December 30, 2013

April 29, 2013


The spinning vortex of Saturn’s north polar storm resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage in this false-color image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).

Space is absolutely incredible.

March 11, 2013


(from Star Challenge #4: The Exploding Suns, 1984)

This warning issued by the South African Police Department (SAPD) is quite chilling. And I’m not talking about the vexing combination of all caps and exclamation marks in the final plee of the second paragraph. Or the stilted language that includes all genders and age groups but excludes anyone not on their way to school or work. But, I digress.

Firstly, the crying child scenario is a sick reminder that criminals will use any means necessary to catch their prey. This is a variation on the broken-down car scheme to be sure, but using a little kid as a lure is a new low. Having said that, most South Africans have a heightened sense of security and I would hope most wouldn’t fall for this.

Secondly, the free key holders that house a secret GPS tracker seems so bizarre that it must be true. Although, I imagine drivers of flashy cars may wonder why they received a free gift while the guy in the jalopy next to them missed out. In any case, this high-tech con is a worrying example of how technology can be used for evil. 

February 18, 2012

For all you kids out there who are into grammar – rap version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

The world wants a piece of America. Not the real America mind you, with its ugly highways, guns, and inequalities, but fantasy America. US entertainment is a highly desirable commodity that is denied even to international netizens. Access to services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify is stymied by an invisible Copyright wall where the wrong IP Address leaves you out in the cold.

Fortunately, there are ways to tunnel through that wall and get a piece of that US action. Two common methods are through a proxy or through a VPN. A proxy (such as hidemyass) allows you to piggyback on a US server so that your connection requests are made using an IP address originating in the US. A VPN (such as proXPN) encrypts your data by emulating a LAN network over the internet.

Fortunately, there are many free proxies out there (VPNs not so much, although proXPN is free). Unfortunately, these free editions have severe bandwidth restrictions. This limitation means that your dreams of streaming all that juicy US Netflix content can die right now. Unless you’re willing to pay for unlimited bandwidth. As in real life, there is no free ride to America, but money can buy you anything. 

How to write well

February 9, 2012

One thing writers like to do is teach others how to write well. There are several such instructive books that I highly recommend: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well.

Kurt Vonnegut, whose book I reviewed recently, also has some sound advice in this short piece. Here is a summary:

1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers

It’s worth reading the whole piece, but a little soul-searching wouldn’t hurt either. Before you can write fluently, you have to peer past your ego and really know who you are. This personal insight is crucial because some people assume they are good writers, when they are not. And sometimes, even good writers write badly (which is why good writers would kill for an editor they can trust).

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that my day job as a technical writer has both helped and harmed my writing style. Being able to strip out any trace of a personal voice and simplifying complex subject matter makes for crisp technical writing, but is rather dull creatively. I try to balance this shortcoming by writing poetry and creative fiction as well. Conversely, I suspect some esoteric poets out there would benefit from writing a set of clear instructions.

The wolf parable

February 8, 2012

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The New York Times recently reported that 91 percent of Americans aged 28-35 have used their mobile devices while on the toilet. Disturbingly, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women have participated in a conference call from the john. Never before has the MUTE key played such an indispensable role.

Yet, while these statistics may leave you shaking your head in disgust (or not, if you’re sitting on the throne while you read this), some companies are taking the initiative. Statistics can sometimes help you find a niche market, as the start-up HzO is no doubt counting on. They’re developing a nanotechnology coating that will waterproof your phone. They were a big hit at CES, and are sure to make a splash in the industry this year.

I just wish they would be more honest in their marketing material. They talk about accidentally jumping in a pool with your phone in your pocket, or having an outdoor conversation during a torrential rain storm. The likelihood of these events happening are actually very minuscule. Why not just come out and say it – we are there to help when your phone goes plop. Full stop.

I was reading an interview with Limor Fried, the alpha-geek who founded the DIY electronics company Adafruit Industries, when I was struck by one of her answers:

          What kind of phone do you have?
          I do not own a cell phone; however, I have designed
          a cell-phone jammer.

Limor’s response was intriguing to me because of its dichotomy between technological know-how and an anti-technology stance. Here is an ubergeek who could reverse engineer a cellphone, yet who claims not to own one.

Yet, if you think about it, why is there this lust in our consumer culture for phones? Granted, it makes life easier for a lot of people, but there’s more to it.

Some people feel a sense of shame if they don’t own a cellphone. Or even more telling, a twinge of embarrassment if they own a cellphone, but not a smartphone. Look at the poor kid who digs out a quarter and makes a furtive call on the payphone in the mall. The mom who cries inside because the other yummy mummies are tracking their kids’ progress on their iPhone apps while she scrawls in a scruffy notebook. And God help you if you’re a phoneless geek.

Perhaps it is not Limor’s answer which is unsettling, but the question itself. What kind of society have we become when the question that measures geek cred is “What kind of phone do you have?”


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