29 November 2007

Polytheism and Democracy?

I read an article by Richard Handler on cbc.ca. These are a few excerpts to give the gist - follow the link for the entire article.
Why can't God be more like us?
November 28, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, the British-born contrarian and atheist, has written a best-selling book called God is Not Great in which he thumbs his nose at Allah, Yahweh and all religion for that matter.

I don't know if God is great or not but I 'm sure of one thing: He/She/It isn't a democrat [...]

The Greeks didn't believe in sentimental, loving gods [...] the classical gods made life hard for humans. They weren't out to improve our condition. The only things they seemed to have a true interest in were valour and human achievement [...]

The Greeks, and the Romans who followed them, understood human fallibility. They believed mortals could question their gods, who were as imperfect as they were. They believed that all beings — divine and human — were prone to error.

The second great advantage to polytheism is its openness. It gave the ancient world a modern, Canadian virtue — diversity.

The Greeks were the original multiculturalists. There was always room in the temple for a new god, as long as his or her highness didn't want to take over the place.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are downright exclusive when it comes to sharing the limelight. Have no other gods before Me, say the opening commandments (depending on your Bible) [...]

[...] the Greeks understood the world as a complicated, savage and less than perfect place. Even their democracy was imperfect [...]

I've always found it puzzling that democracy, with all its ragged, free-for-all imperfections, is heralded as the supreme political model while our Western religious traditions are so monotheistic and narrow.

God is a dictator, demanding perfection from his underlings. OK, He gives us free will to make ourselves miserable. But if political life should be democratic, why shouldn't religion? If we were created in God's image, why can't God be more like us?

The Greeks and the Romans that I see in Rome understand the world is a quixotic and perilous place. They make allegiances and hope to command a smidgen of honour for their family, friends and community.

The ancient world lived as if all creation was a permanent minority government. Life tottered on the edge of a no confidence vote by the powers that be.

As coarse and politically incorrect as those ancient people were, at least to our way of thinking today, their many gods prepared them for a steely-eyed life without illusion.

We have progressed in many ways since then, especially in our science and technology. But perhaps those ancient peoples were wiser than us.

Today, we seem to live in a world of fierce moralists and one-God believers. Maybe we should take a lesson from the Greeks and Romans and allow more democracy into our modern religions. Then we might all rest a little more easily.

U.S. withdraws subpoena seeking identity of 24,000 Amazon.com customers

By the Associated Press in the Herald Tribune:
MADISON, Wisconsin: U.S. prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Amazon.com Inc., newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a right to keep their reading habits from the government […]

[U.S. Magistrate Judge] Crocker — who unsealed documents detailing the showdown against prosecutors' wishes — […] "The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their knowledge or permission," Crocker wrote. "It is an unsettling and un-American scenario to envision federal agents nosing through the reading lists of law-abiding citizens while hunting for evidence against somebody else." […]

The initial subpoena sought records of 24,000 transactions dating back to 1999. The company turned over many records but refused to identify the book buyers, citing their right to keep their reading choices private.

Prosecutors later narrowed the subpoena, asking the company to identify a sample of 120 customers.

Crocker brokered a compromise in which the company would send a letter to the 24,000 customers describing the investigation and asking them to voluntarily contact prosecutors if they were interested in testifying.

Prosecutors said they obtained the customer information they needed from […] computers they seized earlier in the investigation.

Crocker scolded prosecutors in July for not looking for alternatives earlier. […] "If the government had been more diligent in looking for workarounds instead of baring its teeth when Amazon balked, it's probable that this entire First Amendment showdown could have been avoided," he wrote.

24 November 2007

Sampras defeats Federer

I thought I'd post regarding the Sampras - Federer exhibition matches. Within the last week the former and current world number ones have played three exhibition matches in Asia.

I'd been both excited and worried about these matches. I've mentioned before that Sampras is my all-time favorite men's tennis player and I was looking forward to the opportunity to see how he matches up against Federer, even if only in exhibition. On the other hand, Sampras retired five years ago, and is a decade older than Federer. Truthfully, part of me was worried Federer would blow Sampras off the court. To my great relief that didn't happen. Sampras was competitive and got progressively better as the series went on.

Match 1 in Seoul: Federer wins 6-4, 6-3.

Match 2 in Kuala Lumpur: Federer wins 7-6 (8-6 ), 7-6 (7-5).

Match 3 in Macau: Sampras wins 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.

I wish I could have watched these matches instead of just reading about them. :o(

I try to refrain from walking down the endless meanderings of "What if..." especially when comparing athletes of essentially different periods; nevertheless, I can't help but wonder how great the tennis might have been had these two great players' careers overlapped with both in their primes.

23 November 2007

Video converters

I didn’t realize how much music my 80 GB Zune can hold until after loading my entire music collection and found it only uses 7 GB. Upon this pleasant discovery I decided to load some videos. Videos, however, are taking me a little more work. Nothing earth-shattering, it’s just that the videos I’d like to load are not wmv or mpeg-4. This set me up on a quest for a free video converter. After trying several different programs I settled on one called “Prism” that I downloaded from CNET.

Prism can convert mkv, avi, mov, ogm (and more) to wmv or mp4 video formats. The interface is easy to understand and so far the conversion has been satisfactory – though understandably it depends a lot on the quality of the source file. One caveat. Some of my videos originally with a 4:3 aspect ratio are slightly squished horizontally after conversion to mp4. I don't expect perfection on such a tiny little screen so it doesn't bother me much. I've also noticed that in a couple of my videos the voices are too quiet relative to the music / sound-effect volumes. I don't know if tweaking Prism options would alleviate this -- frankly I can't be bothered.

Anywhoo, I don't know if there are better free and unrestricted video converters out there - so unless one jumps into my lap for now I'm sticking with Prism since it does what I want it to do.

Tell us how you *really* feel....

This review of a mp3 player on cnet.co.uk is so funny I just had to share. :o)

Squircle Review

Reviewed by: Nate Lanxon

Reviewed on: 10 July 2007

The Squircle could pretentiously be called a convergence device, but it's really just a glorified card reader. Zero internal memory, no screen, a rubbery shell and a peculiar shape aren't the best starting points for an MP3 player.

But play MP3s it does, and to boot it'll jack into your nearest USB cable for all the card reading fun you can wave a stick and an SD card at. For just £15, we felt we should give this little guy a chance.

Find yourself a large lump of black Plasticine and squish it into a flat square shape. Then round off two opposite corners and leave it to go stagnant. The result is a lump of rubbery gunk that resembles half a square, half a circle -- hence the name. There are also five large rubbery buttons that require significant pushing and endless patience. It's about as pleasant to use as putting your hand in a trouser press.

On one side there's a mini-USB port and a headphone socket. On another, an SD card slot. There's no cover for any of these ports, so don't take it to the beach.

The back of the Squircle holds a single AAA battery, hidden behind a little flap. There's also a lanyard hook -- you'll be able to show off this grotesque piece of kit to all your friends.

We hoped the Squircle's primary feature was its card-reading abilities. Sadly, it's very slow as a card reader. It took over five minutes to transfer 90MB of digital photos from our SD card, as opposed to about 40 seconds using our usual reader. It also reads and writes to MMC memory cards. For emergency use, the Squircle will do the job.

Aside from being a card reader, the Squircle plays MP3s. If you have an old 256MB SD card hanging around, load it up with your least favourite songs and thrust it into the Squircle's card slot. Tracks can be skipped through quickly using the bloodcurdling navigation buttons. The Squircle will support memory cards up to 2GB in capacity.

Music quality is terrible. In all honesty, this is the worst-sounding MP3 player we have ever heard. Quality is akin to an old cassette that's been left behind the fridge since 1989. It's tinny, lacking any definition and abusive to the name 'digital'. A more pleasant experience can be had falling out of a tree and landing on the corrugated metal roof of an Anderson shelter. At least it's over quickly, though -- your AAA battery will only last 6 hours, which is frankly pathetic.

The Squircle's box states that having twin LEDs is a feature. Relative to the pathetic excuse of every other aspect of this device, the twin LEDs truly are astounding features. We're talking red and green lights. Don't tell us that's not an achievement.

In the Squircle's defense, it costs about fifteen quid. As a portable backup card reader for a digital photographer, this will at least provide some security. If said photographer wants to silence the screaming tyke in the back seat of the car, they could throw a Noddy soundtrack on to an old SD card and plug the (also rubbish) supplied earbuds into the child's ears and enjoy a more pleasant trip. The gigantic vomit-proof buttons will even withstand a barrage of childish travel-instigated nausea.

This truly is the most horrible excuse for an MP3 player we've ever heard. Don't be surprised if your toddler's first words are, 'Daddy, why does Noddy sound like he hates me?' As an emergency card reader it's not too bad. But perhaps the most redeeming feature is that it'll skim across a lake like no pebble you'll ever find on a beach. Expect even the most woebegone and wretched five-year old to think you're cool as a result.

A suitable alternative would be any MP3 player on CNET.co.uk, along with the cheapest card reader you can find in Argos. You may pay a little more but we guarantee your karma will benefit as a result. The fact that some dog toys cost more should push you in the right direction.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide

22 November 2007

Zune 80 update

As an update to my previous post about the new Microsoft Zune 80, I was able to subscribe to podcasts without going through the Zune Marketplace. All I needed to do was copy and paste the podcast / RSS link into the PC Zune software that came with my Zune 80. Once I did that the software downloaded the podcasts automatically onto my computer and then synced with the Zune 80 the next time they were connected. I subscribed to podcasts from cnn.com, bbc.co.uk, and cbc.ca.

I also tested my Zune 80 battery life. I was able to play approximately 175 minutes of video before the charge ran out. That works out to 2.9 hours. According to CNET, Microsoft rates the battery at 4 hours for video (with Wi-Fi turned off). Ugh.

I'm fairly certain my Zune was fully charged (at least, I was certain before my testing) so I wonder why I'm getting 25% less than advertised. Anywhoo, next step is to check my audio life, which Microsoft rates at 30 hours.

21 November 2007

Zune 80

I recently purchased a Microsoft Zune 80, primarily for use on trips and such and with the idea of buying a speaker dock or plugging it into my stereo at home. Overall I’m very satisfied with it. It comes with ‘premium’ ear buds and a USB cable. Besides music, video, podcasts, and pictures, the Zune 80 has a RBDS-enabled FM radio and wireless-sync capability.

The music sounds good (AA3, wma, protected-wma, wma-lossless, mp3) and the video (wmv, mpeg-4, h.264) displays nicely for its size (320 x 240 resolution; 3.2 inch diagonal screen). It can only show pictures in jpeg. The software for syncing the Zune 80 to my PC installed quickly with no problems and so far has worked perfectly on Vista. Both the PC Zune software and Zune have a very easy-to-use and intuitive interface.

The PC Zune software, in addition to managing / syncing my music, videos, and pictures, looks like an alternative to Windows Media Player -- capable of ripping and burning CDs. One definite annoyance I've discovered is that if I delete any files from my "collection" in the PC software, then the next time I sync the same files will be deleted on my Zune. So far I haven't found a way - if there is one - to deactivate this stupid, inane function. If I want to remove files from my Zune I'd prefer to do it manually.

I have no immediate plans to sign up to Zune Marketplace but it's a similar concept to Apple's iTunes store. I haven't tried subscribing to any podcasts, but according to the Zune official site it's not necessary to get podcasts through the Marketplace.

I have my eye on several Zune 80 accessories but the selection is limited right now -- I'm going to wait a little bit before forking over even more money.

20 November 2007

Homeland Security To Limit Saliva On Airlines

On the web:

WASHINGTON---Airline travelers may feel a little high and dry over the Thanksgiving holiday, thanks to new Transportation Security Administration guidelines unveiled this morning that will limit saliva to no more than three ounces per passenger on domestic and international flights.

"We just don’t want to take chances," said TSA spokesman Ted Bonner. "If terrorists can make a bomb out of hair gel, it's only a matter of time before they move on to Spit."

Bonner said that travelers should stop drinking fluids of any kind at least three days prior to their departure date, and to "seek hydration treatment at the closest emergency room" once they arrive at their destination.

According to the new TSA rules, passengers who go over the three-ounce limit will be able to have the excess removed from their glands, bottled, and placed in their checked luggage. New Sahara3000 saliva extraction machines are being provided by Halliburton, which won a no-bid $50 billion contract for the equipment last May.

Bonner refused to comment on how saliva—of which the average human produces 32 ounces daily---could be used to create an explosive device. "For national security reasons we want to keep the terrorists guessing about what we know or don't know."

Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff said the new policy was part of an ongoing effort to protect the homeland during the six year-old war on terror. "These measures will continue to assure that our aviation system remains safe and secure. Travelers should go about their plans confidently, while maintaining vigilance in their surroundings and exercising patience with screening and security officials."

Chertoff added that future restrictions on blood, urine and bile were "not likely, but also not out of the question."

Some passengers won't be afffected by the new rule. Bonner said that helper monkeys will be able to travel with full saliva levels, but only after going through the normal security screening process.

Meanwhile, in an effort to boost airline security even further, the amount of air cargo that's inspected will increase from five percent to six percent.

19 November 2007

Zune quest

Recently I decided I wanted a large-capacity portable music player with video capability. After deciding on my criteria and doing some research I settled on the Zune 80. It’s only a coincidence that I made my decision a week after it was released – the Zune hadn’t even been on my radar since I’d only heard negative things about the first generation Zune.

The first sign of trouble came when I went online looking at major retailers (Amazon, Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, Walmart…). None of them had Zune 80s in stock; they were either unavailable or backordered. No problem, right? The Zune 80s had just been released; of course demand was high and I wasn’t in desperate need of one. I could wait. There were two problems with that. First, I had a nice discount coupon at Best Buy and there was an online sale at Circuit City – unfortunately both expired that weekend. Second, I was worried the Zune 80 would go the way of the Nintendo Wii. It’s approaching Christmas and a salesman told me Zune 80’s scarcity was due to production problems. Ouch.

On Saturday I drove to multiple locations of Best Buy and Circuit City but none proved their online information wrong – none in stock. Eventually I decided to take advantage of Circuit City’s online sale regardless of how long I ended up waiting for the backorder. Then something unexpected happened. Circuit City’s website has an item-locator function where you can see which stores have a particular item in stock. I’d used this feature previously in my quest for the Zune 80 and came up empty. However, as I went through checkout I discovered that the Zune 80 could not be shipped. In store pick-up was my only option – at a location 50 miles away that didn’t appear in my initial search. Eh?

This is what confuses me. The item locator feature came up with 7 – 10 Circuit City locations based on my zip code – none of which had the Zune 80 in stock. However, when I placed an order, Circuit City now tells me that not only will they *not* ship it to me, but that I have to pick it up myself at a location too far away to show up on their item locator! What the --

Portable media players

I’ve always viewed the growth of the portable music player market – and Apple’s dominance – with an amazed but largely uninvolved eye. My impression of Apple is that its products are well designed but expensive, and stuffed with so much proprietary content and limitations that I avoid it like the plague despite my almost equal dislike of Microsoft (better the devil I know than the one I don’t).

My own foray into this arena was purchasing a simple 1GB Creative mp3 player a few years ago. This particular mp3 player met all my criteria. First, the player is small enough to use in the gym. Second, it plays mp3s. Third, it doesn’t require the installation of anything on my computer. Fourth and last, it uses batteries I can easily purchase and replace myself.

The Creative mp3 player has worked great for what I want it to do. I still have it and it still works but… recently the yen for something more, with more memory and video capability has begun to appeal to me. Recently I was on a business trip and during my free time I was often quite bored. I’d been to that particular city before – I had no desire to do touristy things or have to lug purchases on the plane that I could just as easily buy back home. The idea of a portable player that can carry my entire music collection and play videos (no matter how tiny the screen) has appeal.

So with changing needs by necessity my criteria have also changed. As larger-capacity players I considered use integrated batteries, I crossed my fingers and gave up on replaceable ones. I also don’t need one to use it in the gym; I have my old one for that. A new criterion is that it plays both common music and video formats.

My original third criterion was based in part on worries about software compatibility, computer resource issues and security. A new computer (I'm connected) and some research alleviated my concerns.

I’ve been told some people running iTunes on Windows Vista have had problems with their computers locking up. That crossed off iPods were I so inclined. I’ve had too much trouble with 3rd party ‘Vista-certified’ software (Vista-certified, are you sure?) to even consider the risk of running an Apple product on a Windows O/S. Heck, forget 3rd party software. I had more than enough trouble just trying to get Vista and Microsoft software running properly (Windows Vista; Computer Woes).

So where does that leave me? My first stop whenever I want to see what’s out there is CNET. There I learned that Microsoft had recently released the second iteration of the Zune – the first of which I had only heard negative things about. Anywhoo, the 2nd generation Zune, the Zune 80, here and elsewhere had mostly positive reviews.

So there we go: my quest for the Zune 80.

15 November 2007

Countries with the highest CO2-emitting sectors

Continuing with the theme of the climate, another story published on Nature.com. The short of it:

"The city of Taichung in Taiwan is home to a power plant that emits more than 37 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, the highest of any plant in the world. Australia produces more carbon dioxide per capita through electricity generation than any other nation. But the US power sector still produces the most carbon dioxide in terms of sheer volume […]

With some 8,000 power plants emitting 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, the United States accounts for a quarter of global emissions […] China comes a close second at 2.4 billion tonnes, although its per-capita emissions are less than a quarter of those of the United States. Russia comes a distant third, with 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions […]"

Climate politics: What every president should know

There’s an interesting quiz on Nature.com regarding climate physics taken from an undergraduate class, “Physics for future presidents”, taught by Richard A. Muller at the University of California, Berkeley.

My score was 6/17 -- only slightly better than if I had answered every question randomly ::ouch:: though I admit I did end up guessing for a lot of them.

Anywhoo, on to the quiz:
1) Electricity from the wall plug costs about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). If you were to get the same electricity by buying AAA alkaline batteries at the local store, the cost of that electricity would be:

(a) 15 cents per kWh

(b) 94 cents per kWh

(c) $2.50 per kWh

(d) $1,000 per kWh

2) A gram of which of these is most toxic?

(a) Botulinum toxin

(b) Arsenic

(c) Anthrax spores

(d) Plutonium dust (inhaled)

3) The highest achieved efficiency (solar energy converted to electrical energy) of solar cells is approximately:

(a) 4%

(b) 15%

(c) 28%

(d) 41%

4) A typical high-resolution spy satellite has how long to photograph a location?

(a) 10 seconds

(b) 1 minute

(c) 12 minutes

(d) 90 minutes

5) The dose for radiation illness (50% chance of death within a month) is 300 rem, whole body. The dose to trigger on average one cancer is:

(a) 2.5 rem

(b) 25 rem

(c) 250 rem

(d) 2,500 rem

6) Compared with a gallon of gasoline, the energy supplied by a gallon of liquid hydrogen is approximately:

(a) (that is, it has less energy per gallon)

(b) The same energy per gallon

(c) 3 times more energy per gallon

(d) 12 times more energy per gallon

7) Compared with the energy released when a pound of gasoline is burnt, the energy released when a pound of TNT is exploded is about:

(a) 2 times greater

(b) 13 times greater

(c) the same, within 40%

(d) less by a factor of 15

8) Of the deaths caused by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the fraction attributed to cancer was:

(a) Less than 2%

(b) About 7%

(c) About 20%

(d) More than 50%

9) A critical mass of plutonium has a volume of:

(a) 3 tablespoons

(b) 1 soft-drink can

(c) 1 gallon

(d) 3 gallons

10) In one computer cycle (a billionth of a second for a slow laptop), light travels about:

(a) 1 foot (30 centimetres)

(b) 300 metres

(c) 3 kilometres

(d) 300 kilometres

11) In the past 100 years, the carbon dioxide level in Earth's atmosphere has increased by what fraction of its previous value?

(a) Less than 1%

(b) 3%

(c) 30%

(d) 112%

12) The rocket that won the X Prize in 2004 achieved an altitude of 100 kilometres. To go into orbit would require more energy. How much more?

(a) 1.414 times more

(b) 2 times more

(c) 7 times more

(d) 32 times more

13) The International Atomic Energy Agency's 2006 estimate for the number of excess cancer deaths expected worldwide from the Chernobyl nuclear accident was:

(a) Less than 1,000

(b) 4,000

(c) 24,000

(d) 1.3 million

14) The ozone layer in the atmosphere is created by:

(a) Carbon dioxide

(b) Sunlight

(c) Sulphur from fossil fuels

(d) Chlorofluorocarbon compounds (such as Freon)

15) Light in a fibre carries more information per second than electricity in a wire because:

(a) It has a higher frequency

(b) It travels faster than electricity

(c) It makes use of quantum effects

(d) It doesn't. Wires transmit higher bit rates. (That's why they are used in computers.)

16) The power in a square kilometre of sunlight is:

(a) 1 kilowatt

(b) 1 megawatt

(c) 10 megawatts

(d) 1 gigawatt

17) To be legal for consumption in the United States, the radioactivity of one litre of ethanol (drinking alcohol) must be:

(a) Less than 12 decays per minute

(b) Below the threshold of standard Geiger counters

(c) Not measurable by accelerator mass spectrometry (the most sensitive detection method)

(d) More than 4,000 decays per minute

Here are the correct answers: Answers to Physics for future presidents (pdf).

09 November 2007

Trevor Linden: 412th career assist

In last night’s game (Canucks defeated Calgary, 3-2 in the Saddledome), Trevor Linden surpassed Stan Smyl by marking his 412th career assist in a Canucks uniform – an all-time franchise record.


08 November 2007

Toys linked to date rape drug

What's up with toys, this year? It seems like every week or so there's been another recall for lead-paint toys. It's ridiculous.

Just in time for Christmas shopping when retailers are supposed to make the vast majority of their annual sales, there's now this reassuring bit of news (bold is mine):
"China-made toys seized in Hong Kong were being tested Thursday after scientists in Australia found that similar ones contained a chemical that converts into a powerful "date rape" drug when ingested, officials said.

At least five children — two in the United States and three in Australia — have been taken to hospital after swallowing the toy beads [...] a chemical coating on the beads, when ingested, metabolizes into the so-called "date-rape" drug gamma hydroxy butyrate. When eaten, the compound — made from common and easily available ingredients — can induce unconsciousness, seizures, drowsiness, coma and death [...]" --cbc.ca
What's even more scary is that I think the reason for this year's glut of recalls is because manufacturers have only recently decided to step up their quality controls. Makes me wonder how I ever survived childhood.

02 November 2007

Don't try this at home

VW MkIV R32 HGP TwinTurbo versus BMW Z4

The video was taken in the summer of 2006 on a France highway (max. speed allowed: 120 km/h) between Calais and the Belgium border (VWvortex). The Z4 driver didn't realize it at first, but the R32 had a TwinTurbo with 550-hp.

Note: when the Z4 driver shouts the speed, he's using mph.

Warning: mild profanity.

You can follow this link to get more details-- the original poster is the Z4 driver.

I hope it's not necessary to say this, but I don't condone or approve of street-racing of any kind.

Site visitors in October 2007

The top 5 visitors listed by countries:

1) USA
2) Canada
3) an European country
4) Great Britain
5) Australia.

The full list: Visitors in October 2007.

Site visitors in previous months.