28 February 2011

Many Happy Returns

Today my grandmother celebrated her 20 3/4th birthday.  That's right, she's a leapling.  Like Frederic from Pirates of Penzance, Grammie was born on February 29th.  By a cruel twist of fate--or a faulty Gregorian calendar--the extra six hours that it takes the earth to circle the sun each year denies those born on Leap Day a birthday three out of four years.  But don't worry, Grammie makes up for it by throwing parties on both February 28th and March 1st each year not divisible by four.

Coincidentally, Superman was also born on Leap Day (albeit on Krypton).  According to tradition, Kal-El's birthday was February 29th, 1938--not actually a leap day--but Superman can do anything, right?

And so, happy birthday Grammie! (sort of)  Next year makes 21!  

27 February 2011

Man's Best Friend

This is Bodie, my roommate's beagle.  Like most dogs, Bodie likes to sleep, chase his tail, eat sticks, and chew holes in socks.  Sometimes he pees on the carpet, but usually only when girls come over.

I think that we humans could learn a lot from dogs: undying loyalty and admiration, unabashed foolishness, and a healthy balance of making oneself comfortable and everyone else happy.

It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, Harvey: "In this world, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.  Well, for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant."

26 February 2011

Huge on Hugo

Today is Victor Hugo's birthday.  Here are just three few gems:

For a former school teacher-- "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."

In tribute to the Middle East insurrections-- "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come."

And of course-- "To love another person is to see the face of God."

25 February 2011

Battle Beasts

We were talking about favorite childhood toys today, so here is one of my favorites: Battle Beasts.  These were little 2" figurines of weapon-wielding and armor-clad animals such as Pirate Lion, Killer Koala, and War Weasel.  Each warrior belonged to a different tribe, which could be discovered by pressing on a heat-activated shield on their chest.  There were fire, water, and wood tribes which faced off in a never-ending rock-paper-scissors war of attrition.  I have no idea why these--out of all the toys that Marsh and I played with and fought over--are ones that most readily come to mind.

Life Looks for Life

About six weeks ago I posted Pale Blue Dot, the first in a series of promo videos done on NASA's behalf.  Here's the second installment:

I think I could listen to Carl Sagan's voice all day.

23 February 2011

A Smart Streak

Feel good story of the day:  the Caltech men's basketball team broke its 310-game conference losing streak yesterday by beating Occidental 46-45 on a game-winning shot with three seconds left.  That's 26 years of losing for those of you keeping track at home.  (Caltech can claim 31 Nobel Prizes; but Occidental counters with the one awarded to alumnus Barak Obama.)

The Caltech Beavers were the subject of the 2007 documentary, Quantum Hoops.  Check out the trailer below:

22 February 2011

Stop and smell the...roses?

All around campus there are beautiful flowerbeds planted with...upside-down foam paint brushes?  Quite the mystery.  Thanks to the 100-Hour Board, I found out the reason why:
"So what does all this mean?...To a deer, flowers are just like candy. They're bright and colorful, and maybe they don't taste very good, but neither does most cake frosting to humans. Pansies and other flowers cost a heck of a lot of money (you would be shocked to find out how much BYU spends to make campus look nice), and the friendly gardeners of BYU Grounds want to protect their investments of time and money. Here's where the foam paintbrush sticks come in. Deer and wolves aren't exactly friends. Wolves, like dogs, tend to pee on everything to mark their territory. Deer can smell their urine, and know to avoid areas where there are lots of wolves. So what do the gardeners do to protect the flowers from deer? They soak the little foam brushes in wolf urine and plant them in the beds alongside the flowers to keep the deer out. I am not making this up. Kind of neat, huh? 
"At this point, you may have a couple of questions. First, you might be wondering how they get wolf urine in the first place. Well, I can tell you that it comes in jugs and it costs about $40 per quart. As to how it got from the wolf to the jug, I have no idea and would prefer not to think about the specifics of how one (likely a zoo keeper) harvests the stuff....So, we get wolf urine in our flowerbeds. It's not cheap, but it works better than the other methods."
I'm not sure whether I should be impressed, grossed out, and intrigued by how many other wolf "products" are being used around campus.  But now you can be conflicted too.

21 February 2011

Castles Made of Ice

Today my fam went up to Midway to check out the ice castles being built up there.  A few images (none of which were taken by me), and one of the best/saddest songs ever...coincidentally about castles:

20 February 2011

I'm not crazy, I've just a little umwelt

A few weeks ago I posted about the annual World Question: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's intellectual toolkit?'  Here's a favorite entry from David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author:

The Umwelt
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there." Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? In the movie The Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, "Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?" The producer replies, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented." We accept our umwelt and stop there.
To appreciate the amount that goes undetected in our lives, imagine you're a bloodhound dog. Your long nose houses two hundred million scent receptors. On the outside, your wet nostrils attract and trap scent molecules. The slits at the corners of each nostril flare out to allow more air flow as you sniff. Even your floppy ears drag along the ground and kick up scent molecules. Your world is all about olfaction. One afternoon, as you're following your master, you stop in your tracks with a revelation. What is it like to have the pitiful, impoverished nose of a human being? What can humans possibly detect when they take in a feeble little noseful of air? Do they suffer a hole where smell is supposed to be?
Obviously, we suffer no absence of smell because we accept reality as it's presented to us. Without the olfactory capabilities of a bloodhound, it rarely strikes us that things could be different. Similarly, until a child learns in school that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes employ infrared, it does not strike her that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. From my informal surveys, it is very uncommon knowledge that the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it.
Our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt can be seen with color blind people: until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colors does not hit their radar screen. And the same goes for the congenitally blind: being sightless is not like experiencing "blackness" or "a dark hole" where vision should be. As a human is to a bloodhound dog, a blind person does not miss vision. They do not conceive of it. Electromagnetic radiation is simply not part of their umwelt.
The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of the surrounding reality. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but is does not approximate the larger picture. 
I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.

Thunder Lizards

I went through the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point for the first time today.  It was all-in-all pretty awesome, but the best part: dinosaur names.  There was Gargoylesaurus and Bambiraptor (pictured above) and Nanotyrannus, and then a whole bunch of Latin names that meant things like "thick skulled" or "tiny elephant."  So it's decided: I want to be the guy who names dinosaurs.  It's my new calling in life.

18 February 2011

Secrets of Success

I love RadioLab and I love Malcolm Gladwell. Here they are together, in what is in essence a 25 minute synopsis of Outliers.  No matter whether you're familiar with both, either, or neither, this is brilliant.

17 February 2011

What are men to rocks and mountains?

I watched the mountains sink below the moon tonight--a giant rock curtain dropping ever so gradually to reveal a even more massive ball of rock.  And I thought to myself, "If God can do something so magnificent with rocks, what can He do with people?"

Best of Banff

Here is the edit of my favorite film from this year's shows, Life Cycles.

14 February 2011

Valentine's: the good ol' days

I hope your Valentine's Day was nice, but I can guarantee it wasn't as exciting as its pagan origins.  As with many of our excellent holidays, our Christian forebears co-opted a more raucous "heathen" affair, tagged it with the name of a saint, and repackaged it in Hallmark-ed splendor.

But back in Roman days, Valentine's was better known as Lupercalia, a fertility festival honoring Rome's own "Wolfmother", Lupa, who reared the twins Remus and Romulus Mowgli-style.  For the festival, two priests would sacrifice a pair of goats and a dog, cover themselves in blood, and-- along with the rest of the male population-- run through the streets brandishing the animal skins and using them to lightly flog the womenfolk.

Because nothing says "I love you" like being whipped with a bloody goat pelt.

13 February 2011

Cupid's Eros

Tomorrow we honor everyone's favorite Pampers-clad deity, Cupid (Eros to those of you who prefer Greek gods).  This fickle archer's arrows came in two varieties: gold-tipped, dove-feathered arrows that caused their target to become rapturously in love with the first thing in sight; and lead-tipped, owl-feathered arrows that had the opposite effect.  When Cupid used these in combination, as he did with Apollo (who made fun of him) and Daphne, it made for certain heartbreak--and coincidentally the most incredibly beautiful piece of sculpture I have ever seen.

If I were to take over Cupid's job for a day, I think I would use an entire quiver of lead arrows on the newly-engaged couple at church who are sick-clingy.  The gold arrows I would reserve for elderly couples, because there are few things sweeter than seeing octogenarians hold hands.

What would you do?

12 February 2011

Quote of the Week

From Indiana governor Mitch Daniels-- budgeting never sounded so patriotic.

"In our nation, in our time, the friends of freedom have an assignment, as great as those of the 1860s, or the 1940s, or the long twilight of the Cold War. As in those days, the American project is menaced by a survival-level threat. We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before. We cannot deter it; there is no countervailing danger we can pose. We cannot negotiate with it, any more than with an iceberg or a Great White.

"I refer, of course, to the debts our nation has amassed for itself over decades of indulgence. It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink.…

"If a foreign power advanced an army to the border of our land, everyone in this room would drop everything and look for a way to help. We would set aside all other agendas and disputes as secondary, and go to the ramparts until the threat was repelled. That is what those of us here, and every possible ally we can persuade to join us, are now called to do. It is our generational assignment. It is the mission of our era.…

"All great enterprises have a pearl of faith at their core, and this must be ours: that Americans are still a people born to liberty. That they retain the capacity for self-government. That, addressed as free-born, autonomous men and women of God-given dignity, they will rise yet again to drive back a mortal enemy.…

"I've always loved John Adams’ diary entry, written en route to Philadelphia, there to put his life, liberty, and sacred honor all at risk. He wrote that it was all well worth it because, he said, "Great things are wanted to be done.'"

11 February 2011

You can be a loser at the game of Life!

I came across this video board game drawing attention to the plight of the unemployed.  It's kind of sad, but I can't stop thinking about it.  The premise: survive the month. Check it out at http://playspent.org

10 February 2011

Proud & Prejudiced

Tonight I finished reading Pride and Prejudice.  Truly fantastic read.  A favorite quote:

"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"

09 February 2011

Boiler Express is open!

In the greatest comeback since Lazarus, the Broiler Express is once again open for business.  I've lived in Utah for the better part of a decade and this once-and-evidently-future burger king has always been a shuttered staple of Provo's soaring skyline.  Like a backdrop straight out of Scooby-Doo, the Broiler Express was eternally vacant and creepy, its rusting slide a relic from an era when playgrounds were unsafe...and therefore fun.

But no longer.  As I drove to school this morning my attention was caught by red and yellow flags: the invariable colors of fast food establishments.  I thought about it all day--no benefit to my accounting grade, I assure you--and decided that I had to investigate further.  Sure enough, tonight I was able to walk right in and order myself a Butch Cassidy (burger w/bacon and onion rings), a little too eagerly perhaps; the girl behind the counter didn't quite understand why I wanted to take pictures of the menu.

The food was decent, but if you want any, I suggest you hit up the Broiler Express ASAP.  Although technically open, the place was as empty as it ever has been (employees excluded).  I'm afraid that the ol' Broiler won't stay in business very long.  If nature abhors a vacuum, then Broiler Express abhors nature.       

08 February 2011

Freaky Books, Part II

Tonight's episode features another maritime disaster: the sinking of the Titan.

Yes, you read that right.  The Titan, not the Titanic.  You see, in 1898, American author Morgan Robertson wrote a novella entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan.  The book details the maiden voyage of a colossal luxury liner--by all accounts "unsinkable"--which crashes into a North Atlantic iceberg in April, sending the ship to the icy depths along with half its passengers, owing to an inexcusable lack of lifeboats.

Fourteen years later, as if following Robertson's novel like a script, the Titanic set sail.  The similarities are uncanny.  A tale of the tape:

  • The name, for starters.  They were just asking for trouble there.
  • The time and place.  Both disasters occurred in April, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
  • The enormous and unprecedented size of the ships. Titan: 800 ft.  Titanic 889 ft.
  • The number of passengers. Titan: 2500. Titanic: 2207.
  • The lack of lifeboats. Titan: 24.  Titanic: 20.
  • The speed of the ships as they crashed.  Titan: 25 knots.  Titanic: 22.5 knots.    
I will, however, point out that they were sailing in opposite directions.  This Robertson guy really screwed that one up.  Sheesh.

The Life of Poe

I loved Yann Martel's Life of Pi.  Absolutely one of the best books I've read over the last few years.  And I can also support a little Edgar Allen Poe stint on occasion.  So I was trebly pleased when I randomly came across an eerie connection between them.  And so it goes:  

If you've read Martel's masterpiece you will certainly remember Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger and raft-mate of the title character.  You may also remember that the tiger received his unusual name through a clerical error: caught as a cub and initially named Thirsty, the customs clerk accidentally swapped the names of the tiger and the hunter who caught it, Richard Parker.  The name stuck.

What you may not know, however, is why Martel chose that particular name to begin with: as a homage to a certain be-ravened poet.  Poe wrote exactly one full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the story of a whaling ship cast adrift after a terrible storm.  Among the book's several gruesome adventures, the four surviving (and increasingly starved) crew members draw lots to see who will be sacrificed in order to feed the others.  The man selected to feed his cannibalistic comrades--none other than Richard Parker.  And so we have a namesake.  (Poe's protagonist also had a stowaway dog named Tiger.  Coincidence?  I think not.) 

But this is when things get really weird.  Forty-six years after Poe publishes his novel, a whaler is shipwrecked and cast adrift off the Cape of Good Hope.  This time... the four surviving (and increasingly starved) crew members draw lots to see who will be sacrificed in order to feed the others.  The man selected to feed his cannibalistic comrades--none other than Richard Parker.  

And yes, I copied those last sentences--because the same thing happened!  But in real life!  That alone has to make Poe the king of all freaky authors!  It also makes Martel's choice of Richard Parker that much cooler.

(As an aside, this bizarre case formed the basis of a famous maritime trial, R. vs Dudley and Stephens--which I vaguely remember studying in some ethics class--and which has formed a legal basis for cannibalism as a key part of the "Custom of the Sea.")

07 February 2011


Perhaps the most widely acclaimed Super Bowl commercial ever was Apple's "1984" ad introducing the Macintosh.  It was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Legend, Gladiator), but rather than describe it, I'll just put it in here:

In honor of that commercial, I have designed my own ad for next year's Super Bowl.  Here's a rough edit:

05 February 2011

I'll also need a super plate and super utensils...

I read somewhere that Americans consume more calories on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year, except Thanksgiving.  Tomorrow I will live up to that factoid.  An abbreviated menu:

  • Stuffed Mini-peppers
  • Assorted Drinks
  • Bagel Bites
  • Rice Krispie Treats (cut in football shapes, of course)
  • Seven-layer Dip
  • Bucket o'Licorice
  • Li'l Smokies
  • Celery Fingers (for health purposes)
  • Cream Cheese and Chili Dip
  • Choco-Fondue & fixings
  • A Rootbeer Keg (courtesy of Bob Shaw)
  • Oops All Berries!
This doesn't include whatever else people bring along.  The only thing better than watching 300-pound behemoths smash into each other is simultaneously becoming one of them.

04 February 2011

Best BYU Beard (other than Brother Brigham, of course)

Awarded to Brett Keisel, a former Coug and current member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So I admit that I might be a little too fascinated by facial hair.  But, c'mon, with the scholastic restriction and the Giants' World Series and all, cut me some slack.  Besides, just look at that glorious thing!


I found out today that Pepsico makes Cap'n Crunch.  But I can't change my allegiance away from Coke; that would be like breaking the "circle of honor."  It's a moral paradox.

02 February 2011

Alpine Glow: Winter in Utah

Shivering houses crowd the mountain like scree, huddled close as if to draw heat from its ancient magma-roots.  Their grey-brown sides and snow-capped roofs ripple out like weak echoes of the mountain itself, frail and deliberate compared to the crags looming overhead.  Icicles of light pierce the houses as the wintry sun burrows into the western hills, it too seeking shelter from the cold, crystalline sky.          

And then--just before darkness and ice envelop it all--the windows catch fire.  The flames race from pane to pane, and for the briefest moment I am warm.

01 February 2011

And Boom Goes the Napoleon Dynamite

In the absence of any original thought from today, here is the best thing I read:

From The History of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1921

"Here I am sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness for carbon paper, and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead. My own grandfather did this and Heaven knows he was not born to be a hero. Millions of other people’s grandfathers did it. They received no reward, but they expected none. They cheerfully gave legs and arms and lives to serve this foreigner, who took them a thousand miles away from their homes and marched them into a barrage of Russian or English or Spanish or Italian or Austrian cannon and stared quietly into space while they were rolling in the agony of death."