Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Annus Mirabilis of an Inconstant Reader

I will use the idea of the Annus Mirabilis, not at all to suggest my year was as important as Einstein’s contributions, but to celebrate a good reading year for me, the inconstant reader. I’ve read approximately a book a month which was close to my goal for this year. (I feel like one of those elementary kids who signs on to a reading competition over the summer.) 

This reading exercise was to first, read more, second, to read outside of my comfort zone, and third, to finish reading a whole book (ok, I failed on this one, but for good reason). Reacquainting myself to books is harder than it should be. My job has me in front of a computer screen most of the time and shutting off that screen and picking up a book is not easy. Reading a physical book has a whole different feel than reading the same words on a screen. Don’t know why, but it just does. 

The book I’m ending the year on is James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and it’s a bit of a slog for me. I really want to like this book but 170+ pages I’m not sure where I stand. It will be a miraculous year if I can finish this book by the 31st - that’s when it’s due back to the library.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo

Mystery solved. About 2 months ago I heard one of those little music interludes on NPR that sound intriguing – if you are an NPR listener you know what I’m talking. So I went on the NPR site and tried to look up the details of the clip. Usually the NPR site provides all the info about these music clips but not in this case. Well that 15 second sound clip haunted me for months. Was that Badly Drawn Boy? Ben Folds? I just couldn’t figure it out. Then today it came to me. It was Yo La Tengo’s Georgia vs. You La Tengo (listen) from their Summer Sun album. Thank you, there is a Santa Claus.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


The movie to see this season for blockbuster-loving, technology wonks is James Cameron’s Avatar. We caught a late showing of the movie and really enjoyed it. The movie highlights the distinction between a film and the experience around a film. In this case the experience starts with the pre-release build up of the film: over 15 years in the making by a hugely successful and idiosyncratic screenwriter, film director and producer using groundbreaking technology to realize the film. When you arrive at the movie, sit back, relax and put on a pair of 3-D glasses so continues the experience. It’s an interesting mix of live-action performances and computer-generated effects. The motion-capture system used to create the film allows the facial expressions of actors to be captured as a virtual camera system enables them to see what their computer-generated counterparts will be seeing. It works well.

The weakest aspect of the movie is the plot, being a little on the hokey side. In a nutshell, humans in the year 2154 arrive to a planet called Pandora to strip mine a mineral known as unobtanium which is very valuable. The problem is that the native population, the Nav'vi, has homelands right over the richest deposit of the mineral. Can you see where this is going? Begin huge conflict starring a tug of war between a ruthless corporation, ex-marines and scientists hired by the corporation, and the Na'vi. The Na'vi are 10 foot tall, blue-skinned sapient humanoids. The titular “avatar” refers to the remotely controlled, genetically-engineered native bodies that humans “slip into” to befriend the natives.

Talking about experience, it’s completely appropriate that we saw the movie at Gold Class Cinemas in Redmond. Wow, what a great movie experience. It's a bit pricey but if you see only a few movies a year, do movies this way. Plush seats that recline, drinks (full bar) and snacks (e.g. lobster rolls) brought to your seat to name a few of the niceties of the experience. Need something during the movie, there is a little call button you can use to summon a waiter. The best part was there are only 40 seats or so and every seat is a good one. There was no head to look around. Ahh, that's an experience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Greenwood Space Travel Supply

Greenwood Space Travel Supply Store
Seattle’s own Space Travel Supply store! We did a double take waiting at the corner of 85th and Greenwood in Seattle when we saw the storefront Greenwood Space Travel Supply. What!? So we went in for a look. Inside there are science-themed gifts for young and old. In the back of the small store there is the Atomic Teleporter. One Travelmarx stepped inside and then disappeared. Okay he stepped to the other side which is a writing center. The writing center is connected to the store. The store is part of the 826 National which is a nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in seven cities across the country. The organization helps students ages six to eighteen on their writing skills. The stores fronting the different chapters differ in themes (e.g. space travel, pirate, superhero, or robot supplies). When the founders Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari first opened the storefront of the first 826 location, Valencia, the location was zoned commercial and needed to sell something to open so the pirate store was born. All subsequent stores adopted different themes. So if you are in the Greenwood area, drop by or online donate here.
Atomic Teleporter

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

Richard Dawkins - Greatest Show On Earth
Richard Dawkins’ latest book The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution is a great read. If you don’t believe in evolution (Dawkins would call you a ‘history-denier’) the book won’t be of interest to you. If you believe in evolution and want to go deeper into the subject, want to know more about examples of evolution in everyday life and a load of other interesting facts (does a whale have hind legs?), then this book is for you.

The thirteen chapters are an easy and engaging read. The only place the reading gets hairy is in Chapter 5 where the evolution of E. coli in test tubes for 20 years is discussed (which is nonetheless fascinating). The standout ideas for me were the following:

- Chapter 8, You Did it Yourself in Nine Months, is about embryology with the main take away that DNA is not a ‘blueprint’ for building the body. Blueprints are reversible and are 1-to-1 where DNA-to-final-body is not. A better analogy is a recipe.

- In the same chapter, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is discussed. In this discussion Dawkins gives a simple overview of how from the original egg you get a newly hatched larva of 558 cells. The key to it (and similarly in the human egg cell) is asymmetric cell division. The original cell has a front and rear end so that when it divides they go on to form (like a recipe) the front and rear of the worm.

- Chapter 13, There is Grandeur in this View of Life, has a section talking about what Dawkins calls the four ‘memories’ or ways in which information from the past is recorded for future use. The memories include the gene pool, the immune system, the nervous system, and culture. The four memories are all made possible by the Darwinian process of non-random DNA survival.

In the last chapter, Dawkins gives this definition of natural selection: “… the case of DNA, we understand pretty well how the information content builds up over geological time. Darwin called it natural selection, and we can put it more precisely: the non-random survival of information that encodes embryological recipes for that survival.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bonfires on the Heath and Hungry Bird

The Clientele - Bonfires on the Heath
I can’t get enough of the latest Clientele album Bonfires on the Heath. What’s not to like about this album? First, the title, I’ve never seen a bonfire on the heath, but it sounds interesting. Second, the excellent cover art by the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593) – best known for his portraits made of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other everyday objects. Finally of course, the music described as “autumnal and very English” is right up my alley. Take a listen. Kind of like pop/rock nocturnes – one of my favorite musical forms. The lyrics of the Clientele can be summed up as bones, wind, evening, voices, woods, windows, sleep, and heath. Shiver (with excitement).

The second album I’m really digging lately is Clem Snide’s Hungry Bird. More melancholy (did I not mention that for the Clientele?) and bittersweet stories, this time of American love and life. Check out the story in the song Born a Man where a beauty queen is chased through a field when they found out she was born a man.
Clem Snide - Hungry Bird