Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to live safely in a science fiction universe

The protagonist is a time machine technician whose father had helped to invent time machines. He is interested in finding more about his father. They inhabit a world that is kind of like are world, but is also a science fiction world. They also know it is a science fiction world. It seems like a cool concept. As a repair guy he gets a lot of work from people that are trying to change their past. However, they can't do that, and all they usually do is relive the worst events of the past. On one visit, he gets out of the time machine, sees a future version of himself and shoots him. He is now worried that he may be stuck in a time loop, and much of the book is spent trying to come to terms with himself and his family and figure out the message from his future self. Eventually he writes the book that he has written and comes to terms with his family. And then he comes to the event where he will get stuck in the "loop". But it turns out he didn't die after all, and he can go on with his life.

I wanted to like this book. I loved the "self-aware" science fiction approach. The characters are often quoting from a book "how to live safely in a science fiction universe." The world they inhabit can be at time just like ours, and other times a totally unique science fiction world. All of this had great potential. However, I had trouble getting engaged with the characters and the plot. The people and the things they did seemed to be just a mechanism for holding together the thoughts and insights. It almost worked.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

NCAA money

College football and the NCAA has too much money. Look at all the new uniforms that teams are churning out. Sure, these are often paid for by the uniform companies. But this still has a cost. Coaches salaries are in the multi-million dollars. Money goes to fund practice facilities, weight rooms, recruiters, etc.

What if a team were able to compete in top tier football the old fashioned way. They can hire a head coach for $100,000. They'll work out in the same places that other students work out. Recruiting? Well, they'll recruit from the student body. Stadium? Here we can have a basic stadium. A whole bunch of bleachers for people to stand/sit on. We can save off the fancy stuff. All the Tv money can go to fund more scholarships for people.

Instead, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. People are asking for players to be able to be paid. And why not? How about doing a European soccer club approach? Have colleges license this football out to the NFL, with each NFL team getting a few former college teams as lower tier farm clubs. Or better yet, just let them license themselves out and compete in their own league. They could pay a licensing fee to the university to use the name. However, they would be semi-pro players. Perhaps they could also arrange for an expansion of the NFL, with the top 4 college teams going into the NFL. The next year, the worst NFL teams drop to "college" and the top college teams go to NFL. (Alabama would probably stay in the NFL for a while...) Schools could go back and create their own football team and compete with local schools.

Imagine college football teams that actually mirror and are part of the student body. Weird.

Instead, we have sports chasing money from TV. Will this last? Or are operators massively overbidding because sports is the only thing they understand that can get them traditional live viewers. If TV tires of college sports, then we could see massive changes in the current situation. Will it happen? We will see.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Discovery of Ancient Civilizations

In Discovery of Ancient Civilizations, Brian Fagan focuses on the discoverers more than the discoveries. This is a journey that unravels in the way that it did for modern people. Starting in the 1800s, the focus was an Egypt. Gradually older civilizations had been discovered. The initial excavations were more akin to "looting" and many key insights were lost by the haphazard approach. However, if not for this earlier work, archeology would not have grown to what it is today, and we wouldn't have the more scientific approach to archeology. He praises some of the Chinese attitudes towards excavation. They are willing to wait until "later" to excavate an ancient site. Why rush now?

Using a "discovery" approach helps resolve some of the issues with narrating the many ancient civilizations that originated in diverse parts of the world. Much of the lectures focus on the middle-eastern societies (such as Egypt and Mesopotamia) that are more well known. America, India and China are covered in less detail, later in the lectures. These societies were discovered later and have not received the public recognition as have the others. However, they are still interesting and have many potential new discoveries.

This focus on the explorers also gives us more insight into the characters involved in the discovery. Because the information about these civilizations is sparse, the personality of the discoveries can have a huge impact on our understanding and opinion of the societies. Many artifacts have been lost from some ancient sites, so the ones that have been preserved and deemed valuable are crucial to our understanding. The predetermined views of the archaeologists can also determine what areas are searched and evaluated. Would we understand these societies differently if different people had been researching? And what if everyone was equally dedicated to writing. Those that write and speak eloquently can have a much greater influence.

While it would be nice to have a "history" of the ancient civilization, it is probably impossible for it to be totally objective. This "discoverers" approach helps to provide a more accurate understanding.


I love maps. I have a large collection of paper maps sitting around the house. Bike maps, transit maps, National Geographic maps and more. My dream job was to work at Google Maps. (When my interviewers there turned out to be in the internal tools department, rather than maps, I decided to look elsewhere.) I would often go on long bike rides just so I could come home and spend hours staring at the map, trying to figure out where I went.

Maphead seemed like the book for me and it didn't disappoint. Ken "Jeopardy champion" Jennings starts with a pretty straightforward story of maps and the people that love them. Paper maps have that allure that you still can't get from online mapping programs. We also get a history of maps with many anecdotes and bits of trivia thrown in.

Then the book starts to venture out towards other types of "geography geeks". We get the academic geographers (who often disparage "mere maps"). We also get the (mostly male Indian) kids in the geography bee. There are people who spend hours following a "trail" on a map, geocachers, fantasy mappers and other "geography obsessed". (We have people that visit the highest point in every state, integer latitude/longitudes, 100s of countries and so forth.) Some people are even obsessed with taking pictures of all highway signs. He even uses the book as an excuse to visit Rand McNalley headquarters in Skokie. (That was another place I would have liked to work. I'm surprised he didn't head out to Delorme in Maine.)

The writing is entertaining, and the subject matter is both nostalgic and informative. Am I an oddball who loves maps, but does not have great spacial skills? What will things be like when the GPS generation grows up? (Could we control the world just by hacking GPS navigation devices.) To most people, a "GPS" tells you how to get some place, but for me it is always something that can tell you where you've been. A glance at the map it how you know where to go. Am I a maphead too?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Freddy and the Ignormus

On our recent roadtrip, we listened to Freddy and the Ignormus. (Surprisingly, Amazon doesn't even list this CD audiobook, but they will try to sell you the Audible version.) The narrator was the same narrator who did Kafka, so it was a little getting used to him doing a kid's book.

I found myself eager to get back in the car to keep listening to the story. Freddy is a "detective pig" living on a farm where animals talk. The animals are afraid of the "ignormous" that lives in the woods. One day Freddy goes to the woods and sees the return of the rat Simon. The rats have caused nothing but trouble and Freddy wants to make sure they do something about them. However, the animals doubt that Freddy has actually gone to the woods and survived. The rooster makes some big speech to that effect and gets drafted in to go to the woods with Freddy. However, due to some more rooster grandstanding they end up going into the woods separately, with each running out after thinking they have seen the ignormous. (It turns out they had just got glimpses of each other from the distance.)

Meanwhile, the ignormous appears to be leaving messages to scare the animals and demand high ransomes. There is also a mysterious bank robbery and the appearance of some strange creatures. Freddy is trying hard to solve these issues when he gets framed for a grain robbery. Eventually he discovers that this is all parts of the rats' big scheme and the rats are exiled and the animals lived happily ever after.

This is what Orwell's Animal Farm would have been if he wrote children's books. It is a fun, engaging story, that never takes itself too seriously without being overly superficial.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


iWoz is Steve Wozniak's "brag" book. Humility is not one of his strong points. As a kid he was an "engineering nerd" who was way ahead of everybody else in math and technology. However, he was not so advanced socially. He saw himself as somebody who was interested in both people and technology. (Hmm... Don't all engineers think they have the "human touch", while others are dedicated engineers?)

At the start, we get the kids riding his bike around the orchards in southern Sunnyvale. He went to the (now shuttered) Serra school and Homestead high school. Most of the kids had stay at home moms and were free to do creative antics like create a local electronic intercom system. (Could all the programmed children activities be hurting the creative and education of children?) This silicon valley of the past most have been very different from that of today.

We hear about the science fairs he won, the pranks he pulled, his telephone phreaking, electronic gadgets and plenty of other "nerdy" activities that he did. Then he goes to school, does some pranks, decides to return to De Anza college, gets involved in the home brew computer scene and builds the Apple I. He was lucky to find stores that wanted it. Jobs was lucky to hook up with him and have a knack with people. He was lucky HP (his employer) didn't want part of it. They also tried to sell to Commodore, who didn't want it. He was serendipitously in the right place at the right time. Had he finished school in Colorado, he would probably be just another nameless engineer working at some big company. Had he and Jobs not hooked up, they would both be anonymous dudes. Another one of the many computer startups may have been the one that hit it big. Had they not emphasized quality over price, the ground would not have been set for the current premium model of iOS and mac devices. One thing he mentions is that "marketing" took over Apple pretty early in the company's history. This had started to alienate the "engineer" in him. (But it has ultimately led to the success of the company.) Even during the "dark days" when apple wasn't doing well, they were designing iPods, etc.

Woz wants you to think that he was a uber-engineer who was destined for engineering greatness. In reality, however, he seemed to just be lucky. After Apple, there none of his inventions had really caught on. (Who has used the CL-9 universal remote?) The Apple computer was revolutionary at the time. But he even mentions that he had created the equivalent of the Altair 5 years before it was released. If the Apple I (and Apple II) had not found the right customers, investors and partners, they could have been in the same place. His closing message is to encourage people to go solo and invent without the bureaucracy of a large corporation. However, the "behind the scenes" message is that invention itself isn't worth diddly-squat. You need to make sure the device gets out there and gets sold. Working for a company can leave you rather nameless, but more able to see the fruits of your labors. (Who knows who Jonathan Ive is? Yet, he is responsible for the design of most modern Apple products.)

history of russia

History of Russia from Peter the Great to Gorbachev

Alexander II instituted land reform and "freedom" of serfs in 1860s. He had initially seemed rather conservative (and followed in the footsteps of a very conservative Tsar.) It seems that the best "reformers" are those that have conservative views and are able to make reforms pragmatically, rather than idealistically. The radical elements, however, assassinated him after he had drawn up plans for an elected parliament. This brought the changes to a screeching halt. It seems there was very little time when the peasants actually "tasted" freedom. The oppressive nature of communism may not have seemed significantly different to the common man. The people in control and the "dogma" may have changed, but lack of personal autonomy would not be seen as anything of serious concern.
The comunist era seems to have been giving fuzzy coverage here. We get a smattering of social anecdotes, but I wasn't clear how Stalin came to power. I did get the impression that communism was initially a hippie ideal of individualistic free love and shared everything. However the iron hand wad needed to run the state and force the ideal. World war II provided a foil. The state relaxed and mobilized the people in defense of the fatherland. People loved it. (And Hitler botched it. Some were willing to treat nazis as liberators, but they were instead treated as serfs). After the war, however, through state came back.

The portrayal of Gorbachev was enlightening. He was seaking an idealist socialism. However, his reforms failed, leading to the collapse of communism rather than its perfection. In the end, perhaps Marx was right. Communism can't be forced. People like to aspire to something. Russian peasants have historically had little to aspire to. Czar. Communists. Oligarchy. What's the difference?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Classics of American Literature

Classics of American Literature surveys American literature, starting with Benjamin Franklin. He spends multiple lectures covering single works and authors. There were a half-dozen lectures covering Emerson and Thoreau. It didn't leave me with any desire to read them again. However, Benjamin Franklin and Washington Irving seem to be worth going over again. And Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe rank high on the list.

There tend to be multiple lectures on each author, making the pace rather slow. Twentieth Century literature seems to be be much more in line with works I remember reading. (Thanks to a great high school English teacher. I took mostly Brit. lit in college, so that wasn't much help here.)

He also mentions the "canon" and how some of the "white men" like Eliot, Fitzgerald and Faulkner are out of favor. It is sad that political correctness has gone so overboard that it seeks out minor figures just because they were not represented. This is a great disservice, especially considering one discussion about the inter-relation of the past and present. History is impacted by how the present sees it. While studying lots of obscure writers from the past may make academics feel good, it doesn't help them to understand the people of that time. Then, people read and studied the big guys of the period. Even if there were high quality writers left by the wayside, studying them would not help us understand history any better. Instead, it leaves us just with literature in the isolation. And if we are focusing on isolated literature, we should pick the highest quality literature regardless of authorship or time period. (Though when people 100 years from now study today, they should pick some of the obscure 200 year old works to understand today better.)

I had recently read Invisible Man, so some of the commentary on it seemed to most relevant. Many of the other books discussed seemed to have good points, but not necessarily books that I would like to read. I guess that makes this long series of lectures a time saver.

King Dork

A high school friend introduced me to early Lookout-era Green Day. I loved the energetic bubble-gum pop-punk music. From there, I discovered Mr. T Experience, another great Lookout pop-punk band. They had the same energy, but with humorously ironic lyrics. A few years ago, I read on Dr. Frank's blog that he was writing a book, but it took me until now to finally start it. I plowed through it in a day and was not disappointed.

"King Dork" is a sophomore in high school. However, that is a name that only he uses to call himself, but that doesn't matter because most of the novel takes place within his mind. He considers himself a dork, who lives apart from the "normal" people in high school. He has only one friend, and the two of them have a band. (They are great at creating band and song names, but lacking in the music department.) He is fairly smart, but fairly anonymous. He sees himself near the bottom of the school pecking order, and often finds himself getting beat up.

We find out that his father died a few year ago and that he now lives with his mom, hippie step-dad and younger sister. He finds some of his dad's old books and attempts to decode secret messages in them. He also ends up attending a party with one of his friends. (We later find out this was part of a ruse.) The party and the book end up leading him on two parallel quests that might converge (or might not.) In the processes, he manages to enter in to relationships with girls, topple a crime ring and maybe find out more about his father's death.

I loved the style of the book. The youth culture described seems right on. He manages to get a timeless view of the relationships and the faux-education that takes place. (Yes, AP classes really are a lot easier, due in part to lack of busy-work and better teachers.) The narrator criticism the obsession with "Cather in the Rye" and "hippie elitism" and encourages self discovery. It delves in to PG-13 level vulgarity and content, but doesn't drive you crazy with it. It is a "Holden Caulfield" for the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Zita the Spacegirl

The Zita graphic novels are fun, well-drawn stories about a girl who accidentally saves the planet. The "fun" art differs from the "intense" art common in graphic novels and makes for a more likable story.

At the start, Joseph and Zita find a small button. After pressing it, Joseph is zapped to another world. Zita then goes to rescue him. On the way she meets a bunch of other characters, including aliens, robots and a giant-sized mouse. With these friends she is able to eventually rescue the planet from imminent destruction and free Joseph. But she doesn't make it home.

In the next book, she is a celebrity, but getting tired of it. She runs in to a robot that tries to be like her, and uses it to escape to watch the circus. Unfortunately, she misses her space flight and steels a ship to try to catch it. Now she is an outlaw. However, she manages to save another world (with the help of her robot clone.) She still has not made it home.

The story is easy to read, and there are plenty of scenes told entirely in pictures. This book is appealing to everyone, including early readers, advanced readers and adults.

iPads in school

Sunnyvale elementary schools are adding technology to the classroom. The principal is excited about these tablets taking the place of colored pencils and textbooks. Yet, the most concrete example given is of it taking the place of the teacher (by allowing students to record and playback their voice.)

What is wrong with this?

First is the cost. Why is the school paying $329 and up for Apple devices when lesser alternatives can be had for less. Google was offering chromebooks for $99 for use in classrooms. Android tablets can also be had for a fraction of the cost of the similar equipped Apple tablet. Cupertino and Mountain View both border Sunnyvale, so either one would be supporting the "local" company. (And everything is made in China anyway.)

So the school is wasting precious money on tech. Oh well, the district did just approve a parcel tax, so they have money to burn.

The bigger concern is the use of technology. Does it really help in the classroom?

This is Silicon Valley. Many of the kids (even the low-income language learners) have parents that work in the technology industry. Even those that don't are likely to have smart phones or tablets at home. These aren't $1000 "educational" devices. They are $100 entertainment and communication gadgets. Many kids probably know how to use the devices better than the teachers do.

There may be some students that don't have access to devices at home. Simply exposing them to the technology will be helpful, right? Well, no. One of the selling points of touch devices is that they are supposed to be intuitive. (Have you seen the iPad manual. Yeah.) There is not much to "learn" to use the devices. And even if there were, the applicability in college or the workforce is next to nill. A second grader wont finish school for 10 years. By then, technology will be drastically different from today. Ten years ago, a smart-phone would have been more likely to be running Palm-OS with a stylus. Apple was just ramping up its iPod business (with click wheels!)

Well, maybe they are doing something useful with the devices. Perhaps they can spend some time "learning" with some app. (They will need to, because the teacher will be spending time with the technology and wont have as much time to spend teaching.)

Maybe, just maybe, some kids will figure out how to hack the iPads to jailbreak them and load them with games. This would show advanced reasoning and technology skills that could be applicable to the future. This would also be the most likely activity to be punished.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Education gone amok

How can the California PE FAQ be so confusing? I guess that is what happens when it becomes bureaucratization. The modus operandi seems to be legislate the corner case. If some rare bad thing happens, create a large framework of laws to make everything worse, but at least make sure that the bad thing doesn't happen. Then a new bad thing happens and the process starts all over again.

PE seems to be a case of the good intentions gone amok. First off, the instructor must be a properly credentialed PE teacher - unless none are available, in which case any union member can fill in. Yep, credentialing may have at one time been a means of helping ensure quality teachers, but now is just a union protection mechanism. Bureaucracy rears its ugly head.

The PE regulations also provide a lot of talk that really doesn't amount to much. Where are the standards like there are for other subjects?  PE would be easy. Run a mile in 8 minutes. Do 30 push ups. It lends itself to measurement much better than academic standards. Yet that would be too politically incorrect. What about the out of shape kids? (Wait, isn't that the whole point of education?)

And then there is the whole team sport thing. Team sport participation doesn't really count as PE. Why? Probably because they would be getting too much exercise and not enough indoctrination.

Then we have the California Star test. In 2nd grade, the math questions are read to the students. They don't trust them to be able to read. In second grade! Ironically, a bunch of these kids walked out of the test and picked up their thick Harry Potter books. But, because they had to wait and twiddle their thumbs until the teacher could read the problems. (I'm glad they didn't do that when I was in second grade. I always preferred the written problems.) There was probably somebody somewhere that complained about getting bad math scores because they couldn't read. (Wait - aren't there reading tests also? Well, it isn't as if there is any coherent logic to this.)

At one time, the education system provided people with a common set of tools that they could use to interact in society. Now, education has tried to reduce that denominator as far as it can go. Pretty soon we will just have grunting as the standard. It attempts to cater to "subgroups". Why study T.S. Eliot when we can find a Vietnamese-Mexican Woman poet who wrote at the same time? The matching subgroup would obviously appreciate her writing more, even if the world at large previously disregarded it as fluff. (We wouldn't dare teach anything that was popular with the masses.)   Under-represented minorities in certain fields are praised and more are encouraged to follow in their steps. But isn't this just a way of propagating the elitism? (The literature "canon" is mostly white men. Lets add women and minorities. That way we can still maintain an elitist "canon". Quality doesn't matter. Elitism does.)

We also have the case of technology in the classroom. The problem is that the students often know more about it than the teachers. If the technology really does help learning, could we just shorten the teaching day to allow kids to spend more time learning physics with Angry Birds?

What do children need to learn?  How to get along with different people? How to live in a community? Well, with large magnet schools, people are back to more self-selected equality. So much for getting along with different people.

Maybe it is to enforce equality. Teach down to the lowest level. That way nobody has an advantage. The problem is that this just accentuates the advantage of the well-to-do. With degraded standards, those with resources will learn, while those without will stagnate at the "basic" level.

Perhaps it is just a means of providing jobs. At least our education does that well.

Monday, April 08, 2013

A Good GPS app for android

I have used Runkeeper for a few months. It worked. However, it was buggy. It would occasionally crash and it seemed to be slow to respond. The audio cues are nice, but the voice is so slow it becomes obnoxious. It automatically uploads to the website. However, it makes you click an extra button after finishing to actually save the workout. (And it can often hang for a while doing this.) However, you have to pay to get full summaries online. (You can get individual workout details without paying.) You also have to pay if you want to see the total time and distance for a day. (You can see one for free.)

MyTracks by Google seems ok. However, it can also be sluggish. The audio cues are in a robot voice, but they are faster and music is stopped when they are given. It can send things to google. It will update the tracks in a google spreadsheet. However, the only way to do it is by uploading individual tracks. It also seems to have a crashing problem. On the bright side, it seems to have an API.

Endomondo is an iphone app converted to Android. It would be nice if they would at least think to use the menu button to bring up the menu. (There is a small little iphone-ish link that needs to be used.)  It has a nice big "start" button that switches to a "pause" button when going. When it is paused there is also a small "stop" that appears to stop. The start/stop process seems a little better and more responsive than the other apps. However, the app itself seems to have some bloat. It has "frozen" up my phone a couple times when running. (All music stops and the app itself also stops recording, and never seems to start again.) The free app also has some annoying ads. The audo cues are perhaps the best of the three.

A few decent apps, but too much bloat. Perhaps it is time to right a new one?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sledge Hammer!

Sledge Hammer was a mid-80s television show that had low ratings and was constantly moved around the schedule. At the end of the first season, a nuclear bomb destroyed everybody. Yet, the series was somehow renewed for one more season.

It was ridiculously funny when it came out. While there are a few "current events" jokes in the series, most of the humor is just as funny today. Inspector Sledge Hammer is a violence loving cop who manages to catch the bad guys in spite of himself. The humor is primarily a mixture of "Pink Panther" style slapstick cock and deadpan ironic dialog.

A quick scan of Wikipedia shows the primary actors and creator were best known for their work on this series. (In spite of work on many other movies and TV shows, and even a marriage to Michael Chrichton.) The actors don't look like the 'perfect' TV actors. The sets and action are all "good enough", but not perfect. Its not B-move bad, but more of a comic book level of imperfection that adds to its charm.

The show centers around a cop with extreme violent tendencies. However, it manages to do this with very little violence. In spite of a fascination with a gun, we never see Sledge kill anybody. The restrainment allows it to be truly funny. It often parodies other movies or characters (one episode manages to parody both The Godfather and Witness.) The humor appeals to both kids and adults alike.

Shadows in Flight

Three kids are in a spaceship with their dad. They find an alien spaceship. The "domesticated animals" on the ship have gone wild and most of the aliens have died. The humans make peace, eliminate the wild animals and settle on the nearby planet with the aliens. The dad dies.

Pretty simple, eh?

Things get more interesting. The kids are 6 year-old super-geniuses. Dad is a super genius himself, who will die from gigantism in his 20s. The alien race had attempted to take over the earth. The humans, in turn, had wiped out nearly the entire alien race. Dad had participated in the war hundreds of earth years ago. They have been traveling at relativistic speed for a few years as earth has aged significantly. They are trying to find a cure for their gigantism, while still preserving their super intelligence.

Did I mention this fits in with Card's famous Ender series?

This is a shorter novel that is fast-paced and psychological. We see the "formics" as being subservient and gunning. The "queens" can choose to produce workers or drones. The workers seem to have no mind of their own and to follow the queen blindly. (This was the message that they first gave the humans.) However, they do have independence. However, the queens have altered their cellular structure to cause them to die if they dare try to separate from the queen (or even offer a differing opinion.)

The children are stuck in an awkward position. Mentally, they have intelligence that exceeds that of most adults. However, they are still physically and emotionally children. They may even "know" of proper emotional response to situations, but doing it can still be a challenge.

Good and Bad

Another long airplane flight, so another chance to watch a whole bunch of movies while I can't get in more than a few minutes of sleep.

Good: Katy Perry: Part of Me movie. It was fun and colorful. It made her seem like a normal person who liked to entertain. The energetic music and outlandish costumes added to the experience. The testimonials of people who felt Katy helped them accept themselves as "different" didn't quite fit, but they were only brief.
Bad: Katy Perry music. After watching the music, I went back and Spotified some of her music. Uggh. A few good bits, but mostly sounds like a teenager trying to be "different like everybody else". And she's nearly 30.

Good: Return of the Pink Panther - Peter Sellars is the master of slapstick. His bumbling detective manages to solve the case in spite of himself.
Bad: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective - Jim Carrey's slapstick is straight from the toilet and downright tedious. You also wish he would at least try to impersonate a real person.

Good: Skyfall James Bond movie where Bond goes through elaborate stunts to help protect his boss from a crazy.
Bad: Bodyguard Kevin Costner tries to protect Whitney Houston from a crazy. Boring.

In between: Love for Beginners - A Japanese film about a "lady's man" who takes up a dare to seduce a nerdish girl. She initially rejects his overtures, but eventually they fall in love, and she finds her true self. Stylistically it is great, but the store would have been more powerful if it would have ended with her desired marriage instead of a caving to his physical overtures.

In between: Alice in Wonderland - It is Tim Burton. It can't be too bad. I watched it in a middle of a long flight, and had trouble staying awake for the first part. (Was it boring, or was it the flight? I think it was a bit of both.) The characters and the physical humor were great. (but, I did get annoyed with the white queen.


Earth: The Audiobook is an introduction to the planet earth, written for aliens who discover the planet after humans have destroyed each other. This "Daily Show" humor piece combines pop science and pop culture. Occasionally it hits on something really funny. However, most of the time it misses.

The delivery of the audiobook also leaves something to be desired. It manages to be dull and dry without even getting some of the "ironic" dryness.

The jokes attempt to place today's norms and concerns in a grand "timeless" history of the earth. It seemed like it could be a great source of humor. Instead it seemed that the political pontifications outnumbered the gut-bustingly funny jokes.

Earths Changing Climate

Earths Changing climate discusses climate change from a scientific perspective. The professor tries to be objective, sticking to the scientific facts about climate and change, and for the most part shying away from policy.

The "natural" temperature of the earth is in the freezing range. However, the greenhouse effect is what keeps it warmer. Mars is a little further from the sun, but the lack of atmosphere makes it positively freezing. Venus is closer to the sun; however, it has a greenhouse effect that went into overdrive, making it an oven. The earth has just enough of an atmosphere to keep a comfortable average temperature.

The earth has changed temperature significantly over time. There are plenty of external and internal factors involved. Small changes in the earth's tilt and orbit can have significant impact. The movement of land masses around the planet can also contribute to these. Since water, snow and land all reflect different amounts of light, the rearrangement of these can impact the temperature. If the earth's tilt brings one section closer to the sun, this slight difference can cause a cascading effect.

The primary greenhouse gas on earth is water vapor. However, it has a relatively short "life span", and is often quickly returned to the surface in rain. It may also sit as clouds which reflect heat. Methane is also a significant greenhouse gas, though it is in relatively short supply. Carbon Dioxide is currently persona non grata of the climate change world. It is a natural result of most energy producing activities. It has a relatively short "official" lifespan in the atmosphere, but its impact can live longer (due to the balance of carbon on the planet.)

During the time of dinosaurs, the earth was thought to be much warmer than it is now. Recently, the earth has experienced a few ice ages. The current temperature of the earth works well for humans. However, we appear to be on a path to increase the climate. How much? It is difficult to say. There are increasingly complex models used to calculate temperature changes. However, accurate, detailed records are only available for a little over a century. Other sources, such as ice cores can trace records back further. However, the further you go back, the more difficult it is to obtain data (and the less accurate the data is.) From the available models, it appears there is a significant man-induced increase in Carbon Dioxide and temperature. What will be the result of this is less certain. It is possible that the earth may reach a "cliff", where things suddenly switch out of control. It is also possible that the earth as a whole will be ok, but different areas will suffer (while others will benefit.) While there will likely be some extreme weather and negative impacts, the global warming alarmists have probably overestimated their force.

Fossil fuels are the primary source of atmospheric carbon. However, they represent just a small fraction of the energy available on the earth. The vast majority of the energy available is in the form of sunlight. (Fossil fuels, in fact, represent "sunlight" that had been stored up in the earth millions of years ago.) There are also some other sources, such as the moon (tidal energy) and inside the earth (geothermal). However, these are relatively minor. The sun also produces many secondary power sources, such as wind energy and biomass.

At the end of the lectures, the author presents some ways of dealing with global warming. Some proposals include "whole-earth" projects to reduce the heat level of the earth. These could be extremely dangerous due to the unknown factors. Carbon sequestration could have an impact, however, there is the risk of leakage. Simply producing less carbon may be the easiest. (The US vs. Europe comparison is an example of less production without dampening of lifestyle). Making better use of the sun's energy is also a viable long-term option.

The lectures were simple and straightforward. They attempted to skirt around the policy and political issues. However, in focussing on the "consensus" view they may have avoided some of the interesting work in what is a challenging scientific arena.