To Read Later

A few weeks ago I found out about a very nice Firefox extension called Read It Later. It allows one to easily save links in a list to be read later: you get a “check mark” on the address bar that you can simply click on to save the page you’re looking at (much like the star used to bookmark a page). You can also right-click on a link to save it directly from the context menu. More importantly, you can sync the list between different browser installations (say, home and work) and you can also access the list from anywhere by going directly to the website (they even have an iPhone interface) or via an RSS feed.

As I said, I liked it straight away and started using it; it’s very convenient. There’s only one problem: it assumes that, even though you don’t have time to read something now, you will have time later. I’ve been finding out that this is not necessarily the case, as the size of my list has been growing almost monotonically since. I guess I need to cut down on my reading ambitions.

Back

I’ve been back in Melbourne since Tuesday, and by now I’m almost fully recovered from the jet lag and the very long flights. Pictures are forthcoming.

Some quick random notes about the US:

  • the last time I went there was in 1999; lots of things changed since them, and they seem to have become a bit too paranoid about security (not that this is news to anyone); going through security checkpoints in airports is hell
  • that said, going through immigration on arrival was a breeze, and everyone was very polite
  • I fully expected free wi-fi to be much more prevalent than it actually is; in NY, you can find free access points in some parks (I used the one on Bryant Park, behind the public library) and in Apple stores, but in not many other places (paid wi-fi is everywhere, though)
  • also not news, but… Las Vegas is unbelievably hot in summer; the average summer day there is about as hot as the hottest days in Melbourne
  • the number of weird people per square km is much higher in the US than in Australia; the best one I’ve seen was a guy walking down the street with a cat sitting on the top of his head (and yes, I have a picture)
  • I’ve met Adam Savage; that was very cool

More details soon.

Don’t try this at home

In the US, before each episode of Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie ask people never to try at home what they’re going do in the show (in Australia this warning is not shown, for some reason).

This is why. (and this is the episode I’m talking about) (this one too)

Random April Fool’s Notes

G’day Mate: tomorrow’s Internet, today. Courtesy of Google Australia.


By the way, the theme of Google’s jokes today seems to be “time travel”. Speaking of which, someone in today’s Buzz Out Loud was complaining that, because April 1st starts early in Australia, they were seeing jokes on 31 March. Well, spare a tought for the Australians who will only see the American jokes on 02 April, waaaay too late for them to be funny.


And this has got to be a joke: Sydney’s stressed brains are shrinking, says the ABC. “Stress from high house prices and sporting failures is shrinking Sydneysiders’ brains, compared to those of their counterparts in Melbourne”. Well, I knew I had picked the right city!


Best Seinfeld episode ever: The Marine Biologist. Best Friends episode ever: The One With All The Haste (but not with Channel Ten’s cuts). Best McGyver episode ever: Hell Week (close second: Ugly Duckling). Just thought I’d say it.

quarterlife

In 1987, the American ABC network started broadcasting a show created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, of The Bedford Falls Company, with music by W. G. “Snuffy” Walden. “thirtysomething” (not capitalised) was a drama dealing with the lives of, well, thirty-somethings: the main characters are Michael and Hope Steadman, interfaith couple (he is Jewish, she’s Christian) with two kids; other characters include Elliot, who works with Michael in advertising; Michael’s sister Melissa; Elliot’s wife Nancy, who develops cancer later in the series; Michael’s former roommate Gary, who dates Melissa but then marries Susannah and later dies in a car crash, just as Nancy recovers from cancer; and a few others. It was a show about real life without being about anything in particular; it’s sort of a drama version of Seinfeld. It was very well received by critics and public, and aired for four seasons (85 episodes in total); it also won one Golden Globe and several Emmys.

I first heard about this show in the early 90s, and I first watched an episode in 1996 or 1997, when a cable network in the US was showing repeats every night. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that I wasn’t then in my 30s (I am now). This is one show I would like to buy in DVD, but it’s not legally available (there are a few illegal versions that you can buy on the net, but they’re not cheap and the quality — so I’m told — is very poor). Apparently there’s a company now working in restoring the original film stock used in the series and converting it to digital formats, which might be a first step towards releasing a set of DVDs…

Update 10 May 2009: the DVD is coming! Season 1 is available for pre-order from Amazon.com, to be released in 25 August. You can pre-order it from here: thirtysomething: The Complete First Season

A few years later, in 1994, the same ABC network started broadcasting another show created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, with music by W. G. “Snuffy” Walden. “My So-Called Life” wasn’t too different from “thirtysomething”, but it focused on another period of life: the high school years. The main character is Angela (brilliantly played by Claire Danes), who is in the process of finding her place in life — as are most teenagers at this time of their lives. We also get to know Brian, the geeky neighbour who’s in love with Angela; Jordan, the not-so-smart handsome guy Angela’s in love with; Rayanne, the party girl; Rickie, the latino bisexual friend of Rayanne’s (and later Angela’s); Graham and Patty, Angela’s parents, also going through interesting changes; and many others. This show was also loved by critics, and had (still has, in fact) a huge and amazingly dedicated following. Not huge enough for ABC (or maybe not huge enough at the time), as the show ran for only one season of 19 episodes. It still managed to win a Golden Globe that year (for Claire Danes).

Once again, when I first watched this show (probably in 1995) I was not in the right age bracket. Still, I fell in love with the show. I could see myself as Brian, and the way Angela showed the indecision of the teenage years was very convincing; it was beautiful. And the parts of the plot involving her parents were sort of a “fortysomething” embedded in the middle of the show. I used to have all the episodes in VHS (recorded from MTV, oddly enough), but those are long gone… I do have the soundtrack CD, though (as I do for “thirtysomething”).

Not long after, in 1996, ABC did it again with “Relativity”, another Herskovitz/Zwick show with soundtrack by Mr Walden. This one was about two twentysomethings who meet in Italy, fall in love and continue their relationship after they get back to the US; it dealt mostly with family relationships and the interaction between the relatives of the main characters. It was also short-lived: despite a large fan following, it was cancelled after 17 episodes. In 1999, the trio had a bit more luck, as their new series, “Once and Again”, had three full seasons, with a total of 63 episodes. I have to say that I watched the first few episodes of “Relativity” and didn’t like it that much, and I’ve never watched a full episode of “Once and Again”… it’s in my list for the future, though.

Which finally takes me to the point of this post. Last month, NBC aired in the US the first episode of a new series by Herskovitz and Zwick, “quarterlife” (once again, no capitals). It is a peculiar series, as it was first shown online: starting last November, short episodes were released every few days, and NBC “stitched” them together to show them as a regular 48-minute TV episode. It is about a group of twenty-somethings; the main character, Dylan, is a hopeful writer who works for a women’s magazine and keeps a video blog where she talks about her life and her friends. All other characters are somehow artistically inclined (a dancer, two film producers etc.), and the website of the series actually acts as a social network for artists. I’m not sure how it did online, but it didn’t work too well for NBC: they cancelled the show after airing a single episode (of a total of six that were produced; the other five were aired, all together, on cable a few days ago, and everything is still available online).

My impression of that first episode was that it showed some promise, but it was probably trying to hard to be “cool”. I don’t know why the ratings were so low as they were, though; it was not a particularly bad show, and I don’t think everyone had watched it online already. Sadly, we’ll never see whether it would deliver a good result… at the end of the day, Herskovitz and Zwick (and their company) have a track record of producing TV of great quality, which doesn’t always attracts that much of an audience as one would expect. Their shows are always very close to real life and real situations, and they make you think, and feel for (and with) the characters. That’s not something you see every day.

Random TV Notes

I’m pretty sure the Oscar ceremony shown on Channel 9 was “abridged”. I don’t remember seeing the award for best foreign language film, and I’m 100% sure the award for best documentary short was not shown (in fact, I think the award for best documentary feature was only shown because one of the winners is Australian) — the rather sudden appearance of Tom Hanks on the stage was a give away. Also, there wasn’t any mention of the scientific and engineering awards ceremony; they usually show a short clip during the main ceremony.


If “Duck Power Cleaner” kills 99.9% of the germs, it also selectively breeds the strongest 0.1% of the germs. Think about it.


I’ve yet to find a cat that sits as passively as the one in the ad while that Revolution anti-flea medication is applied. They don’t like the smell of the product and they’re not very fond of cold, wet products being applied on the back of their necks.

Blue eyes

There were reports in the news recently about findings by researchers at the University of Copenhagen that show that all people with blue eyes share a single ancestor. This ancestor was supposedly the first person to express a gene mutation responsible for producing blue eyes; he or she lived in eastern Europe (probably around what’s Ukraine today) between 6 and 10 thousand years ago and all persons living today who have pure blue eyes (as opposed to blue eyes with brown spots/rings) are related through him/her.

Well, I have blue eyes (so do Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz; hi there, cousins!), and I mentioned this report to my wife; she asked “how do they know that?”. I started to answer something about looking at genetic details and then I realised… I didn’t really know. So I went after this information.

Looking for this on the net I found many copies of the same press release, with small changes here and there. It took me a while to find a link to the original article with the research results, and I have to say that it’s not an easy read for someone (like me) who is not a researcher in the area. Still, a few things were somewhat clear, and merging information from the article and from the press release I think I understand how they came to their conclusions.

So, the answer to “how do they know?” is, they actually don’t: they assume this is what happened, with a very high degree of confidence, due to what they found in the genes of the people they’ve surveyed.

Basically, the “normal” eye colour for human beings is brown; up to the moment when the blue-eye mutation first occurred, everybody had brown eyes. There’s a large degree of variation in the gene that codes for brown eyes, which indicates that it’s an “old” gene (in fact, it is shared with many other mammal species with brown/yellow eyes — other primates, cows, cats etc.). This also has the effect of introducing large variations in the actual colour of the eye (from pure brown to very dark brown almost black, to hazel, to blue with brown spots. to blue with brown ring around the pupil, to grey, to green — yes, green eyes are a variation of brown), due to differences in the amount of melanin in the iris.

People with blue eyes, on the other hand, display almost no variation in the gene coding for eye colour (and, hence, in the amount of melanin in the iris); they (well, we) all display the exact same mutation in the same location of the same gene, which causes an iris almost devoid of melanin. This indicates that the mutation is very recent and, at the same time, point to what the authors refer to as a “common founder” mutation – that is, a mutation that spread from a single person. As far as I could tell from the article, the date and geographical location of the original mutation is determined from the prevalence of the mutation in current populations and our knowledge of human migrations in the last 10,000 years.

Interestingly, the article does mention that the very high frequency of blue-eyed individuals in some areas of the globe (say, Scandinavia) indicates that this is a trait that is positively selected; that is, blue-eyed individuals have historically had a better reproductive success, at least in these areas (and this makes it harder to calculate the age of the original mutation). The reason for that advantage is not clear; it could be related to vitamin D absorption in high latitudes, or even to sexual selection (blue-eyed people being more successful in attracting partners). Your guess is as good as mine (and the authors’).

So, here it is; that’s how they know that.

Random Sunday Notes

Until very recently, I though all news headlines refering to “Fergie” were talking about Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. That made for some interesting moments.


Early morning in the city; girl in her 20s is running alone, wearing a t-shirt that says “Helsinki City Run”. At the corner of Elizabeth and Franklin she stops and looks around, seemingly very confused. I guess she was in the wrong city.


If I ever become the dictator of a small country (not that this is in my career plan), I will decree that car alarms going off in residential areas will be punished with the impounding and destruction of the car. Even if the car was being robbed.

Miruku

For reasons that will become clear in the next few months, I’ve been recently browsing travel books about Japan. Amidst all the comments on the, say, interesting cultural aspects of the Japanese people, one thing that I found particularly puzzling was the number of Japanese words that seem to be derived from English words, adapted to the local pronunciation rules.

For example: “milk” is “miruku” (ミルク) (“l” sounds become “r”, consonants are always followed by a vowel); “beer” is “biiru” (ビール); and at least one book claims that “water” is “uota”, but that seems to apply only to mineral water; the “standard” water is “mizu” (水). And that’s only in the “beverages” chapter!

So, what has me puzzled is… what happened to the “original” words for these things? It seems obvious to me that the Japanese would have had words for beer and milk before being contacted by English speakers; the original words must have somehow been displaced by the imported ones. It is a common process for a language to acquire words from others, but it’s not so common that this would happen to words that are so regularly used.

Very interesting… I hope to find out what process caused this.

Bill Maher is my hero

Seriously. Watch the video below. No further comments needed.