Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Evolution, Schmevolution

The controversy over the movie Expelled has made me think about a lot about how people debate the topic of evolution. It also reminded me that a few years ago The Daily Show took a brilliant and hilarious look at the subject with a series of reports called "Evolution Schmevolution." Poking fun at both sides of the issue and giving the intelligent design crowd a chance to argue their side, Jon Stewart showed how fake news can be much better and smarter than "real" news. While Nova did a brilliant job of covering the recent intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, sometimes it's nice to step back and relax and not take the subject you're debating too seriously.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Picture This

I've been reading The Cellar's Image of the Day bulletin board for a long time. There are some amazing images on this board. Like these recent images of an ape using a pole to catch fish and of my home town of Chicago at night.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The LifeDrive, Palm's Missed Opportunity

Ever since my iPod broke I've been thinking a lot about what will replace it. For now it's my Palm TX PDA but I feel that it's a stopgap because it simply doesn't have have the battery life to do what I want to do while I'm commuting—because of the TX's big screen, I find myself watching a lot of video on it. Music, video, wifi and bluetooth internet access all take their toll and the TX has no automatic way of importing podcasts. That got me thinking of another Palm device which was everything the Palm TX isn't—big, heavy, slow, and unstable. But also had options for synching data and a storage capacity which the TX lacks.

I'm referring to the Palm LifeDrive which was my main source of mobile entertainment for two years until I got an iPod and later a TX. The LifeDrive was a very slick device for its time but it was also very flawed. It had all of the features that you'd typically want in a PDA: wifi, bluetooth, and a wide variety of easy to use applications. It also had a lot of things you'd want in a media player: a good MP3 player, file manager, a 4GB hard drive, and an easy way to synch information between it and a host PC. These are features which the Palm TX lacks and this makes it a poorer media player.

The LifeDrive was Palm's attempt to create a new class of devices which it called "Mobile Managers." The idea was that with its big hard drive and versatile file handling options and some unique software, a Mobile Manager would allow you "store your life" on one device. So a photographer could store all his pictures on the LifeDrive. Or a slacker could store a lot of music and video on it. The point was that you could do a lot with this device compared to what you could do with a PDA. And you could do it in a lot of different ways. The LifeDrive could be put into "Drive Mode" which allowed it to look like just another hard drive on your computer. (If you had an SD card in the LifeDrive's SD slot, would also show up on your computer while the LifeDrive was in Drive Mode.) You could also drag and drop files from your computer to the LifeDrive Manager application and do the same thing without putting the LifeDrive into Drive Mode. This was useful because the LifeDrive Manager could convert files (such as videos) into a format that the LifeDrive could use.

Handling podcasts was a snap with the LifeDrive. I created a folder called "Podcasts" on my PC and used a podcatching application called "Juicer" to download podcasts every night. In the morning I'd synch my LifeDrive with that folder and it would download all my podcasts onto its hard drive. It was all very easy and while using an iPod to synch to iTunes is easier still, the LifeDrive had the advantage of supporting a wider variety of formats when it was kitted out with the right software. I could also use the same feature to synch my documents folder with my LifeDrive and do actual, work on it.

The LifeDrive actually had a pretty crappy video player but at the time, it was easy to find a very good video player called "TCPMP" which played video in just about any format. (The successor to TCPMP is an application called "Coreplayer" which costs $29 but works very well on my Palm TX.) Video is a problem for the Palm TX because it is limited by its storage capacity. While its 128MG of memory is plenty for storing PDA data and applications, it needs to have an SD card installed for music and video. The LifeDrive already has a 4GB hard drive as well an SD card slot, so it can potentially hold much more data. With their big screens, the LifeDrive and Palm TX practically beg you to watch video.

Ultimately however the LifeDrive was too little too late for Palm. It had come out at a time when Apple was starting to take over the MP3 player market with the iPod and had a much smaller storage capacity than the best iPods which came with 30GB hard drives at the time. It was also buggy and slow. This made the LifeDrive's wifi and huge battery a lot less useful. Ultimately, I think that the LifeDrive's shortcomings could have been overcome but Palm never created a followup device and its attempt to create a new product category fell flat.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Battery Life -- The Bane of Mobile Entertainiment

Ever since my iPod died, I have been using my Palm TX as an MP3 player and video player. It works well in this capacity, I can easily get through an entire day with my Palm TX playing music, listening to podcasts, and watching videos. The problem is that my Palm TX can do more than play music, podcasts, and videos. It can also go on the Internet using wifi or piggybacking on my cell phone's internet connection through Bluetooth.

When you add internet access to the party, a long commute becomes a lot more enjoyable. But suddenly battery life becomes an issue. Surfing the internet while listening to music in the background pretty much kills my TX's battery towards the end of a long day. This wasn't a problem back when I had an iPod which handled the music/podcast listening chores but now that my TX is doing more work it's small battery is being exposed as it's biggest liability.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Here's an interesting review of the movie Expelled. It is documentary narrated by Ben Stein about the "Intelligent Design" movement. ID is essentially creationism repackaged to sound more "scientific." But for the most part, it consists of repeating the same claims and using the same tactics that creation uses to try to use doubts and create controversy to discredit the theory of evolution.

One of the things that I liked about the review is the calmness and objectivity of the reviewer. He doesn't call Stein and his friends "liars" or "idiots" and rightfully points out that this movie is essentially "preaching to the choir" of people whom are already predisposed to distrust evolutionary theory. He does note that it is a propaganda film but doesn't stoop to the level of the propagandists. Too often on the Internet, I see a lot of noise and very little signal as threads of comments frequently devolve into name-calling contests.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Economics and Politics of Immigration

Here's and interesting article that appeared on Fark the other day. The subject was illegal immigration and the article talked about the money which illegals pay into the government in Social Security and payroll taxes. There was also another pretty good article linked in the comments section on the costs of illegal immigration in terms of crime and education costs.

I personally felt that the second article (first published in Investor's Business Daily and republished on CNN Money) had a kind of alarmist/sensationalistic tone but that could also be that being of Mexican-American descent, I tend feel less sympathetic to anti-immigration arguments. Still it's interesting to take a look at the numbers. They estimate that illegal immigration costs the country $3.9 billion in bilingual education costs, $1.5 billion in costs of incarcerating illegal alien criminals. It also tells us that,
"The economic burden they impose on victims, including loss of income and property, uncompensated hospital bills, and emotional pain and suffering, has been estimated at $1.6 million per property and assault crime offender," [Edwin S. Rubenstein, the author of the study quoted in the article] found.
but does not give a total cost for the country of this economic burden. The article also tells us that
Washington has been paralyzed for many years on immigration policies because advocates of restricted immigration are routinely accused of nativism and racism.
Yeah and no one ever talks about an invasion by foreigners who won't learn English and assimilate into this country and suggests that we keep them out by doing something drastic like building a wall at our border.

The other article which was from Associated Press and published on the Houston Chronicle website gave a more matter of fact presentation of its numbers:
The Social Security Administration estimates that about three-quarters of illegal workers pay taxes that contribute to the overall solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

The agency estimates that for 2005, the last year for which figures are available, about $9 billion in taxes was paid on about $75 billion in wages from people who filed W-2 forms with incorrect or mismatched data, which would include illegal immigrants who drew paychecks under fake names and Social Security numbers.

The article also explains how illegal immigrants can go about filing their taxes without getting themselves deported and points out that many illegals never collect money from the Social Security system which they are paying into.

My own personal opinion on the subject is that it simply isn't possible (or even desirable) to deport 12 million illegal aliens so we need to find a way to bring them into our society. President Bush and Senator John McCain actually had a pretty good plan for doing just that but backed down because of opposition from their own party. It's a shame—especially given the very generous amnesty for illegals which was passed in the 80s by Ronald Reagan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Entertainment on the Go, Beauty vs Functionality

My iPod broke the other day. But even though I'm constantly listening to music and watching videos, I haven't really missed it. This is mainly because I already carry around a pretty good media player, really two. My cell phone, a Palm Treo 680 and my PDA, Palm TX, both already have a good built in MP3 player in PocketTunes and it's easy to view video on both devices with an application called CorePlayer. On top of that, the TX also has wifi and can use the Treo as a modem which means I have have Internet access anywhere I go.

It's almost like having an iPhone except that my Treo and TX are two year old devices which could do what they do long before Apple introduced the iPhone. And they can do even more. Both devices have great built-in calendar and note taking software and a multitude of available third-party software for including Documents to Go for editing Word and Excel files, e-book readers, and games. I can even use software to convert my Palm TX into a remote control. The iPhone meanwhile can't even copy and paste yet and has to be "Jailbroken" in order to install third-party applications. Apple promises that it will allow third-party apps onto the iPhone and iPod Touch, it looks like they will be tightly restricted.

So why are Apple's iPod, iPhone, and iPod Touch so popular while Palm's products wallow in obscurity? It seems to be a mixture of marketing, opportunity, and technology. You can take an iPod out of its box, charge it, install iTunes on your computer and you're all set. The iPod is ready to use. The iPod is tightly integrated with iTunes and you can import your music library easily or build one by buying music and movies directly from the iTunes Music Store. And if you buy a new iPod, you just plug it into the same computer and import your music library.

When you take a Palm PDA or Smartphone out of the box, it's the beginning of a long process. You have to install some sort of synching software on your computer and it can vary widely depending your computer, your choice of PDA or Smartphone, the phase of the moon, and whether or not you are upgrading. Treos and Palm PDAs can synch with Microsoft Outlook but they can also synch to Palm's own Palm Desktop which is a fairly simple easy to use application. Unfortunately, Palm Desktop has numerous compatibility issues and sometimes it seems that each new Palm PDA or Smartphone has its own version.

While Palm Operating System's huge library of third-party software is its greatest strength, it's installed software is relatively weak. While most newer Palms and Treos usually come with Documents to Go and PocketTunes, I've yet to see a Palm PDA or Smartphone with a decent video player. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for this—there are at least two good third-party video players available for the PalmOS that I know of: Kinoma and CorePlayer which can be bought and installed on your Palm PDA or Smartphone. And there is even a free version of CorePlayer called "TCPMP" which is widely available. So if Palm can license Documents to Go and PocketTunes, why not do the same with either Kinoma or CorePlayer? Well, in a sense they have done just that—newer Palm smartphones like the Centro and my own Treo 680 do have an embedded video player which appears to have been licenced from the makers of the Kinoma video player. But as far as I can tell, it's not a standalone application. You can't just throw an .avi file onto the Palm's storage card and play it unless you have already purchased and installed a third-party video player.

That brings me to the other big problem with Palms as media players—size. Not the size of the device but the size of the devices' onboard storage. My Palm TX has a 2GB Secure Digital storage card. That's good enough for about two hundred songs, a little less than two hours of video, thousands of pictures, lots of documents, many Palm applications, and leaves plenty of space left over for more stuff. But my iPod had a 30GB hard drive enough for over 2200 songs, over 20 hours of video, and over seventy podcasts and the iPod was still only about three quarters full. There has never been a Palm PDA or Smartphone which can compare to that kind of storage capacity. Also, you have to buy a seperate SD card in order to have any storage capacity at all.

Finally, I mentioned podcasts above. I don't think that I'm the only schmuck with a blog on the Internet who is addicted to podcasts. Apple realizes this and makes it easy to subscribe to podcasts directly from iTunes. In the Palm universe, podcasting might as well not exist. I actually did roll my own solution for downloading podcasts and synching them to my Palm LifeDrive and used it for over a year but that particular PDA had capabilities which Palm never duplicated on its latter models. In a way it's sad, the Lifedrive could have been Palm's version of the iPod Touch two years ago but it had several serious flaws and Palm never created a followup product to address these issues.

But at least they've made their products good enough that I didn't have to automatically run off and buy a new iPod when my old one broke.

Back From the Dead, a New Show Learns An Old Trick

I was a fan of the show Battlestar Galactica as a kid and it was only natural that I'd gravitate to the new, more adult version of the show. That's one of the reasons why I've been obsessed with the show's third season finale where after being "killed" earlier in the season Starbuck returns claiming to have been to Earth.

So when last we saw Kara Thrace she had returned from the dead in a surprisingly shiny Viper. Chief Tyrol confirms our suspicions, her Viper is showroom new -- right down to the new car smell and the pine-scented freshener hanging in the cockpit. Naturally, no one knows what to make of this, Roslin is convinced that Starbuck is a Cylon, Adama suspects that she's right but he's missed Kara and wishes that he could believe she's the real deal, Lee, Sam, and Helo pretty much welcome her back but are at a loss to explain her return.

My own personal theory is that Kara is not a Cylon. That would be far too easy and obvious. I think that Ron Moore has borrowed a plot device from his old job as a writer for Star Trek -- the transporter.

When Kara drove her Viper into the gas giant, she was diving right into the middle of a giant storm. I believe that the storm wasn't a natural one -- it was probably created by humans on their way either to or from Earth as a means of transportation. Call it a transporter, wormhole, or a stargate but the storm which "killed" Kara was a very slick repackaging of a very old scifi trope. Instead of merely killing her, the storm scrambled her molecules and transported them across time and space to Earth. When she tried to return home, her molecules were scrambled again and transported to the Ionian Nebula. Why the Ionian Nebula? Probably because it was part of the route the travelers who built the original storm were traveling.

While Kara comes back in a brand new Viper, I don't think that this is a huge problem. Who after all, hasn't wondered about the implications of the transporter on Star Trek? Incurable disease? Maybe we can filter out through the transporter. I think that this is what the storm did to Kara and her Viper, it destroyed them and recreated idealized versions of them. It did essentially kill Kara and revive her in another place. This must be a traumatic process which would explain why this planet is abandoned and not a bustling hub for galactic travelers.

Anyway that's my insane theory of why Kara came back. I first posted it on Usenet and looking at several episodes I was struck by how much the storm resembles the "mandala" pattern which we keep seeing on BSG. We first see the mandala in a painting in Kara's apartment on Caprica. And then again in the ancient temple on the Algae planet. The fact that the storm resembles the pattern so closely to me implies that this is more than an ordinary storm on a giant planet.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

First Post

I'm not sure why I'm doing a blog. Actually I am. I've always been a shallow nerd who follows geek trends. I got hooked on Usenet in college and I also had a crappy web page. Since then I've started several web pages, gotten bored, and quit. Now I'm doing a blog, years after it became trendy. So basically it's just more of the same I guess.

But I'm hoping to keep this blog going for at least a while. I've had several ideas kicking around inside my head for awhile, a couple of short stories that I never seem able sit down an write, and a couple of things I feel I need to "say" but have no idea where to say them. I'm hoping to put those things down here.