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Archive for August, 2009

Joe Meno put together a great novel in “The Great Perhaps.”   I’m certainly a biased reader when it comes to stories about the complexity of life and human relations. My bias balloons when the writer is a Chicagoan writing about Chicagoans.  I was excited to read this book and it delivered for the most part.

The main thrust involves an intellectual/academic family’s struggle to deal with the difficulty in finding a simple meaning to it all.   It’s a middle-agers coming to grips with reality type story.  The characters are perfectly interesting, if not a little underdeveloped and relying on caricature to fill them out.  The main character is a bit of a nutty professor in marine science, his wife also a forlornanimal behavior researcher, and their kids are full of tean angst, one a budding communist the other an exploratory Christian.  There’s also an aging grandfather winding down life in a nursing home.   All of them struggle with meaning in different ways and criss crossing each other constantly.

These characters don’t find an absolute truth to cling to, as the title suggests.   Science, religion, politics, psuedo affairs, leave it all behind…. none of it provides an answer for this family.   At the end of this book, by no means the end of the story, this family has only slightly advanced in their search. The parents more than the kids move forward in their thinking and yet it seems to be a very slippery, fragile place.  Meaning and truth seem like that – don’t they?

One irritant for me was the jumpiness of the storylines.  I found the flashbacks of the extended family history to be some of the least interesting vignittes.  These flashbacks chopped up the story a bit too much and really weren’t that interesting to read.

If you were to finish your summer reading with a quick, witty, and thought provoking ready, this is a great choice. perhaps.

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Business Week has a really great article about the value of basic research in R&D Labs to future economies.

Many of the classic scientific research labs, such as Bell Labs and RCA Labs (now Sarnoff Corp.), were started and funded by companies with virtual monopolies and very strong, predictable cash flows. They were able to embrace the uncertainty and serendipity of pure research in the context of their business. But such companies don’t exist today. With the increasing focus on shareholder value that began in the 1990s as global competition heated up, Fortune 500 companies could no longer justify open-ended research that might not directly impact their bottom line. Today, corporate research is almost exclusively engineering R&D, tending more toward applied research with a 3- to 5-year time horizon (or shorter). IBM, Microsoft MSFT, and Hewlett-Packard HPQ, for example, collectively spend $17 billion a year on R&D but only 3% to 5% of that is for basic science.

The End of Labs

The End of Labs

It’s not just a shame, it’s actually a very bad strategy in play right now and for the future.  I once remarked at company retreat I was at that often a company or industry matures so much that it’s only strategy is to invent just for the sake of inventing, with the idea that completely new revenue streams might evolve.  I was quickly slapped down by a major executive, “We need to work on things that can be commercialized now.”  I knew then the fate of that company would be mostly an arbitrage of wall street expectations.  And that’s exactly what it, and 1000s of other companies have become.  This is also why this particular recession is so painful – most companies have no institutional ability to innovate.  Two decades of chaising the near term exit, the 30% stock market rocket shot leave industry stagnant.

Know one knows what the next big idea is.  And no one will figure that out without basic research.  And by big ideas, I mean things like the printing press, the Internet, germ theory, genetics, the Wheel.  You know – THE BIG STUFF that powers generations of commerce.

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What do you make of Michael Vick, Ted Kennedy, Dick Cheney and Michael Jackson?  Villians? Heros? Role-Models? Titans? Flawed? Deserving? Entitled? Charismatic? Faithful? Loyal? Disturbed? All of these things? None of these things?

These people, as all people, are infinitely complex.  However, in the mass media (TV, radio, news, magazines)  they are portrayed in very simple ways.  Snippets of complexity stitched together into caricatures.   As proof of the over simplicity flip on the TV or browse your favorite news, sports, politics, or music site.  There is the rare exception (abcnews Ted Kennedy section) and usually it is buried on a website special section (you decide if that’s mass media).

Mass Media needs to generate and dramatize conflict.  When media fails to do that it usually doesn’t gain mass appeal.   There is a reinforcing loop for mass media producers to generate caricatures that get consumers to disagree and or promote that caricatures and the more consumers do this the more mass media produces.  If a person is presented in all their complexity it grows ever more difficult for a consumer to outwardly respond (e.g. blog, talk around the water cooler, call into radio shows…).  There is also limited time and space (and consumer attention) for mass media.  Broadcasting or publishing detailed profiles of people is physically impossible.

Yes, it is possible for a dedicated consumer to find the rich profiles and details they desire.   I do have a personal fear though – mass media drives so much of the political and social discussion and the world moves so fast that fewer and fewer consumers take the time to uncover the details.  Political marketers know this.  The Health Care discussion is a very good case study in how mass media fails to provide a robust intellectual platform.   There’s no one to blame.  Mass media has to make money for their shareholders and consumers do what they do.  Perhaps just a talking point and something to consider as we go about our lives.

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This is a really neat, quick piece about Usain Bolt’s impact on sports writers and their comments about humanity and sport.

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt

A good example of our unexpected things can shape thinking and approaches.  My favorite take on this so far is over at ScienceBlogs.  I love it that someone plotted the model of 100m times to see how far out Bolt is on the predicted trajectory of speed improvements.

Maybe we’ve got the model wrong.  Maybe he’s an outlier and the model is right.

I have a prediction of my own:  after the fun of this track event is over… somebody is going to argue he’s doping.

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For fun, let’s see who’s got the most accurate projected path.

CNN

Accuweather

National Hurricane Center

Ok, so the graphics side by side don’t really give you a way to gauge this… dig around.

The infographics and surrounding stories love to promote “worst case” even if that worst case really isn’t likely.  No one will read the stories and visit these sites if the authors don’t keep the hint of major land impact. Duh.  The trouble with this kind of news reporting is that it becomes hard to trust these graphics and stories if they stretch the facts and the worst case scenario doesn’t come to pass.  Methinks this is part of the issue the news media has when the public doesn’t respond when a storm is actually on target for a population center. Then again, if you don’t report worst case scenario, no one pays attention until it’s too late.

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UFO/Alien Encounter people are full of crap.

This guy Stan was a major part of ABC Primetime: Outsiders.  He’s full of crap.

Bad science.  Bad evidence.  Bad mythology.  None of it fits, none of it works into any narrative or logic at all.  I can take a good story OR a good science romp.  This is neither.

Puhlease.  Anyone who has seen a ghost, the devil, aliens or anything that is remotely REAL… PLEASE post anything that is verifiable.

I know, I know… ghosts, aliens, God chooses those they/he/she they reveal themselves to.  NOT.  Why would they ever not choose non believers.  even by chance.

The ABC special is completely hilarious.  and insane.

but good TV!!!

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Oh, joy.  Scientific American has a pretty hilarious article about some researchers working on programming “pure evil” in a computer character.

his exercise resulted in “E,” a computer character first created in 2005 to meet the criteria of Bringsjord’s working definition of evil. Whereas the original E was simply a program designed to respond to questions in a manner consistent with Bringsjord’s definition, the researchers have since given E a physical identity: It’s a relatively young, white man with short black hair and dark stubble on his face.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAH.  Young, white male with stubble.  That is EVIL.

Here’s a real tough concept for non CS majors (not!): you can’t program something that doesn’t exist or can’t exist (PURE EVIL!).

Thankfully the researchers aren’t going to release him.  Who knows what havoc Pure Evil might wreak on this world?

“I wouldn’t release E or anything like it, even in purely virtual environments, without engineered safeguards,” Bringsjord says. These safeguards would be a set of ethics written into the software, something akin to author Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” that prevent a robot from harming humans, requires a robot to obey humans, and instructs a robot to protect itself—as long as that does not violate either or both of the first two laws.

Better to have EVIL humans control PURE EVIL robots.  hahaha.

BOGUS RATING: 10000.

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