The game is up

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

The Economist says the game is up:

The old-fashioned financial system was like Old Maid, a parlour game once beloved of small children. The banks were like players, dealt hands from a pack of cards, which they swapped among each other. At the end, one player was left holding a lonely queen—a bad debt, if you will—and lost. Over the past few decades the game has changed. Securitisation has snipped the old maid into pieces; new faces, such as hedge funds, have joined the party, enabling the banks to distribute those pieces among a larger number of players. When the game is over, lots of players are left holding small losses instead of one player holding a big one.
At the end of Old Maid as banks used to play it, the loser would take a big write-off and then everyone could start playing again. In the new version, the use of leverage means the game is being played with hundreds of packs of cards and by thousands of different players. Working out who has won and who has lost in this round will take a long time.

Scientists hail ‘frozen smoke’ as material that will change world

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Scientists hail ‘frozen smoke’ as material that will change world:

Aerogel is nicknamed “frozen smoke” and is made by extracting water from a silica gel, then replacing it with gas such as carbon dioxide. The result is a substance that is capable of insulating against extreme temperatures and of absorbing pollutants such as crude oil.

It was invented by an American chemist for a bet in 1931, but early versions were so brittle and costly that it was largely consigned to laboratories. It was not until a decade ago that Nasa started taking an interest in the substance and putting it to a more practical use.

In 1999 the space agency fitted its Stardust space probe with a mitt packed full of aerogel to catch the dust from a comet’s tail. It returned with a rich collection of samples last year.

In 2002 Aspen Aerogel, a company created by Nasa, produced a stronger and more flexible version of the gel. It is now being used to develop an insulated lining in space suits for the first manned mission to Mars, scheduled for 2018.

Mark Krajewski, a senior scientist at the company, believes that an 18mm layer of aerogel will be sufficient to protect astronauts from temperatures as low as -130C. “It is the greatest insulator we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Aerogel is also being tested for future bombproof housing and armour for military vehicles. In the laboratory, a metal plate coated in 6mm of aerogel was left almost unscathed by a direct dynamite blast.

It also has green credentials. Aerogel is described by scientists as the “ultimate sponge”, with millions of tiny pores on its surface making it ideal for absorbing pollutants in water.

Kanatzidis has created a new version of aerogel designed to mop up lead and mercury from water. Other versions are designed to absorb oil spills.

He is optimistic that it could be used to deal with environmental catastrophes such as the Sea Empress spillage in 1996, when 72,000 tons of crude oil were released off the coast of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

Aerogel is also being used for everyday applications. Dunlop, the sports equipment company, has developed a range of squash and tennis rackets strengthened with aerogel, which are said to deliver more power.

Earlier this year Bob Stoker, 66, from Nottingham, became the first Briton to have his property insulated with aerogel. “The heating has improved significantly. I turned the thermostat down five degrees. It’s been a remarkable transformation,” he said.

Mountain climbers are also converts. Last year Anne Parmenter, a British mountaineer, climbed Everest using boots that had aerogel insoles, as well as sleeping bags padded with the material. She said at the time: “The only problem I had was that my feet were too hot, which is a great problem to have as a mountaineer.”

However, it has failed to convince the fashion world. Hugo Boss created a line of winter jackets out of the material but had to withdraw them after complaints that they were too hot.

Although aerogel is classed as a solid, 99% of the substance is made up of gas, which gives it a cloudy appearance.

(By the way, the British home-owner cited doesn’t seem to understand how a thermostat works.)

The Coming Urban Terror

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

John Robb summarizes his thoughts on The Coming Urban Terror, which will be based on “systems disruption, networked gangs, and bioweapons”:

Most of the networks that we rely on for city life — communications, electricity, transportation, water — are overused, interdependent, and extremely complex. They developed organically as what scholars in the emerging field of network science call “scale-free networks,” which contain large hubs with a plethora of connections to smaller and more isolated local clusters. Such networks are economically efficient and resistant to random failure — but they are also extremely vulnerable to intentional disruptions, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi shows in his important book Linked: The New Science of Networks. In practice, this means that a very small number of attacks on the critical hubs of a scale-free network can collapse the entire network. Such a collapse can occasionally happen by accident, when random failure hits a critical node; think of the huge Northeast blackout of 2003, which caused $6.4 billion in damage.

Further, the networks of our global superinfrastructure are tightly “coupled” — so tightly interconnected, that is, that any change in one has a nearly instantaneous effect on the others. Attacking one network is like knocking over the first domino in a series: it leads to cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster than human managers can respond.

The ongoing attacks on the systems that support Baghdad’s 5 million people illustrate the vulnerability of modern networks. Over the last four years, guerrilla assaults on electrical systems have reduced Baghdad’s power to an average of four or five hours a day. And the insurgents have been busily finding new ways to cut power: no longer do they make simple attacks on single transmission towers. Instead, they destroy multiple towers in series and remove the copper wire for resale to fund the operation; they ambush repair crews in order to slow repairs radically; they attack the natural gas and water pipelines that feed the power plants. In September 2004, one attack on an oil pipeline that fed a power plant quickly led to a cascade of power failures that blacked out electricity throughout Iraq.

Lack of adequate power is a major reason why economic recovery has been nearly impossible in Iraq. No wonder that, in account after account, nearly the first criticism that any Iraqi citizen levels against the government is its inability to keep the lights on. Deprived of services, citizens are forced to turn to local groups — many of them at war with the government — for black-market alternatives. This money, in turn, fuels further violence, and the government loses legitimacy.

Insurgents have directed such disruptive attacks against nearly all the services necessary to get a city of 5 million through the day: water pipes, trucking, and distribution lines for gasoline and kerosene. And because of these networks’ complexity and interconnectivity, even small attacks, costing in the low thousands of dollars to carry out, can cause tens of millions and occasionally hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Iraq is a petri dish for modern conflict, the Spanish Civil War of our times. It’s the place where small groups are learning to fight modern militaries and modern societies and win. As a result, we can expect to see systems disruption used again and again in modern conflict — certainly against megacities in the developing world, and even against those in the developed West, as we have already seen in London, Madrid, and Moscow.

Are We Failing Our Geniuses?

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

John Cloud, writing for Time, asks, Are We Failing Our Geniuses?:

To some extent, complacency is built into the system. American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.

If you look at education as an investment in human capital, then it certainly does not make sense to put the greatest effort where it has the least return. But that’s clearly not how education policy gets made.

Here’s what holding back gifted kids can do to them:

At the University of New South Wales, Gross conducted a longitudinal study of 60 Australians who scored at least 160 on IQ tests beginning in the late ’80s. Today most of the 33 students who were not allowed to skip grades have jaded views of education, and at least three are dropouts. “These young people find it very difficult to sustain friendships because, having been to a large extent socially isolated at school, they have had much less practice … in developing and maintaining social relationships,” Gross has written. “A number have had counseling. Two have been treated for severe depression.” By contrast, the 17 kids who were able to skip at least three grades have mostly received Ph.D.s, and all have good friends.

Compare that to the prevailing view amongst parents that they should hold their children back to give them every advantage over the other kids in their grade (from When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten?).

Interview with Alan Moore

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

This Interview with Alan Moore is about “how radicalism informs his work” — although I find “inform” a peculiar word to use in this context:

It furthermore occurred to me that, basically, anarchy is in fact the only political position that is actually possible. I believe that all other political states are in fact variations or outgrowths of a basic state of anarchy; after all, when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society. We live in a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over and have declared that it is not an anarchist situation — that it is a capitalist or a communist situation. But I tend to think that anarchy is the most natural form of politics for a human being to actually practice. All it means, the word, is no leaders. An-archon. No leaders.

So “a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over” is still anarchy?

The Enthusiast

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

MIT’s Technology Review looks at The Enthusiast, Harvard University professor of pathology David Sinclair, who “discovered that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, extends life span in mice by up to 24 percent and in other animals, including flies and worms, by as much as 59 percent”:

Sinclair says his bravado and drive come from his grandmother Vera, who fled to Australia in the wake of the failed 1956 revolution in her native Hungary. Her son, David’s father, changed the family name from Szigeti. “My grandmother is the black-sheep rebel of the family,” he says. “She gave birth to my dad at age 15 in 1939–imagine the scandal then–and has lived with natives in New Guinea and eaten human flesh, among other things. She once got in trouble with the police for being the first person to wear a bikini on a Sydney beach. She’s a ’60s bohemian who helped raise me and taught me how to think differently and to question dogma.”

A slight man with a mischievous smile, Sinclair grew up in St. Ives, near Sydney, where as a boy he liked to make bombs from chlorine or gunpowder to blow things up. “It was rebellious and dangerous,” he says. “That was the thrill. I think I was bored.” When he was seven years old, he came up with a list of 10 ways to change the world, and one was to create inventions to make money. Later, he took up windsurfing and racing around in cars. He got so many speeding tickets that he once had his license confiscated. “He was always quite cheeky and could get under your skin if he knew you well enough,” says Mark Sumich, his best friend growing up.

“I think the day I got most scared in my life was when he showed me his brother’s new compound bow,” recalls Sumich, who now owns a market-research company in Australia. “We went up to the park, and he would shoot it straight up in the air, and having lost sight of it, we would scatter for cover. That, to this day, is still the most stupid thing I have ever done.”

The New Privatization

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

In The New Privatization, Steven Malanga notes that “states and cities are selling their roads, bridges, and airports for eye-popping sums” — but this isn’t really all that new:

The trend proves the axiom that what’s old can be new again. Private investment in infrastructure, especially bridges and roads, was common in early United States history. Immediately after the Revolutionary War, for instance, investors put up $465,000 to build the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike, a 66-mile toll road that proved so popular that it led to further waves of private investing in highways. During the first half of the nineteenth century, private funds provided the young republic with some 600 toll roads. And as the country spread westward during the second half of the century, infrastructure investors helped ease the way, with 100 toll roads in California alone. In fact, the private sector kept building roads until the automobile’s arrival prompted more extensive — and costly — government safety regulations, which at the time made toll roads a largely unprofitable venture. Government turned to new methods — especially municipal bonds, which investors like because they aren’t taxed — to finance infrastructure.

Privately financed infrastructure has made another appearance in post–World War II Europe. Starting with 1955 legislation, France began to tap private investors to build and operate what eventually amounted to 3,400 miles of autoroutes between cities. Margaret Thatcher’s energetic privatization drive in 1980s England sold existing government assets and spawned scores of public-private construction projects. The Soviet Union’s collapse led to extensive privatization in former Eastern bloc countries during the nineties. The U.S. Department of Transportation figures that worldwide, more than 1,100 public-private deals have taken place in the transportation field alone over the last two decades. Total value: approximately $360 billion.

U.S. infrastructure is clearly in need of improvement:

Over the last 25 years, as the miles driven on U.S. roads have doubled, road spending has increased by less than 50 percent. Deterioration is the inevitable result. Nearly a fifth of America’s roads are in pitiable shape, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and nearly one out of every three bridges earns the department’s “structurally deficient” rating. Road congestion, a by-product of too little new building, costs the American economy about $65 billion annually, as trucks and cars snarled in traffic burn up time and fuel. The clogging is likely to get worse. “These costs have been growing at about 8 percent per year — almost triple the rate of growth of the economy,” Tyler Duval, assistant secretary of the Department of Transportation, informed Congress in February.

The bill won’t be small, and paying for it won’t be popular:

The bill for alleviating these woes will be gigantic. Texas, for example, estimates that it must spend some $100 billion extra on current and new roads to keep up with its anticipated growth over the next quarter-century. Oregon calculates that it needs an additional $1.3 billion a year just to keep its existing transportation network from crumbling. Most states face similar financing gaps — and that’s not including the billions of dollars necessary to update airport security and expand water ports.

Public funds aren’t about to solve this crisis. Rocketing gasoline prices have made it politically unpalatable to increase fuel taxes, and some state and local budgets are already buckling under big annual debt payments from decades of borrowing.

Investors have been willing to pay far, far more for highways than state and local governments thought they would:

The vast differences in valuations highlight essential differences between the private and public sectors. For starters, private financiers investing in these deals — mostly managers of international pension funds — often have a greater taste for risk than do investors in government bonds, who typically require governments to rely on the most conservative revenue projections. The winning consortium in the Chicago Skyway auction estimated that traffic would grow annually by about 3 percent; the city’s own study used a more conservative 1 percent growth rate. The variation of merely a few percentage points of growth, stretched out over decades, helped create the huge divergence in the Skyway’s perceived value.

Further, the Skyway sale transfers risk from the taxpayer to the private owner. If the road’s traffic doesn’t grow as anticipated, the investors must accept a lower rate of return; the taxpayers will already have their money. Of course, if traffic outpaces expectations, the investors get a windfall. The Skyway’s new owners — a partnership between Australia’s Macquarie Bank and a Spanish construction firm — have shown that they intend to make their property live up to the brighter projections. Within three months of closing the deal, they had installed an electronic toll-collection system to help zoom traffic along and assigned additional collectors during rush hour to gather cash more quickly. The result: reduced wait times, boosted Skyway use — and more money coming in. Chicago didn’t bother with any of these reforms when it managed the road, a Macquarie managing director testified before Congress last year. Unlike the city, he said, Macquarie was “heavily incentivized” to run the road efficiently.

For local politicians, shielding public jobs or maintaining jurisdiction over an asset is sometimes more important than improving results. Quasi-public authorities, for instance, now operate many toll roads, bridges, airports, and ports, and too often they serve as patronage mills. To take one example, a federal investigation of a powerful Pennsylvania state senator revealed that the state’s turnpike commission handed out lucrative consulting contracts, paying some $220,000, to one of the senator’s friends, who appeared to have spent most of his time running the pol’s private estate. The investigation has given a huge lift to Governor Ed Rendell’s proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and it is just the latest to uncover patronage and lousy management at the commission — which was supposed to have gone out of business after building the turnpike six decades ago, but today employs about 2,000 people, including 500 administrators, to operate the 537-mile road. “The turnpike commission has traditionally been a patronage cesspool,” says Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank that supports the lease.

Even when outright patronage isn’t involved, civil-service pay scales and cushy union contracts rarely inspire public employees to maximize results. Chicago’s Levenson recommended selling the city’s parking garages, for instance, because they simply didn’t run at capacity, even though they charged less than most competing private garages. “Government is just not set up to give the person supervising those garages a $20,000 bonus if he raises capacity, or fire him if it fails,” says Levenson. In a study that Daniels commissioned after taking office, Indiana found that it spent 34 cents to collect every 15-cent toll. “We would be better off using the honor system,” Daniels quipped.

Tapping the Market For Water in India

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Tapping the Market For Water in India is not easy, despite the apparent need:

After draining this town’s pool of drinking water recently, cleaners found drowned rats and bloated lizards. But at least, as is common at other storage tanks across this parched land in eastern India, there were no dead monkeys.

Kaikaluru’s drinking water, filtered through sand from a nearby pond, is amber in color and alive with microbes. Even so, a survey of the town’s residents showed that half the people still prefer it to a sanitized version dispensed at a new store operated by a tiny Orange County, Calif., company, WaterHealth International Inc.

“The old water is free,” explains Dhana Lakshmi, a 43-year old mother and local resident. Daily, she walks past WaterHealth’s store to a community tap, rather than pay less than half a penny for the company’s five-gallon jug of purified water. Ms. Lakshmi says her family of five earns about 80 rupees a day, or about 40 cents per person. Most families that size go through about five gallons of water a day.

Revenge by Gadget

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Jennifer Saranow notes that “the falling cost of microcontroller chips and the lure of easy online sales” are leading to Revenge by Gadget:

A Tennessee company has created a $50 device that shuts up other people’s dogs by answering their barks with an ultrasonic squeal that humans can’t hear. (The unit is disguised as a birdhouse.) British inventors are exporting a new product for people who hate lousy drivers — it’s a luminescent screen that fits in a car’s rear window and, at the driver’s command, flashes any one of five messages to other motorists. These include a smiley face, a sad face and phrases like “Back Off” and “Idiot.” (Since the product’s U.S. debut, the company says it also has received several requests for images of offensive hand gestures.)

While many of these gadgets are built by small companies or basement tinkerers, the field has caught the attention of graduate students at MIT’s Media Lab, where it is known as “annoyancetech.” Among their recent creations: a “No-Contact Jacket” that, when activated with a controller, delivers a blast of electricity to anyone who touches the person wearing it. During a demonstration in Japan, co-creator Adam Whiton says it drew interest from women who were eager to retaliate against gropers on the subway.

Cleverest crows opt for two tools

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

BBC News notes that the cleverest crows, New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides), opt for two tools when they try to pry out food:

The crows were presented with:
  • A scrap of meat, which was tucked away, out of reach, in a box;
  • A small twig, which was too short to reach the food;
  • And another longer twig, which was long enough to reach the food, but was locked away well out of bill-grabbing range in another box.

The birds surprised the scientists with their quick thinking.

Alex Taylor, lead author of the paper, said: “The creative thing the crows did was to use the short stick to get the long tool out of the box so that they could then use the long stick to get the meat.”

Russell Gray, another author of the paper, told the BBC News website: “What is most amazing is that most of them did this on the first trial.

“The first time we gave them the problem, six out of seven tried to do the right thing.

“They took the little tool and they tried to get the big tool out, which we had made quite hard to reach, and four out of the six managed to get the big tool out and then use this to get to the food.”

In another experiment, the positions of the long and short twigs were reversed.

The team found that all apart from one crow briefly attempted to use the long twig to try to retrieve the short twig from box before quickly correcting their mistake and using the long twig to directly access the food.

The scientists said the crows’ performance was comparable to that of the great apes in similar experiments.

The team believes that because the birds were able to solve the problem on their first attempt they were using analogical reasoning rather than trial and error.

The original article includes a short video of a clever crow in action.

I’ve written before about clever crows. Although they’re good at analogies, they’re terrible at antonyms.

Crown prince of nuclear power

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Michael Copeland of Business 2.0 calls Jerry Grandey of Canada’s Cameco the Crown prince of nuclear power:

Six years ago the spot price of a pound of processed uranium ore, or yellowcake, was less than $10 a pound. Today it has soared to more than $130, and some analysts see it going even higher.

Which puts little-known Cameco and its CEO, Jerry Grandey, in position not just to scoop up easy profit but to grow into a blue-chip energy company on par with giants like Entergy and PG&E.
Most of the world’s 434 nuclear power plants already get their fuel from companies like Cameco, but the demand curve is due for a radical shift. Worldwide, more than 30 new nuclear plants are already under construction. And 200 others are in various stages of planning, including 49 in the United States, where the last new plant was approved in 1979.
Cameco already accounts for 20 percent of worldwide production, owns the world’s biggest uranium refinery, operates a handful of conversion factories, and sells the finished fuel rods. Its customers include more than 20 utilities around the globe.

Beyond those assets is a veritable gold mine of untapped reserves. Sixty miles north of McArthur River, several hundred Cameco workers are busy prepping another site, called Cigar Lake, to open in 2010. Part of a $500 million joint venture with French nuclear power giant Areva, Cigar Lake holds the most highly concentrated uranium reserves in the world — and at 226 million pounds, its size ensures that Cameco’s 20 percent market share is only headed north.
Geologic happenstance filled this part of Saskatchewan, known as the Athabasca Basin, with the world’s highest-grade uranium ore — rock that’s 21 percent uranium, compared with an industry average of 0.15 percent.

The region in which the majority of Cameco’s reserves lie has been called the Saudi Arabia of nuclear power, and Grandey is its crown prince. As Fadi Shadid, an analyst for Virginia-based investment bank Friedman Billings & Ramsey, puts it, “Of the publicly traded uranium companies, nobody is anywhere near the scale of Cameco. They are by far the biggest and baddest.”

An interesting bit of uranium market history:

Despite the accidents at Three Mile Island and, in 1986, Chernobyl, nuclear remained the world’s fastest-growing mode of electrical generation throughout the 1980s. Far more disastrous, ironically, for players like Energy Fuels was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, after which hidden inventories of weapons-grade uranium began flooding the energy market, pushing prices below $10 a pound.

The supply that everyone thought would come from mining was coming instead from dismantled weapons. Grandey chose this moment to bail out of the mining business, selling Energy Fuels in 1990 for some $75 million.
So, while other top uranium producers like Power Resources and Uranerz sold or folded altogether during the 1990s, and with prices stalled out around $10 a pound, Michel and Grandey poured every dollar they could raise or borrow into an $800 million buying spree.

“When nobody wanted uranium assets, we acquired every decent property in Canada, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kazakhstan, and Australia,” Grandey says.

During a five-year stretch, Cameco worked to lock down assets at McArthur River and Cigar Lake, purchased the company’s first stake in a power plant, and watched as sales began to take off with European and Asian utilities. By 2003, Cameco’s revenue had hit $778 million and Grandey was appointed CEO.

“When the industry was in the doldrums, Jerry was a go-getter and pushed things forward,” says Julian Steyn, president of Energy Resources International, a consulting company in Washington, D.C. “Nuclear didn’t look like it was going to have a great future unless you were an optimist. Jerry was one of them.”
Since then, Grandey’s down-market bets have paid off in every way: Cameco’s stock has jumped from $4 a share to $54. Profit has gone from $196 million to $353 million on revenue growing from $778 million to $1.7 billion. By late 2006, the moment for nuclear that Grandey had awaited throughout his entire career seemed to have arrived.

Incidentally, as a law student, Jerry Grandey worked to shut down nuclear power plants.

How Societies Commit Suicide

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Theodore Dalrymple explains How Societies Commit Suicide — by example:

In an effort to ensure that no Muslim doctors ever again try to bomb Glasgow Airport, bureaucrats at Glasgow’s public hospitals have decreed that henceforth no staff may eat lunch at their desks or in their offices during the holy month of Ramadan, so that fasting Muslims shall not be offended by the sight or smell of their food. Vending machines will also disappear from the premises during that period.

Apparently the bureaucrats believe that the would-be bombers were demanding sandwich-free offices in Glasgow hospitals during Ramadan. This kind of absurdity is what happens when the highly contestable doctrine of multiculturalism becomes a career opportunity for the semi-educated and otherwise unemployable products of a grossly and unnecessarily swollen university system.

A Tale of Two Houses

Friday, August 17th, 2007

I don’t normally go in for this kind of thing, but A Tale of Two Houses turned out to be interesting and true:

HOUSE # 1:

A 20-room mansion (not including 8 bathrooms) heated by natural gas. Add on a pool (and a pool house) and a separate guest house all heated by gas. In ONE MONTH ALONE this mansion consumes more energy than the average American household in an ENTIRE YEAR. The average bill for electricity and natural gas runs over $2,400.00 per month. In natural gas alone (which last time we checked was a fossil fuel), this property consumes more than 20 times the national average for an American home. This house is not in a northern or Midwestern “snow belt,” either. It’s in the South.

HOUSE # 2:

Designed by an architecture professor at a leading national university, this house incorporates every “green” feature current home construction can provide. The house contains only 4,000 square feet (4 bedrooms) and is nestled on arid high prairie in the American southwest. A central closet in the house holds geothermal heat pumps drawing ground water through pipes sunk 300 feet into the ground. The water (usually 67 degrees F.) heats the house in winter and cools it in summer. The system uses no fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas, and it consumes 25% of the electricity required for a conventional heating/cooling system. Rainwater from the roof is collected and funneled into a 25,000 gallon underground cistern. Wastewater from showers, sinks and toilets goes into underground purifying tanks and then into the cistern. The collected water then irrigates the land surrounding the house. Flowers and shrubs native to the area blend the property into the surrounding rural landscape.

HOUSE # 1 (20 room energy guzzling mansion) is outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It is the abode of that renowned environmentalist (and filmmaker) Al Gore.

HOUSE # 2 (model eco-friendly house) is on a ranch near Crawford, Texas. Also known as “the Texas White House,” it is the private residence of the President of the United States, George W. Bush.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Interview with Douglas Wolk

Friday, August 17th, 2007

In this Interview with Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics, he discusses which comics to recommend to non-fans:

I was talking with some friends recently about the common mistake of recommending Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, as great as it is, as a starting point for superhero comics as one of them put it, that’s like recommending The Seventh Seal as someone’s first movie! For pure, unencumbered superhero joycore, I love Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman — if you’ve heard of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, you know everything you need to know to enjoy it, and it deepens with repeated reading. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s cruelly witty Alias, about a self-loathing ex-superheroine-turned-P.I., has lots of Easter eggs for the continuity-obsessed, but it probably works even better as a stand-alone story. And if you’re at all into Victorian literature and/or want to sample Moore’s work, the two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (drawn by Kevin O’Neill) are hugely fun on their own, and also illustrate by analogy the way a lot of the best superhero comics and other pulp art work: providing metaphors to illuminate the central concerns of their moment.

Sony to Offer Free Recycling

Friday, August 17th, 2007

Sony to Offer Free Recycling — which is kind of a big deal:

With the cost of dismantling and recycling a TV as much as $60, this is a commendable program from Sony that hopefully other manufacturers will emulate. Dumping cell phones, PCs, TVs, and other gear in landfills is toxic, and there is no easy solution.