Monthly Archives: September 2014

All The Leaves Are Brown And The Sky Is Grey

I looked outside my window yesterday and was greeted by two trees already showing their spectacular yellow color.  Yep, autumn is here already.  It seems a bit early for the colors to change, but I seem to recall thinking in previous years that the leaves were turning later than usual so maybe this is the actual normal.  Remembrances of specific events that happen once a year is a tricky thing to do.  This is partly why it’s so difficult to get people to believe that climate change is happening.  Things happen in gradations instead of all at once.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about colors!  Or colours for the one person in the U.K. that reads my blog.  Leaves change color in the fall.  Duh.  But why do they change different colors?  The answer is science!

Green – You all know this from your basic biology course, I’m sure, but leaves turn green because they’re filled with chlorophyll (a word that I’m sure has denied many a student a spelling bee championship).  Chlorophyll is what plants use to help them absorb light which they use to perform photosynthesis which converts light to energy.  Yes, plants eat light for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Yum!  But chlorophyll is kind of like a mask that hides the true color of the leaves.  In the fall, as trees prepare to hibernate for the winter, the chlorophyll slowly drains away and the plant’s true colors shine through.

Yellow – The “true” color of most tree leaves. Year round, most trees produce carotenoid which is responsible for the vast array of yellow colors you see in trees during the autumn.  During the spring and summer, the yellow color is just overridden by the green of the chlorophyll.  What color of yellow a leaf appears in the fall is a result of differing amounts of carotenoid in the leaf.

Red – Some of the most beautiful trees are those that turn a brilliant red (or purple) color.  Like chlorophyll, though, the red color is due to a special production of the chemical anthocyanin.  Scientists don’t know for sure why anthocyanin is produced in some trees.  One theory is that anthocyanin is produced in because it helps protect the leaves from the light so they can continue producing food for the plant a little while longer.  Another is that it’s a warning sign for insects to let them know that they probably don’t want to choose this tree to live in for the winter.  Many trees that turn red will turn another color after the anthocyanin production stops.

Orange – If you know your colors, you know what’s coming here.  The orange of leaves is a mix of both anthocyanin and carotenoid.  So when you see an orange leaf, you know that there’s a bit of anthocyanin being produced but not enough to override the yellow of the carotenoid.  As with the red leaves, you will often see orange leaves change to yellow before falling off the tree.

There you have it, science!

The Greatest Peacetime Challenge The World Has Faced

Those are the words of the World Health Organization (WHO) director as he talks about the Ebola pandemic in West Africa.  A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but the statistic are shocking: over 6,000 infected and almost 3,000 deaths, across 5 countries.  That may not seem like a lot, but in comparison, all the previous Ebola outbreaks combined do not add up to these totals.  And the scariest thing is this outbreak shows all signs of just getting started.  The WHO predicts over 30,000 confirmed cases by the end of October.  There is also lots of evidence that the number of cases may be underreported by a factor of 2.5 times because of the stigma associated with the disease, among other reasons.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that if this pandemic continues at its current exponential growth, we could be looking at 1.4 million infected by January.

Those are some scary statistics and it’s easy to get worked up in fear over such numbers, but we here in the U.S. are pretty much assured of the outbreak never reaching our shores.  With a modern health care infrastructure, Ebola is fairly easily contained even if a handful of cases do reach us.  That’s been the biggest problem in West Africa this outbreak.  Most Ebola outbreaks were contained in isolated villages, but this one made it into population centers and a combination of slow initial response, poor infrastructure, distrust of Western medicine, and burial rituals which help spread the disease all came together to make this the disaster that it is today.

There is something you can do to help.  I’d recommend donating to Doctors Without Borders.  They do great work in areas that are severely underserved and are doing some top-notch work in this pandemic.

Movie Reiew: A Walk Among The Tombstones

Jean-Pau’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A taut storyline with a high creepiness factor.  Interesting, complex characters and good acting.  A little slow at points and some selective editing would be nice.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is bases off of a book by the same name, which itself is part of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring pseudo-detective Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson).  Matt is a very complicated character and this movie does his character justice.  Some of his motivations don’t quite make sense, but how would you deal with accidentally killing a girl in a shootout?  Getting to know Matt also leads to a bit of slowness in the film, but that is forgivable given how well we know Matt by the end.  We don’t see stuff like this in movies very often and it was a pleasure to witness.

Another pleasure of the movie is how well crafted the storyline was.  Normally, your detective thriller genre movies have these little nagging details that detract from the enjoyment of the movie.  This one had none of that.  Everything seemed to fit in place.  The killers?  Well, they’re just crazy.  How they targeted their victims made sense.  The red herrings that Matt followed made sense.  How Matt finally made it on their trail made sense.  The denouement, if somewhat unsatisfying, also made sense.  What we have here is a very well crafted movie.

The creepiness factor for the movie was also quite high.  Everyone in the movie exudes barely contained violence.  I guess that is to be expected when the villains are a pair of serial killers and the victims are the wives of drug dealers.  But still, it’s rare for a film to find just the right actors to pull it all off.

So why only three stars?  Well, the movie could do with a bit of editing.  There are way too many scenes of Liam Neeson walking, Liam Neeson staring, Liam Neeson searching.  There is also an empathy problem with the movie.  You don’t really feel anything for any of the characters except the homeless black kid with sickle cell, T.J. (Astro?, that’s what his byline named him, apparently he’s an X-Factor contestant or winner or something) whom Matt sort of adopts as his assistant detective.  And I understand that this is a feature, not a bug, but stuff like this works out much better in printed form than on the big screen.

Oh, and as a parting aside, my brother and I were having a discussion about the title of the movie and we both came to the conclusion that the movie should have been called “A Walk AMONGST the Tombstones”.  This, in turn, led do a discussion on whether “among” and “amongst” are interchangeable with the conclusion that, yes, they are interchangeable, but “among” should be struck from the english language because “amongst” is just way cooler sounding.

Ah, Texas, That Bastion Of Gay Rights

Wait, what did I just say?  I think I’m going to chalk this one under even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but it’s still pretty awesome.  And also VERY Texas.

A gay couple decides to have a baby together so they get a surrogate mother, one donates sperm and voila, a baby!  One of the men (the sperm donor) then decides that homosexuality is evil and breaks up with the other and marries a woman.  The newly god-fearing couple then sue for sole custody of the child while the other poor guy just wants joint custody.  This goes on for four years and goes to a jury trial which finally gives the still gay guy full custody of the child!

Texas is apparently the only state in the nation that settles child custody cases by a jury trial.  That’s weird.  Also, the judge had to kick five jurors off the case because they so strongly opposed homosexuality that they couldn’t make a judgement according to the rule of law and evidence.  But still, a Texas jury ruled against a married couple, one of whom is the biological father of the child, and gave sole custody of the child to the still gay father because the jury was convinced that the married couple would not be acceptable co-parents in a joint custody relationship.

See?  Texas got it right!

Ph’nglui Mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh Wgah’nagl Fhtagn

Cthulu has come and he drives a Toyota Camry.

I, for one, welcome our new Great Old One Overlord.

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

A word of warning to those who deign to tackle this book.  Pay attention to names.  They can get confusing real fast if you’re not careful.  There are Ms’s and Mrs’s and more Mr’s than you can shake a stick at.  And all of them have one of three last names.  So you will have Ms. Earnshaw and Mrs. Earnshaw and two Mr. Lintons engaged in conversation and it can be difficult to discern which subject is being talked about/to.  I just made that example up, it is not meant to reflect any actual conversations had in the book.  Now back to our regularly scheduled book review.

I do not know what I was expecting when I started reading “Wuthering Heights”, but it was not this.  Heathcliff is perhaps the most despicable character ever to grace printed paper.  That wouldn’t be so bad, but everyone else in the book is also a fairly horrible human being.  The book is filled with spite and abuse and petty revenge.  In other words, it’s the perfect love story driven to its appropriately mad conclusion.

You may think I’m joking, but every single person is horrible to every other person in this book.  Heathcliff is just better at being horrible than anyone else.  Ok, maybe not every single person.  Edgar Linton is pretty fair to his daughter Cathy and much of his poor treatment of Cathy can be construed as mere fatherly protection.  But horrible people need to fall in love too.

Here’s the basic story.  Heathcliff, an adopted member of the Earnshaw family who is treated contemptuously by Hindly Earnshaw, who goes a bit crazy after the death of his wife, loves Catherine Earnshaw who loves him back but decides to marry Edgar Linton because he’s more upwardly mobile.  They have a child, Cathy, before Catherine dies.  Heathcliff, angry at both the Earnshaws and the Lintons, goes away and makes a fortune.  Heathcliff returns and gets the alcoholic Earnshaw to grow so indebted to him that when Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff inherits Wuthering Heights and continues to treat the entire household contemptuously.  Revenge plan one, successful.  Meanwhile, in order to get back at the Lintons, Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton who, for some ungodly reason, is infatuated with Heathcliff.  His horrible treatment of Isabella drives her away to London where she raises their son, Linton, and soon dies.  Edgar attempts to take Linton under his wing, but Heathcliff immediately takes ownership of his son.  Heathcliff then plots to marry off Linton to Cathy and is successful by kidnapping Cathy until she agrees to marry Linton.  Edgar dies.  Linton dies.  Heathcliff inherits Thrushcross Grange.  Revenge plan two, successful.  While this is going on, there is this horribly messed up flirty thing going on between Hareton, Hindly’s son who Heathcliff raises as a servant, and Cathy.  Hareton and Cathy fall in love.  Heathcliff dies.  The end.

Everything in between what was stated in the plot outline above is people behaving badly towards each other.  There is lots of madness and lots of early deaths in all the families associated with this book.  I blame inbreeding.  I wonder what Emile Bronte’s life was like where she was able to come up with a tale like this.

There were parts of the book that I found engrossing and parts that I just found tiresome.  It is an interesting study on love gone horribly wrong and delves deep into the depths of human depravity.  Which is pretty cool.  I was taken a bit aback by how suddenly and unfulfillingly the story ended.  Man, did I want Heathcliff to die a horrible death, but he actually dies happy.  Mad, but happy.  This was so disappointing.  I would have been happier if it ended with “And Heathcliff lived happily ever after.”

Whither Scotland?

I really don’t have much to say about the subject, I just think that anytime you can find an excuse to use “whither” in a post you should take it.

Scotland is voting for independence from the United Kingdom today.  This makes Scotland the first country in decades to not be bombed into independence by the United States.

There are lots of good reasons for independence and lots of good reasons for remaining in the union.  The best reason for Scotland going its own way is that Scotland’s official animal is the unicorn.  It’s even on their seal.  We totally need more unicorns on flags.  There is also the fact that England treats them like the red-headed step-child of the family.  Hmm, I wonder if that term actually came from England’s treatment of Scotland…  As for staying, Scotland is basically the left wing of Parliament.  If Scotland leaves, it would make the United Kingdoms veer more heavily to the right than they already are.  There’s also the whole “your economy will collapse if you leave” thing, but you know, whatevs.

The economic question is actually quite interesting.  Scotland has oil, but all signs point to it already being past its prime in oil producing capacity.  There’s certainly enough there still to help it through the initial hard times they are likely to encounter once they go independent.  Then there’s the currency.  What do they do there?  Stay on the British Pound?  Unlikely.  You don’t want your economy to be tied to the currency of the lover you just spurned.  Go with the Euro?  A better choice, but still there’s the whole not having control of your own currency problem.  Create your own currency?  If they are going to have unicorns on it, yes!  Being able to control your own currency is very important in riding out economic hardships, but Scotland’s not terribly large and there’s the danger that the international community could sink the new currency.  It’s not an easy choice.

Whichever Scotland chooses, I wish them the best.  They’ve gotten short shrift for too long.  I, personally, hope they stay because of the whole England turning righter than the Republican party thing.

More Ideas In Radical Democracy

When last we left our hero, he was definitively solving the problem of elections in the United States.  You’re welcome.  Today, I’d like to talk about another serious threat to Democracy: Capitalism.

Now, before you get all bent out of shape about how Capitalism is awesome and is responsible for a lot of the inventions and progress we as humans have made so far, let me say that I agree with you.  Mostly.  There should be a very fine dividing line between Capitalism and Government if a Democracy is to thrive.  Capitalism has a way of perverting Government to the point where the wants of the few end up outweighing the promotion of the general Welfare our Constitution calls for.  Much of this perversion comes from the outlandish amounts of money corporations can throw at our politicians.  It is high time for a partial schism between Capitalism and Government.

Corporate taxes should be 0%:  Corporations should not pay taxes on income.  Other taxes would still apply.  This, like most other suggestions that will follow has to do with keeping corporations as far removed as possible from governmental activities.  It would also require a restructuring of the individual income tax system and would require all individual income to be taxed equally and would necessitate more high income tax brackets to make up for the loss in corporate taxes.

Corporations should pay for everything an employee needs:  Corporations will pay a salary of some sort.  They should also have to pay a stipend for any activity or expense an employee might run into during employment hours.  Dress code?  Corporations pay for it.  Lunch hour?  Corporations pay for it.  On the job injuries?  Corporations pay for it.

Corporations are not people:  Corporations should not be given personhood.  Given various Supreme Court rulings qualifying corporations as people, this will likely require a Constitutional Amendment.  And speaking of the Constitution, the Constitution should not apply to corporations.  They are simply a governmental creation which is entitled to the rights that the government allows them to have.  So there should also be a Corporate Bill of Rights.

Money is not speech:  This is probably one of the biggest ones.  Again, given various Supreme Court rulings, this will likely require a Constitutional Amendment to fix.  The government makes the money.  The government distributes the money.  The government can dictate where and how the money can flow if it so chooses.  Yes, this means that the government can force you to buy health care or broccoli.

Governmental regulations still apply:  Yeah, these aren’t going anywhere.  The government still has a huge part to play in keeping its citizenry safe and corporations are by far the largest malefactors in that.  Water, air, land, it’s all worth protecting and we can not rely on corporations to protect it.

Have we achieved nirvana yet?  I can’t solve all the world’s problems myself.  What are your ideas?

Movie Review: No Good Deed

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Interesting premise with poor execution.  The surprise twist is somewhat far-fetched.  Idris Elba is still pretty awesome.

If you go to see this movie, pay close attention to Idris Elba’s face.  A difficult task, I know, especially for the ladies.  This is especially true during the intro scene which shows convict Colin Evans (Idris Elba) facing a parole board after serving five years for manslaughter after killing a man in a bar brawl, but we also learn that he was suspected, but never tried, of killing multiple women too.  The parole hearing seems to be going well, one of the guards seems to be on his side and he gives a nice speech to the board members.  Then one of the members starts talking about Evans’ past and comes to the conclusion that Evans is a malignant narcissist.  As the man is talking, you can see Evans’ cool exterior slowly crack until he bursts out an objection.  His parole is denied.

Evans then makes a beeline for his ex fiance.  It is at this point that I know we are in for a bad movie.  An escaped convict who murdered two guards then proceeds to stalk his ex and no police think to stake her out?  Unlikely, to say the least.

Evans eventually falls in to meeting Terri (Taraji P. Henson) after crashing his car in a rain storm.  The two have a very spooky dynamic together.  I am not familiar with Taraji P. Henson, but she seems to be a person to watch.  I’d love to see her with better material.  We know Evans is a killer, but he’s all Mr. Nice Guy with Terri.  He opens up to her and her friend Meg (Leslie Bibb), but once again his exterior cracks when Meg calls him on a ridiculous lie while they’re catching a smoke together.  Again, a danger sign.  The ridiculous lie used to move the story forward because the writer couldn’t come up with a good way to transition to the next act.

The rest of the movie from that point on is your typical maniac horror movie.  You have Terri almost escaping only to be caught again by Evans.  Hit him once.  Run away.  Get caught.  Hit him once.  Run away.  Get caught.  We eventually get to a surprise twist that is laughably unlikely given the personality of Evans, but the movie has to be named “No Good Deed” for some reason I guess.

As an interesting side note, the theater was surprisingly full and was majority Black.  I think it goes to show how much of a dearth of films featuring primarily Black actors there is and how much demand there is.  Come on, Hollywood, give the viewing public what they want!  Only make it a better movie than this one.

My advice to you is to skip this movie and go watch Idris Elba in “Luther”, another fine BBC show.  Or “The Wire”.  I’d also give advice on seeing Taraji P. Henson in something other than this movie, but I haven’t seen her in anything else except the recent remake of “The Karate Kid”, but I don’t really remember that movie.

Rediscovering i

No, this is not going to be a post about me reacquainting myself with my inner child.  This is going to be a post about imaginary numbers!  Yay!

Yesterday, during a conversation with friends, we somehow got onto the topic of i.  I know what you’re thinking, how can you NOT have a conversation with friends and have the topic turn to imaginary numbers?  Am I right?  You remember i, right?  i = \sqrt{-1}?  Of course you do!  We were trying to remember what i^2 equaled.  Having worked with imaginary friends much more recently than I’ve worked with imaginary numbers, I was leaning towards i^2 = 1.  A friend, who happened to be a math major in another life, was leaning towards i^2 = -1.  Neither of us were confident in our answer, though, so I did what any smartphone wielding dork would do and looked it up.  Yeah, i^2 = -1.  Never doubt a math major.  About math.  Doubt them about everything else because they thought it was a good idea to be a math major.

This whole exercise, of course, got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects; how we teach our children.  Given the way we learn about squares and square roots, it would be perfectly natural for someone to think that i^2 = 1.  After all, we have it drilled into our heads that the square of any number results in a positive number.  I had that in mind when I was leaning towards i^2 = 1.  I remembered enough about all the stuff that we were taught were rules that turned out to be more like generalizations to be unsure that I was right, but someone who was never exposed to imaginary numbers would likely encounter a cognitive dissonance that would be difficult to overcome after years and years of believing one thing.

So why don’t we teach children about imaginary numbers immediately?  We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of how to figure out that i^k = i^{k\mod{4}}, but it sure would be nice to stick something into the back of those sponge-like minds that there are these things called imaginary numbers that they may run into someday that don’t fit the mold that is being taught.

The big problem, of course, is that we teach children individual things and we require them to understand that one individual thing as quickly as possible.  If you can’t add two numbers together after second grade, you are a failure.  If you can’t multiply two numbers together after third grade, you are a failure.  Our standardized tests show it to be true.  Nonsense, I say.  I cannot count the number of times I attempted to learn some math subject only to have it make complete sense after something in another subject made the pieces all fit together and I would wonder why these discrete pieces weren’t taught together as part of a whole.  We need to stop teaching children answers and start teaching them solutions.

Today, we teach kids that 123 + 321 = 444.  Add the ones and carry the remainder, then add the tens and carry the remainder, then add the hundreds and carry the remainder.  It works, but it’s not getting kids intimately familiar with numbers like they need to be if they want to succeed in more difficult subjects.  Kids need to learn that numbers can be split apart and replaced and moved around using a set of very simple rules.  Yes, 123 + 321 = 444, but it also equals 100 + 20 + 3 + 300 + 20 + 1 = x + 300 + 20 + 1 = x + y = 444.  I don’t think things like this are too difficult for the second grade mind to be able to grasp even if it takes them years more to fully grasp the implications.