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Friday, June 15, 2007

Honda gets it right.

I did talk some time ago about how piracy can be good for business, with the exception of people whose services aren't necessary anymore: distributors, which in the TV case are the broadcasting stations.

Companies should, and will, advertise directly to customers through the production of high value content released for free on the p2p networks. Something like this is already happening, at the hands of Skype (and Kazaas') creators.

Now, Honda seems to get it, with this plan: to run smaller commercials for a smaller car in smaller versions of television series.

Honda will be the sole sponsor of what Sony Pictures Television is calling the Minisode Network, which is scheduled to begin next week. Visitors to the MySpace Web site (my will be able to watch episodes of 15 vintage Sony series like “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Facts of Life,” “Fantasy Island” and “Who’s the Boss,” edited from their original lengths of 30 or 60 minutes each to an Internet-friendly 4 to 6 minutes.

Now, you can see how funding for this stuff has been kept to the bare minimum, but this is just the beginning. Once the managers see the machine is working, money will pour in.

Welcome to our free as in beer future!

Grey Power

The Economist tackle the issue of Italy's education system breakdown (may require subscription)

The biggest fault in Italian education is that there are too many old teachers

Since 2000 successive reports from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment have shattered the belief that Italian schools are among Europe's best. The most recent put them near the bottom of the heap. In maths Italy's 15-year-olds were outperformed by their peers in all but three OECD countries. Almost a third were “unable to display the minimum level of mathematics proficiency needed to succeed in their professional and private life”. The share of young adults with essential qualifications was far below the OECD average.

No similarly exhaustive comparison has been done for tertiary education. But that so many young Italians study abroad, and so few young foreigners (2% of all foreign students) do in Italy, points to equally low standards at university level.

All of this sounds sadly true to me.

If I have to judge on the limited sample of high school students which I get to talk to (my youngest brother) , I can see the huge divide with what I was taught to, often by the very same professors (thirteen years apart, we shared the same math teacher). Even taking into account differences in personal attitude, the rest must be ascribed to decreasing quality of education.

We must find a way to fix this. I will certainly not be one of the meagerly-paid high school teacher for Italy's new path to education. 1100 Euros/month to tackle 25 teen-agers day after day is pretty close to my idea of Hell.

Ouch! Fantastic Four: The rise of Silver Surfer sucks, too...

The NY Times reviewer says so.

Well, I guess that I'll have to check it out as usual. Although since the move I haven't been very active in downloading movies. Miracles of commuting, I'd say.
(In the picture, the Silver Surfer leaves the cinema in a rush after the movie, to avoid furious spectators)

My movie time goes wasted on the motorway, now. Together with the hydrocarboms laboriously
accumulated by mother Earth during the last 500 million years. Ouch!

Adam was a PornStar

from FishFeet, comes this entertaining story:

The Creation Museum of Petersburg, Kansas has been wrought with criticism since before it even opened, but most recently, they have been embroiled in a ‘moral scandal’ by an employ hired to tell the story of the fall of man.

A variety of actors were hired to play out scenes from the bible and the man chosen to play God’s golden boy, Adam, has now been revealed to have a ‘sordid’ history. Eric Linden, owns a website called Bedroom Acrobat, on which he is (allegedly -I cannot say this myself as the site has apparently crashed due to traffic overload) pictured

Paradise exists

The importance of good data

Data is everything.

Without data, my models do not take off.

Whether you work with proteins structures, experimental results, or God-knows-what, the quality of your work is influenced by the quality of the upstream data, and the trust you put into them.

Unfortunately, data are not so easy to get hold of. Good data are even more difficult to catch.

Very recently, at my work, I have discovered that a particular section of
my company does not like other people sniffing around their databases - they're afraid that unskilled people may draw the wrong conclusions about their work - it is not simple science, we have been told, and please don't demean it as such.

A little back in time, during my PhD, I discovered that you should not blindly trust data you've been handed over either: always check, and if possible, double check them. Confirmation of this has come during the previous months, when I spent a LOT of time cleaning up a database of experimental data from all the crap that found its way in there during thirty+ years.
I can tell you, it's grueling. But in my line of work, I am told, data preparation is by far the most time-intensive activity one can pursue. Analysis of the results certainly takes less, and the actual model-building is a doodle.

Let's take a (real-life) example: Experimental measures of pKa of a compound: how difficult can it be? Well, first of all, you must make sure that your data is actual experimental data - has it been measured? Not always: I was told that sometimes the compound wouldn't bloody dissolve, so they would insert in the database the computed pKa, or the pKa of a similar compound(!).

Then, if you can get around this, there still is lot of room for errors, or at least weird uncertainties: in the case at hand, you get a handful of values for every molecule. How do you know which pKa corresponds to which atom? As it turns out, there's a way of detecting whether it is a base or an acid - by repeating the experiment in water/alcohol mixtures, the pKa values do change, with acids' values getting higher, and basis' values decreasing - or the other way around, can't bother to fact-check right now. So, in theory it is possible to say which is an acid and which is a basic pKa. Important, since a basic pKa will tell the pH at which your molecule becomes neutral (and below that, is positive) - an acidic pKa tells you when your molecules goes from neutral to negatively charged. Get them wrong, or worst mixed up, and your compound's predicted properties (such as permeation of the gut walls and other membranes, but also retention in a chromatographic column) will go haywire.

But thats more or less it: now you know which one is basic and which one is acid. But how do you assign down to the very atom its own pKa? if they're few, it's easy. I mean, if you have an acid and a basic functionality in your molecule, the choice is trivial. If you have two acids, though, it's all a matter of chemical knowledge, and intuition. You expect, from previous experience, some groups to ionize around certain pHs. However, the presence of charges and other substituents all around will greatly affect these numbers, and sometimes the ordering of them may even change. Big mess then - so how do you fix it? Well, some experimentalists use computer models to get a hunch, a suggestion on what may be going on. Which seems great, except when the reason why you're looking at those data is exactly to validate those very same computer models. Then it sucks. Add to this the well known fact that most of these softwares do get it wrong quite often, and by a mile or two, and you're left with a bemused expression...

Welcome to my frustrating world.

US professor plans to send message back in time

I have just finished reading Stephen Baxter's Exultant (which kinda sucked, by the way), where a future war is fought using pre-knowledge of events thanks to closed-timelike curves. In this fictiotious future, FTL ships sometimes get back from battle before they actually leave the docks, so that strategy can be planned based on what is known to have already happened (in the future). Understandably, our language, isn't fit for such a messy loopy time threads. This is just Sci-fi, right? Yet, now someone is trying to do it for real.

A West Coast scientist who believes it may be possible to transmit information backwards through time has been funded by individual donations after established mad-scientist groups refused to cough up.

from the original article on "The Register":

A West Coast scientist who believes it may be possible to transmit information backwards through time has been funded by individual donations after established mad-scientist groups refused to cough up.

John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington, reckons that "quantum retrocausality" could "involve signalling, or communication, in reverse time."

The El Reg science desk passed this one over to us at the engineering-degree-a-long-time-ago desk, and all we really know about quantum is that it's pretty wild stuff.

We do know about DARPA, though, the US military's famously wacky research bureau. DARPA has happily funded all kinds of crazy stunts, including Terminator cyborg moths, mind-reading electrode hats, terror casinos - you name it. "Mad scientists are good scientists" is almost the DARPA motto.

But DARPA wouldn't fund Cramer. It said his planned experiment was "too weird". Coming from them, this does seem unfair. All Cramer wants to start with is a few lasers, prisms, splitters, fibre-optics, and suchlike doodads. He's not asking for a beautiful girl strapped to a table, living brains in bubbling jars, lightning, dead bodies, enormous monkeys, fossilized dinosaur DNA, or anything seriously outre.

"I'm not crazy," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I don't know if this experiment will work, but I can't see why it won't. People are skeptical about this, but I think we can learn something, even if it fails."

Others think so too. A diverse collection of private donors has apparently chipped in $35,000+ to get Cramer's experiments underway. They include a Vegas music-biz exec, a biotech scientist, and Richard Miller, an artist and photographer based in Washington state.

"I would say the predicted failure of this project is probably a good omen," Miller told the Post-Intelligencer. "Most predictions are wrong."

"Artists have experienced non-local space all along, we just can't prove it," he added mysteriously.

Cramer plans to attempt some basic instantaneous faster-than-light communication next month with his donation-funded rig. If that's successful, he reckons that mainstream funding will arrive and he can have a crack at sending information back though time.

It does seem a trifle odd, if the theory is sound, that Cramer hasn't already received advance notification of his success. Perhaps he has, and is keeping it secret. If one dons one's tinfoil hat, this line of thinking might easily lead to an explanation for DARPA's otherwise unaccountable lack of interest, too.

read more | digg story

Friday Movies featured by the NY Times

Movie Review | 'Fido'


In the ticklishly amusing satire “Fido,” the undead stagger along like stunned toddlers.

Movie Review | 'Eagle vs Shark'

Reviewed by A. O. SCOTT

“Eagle vs Shark” is one of those movies that invite you to laugh at its misfit characters and empathize with them at the same time.

Movie Review | 'Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer'


“Rise of the Silver Surfer” is an existentially and aesthetically unnecessary sequel to the equally irrelevant if depressingly successful “Fantastic Four.”

  • Movie Review | 'Gypsy Caravan'

    Reviewed by MANOHLA DARGIS

    As a music document and as a labor of unabashed love, the nonfiction feature “Gypsy Caravan” could hardly be better; as a movie, it could stand some improvement.

    • Movie Details | Trailer

    Movie Review | 'Czech Dream'

    Reviewed by STEPHEN HOLDEN

    In the documentary “Czech Dream,” two students at the Prague Film Academy use state money to stage an elaborate consumer hoax.

Great looking lenticular cloud

Wow, was just browsing Panoramio when I found this. A spectacular lenticular cloud over a volcano (I believe) in Kamchatka.

Photo location (see this area):

Imagery ©2007 NASA - Terms of Use
56º 4' 55.20" N 160º 35' 15.01" E

here's a smaller one - the pic, not the cloud, which is, if anyting, even more impressing - with some explanations from the wikipedia:

Lenticular clouds, technically known as altocumulus standing lenticularis, are stationary lens-shaped clouds that form at high altitudes, normally aligned at right-angles to the wind direction.

Where stable moist air flows over a mountain or a range of mountains, a series of large-scale standing waves may form on the downwind side. Lenticular clouds sometimes form at the crests of these waves. Under certain conditions, long strings of lenticular clouds can form, creating a formation known as a wave cloud.

Power pilots tend to avoid flying near lenticular clouds because of the turbulence of the rotor systems that accompany them, but sailplane pilots actively seek them out. Although the clouds can produce heavy turbulence they also show a sign of precipitation. This is because the systems of atmospheric standing waves that cause "lennies" (as they are sometimes familiarly called) also involve large vertical air movements, and the precise location of the rising air mass is fairly easy to predict from the orientation of the clouds. "Wave lift" of this kind is often very smooth and strong, and enables gliders to soar to remarkable altitudes and great distances. The current gliding world records for both distance (over 3,000km) and altitude (14,938m) were set using such lift.

They have been mistaken for UFOs (or "visual cover" for UFOs) because these clouds have a characteristic lens appearance and smooth saucer-like shape.