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Week of 25 May 2009

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Monday, 25 May 2009
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08:54 - It's Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day set aside to remember those who sacrificed themselves to protect our freedom. Although the official purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country, let's also remember all of those brave men and women, living and dead, who through the years have put their lives on the line to protect all of us. As we have our cookouts and family get-togethers today, let's all take a moment to think about our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, who can't be with their families. And let's have a thought, not just today but every day of the year, for them and the sacrifices they are making and have made.


Tuesday, 26 May 2009
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08:51 - I was sorry to learn this morning that Bo Leuf, one of my early "Internet friends", died on 24 April. I "met" Bo back in 1998, when he joined a very early blogging circle that I belonged to. I got to know Bo much better the following year, when I was a technical reviewer for his and Tom Syroid's first book, Outlook 2000 in a Nutshell. I'll never forget our first telephone conversation. I was sitting in the den when the phone rang. I picked it up and the caller asked if he could speak to me. The conversation started something like this:

Me: This is he. Who's calling?
Bo: This is Bo Leuf, Bob. If you have a moment, I'd like to talk about some of your comments on the manuscript.
Me: You don't sound Swedish.

And it's true. Bo spoke perfect unaccented North American English. Of course, I already knew he was fluent in English from reading his stuff, but writing English fluently and speaking unaccented English are different things. As it turned out, Bo had lived here until he was a teenager, so he came by his fluency naturally.

Since then, we'd talked on the phone a few times and exchanged email periodically on diverse topics. Our last exchange, back in February, was about upstream/downstream cable modem speeds in the US versus Sweden. We'd often go several weeks or even a few months between exchanges, so the recent lack of communication didn't alert me that something was seriously wrong this time. Bo had been fighting cancer for quite some time, and he often took extended breaks from posting. I wish I had known about his final battle, even though I could have done nothing to help.

Bo was a good man. He was smart, funny, kind, and an excellent writer. He will be missed, and he will be remembered.


Wednesday, 27 May 2009
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08:45 - If there had been any doubt about GM being forced into bankruptcy, the deadline passed last night for 90% of GM bondholders to accept 10% equity in exchange for the $27 billion they are owed. The numbers haven't been made public yet, but I'd be surprised if even 10% of the bondholders had accepted that crappy deal. They're more likely to do better with GM in bankruptcy, and they're fully aware of that.

Based on the current price of GM stock, they were being offered less than a quarter on the dollar, while historically bondholders generally get about $0.40 on the dollar in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Because the price of GM stock is likely to fall even further after it goes into Chapter 11, the government's offer to the bondholders really amounts to maybe $0.05 to $0.10 on the dollar. No surprise that they decided to take their chances in Chapter 11.

Chapter 11 for GM seems a foregone conclusion, probably within the next five to seven days. What's going to be interesting is watching how the bankruptcy judge rules. The government will be bringing a great deal of pressure to bear to force the judge to ignore bankruptcy law and allocate assets based on political preferences rather than the law. If the judge rules correctly, the UAW will be left holding an empty bag. If the Obama administration has its way, the UAW will get nearly all of the assets that the government itself doesn't claim.

That proposed split has now changed, from the government getting 50%, the UAW 39%, the bondholders 10%, and the current stockholders 1%, to the government getting about 70%, the UAW 19% (including preferred stock), the bondholders 10%, and the current stockholders 1%. What might have worked was proposing that the government get 50%, the bondholders 49%, and current stockholders 1%, but that was never on the table.

So now Government Motors goes into Chapter 11, with Chapter 7 no doubt soon to follow when everyone realizes that no one in his right mind is going to buy a new car from GM. So everyone, including the taxpayers, is going to end up holding an empty bag. Unfortunately, the break-up value of GM is pathetically small. Its assets comprise mainly unsold vehicles that will be difficult to sell at anything more than firesale prices, along with factories and real estate.

I can't imagine why anyone would buy a new car from a bankrupt company, knowing that the warranty is worthless and that the car will essentially be unrepairable. Oh, the government says it'll stand behind GM warranties, but that's pretty much meaningless if there are no replacement parts available and all of the GM dealers have closed. And, given current overcapacity, there aren't a whole lot of people likely to bid on automobile factories.

So, right now GM is the walking dead. The only question is how much more money the government will throw down the rathole before everyone finally admits that it's pointless to continue doing so.

12:49 - The religious nutters just won't give up. They're ignorant. They're contemptible. They're the enemies of humanity. It's fascinating to watch their continuing efforts to force their superstitious nonsense on rational people, but only in the same sense that it's fascinating to watch a train wreck.

Their latest efforts focus on redefining atheism as a religion, as bizarre as that self-evidently is to any person capable of thinking. They then attempt to link atheism with science so that they can argue that well-established science--particularly the big bang and evolution--are actually religious beliefs. If that's true, then obviously it's unacceptable Constitutionally to favor these atheist religious beliefs over their own religious beliefs, which they disingenuously argue must be given equal treatment.

Of course, they're not really interested in equal treatment; they want their religious beliefs to be taught exclusively. Think of them as mullahs, because that's exactly what they are. Fortunately, they're mullahs without any real power. Otherwise, they'd be burning non-christians at the stake and strangling witches. Count on it. Christian nutters, given any real power, are at least as bad as Islamic nutters.

Happily, fundamentalist christianity seems to be on the wane. Smart Republicans are beginning to realize how much their association with this group of nutcases has damaged the Republican party. Even now, it's obvious that mainstream Republicans are distancing themselves from the religious right. We can hope that the day will soon arrive when preachers are no longer welcome in the halls of power.


Thursday, 28 May 2009
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11:42 - My to-do list is becoming ridiculous. I have a lot of stuff to write, lab work that needs to be done, and videos that need to be shot. The accessories for Frances's and Al's new notebook arrived from NewEgg Tuesday, so I need to schedule some time at their house to get wireless networking installed and configured. I guess everything will get done eventually.

Barbara and I have watched the first season of Bones and started yesterday on the second season. When the first season was being broadcast we'd watched a couple of minutes of one episode, mainly because I read Kathy Reichs' books and Barbara likes David Boreanaz. Something, I don't recall what it was, really bothered me during that two-minute evaluation, and I told Barbara I really didn't want to watch the series. So we didn't. Paul and Mary watch it regularly and recommended it to us, so we decided to give it another shot.

I suppose part of what annoyed me originally was that they've entirely changed the setting. Kathy Reichs' character, Temperance Brennan, is actually Reichs' alter ego. Author and character both work as forensic anthropologists, splitting their time between North Carolina and Quebec. (Actually, I believe Reichs is no longer working as a forensic anthropologist for North Carolina, although she is a professor at a state university.) In the TV series, Brennan has been relocated to Washington DC and now has an FBI partner, played by Boreanaz. She's also some kind of martial artist.

Also, and this may be what annoyed me originally, in the TV series they play fast and loose with reality. The FBI in this show apparently has unlimited jurisdiction, investigating ordinary murders and such. They also have Brennan responsible for and performing numerous tasks for which she is entirely unqualified, including autopsies. The science is generally okay if often a bit science-fictiony, probably because Reichs herself is involved in producing the series. Infrequently, they'll drop a real clanger science-wise, but it's generally something only a scientist would notice.

One of the things that really annoys me is that they portray scientists as dorky and ignorant of real life. In fact, Brennan, Zack, and Hodgins are the normal ones. The writers make constant fun of Brennan's unfamiliarity with ephemeral pop culture crap. She doesn't own a television. She repeatedly says, "I don't know what that means" when someone makes a pop culture reference. Frankly, I think she's the normal one. For example, FBI agent Booth (Boreanaz) tells her she's her grandmother because she is familiar with Treasure of the Sierra Madre but doesn't know who some woman (something Theron?) is. Big deal. I'd heard the name, but I don't know who she is, what she does, or why anyone should care. I certainly don't. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on the other hand, is a book that any literate person should be familiar with.

Interestingly, Brennan as an anthropologist is a social scientist rather than a hard scientist, or what most people think of as a "real scientist". Despite that, she behaves and speaks as a hard scientist, which I find refreshing. I understand how she thinks, and usually know what she's going to say. For example, last night we watched an episode in which the new director of The Jeffersonian (the institute Brennan works for) is introduced. With two alpha females struggling for dominance, it's obvious what's going to happen. Brennan comes within an inch of being fired by the new director for gross insubordination, but they later come to a working agreement over drinks. The new director recognizes Brennan's brilliance and talks about a get-out-of-jail-free card (Brennan has never played Monopoly, so the concept had to be explained to her; I've never played Monopoly, either, but I did recognize the phrase.) The new director tells Brennan the GooJF card will allow Brennan to do what she wants even against the director's orders. When the new director offers Brennan this deal, I turned to Barbara and said, "How many do I get?" an instant before Brennan asked the same thing. (The answer was one per case and a maximum of three a week; I'd have asked for three per case and 15 per week and settled for 2 and 8.)

So, I really like Brennan's character, although I suspect if I ever met the actress who plays her I'd want to throttle her. (She's PETA.) And I sure could do without the snide remarks about science and scientists. Still, Brennan gives back better than she gets:

Booth: When the FBI gets stuck, we call in the squints.
Brennan: Squints?
Booth: You know, you squint at things.
Brennan: Oh, you mean people with high IQ's and basic reasoning skills?
Booth: Yeah.

We'll keep watching the program. I give it a B so far, but I can see where it may rate a B+ as the writers and characters settle in.


Friday, 29 May 2009
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08:41 - We watched disc 1 of The Wire last night. I can see why this series is so highly rated by reviewers. Barbara thought it was well done, but said she simply isn't very interested in watching an inner-city cops versus drug dealers show. So I'll put that one in the pending file.

Maker Faire happens this weekend in San Mateo. I regret missing it, but I don't regret missing the trip out and back. I do wish they'd hold East Coast Maker Faires. I suggested that to Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty last year. There are some problems, as it turns out. First, finding an affordable venue large enough for potentially 100,000 or more attendees isn't trivial. Just as important, MAKE is a relatively small operation, without any excess headcount. Maker Faire consumes a great deal of staff effort year-round, and for the two weeks before and week after Maker Faire, it's basically all-hands-on-deck. Everyone from the head honchos--Dale Dougherty and Dan Woods--on down through the hierarchy is fully committed, and none of them worries about getting their hands dirty, literally. Last year, I helped Dale and Dan set up tables and carry boxes of books and kits from the loading dock out to the display area to set up the displays. So putting on an East Coast Maker Faire would be challenging from a staff resources perspective alone. Still, as the MAKE phenomenon continues to grow and prosper, I expect that eventually we'll have an annual Maker Faire in Atlanta or Charlotte or DC.

09:35 - I see that Microsoft has revamped its search engine, which is now called Bang or Bong or Bung or something like that. Oh, wait. It's Bing. A sharp-eyed reader over on the forums points out that Microsoft has adopted FOSS recursive naming:


Bing Is Not Google


Saturday, 30 May 2009
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11:09 - Barbara and I have been watching a lot of Bones episodes. With series 2, they introduced Tamara Taylor as Dr. Camille Saroyan. What's very strange is that after watching eight episodes of series 2, I still have difficulty distinguishing Tamara Taylor from Michaela Conlin, who plays Angela Montenegro. I'm not sure why.

According to IMDB, both women are of mixed race. Taylor's father is African-American and her mother is Scots-American. Conlin's father is Irish and her mother Chinese. Taylor is in her middle thirties, and Conlin in her mid- to late twenties. Conlin is merely pretty, while Taylor is stunningly beautiful. When they appear together in a scene, it's obvious that they don't look at all the same. And yet, when just one appears in a scene, for at least a moment I'm not completely sure which one it is.


Sunday, 31 May 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.