Saturday, January 09, 2010

I've added some new photos of the green paradise at Olbrich Botanical Gardens to my set

When the World Turns White, Follow the Green
They say that winter depression is due to the lack of bright sunlight in the winter, but I think the absence of green probably plays just as big a part. After all, when our species evolved in Africa, it was surrounded by green most all the time. Why wouldn't we crave it, and feel sad when it goes away?

That's why I think visits to Olbrich Botanical Gardens are even more important in winter than in the summer, when all their planted splendor spreads out for acres and acres. Sure, the outdoor gardens are buried in snow now, but in midwinter inside the glass pyramid of the Bolz Conservatory you're surrounded by a miracle of green. If you want to visit vicariously (though I recommend visiting in person), check out my Olbrich Botanical Gardens set. I've added some new photos -- and this video of the koi, which look better moving.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Chinatown springs to mind when reading AlterNet's expose of the CA "water crisis"

Not long ago I was watching a California farmer showing his parched fields on "60 Minutes" and talking about what a disaster the drought was. AlterNet's riveting expose of the "water crisis" puts that interview and a lot of others in a completely different light. I came away from it thinking of the awesome corruption of the water grab at the center of Polanski's film Chinatown.
But you get to meet one of the boys from Westlands doing his struggling farmer routine on 60 Minutes, giving viewers a walkthrough of his family-farm-in-crisis, explaining how the drought forced him to fallow some of his fields while, in the background, massive shredding trucks turned $18-million worth his almond trees into a neat pile of wood chips. The 60 Minutes segment, like most other farmer profiles, left out the stuff that would squelch any sympathy for their cause. Like the fact that the Woolf family clan operates the "biggest farming operation in Fresno County" that receives $4.2 million in taxpayer-subsidized water every year, enough to supply a city of 150,000 people. In the past decade, the dozen or so companies partially owned by Stuart Woolf have taken in roughly $8 million in federal crop subsidies. But Stuart Woolf still feels like he isn't getting enough. In 2008, he threatened a congressional subcommittee that he'd move his family's farm holdings to Portugal, Spain, Turkey and even China if the feds didn't give him more taxpayer-subsidized water.
The article starts here. It's a powerful read.

Waiting to shovel the snow until it stops snowing might be a good plan if it ever did

Waiting to Shovel the Snow Until It Stops Might Be a Good Plan If It Did
Where's El NiƱo when we need it?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Just ask -- Madison Public Library as Santa Claus

Ask Here
"Ask here," the sign states (at the Sequoya Branch), and I did, although I asked online instead of at the reference desk. This was the deal: I was putting together my Christmas wish list for Santa's helpers on Amazon and soon found I had far more books on the list than Santa had helpers. So I weeded out my list by reserving the ones that didn't have hopeless waiting lists at the library. Like clockwork, I've been getting e-mails saying another book is ready for pickup. Sometimes even relatively recent books show up in just no time. (Occasionally I've read a book review in the Times, reserved the book, and picked it up a few days later. So cool.)

One of my favorites showed up even before Christmas, and was a great holiday read: The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It's about Joseph Priestley, subtitled "A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America," and it's just that. Priestley was an English Unitarian minister when that was a radical act. He was a pioneering experimental chemist, the co-discoverer of oxygen whose achievement was tarnished by the fact that he continued to cling to the outmoded phlogiston theory his entire life. He was also friend and confidant of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson -- and that's where the story really gets interesting. A fascinating read about a time when generalists still walked the earth and cutting-edge science, religion and politics were intertwined in ways that would be unthinkable today.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Oil sure must be running low if they have to pump it out of Lake Monona here in Madison

Oil Sure Must Be Running Low If They're Pumping It Out of Lake Monona
It was cold and dark by the time I parked and hiked out to the Lake Monona oil field, but the polar bears were dancing. By the time I had finished fumbling with my camera, it felt as if my fingers would fall off. But it was worth it. The scene had a magical, phantasmagoric beauty.

Of course the oil derricks aren't real. They're part of an art installation -- the latest BLINK Temporary Public Art project funded by the Madison Arts Commission. The installation is by Madison artist Timothy Browning.

They're certainly an eye-opener as you drive by on John Nolen. (On foot you can cross with the lights at the base of South broom Street and walk over for a closer look, if you can find a place to park.)

And they sure do make you stop and think about all those hydrocarbons we're sucking out of the earth and pumping into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

So what if we apply Moore's Law to the process of tweeting by thinking?

You'll have to excuse me -- I'm a Twitter newbie, and my head is exploding. Just by following a handful of people I respect and poking around a little bit, I'm finding out all kinds of things that have slipped through the holes of my sieve-like mind recently. Case in point:

I've long thought that the day would come when we do away with keyboards and all the other computer paraphernalia and communicate with machine intelligence directly with our minds. What I didn't know (and you probably did) was that earlier this year, we already took another giant step. TIME called it tweeting by thinking, and really, that's what it is. Wearing a skull cap with EEG sensors, Adam Wilson, a grad student at the UW's Brain-Computer Interface Laboratory, sent this tweet by using only his mind.

There have been a number of news stories about this in the local and national media, but I somehow missed them. I found out while trying to get the lay of the land of tweeting in Madison and saw that a Madison tweeter named Adam Wilson had more than 330,000 followers, an order of magnitude more than anybody else. I wondered what was going on and went to his Twitter page, which led me to the TIME story.

Obviously the direct data link beween minds and computers is in its infancy, and it's not clear how fast it will progress. But Moore's law, which says computing power roughly doubles every two years or less, and which also seems to describe the exponential growth of other technological processes, might give us a hint.

Currently the speediest brain tweeters just manage a bit more than a word a minute (8 characters). You can follow the progression down the road and see where it leads: 2 years, 2 words per minute; 4 years, 4 words; 6 years, 8 words; 8 years, 16 words; 10 years, 32 words, 12 years, 64 words. And in a decade and a half, 128 words per minute, which takes you into the range of conversational speech.

In other words, in about a decade or so you might want to start switching some of your portfolio away from companies that make e-readers, tablets and the like, into companies making stylish electronic skull caps.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Shape of newspapers of the future?

This year may end up being the tipping point for reading to begin a serious migration to e-readers. First there were Sony's device and then Amazon's Kindle. Barnes & Noble has weighed in. And now the new e-reader by Skiff, the Hearst spinoff, is being introduced this week at CES. It looks as if we're getting closer to a natural newspaper and magazine reading experience in a format that combines the advantages of print and wireless connectivity. I can't wait. And although, the Skiff will initially be sold exclusively by Sprint, which is not my carrier, I'm sure that will change if it catches on.

Right now the hot tech news concerns Google's challenge to the iPhone and the new Apple tablet computer that looks as if it will debut later this month. But both Apple and Google will need to be on their toes. An inexpensive, intuitive and easy-to-use e-reader could shake up the computer and smartphone markets as thoroughly as the iPhone did earlier. Apple seems to hope their tablet will be that device, but I'm not so sure. It's still a "computer," and I'm not so sure that's what people will be looking for down the road.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Scotch tape and plastic hack for the twitchy, hypersensitive touchpad of my netbook

Scotch Tape Hack for My Netbook's Twitchy, Hypersensitive Trackpad
I pass this on in case anyone has a similar problem and doesn't want to fiddle with the Control Panel:

I dearly love my Asus Eee PC netbook. It's small, wireless, and useful. I take it everywhere and don't worry about something happening to it, because it's cheap and my data is in the cloud. And with my small, wireless USB mouse from Radio Shack, it's great for browsing the net or capturing keystrokes on the run.

There was only one problem in my love affair with this simple little computer: The touchpad is hypersensitive and twitchy. I'll be typing along, in the middle of the sentence and my thumb will ever so lightly brush the touchpad and the cursor will fly up and lodge itself a couple of paragraphs above where I am. The rest of the sentence will be lost in the middle of some old text. I have to go find it, delete it and paste it back where it's supposed to be. I don't know if it's my hunt-and-peck typing style or the touchpad itself, compounded by a cramped keyboard that otherwise works fine for me. All I know is that it happens happened all too often.

Voila! Not anymore. I realized I just needed a removable cover on the touchpad, something fairly firm so that my thumb brushing against it no longer would activate the cursor. I cut a little piece of hard plastic out of an old AA battery container I was about to recycle. The Scotch tape is so I can easily remove the cover if the mouse's battery dies and I need to use the touchpad.

Note: Yes, I know I can shut off the touchpad from the Control Panel. But then, if I don't have a mouse attached, I have no pointing device at all, unless I remember to go back in and enable the touchpad before shutting down. Scary. Too complicated for me. The Scotch tape and plastic may be inelegant, but they're simple. Nothing to remember, nothing to forget. And totally transparent.

Michael's Frozen Custard is really frozen this time of year

Michael's (Really) Frozen Custard
This Monroe Street icon doesn't do a lot of business in the heart of midwinter -- though enough to stay open -- but it sure is pretty, especially surrounded as it is with piles of snow that look like ice cream.

Eyes on the Super Bowl?

Eyes on the Super Bowl?
I've grown disenchanted with the corporate mayhem of NFL and college football, but I can't help but continue to follow this amazing athlete, often pointing my camera at the tevee as I do. Two weeks from now, Brett Favre will become the first 40-year-old QB to start an NFL playoff game.

By trouncing the NY Giants today, Favre led the Vikings to a second seed and a bye in the NFC playoffs. What was he thinking? That he finally accomplished what eluded him the last two seasons, that is, taking his team to the playoffs? Weighing the chances of playing the Packers for the third time this season? (Could happen in two weeks if Green Bay wins and Dallas loses next week. If Green Bay and Dallas both win, then the Vikings wouldn't meet the Packers until the conference championship the following week, assuming Green bay bumps off #1 seed New Orleans -- and that I read the standings right. Stranger things have happened.) Is he thinking back about having one of the best seasons of his career, finishing near the top of the QB ratings, and making believers of some -- if not all -- of his detractors, all at an age when most NFL QBs have long since hung up their cleats? Or does he just have his eyes on the Super Bowl?