Walking On Helium

After breaking my leg and ankle (again) a few years back, one of the rehabilitation regimens I started to try to build up strength in the leg was to walk up Mt. Tabor, the extinct volcano down the street from my house. It’s a little under two miles horizontally, and about a 450ft. change in elevation, with most of that coming in the last half-mile or so. Not particularly challenging, but if you tackle it more or less straight on there are a couple of tough bits for the overweight guy with a limp.

Last summer’s construction project and inevitable associated accident put a crimp in my walks, but I finally restarted them this month. The first one took a lot longer than I remember, but today’s walk went pretty well.

In fact, I thought I was doing quite well when — on the downhill return trip — I was slowly overtaking a healthy-looking 13-year-old boy on the other side of Belmont, despite having dropped a table saw on my knee last fall (which doesn’t make downhill much fun). Was pretty pleased with myself until I pulled even with him and saw that he was sucking the helium out of some Mylar balloons he was holding and talking on a cell phone. Maybe he wasn’t walking as fast as I thought he was.


'The Tunnel' reference to Eugene, Oregon

Just about the last place you might expect to see the name of the town you grew up in (at least if you’re from Eugene) would be in the subtitles of a German movie about one of the plots to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in 1961-62, but there it was in an early scene of Der Tunnel, as disabled Italian-American US Army vet Vittorio Castanza explains his rationale for helping East Germans get out to new escapee (and swimming champion) Harry Melchior.

The Trebekinator

I just want my chance to play Jeopardy! before the computers take over.

Computer Program to Take On ‘Jeopardy!’

I.B.M. plans to announce Monday that it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human “Jeopardy!” contestants. If the program beats the humans, the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward.

Under the rules of the match that the company has negotiated with the “Jeopardy!” producers, the computer will not have to emulate all human qualities. It will receive questions as electronic text. The human contestants will both see the text of each question and hear it spoken by the show’s host, Alex Trebek.

Mr. Friedman added that they were also thinking about whom the human contestants should be and were considering inviting Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” contestant who won 74 consecutive times and collected $2.52 million in 2004.

In a demonstration match here at the I.B.M. laboratory against two researchers recently, Watson appeared to be both aggressive and competent, but also made the occasional puzzling blunder.

For example, given the statement, “Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide,” Watson beat its human competitors by quickly answering, “What is Lebanon?”

Moments later, however, the program stumbled when it decided it had high confidence that a “sheet” was a fruit.

Ancient History

Shockwave made a brief appearance (along with Flash) as the spark of the independent gaming market on WNYC’s “On the Media” last week. Hats off to writer Clive Thompson for the props as he brought it up in the beginning of this interview with host Brooke Gladstone:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The innovative spirit that marked the early days of video game development was crushed under the weight of the high-stakes, multi-million-dollar businesses built on the appeal of consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s Wii.

Now independent game production is again on the rise because the geeks want it, the gamers want it, and more recently, as you’ll hear, even giant producers like Microsoft want it.

Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, says that innovation started to creep back into game design, after more than a decade in hiding, about seven years ago.

CLIVE THOMPSON: What happened was that it became possible to do your own game because Flash and Shockwave came along, which are like these little languages for programming something inside a browser. You know, you had tens of millions of people that could potentially play your game, and you could put it online and get it out there for free.

So lot of the young talent started going, well, I’ll have my job where I’m the assistant animator for Scooby Doo Number Four-


– you know, something completely horrible – boring to play, boring to make – and in their spare time they started saying, I’m going to try and design a little game on my own that is going to be played in Shockwave or Flash on a browser. And this was the real first boom, the first flowering in indie video games.

Good, although I’m fairly sure that not even a majority of Shockwave game developers were young or working as assistant animators. But it’s nice to know not everyone’s forgotten Shockwave.

Easy Credit

The Oregonian has a knack for making non-stories about Oregon Senators into front page news, and the latest puff piece to come off the assembly line is Sunday’s article by Charles Pope about how the voluble Ron Wyden supposedly keeps his lip zipped about his work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where he is the third-ranking Democrat.

Lost in the blizzard [of talk about health care, county payments, town halls] is this significant fact: Arguably Wyden’s most important contribution to the nation as a U.S. senator comes from his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a panel with territory that is sprawling, crucial and controversial, but whose members are prohibited from discussing most of their work in public.

Among the intelligence-related accomplishments Wyden is credited with — in a piece that buys into the supposition that everything about the committee is so secret that it can’t be discussed even when an administration is breaking the law and defying Congress rendering it effectively null — is Wyden’s participation in the effort to shut down the Total Information Awareness program proposed by former Iran-contra felon John Poindexter. That effort, however wasn’t initiated by Wyden or any other member of the Intellignce committee. And elements of the program continued to be developed under different rubrics. The article also lists a couple of failed efforts, including the attempt to restrict the CIA from using torture.

What made me laugh, though, was the reporter’s apparent lack of follow-up on a Wyden “win.”

And he led the successful effort to defeat the nomination of John Rizzo to be the CIA’s general counsel. Wyden opposed Rizzo after he refused to repudiate a memo that defined torture as any action that causes organ failure.

Long-time readers may remember back in August of 2007, when Wyden put a hold on Rizzo and he got ink from Jane Mayer at The New Yorker for questioning whether there had been “adequate legal oversight” of CIA techniques. The problem then was that Rizzo had been — according to the International Herald Tribune — “acting general counsel off and on for most of the past six years.” In other words, most of the Bush administration by that point.

I wrote Wyden’s office at the time to ask what would happen if Rizzo didn’t get his confirmation, he replied that he was pleased the nomination had been withdrawn. That, of course, was a month or two before news of the destruction of the recordings that the CIA had of interrogations that potentially showed torture, about which the New York Times had to say this:

In describing the decision to destroy the tapes, current and former officials said John A. Rizzo, the agency’s top lawyer at the time, was not asked for final approval before the tapes were destroyed, although Mr. Rizzo had been involved in discussions for two years about the tapes.

Despite the hold on his nomination and its withdrawal, John Rizzo served out the remaining year and a half of the Bush administration as the acting general counsel of the CIA.

As a matter of fact, according to the CIA’s web site, he’s still there.

April Is the Cruelest Nerd Month

Via Jeff LaMarche (co-author of Beginning iPhone Development) I heard of the death of Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s been a long, long time since I played D&D but news like that really takes me back in a way that’s difficult to describe. This month also means it’s been thirty years since my first-ever professional publication, in The Dragon, the official D&D magazine. That’s a lot of nerd-years.

Song For Tom Friedman

You better top up your suntan

Otherwise your skin is gonna turn to leather

We made a movie in Vietnam

Tax break said “we’re gonna shoot on location”

The rug says made in Korea

Manufactured in a factory using cheap labor

And all over Asia, Third World becoming

a major league player

Mass production in Saigon

While auto workers laid off in Cleveland

Hot Jacuzzi in Taiwan

With empty factories in Birmingham

now it’s Baby boomers in Hong Kong

and Cowboys in Vietnam

Makin’ their movies

You better top up your suntan

Looks like we’re in for heavy weather

Economic meltdown

Nobody said it would last forever

Let’s make a movie in Baghdad

Take the culture right to the Third World

Blow up a brand new Civilization

In the name of Globalization

Big confusion in Hollywood, now it’s

American major league in japan

Hamburger in China, with

Sushi bars in Maine and Boston

The dollar sign said expand, now it’s

Cowboys in Vietnam

Makin’ their movies

Watch out, ride off with your

debts into the sunset

—Ray Davies, “Vietnam Cowboys,” Workingman’s Café


Just got my first quarter statements from my self-employment retirement plans. They have funny names like: Growth Fund of America, Capital World Growth and Income Fund, and Income Fund of America. But there seems to have been a radical redefinition of the words “growth” and “income” lately, because the one-quarter change in value of each fund is -4.15%, -11.0%, and -9.53%, respectively.

Who Coulda Thunk 5?

Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, projecting his own ignorance and lack of imagination onto the rest of the world:

Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack.

Really? Aside from the fact that the Middle East isn’t the only potential source of terrorism (see, for instance, Japan’s 1995 sarin gas attacks; the 1983 hotel bombing and mass poisonings in Oregon by followers of an Indian guru; many acts of terrorism in Europe by Irish, Italian, and German groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s; oh, and the 168 people killed in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh) did Weisberg assume his “Middle East scholars” somehow forget the 1993 bombing of the same New York City complex destroyed on September 11, 2001? Sure, it wasn’t “major” compared to 9/11, but that wasn’t for lack of trying.

Loud With Feeling

Those economic vultures

Stole our dreams and told us tales

Then they towed away our culture

To their depot in south Wales

Corporations get the tax breaks

While the city gets the crime

The profit’s going somewhere

But it isn’t yours or mine

Still we blindly trust in the divine

Let’s sing for the old country

Come on, one more time

And if this should be the last time

I should ever see your face

Let’s part with no hard feeling

And a positive embrace

And I will speak well of you

When they ask if you were mine

Till then the jet stream up above

Shows us the warning signs

Till we meet again bravely walk the line

Let’s sing it loud with feeling

Come on, one more time

Let’s sing for the old country

Come on, one more, one more time

—Ray Davies, “One More Time,” Working Man’s Café