPad (and for this guy with fat fingers)? Have you tried any of the covers with a built-in keybaord? I tend to take my MacBook on any trips of more than a day or two, and have to admit that the keyboard is the reason
Sigh. A few months ago I went all Aspergers assembling the perfect iPad-as-laptop outfit. And I planned to share my findings here, spending an afternoon trying to produce a nice, crisp narrated video. Having discovered I'm horrible at that sort of thing, I gave up. But after yesterday's posting, I feel compelled to at least cough up the info, even without the nice snazzy video.

First, do NOT buy a built-in keyboard/case. Several reasons:

1. It will look like a Hello Kitty Laptop for 7 year-olds. Embarrassing for grown-ups. And why buy a beautifully designed tablet only to make it into a crappy kiddie-sized laptop?

2. The keyboards mostly suck. These are not serious, full-fledged keyboards made for doing real work. Also, the keys are smaller than standard.

3. You usually can't separate out the keyboard, and rest it on your lap, or adjust the distance between you and the display.

The one to get is the Apple Wireless Keyboard.

This is the serious choice. It links up via BlueTooth, and the reviewers complaining about connection problems on Amazon are tech bumblers (or else they need to update their iOS). The keyboard's light, quiet, sturdy, narrow, professional, perfect.

I have to admit I'm intrigued by the novel approach of the iKeyboard, which came out recently. But while I've never tried it in person, it doesn't seem designed for serious typing work; more of an intermediate solution for quick typing more easily than via iPad alone. Also, using a separate wireless keyboard lets you move the thing around, prop it on your lap, or at any angle independent of the screen.

Unless you already own an Apple smart case, you'll need a stand to prop up your iPad. I tried just about everything out there, and found the best solution to be a little-known Griffin product, the XPO Universal Tablet Stand.

It's overpriced at $30, but folds down to nothing, weighs nothing (it's aluminum), slides into an attractive case fitting easily in your pocket and (and this is a big "and") very securely holds your iPad up at a good angle. Alas, they're currently out of stock, but check eBay (where four are now on sale for $25 with free shipping, and, no I'm not the seller!).

I carry all this in a Waterfield iPad wallet, which has a protective pocket for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, another for iPad, and yet another narrow pocket to fit a charging cable and ('cuz it's real narrow) a Griffin XPO Universal Tablet Stand. The $79 case is small, light, attractive, fits everything snugly and has high quality zippers and padding. You certainly won't need a shoulder strap; don't fall for that option.

The package is way lighter and smaller than a Macbook Air, and you won't have to take it out at most airports.

The cost of these accessories is quite high, at $180. But cheaper solutions are dodgey and full of compromises. If you're dying to be set free from lugging your laptop, but need a solid-feeling setup you feel you can trust, this is the grown-up solution. And fine points matter; I tried stands that fall over, bags with poorly-conceived pockets, and keyboards that "take getting used to". This set-up just works.

Plus, the cool aesthetics, and meticulous "fit and finish" of these products make them feel briskly efficient to carry around and set up. If I were toting around cheapo alternatives in a zip lock freezer bag...not so much. I'd quickly come to miss my laptop.

In the end, this is the bargain route. Even adding in the iPad's expense, this is all still way cheaper than a new MacBook Air. Having used it for half a year, I wouldn't trade it for an Air.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Not So Into the Fancy New MacBook Pro

I'm drooling over the new Retina Display MacBook Pro announced this week by Apple. It's quite likely the best computer Apple's ever produced (and therefore the best personal computer ever produced). But while sorely tempted, I'm not buying. I'll stick with my 2009 Macbook Pro.


$2200 - $2800? With SIGA still under $3, I can't even consider it. And neither should you, probably. Because of the steep...

Early Adoption Premium
All the enticements of this computer will likely be found - at lower price - in subsequent generations of less expensive Mac portables. None of it (the blazing speed, the generous flash storage and memory, the thinness, or the display, which some have called the most beautiful screen ever) is miss-it-and-you-lose stuff. Rather, this is an advance look at next year's "normal". You wanna early-adopt? Go ahead! But you'll overpay for the privilege.

This laptop, though thin, is pretty heavy compared to the MacBook Airs. While Air users make sacrifices for the convenience, it won't always be so. Look for convergence next year, when I'm betting we'll get it all. Though, alas, likely no optical (CD/DVD) drive.

Steep Depreciation Curve
When that convergence arrives, this machine will instantly seem like an anachronistically heavy beast, and is destined to sell cheap on the second-hand market. Buy now and you're at the wrong end of that curve.

App Catch-up
Apps will look like crud on the retina screen until they're updated by their repective developers. As you wait, you'll be burning expensive early adoption lead depreciation creeps nearer and nearer.

Whither laptop?
iPad serves well on the road (if you bring a wireless keyboard). I'm a longtime Mac laptop user, but only very rarely lug around my laptop anymore. Since my computer stays at home, a desktop computer makes more sense. They're cheaper, faster, and more easily repaired and expanded/updated. Some people may require a high-powered laptop in addition to an iPad, but I'd imagine that's an awfully small group, especially since you can do fairly sophisticated field editing (musical, cinematic, photographic, etc.) and work/enterprise stuff on an iPad these days (Microsoft Office for iPad is reportedly coming this Fall). *

Wasted Display
Like most people, I plug my laptop into a big monitor when at home. And, again, these days I mostly use it at home. So that expensive retina display would be largely wasted. What's more, when I do bring my laptop on the road, I need an optical drive (to watch DVDs in planes and trains) a lot more than I'd need a fancy display. And this one has no optical drive (Apple's decided we don't need 'em anymore, because streaming is "everywhere").

* - and the next version of iPad will, I'll bet, narrow the laptop gap even more.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Must-Here Music

My favorite regular live band these days is Boston's Dub Apocalpyse, which plays every Sunday at Bull McCabe's in Somerville (though they also play sporadically elsewhere). Grab surprisingly well-recorded gig recordings here. Guitarist/leader Johnny Trama, once he gets warmed up, is consistently oh-my-god great. He's the only constant in a fluidly-populated group centered on reggae/jam (they call it "high flyin experimental dub"), but which digresses into funk, blues, jazz, and most everything else.

I'm fussy about "trad" jazz, in the 1920's/1930's style. Very often it's shticked-out and stylized. But very late every Tuesday night at Mona's on Avenue B near 14th in Manhattan, younger guys (led by clarinetist Dennis Lichtman) play, and they really swing and listen to each other, making this one of the warmest and most alive-feeling weekly live music events in the city. Great vibe all around. It's wonderful, and a bit disorienting, to see a full (sometimes overwhelmingly full) crowd of twenty-somethings appreciating this stuff. Maybe this is trendy...what the hell do I know? Mona's is an old Irish dive bar (their great Irish music sessions take place, I think, Monday nights). Have a shot of Red Breast Irish whiskey, which is the absolute bomb.

A remarkable modern jazz CD: Bill Anschell's "Figments". Musicians get self-conscious when they record. The result is the very opposite of the sort of looseness which produces the most affecting results. In fact, the sound of recorded music is, for the most part, the sound of uptight musicians. The time to hear a musician at her/his best is late at night, with no one listening (paradox duly noted). Pianist Bill Anschell, who also pens the hilarious Mr P.C. jazz advice column (my fave is "Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide") has managed to trap lightning in a bottle, offering, via some miracle, the genuine sound of a pianist, all alone, late at night, at home winding down after a (likely aggravating) gig. This is the undiluted real stuff, with no aim to impress, just honest unselfconscious expression. It's like a Zen koan, and I have no idea how he pulled it off.

Does classical music often strike you as stiff and starchy? That's only how they play it now. Back in the day, before its fresh-by date had long passed, it was radically hip and juicy, and intended to sound improvised. Arbiter Records releases rare historical recordings that connect you to that dimly remembered time when this music was alive and breathing (plus they offer some "world" music). Almost everything in the catalog is worth having, but here are a few not to miss (the first is actually contemporary, but played super-fresh):

Arbiter 102: The New Ravel (liner notes)
Arbiter 109: The Hambourg Legacy (liner notes)
World Arbiter 2002: Dances and Trances (liner notes)
and World Arbiter 2004: Lost Sounds of the Tao (liner notes)

Jazz pianist to watch for: Helen Sung. She's got unusually fleet technique and meticulous consistency, but I don't care about such things. What I'm into is her musical intuition and inventiveness. It's subtle, so you need to listen quite closely.

Very useful NYC music listing: The Gigometer.

And, finally, Rubblebucket. I don't love their most recent CD; they're blanding up a bit (can't blame them; touring around in cult obscurity gets old). But any of their previous recordings (like this one or this one or this one) are great. Want to instantly fall in love? Check out the video for one of their best tunes, "Came Out of a Lady", below. Fun fact: I play sousaphone in one of their videos (though you can hardly see me, so don't bother searching).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Must CTV

As I wrote a few years ago,
"Television has been so transformed that those trapped in outdated prejudices have been caught out. In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants. Right now, the zeitgeist is in television. Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's."
The impressive transformation of what we used to call the idiot-box was spurred by a business quirk. The economics of cable TV allowed series creators to require diligent weekly viewing. For decades, network TV writers had been compelled to make each episode more or less comprehensible as a stand-alone. With that constraint removed, TV series could tell fully serialized stories with enormously long arcs. Gunsmoke or Maude, by contrast, never offered much in the way of overarching plot or deep character development. They were unnaturally static entities where nothing much developed. The formulaic bell was rung every week, making for tediously boring viewing aimed at audiences expected to drop in and out.

But the best of the current television crop is superior to film. The two hour constraint of cinema makes for its own set of formulae and tedium, but the many hours of a TV season (or multi-season run) offers unprecedented freedom. Nuances of plot and character development that could only be hinted at within cinema's limits can be lovingly applied ad infinitum. The ultra long storytelling arc is like nothing the world has ever seen, and creative folks have been energized by this new freedom - as creative people invariably are whenever an avenue opens up.

It's generally agreed upon that the venerable pillars of all this are The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Mad Men, all HBO series (for detailed episode-by-episode reviews, don't miss Alan Sepinwall's blog, which I wrote about here). But there are other very worthy big arc terrific shows with more conventional structures (a zeitgeist floats all boats).

Here are current shows (plus two recently deceased) I'd respect you just a little bit less for not knowing about:

Louie: you know (or should) that Louis C.K. is one of the most brilliant, insightful, and just plain funny comics out there. That's good enough. But his show, which is an absolute gem, is so much more than comedy. If you still consider TV inferior to film, I dare you to maintain that opinion after a few episodes of this. On FX.

Sherlock: Alas, not all episodes are up to snuff. But this contemporary updating of Sherlock Holmes makes any question of faithful rendering moot, because, at its best, it's even better than Conan Doyle.
As with most BBC series, do NOT watch on PBS, which makes cuts. View on BBC America or on DVD (or Netflix).

Game of Thrones: You've surely heard about this, and may have held out on viewing, figuring you're not a big fantasy fiction fan. Neither am I, and I doubt that many of my ten million fellow viewers are, either. This is just extremely engrossing, transportive, thoughtful film-making, and so much more generous than what a two hour film could ever offer you. Great acting, great cinematography, great costumes and music. Huge sprawling scope. Just amazing. On HBO.

Breaking Bad: You've heard about it - the tale of a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher's transformation into a drug kingpin. Sounds contrived, I know. But played out over 46 painstakings episodes (thus far; the final season starts next month), every nuanced step of this unveils in the most truthful, thoughtful, believable way...making you wonder what you might be capable of! You could never pull this off with a movie - not even Godfather 2. Acting and writing are mesmerizingly good. On AMC.

Veep: Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, from "Seinfeld", in the darkest, archest, funniest treatment of power and politics you could ever ask for. So subtle, and so masterfully constructed (and acted). It's from the creators of The Thick of It, which is just as good, if not better, though a bit hard to follow because of the English accents at fast pace and lots of crosstalk. On HBO.

The Colbert Report: Compelled to cough up four shows a week, formula is inevitable, and I'm growing a little tired of it. And the one minute standing ovation is wearying for all but Colbert. And the awkward timing issues involved in delivering the "Word" feature make me squirm. But despite all that, at least once or twice per show, something so fiendishly clever dependably comes up (often thrown away, hardly noticed by the studio audience) that my faith in humanity is restored. On Comedy Central.

Up with Chris Hayes: I previously called this the best political show on TV, and I stand by that, though, like all wonderful things, the imperfections annoy me a lot more than they would in something less near-perfect. I have innumerable quibbles with the political opinions, but how could I not? I dare you to watch any TV news politics - even The Newshour - after this and not find it unbearably lightweight. But the depth comes at a price; I need to really focus to follow the discussion, which is staunchly undiluted for television audiences. It's how pundits talk when the cameras are off.On MSNBC.

Two tragic recent cancellations:
Men of a Certain Age: Ray Romano's short, sweet series where very little ever seemed to happen, and yet so many rich, deeply evocative themes were so heartfully struck that there are those who deeply, deeply mourn its cancellation. On TNT.

Party Down: I worship this show. I have refused to view the second, final, season DVD because I want to always feel like there's more to watch. The ratings were jaw-droppingly low (if I recall correctly, something like 35,000 viewers by the end) for this hilarious, brilliant series that looked at marginal Hollywood types waitering at catering events (each show a different event, e.g. "Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party", "Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar", and "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night"). I rewatch religiously. Please, please, somebody, bring it back.On Starz.

Honorable Mentions: Battlestar Galactica, TV Funhouse (my take), the rebooted Doctor Who, Doc Martin (my take), and The IT Crowd (my take)....and anything listed under "RECOMMENDED READING" in the right hand margin on Alan Sepinwall's old blog

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Science Porn: Sizzle or Steak?

I have a scientist friend named Pierre who reliably knows just about everything about just about everything. He's sort of like the Professor from Gilligan's Island come to life - only more fun to hang out with.

I mostly refrain from forwarding science news to Pierre, because he's invariably way ahead of me. But this report, about a seeming breakthrough in creating artificial DNA, had me so excited that I couldn't resist sending it along to him.

As usual, I was dead wrong in thinking this was interesting. Here's what Pierre said:
"I hate these breathless science press releases!

This is nothing major, it's just an extension and confirmation of what has been done for ages; most anti-viral compounds, and many anti-cancer ones as well, are artificial nucleotides never seen before in nature. Of course DNA polymerase incorporates them into DNA; otherwise they would not be chemotherapeutic.

What this group has done is to clean up and extend somewhat something that has been known and exploited since the early days of 5-FU, AZT, and acyclovir. It's neat, and well worthy of a publication in Nature Chemical Biology, but that's not in a class of a paper in Nature, or Science, or PNAS, etc.

There are hints that they can make RNAs as well, although it's not clear whether they do that by transcribing their modified DNA, which would be a prerequisite for a living organism.

Then they would need to make modified tRNAs with working anticodons, load them (specifically) with unnatural aminoacids using specific enzymes (a.a. synthetases) that don't exist yet, and have them deliver those amino-acids to a growing peptide chain on a ribosome. It's a long, long way off, though conceptually not impossible (unnatural amino-acids can already be incorporated into proteins by tricking subsets of tRNAs that match subsets of redundant codons.)"

If you republish this email, make sure it's clear that the work itself is perfectly valid as far as I can tell, and that it *is* interesting, but that the press release is vastly overblown --and therefore counter-productive.

Incidentally, here is a much more sober and informative write-up. I have no problem with that summary; it puts the whole study correctly in perspective and actually explains what the interesting bit is, namely that the bases pair via hydrophobic interaction instead of hydrogen bonding, and that the modified RNA they made was indeed obtained by transcription of the corresponding modified DNA.
Here's the question that interests me: Is it that lay science buffs like me, who feed on a steady diet of this sort of news, are being played by science flacks who know just what sort of stuff trips our "gee-wiz" wonder wires? In that case, maybe I need to lay off that stuff for a while! this actually completely and justifiably exciting news for anyone oblivious to minor scientific distinctions?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Daily Show Tackles the Wisconsin Recall Elections

See below for a devastating bit from last night's Daily Show which asks very tough questions about the Wisconsin recall election.

I'm not a Scott Walker fan, so I've been mildly happy about this action and eager to see it succeed. And it wasn't until I saw this clip that I ever stopped to think: is this how our country ought to work?

The Daily Show's never been left-wing, though plenty of liberals love it. It mostly just appears that way in contrast to the increasingly extreme far-right. The soul of the show is in finding insanity and stupidity wherever it lies - and making jokes about it. I enjoy the jokes, but am particularly grateful to have my mind changed when I, myself, have been insane or stupid - as I was in rooting for the recall effort. Kudos, Wyatt Cenac.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Madison Men - Wisconsin Recall
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

"The Better Angels of Our Nature"

I'm told that everyone should read Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". I would, myself, if I didn't read so ploddingly slowly that it'd take forever to get through 832 pages.

The book's very hotly debated, though even its detractors find it brilliant. Having gotten the sense this may come to be considered a classic, I'm currently flitting around it: reading reviews, interviews, and sample chapters, and generally trying to work up the zeal to tackle the thing.

Here's Pinker doing a Cliff's Note's version (plus Q&A).

BBC interview with author Steven Pinker (also see the insightful reader commentary on that page)

Raving NY Times review ("The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book")

A famously critical review by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker (you must be a subscriber to view it). Here is Pinker's reply to that review (scroll down to "Other Questions").

Read quoted passages from the New Yorker review in this interesting survey of Pinker along with other recent "Big Idea" books, of which the writer is understandably skeptical:
"The history of publishing is replete with big ideas — see Francis Fukuyama’s end of history or Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations — that haven’t quite panned out. (China shows no sign of withering away without democracy, for example.) But as grand Theories of Everything arrive fast and thick, a growing skepticism of such unifying ideas has also emerged."
Yes, there's a very long list of these, going back centuries. And, yes, from "Capital" to "The Population Bomb" to "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", regardless of the brilliance of the minds which spawned them, Big Ideas books most often turn out to be considered overreaching displays of intellectual hubris. But they're fun, they're provocative, and they keep us thinking. Which is good enough!

Here's an impressive Amazon reader review, as well as the interesting (and only sporadically flamey) three page discussion it spawned.

Finally, for a 98 minute super-entertaining theatrical treatment of similar themes, don't miss David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (2005). Quoting Roger Ebert's review:
"David Cronenberg says his title "A History of Violence" has three levels: It refers (1) to a suspect with a long history of violence; (2) to the historical use of violence as a means of settling disputes, and (3) to the innate violence of Darwinian evolution, in which better-adapted organisms replace those less able to cope."
I share Cronenberg's thinking. It strikes me as obvious that evolution favors the most violently competitive (which explains why there aren't indications of intelligent life in the universe). That said, a subtle evolutionary process does work the other way. Actions such as surrender, forgiveness, acceptance, and love all trigger an unmistakeable spritz of bliss. There is, for some reason, an innate biological reward mechanism encouraging those things; and myriad spiritual traditions insist that, in the very long run, this will win out over coarser, crueler impulses which, truly, provide a rather shoddier high.

Just so long as we don't blow ourselves up first.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Whole Earth Catalog Lives (and Why We Get Hippies Wrong)

While the term "hippy" carries a strong negative connotation these days, much of the hippy ethos was quite worthwhile and way ahead of its time. Things like environmentalism, yoga, disrespect for authority, premarital sex, and organic farming have been subsumed by mainstream culture, leaving hippies stripped down in the popular imagination to a cliche of long hair, granola, and body odor (actually, granola's now a burgeoning mainstream craze, so they'll be pulling that one out, as well). The reality is that the agenda hippies pushed for, against great resistance, has largely won. It's part of who and what we are.

Hippies, for one thing, invented online communities. The Well in San Francisco was the original, and communities like Chowhound would have arrived much later if the precedent hadn't been set way the hell back in 1985 by the Whole Earth Catalog folks (specifically, publisher Stewart Brand).

If you don't know about the Whole Earth Catalog, it was amazing. Along with Vonnegut and Salinger, it was one of my formative childhood influences. The catalog was an earnestly savvy mother lode of Good Stuff. "Tools" was their buzzword, encompassing tips for great chainsaws and potter wheels as well as radically thoughtful books, unconventional music, and amazing newsletters. Plus much more. This wasn't just a guide to empty consumption, but a meta-tool for sussing out ways to improve life and work in meaningful ways.

The people who ran it went on to become integral in the Internet and tech phenomena. In the popular imagination, credit for all that goes to geeks and nerds, but the groundwork was laid by hippies who either edited or loved the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs said, in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech:
"When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation.... It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions." He was also fond of quoting the back cover of the 1974 edition of the catalog: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
The Whole Earth Catalog was succeeded by a magazine called CoEvolution Quarterly , which, in turn, gave rise to Whole Earth Review, which covered, along with composters and yoga books, impassioned tips and articles about computers and connectivity. And this was back in the 1980's!

I loved both magazines so much that, in the early 90's, I bought a full set of back issues. They, alas, didn't survive one of my many housing moves, and I've deeply regretted that loss. But, good news! They're digitizing the full runs of both magazines and offering them for free on the Whole Earth Catalog web site. If you missed it at the time, or were born too late, please, go dive in, and prepare to get very, very lost. It's like Chowhound for Everything.

They're also selling the final (1994) edition of the Whole Earth Catalog as a PDF for a mere $5. Go for it! Support a good thing! (Also, if you own back issues of the magazines, please consider contributing to their effort to scan in all of them.)

P.S. Last year, during the Japanese nuclear disaster, I noted that I'd turned pro-nuclear following the lead of Stewart Brand. I also expressed curiosity as to whether the Japanese catastrophe had affected Brand's outlook. The answer is no.

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