Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stuck on what to get someone for Christmas? Try a Kiva.org gift certificate!

Usually charity gifts aren't really satisfying. Giving in someone's name doesn't give them much enjoyment, or even much of a warm fuzzy feeling. They aren't personally doing the giving even if it's in their name.

Kiva.org gift certificates are different! The person gets to go online and pick and entrepreneur in the developing world to help fund. It's interactive so it's fun, and the person gets the warm fuzzy feeling of charity at your expense instead of theirs.

Many people's lives could be improved by getting a small loan, but credit often isn't available to them because it costs as much to administer a small loan as a big one. Kiva.org is part of the growing microfinance movement that aims to fix this by putting up the capital for these small loans so that the receiver gets a much lower interest rate on the loan than they otherwise would. Learn more. Try it out!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

That Woman is Terrifying.

Today, Palin mocked fruit fly research despite it being the basis of much of our modern knowledge of genetics, and responsible for a Nobel Prize. This is more enraging to me than anything else in the broad spectrum of outrages that have come out of the McCain campaign. Basic science research is the most noble thing that humans do, and to denigrate it without so much as a Google search, while still claiming to be qualified to be president . . . I don't have any language strong enough to condemn her without wishing her bodily harm. It is terrifying to me that given a choice between voting for Bush and voting for Palin, I would vote for Bush.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Decision 2008

There are many stark differences in policy and temperament between the major party candidates this election. However, there is one fundamental ideological issue that eclipses all others and has been completely ignored by the mainstream media. When voters enter the booths this November, they will undoubtedly be asking themselves whether they prefer group orgasms through breathing techniques, or spiritual warfare to ward off African curses. The choice is yours.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kahili Ginger!

From Plant Portfolio

The plant that ate my apartment is finally blooming! I bought it as a bulb at the gift shop of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Hilo two years ago. My plumeria came from the same store. Below you can see pictures of what it looked like right after it sprouted, (that's a six inch pot!) and what it looks like now. The smell is incredible. I could tell it was blooming just by opening the door of my apartment. The scent spilled out into the porch.

From Plant Portfolio

Here are a few facts about it:

  • The plant is named after the feathered standards that were the symbol of a Hawaiian Noble's power.
  • When it is sending up a new stalk it grows something close to an inch per day. The roots completely consume the soil.
  • I haven't fertilized it at all, and it's been in a shady south facing window for most of the last two years. I try to saturate the soil with water once per week, but as the pots have gotten bigger that has gotten harder.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Next time you are feeling cynical about humanity …

… inspired by McCain's recent polling numbers perhaps, check out the featured content in the Sporepedia. The amount of creativity is just stunning. Everything in there was created by amateurs in their spare time for fun. In case Wikipedia wasn't proof enough, when you give regular people great tools, they will make amazing stuff just for kicks. Most people have worlds of creativity that isn't used in their jobs, and they just need a convenient outlet to amaze you.

More generally, there's huge potential for harnessing our leisure time to produce useful work, and at the moment it's largely untapped. Google Image Labeler is a great (though horribly named) pioneer of this. You play a fun game, and in the process you give Google an awesome data set of images labeled with tags. Fold.it is another. Playing that game is equivalent to computing the lowest energy state of a protein. If you are good at it, you could cure cancer. The sky is the limit for this sort of stuff though, and the internet is finally giving us the organizational tools to bring it about. Imagine if instead of working out in a gym, people had access to volunteer landscaping groups. You'd get a similar workout, but you'd beautify a landscape in the process instead of just pumping iron and wasting all that energy.

Here's a great talk on the subject, Gin, Television, and the Social Surplus. My favorite quote:

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into … an architecture of participation.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Beyond Blogrolls

Usually the links found to the right of a blog are only useful to bored people clicking randomly, or to pass PageRank (The latter being a model of the former.) As such, I've updated all the banners and links on my sidebar with some information about what they are and why they are there. Some of these deserve much more than a paragraph. Boy Scouts, in particular, deserves essays. For the time being though, this should give you a reason to click on them.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


The skies are usually boring in California compared to the nightly shows in the midwest, but every so often there's a real treat.

From Mountain View Rainbow

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Knol has been released and guess who is featured!

Look who is on the front page of Knol! Some of you are probably aware that I've been working on a backpacking guide for a while now. I decided when they announced the Knol project internally that it would be a perfect fit, and published it there. Go check it out!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Wall-E is Incredible.

Just go see it. I don't know how Pixar will be able to top this one. It took my breath away scene after scene. In some moments I started to tear up at the sheer lyrical beauty of it. I kid you not. Just go see it.

Edit: Now that a day has passed I'll add my little 2¢ about what makes it so good.

I think the most incredible thing about it is how perfectly it nails the tone. It's a post apocalyptic movie in which the earth is uninhabitable and the remaining humans are sluglike consumerist caricatures living out their days in space, but the movie treats the subject with such tenderness that it's never vindictive or off-putting. The humans aren't evil or stupid, they're just innocent, naive. Wall-E is a bit of a packrat, collecting all of the human artifacts that he thinks are neat, and the simple joy he takes in an egg-beater or a rubik's cube softens it perfectly. In spite of the fact that the entire planet is overrun by our junk, a lot of the junk is really cool. It's these touches that make it an honest look at humanity instead of a diatribe. As good as all this is though, it's really just a backdrop for the love story, which is so innocent and touching that it could carry the movie even if the rest of it was ignorable.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hope for the Future

Arthur C. Clarke, author, died today at the age of 90. You may know him as the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, the book and famous Stanley Kubrick film. Clarke wrote in an earlier age of Science Fiction. The internet had not yet transformed the world, and cyberpunk was not yet a glimmer in William Gibson's eye. America lived in the shadow of the cold war, and much of the Science Fiction of the time dealt with the possibility of humankind destroying itself.

Clarke infused his writing with a limitless view of both human potential and human failings; In his view, humanity is in its infancy, delicate, vulnerable, throwing temper tantrums, but with its best years still ahead of it. In 2001, the main character upon his apotheosis literally becomes a child among the stars. In Childhood's End humanity as a whole escapes it's physical bounds in a heartbreaking moment of destruction and transcendence that the title of the book literally describes. Throughout his writing however, the factions of humanity are always a single mistake from destroying each other, and it is often extraterrestrials that distract them enough to survive their own power. Clarke wrote long before Nelson Mandela took his long walk to freedom, and hypothesized in Childhood's End that South Africa wouldn't reach a peaceful settlement until aliens gathered overhead and demanded it by blocking out the sun. Still, in his worlds we always managed to escape our vices to do extraordinary things: building a space elevator, colonizing the solar system, greeting the vast powers of the galaxy with dignity.

His books are full of the hope that with the passage of time, the problems that seem so immediate will be immaterial, that the differences between us are surmountable, that we have the ingenuity to escape our lonely planet and join whatever waits beyond. This perhaps the essence of Clarke's future. With that, I present to you the most intelligent and moving speech I've seen delivered by a politician in my lifetime. Had he been able, I think this is the type of progress Arthur C. Clarke would have liked to see.

Clarke delivered a farewell speech on his 90th birthday about his legacy, the incredible distance we've come within his lifetime, and his hope for the future. "I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hope that we have learned something from the most barbaric century in history — the twentieth. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions, and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization." If you'd like to read some of his work, the full text of the "The Star" is available online.

No one dared to disturb him or interrupt his thoughts: and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling Sun.
- Childhood's End

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sprouting Mango Trees From Pits

I've been trying to do this for a while, and I know a few friends who have also been interested but mysteriously I've found all the guides online to be bad advice. I can confirm that now, because I'm pretty sure I've discovered the trick! My second mango pit has sprouted today, and I'm optimistic about a few more of them. I unfortunately don't eat enough mangoes to really have a control group in my study here, but of the 10 I've planted with a few different techniques, The only ones that have sprouted were handled in the same way, which I will now impart to you.

  1. Eat your mango. Mmmmm.
  2. Clean the mango husk enough to get a firm grip on it and be able to feel the woody material.
  3. Near the eye of the mango (where the stem would have connected) feel along the edge for a flat spot about an inch long. Take the mango in both hands and press into this spot with your thumbs. With a bit of working the husk should split in half leaving the seed exposed inside.
The advice that follows here should be modified a bit based on the humidity level of your location. On the San Francisco peninsula here the air is very dry, so I go to elaborate lengths to keep my mango pits moist. If you live in a humid location this may be overkill. Generally, the goal here is to disturb the roots as little as possible, and keep the plant moist and warm until it's fully established.
  1. Wrap the seed in a strip of paper towel, wet it, and squeeze out the air.
  2. Unless you are very good at repotting plants, choose a pot that you won't have to move it from for a while. I'd recommend at least 6 inches, but make sure it's small enough that you can fit a ziplock bag over the top. Any indoor potting soil is fine.
  3. Plant the pit near the surface of the soil with the concave side down.
  4. Soak the soil with water, and then put a ziplock bag over the top of the pot. It isn't essential for it to fit tightly. The goal of this is to keep the humidity level high.
  5. Place the pot with ziplock bag in a sunny window, preferably south-facing.
  6. Water it every two days by filling the saucer under the pot to the brim. So long as it gets a lot of sun I don't think you can over-water it at this stage. The soil should stay moist and water should collect on the inside of the bag.
  7. If your pits are growing they will turn green within a week or so, then split open with a stalk coming out about 2 weeks later.
  8. Once your plant sprouts remove the bag, but keep watering it regularly. Take particular care after repotting it that the soil never dries out. Mangoes don't have a very robust root system so disturbing it can really harm your plant. Cold can also be fatal to them so make sure to bring your plant inside if it will drop below 40 degrees. Once you have a respectable tree, Texas A&M has a good guide for cultivating mango trees in a home garden that can take over from here.
  9. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fun With Absurdist Logic

What can you prove starting from the assumption that 1 = 2? Technically speaking, anything. One of the basic rules of logic is that if you include a false statement in your assumptions, you can prove any statement from those assumptions, regardless of whether the resulting statement is true or false. (P ⇒ Q follows from ¬P, regardless of Q.) This is often used for proofs "by contradiction" where you assume the opposite of what you are trying to prove, show that it results in a false statement, and thus conclude that your original assumption was false.

Though we know that this is true, rarely do we exercise it, and it can be a lot of fun to do so. Bertrand Russell once remarked "Give me any false statement and any other statement to prove and I will prove it," and I'll be cribbing from him here to use "1 = 2" to prove that I am a walrus. (He proved that he was God, but I'm no Bertrand Russell.)

Assume 1 = 2.
Consider the following set of two elements: {me, a walrus}.
This set has size 2, but because 2 = 1 it must also have size 1.
Therefore, me and the walrus must be the same element, and thus, I am a walrus.

There's great potential for a game here: One player chooses a false statement to start from, and the challenger responds with a fantastically outlandish statement to prove. Failure to prove it in 1 minute results in consequences appropriate for your age group. (If you are in college, you know what to do.) Astute readers will note that a similar argument to the above shows that I am also the eggman. Proving "goo goo g'joob" is left as an exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Best Album I've Heard in Years

If you'd rather listen to it than read my jibber jabber, check out the myspace page.

"Punch" is the second album from the newly renamed "Punch Brothers," their first being "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground." It's unclassifiable music, which clearly springs from bluegrass but with influences too numerous to count. It mixes the idioms and instruments of bluegrass with the complex harmonies of contemporary classical and jazz. I guarantee you've never heard anything like it. It makes Bela Fleck sound tame and traditional. Chris Thile, the frontman for the group has been called "the most virtuosic American ever to play the mandolin," and the other members of the group receive less effusive praise only because their instruments are more common. Here they are put to good use playing things that have never before been played on these instruments.

The meat of the album is contained in a bewildering, four movement, forty minute piece entitled "The Blind Leaving the Blind." Despite the length and the stretches of dissonance, it's never inaccessible for long; the lyrics and melodies stay rooted in telling the emotional story of Chris's recent divorce. Every so often they break into an old-fashioned bluegrass jam, but then change keys in a few measures to remind you what you are listening to. On my first pass through it was exhausting to listen to, and it was a stretch for the band as well.

"For me, when I first received the score and saw what Chris was asking me to play on my instrument, that had to have been just as traumatic as him getting his divorce papers," Pikelny says. "He figured, 'Hey, if you have the notes there, you'll figure out a way to play it.'"
Chris Thile's voice, though adequate, doesn't match the quality of the playing and composition, and the album suffers from what Dan and I call "Great Album Syndrome." (Every truly great album must have one unbearable song, i.e. "The Crunge" or "Fitter Happier." On this album it's the first track, "Punch Bowl.") However, if hearing a banjo in a song doesn't immediately turn you off, (I understand that excludes a fair number of people) then give this a listen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

If you're having trouble spying on me . . .

. . . since I haven't updated in a while, here are a few other options. I've started using jaanix.com, which I think has the potential to be a great social news/content aggregator. I still read reddit but I haven't been happy with it recently. A lot of the content on there has become either unbearably sensational or focused on political minutiae, so here's hoping jaanix takes off since its easy to tune out what you aren't interested in. One nice feature of jaanix is that every user gets their own subdomain full of the things they've submitted. Mine is at moultano.jaanix.com, which you can subscribe to in the rss reader of your choice should you feel so inclined.

I've also become a regular user of Google Reader which has dramatically increased the quality of what I read online. If you read online news but don't have a feed reader yet, you owe it to yourself to try it out. The purpose of Reader is to be your "inbox for the web." For most sites that include regularly updated content (like this one) you can drop the name of the sitel into the reader interface and it will keep track of it for you. Reader becomes your one stop shop for checking the sites you like to read, because all of the sites' updates will show up there like email messages as items for you to read. One great feature of Reader is that it allows you to share any item you are reading with your friends with a single click. It doesn't send anyone any annoying email, it just drops the item onto a page of your own which other people can also subscribe to (if you use google talk, the shared items of your friends will automatically show up in reader.) View mine, or drop that url into your feed reader of choice.