Saturday, May 24, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That


Relief workers resting, Wenchuan county, Sichuan province, China May 23.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Play Ball!


Quote of the day:
“Otis elevator estimates that it transports the equivalent of the world’s population every five days.”
--The New Yorker, April 21

Sherman, our German Shepherd puppy, is more than five months old now. Objectively, I must say he is adorable and very smart.

The house is a mess, but he is adorable and very smart.

Years ago I read somewhere that living with an animal keeps you in constant contact with nature. Once in a while it does dawn on us that there are creatures quite unlike us sharing our home with us. It’s a regular ecosystem. More correctly, it’s an irregular ecosystem.

Most mornings Sherman and I spend time

(I was interrupted here by a trip to the backyard to throw the tennis ball to Sherman.)

As I was saying, most mornings Sherman and I spend time with a tennis ball in the backyard. Lots of dogs love to chase tennis balls. Sophie, our 5-year-old German Shepherd mix, loves it.

Some dogs even bring the ball back, and a few will even give it to you. Sophie brings it back about half the time and then drops it when and where she gets distracted. For Sophie, the fun is in the chase.

Sherman brings the ball back every time, in a very curious way. He takes a meandering route, and will usually pause along the way to drop the ball and pick it up. He seems to be trying to hide it from himself, so he can go about finding it again. He’s been known to dig a hole, drop it in, and paw the ball in the hole for a while.

He sometimes will stand on the edge of our canyon, drop it, and watch it roll down the side. Our canyon now contains approximately 83 tennis balls. By the way, the best source for cheap tennis balls is Sears Essentials. They’re about 30 cents apiece there. That’s right. $24 worth of tennis balls in the canyon. Geez, having a dog is expensive.

I’ve noticed recently that Sherman is not chasing the ball. Rather, he carefully watches where I throw it, and then he goes and finds it. When he can’t find it, he goes into search mode and will not stop until he finds it. He also loves to engage with Merrie or me in finding the ball.

It’s an incredible feeling to have a dog work with me to do something. I’m not used to it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man


Quote of the day:
“White criminals commit the biggest crimes. A brother might rob a bank. A white man will rob a pension fund. The brother is going to get ten to fifteen years because he had a gun. The white guy will get a Congressional hearing because he had a job and a nice suit.”
--Wanda Sykes

“Iron Man” is not what you’d expect. Yes, it’s a movie based on a comic book. But the movie is much more than that.

Watching the first ten minutes makes you think this is a story about the war in Afghanistan. Really. There’s not a tinge of goofy setup in it.

Robert Downey Jr. is terrific. He takes the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of George Clooney’s Batman about ten steps further. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud (LOL) moments that are not just for kids. Unlike Trix.

Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast, and clearly relishes what he’s doing.

The director is Jon Favreau, who made and starred in the now-classic “Swingers.” He does something that’s hard to find in the movies. He integrates future technology in a way that is both fascinating and realistic.

I had a lot of fun watching such things as Downey manipulating an interactive holographic image. I don’t know how that technology will work for us in the future, but it’s reasonable to think we’ll see it someday. Indeed, it may already be happening somewhere.

Technology is a full-fledged character in this film, and it’s a very entertaining one. How many movies can you say that about? Usually technology is used as a platform to demonstrate the talents of the filmmaker and thus it winds up being over-the-top-whiz-bang-wowee-give-me-a-headache.

Not here. Favreau has shown a knowing and deft touch with all the dozens of advanced devices.

It all makes “Iron Man” a good time at the movies.

Note: when you go see it, be sure to stay until after the credits. There’s another scene there.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to read all 300 names in the credits. Whew, an awful lot of people worked on this!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Video: Is Credit Crisis Over?

Obama, Clinton


Quote of the day:
“It’s easy to be generous with other people’s money.”
--Preston Creston

There’s now a 99.9% chance that Barack Obama will win the Democratic nomination. Until last night there was a chance for Clinton to wind up ahead in the overall popular vote (including Florida), which may have persuaded enough super delegates her way to swing the nomination.

But that’s not possible anymore. The electability question won’t overshadow the clear lead Obama will have at the end of the primaries.

Hillary Clinton may be on the ticket as vice president. Everyone has strong but mixed feelings about this--especially her supporters and Obama’s. But it’s an intriguing prospect, as even Andrew Sullivan admits. (I’d provide the link to his popular blog, except it seems to have degenerated into an obsession with his half-hourly neuronal twitches.)

There was a politically poignant moment this morning as former Senator George McGovern switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama. Working on his 1972 presidential campaign was Clinton’s entry into politics, and Bill was active in that campaign. I’m sure it was a hard conversation that McGovern had with Bill and Hillary.

I responded to this because that was the first election in which I voted, and I also worked in the McGovern campaign.

My mind also wanders into thinking how much better off the country would have been had McGovern won in 1972, thus sparing us of the scandal and constitutional crisis of Nixon’s second term.

It’s a long time ago now, and yet many of the issues of that 1972 campaign--especially peace and economic security--are still with us in 2008.

And we still look ahead with hope that we can find answers.

Monday, May 5, 2008

American Idol


Quote of the day:
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
--John Wayne. (Don’t mention this quote in Orange County or you will immediately be arrested.)

A deadly storm in Myanmar, a world grain crisis, political conflict in Zimbabwe, a presidential primary in Indiana and North Carolina, suicide bombings in Iraq.

And all America is saying to itself, “It’s going to be David versus David in the ‘American Idol’ finale.”

Indeed, let’s get down to the real news. There are four contestants left: two strong ones and two weaker ones. Surely Syesha will be going home this week or next.

And so will Jason, in spite of his “adorable, sensitive, childlike, reggae-guy” thing. These compelling traits evidently have managed to disguise only a passable singing ability and what seems to be either a confused or a cooly ironic disinterest in the competition. Is he stoned or what? He’s a regular shadow of Sanjaya.

Though, fortunately, just a shadow. And not of your smile. Or anyone’s smile.

Overall, “American Idol” has been stronger this year, in both the singing ability of the contestants (yes, Carly went home too early--there are not enough voters for woman rockers) and in the quality of the production. I’d say about three out of four shows this season have been quite entertaining--compared to past years’ average of one out of two.

I like David Archuletta. His voice is truly amazing. Imagine a 17-year-old with a gift like that. He is extraordinary, and I hope he finds his way into a great career.

David Cook is the favorite to win. While his voice is not as singular as the other David, he is more versatile. He is a natural on-stage performer, and he has a strong creative gift for choosing and arranging songs. These are intuitive things that can’t be taught.

He’s probably quite a good songwriter, too. I’m sure we’ll get a chance to hear his original work sometime in the next year.

Four to go.

Or, more correctly, three to go and one to stay.

Video: Myanmar Cyclone

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The King of Kong


Quote of the day:
“Where have all the cowboys gone?”
--Paula Cole

I was sure “The King of Kong” was going to be about nerd obsession. It turns out this is just a piece of it. And not the most interesting piece.

This is a documentary about the people vying to be the world-record holder in Donkey Kong. Remember Donkey Kong? It was a long time ago. Along with Pac-Man and a few others, it was one of the most-popular video games in the 80s.

Though Donkey Kong is quite crude by today’s game standards, it still is among the most popular games.

The primary contenders here are not youngsters. The youngest looked to be about 35, and the others are past 40. A woman vying for the title in another game was in her 70s. While they all occasionally seemed to be having fun, they really take this stuff seriously.

The last time I remember playing Donkey Kong I lasted about a minute. To approach the scores of these people requires playing 2 1/2 hours. On one quarter.

That’s obsession. Obsession. Obsession. Obsession.

My eyes get blurry just thinking of staring at a game for that long.

Having said all this, “The King of Kong” is not really about “Kong.” It’s about “who is king?” The politics, manipulation and subterfuge caught me off guard--and really got me involved with these characters.

It’s a very interesting and surprisingly intriguing film. I highly recommend renting it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Kindle


Quote of the day:
“People do more of what’s convenient and friction-free.”
--Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com

Six months ago Amazon introduced an electronic book reader called Kindle. It has been very popular. For a while they were having trouble keeping up with demand.

As much as I am interested in the applications of technology, I’ve always been very skeptical of devices on which you can read books. Most are hard on the eyes and emphasize technology over the actual reading experience.

I do love getting news and information from the internet, especially since page layouts have become more intuitive and attractive. There’s a hitch to this, though.

Even with a bright and sharp monitor, it can be quite tedious to read anything long. I think the internet is built for browsing. Hence the “browser.” And it’s built for referencing.

Images, sound and video are important tools on the web. These three things are irrelevant in the average book. Novels, poetry and non-fiction may contain black-and-white illustrations, but that’s about it.

I’ve always considered reading a book a unique experience. I wouldn’t consider reading a book on the web. It’s never entered my mind to even try it.

For the same reasons I would also not consider reading a book on my iPhone, or any PDA. It’s a little-bitty screen, and I would be fumbling with it so much it would distract from the experience.

Book lovers say things like “there’s nothing like the feel of a book.” They talk about its portability, and a vague connection felt with the author through the physical pages. All of this is true.

From everything I’ve read about Kindle, it succeeds admirably in replicating key parts of the “book experience.” The screen is practically identical to a printed page--black on white with a high resistance to glare. Very easy on the eyes--and you can enlarge the text.

Owners seem to love the chance to carry around a few dozen books with them. And they rave how easy it is to preview, buy and load books directly onto the Kindle from anywhere. The size and weight of it are just about ideal--roughly the same as a paperback. You can highlight and make notes in the margins.

Evidently, there are a couple of major drawbacks. While more than 100,000 books are available, when Merrie went searching for many of the books she wanted to read, most were not available. I suppose this will be remedied over time as Amazon secures more rights.

More unfortunate is that the design of the keys on the device is clunky and not intuitive. Many owners complain about accidently turning pages, or having to fish around for the “home” key which takes you back to your list of books. They also complain about the time lag when turning pages, and the menu functions in the software design.

Amazon is the biggest book seller in the world. They know about books. They are not hardware or software designers.

I think a device like this is in our future, and is a very good idea for many reasons, personally and ecologically. I give Jeff Bezos a huge amount of credit for the work done on this product. It’s also admirable that one of Amazon’s (huge) goals is to increase the attention span of Americans. Kudos for that. (I don’t use the word “props” yet.)

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Amazon worked in partnership with Apple to get the design right?