Monday, March 31, 2008

Revolutionary Flags




The intro clip to the HBO John Adams mini-series shows some pretty cool historical flags and I got curious so I decided to do a little research.

The one displayed most prominently prints the words "Join, or Die" under a snake with the initials of several U.S. States along its path.



This image is from a political cartoon drawn by Benjamin Franklin and was originally used to urge colonial unity against France (not Britain) for the French and Indian War. It was first published in 1754, 22 years before we declared our independence.
It is a woodcut showing a snake severed into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initial of a British American colony or region.

During that era, there was a superstition that a snake which had been cut into pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset.
The rattlesnake had become a symbol for the colonies ever since Benjamin Franklin suggested sending Britain rattlesnakes in gratitude for sending us their convicted criminals.

The cartoon was popular and was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Its popularity returned, with new meaning, leading up to the Revolutionary War. Appropriately modified versions of the image were also used by both sides of the Civil War.

My other favorite from the clip is displayed only briefly but appears to be based on the Gadsden flag seen here.


A few others are shown and described at foundingfathers.info here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Microsoft Surface



Microsoft Surface is a pretty amazing touch-screen-table-top-surface computer. The demo videos and news reports like this one have been around for several months now. A friend of mine just sent me another so I figured I'd share in case you have not yet seen it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A More Perfect Union



When I first heard the
anti-American and racially divisive preachings of Barack Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, I thought it could very well be the end of his campaign. It may still be. The clips will continue to get a lot of air time and they are unequivocally disturbing.

Tonight I finally had the time to listen to the speech
Barack gave last week in response to the coverage. The 40 minute speech (embedded above) titled "A More Perfect Union", was thoughtful, eloquent and inspiring. I haven't heard such an honest, substantial and uplifting political speech in quite some time. I've never heard one like it before on the issue of race. As a half black and half white man he seems uniquely positioned to address racial issues in this county and he does so beautifully here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss

Paul Graham wrote a great article on why working for (or better yet founding) a small company is a much more natural and satisfying environment for programmers to exist in then a large organization is. Having worked in both environments I completely agree. Of course who wouldn't find appealing an article titled "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss".

I was talking recently to a founder who considered starting a startup right out of college, but went to work for Google instead because he thought he'd learn more there. He didn't learn as much as he expected. Programmers learn by doing, and most of the things he wanted to do, he couldn't—sometimes because the company wouldn't let him, but often because the company's code wouldn't let him. Between the drag of legacy code, the overhead of doing development in such a large organization, and the restrictions imposed by interfaces owned by other groups, he could only try a fraction of the things he would have liked to. He said he has learned much more in his own startup, despite the fact that he has to do all the company's errands as well as programming, because at least when he's programming he can do whatever he wants.

An obstacle downstream propagates upstream. If you're not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful.

Suspicious Activity Reports

Newsweek ran an interesting piece this week that sheds some light on to how Eliot Spitzer got caught in the recent call girl scandal. Under authority of The Patriot Act, the Treasury Department now requires banks to issue "Suspicious Activity Reports" (SARs) to the government based on unusual financial transactions of its customers.

[Under authority of The Patriot Act, the Treasury Department] issued stringent new regulations that required banks themselves to look for unusual transactions (such as odd patterns of cash withdrawals or wire transfers) and submit SARs—Suspicious Activity Reports—to the government. Facing potentially stiff penalties if they didn't comply, banks and other financial institutions installed sophisticated software to detect anomalies among millions of daily transactions. They began ranking the risk levels of their customers—on a scale of zero to 100—based on complex formulas that included the credit rating, assets and profession of the account holder.

Another element of the formulas: whether an account holder was a "politically exposed person." At first focused on potentially crooked foreign officials, the PEP lists expanded to include many U.S. politicians and public officials who were conceivably vulnerable to corruption.
The theme of the article is that laws have unintended consequences and will often be used for purposes not originally intended.

Have you made any large transfers between accounts lately? Perhaps a SAR was issued. Last year there were 1.23 million of them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Coverage of the Democratic Presidential Campaign

Politico.com has a good write up on the state of the Democratic Presidential campaign arguing that the race is essentially over even though the media continues to report it as a dead heat. They analyze the numbers and provide some theories on why the media is failing in its reporting.

Some excerpts:

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates.

One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.

In other words: The notion of the Democratic contest being a dramatic cliffhanger is a game of make-believe.

The real question is why so many people are playing. The answer has more to do with media psychology than with practical politics.

Most coverage breathlessly portrays the race as a down-to-the-wire sprint between two well-matched candidates, one only slightly better situated than the other to win in August at the national convention in Denver.

One important, if subliminal, reason is self-interest. Reporters and editors love a close race — it’s more fun and it’s good for business.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

John Adams HBO Miniseries


I caught the premiere of the new HBO 7-part miniseries John Adams and absolutely loved it. Based on David McCullough's biography of the man this $100 million dollar production looks like a home run.

From a baltimoresun.com review:

HBO's brilliant miniseries on the life and times of John Adams got off to a strong start in the ratings Sunday night attracting an audience of 2.7 million viewers, according to The Nielsen Company.

While that number might seem small by the standards of network TV, it is one of the best Sunday nights HBO has enjoyed this year.

By comparison, the finale of The Wire was seen by only 1.1 million in its Sunday-night premiere on March 9.

It is easy to forget just how hard earned our independence was and how close we came to never achieving it.

So go get caught up with HBO On Demand and then check out the new episodes airing Sunday nights at 9PM through April 20th.

If enough people watch maybe they will do 1776 next.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Arelt Art


John Arelt is the owner and artist behind AreltArt.com. He also happens to be one of my oldest and closest friends and is by far the best artist I know. His work includes everything from 3D architectural renderings to pen & ink portraits to fine art paintings. In addition he provides a great service in which he will create a custom pen & ink portrait of your family or home based on a photograph you provide him. If you have an interest in art or are looking for a great gift idea than you should take a look at his site.

As a warning to my Boston based readers he does have one or two pieces that you may find particularly offensive but please forgive him because he just doesn't know any better.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Andreessen on Barack

Marc Andreessen was the co-creator of Mosaic, the first widely-used web browser, and co-founder of Netscape. I read his blog regularly and this week he wrote a good one about meeting Barack Obama.

Here is a piece:

Early in 2007, a friend of mine who is active in both high-tech and politics called me up and said, let's go see this first-term Senator, Barack Obama, who's ramping up to run for President.

And so we did -- my friend, my wife Laura, and me -- and we were able to meet privately with Senator Obama for an hour and a half.

The reason I think you may find this interesting is that our meeting in early 2007 was probably one of the last times Senator Obama was able to spend an hour and a half sitting down and talking with just about anyone -- so I think we got a solid look at what he's like up close, right before he entered the "bubble" within which all major presidential candidates, and presidents, must exist.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Robert Downey Jr as African American


In Ben Stiller's upcoming movie titled "Tropic Thunder" Robert Downey Jr plays an African American.

A dailymail.co.uk article says "Downey Jr plays a worthy Oscar-winning actor taking on a role originally written for a black actor, and rather than re-write the part, he goes method". Their caption for the image reads "Unrecognisable: Downey, pictured left and right's astonishing transformation was in aid of his role in a war satire directed by comic actor Ben Stiller. He said 'if you don't do it right, we're going to hell'".

The article focuses on the fact that many are uncomfortable and angry with a white man portraying a black man.

The photo reminded me a lot of one I saw back in college. My friend took a psychology class which addressed race and his textbook included pictures of celebrities with their race modified through photo-shopping. The one I remember best was of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a black man. The power of Google failed to turn up this image of him with photo-shopped dreadlocks.

Google Gears Mobile

Google has a web browser plug-in called Google Gears and it just went mobile. It was announced on Monday that it now works on Windows Mobile based phones.

Google Gears allows some web apps (websites) to work better while not connected to the internet. Google Reader for example uses it in "offline mode". It lets you download the latest news articles and read them later even if you don't have an internet connection. I do this with my laptop before I get on an airplane or go to a coffee shop with non-free internet. It's great. I expect Google Mail will support it soon too so you can read and compose email while offline.

Windows Mobile is a great start for Gears and I hope support for the other platforms are around the corner.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Onion Movie



Do you read The Onion? Just read that they have a movie coming out. This prospect looks grim though. According to an article on rottentomatoes.com it has been held for 4 years and is now going straight to DVD. I mean how could you go wrong when you cast Steven Segal as a character named "Cock Puncher?"

The trailer is here.

I wonder if this is the first time a website got a movie?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Pop Culture Collection Auction



Items from what is being billed as the "best pop culture collection ever assembled" will be auctioned off next month in Las Vegas. The collection includes:

  • Gun used by Jack Ruby to kill Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald
  • FBI badge of J. Edgar Hoover
  • A pair of eyeglasses owned by Thomas Edison
  • Helmet used by Tom Hanks during filming of the film "Saving Private Ryan"
  • Jacket worn by actor Brandon Lee when he was accidentally shot and killed while filming "The Crow.
  • Wicked Witch of the West's hat from "The Wizard of Oz."
  • A whip and the holy grail from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,"
  • Sword from "Braveheart"
  • The tag tied to Oswald's toe to identify his corpse and a lock of his hair
  • Jacket worn by Beatle John Lennon in the "Imagine" video
  • The wedding dress worn by pop star Madonna in her "Like a Virgin" video
  • Superman costume worn by Christopher Reeve

Saturday, March 1, 2008

iAno



Check out this video of iAno a piano application for the iPhone.

Google's Grand Central

So considering my last two posts (here and here) I should probably explain what Grand Central is!

Google's Grand Central is a free service that consists of a website and phone system that helps you manage multiple phones, phone calls, call forwarding, voice mail, and contacts.

Here is a quick summary of how it works:

  • You register at GrandCentral.com
  • You tell them your various phone numbers
  • You enter your contact's names and phone numbers into your GrandCentral.com address book
  • GrandCentral.com gives you a real local phone number that you give out
  • When someone calls it GrandCentral.com forwards the call to ALL of your phones (If you are at home answer on your land line to avoid cell phone minute usage).
  • When someone leaves you a voice mail it is saved as an audio file and can be accessed from you phone and in your inbox at GrandCentral.com
They have a ton of cool features including:
  • Manage how and when calls are forwarded (Don't forward work related calls after 6PM)
  • Email notification when a voice mail is left
  • Record your phone calls
  • Different greetings for different callers
  • Different ringback tones for different callers
  • Listen live while callers leave you a message and optionally "pick up" while they are doing so
  • Block certain callers
  • Transfer live calls from one phone to another
The concept is great but there are still a few issues that need to get worked out:
  • It doesn't support forwarding to number with an extension so I can't set this up for my work number.
  • If I make a call from my phone, without using their web application, then my direct (non-grand central) phone number shows up on the other person's caller id. This means people will inevitably get and call my direct number and go around the grand central system. And their web application is not ideal for making calls.
  • Currently every time you get a call you must first speak to a grand central automated system that tells you who is calling and asks you what to do: Press 1 to accept call, Press 2 to send to voice mail, Press 3 to listen in on voice mail, Press 4 to accept and record call. This can be annoying since I already chose to pick up.
  • There is no synchronization between my phone's native address book and the GrandCentral addressbook.
Hopefully the first can be solved by supporting a timed pause. The other issues could best be solved through tighter integration with the phone software. Obviously Google is in a great position to do this since they are leading the development of Android (AKA The Google Phone).

Google Got Me

Google got me! Hook, line, and sinker.

OK, so why would Google give free voice mail to homeless people?

I believe there are three reasons.

#1 - To Do Good
At first glance "voice mail for homeless people" sounds completely ridiculous. After thinking a bit about it though, one can start to see how providing a reliable way for family, doctors and potential employers to get in touch with the homeless could be very beneficial. So lets take this at face value and accept that part of the reason Google is doing this is to perform some positive charity. It does fit in with their reputation and culture of being a good corporate citizen.

#2 - Great Publicity
Giving free voice mail to the homeless is so unusual and counterintuitive that it was sure to generate lots of coverage from traditional news outlets and bloggers. It reinforces Google's positive image and generates publicity around their new service. People are hearing, talking, and thinking about it.

#3 - New Users and More Profits
This will get Google new users which means more advertising and more profits. I'm not talking about homeless users here. I doubt that the homeless are a demographic very much coveted by advertisers. I'm talking about home-full users who have paying jobs and disposable income.

How? Why?

  • Mike reads an article called "Google gives free voice mail to the homeless"
  • The article mentions a Google website / service they are using to help do this called GrandCentral.com
  • Mike is curious and goes to GrandCentral.com
  • Mike reads about their services, thinks it is cool, and registers as a new user
  • Mike starts seeing more Google ads
So minutes after reading an article on voice mail for the homeless I became registered user for yet another Google service and blogged about it to my friends.

Brilliant.

Voicemail for the Homeless?

It is being reported that Google will be offering free voicemail to the homeless of San Francisco.

Some quotes:

  • "would allow someone to be able to fill out a job application, which asks for a call back number"
  • "will allow clinics to share test results"
  • "How do you expect your life to turn around if you can't even get information or if someone can't even get in touch with you?"
  • "Having your family, friends and loved ones being able to say 'here I'm thinking about you, I love you, I want you to know you're mine, and I miss you,' can have a monumental change in one's behavior."

Family Guy Spinoff with Cleveland



Fox is developing a spinoff of Family guy around Cleveland Brown.

From an eonline.com article

the new animated series, tentatively titled Cleveland, will be coming from the same comic minds that brought Stewie & Co. into the mainstream, with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, former Simpsons writer and American Dad exec producer Rich Appel and Family Guy writer-producer, not to mention the voice of Cleveland himself, Mike Henry, on board to write the new show.

There's no word on when Cleveland is expected to hit the airwaves.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull Trailer



Check out the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie.
A higher quality version is on the official trailer page.

Due out May 22.