Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Mercury by Ben Bova.

When I first picked up this novel I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had read his book Orion years ago and didn’t really love it even though I had heard it was sort of a classic. But when I came across this paperback book a while ago I thought I’d give him another chance. I was very interested at the time in reading some science fiction in the harder vein. I wanted to stay away from anything that hinted of epic or space opera for a while. This seemed like a nice addition to a universe Bova was creating among the solar system. For science fiction playing in and among the planets of our own solar system seemed downright cozy.

Well, I had the book on the shelf for a while. I picked it up the other day and read it in about four days during my work commute. I was very impressed. This was a solid story told very patiently with enough twists and deep character development to keep it interesting.

Bova takes his time developing the story in such a plainspoken fashion that you practically forget that he’s dealing in millions of miles between the planet Mercury, a space elevator on planet earth, Mars, a moon base and a cargo ship traveling between earth an the asteroid belt. The characters are extremely well drawn, with enough flaws and desires to make you believe in their every intention. The settings are dramatic and involve all the standard science fiction elements of space ships, exotic locales and high technology. The science seems very solid and doesn’t go so far so that it need pages of info dump to explain but when explanation is offered it’s pretty well engrained into the storyline.

There are a few places where Bova has to use fortunate coincidence to move the story along but none where it’s so important to the story that it bothered me for long. The human drama is the center of this story and I have to give it high marks for making the trials and tribulations of the people the centerpiece of the story, including love, mystery and murder.

It’s a good science fiction tale told by what is obviously a master storyteller. I will be picking up his other novels about the planets, including Titan, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. His bibliography seems to be chock full of good books. I may just have found my newest science fiction author.

Buy Mercury (The Grand Tour)

Guest Post on The Grass Stained Guru

I'm really very excited about this. I was invited by the amazing Bethe Almeras to write a guest post article on her brilliant blog, The Grass Stained Guru. Please read and share with other:

The Mighty Crayon

What’s the first thing a kid learns to draw with? A crayon. You may think crayons are the mundane stuff of childhood picture projects or the appliqué of refrigerator faire, but they are much more than that. They are the stuff your imagination was first made of. The humble crayon is the most joyful instrument of a child’s mind. It’s blunt enough so as to not require great skill to master yet subtle enough to produce a masterpiece.

Click to read the rest of the post at The Grass Stained Guru.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Main Street Built Wall Street.

I read this article on the Washington Post website today about how Wall Street bankers are getting obscene paydays but prudent savers around the country are still getting almost zero interest on their savings. The article is titled “Uncle Sam's gift to the prudent saver: Less money” and written by Allan Sloan. Read the article and see below for my response.

Where's the public outcry against this? We've not seen this kind of unbalance in Capitalism between the rich and the poor since the days of the robber barons. This is the conversation we should be having, not shouting matches over fictitious "death panels" and silly congressmen carrying on in sessions of Congress. Seems that the only ones who get riled up when they take a hit to the pocketbook are Wall Street bankers. Then things get done. But let Mom & Pop savers lose 40% of their safe investment income and nobody bats an eye.

I see a lot of people saying that the people who bought houses and used credit cards are getting bailed out. That's not exactly true either. Many people are underwater in their homes because they were advised by mortgage lenders to get into exotic loans to purchase houses that surely would continue to increase in value.

After the market went bust foreclosures are on the rise yet the banker who are supposedly holding the bag on these loans are getting extremely significant bonuses only a year after the bailouts began? Seems the savers and the spenders are being screwed here and the government only put aside enough money to help the big giant banks become zombified yet strangely profitable again. Sure many banks failed and continue to fail but those are the smaller ones, and they may get sold off to bigger "healthier" banks anyway, with the help of the Fed or the FDIC.

So banks are profitable, the Stock Market rallies yet joblessness is at almost 10% across the US. Seems cutting the consumer out of the picture on both sides (workforce and lending) is profitable for corporations, huh?

Obviously banks and business can't cut their way to profitability forever. Funny, I hear all kinds of crying from the right about a "socialist agenda" but I see nothing of that coming to the people of the United States, only the bankers and big businesses.

So much for socialism. I believe the ideal in socialism was for the people to benefit, not businesses. We could use a little of that corporate socialism in health care and jobs for real people please so we can work to live. For some reason our government can't get over the hump of helping companies and get to the work of helping its people.

Main Street is more important than Wall Street any day. Main Street built Wall Street.

Main Street is where the businesses are built that become listed on the stock exchanges of the world. It's the garages and home offices that ideas are hatched and things are still built that become the next big thing. It's where people who go to work everyday pay for the things that fuel our economy. After all our economy is consumer driven and that's not the small percentage of CEOs and executives that get big bonuses, it's regular folks who make modest salaries and buy things like clothes, food, gas, cars and iPods. It's also small business owners who employ people, buy supplies, and service the local economies.

Everyone needs to remember this: Main Street built Wall Street. It continues to build Wall Street and without Main Street, Wall Street will not survive. If we don't start to realize this very soon, things will get worse, much worse.

Buy Wall Street (20th Anniversary Edition)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wall Street Journey

My stop on the subway is at Wall Street. It’s a cliché. You know the “Wall Street” type who gets off at the Wall Street stop and goes to work on “Wall Street” with a “Wall Street Journal” tucked under his arm. I’m not that guy. I just get off at Wall Street station. I walk past all the kiosks selling actual newspapers made from dead trees to Broad Street and the New York Stock Exchange. No. The New York Stock Exchange is not really located on Wall Street. The side of the building is but the big front part you see in pictures with the flags is on Broad Street.

The intersection of Broad Street and Wall Street is a pretty historic place. It’s a stone’s throw down Broad Street to Nassau Street to the New York Federal Reserve building, an impressive piece of architecture in its own right. The building looks like a fortress. But the real thrill is standing at the intersection of Wall and Broad where you can see the giant statue of George Washington in front of Federal Hall. The spot is the place where Washington was sworn in as president and served in various capacities for the nascent U.S. Government. Among them were the first Capitol of the United States, the place where the Bill of Rights was passed, and the first United States Customs House. It’s a monument now. Less famously, I was interviewed by Robert Scoble there for his web show on Building 43.

On my way to work, I usually pause to look up at the exterior of the Exchange as I thread my way around the real Wall Street types, the NYPD armed teams (yes, if you go to the Stock Exchange you will see fully armed NYPD, armored police vehicles and K9 patrols) and the tourists taking pictures in front of the Exchange or Federal Hall to see what big company or sometimes which country has sprung for a humungous flag to advertise on the outside of the building. Otherwise it’s a pretty impressive American Flag. I prefer the patriotic uniformity of the all American Flag motif.

After passing up the Stock Exchange and its security checkpoints to enter the building I take the back way up Exchange Street off of Broad Street up to New Street to my building. Up to the Seventeenth Floor I go where I work as the Director of Online Communications for The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter.

History surrounds my day as I work at a nonprofit helping people with ALS, a disease whose namesake is one of the greatest Yankees to every play baseball, Lou Gehrig.

Some times you get up, go to work and pass by all these great historic places and events and never bat an eye, too busy in your own thoughts or daily routine to notice. Other days you can look up and see that the place where you live and work is surrounded by history. I happen to be lucky to work in one of the greatest cities in the world, whose shape and character constantly evolves over time, but even in the face of great tragedy, we try to both honor the past and look to the future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Making of Star Wars: in Concert

I had the opportunity to preview the half-hour behind the scenes making of Star Wars: in Concert that will broadcast on WLIW21 Saturday, October, 17 at 9:00 p.m. Below is my review:

Star Wars: in Concert promises to be a tour de force (puns intended) of Star Wars music, images and props. WLIW will premier a half-hour behind the scenes look at the creation of the live show. Star Wars: in Concert is like a rock concert for selections of Jon Williams’ music from all six Star Wars films accompanied by specially cut video footage from the movies performed by a full live orchestra and choir. Star Wars theme music has always been a blending of the cool and the classical. Music was as Lucas puts it, “one of the main legs that Star Wars stands on.” In fact, legend says when the first movie was completed—Episode 4 in the maddeningly illogical way Lucas produced the films out of order—the only thing he was really completely happy with was John Williams’ score. Star Wars theme music is instantly familiar to many people, even those who have never watched the movies. (Yes, I know, but they do exist.)

Called by the producer of the event, “a symphonic concert in a rock venue” this traveling show will be narrated by Anthony Daniels himself—what no C3PO suit? Williams chose sixteen selections that he felt identified the thematic musical thread throughout the films. John Williams is arguably one of the most successful and most popular movie theme composers of all time. The list of fantastic and fantastical movie themes you know because of him is long: Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Superman, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter to name a few.

The technical difficulties the producers had to overcome are highlighted in this show. The video editor timed scenes to the music selections and then a 100 piece orchestra and a 30 piece choir had to perform the selections live timed exactly to the film clips. Steve Cohen (no relation even though that's my father's name too), the show producer, points out the difficulty of getting them to “nail rhythmically” the timing live for the video.

In true Hollywood fashion and typical of Lucas productions every detail of the stage has been designed to match the Star Wars visual theme from the conductor’s podium to the laser lights. Star Wars: in Concert was premiered at the O2 Arena in London on April 10 and 11, 2009 and now is on tour.

This special is a good behind the scenes look at the difficulties in bringing together all the components to make the magic happen. To hear the music performed live and see the gigantic images on the screen along with the ability to really come up close to the film props will be an awesome experience and this video will certainly get you hyped up about it. Seems from this video special that it’s going to be an amazing production and I can’t wait to see it performed live.

The Star Wars in Concert half-hour broadcast will air on WLIW21 Saturday, October 17 at 9 p.m. Encore presentations air Saturday, October 17 at 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 18 at 8 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

One more thing. In Lucas’ revisionist mentality, there will be a premier during the live shows of a new, digitally created Yoda for the Episode 1 scenes that originally featured a puppet. I’m not attached to the Episode 1 puppet version of Yoda at all but I hope that he doesn’t then decide to go back to the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to replace Frank Oz’s brilliant original performance of Yoda. They were classic and still hold up surprisingly well, the puppet a well as the voice acting.

The Star Wars in Concert broadcast special also previews the exclusive exhibit of Star Wars costumes, props, artifacts, and production artwork -- many of which are leaving Skywalker Ranch for the first time -- that accompanies the concert tour, which will come to Nassau Coliseum on November 21.

Lucasfilm, STAR WARS™ and related properties are trademarks and/or copyrights, in the United States and other countries, of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates. TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. All other trademarks and trade names are properties of their respective owners.

Buy the Star Wars Trilogy

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Can't A Guy Just Enjoy His Nobel Prize In Peace?

So I wrote the above comment on Facebook and as usual a deluge of my Republican friends' responses followed. Most asked what he did to deserve it. I really had to true answer yet. The comment was my usual tongue-in-cheek status updates that takes a political issue and tries to make a joke about it. Not everyone was laughing. So when people started posting on my Facebook page asking what he did to deserve it, I answered truthfully, that I didn't know and they should read the news to find out. A couple of people didn't like my answer, posting "well, excuse me" type of responses. Granted my tone was a little short. I like debating but can't stand all this Obama bashing.

Seriously, people out there are just getting a wee bit outlandish, considering all that America suffered under eight years of Bush. But I had to respond and after a day it hit me why Obama was so different and possibly deserving of this Prize. Time will tell if Obama lives up to the hype and there will be those who never will admit he either succeeded or failed. History will be the judge. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on the subject if you care at all.

I have to apologize. I thought you were being facetious with your comment. Bear with me here while I explain myself.

First, this is a long response. Most people will probably not agree with it. I could be wrong about everything I wrote here but to paraphrase an old song, it's my Facebook page and I'll cry if I want to. So here it goes:

What I mean is that, nobody knows what was going through the minds of the Nobel committee when they gave this honor to Obama, especially since the voting apparently happens in February, meaning less than a month into his presidency they already decided he should get the Peace Prize. I agree that it seems very odd and weirdly anticipatory of them. To see what Obama has accomplished (admittedly even as a Obama supporter, I have to say it’s not very much since he’s been President for less than a year though I give him kudos for the direction he’s been shifting America in since January) you’d have to follow closely in the news of where he’s been and what he’s been doing and what, if anything, he’s gotten done.

That said, I can only speculate on why they gave him the big prize. We are unarguably the most powerful, freest, richest, and greatest country in the world. We have a system that is flawed but works pretty well for what we have to deal with. For the past eight years we had an administration that did what it thought was in the best interest of the United States of America at the expense of the goodwill of most of the rest of the world. It was a mentality that I argue was highly visible satisfying certain very real fears and urges of Americans, but ultimately cost us dearly. We took the eye off the ball and fell from the high moral ground we had been taking.

By 2008 the world blamed us for a devastating war in Iraq, missing opportunities to quell terrorists in Afghanistan, illegal and embarrassing acts of torture, destroying the writ of habeas corpus and degrading the very principles of our own Constitution—what had made this country great and so powerful on the world stage. You can argue the facts but you can’t deny that the rest of the world turned a very dark eye on the United States over the past 7 or 8 years.

What makes this country so great is that, on a dime, we can in fact turn our political course around, which is in fact what we have just done, with no bloodshed, no violence and no subverting of laws. Obama won a clear victory, a mandate, if you will. In the past 8 or 9 months the President has been traveling the world, addressing people, sending his dignitaries out, giving speeches to the Muslim world and the UN with a clear message that the United States wants to be a respected player on the world stage again, not a feared or loathed player and that everyone is expected to do their part and make hard choices. His message is that great things can come if you stand with America and do the work needed to make peace to rebuild communities.

The trust and goodwill that he’s garnered in such a brief time is building political capital in the countries of the world not seen in many, many years. What he does with this goodwill has yet to been seen. Yes, he may fail but he is taking the country on a path to become a mover on the world stage. It’s clear that the Nobel Prize committee feels that by giving Obama this honor they have given a vote of confidence in his administration and the things that they promise to accomplish. It’s also a clear indicator that the world is ready to look to America to lead it out of the many problems plaguing the globe from economics to terrorism to health and human services.

We’ve been given a huge gift by the Nobel Prize committee and we should accept it graciously and humbly. We should see it for what it is, a commitment by a distinguished body that believes that America can be looked up to as an example to the people of the world.

And that’s all I want to say about that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Are Birthers Vicitms Of "Implicit Social Cognition"?

I read this article in Scientific American titled "Birth of a Notion: Implicit Social Cognition and the 'Birther' Movement." As you can imagine the comments got heated but not too crazy since nobody broke Godwin's Law and called anyone a Nazi. Oh wait, the writer did mention Nazis in the article so maybe that's a good strategy: mention Nazis in the blog post so no crazies start calling others Nazis.

Read the SA post and then come back to read my response.

The reasoning people in the comments section have expressed against the Lipinski/Kwan example is really flawed. One commenter said that if you rooted against Kwan you were labeled a conservative racist but that's not what the writer implied. The example showed how Kwan was label by a supposedly edited and vetted media outlet as not and American. What could have led to this assumption when the facts are easy to look up? (Watch the Olympics and the flag next to the contestant's name easily shows which country they represent.) The point was that a person named Lipinski vs. a person named Kwan made someone in the news organization assume that Kwan was not an American, thus the headline “American Beats Out Kwan” It did not say if you rooted for Lipinski you hated Asians or if you rooted for Kwan you hated the Polish. It simple showed how this assumption was made. It did not in any way make a judgment in that example as to whether the writer of the headline, fact checker or editor was Republican or racist.

In the end this article was about "Implicit Social Cognition" of people who believe the birther argument. Most people don't believe it and if you can argue that it's NOT mostly Southern, White, Conservatives who perpetrate this rumor and believe in it, then I'd like to see that evidence. So while, the opinion piece does draw some strong conclusions about racism using some questionable anecdotal examples, it is hard for any reasonable person to dispute that many if not most or all of the birthers are in fact racist. Otherwise they'd just say, I don't agree with the president of the United States, not question the entire legitimacy of his election based on thin rumors.

I definitely don't agree with the people who say that if you replace "birthers" with "truthers" you get the same logical results since the whole point of the piece is that a minority of people still cling to a belief that seems like an absurdity to a majority of people. I also defer to the fact that this minority is very vocal and gets lots of attention (squeaky wheel theory applies here.)

I think that there is scientific merit to this piece and because it addresses issues that are contentious (especially now with the news of how people are acting in town hall meetings and in sessions of Congress) it brings up intense debate.