Thursday, September 18, 2014

Star Wars Episode VII

My infatuation with Star Wars is part of my early geek identity. Still a teenager, I was very early to the party -- so to speak. Saw an early screening in San Francisco and used the semi-glossy program from the premiere to show all my friends to round up a group to go see it.

You've heard it all before: it was madness. No one had ever seen anything like it.

Since Jurassic Park in 1993,  computer graphics (CG) make the impossible possible. Sort of. The human brain is so good at picking up subtleties in movement, shadow detail, reflection, color, etc., that even though your conscious mind can be fooled, the subconscious isn't. That subconscious mind is the main tap to our emotions, and if our emotions aren't engaged, our disbelief isn't suspended. The movie doesn't work.

Very few filmmakers seem able to make things look realistic enough to suspend the audiences disbelief enough to get us viscerally involved. You know this feeling more often than not, finding yourself in a near catatonic state as the on screen calamity takes on an increasingly unrealistic sheen that distances, keeping us from caring about what happens next.

Which is why some filmmakers are returning to good old set-building, model-making, animatronics, and other old-school film techniques, alongside computer graphics, to keep today's audiences engaged.

J.J. Abrams is one of the new breed of filmmakers, using the entire cinematic toolbox on Star Trek and Star Trek into Darkness. He's upping the ante on Star Wars: Episode VII, using partly-built full sized props, along with CG to keep us believing. The X-wing in this video from YouTube is partly built, but the engine, wing and struts are CG. I can't tell the difference. At least, not yet. Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reefer Madness!

As Captain of a large 44 ton vessel, I don’t smoke Pot, and I have to be regularly drug tested by the Coast Guard, so I won't be able to smoke it in the future. But in the past, I've imbibed on occasion. When I say occasion, I'm saying several times a year and only a hit or two. So you can imagine that I was very concerned when this was blasted across Facebook, Twitter, and the front page of almost every news source on planet Earth:

Occasional Light Use of Marijuana Damages the BRAIN FOREVER!!!!!

I panicked because the first thing I do is believe everything I read in the news, and then I run around like a turkey spewing blood everywhere from the place on my neck where my head just popped off. Then I post my pre-formed opinion from reading the news article that supports everything I've been saying for years. Yeah I did that, and then I had wild, hot, soulful man sex with George Clooney, and then James Franco dropped by my ultra-cool pad and they made me the meat in their Star-f*ck Sandwich... Oh... sorry that was my marijuana damaged brain talking. Yeah, that didn't happen.

For most of my life, I've been surrounded by really, really smart, successful people. My friends and associates are scientists, engineers, intellectual property attorneys, doctors, psychologists, artists, filmmakers, architects, writers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Owing to this, I live in constant fear that one day at one of my frequent dinner parties, the conversation is going to flow toward something that I know absolutely nothing about and I'll be exposed for the idiot that I frequently suspect I am. So I read constantly, between 50 and 100 books a year, everything from a few likely prize candidates from each of the Pulitzer, Man-Booker, National, Hugo, and Nebula Awards to the latest New York Times bestseller list, often slurping up a juicy biography or memoir for dessert late at night. I'm usually prepping a project like a script for a Civil War biopic about Clara Barton for DreamWorks, or my current project: a script about an inter-racial couple driving a VW MicroBus from Long Island to Berkeley in the late spring of 1963. So for the past year or so, I've been studying the American Civil rights movement of the mid 1950's to early 1964. I'm devouring approximately twenty books on that subject, everything from Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize winning, Parting the Waters  or Interracial Intimacies, by Randall Kennedy, and Rebecca Walker's Black, White and Jewish. On top of that, I spend at least 12-14 hours a week reading from major newspapers, again mostly Pulitzer prize winning sources. No garbage, definitely nothing owned by Rupert Murdoch, the most garbage producing information source on the planet. That means no Fox News and the Wall Street Journal gets a huge amount of fact checking from multiple sources.

What I'm leading up to here is that I love a good argument with a well informed opponent. I love the back and forth of passionate debate and the enlightenment I gain from the process. This runs counter to our dumbed-down culture in this country where the majority of folks cannot stand the scrutiny of fact checking, and when debated, turn to hurling insults or turn away in sullen anger, stewing privately forever.

My spouse of 27 years, Michael Shuster is a neuroscientist that was part of Eric Kandel's Nobel Prize winning team of neuroscientists at Columbia University, so I noticed that the Marijuana study was posted in the 10th most prestigious Journal of Neuroscience. I know that Journal. My husband and a friend Jon Levine have published together a few times in that journal. What I've learned from science is that a result from any study has to be replicated time and again by other teams of scientists for that finding to be accepted as fact. So far, no other study has corroborated that occasional marijuana use causes any damage to the brain.

What does the data in this study actually claim? It claims that it's slightly possible that a group of twenty users had some very small changes to the shapes and size of a few portions of their brain. Oh, and these were not occasional users.

Looking more closely, the twenty subjects smoked between 10 and 30 joints a week. Think about this. That's four hours of being high from a whole joint ten times per week. A recreational smoker might take a few hits and pass the joint along, or stub it out and take a few hits on a another day. Pot these days is really strong, so that's enough for a light user. A whole joint is going to get you extremely high, so that you can't really do much but sit around and watch TV, or more than likely you're just going to nod off and fall asleep. But these users were high for the same number of hours that they're working, assuming a forty hour work week. These are professional smokers, not occasional users as the study's language proclaims, and that's the lowest use group. The others used twice to three times as much! The group that smokes 30 joints, they're pretty much high all the time. That's enough for me to question the peer review policy of the Journal. That's an obvious screw up, allowing for the dishonest, misleading title and shoddy analysis.

Weekly alcohol consumption among the tokers was twice the amount of the non-tokers, and alcohol consumption has a well known causative affect on the brain. This is another shoddy example of the study design. The study buries this fact in a short sentence:
Early exposure to alcohol may have also affected brain structure.
So, what they've downplayed here is that they selected to look at the brains of users who, as children,  drank 5-6 alcoholic beverages per week. The non-tokers were not childhood users. The scientists stacked the deck with unequal control subjects.

Unlike the many newspaper headlines, the study itself say says nothing about damage, either. The word used is "brain morphology" or "brain structure", but compare the language used in the study:
The study demonstrates that different aspects of brain morphology may be affected by cannabis.
 Now compare the claims made by Hans Breiter, the studies' principle investigator, when interviewed by the Washington Post:
People think a little recreational use shouldn't cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.
Breiter claims that the subject's brains were adversely affected yet the study itself says nothing of the kind. Breiter is inferring a negative effect when for all we know, the affect may be highly positive. Neither can be proven by this one study. And the study says exactly that:
This preliminary study has several caveats. First, the sample size does not provide power to examine complex interactions... .Because this is a cross-sectional study, causation cannot be determined.
This again refutes Breiter's claims.

There is one surprise that I found buried in the data. I'm not a biostatistician but when I looked at this Figure:

I saw something that they missed. Note the control group 0, and compare their data set with the data set of the lightest user group 1. These two group's data sets are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Saying it another way,  there is no difference between the brains of the lightest users and the non-users. This is the exact opposite conclusion from the same data.

You may make your own conclusions from the study. What I conclude is that we deserve better science done by unbiased scientists, whose political motivations are beyond question. We also deserve a better press whose reporting accurately captures the critical limitations of small preliminary forays into controversial subject matter. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

building the Jetsons house of the future! Part I

Let's not even START with what became of the flying car! Oh, but we have the Hybrid. The official car of smug: The Prius, you say. Really? It's the AMC Gremlin hatchback of the new millenium. It's slightly less environmentally friendly than a Hummer, and their drivers are so busy patting themselves on the back that they have become known as the second most dangerous driver on the road, unless texting while driving, when they become The Professional Asshole's Death Car from Hell (My apologies to the many, many wonderful Prius drivers who defy this convention by being courteous and thoughtful).

Ok,  so we have made some strides with the Leaf, The Chevy Volt, and the Tesla, but they don't fly. Well the Tesla does, kinda.

So back to the Jetson's future. A house gleaming with lots of windows, humming with automation, high up in the sky, beckoning to a bright and shiny future... that never came. Almost.

A view of the old kitchen
Ten years ago, it began to dawn on my husband and me that the beautiful 1860's Victorian we'd lived in since 1989 was killing us slowly with toxic mold and asbestos. Our life savings were being slowly bled to death by $500.00 a month heating bills, windows and doors that wouldn't seal or close, a decaying and crumbling edifice, and the persistent repairs that a century and a half old wooden shack covered in gingerbread was in need of.

 We hired a well known and respected architect to help us design and build a modest, modern-on-the-inside home. After seven years of meetings and writing checks to the architect, we still had no final plans or permits. I decided that I needed to move back from Los Angeles full time and supervise on a daily basis. After a few more months of little progress and many missed meetings by the architect, I suspected that perhaps he had a substance abuse problem.  A few phone calls to the planning department and to a few members of the architect's family and I had my confirmation: my architect's abilities were being eroded by his addiction to methamphetamine. Lovely.

I immediately fired him, my husband filed a lawsuit which we easily won, and wondered how best to proceed. We had spent our budgeted amount on architect's fees and we couldn't afford to start over with a new one since the lawsuit winnings weren't enough to be made whole. A bold move needed to be made: I would take charge of the design and would hire my ex-architect's talented associate, Andy Rodgers to do the technical work and drawings -- a collaboration of mutual respect for each other's design sensibilities, with deference to Andy's experience and hard earned knowledge. For an experienced mentor I asked an award winning architect and builder, Jim Zack of Zack/Devito Architecture to help advise me through the transition.
Another view of the old kitchen

I hadn't been idle over those seven years. I had read dozens of books on architecture and design, learned many of the complex and arcane rules of San Francisco's building code, and had become very knowledgeable of mid century modern architecture while in Los Angeles. I had learned a lot about green building technologies and practices, including LEED certification levels. I had already been an expert on home automation, home theater and whole house audio and video integration for two decades and I'd had many years of experience doing my own remodels of the various places I'd lived in.

We wanted to rethink what had been done before, yet keep some of the original in front. Since the house was listed as a "Historical Resource", The front must be kept as is with the exception of a garage being allowed. The top floor addition would require a setback from the front, comparable to what the neighbors were allowed, though the Planning Department would fight for an additional setback, essentially penalizing us for waiting to remodel when our next-door neighbor had built dangerous additions for years with no permits. To balance this inequity, the city would waive our 25% required green space/yard, but we didn't want to encroach on our neighbors gardens, essentially blocking light and air. Also, it would set a dangerous precedent that would encourage others to build out further as well. We love having green space around us and have always kept a lush, but well manicured garden in back. So we started looking for solutions to make the top floor setback make sense.

This being a 21st Century remodel, we wanted to rethink everything. Nothing but the front exterior had to be what had come before. Everything was open to reinvention. The wish list...

Green or LEED Compliance
Windows need to be double paned. Insulation should be as efficient and as environmentally friendly as possible. That means maybe several different types depending on the application or need. Automation to reduce electrical use. Solar where possible. Natural cooling through well designed ventilation. Radiant heat throughout. Use locally manufactured materials whenever possible.

Think 50-100 Years
What design trends have lasted? What materials will last? What companies/suppliers have been around for a long time. Remodeling means waste. Who wants to have to redo a bathroom or window when you're eighty-five?

Banish the Cave
Let in the light... EVERYWHERE. No dark cramped bathrooms, either. Use skylights, transoms, floor to ceiling windows wherever possible. Use glass in stairs or even floors to transmit light.

Swinging Doors = Wasted Space
Pocket doors would be used wherever possible.

Kitchen is the Heart of the Modern Home
How many parties end up in the kitchen? We realized that nearly 100% of the parties (dinner or otherwise) we'd ever attended in peoples homes always ended up in the kitchen. So put the kitchen in the geographic center of the home, and open up the space around it. Not a big change from the somewhat modern idea of the "Great Room", but a more functional version of that, keeping the kitchen the center, not a nook.

Professional Open Kitchen
I've been cooking since I was five, and Michael would rather watch PBS cooking shows and Food Network than anything else, so you know we had to do this up. We have many friends who cook for a living, so we needed lots of room for workstations. so a good kitchen design was crucial.
Completed kitchen

Cabinets to the Ceiling
In our old kitchen, the tops of the cabinets were used for houseplants, oversized vases, and DUST. When I see a cabinet that stops shy of the ceiling, I think, "What's hiding or crawling around up there." Sorry about that. Now you will too. Creepy, no? That's unused space for storing stuff! Cover it up to keep it clean and use some of that space that is going to waste.

Lots of Storage
Built in cabinets or closets that look beautiful in every room, extending to the ceiling. Buy stepladders if needed and provide cabinet space to store them.

Sinks, Sinks and more Sinks
Life is messy, you need easy access to sinks. Couples waiting for each other causes friction, which results in wasted time. Double em up! If counters are rectangular, so should the sinks that sit in them. Round or oval sinks just create splash zones outside them, and splashed counters need to be wiped up to avoid staining or rotting.

Durable Finishes
Glass, stone, wood covered in generous amounts of epoxy, resin, polyurethane. Walls painted with paint that can be washed with detergent and water.

Outdoors Indoors
This one was hard, but basically we wanted to carve out space on each floor that made it part of the outside. The weather can be nice all year round here. So why not think like Eichler did?

When I'm Sixty-Four...
I might break a hip skiing. When I'm Ninety, I don't want to go to to a rest home. I'd rather stay at home and hire a nurse which is much more cost-effective. So put in an ELEVATOR.

ADA Compliant
People are born with disabilities or physical challenges, or they eventually acquire them. There is no reason not to think about making the home accessible. At the same time, make Artoo, Threepio, other Robots and Androids at home. 21st century... remember? This means smooth transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces, too, and curb-less showers.

Bathtubs are clumsy, cramped, gross, a huge, huge waste of water. Big ones are expensive, take too long to fill, get cold easily. Modern spas are clean and efficient and are big enough to actually be therapeutic.

Good and Efficient Lighting
Lots of lights that are LED or low voltage. I don't want to EVER use them during the day, but at night, when I need them to see, or entertain, they should be beautiful and useful.

with all that lighting, I don't want lots of ugly wall switches, and I need some programmed intelligence to keep them efficient and useful for many different scenarios.

Music and Video Everywhere
Using the phone in my pocket as a controller, I want to be able to play music (streaming, digital local, vinyl) or video (streaming, digital local, disc) in any combination in multiple rooms. And I want to run lights, drapes, blinds, security cams, HVAC as well.

Convertible Spaces
Make spaces usable for multiple purposes. Use a murphy bed to turn an office into a fully functional guest room. With space being a premium in San Francisco, this makes real sense.

Better than any Hotel Room
After vacations, we'd come home and think,"What a DUMP!" ok I stole that line from Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", but you must know that it was absolutely depressing to walk into our dumpy Victorian home after staying anywhere. When your house is less nice than a No-Tell-Motel, it's time to remodel!

If you're still with me, I promise that we actually accomplished this list. It is my hope that by sharing this information with you, I will help you to avoid building a cave of the past and welcome you to life in the 21st Century.

From This...
To This!

Part II: We're ready to go... What do you mean, housing market crash & financial meltdown?!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The great debate (again!) Evolution V Creationism

Americans were treated to another debate of Evolution versus Creationism this week. Ever since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial was lost by the Creationists, this old war horse gets dragged out every few years and since neither side is listening to what the other has to say, both sides declare victory.

It's no wonder that we have such high unemployment and a growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" as increasingly the Creationists lack the skills in Science and Math that are required to obtain high paying jobs in Engineering, Biotech, Robotic Manufacturing, Computer Science, Design, Architecture, and the like.

Sadly, I don't think that it's possible to convince a creationist that he or she may be wrong. My experience has shown me that creationists are not capable of doubting their own intellectual capabilities, that they are simply not bright enough to understand the most basic of scientific concepts, and cannot infer from a concept a hypothesis or a logical conclusion. Creationists are not individuals who are likely to be accepted at the best educational institutions, they are not likely to have toughed out a difficult course of study in mathematics, chemistry, physics, or astronomy. Creationists believe in their simple gut feelings about most things. Challenging those gut feelings won't get you anywhere with a person that lacks inquisitive stamina and has no capacity for doubt or intellectual pursuits.

Creationists must have faith in the current opinion of a group of theologians to form their beliefs. Those beliefs may not be questioned by the faithful or they risk being shunned or excommunicated by the group. Unfortunately, opinion cannot be tested so it must be either believed or not believed.

Science is the practice of observation that leads to the development of theory and as scientists seek to prove or more often, disprove that theory, consensus builds. Opinion is irrelevant if it cannot be tested.

In the above picture, note the young woman with the lop-sided gaze and smug facial expression. Her question reveals that she is lacking the most simple awareness that there have been many, many "missing link" fossil discoveries since "Lucy" was discovered in 1973. One such recent find was "Selam" in 2000 who lived 120,000 years before Lucy and was also an Australopithicus afarensis. In 2005 at Dmanisi, Georgia, "Skull 5" was found of an early hominid that dates back to 1.8 million years ago and in October, another discovery at that site has led scientists to believe that all of these skulls have been representations of one slowly evolving species related to man, not many different ones as was previously believed. This will be further tested, but evolution theory continues to be proved and improved, not unproved.

If a creationist were capable of combining a couple of the most simple undeniable and uncontroversial facts about the nature of the universe, one example might help shut down the entire argument, once and for all.

Light travels at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. This was proven in 1881 by Albert Michelson and has been tested and reproved through subsequent experimentation with increasingly better instruments each time. With this knowledge, one can extrapolate how far light may travel in one year, giving us a distance unit of reference, the light year of 6 trillion miles.

Basic Astronomy uses trigonometric parallax and spectroscopic parallax to measure the distances to stars, nebulas, and other galaxies. Those distances are calculated in light years.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is 157,000 light years from earth. That means that the light from one of the nearest galaxies is so far away that it takes 157,000 years to reach Earth.

Creationists currently believe that the heavens and the earth were created in the blink of an eye less than 10,000 years ago. If the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, we should;t be able to see the Large Magellanic Cloud for at least another 147,000 years.

We would't be able to see most of the Milky Way,  or any other galaxy like Andromeda, the MilkyWay Galaxies nearest spiral galactic neighbor.

The strange thing about this debate is that Science was created to explain the Universe, not to disprove the existence of God. Creationists almost uniformly believe that the two are mutually exclusive. They think that you cannot believe in both. Hogwash.

After this week's debate, attending Creationists posed 22 questions for scientists to answer. Looking at the childlike 22 questions, one begins to realize that the questions run the gamut from philosophy to basic science, and are very easily answered by anyone with a good high school education.
The real loss comes to a people who have decided that ignorance, superstition, and blind adherence to unreasoned dogma is more important than a desire to seek truth. One path leads to the moon, mars and the stars, the other path to death camps and book burnings.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Sochi Olympics Train-wreck

Perhaps you've been living under a rock, or more likely, nursing a not-so-super Superbowl hangover? If so, you might have missed yesterday's near-empty press conference by International Olympic Committee Chairman, Thomas Bach. Mr. Bach used the opportunity to criticize world leaders for  deciding not to attend the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and for using them "as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests."

The chastising, clearly directed at US President Obama, German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders, was immediately followed by revelations that many of the newly built hotels in Sochi are not ready for guests and that the conditions in many rooms are like something out of a nightmare with taps that dispense toxic water (when the plumbing works at all), lack of heat, filth, bare electrical outlets, broken or missing furnishings, unlit stairwells, non-working elevators, and construction workers camped out in hallways.

News also followed of additional security threats after months of revelations that guests safety cannot be guaranteed by Russian Security  at non-Olympic venues like hotels and restaurants in the areas surrounding Sochi. The games have been plagued by news of security threats after a terrorist attacked a Volgograd train station a little over a month ago, killing 16 and injuring 50 others. Russia has been a constant target of terrorists attacks for decades owing to their history of human rights abuses when the Soviet Union dominated the nearby region for most of the twentieth century.

Strangely, Volgograd was also the recent sight of the murder of a 23 year old man, Vladislav Tornovoi, who after a night out drinking with some longtime buddies, revealed to them that he was gay. He was discovered the following morning, his genitals mutilated, he had been raped with a broken beer bottle, his head caved in with a brick and then set on fire.

Despite massive international criticism over Russia's new anti-gay laws criminalizing LGBT persons, foreign and domestic, from stating anything that might be construed as positive about themselves in a public forum, the Russian President Vladamir Putin has ensured the safety of any LGBT athletes who choose to attend and compete in the games. But he warned, "Leave our children alone," insinuating that LGBT people are pedophiles when research and the body of criminal law has overwhelmingly proven it to be a habit of heterosexual males visited on their daughters worldwide.

Yesterday's posting of a YouTube video by Human Rights Watch showing some of the actual violence that has been perpetrated on Russian LGBT youth over the past year following the passing of the law that has emboldened some to even commit murder. Yesterday, the three Russian friends of the young 23 year old Tornovoi were sentenced to the minimum nine years in prison because Russians overwhelmingly believe that Vladislav Tornovol got what he deserved. The brutal slaying of a gay man after he was tortured by his friends, beaten to death, and set on fire is punished by a slap on the back and a sentence in a country club prison, likely to be released in a few months for good behavior. The message to Russian LGBT youth: Don't be who you are or we'll kill you.

Mr. Bach, ignoring all of this, called on world leaders to "have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes."

Some might suggest that Mr. Bach should have the courage to admit that it was a mistake to choose a violently dangerous, corrupt, poorly-developed country, with an abysmal record of human rights as a place to host an event that is intended to highlight the very best that humans can achieve when competing, working and playing together in an atmosphere of mutual dignity and respect.

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