Blade Runner at 25

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Mythbuster Adam Savage explains Why the Sci-Fi F/X Are Still Unsurpassed:

Long before I teamed up with Jamie Hyneman to form the MythBusters, I was a special-effects modelmaker, and Scott’s cyberpunk gem almost instantly became the most important film in the canon of movies I love.
I worked on Star Wars Episodes I and II, on the Matrix films, on AI and Terminator 3; yet 25 years later there are ways in which Blade Runner surpasses anything that’s been done since. Watching the theatrical release DVD at home with PM reminded me of Scott’s genius for creating stunning effects with simple technology.
You have to remember, Blade Runner was made years before digital effects became common. Today, CGI [computer-generated imagery] is becoming a mature art form, but even now there are times you just can’t beat doing some effects like these “in camera.” Most of these cityscapes are a combination of models and traditional matte paintings. For the aerial shots they used a set about 12 ft. wide, and those towers you see belching fire are about 12 in. high. They’re made of etched brass and model parts and use thousands of tiny, grain-of-wheat light bulbs like you’d find in a dollhouse. They filmed some of the fireballs in the parking lot behind the studio, and for others they used stock footage from the 1970 Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point.

Why Running a Franchise Is Easier Than Ever

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Gwendolyn Bounds and Raymund Flandez explain Why Running a Franchise Is Easier Than Ever:

The franchising world is letting loose. Gone are the days of one owner being chained behind the counter of a single store day in, day out. Today, there are absentee owners who oversee their operations from laptops and Treos, and owners who maintain dual careers or run multiple franchises. At Hollywood Tanning Systems Inc., more than half of the 330 franchise owners have another job. The chief executive of Sport Clips Inc. hair salons estimates that 10 hours a week is a “generous allowance” for owners to physically be in stores. And franchisees for the Decor&You Inc. interior-design business can receive decorating and product training at home whenever they like via online video seminars.

Even costs are more flexible, with investments ranging from as low as $10,000 to more than $1 million, according to the International Franchise Association. That frees up owners to spread their talents around by opening multiple franchises, either of the same brand or even in different industries — a departure from the days when the rule of thumb for franchising was “one person, one store,” says Ann Dugan, author of “Franchising 101″ and assistant dean at the University of Pittsburgh business school.

The Baby-Name Business

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

The Baby-Name Business is taking off as parents move away from a small selection of hyper-popular names to a broader menu of options:

Academics say there’s been a demonstrable shift in the way people name children. In 1880, Social Security Administration data show that the 10 most popular baby names were given to 41% of boys and 23% of girls. But in 2006, just 9.5% of boys and roughly 8% of girls were given one of the year’s 10 most popular names — a combined decline of about 33% from the averages in the 1990s, says Cleveland Kent Evans, an associate psychology professor at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. and a past president of the American Name Society. So while a once-ubiquitous name like Mary has fallen from No. 1 during most of the 1950s to No. 84 last year, many new names are taking off. Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward) ranked No. 43 among the 1,000 most popular names in the U.S. in 2006 and Zayden, another recent creation, was given to 224 boys.

Tales of a Ninth-Grade Fund Manager

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Tales of a Ninth-Grade Fund Manager:

Brandon got the idea to start the fund in November when he took a financial-literacy course. As part of the program, he and other students had to develop their own business plans. One student wanted to open a skateboard shop. Brandon, who became interested in markets with a virtual-reality game called Neopets and was setting up mock stock portfolios by the age of 12, wanted to start his own investment fund. “It blew me away,” says Jay Ellis, a regional manager of Washington Mutual in Manhattan and the course instructor.

In six months, Brandon says he has increased the value of his fund — which consists of money he earned fixing neighbors’ computers and contributions from his uncles — by some 30%, to about $5,000.

Because he is being home schooled, Brandon can adjust his schedule to attend investor meetings, as he did recently, hopping on a subway with his father to hear London-based billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, chief executive of Mittal Steel, at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. Mr. Mittal was meeting with some analysts and about 100 investors.
Brandon recently decided to put the fund on hold for a few months while he is in math camp in Colorado. (He moved the fund’s assets into a money-market account.) At the end of the summer, he plans to relaunch the Mariner fund with the $5,000 plus another $30,000 he is trying to raise with help from a lawyer. Because he is only 14, his mother and father are custodians of the brokerage account where he does his trading.

His mother, Judith, a computer programmer who home schools Brandon, doesn’t mind his running an investment company out of their home. But she worries about him investing so much money, and about his frustration at things that don’t normally frustrate a teenager, such as his inability to take a six-hour Series 7 exam for would-be securities traders. (You have to be working at an NASD member firm to take the test.) After finding him following Asian markets on financial TV networks at 4 a.m., she told him to get some sleep.

“I’m terrified, I have to say, as a mom,” says Ms. Conley.

Part of Brandon’s home-school curriculum involves finding unusual classes and learning opportunities on the Internet and in New York City, including volunteering and training at the Brooklyn Public Library, online math classes through Ivy League schools, chess clubs and Lord of the Rings reading societies. The unorthodox schedule allows Brandon to spend as much as eight hours a day researching companies and investments and making trades.

He often wears a tie, suit or dress shirt in the middle-class neighborhood where he lives, partly so people will take him seriously but also to avoid being suspected of violating truancy laws because he is not at a traditional school.

Brandon’s father, Terence, a jazz pianist who has played with the Count Basie and the Duke Ellington orchestras, says he and his wife try not to restrict Brandon’s moves, but to monitor them, and make sure he has good advisers, which include his uncles.

My lawn-mowing money went into a savings account, where it more-or-less kept up with inflation.

How to Win a Marathon

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Reed Albergotti explains How to Win a Marathon using online research:

As competitive amateur athletics explode, a new form of gamesmanship is emerging. Millions of people can now say they’ve run a marathon or a triathlon, but how many people can say they’ve won one? In the past, that hasn’t been easy for weekend warriors who work long hours at the office and lack six-pack abs. Now, some are trying to gain an edge by finding where the fast racers aren’t. Instead of training harder, they’re spending hours online to scout out the field, and they’re driving hundreds of miles to race against thin competition in out-of-the-way places.
New Web sites closely track results of thousands of races, down to local 5-kilometer charity runs. Athletes are using this information to find out how tough the competition is likely to be in a race based on previous years. The sites also keep tabs on amateur athletes in ever-greater detail, from the names of racers and their past performances to the fastest people of a certain age in a particular ZIP Code. This makes it easier than ever to find out how you stack up against your neighbors.

The View From Ecotopia

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Joseph White shares The View From Ecotopia, or Portland, Oregon:

Portland is a green place, surrounded by temperate, Douglas fir rainforests and dotted with lush gardens. Portland is also Green in the political sense, at least, more so than Detroit. Years ago, Portland’s political leaders blocked construction of a freeway through the heart of downtown, and took other measures designed to limit suburban sprawl and put the automobile in its place as a servant rather than a master. In 1993, Portland was the first American city to craft a global-warming action plan, Mayor Tom Potter recently told a congressional committee. Mayor Potter said that per capita greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, and that since 1990, Portland’s local greenhouse gas emissions are down 1%.

Portland isn’t the Garden of Eden. I spent a half hour or so stuck in rush hour traffic, negotiating my way through a maze of intersecting highways where the freeways that ring Portland’s downtown interconnect. Portland’s streets have plenty of cars, and despite the complex land-use rules the region adopted to limit sprawl, there seemed to be no shortage of big-box stores and shopping centers along Highway 26 west of town. From the local press, it’s clear there’s tension between Portlanders who fit the city’s Green image and those who want more freedom to do what they want with their property, including develop parking lots or office complexes.

Still, Portlanders who so choose can spend more of their time outside the confines of a car than I can as a resident of Metro Detroit. The city has a light-rail system that connects various neighborhoods to downtown offices and to the airport. At quitting time on a weekday, the MAX light rail connecting downtown to the neighborhoods west of town was full. The system has reported rising ridership. That said, the main highways are still jammed during rush hours. Portland has a long way to go to get the bulk of commuters to give up that “alone-time” in the car.

Portland’s efforts to limit sprawl have helped to sustain the value of properties in the city’s old neighborhoods, which in turn has encouraged people to renovate older homes and apartments within walking or biking distance of downtown businesses. To a tourist from Detroit, Portland feels like a super-sized college town, not a city as I know it. But guess what? Even Detroit is trying to revive the “walk to work” lifestyle, encouraging conversion of abandoned downtown buildings into loft apartments. Just last week, General Motors entered a partnership to develop residences along the city’s riverfront, within walking distance of GM’s headquarters.

In Suburbia, the nation where so many Americans live, homes and businesses are usually segregated. That segregation is viewed as desirable, even though it can turn a routine shopping trip into a 20-minute drive. The Ecotopian urbanite, by contrast, accepts that within walking distance of home there could be: A world-class bookstore, three coffee shops, a liquor mart, a grocery store, an art gallery, a service station, a chummy neighborhood restaurant, a concert hall, a designer furniture outlet and a sex-toy shop. That’s a sample of what I found walking around my downtown hotel. The answer to your next question is: Because the shop had clever, PG-rated window displays facing the street, just like an old fashioned department store.

In this Ecotopian lifestyle, the car becomes an occasional means of escape to adventure, not a daily commuting appliance. I found my way, by rented Subaru Legacy sedan, to a walk on the beach, a roadside record store housed in a barn packed floor to ceiling with vinyl LPs and Elvis memorabilia, and a stand that sold elk jerky for $10 a package. I probably burned $20 or so of gas on this semi-authorized fact-finding mission for a new travel column for the Blackberry set, “Out of Office Assistant,” that I intend to pitch to my editors some day.

American kids shaping up with trainers

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

I’ve been predicting this for some time. American kids shaping up with trainers:

The Boston-based group’s latest figures, from 2005, show that 824,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 use trainers — a figure that accounts for about 13 percent of trainers’ clients.

Man Retrofits Freezer to Make an Ultra-Efficient Fridge

Monday, June 25th, 2007

I read about this a few weeks back, but I stumbled across it again while reading up on disaster preparedness. Man Retrofits Freezer to Make an Ultra-Efficient Fridge:

An off-grid experimenter in Australia, Tom Chalko, has retrofitted a chest freezer to create a fridge that uses only 100 watt-hours (0.1 kWh) per day! Why a chest freezer? Tom points out that vertical door refrigerators are inherently inefficient. As soon as you open a vertical fridge door the cold air escapes, simply because it is heavier than the warmer air in the room. When you open a chest freezer, the cool air stays inside, just because it’s heavy. Any leak or wear in a vertical door seal causes significant loss of efficiency.

Tom took a standard chest freezer (a Vestfrost SE255), added a $40 external thermostat, then wired the freezer to turn off when the desired temperature was reached. The thermostat runs on 2 AAA batteries which last for months. The freezer runs for about 90 seconds per hour and then shuts down completely, making it not only very efficient but very quiet.

As one commenter noted, this efficiency boost is much, much more important if you’re trying to live off the grid. On the grid, it saves you about $3 per month — at the expense of having to bend over and dig things out of your fridge.

Zombie Squad

Monday, June 25th, 2007

For years I’ve been referring to “when the zombies rise” as an amusing metaphor for any disaster or emergency where The System breaks down — hurricane, earthquake, blackout, terrorist attack, etc.

What I did not realize was that there was an entire online community, the Zombie Squad, built on that concept:

Our goal is to educate the public about the importance of personal preparedness and self reliance, to increase its readiness to respond to disasters such as Earthquakes, Floods, Terrorism or Zombie Outbreaks. We want to make sure you are prepared for any crisis situation that might come along in your daily life which may include having your face eaten by the formerly deceased.

The amusing tongue-in-cheek zombie element makes the whole subject more palatable — and it strips the right-wing crazy element out of hardcore survivalism, while borrowing some its useful ideas, like the bug-out bag, or survival kit:

A “Bug Out Bag” or BOB is a pack you can carry that contains various items you will need to survive for a short period of time. It should be designed to grab and take with you if you have to leave modern your conveniences behind in the event of an crisis.

Some suggested items:

1) Food and Water for 3 days
2) First aid kit
3) Weather protection
4) Flashlight and extra batteries
5) Radio to know what’s going on around you
6) Knife or Multi-tool
7) Source of fire

The folks at Equipped To Survive have a really long list of recommended items. The folks at Wired have a few suggestions too. You can also find an Amazon List or two of things to buy. You might not have immediately thought of plastic sheeting and work gloves, but I suspect the people who went through Katrina did.

Electricity Crisis Hobbles an India Eager to Ascend

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Somini Sengupta, reporting from Gurgaon, a suburb south of New Delhi, notes the long-standing energy crisis that I couldn’t help but notice while there a couple summers ago:

Look up at the tops of buildings, and on any given day, you are likely to find three, four or six smokestacks poking out of each, blowing gray-black plumes into the clouds. If the smokestacks are being used, it means the power is off and the building — whether bright new mall, condominium or office — is probably being powered by diesel-fed generators.

This being India, a country of more than one billion people, the scale is staggering. In just one case, Tata Consultancy Services, a technology company, maintains five giant generators, along with a nearly 5,300-gallon tank of diesel fuel underground, as if it were a gasoline station.

The reserve fuel can power the lights, computers and air-conditioners for up to 15 days to keep Tata’s six-story building humming during these hot, dry summer months, when temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees and power cuts can average eight hours a day.

The Gurgaon skyline is studded with hundreds of buildings like this. In Gurgaon alone, the state power authority estimates that the gap between demand and supply hovers around 20 percent, and that is probably a conservative estimate.

For all those who suffer from crippling power cuts in cities like this, there are others who have no connection to electricity at all. According to the Planning Commission of India, 600 million people — roughly half the population — are off the electric grid. For this reason, it is impossible to estimate accurately the total national shortfall.
What the state cannot provide efficiently, many take for themselves. The World Bank estimates that at least $4 billion in electricity is unaccounted for each year — that is to say, stolen. Transparency International estimated in 2005 that Indians paid $480 million in bribes to put in new connections or correct bills.

Shopping centers routinely run to the sound and smell of numerous diesel generators, one by each shop’s front door, powering that shop’s lights and air conditioning.

When a large company or a nice restaurant loses power and the lights go out, the locals will joke, “Welcome to India!”

This is what’s particularly infuriating though:

With few exceptions, there is little effort to reduce power consumption, beyond the use of low-energy light bulbs. Gurgaon is dotted with buildings that are effectively curtains of glass, soaking up the searing summer heat.

“It’s good for New York, not Gurgaon,” was the verdict of Niranjan Khatri, a general manager with ITC, an Indian conglomerate whose office tower here is one of the few to comply with so-called green building codes.

Across the highway, the nearly completed Ambi Mall promises almost a mile of shopping on each floor. Next to it, a billboard for the Mall of India promises an even bigger shopping center, one that will put India on the “global retail map.”

Never mind that Gurgaon does not have a sewage treatment plant of its own, or that the city’s Metropolitan Mall burns an average of 1,600 gallons of diesel a day to run its generators during power cuts.

Farther south, in Nirvana Country, there are only generators. The 800-unit complex of row houses and apartment blocks, still under construction, is not even connected to the electric grid. It swallows 6,000 gallons of diesel each week to meet its needs — with only a fifth of its units occupied.

It was unclear how the power needs would be met once it reached full occupancy, said M. K. Pant, a retired army colonel who is now Nirvana’s estate manager. “There’s nothing in the files,” he said. “There’s nothing in the thinking also.”

No matter. Newspaper advertisements for Nirvana Country promise “air-conditioning in all rooms.”

There seems to be a blind obedience to American norms and practices, whether or not they make sense in an Indian context.

Snow Leopard Cubs

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Today’s dose of cute comes from these adorable Snow Leopard Cubs:

A zoo worker holds two-month-old snow leopard cubs at a zoological park in Darjeeling, about 80 km (50 miles) north from the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri June 21, 2007.

Is it wrong to want to take them home? What could possibly go wrong?

Article Roundup

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Lexington Green covers a number of thought-provoking pieces in his most recent Article Roundup. For instance:

The utter incompetence of the Palestinians is highlighted by this piece from the Financial times entitled “Business as Usual”. The Israelis are building their own Silicon Valley. The Palestinians, once the wall was completed, making it harder to murder Jews, do the one thing they know how to do, and start murdering each other. Walls work. They demarcate borders and make them much easier to patrol, monitor and defend.

Read the whole roundup; it covers many topics.

Lacking Perspective

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

James Rummel feels we’re Lacking Perspective:

Things are pretty grim. Armed gunmen are getting bolder. Agents of the duly elected government are at risk, with many of them being assassinated in front of their families. Police officers are specifically targeted, often being kidnapped so they can be tortured to death. The message is simple: Join the side of law and order and you will be killed. The favorite method of execution is to behead the victim, a tactic favored by terrorists.

Sounds like the most overwrought prose from a journalist describing the situation in Iraq, or maybe the Palestinian Territories. But I’m talking about the drug war being waged in Mexico at this very moment. The Washington Post article behind that last link states that 600 people have died this year.

I doubt very highly that either their figures or analysis of the situation is accurate. I have reason to believe that things are much worse. states that over 1,200 people have been killed this year. What is most alarming is that the drug gangs are actively recruiting regular Mexican Army deserters, men that have had training in combat, weapon use, and who are able to plan and carry out complex operations.
What puzzles me is why this story isn’t front page news. How many Palestinians died in their recent little dust up between Hamas and Fatah? I am having trouble finding an accurate count, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were less than 200. Tragic as that number happens to be, it is dwarfed by the number of lives snuffed out just a few hours drive from our southern border. Yet most of the people I talk to have no idea that anything is amiss in Mexico.

How is this happening? The well-worn routes used to smuggle illegal immigrants also work to smuggle drugs.

Of course, it’s the prohibition of immigration and drugs that puts so much money in criminals’ hands.

Watch the Platforms, Not the Winner

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Bryan Caplan (The Myth of the Rational Voter) says, Watch the Platforms, Not the Winner:

Puzzle: If you look at voting behavior, education does little to make people more Democratic or more Republican. So what difference does it make if people acquire more sensible views about policy, if it doesn’t change their vote?
What I question is that we should be very interested in the differences between presidential candidates in the first place. In our competitive democracy, the candidates wind up being pretty similar in any case. The real problem of democracy is bipartisan agreement on foolish policies.

So how can more reasonable beliefs about policy sway political outcomes? The answer is surprisingly simple. When public opinion gets more reasonable, both parties adjust their positions to avoid giving the competition an edge. For example, the U.S. public is markedly less protectionist than it was in the ’70′s, leading both parties to become markedly less protectionist than they used to be. The identity of the winning party might make a marginal difference; but this difference is muted by the fact that politicians want to get behind whatever happens to be popular.

Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents — but it’s too early to tell if private schools will improve DC kids’ test scores; they haven’t after the first year.

On the other hand, it’s not too early to note that private schools cost half as much as public schools and thus get their results with half the funding:

About two-thirds of the participating students attended parochial schools operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington; the rest attended other private schools. The $7,500 scholarship that families spent was about half the average public expenditure per student in the District of Columbia public schools.