Monday, June 29, 2009

Wind Power

As I was driving along Interstate 5 last Friday, I listened to Science Friday on NPR. Listen to this program for the latest on wind power.

windmills over i-580 2


  • Wind power could provide several times the power consumed today worldwide
  • Capital costs are higher for wind turbines than coal and natural gas
  • Fuel costs for wind (free) are much lower than coal and natural gas
  • Investment are required in the electric distribution grid to move power from windy areas to large populations
  • In the short term, more efficient consumption of energy may have a greater impact on reducing fossil fuel use than conversion to alternative energy sources

I recommend listening to the program for specifics. It's about ten minutes of audio. The guests, Revis James, Director of the Energy Technology Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute, and Michael McElroy, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Harvard University, present good practical trade-offs and theoretical analysis of deploying wind turbines.

When I turned off I-5 to I-580 to return to San Francisco, I looked at all the wind turbines above the freeway. It would be great if we figure out how to harness all that free power.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two-for-One Laptops

My friend Jim told me about VirtualBox a year ago. I didn't think much about it at the time, but I downloaded it for my laptop, and then I downloaded it on my desktop. Now, inside the VirtualBox, I run Ubuntu Linux on my netbook (Windows XP) that I carry with me on trips, and on my iMac (Mac OS X) at home. All this for free! Why, you might ask, does this matter?

A couple of weeks ago, I met a guy who's at a virtualization start-up. He told me about a large law firm in Silicon Valley whose lawyers like to work away from the office, probably on beaches or in ski chalets. Their problem? When these lawyers traveled, they had to carry two laptops, one from their IT department with all the approved applications and security, the other with all their Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, photo, video, game, and other personal stuff.

Then someone in the IT department figured out what I figured out at home. They could deploy virtual desktops that run on the lawyers' laptops. Problem solved! The lawyers now carry a laptop of their choice (well, it has to have x86 chips inside) with all their personal stuff on it, and run a virtual machine that does what their second IT-issue laptop used to do. It's a two-for-one laptop. The lawyers are happy to carry one laptop instead of two. The IT department is happy because they buy fewer machines and deploy the same the apps and security as before.

You'd think VMware would clean up in this market. I think the market is still fragmented enough for new entrants.

In fact, companies like MokaFive and Doyenz are entering the virtualization market with different technologies and market focus. On the technology side, there are differences in how much of the virtual software goes on a server (so-called cloud computing) versus on the end-user device. On the market focus side, all these companies are approaching different verticals with different packages of solutions. One solution you've probably known about for a while, but never thought of in this context, is the virtual PBX offered as a service from RingCentral and Google Voice (formerly GrandCentral).

Cloud computing may be one of the reasons Oracle is buying Sun. Virtualization in Solaris has a huge performance advantage over VMWare's virtualization using hyperviser. According to Forbes,
What Solaris offers IT is a top-to-bottom engineered approach to virtualization where the hardware, the hypervisor, the OS and the ZFS file system are all designed to deliver optimal performance and manageability. Solaris Containers are a lightweight but powerful virtualization option with very low processing overhead (2% vs. about 20% for a hypervisor). Linux will get there but at a slower pace as the multiple parties involved negotiate with each other.
Of course, Oracles also gets VirtualBox as part of the deal. That tells me there will lots more competition and new products in the virtualization space soon.

But, why wait? You can do it all in the safety of your home today.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Music To Write To

Writing means spending time by myself. It's not lonely, with all my characters around to entertain me. Sometimes I play music while I write to keep the party going.

Not all music works for me. As much as I love Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter, for instance, it's hard for me to hear the words I'm writing when a fine singer is singing someone else's fine words.

Heavy Metal is totally out. First of all, I hate the boring predictability and drippy testosterone of the genre — distracting and clichéd, which is the opposite of how I want my writing to sound. Second, my next door neighbor plays the worst examples of it at full volume. That means I either need ear plugs when I write, or something I can play to drown out the heavy bass.

For some reason, what I like mostly when I write is tango. Oddly, when I spoke to Nawaaz Ahmed about his writing time, he said the same thing. Tango is best for writing.

Maybe the inspiration was a concert of tango music last year at the Moab Music Festival. Paquito D'Rivera and Marco Granados organized a program called Buenos Aires Now, Tango after Piazzola. The program featured Pablo Aslan (bass), Fernando Otero (piano), Raul Jaurena (bandoneón), and Emilio Solla (piano). Most of the musicians had composed works on the program.

emilio solla, raul jaurena, pablo aslan, paquito d'rivera, marco granados

I've heard Granados a few times. Although his Music of Venezuela album is a treat, it's based on the Joropo and other traditional Venezuelan music — not the tango.

Aslan wrote a dissertation on tango music, and his album Buenos Aires Tango Standards reflects his thorough understanding of the form. It is a great blend of traditional tango with modern musical elements.

I listen to Solla's Sentido and Conversas albums a lot when I'm writing. Solla writes in a very modern jazz idiom while his rhythms are tango sexy. If you have trouble finding them on Amazon, you can find them from Solla's European distributor. Here's a video of Solla playing at his Tango Jazz Project two years ago:

Of course, I sneak in some other music. For some reason Prokofiev Violin Sonatas work well. Colored Field by Aaron Jay Kernis works, too. I don't know why.

I find that when I listen to well written music, it inspires me to make my words better. What's best is I like all this music when I'm not writing, too. Hope this helps when you need something to liven up your writing parties.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Raquel, Is That You Inside Me?

My generation grew up watching advanced medicine on Star Trek and The Fantastic Voyage. Here's a look at the future from 1966:

Forty-three years later, sans Raquel Welch, researchers from the Medical Robotics Laboratory at the Israel Institute of Technology will be showing off a microrobot called ViRob, a 1mm diameter device that can crawl through vessels and cavities. From MedGadget:
ViRob measures 1 millimeter in diameter and 14 mm in its entirety was developed in the lab of Prof. Shoham in the Medical Robotics Laboratory at the Israel Institute of Technology. The robot moves using an external electromagnetic ignition system, stimulated by an electromagnetic field with frequency and volume that do not agitate the body, enabling it to maneuver in different spaces and surfaces within diverse viscous fluids. The vibration created by the magnetic field propels the robot forward, as the tiny arms protruding from a central body grip the vessel wall. A basic prototype of the ViRob, which can move as fast as 9 mm per second, has been developed thusfar.
Here's a video of the ViRob robot (spoiler alert: no special effects):

If you're more impressed with real products than lab technology, try the da Vinci Surgical System, a remote controlled robotic surgeon coming to a hospital near you soon. Here's the da Vinci trailer (spoiler alert: real blood):

I don't think patients want their surgeons in another building, or country, but the implications for outsourced surgeons are clear.

In Ontario, Canada, the Shouldice Hospital performs only hernia repairs.
Shouldice Hospital has been dedicated to the repair of hernias for over 55 years. The trained team of Shouldice Hospital surgeons have repaired more than 300,000 hernias with a greater than 99% success rate.
Specialization at Shouldice has accomplished what specialization generally accomplishes: far better results. Assuming all the communications are stable between the doctor's console and the operating robot, I would prefer a hernia repair from a surgeon at Shouldice on the other end of a da Vinci System than a local surgeon. That's not quite true. Shouldice may have cleaner operating rooms, better staffed recovery rooms, or other factors that improve its success rate. But chances are, everything else equal, I would get better results from a Shouldice surgeon. How quickly we see outsourced surgeons depends on whether improved success rates of remote specialized surgeons outweigh the cost of the da Vinci Surgical System.

All that science fiction medicine I watched growing up is turning out better than I imagined.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Error of Emission

Today, an Italian car company opened 3,000 dealerships in the U.S. You can buy Italian minivans and SUVs in every major city. Cook up some pasta and find one near you!

How did it come that a European company bought the third largest U.S. auto manufacturer?

You could argue that the Chrysler got in financial trouble because of its health care and pension liabilities. You could argue that Chrysler was a victim of the current credit meltdown and consumer deleveraging. At the end of the day, it was a magnificent eight-cylinder, 5.7L, four hundred horsepower error of emission.

Fifty-three years ago to the month, the U.S. government committed to an extensive development of road infrastructure, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The Highway Trust Fund collects fuel taxes and pays for road construction, to the tune of about $40B per year now. That translates into roughly 10-15% of U.S. car sales per year, and it's not keeping up with demands for new projects, maintenance, and operations.

By creating a standard for transportation infrastructure, the government fueled the growth of the Detroit economic engine. As long as oil and credit were available, Detroit could build big cars to fit on big roads. As long as the car business grew, it could fund burgeoning health care and pension liabilities. Detroit had no incentive to invest in anything other than bigger cars and bigger engines, and it made magnificent SUVs with profit margins high enough to pay for everything.

My point is really this. The United States makes important national policy on energy and transportation that impacts how investors and companies sell and market products. The decisions made fifty years ago need re-examination. They have taken the U.S. down a road where U.S. auto manufacturers have profited while losing market share. When a few assumptions in our policy changed, when oil prices skyrocketed and credit markets seized, it left the U.S. companies vulnerable to buy-outs.

Should we find a different road? New technology enters the market when there is an opportunity to displace existing technology. Market entry relies on predictable infrastructure investments. Right now, we keep our fuel prices lower than other countries and we can't keep up with transportation infrastructure spending. It might be a good time to raise taxes and invest in better infrastructure.

I enjoyed a nice Sangiovese with Fettucini Alfredo last night and toasted the Italians for coming to our rescue.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Performance Art on YouTube

YouTube is fostering new forms of video art. In some cases, the video simply captures a performance. In others, people are collaborating over the Internet to contribute to a piece.

Here is a dance performance staged at the Antwerp Central Train Station on March 23, 2009. Out of nowhere, hundreds of dancers show up and dance to a remix of Do Re Mi from Sound of Music sung by Julie Andrews:

Here is another dance performance, this time in Los Angeles and this time wearing Hammer Pants as a promotion for Hammertime on A&E TV. Here is the so-called flashmob:

In a collaborative piece, the dancer and blogger Stevie Bee Bishop (steviedidit on YouTube) provided the song "Fuck You" by Lily Allen. Collaborators lipsynched their own videos, uploaded them to Bishop, and it all got edited together to create the video.

From steviedidit's youtube entry:
theres a disgusting amount of hate on the internet (especially on youtube!) directed at minority groups (especially the LGBT community) so i was inspired to organize this collab video. i never set out to change the world. i did not make this for the gay haters to see. i wanted to make something light hearted and funny for the victims of gay hate, to teach them to brush off the hate and stand strong and confident as who they are. you're not alone! stevie loves you :)

Here is the Big Fat Gay Collab:

There are other edits of the video here.

New media always spawn new art forms. All the examples above are either about dance or by dancers. I love what I'm seeing so far. Let me know about video art pieces you've seen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Heard on the Street: SCALA

If you tweet or link in, you may be benefiting from SCALA already without knowing it. My friend Jim went to a tech talk at LinkedIn called Going from SCALA to scale. Jim reports that Twitter engineers studied different computer languages and started deploying back-end server software developed using SCALA. Since I'd never heard of SCALA before, I was all ears.

What is SCALA and why is Twitter using it? From the SCALA website:
Scala is a general purpose programming language designed to express common programming patterns in a concise, elegant, and type-safe way. It smoothly integrates features of object-oriented and functional languages, enabling Java and other programmers to be more productive. Code sizes are typically reduced by a factor of two to three when compared to an equivalent Java application.
Jim said that coders are twice as productive with SCALA as JAVA. Compared to Ruby on Rails, SCALA code yields higher performance executables. He also said the main syntactical advantages of SCALA are:
  • SCALA is a functional language — every function is a value so it's easier to write code a la BASIC or FORTRAN
  • Automatic closure — coders can drop program code into automatic type-dependent closures
  • JAVA compatibility — SCALA can leverage existing JAVA code and libraries
  • Static typing — because of the way SCALA handles typing, coders don't have to recompile every time an object is changed
Martin Odersky, SCALA's creator, said that SCALA was built on JAVA because SCALA developers didn't want to write another garbage collector. As a by-product, since SCALA runs on the JVM, performance of SCALA code improves with as the JVM improves.

And, of course, it's open-source, so you can try it gratis. Just say Steve sent you.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fiesta Cubana at the Moab Music Festival

I make an annual trek to the Moab Music Festival for my spiritual rejuvenation. Here's a preview of one of the Fiesta Cubana concert on Labor Day weekend:
Labor Day Weekend takes the Festival to Red Cliffs Adventure Lodge for a two-night Fiesta Cubana in the Festival Tent on the banks of the Colorado River beside the vineyards of Castle Creek Winery. Two concerts explore the colorful and sophisticated traditions of Cuban jazz and classical music through the prodigious fingers of two unique virtuosos of the Cuban piano: the third-generation keyboard jazz master Chuchito Valdés and the breathtaking Jorge-Luis Prats.

And here's a preview of what you get to hear sitting outside by the Colorado River:

Tickets on sale now! Hope to see you there.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


In the news today, scientists tested a hypothesis that human laughter is shared with other mammals.
Human emotional expressions, such as laughter, are argued to have their origins in ancestral nonhuman primate displays. To test this hypothesis, the current work examined the acoustics of tickle-induced vocalizations from infant and juvenile orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, as well as tickle-induced laughter produced by human infants. Resulting acoustic data were then coded as character states and submitted to quantitative phylogenetic analysis. Acoustic outcomes revealed both important similarities and differences among the five species.

Here are the results of my own research on the subject:

But seriously, folks, why even study this? For one thing, because it tells us something about social evolution. Also because tracking traits through species can help scientists understand more about nature versus nurture, the dance between genes and their environment. For me, maybe it leads to a better understanding of how humans use humor. In the study, laughter is observed in the context of socialization and the desire to play. Once humans learn to speak, though, they can use language to indicate they want to play. So, why would we still need humor?

I remember my college Latin teacher asking what made a passage we were translating funny. That question has stuck in my head because I knew the passage was funny, but had trouble articulating why. Decades later, my friend Norm said he thought a sense of humor was an important component of survival. A light went on.

I realized that humor is something humans use to mediate between the model of the world they create in their brain and the real world they encounter. That is, when something becomes unintelligible or doesn't make sense, we humans cope by laughing. When I'm writing, the scenes that are funny are those where a character can't understand what's going on. Sometimes the reader knows, sometimes not. If we can't laugh about things we don't understand, we make it harder to cope and to change our understanding of the world around us. My hypothesis is that laughter helps humans survive because it helps us creatively reconstruct our interior model of an exterior world we can't explain. If I'm right, laughing is no laughing matter.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Behind the Scenes with Trigger Street

You probably get your entertainment news from Access Hollywood or People Magazine, right?

If you want the real scoop, look on the Internet. For instance you can follow Clive Barker on Twitter and find out the latest about Hellraiser ("Pascal Laugier is regrettably no longer on the Hellraiser remake. I think Martyrs is extraordinary.") and lost reels from Nightbreed ("Morgan Creek has all the missing reels of NIGHTBREED. All the stuff they cut out and all that was lost to the MPAA.").

My latest find is Trigger Street. The most recent episode has standard fare, like the top ten grossing films for the past week and video clips of Sacha Baron Cohen dropping his butt in Eminem's face, plus the inside dirt you can only get from real Hollywood insiders. Carter and Dana host, and pick up your questions on Twitter.

By the way, if you want Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, James Blunt, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Laurence Fishburne to judge your short film, you have until June 15, 2009 to enter Trigger Street's short film contest.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Google Sites

After I took a class on self-publishing, I realized I was CEO of my one-man media empire. That meant taking more seriously. The story I'm telling today is implementing my site on Google Sites, and about how you can create your own website for free (except for domain registration charges of about $10 per year).

If you're building your own one-person media empire, you need a website. You have many options, from do-it-yourself to paying a consultant. This post is about doing it yourself. You can get a great result if you pay a consultant, but you will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for design and implementation, then more for maintenance. I highly recommend that route if you can afford it because you can focus on things you do well instead of learning website design, implementation, and maintenance.

Originally, I built my website on Google Page Creator when it first came out, and was pleased with the result. Then I found out Google will transition all Page Creator users to Google Sites this year. So, I reimplemented my site on Google Sites. Here are some Google Sites observations and tips.

Google Sites is really great if you want to run a wiki-type site for a small organization. When you sign up, you get an account that allows you to create multiple users for your account. So, if you have staff or consultants in your media empire, you can give them their own accounts with their own email and access to all the resources in your account. If you run a one-person media empire with multiple projects, you can use permissions to give users access to specific services in your domain. For instance, you can create a subdomain, like, that can only be accessed by users working on projectone.

Google Sites is not great (but not awful) for creating an outward facing website. The website layout options Google Sites gives you look like a wiki (think wikipedia). If you can live with the design constraints, this has many advantages. For instance, wikis make it very easy to add and update information, automatically provide navigation tools for your site, and track changes to your site (important if you have multiple contributors). As an aside, I liked the Google Page design options much better. Over time, I hope Google improves the design options for Google Sites.

There are two other major constraints with Google Sites that I hope Google changes soon. First, you can't code HTML directly. In Google Page Creator, users could hand edit HTML. That makes it easy to fix, for instance, formatting when the GUI design interface didn't yield exactly the right result. It also makes it easy to add javascript. The advantage of not writing any HTML is that you can't write HTML that doesn't work, so it's idiot-proof. The disadvantage is that you can't implement javascript code very easily, certainly not by cutting-and-pasting it into your site. The workaround for javascript is something called gadgets, which I'll talk about in detail below.

Second, there is no support for Google Adsense (there is, however support for Google Analytics). If you want to monetize traffic to your website, you'll have to find other ways, like affiliate sales at Amazon (which I haven't checked yet to see if it works).

With gadgets, you can implement javascript if some kind programmer has provided a URL which points to a gadget that implements the javascript you want. For example, I wanted to display photos from my flickr account. There is pull down in the Google Sites page editor where you insert a gadget. Unfortunately, there are a zillion flickr gadgets, and it took me forever to look through them and figure out they didn't do what I wanted. Next step was to search the web, which yielded a few gadgets that display slideshows. It was not clear how to implement those gadgets. Here's what I learned. You find the URL of the xml code for the gadget (usually by clicking on a link the developer has provided). It's not intuitively obvious this is what you're looking for because the page that displays is full of xml gobbledygook with an error message at the top. You cut-and-paste this URL into the Google Site custom gadget interface, and then the custom gadget interface will query you for any input parameters. In the case of the flickr gadget I found, that meant cutting-and-pasting my flickr feed javascript URL.

Google Sites needs to simplify the entire gadget implmentation process, and make it possible to implement a gadget in your own domain.

You can see the fruits of my labor at I will use this free service for the foreseeable future. If Google doesn't provide me with the tools I need to monetize my website, all this work is not in vain. First, I will have produced the content for my website. If I need to switch to another Content Management System for my website, I already have the site navigation and content worked out. Second, if I decide to hire a consultant, I can provide my current website as a specification. That makes it easy for the consultant to bid, and much less expensive to implement. I'm using Google's Blogger service to blog (, and it has most of the capabilities missing in Google Sites — I'm hopeful these features will find their way to Google Sites.

A final word if you're doing it yourself. If you are willing to pay $10-$50 per month, there are many Content Management Systems available for niche markets. For instance, if you're a writer building your one-person empire, consider a service like Author Friendly. These services typically provide tools targeted for the market you want to address, like selling books.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Interview: Red Hook

I interviewed Brad Rubenstein on Skype this morning. Brad's production company, Red Sand Media, produced a horror film called Red Hook. From the Red Hook website: "Hip, romantic and darkly clever, RED HOOK is a chilling thrill ride through the landmarks and local haunts of New York."

Brad discusses making his first low-budget film, the impact of the Internet on film marketing, and what you need to know when you make your first low-budget film. If you want to know the current state of the low-budget film world, read on!

Steven Damron: When did you start working on Red Hook?

Brad Rubenstein: My involvement started in early 2007, when my business partner Kris Stewart, director Elizabeth Lucas, and screenwriter Sammy Buck came to me with the project.

SD: What else have you produced?

BR: Red Hook is the first film I've been involved in. I've invested in a large number of theatre shows (and raised money for a lot of non-profit performance groups, such as the New York Festival of Song), the first big show I helped produce was [title of show]. It ran on Broadway at the Lyceum in 2008.

SD: Which is more fun, shows or films?

BR: They are very, very different. That's for sure.

SD: Can you say how much money it took to make Red Hook, and where you found investors?

BR: It was done on a very low budget. In addition to investing myself, there were numerous friends both from the theatre world, and my business contacts, that got involved. It was definitely a labor of love. One of our intentions was to provide an environment where several of us who had never made a feature film before could learn how it ticks.

SD: Do Internet sites like youtube, itunes store, and hulu help or hurt low budget films like Red Hook?

BR: In the current environment, I think that very very few low budget films (with no stars attached) are going to earn back their production costs. So either they are vanity projects, or stepping stones to future bigger endeavors. In either case, free distribution and exposure are all for the good.

SD: Do you think you'll distribute through the Internet?

BR: That said, we're treating this project as a serious commercial one, and in particular, we're considering a deal with a distribution company, not a self-distribution approach. In other words, now that we've made the movie, we'd like to partner with someone who has expertise in marketing and distribution and let them take the lead. I'm confident that internet distribution will be part of their plan.

SD: Can you comment on who will distribute Red Hook and planned release dates?

BR: Distribution is its own complicated world, and the way that movie rights get sliced and diced among different geographies and media is in a state of flux. Since we're in the middle of negotiating these things, we can't say much. But I think you'll see something fun by Halloween.

SD: Now that you put your toe in the water, will you dive into film production?

BR: It's fun and crazy and engrossing, and I'm looking forward to the next one. I definitely need to work on projects that are small enough to allow me to combine the capital-raising end with the logistical and "production" end. As projects get larger, those tend to drift farther and farther apart. I actually do have another project, a tangled Science Fiction story, entitled Fade To White, in post.

SD: So, it took you a little over two years from the time you first discussed Red Hook to the time you expect to have the film in distribution. Now that you know more about small budget production, what are your learnings? Will the market for small-budget films grow as media companies reduce costs structures?

BR: That's a good question. I actually think the world of low budget filmmaking is drifting toward the "youtube" world of a larger number of smaller, more personal, projects. There is a huge glut of content as production costs for High Definition production (for example) come down. Festivals that would normally cater to these indie projects, Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca, etc, are all completely overrun with submissions. I can only imagine that separating the wheat from the chaff is extremely difficult for them.

SD: What's your advice to other low-budget film makers? How do they find audiences for their films? How should they distribute?

BR: Well, for many films, you the producer will know your audience far better than any distributor ever will. So in a sense, you're going to be "self-distributing" no matter what, even if you're promoting your film for your distributor. That said, options like,, and are making the mechanics of self distribution easier than ever. Of course, as the channels get more accessible, they get more crowded. Ultimately, you've got to be a good marketer.

SD: Anything else you'd like to share?

BR: Check out our trailer at, and if you want to get updates, you can get on our mailing list. It's a funny, scary, crazy tale, and I think it will make a big splash. In the East River.

SD: Thanks for your time!

BR: My pleasure. I'll give you my recipe for fake blood after the interview.