Saturday, December 27, 2008

See Dick Sing. Sing, Dick, Sing!

Video games are often derided as the agent of laziness that are turning the brains of today's youth to mush. Some people, usually those who play videogames, attempt to defend viedeogames in a variety of ways. Some games have a certain amount of educational value. There are many successful programmers who grew up in front of their Ataris or TRS-80s. The increasing complexity of some games has allowed the defense that a military career may be a logical next step for the budding virtual special ops practitioner.

To these ideas we can add "helping Johnny read." Motivation being a primary component of effective learning, kids who are motivated to succeed at a videogame can achieve surprising results. For Christmas this year, we added Rock Band to our house of toys. The game allows up to four people to live out their Lizard King fantasies by playing and singing real rock songs in a videogame format. The vocal portion is essentially a karaoke machine. It is a non-trivial exercise for a little kid to keep up with the words scrolling across the screen, however. For the subset of wannabe rockers who are barely beyond the "Green Eggs and Ham" stage, song lyrics at tempo is a significant challenge. However, the urge to rock is strong.

This primal impulse is what leads seven year olds to warble, with great concentration, "I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride ... I'm wanted...dead or aliiiiiiive."

Thank you, Mr. Bon Jovi, for helping my son learn to read.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in The City

There is nothing quite like Christmas in a big city. Or so I've heard. I grew up in the suburbs, and lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 or so years, so I wouldn't know. Los Angeles is a big city, but it has no heart.

On the other hand, San Francisco, for all its looniness, is a world-class city on a par with any on the East Coast or Europe for its sense of an identifiable center. Christmas brings out the best in The City. It is lit beautifully, the many stores are brightly decorated, and, most importantly, it is alive with people out to experience the season.

We took advantage of our newfound proximity this year to spend an evening taking in the scene. We took BART to the Powell Street station, where the cable cars turn around to take tourists up the hill toward Union Square. We walked up to Union Square ourselves, where we watched people ice skate and take pictures by the huge Christmas tree:

We took a look at the chocolate castle at the St. Francis Hotel:

We had dinner at a festively decorated diner around the corner (my limited local knowledge came in handy):

Christmas is a time that is marked by busy-ness as much as anything else, so it was a treat to take some time to soak up the celebration of the season.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Flawed Soul of a New Machine

It bears repeating, and shouting from the mountaintops, that Top Gear just may be the best show on television, let alone the best car show by orders of magnitude. Not only is it on BBC America several times a week, but it is also one of the most heavily downloaded shows in the world. For those of us in the U.S., downloading is the only way to see the current series, as BBC America is currently showing episodes that are one or more series in the past.

[If you have any interest in seeing the most recent episodes, let me know. I, um, might be able to suggest ways to find the new shows.]

The biggest delight of Top Gear is usually the sheer lunacy of the contests the three witty hosts engage in, the way only clever Englishmen can do it. The most recent Top Gear, though, broadcast last Sunday night, was journalistically unusually hard hitting. Top Gear conducted what must be among the very first full tests of the much-celebrated Tesla electric sports car. The Tesla, based upon a modified Lotus Elise chassis and built here in the Bay Area, has generated (sorry for the pun) a lot of publicity in the several years of its gestation. Hollywood celebrities have enthusiastically plunked down the requisite $100,000 to be the first on their blocks to have one.

The Tesla, for all of its high wattage publicity (pun again, sorry), has not had a smooth trip to market. The car has undergone a number of developmental problems. The most significant design issue has been with the transmission. The original two speed gearbox proved to be unable to handle the considerable torque of the electric motor, so production Teslas leave the showroom with a single speed gearbox (albeit connected to a motor that can spin upwards of 13,000 rpm). Rumors have also dogged the Tesla program that the car's range was nowhere near the 200 miles advertised.

The Top Gear boys put the car to a proper test, the first I can recall seeing anywhere, print or otherwise. The car proved to be extremely quick, dusting the Elise in a sprint. However, the tradeoff in the considerable extra weight of the batteries (and high-efficiency, non-sporting tires) revealed itself as the Tesla slewed about the handling course. More significantly, after some enthusiastic driving, the car came to a dead halt ... in 55 miles. While that car underwent its 12 hour charge, they brought out another one to continue the test. It stopped with an overheating motor within a few minutes. After charging, the first car was brought back out, whereupon it promptly suffered a brake failure.

As a new car maker on the world stage, trying to forge ahead with new technology amid plenty of politically correct hype, the Top Gear review was devastating. Not by anything the hosts said, but by the way the car performed under real, albeit heavy, use. The car exhibited a lot of failure for $100,000.

Later, the show demonstrated a better way forward. One of the hosts made a rare trip to Los Angeles to sample the Honda FCX-Clarity, a remarkable car in very limited release. Also an electric car, it is powered not by heavy and environmentally disastrous batteries, but by a fuel cell powered by compressed hydrogen. With a range of at least 200 miles, emissions consisting only of water, and refueling taking only the usual couple of minutes, the host made the salient point that cars like the Clarity are likely the best bet for the future because they are the most like the present. No overnight charging, no hazardous and heavy batteries, and quick fill-ups make for a consumer-friendly product. If Honda can convince energy companies to enlarge the distribution chain for compressed hydrogen, a real paradigm shift may take hold in the automotive world, one that even car enthusiasts could embrace.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Fullest Full Moon

If you have clear skies in your area Friday night, be sure to draw the shades if you want to get any sleep. The full moon on Friday will be larger than usual, because the Moon's elliptical orbit will bring it to its closest approach to the Earth this year.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Remembering the Dawn of an Era

Forty years ago this week, the Stanford Research Institute demonstrated a machine that was the progenitor of the computer you are using right now. It had a visual display interface, a mouse, and could connect with other computers miles away. Given that the typical computer of the day took up much of a room, was controlled with punch cards and gave its output in printouts, the new machine was a quantum leap forward. It took more than a decade for all of the innovations shown that day to be put to widespread use, but the die was cast, and the world changed forever.

If you want to see the original 1968 presentation, click through to the Stanford site for the video.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Diamonds in the Sky

The stars truly will be aligned tonight. Or rather, a couple of planets and a moon. If you have clear skies this evening just after sundown, don't miss the show to be put on by Venus, Jupiter and Earth's crescent moon, which will be in rare close proximity to each other (as viewed from the Earth, anyway). We saw a preview last night; the kids thought it looked like a very long happy face in the sky.