28 February 2009

News Roundup: 28 February, 2009

Fresh from the intertubes, via my Google Reader:
  • John McCain still doesn't like science funding, which is one of many reasons why academics and scientists probably lean democratic. Science funding is, in my humble opinion, one of the best things that the U.S. Government does. Of course, our economy is in a crisis and maybe science shouldn't be the number-one priority, but marking all science funding as "pork" is ridiculously short sighted and stinks of partisan badgering more than anything. Personally, I think that the funding marked in the article is a great use of public funds, as astronomy suffers from a shortage of good observatory time. Of course, never mind that funding science with grants like this produces more graduate students, allowing the U.S. to continue attracting bright people from other countries to study here. Fortunately, Obama seems to get this; see here for details on the science component of the most recent budget.
  • An article on how NPR deals with solar outages. One thing noticeably missing from the article (maybe it's in the video -- I couldn't watch it) is a description of other problems faced by GSO satellites. For example, at night, the satellites pass into the Earth's shadow. Since the satellites are solar powered, this is not a happy time for the satellites, and a good chunk of their weight is devoted to keeping them powered during this time. Also, the temperature difference between in-shadow and out-of-shadow is somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 degrees celsius, also unhappy for the circuitry on the satellite. Still, it's a good description of a problem I didn't even realize existed until I took up my current job.
  • The Unofficial FAQ for the 21st Century, from the remarkably prescient and eloquent Charles Stross. Fascinating and a bit depressing, but probably right on the button. Anyone who hasn't read Stross's Halting State should do so immediately; his vision of cell-phone technology over the next twenty years is equally fascinating and, I hope, prescient.

Movie Review: Gattaca

The other day, Urmi and I watched Gattaca, which I had seen years ago but Urmi had never seen. I was reminded of how much I loved the movie -- both the themes it considers as well as the overall presentation. The movie is set in what it proclaims to be the "near" future, but in a world where genetic selection is commonplace. Parents have their children's embryos genetically screened before implantation, removing embryos with harmful genetic combinations (heart defects, myopia, etc). Many years after this practice came into being, the human race has stratified into two groups: Valids, those who were screened to remove the harmful genes, and In-valids, those who were not.

The core theme of the story is discrimination. In Gattaca, discrimination is based on genetics rather than skin color, gender, or other obvious characteristics. In-valids are explicitly barred from holding certain jobs. The protagonist of Gattaca is an In-valid named Vincent who dreams of being an astronaut -- and is willing to masquerade as a Valid to achieve his goal. Most of the movie is about how Vincent narrowly avoids detection during a murder investigation. The core theme, however, is how the Vincent's dedication to his dream allows him to overcome his genetic handicaps. Quite inspiring, really, although the movie is often about as subtle on this point as a Mack truck.

Although the theme of overcoming one's handicaps is touching and universally applicable, I think the movie's greatest aspect is the presentation of a biological dystopia in easily understood terms. The movie does an excellent job of describing the possible after effects resulting from widespread genetic screening as well as fast and efficient genetic identification. What would the world be like when it takes less than ten seconds to accurately determine whether someone has a heart defect? Or the possibility of going blind? What would happen to medical insurance, life insurance, and employment? Gattaca gives one answer to these questions: Things would not be good for the In-valids. The presentation, however, is key. Science fiction books have been toying with these concepts since the genetic code was first discovered, but I feel that movies like Gattaca do a better job of reinforcing the consequences of such inventions. Personally, the questions running through my head after watching such a movie are more fun than the movie itself.

In short, Gattaca is well worth watching (I give it an 8/10 -- 9/10 for science or genetic buffs) not just for the story and themes, but just for the exposure to an excellently thought out "what if" scenario. This is the sort of thing that Science Fiction is all about, and Gattaca excels at it.

19 February 2009


Urmi and I are big fans of doing creative stuff with our photos. We make scrapbooks, post them in galleries, and even make collages. Today Urmi sent me a program called Shape Collage which is pretty cool. I used it to put together the above collage from a bunch of our photos. Urmi will probably kill me for posting even such a small slice, but all the photos are already in our gallery, so I'm probably safe :)

15 February 2009

Mimic Octopus

I'm not normally a Youtube person, but I've read about Mimic Octopi and this clip was just too cool not to post. Mimic Octopi are far and above the coolest animals I have ever seen. Be sure to watch the whole thing, as it shows the octopus in slow motion at the end. (Source: Wired Science 10 Fantastic Marine Biology Videos)

09 February 2009

Kindle 2

(Source: Amazon)
So Amazon has finally unveiled their upgraded version of the Kindle. Urmi bought me one of the original editions of the Kindle and I absolutely love it. For me, it's well worth the price tag -- I read so much that I may actually be saving more than the Kindle's original (admittedly hefty) price tag. When you throw in free books available online (such as from Cory Doctrowow, the Mobile Read forums, and many more), ebook readers such as the kindle become even cheaper. However, I don't think I'll be upgrading unless my Kindle suffers some sort of unforeseen catastrophe. The new one looks great (check out the comparison with a pencil), but I like my current one quite a bit. I actually quite like the larger buttons and the wedge-shaped chassis. Etexts are small enough that I think I'm still well short of the original, built-in space, although I did purchase a 2GB expansion card for it. Anyways, I'll be excited to see what comes next for etext readers such as the Kindle. Maybe the Kindle 3 will be the etext reader that ends up cornering the market -- I don't know if the Kindle 2 will be able to do it quite yet.

08 February 2009

MacBook Pro

So Urmi and I recently purchased new computers, upgrading from our dated and overloaded Powerbook G4 12" computers. We opted to buy 15.4" MacBook Pros, with the 2.8 GHz processor and 4 GB RAM. Let me tell you, as a first time Intel Mac user, these things are amazing machines. The screens are gorgeous and, for the first time in my life, I have a computer that responds as fast as I use it. Of course, I doubt the latter will last very long -- Moore's law being what it is and everything. There are a couple things I wanted to highlight about my new computer.
  • The Trackpad
    The new MacBook Pros come with a multitouch trackpad with a plethora of new features. For one, it's possible to click anywhere on the trackpad, which makes single-finger use very efficient. It also includes a number of iPhone/iPod Touch features, such as pinch scaling, scrolling with two fingers, and a few new ones specific to the macbook. On the whole, the new upgrades are quite nice, but it sure would be great to have the ability to modify some of the new features. For example, sliding up on the trackpad with four fingers shows the desktop; it'd be nice if it could pull up Spaces, or something similar. Also, there's no way to disable any of the features. The rotation feature is particularly frustrating some of the time, and it'd be great if it could be selectively turned off. Unfortunately, Apple is notorious for not giving you the ability to disable some of their eye candy features (notably the coverflow "feature" on the more recent iPod Nanos, which would activate when stored in a pocket and prevent the UI from doing what it's supposed to; this was fixed in a recent update), so I'm not going to hold my breath on this one.
  • The Screen
    The screens on the new MacBook Pros are absolutely gorgeous. Colors are perfect, the display is sharp, blacks look great, and the dimming of the backlight actually has a wide range. I'm a bit worried that it'll pick up a lot of oil from the keyboard, but it's been okay so far. Given that my last computer had a 12" screen and was stuck in a 1024x768 resolution (whereas my new 15.4" screen has a native 1440x900 resolution), the new screen real-estate is amazing.
  • The Keyboard
    Apple changed the keyboard on their MacBook Pros to be more like the older MacBooks, with wide spacing between the keys. The keys feel somewhat different as well, but I've gotten used to that. The new keyboard features backlighting, which I guess would be cool occasionally. For now, I'm just trying to figure out how much battery life I'm losing to this feature.
  • iLife '09
    One weird thing about our computers is that they didn't come with the latest version of Apple iLife software. Actually, we both had to order it separately for $10 each, which I thought was somewhat strange given that we ordered our computers weeks after iLife 09 was on the shelves. Oh well. This problem has apparently been dealt with, but we would've held off ordering our computers if we had known it was going to be an issue.
  • Other Issues
    Apparently my MacBook has issues communicating with the VGA port on our Samsung flat screen television. Since Urmi and I use our computers to watch DVDs, this is somewhat frustrating. The word on the intertubes is that Apple is working on a firmware fix for this issue, but, again, I know better than to hold my breath.

In short, this is a pretty awesome machine that has just a few minor issues. I'm definitely glad that we've upgraded, although some of my favorite software (including Quicksilver and Journler) either became defunct, open source, or otherwise abandoned since I last checked into them.

07 February 2009

News round up for 07 Feb, 2009

Warning, potentially geeky subject matter ahead.
  • Road signs hacked to have humorous messages. More interesting than the hack itself are the chosen messages. I particularly liked the XKCD inspired RAPTORS AHEAD — CAUTION. Although, who else would hack roadsigns aside from XKCD readers?
  • NASA to allow the public to select a Hubble Telescope target. This is huge. Time on the Hubble is priceless; astronomers wait in line for years to get time on the Hubble, and here NASA is letting the public vote on one of six choices for the next target. None of these targets have yet been imaged by Hubble. Voting must be done by March 1, so get to the, uh, virtual polls.
  • Russian RORSAT Cosmos-1818 goes crazy, but is apparently not a threat. January was a particularly bad month for satellites in the mainstream media; the failure of Astra 5A was reported by SPACE.com, making it much closer to the mainstream media than most satellite problems get. As a member of this industry, it's amazing how much more frightening these sorts of failures seem to me. The Astra 5A failure is particularly interesting as it's moving along its orbit and could actually collide with other GSO satellites.

Erik's Interest Calculator 0.5 beta

So I've finally decided to release a preliminary version of my interest calculator. I'm going to first release the source code and then look into releasing a compiled binary specifically for OS X. This version is released under terms of the GNU GPL, as it was developed using Qt 4.4.3 (open source edition). Future programs that I develop (and, if I determine it permissible, future releases of this program) may be released under the terms of the Creative Commons licenses.

The source code is available here. Some form of Qt 4.x will be required; I've tested versions 4.4.3 and 4.3.5, but earlier (or more recent) releases may work as well. Obligatory disclaimer:

This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program. If not, see http://www.gnu.org/licenses/.