Friday, July 30, 2010

Countdown to Zero (movie review)

This movie is in the process of making it's debut across the land. Physicians for Social Responsibility was giving out free tickets (one of which had my name on it). One wonders if it'll hit the ground running. Unlike a Michael Moore film, it lacks much comic relief, other than the excerpt from Dr. Strangelove. However, the production values are high and many of the latest cinematic techniques are exploited to good advantage.

There's some Philip Glassy type music with slow and fast motion, reminiscent of the Qatsi films and Why We Fight. The weapons-based culture is endlessly eerie and ominous, that underworld or Hades that kills and maims for a living. The root meaning of "terrorism" is deeply rooted in this dystopian (sinful) Hell. Appropriately, one of the previews was for the horror movie (Rec 2) showing later in the same theater.

Count Down to Zero is a quick tour of the dark side, wherein exhausted, suddenly awakened, and/or possibly intoxicated world leaders have only minutes to decide the fate of an entire planet. Surrealism runs high. Every day is another 911, an ongoing debacle somewhere on Spaceship Earth. The energy spent on feeding the planet's "killingry addiction" sets up the conditions for nightmare prophesies to become self-fulfilling, as humans "eat their own dog food" (i.e. reap what they sow).

Subtract the nuclear weapons part (which is unfair, as that's the whole point) and one gets some interesting views of the global ecosystem (economy), with its huge container ships and their amazing docking facilities (the interface to trucking and freight trains). We get lots of ariel views of cities (like on Google Earth), other reminders of our shared cosmopolitan existence (Times Square, other tourist destinations).

The film reminded me of a James Bond movie in that sense i.e. it's designed for a global audience and comes across as "worldly" (even if surreal).

The audience is also being conditioned to accept that surveillance cameras are everywhere, taking us all in. Much of the film plays with this theme of the omniscient voyeur, the anxious eye in the sky, in the subways, looking nervously at backpacks, wondering if they really contain bombs or lead canisters of HEU (highly enriched uranium).

Some of the historical footage seemed in the hard-to-find or rarely seen category, with an assorted selection of exotic talking heads telling esoteric stories about actual catastrophes and/or near misses, flirts with mass death: NORAD goes nuts on a training tape; Yeltsin is faced with pushing "the button" after the Americans fumble the football yet again (with excuses); a stray computer chip starts sending the wrong signals... the list goes on and on (nukes lost overboard, nukes crash in farmer's field...). There's no mention of the "hot line" -- not clear that's believed in anymore (1950s technology).

Speaking of oo7 (Bond), the film is top heavy with spooky CIA types, with Valerie Plame Wilson leading the pack as our anchoring narrator. The physicists seem to all come from Princeton (my alma mater as well), plus there's this Harvard dude (no Yale?). Countdown to Zero is somewhat antidisestablishmentarian in flavor, meaning you're allowed to like it and agree with it even if you're an avid right winger supporting those whom you imagine are running the show (what establishmentarians do for a living).

There are no John Lennon types among the talking heads (disestablishmentarians) although Linus Pauling is shown briefly. The film's aim is to get "we the people" up in arms again, about how ultra-stupidly managed we all are. It's a green light from the authorities to the dutiful rank and file, like "OK you can get upset now" (like the applause light in a game show TV studio). Some in our audience felt patronized, you could tell from the subsequent Q&A.

Even the suits are against nukes. They're hoping more activists will pick up the ball and run with it, because without political pressure, the status quo idiocracy will prevail.

Many of our Portland-based activists were at this premier at Cinema 21, which included a short panel discussion at the end, with mom one of the panelists. She spoke encouragingly of some victories in the 1960s, such as countering the bomb shelter duck and cover craze (so-called Civil Defense), and getting a comprehensive ban on atmospheric testing. Women were in the forefront of that movement, whereas the guys were mostly in "go along to get along" mode (except Pauling, a few other heroes).

The Nussbaums were in the audience, and we compared notes on the sidewalk after the showing, as mom and the PSR director were getting interviewed for a KBOO youth program (Underground).

Another of the panelists was a well-known and respected Iranian activist about town. Although not a fan of the current Iranian administration, he wasn't happy with Plame's axiom that Iran's self evident core strategy was to gain access to the nuclear club, thereby redundantly adding to the 23K arsenal of weapons of mass suicide. The US is always pointing the finger, finding fault with everyone but itself, is/was a prevailing criticism of this film.

What if Iran's plan were to expose nuclear club members as hypocritical, to prove technical prowess without incurring the loss of prestige and credibility associated with being a bully-sociopath -- which is more how the US is coming across these days (a Great Satan), as a front for organized war criminals (working hand in glove with organized religion in many cases).

The idea of an Islamic state leading a jihad to criminalize nuclear weapons, with no exceptions, even while building advanced civilian nuclear power plants, is too far-fetched a plot for most American moviegoers though. The party line in the US is that Iran is out to get even with Israel (in terms of building a nuclear arsenal), not to shame the latter into going along with the Nuclear Free Zone concept ("nuclear free" w/r to weapons, not w/r to electromagnetic power necessarily).

Given the vast majority of nations are still free of enslavement to the global nuke weapon trafficking syndicates (masquerading behind the iconography of sovereign statehood) it's little wonder that many humans long for "the good old days" they claim to remember, when the threat of mass extinction was less of a clear and present danger.

On the other hand, once the nuclear equations start changing, more conventional weaponry needs to be looked at as well, as likewise criminally cruel. Smaller nations cling to nukes as a counter to superpower bullying from New Rome (aka Washington, DC). They want some respect, as Pervez Musharaff makes clear (lots of Pakistanis are "dancing in the streets" in this film, jubilant that now their voice must be heard).

If "little countries" (like North Korea -- mentioned a few times) can't boast of big bombs, will they be occupied and overwhelmed, stripped of resources by those with an overwhelming advantage in conventional weaponry? Look what happened in Tibet (where the director of this film has done another documentary). This movie has little time to address these concerns directly -- perhaps the spawned study groups and teach-ins will address them?

I'd say there's a longstanding and not-so-subtle propensity within the intelligence community (as evidenced by this film) to semi-secretly despise outward weaponry of any kind, as the last and/or first resort of the fraudulently phony and/or unintelligent.

Ian Flemming's concept of "spy as gun toter" has been far more convenient for Hollywood though, in building on expertise inherited from the Wild West shoot 'em up genre. So much of USA culture is about gun play machismo (a flavor of homo-eroticism in many cases).

Still, the "real men don't tote firearms" prejudice runs pretty strongly in more rarefied circles (ala John le Carré), which is maybe why women still make better spies and diplomats (much as they're encouraged to dumb themselves down, to be more like the XYs).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Physics Conference


:: AAPT summer 2010 ::

Instead of OSCON, I was invited to AAPT this year, the semi-annual meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers (all levels). They're meeting at the Hilton downtown, taking over the conference rooms, including two across the street in the executive tower.

I've been bouncing around with Dr. Bob Fuller, made it a few minutes late to his talk this morning, where he yakked about First Person Physics some, even had my name on a slide (woo hoo!). Yesterday, he made a special point of asking to see student project six in a lecture, a Youtube about the Geodesic Dome. This was from Dr. Milner-Bolotin's project, University of British Columbia, wherein students get to make Youtubes about their projects.

Yes, physics teachers are on top of the new tools, way more tools than I'd heard of. Not all of them use Youtube or Facebook, but a lot of them do, and are encouraging their peers to craft an ePortfolio, not just for themselves, but for their courses. I was impressed by the gung ho attitude. Future shock is to be taken in stride.

When one high school physics teacher was asked about the frequent practice of blocking Youtube at the district level, even for teachers, the panelist pulled no punches: start a revolt, she said. Schools can't claim to be institutions of learning if they censor to that degree, are day care centers at best.

Dr. Fuller thinks it's important to tell more compelling stories when setting up some iconic physics situations that are going to yield up a wealth of insights into principles. He is also very supportive of using physics to support life sciences majors. This was a theme of First Person Physics in the form of Dr. Urone's work as well. He was there, showing off the new electronic textbook software behind his latest work.

I know Tara would have enjoyed some of these talks, maybe the one on microscopy especially. The woman delivering that talk, Jennifer L. Ross, University of Massachusetts, came across as one truly brilliant geek. I also watched Duane L. Deardorff, at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, juggle five balls (with some fine physics to go with). The talk on bridge failures, which Dr. Fuller was keen to see (Tacoma Narrows is one of his foci), was likewise engaging. Physicists / physics teachers, are an eclectic and dedicated group.

In terms of state standards, there's already some chafing at being normalized as a Physical Science (like chemistry) as opposed to a Life Science. That's an opposition the AAPT seems eager to deny, as Physics and the Life Sciences are closer than hand-in-glove these days. The human heart kept being a focus. EEGs, MRIs... physicists want to help with the practice of medicine. So having the state standards draw a line in the sand... oh well, there's still room for individual schools to best the standards (they set a floor, not a ceiling).

On the way back (I walked home), I stopped into Lucky Lab and had a meeting with a community college software guy. Their shop rolled its own administrative software, starting with a mainframe running FORTRAN, all home grown. Just as he was leaving, a vendor product raised its ugly head, some political wheeling and dealing forced it down their throats. The old guard was still seeing ways to work around it though, as this product was truly lame. They'd stuff it with data at the end of the day, but from more authoritative in-house sources.

Forgive the shop talk, this was a theme on edu-sig this month.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Finish Line

We concluded our Programming in Python today, with students connecting over the web to fill out their evaluations. Each had a student ID number, specific to Saturday Academy (I also have my instructor number and filled out my own evaluation for later mailing, along with the attendance sheet).

Student achievements were considerable. In just five 2.5 hour meetings, they were able to produce some serious computer graphics while wrapping their minds around an industrial strength, state of the art programming language.

Student Work in VPython

At one point, I was in the odd situation of having sound through the speakers, until I'd engage video as well, in which case sound would cut out. I rebooted and ventured to get some staff support. Within a few minutes, we had it working and I was able to show Warriors of the Net, per usual, which, contrary to reader impressions, is not about cyber-warfare, though you could say it's about cyber-crime to some extent.

Toward the end of the class, I also screened Macro Spitoni's Codeguardian (something I've done in this class previously, as well as at OSCON as a cartoon feature before my talk). What did that have to do with Python?

My usual spiel is to use Python as a means to an end, with the goal being a better understanding of computer animation in two senses: (a) real time game engine renderings and (b) render farm renderings. VPython models the former, POV-Ray the latter.

However, we didn't have POV-Ray going this time, so my reliance on "ray tracing" as an excuse for showing this movie may have seemed a little thin. They seemed to enjoy it in any case.

Spitoni's craft is exquisite in that his camera angles and motions pay homage to the best of that war time genre. The attention to detail is likewise impeccable. I enjoy sharing good work.

A large chunk of the class was spent on the notion of a "generator" in Python, often written as an infinite loop, as these are benign once there's a pause-with-result feature (the purpose of the new yield key word -- not all that new actually, as we've had generators for awhile now, along with "generator expressions" (similar to "list comprehensions" but just-in-time iterables, not pre-computed lists)).

I've shared some of my doings, including source code, on ye old edu-sig at the Python official site. Tim Peters himself reminded me of Pythonic virtues. We'd been doing import this as an easter egg, so having him nudge me back from some stupid blunderings was most apropos.

1, 12, 42, 92, 162...

I talked about Linus Pauling a lot, as the context for our generator was the number series 1, 12, 42, 92, 162..., looking it up in the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. We also did Fibonacci numbers.

Python Generators

I had a chunk of Flextegrity in my bag again, a 12-around-1, plus another model of the same concept (from my considerable collection). We watching the animated GIF on my crystallography page, plus followed the link for the OEIS entry back to my page on the morphology of the virus (icosahedral numbers == cuboctahedral numbers).

Pauling fits in by bringing a strong sense of spatial geometry to his chemistry, discovering many concepts familiar from Euclidean geometry yet made directly from the atoms of Democritus. I mentioned about his boyhood home on Hawthorne (some of these students were about that same age). I also talked about Ava Helen, OSU having her papers as well as his.

It was through the Pauling House that I became involved with Saturday Academy in the first place, I explained, as that's how I came to meet up with Joyce Cresswell, the SA: director who took this school forward from some house at OGI, through basement status at PSU, to its own agency, currently across from the venerable Multnomah County Library downtown (great location).

Gordon Hoffman was also my contemporary. I was happy to see him at David Feinstein's recent talk (at the Pauling House).

I also spent a goodly portion of the time giving my perspective on the development of the Internet, with special attention to http or hypertext transfer protocol. I suggested Computer Lib / Dream Machines by Ted Nelson was by this time a collectible (watch for 'em at Powell's). The birth of the World Wide Web at CERN was a dream come true for many of us, even though smtp, nntp and ftp were already pretty cool.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Teaching Again (and Learning)

I'm back in my teaching clothes, PSU facility, small windowless computer lab with fan, about ten students.

Today was a blast. I showed off Virtualbox, so one student promptly installed it, burned a Linux iso to CD, and hosted this other operating system. Another student brought her Apple laptop and wanted to get VPython working. She was expertly assisted by another student, who even knew where site-packages was hiding (I'd never have guessed it, under "frameworks" somewhere).

That's not to say it's always easy.

Some students get bored when everyone else is looking so busy. I had some geometry toyz strewn about, such as Mag-Blocs and a Yoshimoto necklace of Bites (as in Sytes).

Models in Space

One of my students seems obsessed with the difference between securely random and pseudo-random, knows there needs to be a seed, promptly zeroed in on os.urandom( ) -- which takes a hit off the computer clock or something -- and random.seed. This guy has done some reading.

os.urandom(n)

Return a string of n random bytes suitable for cryptographic use.

This function returns random bytes from an OS-specific randomness source. The returned data should be unpredictable enough for cryptographic applications, though its exact quality depends on the OS implementation. On a UNIX-like system this will query /dev/urandom, and on Windows it will use CryptGenRandom. If a randomness source is not found, NotImplementedError will be raised.

There's no serious need for cryptography in this course, which is geared for beginners, despite some advanced students taking it. However, knowing something about the subject and its history is relevant to many walks of life. We also talked about The Turk (as an "apparent chess playing automaton" -- brave staff), as well as Ada Byron and her role in the advent of contemporary computing. Grace Hopper (USN): also moved us along big time.

Mostly I let them work at their own pace today on self-chosen projects. We've done a long slog through data structures, elementary functions, class/object syntax.

More than a couple turned to Pygame as a possible source of interest. I should find something runnable for the next class. Others have already spent many hours in Pygame. A mixed bag, to say the least.

My thanks to the friendly staff.

Mom got off early this morning, via PDX. Light traffic. Tara has been sharing philosophical observations by text messages:
You know, after reading 1984 I can see connections with Nietzsche. The people in 1984 are like Zarathustra's "last man".

Pretty nifty. I think that 1984 is a portail of what happens if we never become overmen. That's the right plural right? Yeah... Have fun!
She's 15 (about the same age as these students), with Friends in Montana.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Coffee Shop Capitalism

CSN 005

I call it "capitalism" out of deference to Bucky Fuller's meaning: using your own head, doing your own thinking. Even Marx was into that, though he didn't mind borrowing from Hegel here and there.

More doodling today, even while paying close attention in Oversight Committee meeting, a potluck. I'll upload to Photostream. I got a bank loan for this project, but there's been no press about my projects since those two Peter Carlin articles in the 1980s. That's OK, we don't have to rely on The Oregonian for everything.

The idea of charitable giving as a character building exercise is not news to Foundations, but many kids of no privilege don't get to serve as "benefactors" to anyone. They're institutionally defined as being on the receiving end of programs.

This Coffee Shops Network plan puts you, the player, in the driver's seat.

Play a wicked game of Tetris and benefit some Save the Whales group big time, with the blessings of your sponsor. The payload at point of sale originated in the vendor's charitable giving slice in the first place, so you're basically using your skills to funnel funding as you see fit, with the proceeds of future profits or some portion thereof.

You might object this is no more than "Church Bingo" and you'd be correct. That's not an objection though, and our games range through many levels, some serving a didactic purpose (you learn stuff by playin' 'em). If you really just wanna play Bingo... I'm sure there'd be options.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Einstein @ OMSI


This exhibit is largely biographical, although it does make a sincere attempt to explain the science.

What was Einstein's relationship to the Manhattan Project? He wrote that famous letter to FDR, but had no direct involvement in the development of the atomic bomb. He likely wouldn't have gotten a security clearance in the first place. The FBI was tracking his every move, looking for Commie connections. The McCarthyites were on his case. Intellectuals in general were against the wall in those days, as Nazism and hatred of Jews was hardly confined to Germany.

He hated the fact that the bombs were used ("Woe is me" said the poster). He was thinking in terms of deterrence, hoping humans would get their affairs in order with this threat hanging over their heads. Nationalism was a disease, a mental illness. Yes, he wanted Jews to have a safe haven, supported the formation of a Jewish state. He was even offered the presidency thereof, which he wisely turned down. He didn't trust nationalism though, nor the United Nations really, as its components were nation-states. One poster used the word "supranational" (versus "inter" or "trans") for the kind of cybernetics he thought might work.

Einstein suffered from being so intelligent, endured being aboard a Ship of Fools. He wasn't arrogant about his intellect though. On the contrary, he was forever humbled, given his inability to crack nature's most secret codes. He lived modestly in Princeton, used his fame to speak out on the issues. He had a lot in common with Linus Pauling, and indeed the two men show up together on one of the posters, as co-supporters of a peace group. He was a big fan of Mahatma Gandhi, Einstein was.

I don't suppose the exhibit was designed with Oregon in mind specifically, but it was good to see Pauling's name, and to see McCarthy pointing at our state. I permit myself some pride in Oregon, as a way of expressing my own values, in Princeton too.

Earlier, on the Wanderers list, I was continuing to spell out the view that only organized criminals harbor nuclear weapons these days, using nation-state decals as camouflage, a way of dodging the glare. Non-proliferation means aggressively rounding up and dismantling these abominations, with the full support of our fearless leaders.

The USA flag is like an art supply: anyone can wrap themselves up in it. Racists, classists, bigots-- all the usual suspects pose as patriots. It's a masquerade ball. "Takes all kinds" as they say.
Note: a lot of good people take the position that nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity, so anyone harboring them is ipso facto a part of a terrorist organization. Such organizations often hide behind nation-state iconography, like those drug smugglers in Central America, really just mercenaries, but quick to say "working for the government" if caught red handed (not that drugs should be illegal -- it's those hypocritical Puritans who are destroying the planet with their phony self-righteousness, but that's for another thread...).

Friday, July 02, 2010

Partial Recovery

The laptop takes forever to boot (not sure how long, as I was out walking both times). Pathological.

I've added back a Sun VirtualBox containing Ubuntu, got Eclipse Helios going, Pythons 2.6 and 3.1... VFP9.

Too many happenings to catch myself up. More when I get the time, or check Facebook.

Recent polemics:
The fact is, few if any public schools are lifting a finger to get any concentric hierarchy on the map, whereas it's pretty simple to teach and comprehend. This thinking is also a gateway to grand quasi-utopian visions, a strong strand in American literature up to (but not including) the present day. What's pumped out there now is mostly pessimistic "endless war on terror" Orwellian poopka, with a constant drum beat to start a new war (with Iran they hope)
Sounds like NCLB or something. "Concentric hierarchy" includes that Pentagon Math stuff.

Koski has been doing good work on the Archimedean dual honeycombs, conversing about it with Guy Inchbald on the Poly list. Scotts reply to DK was also to Synergeo. This was a high point in this esoteric thread.

My thanks to Trevor Blake for the Youtube below. Thanks also to Joyce Creswell who just phone from her last day at work with Saturday Academy (she's retiring). I encouraged her to visit Wanderers to give us the benefit of some of her insights.