Wednesday, November 11, 2009

BYBS: PodCastle

PodCastle: Fantasy short stories in podcast form

I had decided up front that I was not going to like the latest story from PodCastle, "The Small Door," but I ended up changing my mind.

The story is about "...weirdos, children (the two are not mutually exclusive), and a very small door."  In particular it is about the investigations of two young girls into what a rather strange neighbor is doing with a bunch of small animals.  It was written by Holly Phillips and performed (read) by Tina Connolly.

At first brush I was thinking "I hate self-conscious young girl crap which is obviously what this story is about."  The story sucked me in though and I found myself feeling a mixture of dread and curiosity as to the outcome.

One thing that I found very interesting were the emotions it inspired.  I normally expect a story to make me envision the scene and the characters, but this one reminded me that they can make you feel as well.  The suspense comes from not being sure what the characters were going to find.  The complications because one of the characters is prevented from doing something fun because of her sister.  The different way that I "looked" at things after the outcome.

This is all stuff that I knew a story could do, but it has been a while since one made me feel that way.

I can't go into more details without giving away the story (or at least that's my story), but PodCastle is wonderful site with lots of very good stories.  What's more they have some very good performers reading them.  Tina Connolly reads this one and does an excellent job*.

PodCastle's definition of a "fantasy story" is pretty broad so if you find that one story is not to your liking, listen to a couple of others before writing them off.

Till next time, avoid gnomes...and small doors.

* = for those of you that think the reader makes any difference, think of how many times you've been happy with your first try at a greeting for your answering machine or voicemail.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BYBS: Viral Gene Therapy

Now that we are heading into the flu season I thought it was appropriate to talk about how wonderful viruses are.

Maybe they're not, but I thought it would be nice to talk about how wonderful some viruses are.  Specifically, using the power of the little buggers to help monkeys and, one hopes, people with various problems. 

One area I find particularly fascinating is the area of viral gene therapy.  The idea is to use a virus as way of sending genes to cells of an animal after they are mature.  While some genes are only important for the structure and growth of an organisms, other genes affect the way that an organism functions after it is grown.  In the case described in the Science News article, the genes enable the eyes of a grown monkey to detect frequencies of light that they could not previously see. 

This particular study has all kinds of implications. The article is mostly about how neurologists were surprised that a full grown monkey's visual system could accommodate the new colors. The thing I find really cool is the almost offhand way that using a virus is being used in this experiment.

During my lifetime, I have seen the concept of using viruses for this sort of thing go from the realm of theory to the point where it barely raises an eyebrow. 

Then there is the whole meddling with the human genome business, but I think I can stretch that out into a whole other posting.

At any rate, I like this sort of news.  I find the ability of humanity to turn something that is often times an agent of destruction (think disease causing viruses) into an agent of help.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

BYBS: Coloring Books for the Soul

While talking to a friend (a man can hope can't he?) about stories I mentioned how I would make up alternate endings or fill in character motivations. He asked if that was a big part of the story and I remarked in a rare moment of clarity that, for me, that sort of thing is the story.

If a song is sad I tell myself why. If I find a character in a movie interesting, I might envision a few extra scenes for them. And, of course, we've all had that moment where we come up with some fiction for why people behave in real life.

Another aspect of art is that the importance or motivation that we place on some things are completely out of proportion to what the artist may have intended. There's the interview with the singer who, it turns out, does not actually write their own songs. The star who does not behave at all the way that we think they should based on their performance in a movie.

Like a Rorschach test, the meaning we place on art is more indicative of the reader/viewer/listener than it may be of the art itself.

Monday, September 28, 2009

BYBS: Brain Science Podcast

So I was, as usual, trying to find a topic to blog about. It being Monday morning at 6am, and therefore just a wee bit past Sunday (though the whole BYBS thing is as much of an excuse to get me to do something as anything else, but that's another story) and I was debating whether to blog about a kick-butt Podcastle episode or a kick-butt episode of Brain Science Podcast.

I finally settled on Brain Science Podcast, specifically episode number 59: Interview with Guy Caldwell. This is mostly because Dr. Caldwell brings a certain enthusiasm to what others might consider to be a boring topic: worms.

In particular, he talks about a worm called caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans as this critter goes by at cocktail parties. C. elegans has a number of distinctions which make it useful to scientists like the fact that the complete cell lineage for the critter has been determined.

Can you imagine the people who had to do that job?!

Cell number 2,643...check...2644...check...2645...check.

I would gasp with disbelief at the mind-numbing nature of that job if it were not for a) the unbelievably boring nature of many jobs that people do and b) I'm not sure that this critter actually has that many cells.

Anyhow, one of the cool things this guy managed to do with C. elegans is to paste some jellyfish genes that give off light into the neurons of the worm so that one could, for example, see if some combination of conditions was causing said neurons to die off. That, in turn, came in handy for helping to tease out some aspects of Parkinson's disease.

Put another way, you could take a look at a worm and ask a simple question like: "Hey is the thing glowing? No? Then all the dopamine producing neurons are dead." This is much simpler than getting a worm analyst to talk to the thing.

It's stuff like this that wins the "aint it cool?" category for extreme cleverness, but then there's the whole issue of Dr. Caldwell's enthusiasm for the subject. I mean it sounds like he actually enjoys this work.

As someone who at times feels like a burn-out, chewed up, dehydrated husk of a human being, listening to someone with that sort of vigor brings back fond memories. He speaks with admiration for the guys who sat there and catalog cell lineages. He talks about how his research could be used to create therapies for Parkinson's disease.

That's the kind of energy and optimism, the looking forward to tomorrow that I find inspiring.

Monday, September 21, 2009

BYBS: Oatmeal, Raisins and Black Tea

Over here at the office for extreme cleverness and ideas for when you have nothing else to blog about, I've been researching a new substance that has the potential to bring about world peace and freedom in our time. Many people have asked me how this works.

The answer is simple: it doesn't.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that the byproduct, oatmeal with raisins using black tea instead of hot water, is surprisingly tasty. What's more, it gets both carbohydrates and caffeine into one compact meal.

While this may seem like a trivial posting, you have to remember the source. Furthermore, when facing yet another day in which my full potential will be utilized in a manner which makes me realize that I don't have that much potential, and that will simultaneously bring home the notion that we all have something to contribute except for those like myself who can best help out by not contributing, the concept of a caffeine loaded breakfast is just the thing to get the wheels turning.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

BYBS: Microbe World

Last week (OK, it was actually the week before that, but still), I listened to a fascinating podcast called "Tiny Conspiracies" by Dr. Bonnie Bassler about how some microbes can talk to each other. I found this very cool because a) the little buggers aren't supposed to be able to do that and b) I could understand anything she said at all.

As a veteran of listening to people who are not coherent, it is always a pleasure to experience a presentation given by someone who does a good job. Many people have complained to me about my postings, saying that they go off on tangents and have no point. To these people I say: "I'm supposed to have a point?"

But back to small critters talking to each other. It was previously thought that microbes led sad, lonely lives concerned with things like growing, dividing, and causing plague. During the past 20 years or thereabouts, it has been discovered that bacteria and their ilk also do things like engage in vibrant conversations, write books and attend poetry readings...and then cause plague.

So perhaps I embellished that a bit. Perhaps a lot. But it appears that microbes do not live the isolated lives that we once imagined. In "Tiny Conspiracies" Dr. Bassler talks about how some microbes can do things like gauge the size of their population and then change their behavior accordingly.

For example, once a population has reached a critical limit, the colony can form a membrane around themselves for added protection. Another, rather more sinister example is that a colony of bacteria might wait to release a toxin until their population is large enough that it will have a better chance of overcoming their host.

This sort of info gets the "ain't it cool!" award from me partially because of the clever way Dr. Bassler describes some of their tests --- she used bits of DNA that would cause the microbes to light up when they were "talking" --- but also for the potential applications. If one were to interfere with this signaling mechanism, for example, it may be possible to cause some nasty pathogen to skip the whole "cause plague" bit.

So waltz on over to Microbe World and give Tiny Conspiracies a listen.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

BYBS: Escape Artists

Escape Pod and its siblings, Podcastle and Pseudopod are podcast sites that deal in various fiction short stories.

A podcast is like a radio show or a book on tape in a form that you can download and play on your computer, an MP3 player or an iPod (hence the name). Much to my surprise, I've never blogged about podcasts before, but that just means that I now have all my BYBS entries written for the next 6 weeks.

Escape Pod deals in podcasts about science fiction, while Pseudopod deals in horror stories and Podcastle has essentially everything else. I've tried listening to fiction podcasts before and, though there have been exceptions, I've come to believe very strongly in what Theodore Sturgeon meant when he said "90% of everything is crap."

I was therefore more than a little surprised when I stumbled onto these guys. The stories are very interesting and original, and most are read by good performers. Incidentally, if you don't think that voice talent should make a difference, go over to to hear some person suck the soul out of Charles Dickens.

I don't want to babble on about all the good stories I've heard there (read: topic for weeks of BYBS entries), but here are a few:

  • Episode 212: Skinhorse Goes to Mars by Mike Boris - a Mars overrun by zombies holds the key to a terraforming experiment gone horribly wrong.
  • Episode 210: The Hastillan Weed by Ian Creasey - you know about all the nasty plants that have been imported to other climates and wrought havoc? Ever wonder what a plant from another planet might do?
  • Episode 209: On the Eyeball Floor by Norm Sherman - a story about love and jealousy in a not quite human way

And that's just from the science fiction podcast! Get yourself an iPod and check em out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BYBS/W: Solar Power

Solar energy power generation systems. Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

One of the things that I really enjoy in life is when people come together to solve a problem. It demonstrates humanity's ability to cooperate, and when directed towards what I consider to be an intelligent and noble goal, it makes me feel good to be alive.

One problem that we face is the need for clean, cheap, renewable energy. Pictured here is a system that focuses sunlight to run a highly efficient electrical power generator.

Most of the technologies involved with a system like this are not new. The Stirling engine, for example, was invented in 1816. The notion of using mirrors to focus the energy of the sun has probably been around since there were mirrors. Using a computer to keep the dish pointed at the sun is probably the most recent creation.

This particular system may not be "the answer" or even a significant part of it. Some other approach could do the job better or cheaper or cleaner.

The thing that makes this remarkable to me is that it took a lot of thoughtful work to put all these elements together towards a common, relatively noble goal.

This link will take you to the full story on the system. It was created by the folks at Sandia Ntional Laboratories, Stirling Energy Systems and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

BYBS: Shared Emotion

There is an interesting that I perceive in all human beings to, in some situations, to experience or feel the same way.

People like to go to movies and laugh at the same joke or feel scared at the same scene or sad at the same point. Regardless of what you think of laugh tracks or music that underscores the emotional significance of a particular situation, such things are prevalent on TV shows.

In my particular case the previous week (hey, better late then never), I was reading a poem that talked about a particular feeling of dread when faced with a certain realization. For some reason, feeling that the author understood my reaction was profoundly comforting: the knowledge that I was not alone in experiencing this made me feel reassured.

It is an odd thing that I should take comfort in the company of others this way. The author was no there, I could not interact with them to be reassured, but this feeling of shared experience was there none the less.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

BYBS: Stuck in a Rut

There are some people who might think that being stuck in a rut is a bad thing. Then again, there are some people who would start measuring the thing to see if their furniture would fit. I, on the other hand, would have already moved in.

Some days I have a hard time coming up with something to write for BYBS. I am pretty sure that taking a moment in my week and writing about something positive is a good idea, but my muse, a tired, cranky soul who would really prefer helping the likes of H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King, does not always cooperate.

For times like this, I find that the force of habit, inertia, the will of the ball, call it what you will, can step in. Unlike a muse, which needs time, attention and cultivation, the blundering force of habit is not about to put up with the aloof antics that sometimes block me.

"But the posting won't be any good." I will protest.

"That's never stopped you before!"

Can't argue with that.

So what the hey --- here is to that which has helped me keep doing what I need to be doing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

BYBS: Chicken Breasts

In keeping with the rather simplistic nature of my BYBS postings I thought I'd talk about chicken breasts.

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm on a diet; and this means I'm miserable. Scratch that. What I was trying to say is that, in addition to being miserable, I try to get the maximum nutrients with the minimum number of calories. This being the case, I have a running interest in high protein foods.

According to one source I've read, egg whites are one of the most readily absorbed sources of protein. The problem I have with them is that, in order to get a measly 40g of protein a day, I would have to eat around a dozen egg whites.

From time to time people have accused me of being lazy. I think they say this because it's true. In particular, the idea of boiling 84 eggs every week and then separating the whites from the yolks does not appeal to me.

Chicken, on the other hand, has about 3 times as much protein per gram as do egg whites. A modest 135g of roasted chicken breast (without the skin) contains that 40g of protein. It also comes in the convenient chicken-sized package instead of the somewhat smaller portions that eggs use. I therefore found myself in the supermarket eyeing chicken breasts.

At this point I ran into problem #2: I'm cheap. A glance at a whole chicken showed that pre-packaged breasts are over twice as expensive as buying chicken whole. For quite some time(tm) I've been buying whole chicken.

Given the stuff that I've blown money on in the past, I'm surprised that I lasted as long as I did. When I finally resorted to buying chicken breasts, I was, to put it mildly, pleasantly surprised.

I will usually roast a whole chicken for 3 hours, quite a bit longer than the minimum time of around 2. I'm that scared of food poisoning. By comparison, being completely paranoid and cooking the precut stuff for twice as long as required takes an hour.

Whereas it usually takes me a while to cut all the meat off a chicken, a chicken breast just needs to be cut up into cubes. I'm thinking of cutting them up ahead of time, they're easier to work with before roasting.

Being the sort of person who replied to the joke: "Does anal-retentive have a hyphen in it?" with "Which edition of the dictionary are we talking about?" using chicken breasts also means that I don't have to worry as much about how much fat I'm getting along with the chicken. I'm the guy who blogged about the USDA food database, remember?

So the moral of the story is: chicken breasts, good; JJ Abrams, meh (just curious to see if anyone read this).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

BYBS: An Uplifting Moment

I had an uplifting moment last week. As I was walking through a parking lot to get to my car, the sun was shining brightly and it just felt good to be alive. Nearby plants were vibrant with life, the breeze was cool, the sun comforting and it just seemed like everything was right.

Even the blazing heat of my car (you know, when the sun is beating down on your dashboard and the inside feels like an oven) felt nice.

For me, these moments are rather few and far between. I don't really know why I felt that way just then, only that it was wonderful while it lasted.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

BYBS: Cookouts

For someone that doesn't get out enough(tm), it's been good to go to a few BBQ/cookout/what have you style events. I get to see a bunch of people in a reasonably positive setting and eat some stuff that tastes good (even if it's not that good for me).

I'm not the most social person in the world. I don't even live next to the most social person in the world. I doubt I even live on the same block. I therefore have to keep trying when it comes to this sort of thing so for me, stuff like this is another opportunity to keep at it.

And sometimes I even have fun.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

BYBS: A Good Read

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow is an interesting read for those of us who want something relatively light about internet style futurist societies.

The actual plot revolves around (I'm not making this up) a struggle over who gets to control Disney Land. That Doctorow can get me to keep reading a book with that premise is a pretty impressive feat all by itself.

The book is also full of cool ideas. One of the things that I found the most interesting is the notion of "woofie." Woofie is a kind of measure of what other people think of you, though the particulars are never really explained fully. There is "right handed woofie" which measures what others who you agree with think of you, and "left handed woofie" which measures what people who disagree with you think.

It also has economic repercussions - if you have lots of woofie it is implied that you can get more resources out of society - but once again, this is never explained.

As someone who does not enjoy exercise for it's own sake, I spend a lot of time reading while I'm pounding out my 60 min. Having something to take my mind off the fact that I am exercising can make the difference between getting in 60min and getting in 10min.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

BYBS: Spiritual Exercises

There are lots of things that I do that do not have an immediate reward. Some of them are recognizable like dieting and exercise. I change my diet, but my waistline does not immediately shrink. If I eat a pint of ice cream, I don't expect to see my weight increase by 5 pounds over night. But over time these things have a very definite effect: though my day to day weight may vary like a drunken sailor navigating an alley, the trend does go up or down.

This posting is about the same principal applied to a different area: the mental or spiritual. There are exercises that I do that have a long-term benefit, but I often times find them even harder to do than the physical ones. After all, you can't measure mood by standing on a scale and then use that info to graph your progress.

One of these exercises are my BYBS postings. Over time I have found that I lead a happier life when I regularly stop and think about the things I am grateful for. As a person who is at times overly focused on stuff that I don't like it is important for me to remember the things that I do like.

If you would care to share, comment on similar examples of mental or spiritual exercises that help you.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

BYBS: Open Source Software

Open source software has done a great deal to make the modern internet that I know and love possible. Over the years, I've used quite a few of these packages to do my day to day work. Here's a very quick glimpse of a tiny fraction of the packages out there that have helped me:

GNU is one if not the pioneer in the open source arena. They were at it a long, long time before it was fashionable or even thought to be possible. Though not know by lots of non-technical people virtually nothing on the internet would be working today without these folks.

GNU is responsible for thousands if not more programs. One of the most fameous is a compiler suite known as "gcc"

The letters "GNU" are emblematically geeky of the organization and stand for "GNU's Not Unix." Yes, the "GNU" in the "GNU" are the same.

ASF is the Apache Software Foundation. The name "Apache" originally came from the observation that the major software package from them, a web server, was prone to problems and needed lots of adjustments, called "patches" by software people. Thus people observed that it was "a patchy web server." The name stuck and the server was called "Apache."

In addition to Wikipedia and other popular projects, the Wikimedia foundation also makes the software that is used to host their projects, MediaWiki, available for free. The package is used by a variety of people to host information sites.

The Eclipse Foundation is responsible for the excellent software development package, Eclipse. They hold a place that is near and dear to my heart since I have used that package to develop software for years and year. To my mind, it is one of the best environments available for such a purpose.

There are many, many other open software systems available that find use in a variety of situations. Click on the logos to find out more about them. I think that this sort of effort, with their emphasis on helping others rather than making a quick buck, are truely a blessing.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

BYBS: A Walk in the Mountains

Went for a walk in the beautiful mountains today and chose this for my BYBS entry. Didn't have a camera, so this isn't what it really looked like, but you get the idea.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

BYBS: Wikipedia

I don't know how many times I've turned to Wikipedia for information, but it's a lot. The site consistently has very high quality articles on an unbelievable range of topics. What's more, the whole thing is put together by the very people who browse the web.

In short, the site is a showcase for what I wish more of the web was like: people working together to help each other in an "ain't it cool?" sort of way.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

BYBS: Bananas

In addition to being tastee, bananas are also good sources of potassium. Like most fruits and vegetables, they have far fewer calories than processed foods of equivalent weight.

Modern bananas became popular because the previous popular type of banana, the "Gros Michel," has been largely wiped out due to a fungus.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

BYBS: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

It was hard to find anything good to say today. This quote, however, made me chuckle:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to heaven,
we were all going direct the other way
- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Good Host

A strange host

There is one school of thought that says that we are just hosts to ideas: that the ideas are the species and that we are a way for them to perpetuate themselves. While that casts human beings as mere beasts of burden, I always liked to think that we have more to say about what's going on than that.

One way of looking at it is that we are hosts, as in "would you like to have dinner with me and the wife?" style of thing. In that sort of situation you have the choice about who is going to come to the event and who won't.

While this still does not allow for complete freedom (annoying commercial jingles that you cannot get out of your head anyone?), it does allow room for consciously trying to promote something by being the host. In particular, I like to think that we can choose to promote what we view as good, as beautiful, or right.

I admit that I don't have any original ideas, and that the best I can do is just borrow what looks good to me. This seems like a nice compromise.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

BYBS: Oranges

Simple and yet delicious

I find it remarkable that something so simple compared to other things that I enjoy can be so good. On a cold and rainy day, when the sky is overcast and gloomy, its nice to be able to gaze out from my warm hole with a nice orange.

Photo by "Rock Paper Image"

Saturday, May 02, 2009

BYBS: Help from the Web

Despite years of working with computers I'm still undecided as to whether they actually solve problems or create new ones. In particular, I find myself confounded over and over again by problems of the form:

Me: Move this from here to here.
Computer: <does nothing>
M: Why didn't you move the file?
C: You didn't say "simon says."
M: Alright - "Simon says."
C: What?
M: Move the file!
C: You didn't say "Simon says."
M: <gets out mallet>

I have found help countless times from those people who have posted information about how to solve problems like this; though the details might be slightly different.

As a means of "giving back" I have myself started doing this, though the information is so specialized as to be of use to only a very few people (ever want to know how to link C code dynamically with Java, but only when using MingW and Cygwin together through Eclipse? Neither do I actually). Nevertheless, posting even trival instructions has given me new appreciation for people who post help info --- it takes a lot more work than I thought!

I am going to try my hand at posting some stuff that may be more generally useful to people. We'll see how it goes. Till then have a great week.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

VYSW: Rest in Peace

I'm sure that someone will miss you...

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I have created no Vent Your Spleen Wednesday (VYSW) postings in quite a while and it doesn't seem like the internet is exactly overflowing with people who want to join. Despite being #2 on Google for a search for vysw, I think it's time to like the mangey dog rest in peace.

The good thing about doing this that I can always have a "Back from the Grave!" style posting or a Halloween special :-)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

BYBS: Reasoned Discussion

Copyright (c)

I enjoy being able to talk seriously every once in a while about stuff like the nature of consciousness, whether honesty and accuracy are the same thing, and other, ultimately pointless topics. I'm grateful that there are other people that I can talk about this stuff with and that they discuss it least some of the time.

Part of the problem with such ruminations is that they tend to make me feel isolated. A lot of times other people are simply not interested in talking about such things at that instant, or maybe their attention is focused on other questions. The net effect on me, however, is that I feel very much alone.

When I can speak to someone about my ramblings, I do enjoy striving to communicate my point of view (i.e., that I'm right goddamn it!), but something else about discussion surprised me recently.

I was trying to explain something and got the "blank stare." In another situation I might have just written it off as the person not being interested in the topic, but, because it was such a serious topic, I realized that the problem was that my wonderful explanation wasn't.

The surprising thing was that the process of trying explain it better, and the experience of seeing the other person strive to get it made me feel less isolated, whereas I would have thought it would make me feel more isolated. Watching another strive for understanding made the whole "aha" moment for them much more satisfying than just pummeling another person's argument.

It also helped that they had brownies where we talked. Not that I ate one. Instead I had 3.