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Saturday 20 July 2002, 23:55 BST
The Talent Myth. A really good essay by Malcolm Gladwell on what the failure of Enron tells us about the fate of companies which indulge their high-flyers.

I think Gladwell is right about the deleterious effects of the "talent mind-set" on organisations, but his emphasis on Enron serves to distract from the central issue. Enron's problems had more to do with shady business practices and buying political influence than it did the company's personnel policies.

[Via Arts & Letters Daily]
Over at 8[letters], Iain tells us that he's noticed a few unofficial modifications to the Tube maps. Space Invaders is a particular favourite (and not just because Mars Attacks! is on TV as I type this!)

[Via the null device]
Friday 19 July 2002, 23:20 BST
Real life theatre, as witnessed by Michele:
scene: local conglomerate drugstore
players: 2 college age workers stacking shelves with soda

Guy: Hey, that guy was staring at your tits!
Girl: Nah, I don't think so. I've seen him in here before and I think he's gay.
Guy: Honey, even gay guys like tits.
Girl: No they don't!
Guy: Trust me on this one, ok?
Sound Pilot would drive me nuts:
Sound Pilot creates the romantic sound atmosphere as it was at the times of the typewriters, at the time of Remingtons. At every touch of the keyboard there is the new sound, which makes the process of typing more interesting, amuses and reduces stress.
[Via NTK]
Thursday 18 July 2002, 22:30 BST
The Cyberbox Statistics Toolbox presents a collection of reports on everything from the Incidence of Cyberchondriacs in the Big Four Pharmaceutical Markets: January 2002 to Worldwide Application Server Vendors Market Share.

Although there's something of a bias towards reports on the US internet business there's plenty of potentially useful material for just about anyone with a yen for some hard data (subject, of course, to that maxim about lies and damned lies.)

[Via pop-up toaster]
Howard Rheingold sees the battle between the Content Faction and the Tech Faction as an attempt to rein in the smart mobs.

[Via Boing Boing]
Robot Art is home to a collection of retro robots created by Lawrence Northey. Northey's creations are simply gorgeous. I particularly like Chantecler Eldorado (1998): when was the last time that you came across a robot who surfs?

[Via I Love Everything]
Wednesday 17 July 2002, 23:35 BST
Science Made Stupid.
The Sun, Moon and Earth

The sun and the moon are the two most important heavenly bodies in our daily lives.

The sun is the source of all Earth's energies. This is important because one day we're going to get the bill. The surface of the sun sometimes erupts into giant bursts of flame, or solar flares, which can disrupt radio and TV communication on Earth. This is yet another of the sun's beneficial effects.

Blemishes called sunspots also mar the sun's face. Sunspots appear and disappear in a complex regular cycle. Statistical analyses of these cycles have shown them to be significantly related to stock market fluctuations, presidential elections and skirt lengths.

The moon is our nearest neighbor in space. Its cold, airless surface is covered with craters and broad seas called maria. This is the origin of the popular lunar song "They Call the Maria Wind."

[Via Boing Boing]
Amazon have released an API which will make it easy for web developers to incorporate Amazon content in their own sites. This goes way beyond merely having an Amazon Associates link: you can take Amazon's content and reformat it to match your site, and do much more besides.

Already there are a couple of interesting examples up showing just what's possible. Amazon Light allows you to search Amazon via a Google-style interface, whereas this map of similar products demonstrates how Amazon's API permits a very different presentation of Amazon's data.

There are limits on how you can use the Amazon data - for example, Amazon forbid your using the API to mine Amazon's database of books and use that data to construct links to a competing online bookseller - but hopefully given a bit of time a few hundred developers will create some really nice applications for us all to play with.
The results of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for 2002 have been announced. Ms Rephah Berg is a worthy winner:
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
There's a certain sameness to a lot of this year's winners and honourable mentions, but there are a couple of real gems among the dishonourable mentions:
It was then that Caroline remembered her kitchen back in Montana, with a stove that she might or might not have turned off, and so with a heavy sigh, she put down the penguin.

(Mona E. Xu)
It had started off as a prank, but when Major Elyse Livesay discovered (during her solo space walk, no less!) the tarantula that the boys in the crew had slipped into her spacesuit, she knew that while in space no one could hear you scream, it was damn sure not for lack of trying.

(Matthew Chambers)
Lyssa over at miss bitch thinks that Date::Tolkien::Shire.pm is horribly geeky. I can't imagine what she means - it strikes me as a neat little hack.

(And yet somehow I only got 46.9% on the Nerd Test! Go figure...)

[Nerd Test via nocto]
Can I just say that the producers of ER really needn't have bothered showing us Mark Greene's final weeks.

The way they announced the character's death last week, with Carter reading out a fax from Elizabeth Corday, was just fine. A clean break - which, after all, is how most of the characters received the news - would have made for a refreshing change.

The "fixing Rachel" episode didn't really mean anything. We haven't really got to know Rachel this season other than as an irritant for Lizzie and a source of angst for Mark, so given that we know full well that Rachel will go off to live with Jen and never be seen again why would we care about whether she came to terms with her father's mortality?

As for saying goodbye to Mark, I thought they should have killed him off after his first bout with cancer rather than pull a miraculous surgical procedure out of a hat at the 11th hour, so I didn't really care too deeply when his symptoms returned. The only really interesting consequences of Mark's death at this stage will be a) how Carter goes about "setting the tone", and b) what happens to Lizzie Corday. I really liked her relationship with Benton, almost enough to make me wish the grumpy bugger was back at County General so they could get together again.
Tuesday 16 July 2002, 23:00 BST
Over at plasticbag.org, Tom has noticed something:
Why the hell hasn't anyone apart from me noticed that Six Feet Under is like the indie Dallas it's ok to like? I mean you've got the good natured, idealistic, scruffy one and his nervous, edgy, spiky partner. You have the mother who's the head of the family - the dead oppressive father in the background. And we finally know why JR was such a bastard and why he had to muck around with so many women - desperately trying to prove that he's not a repressed poof left in charge of the business. And there's even another company trying to take them over. All you need is the Funeral Barons Ball!
Did you know this week marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of air conditioning. Not something of enormous significance over here in the UK, but it's made a big difference in less temperate climes. As one academic puts it:
How important, then, was the invention of air conditioning? Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York, was asked that question by Newsday. He answered: "Air conditioning had a fundamental demographic and economic impact on the country, contributing along with the civil rights movement.... If I had to make an estimate, it's about 50-50 in terms of the importance of the two of them."
[Via Techdirt]
I saw Spider-Man this evening. I was very impressed. Sam Raimi handled the direction with his customary verve, all the leads gave spot on performances, and the writers told a coherent, well-plotted origin story in about two hours. The time flew by, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. But then, Peter Parker's story speaks to geeks everywhere in a way that, say, Bruce Wayne's doesn't.

Special mention has to go to J K Simmons for his barnstorming performance as J Jonah Jameson: not only did he steal every scene he was in, but he delivered the best deadpan line of the entire film. ("I trust my barber.") It took me quite a while to realise that I was watching that black-hearted bastard Vern Schillinger from Oz. My one quibble, as with Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones, is with the deployment of CGI versions of human beings in "stunt" situations where they just aren't sufficiently convincing. I didn't mind the animated Spiderman in most of the flying, fighting and jumping scenes, but the scene where Peter Parker is testing his powers by running across the rooftops while wearing his "civilian" clothing looked very fake. Once he was in his Spiderman outfit and the animators didn't have to try to draw a convincing human face things improved enormously in the CGI department.

In my book, Spider-Man is the best film based on a comic book since Blade. I'm very keen to see a sequel. I just hope they use Doc Ock as the main supervillain next time round.
Monday 15 July 2002, 22:40 BST
"Nothing like this will be built again." Charlie Stross obviously got a lot of geekish pleasure out of his visit to the Torness Advanced Gas-Cooler Reactor.
I can report that, standing on top of an operational 600 MW nuclear reactor weighing several thousand tons, all you can feel is a slight rumbling vibration like distant traffic felt through a road surface -- there's no indication that metres below your feet, hundreds of tons of gas compressed to conditions more normally associated with the surface of Venus are being blasted through the guts of a radioactive inferno.

The reactor vessel itself is immensely thick, held under constant tension by masses of steel cables: the only thing remotely similar to it that I can point to is a suspension bridge's supports. It's literally woven into a cocoon of steel wire strands, bundled into thousands of inch-thick cables. Crash a fully laden 747 into it, and the plane would simply smear itself across its surface. I've been around a heavy cruiser, and that's about the only thing I've ever seen that came close to giving the same impression of engineering solidity. Whoever designed these things didn't believing in using half-inch steel plate where two-inch plate would do.
Now that's what I call good, old-fashioned heavy engineering.
WHEDONesque is a community weblog devoted to the works of the man, the master, Joss Whedon. Unfortunately it's likely to be far too riddled with spoilers for this BBC2-viewing fan, but it looks as if it's going to become an essential Buffy/Angel/Firefly resource.

[Via Ann Elizabeth: Words]
Sunday 14 July 2002, 20:55 BST
Dave Langford reminds science fiction fans of How Others See Us:
The Bookseller reacted predictably to a grumble about snobbish literary attitudes. `You hear this sort of thing all the time from SF wallahs, who bang on about the Booker Prize and never seem to take the pleasure they should in the fact that they are Not As Other People. In fact I am contemplating a series of riotously funny fantasy novels set entirely in Chipworld, a self-contained universe that hovers permanently just above Terry Pratchett's shoulder.'

[Via Ansible 179]
Sinatra could act. Shawn Levy reminds us just how big a multi-media success Frank Sinatra was back in his heyday.

I'm not sure who the modern day equivalent of Sinatra would be. Will Smith? He's had comparable box-office success, albeit mostly with more audience-pleasing fare, but his musical career doesn't begin to compare. Eminem? Come back when he's done half a dozen feature films and as many more albums and we'll see. Jennifer Lopez? She's quite capable of delivering the goods as an actress (see, for example, Out of Sight), but her musical career seems unlikely to last long.

[Via dust from a distant sun]
James Fallows has started a fascinating dialogue with Kevin Phillips, author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

The exchange pointed out an article Phillips wrote for The Nation focusing on the political consequences of inherited wealth and the change in attitudes to great wealth that started in the 1980s and are now the received wisdom.
Submarine Mein. A terrific picture from MSNBC's The Week In Pictures. (NB/- if that link doesn't work, try this one.)

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