Eye in the Sky

The Air Force is about to launch a new technology that will bring enhanced aerial surveillance to certain locations in Afghanistan. Where the current airborne robots use one camera to provide live video of a single narrow area, the new device will provide a constant stream of images from a mulit-lens drone that the military claims will be able observe all the activity in an entire town.

This, of course, approaches the scenario of the 1998 Jim Carrey movie “The Truman Show”, though in this case it’s adapted to serve the purposes of modern warfare.

I’m all for new technology that helps American forces stay alive and accomplish their mission in Afghanistan. But it’s hard to choose the weirdest single thing about this.

Is it:

… that ESPN was used as a model to help the military learn to “tag” certain recorded video sequences for immediate recall, the same way a TV crew covering a professional football game follows a specific player or compiles a collection of certain types of plays?
(What will be the Jalalabad equivalent of an end zone celebration?)

… that the Air Force sent a representative to watch how reality TV shows choose footage from programs where multiple cameras record all the activity in a house?
(This way we’ll be sure to know if two Taliban have a fight in the outdoor hot tub.)

… that the massive amount of video recorded by these all-seeing cameras flying over villages in Afghanistan will be stored in the digital memory of servers housed in used shipping containers … in Iowa?
(This is a far cry from the day when the most exotic images to be found in Keokuk were at the new Blockbuster.)

… that the project’s official name is Gorgon Stare, after the three headed beast from Greek mythology whose steady gaze would cause you to turn to stone?
(Haven’t we already financed another weapons system that can actually do that?)

… that or that the details regarding this surveillance project, which is something you would think by its very nature requires secrecy, are all over the internet, and are now appearing second hand in a whimsical blog posted under the image of a baboon?

The only reason I can think of for this level of sharing is that the military wants everyone in the war zone to feel that they are being observed and their actions are recorded, constantly. Smile! You’re on Overt Camera!

For people who grew up at a time when television was still a new and exciting idea, the thought of being on camera carries the aura of something special. Not so anymore. And maybe the day is drawing near when NOT being on camera will be the more significant event – something to post as your most amazing ever Facebook status: OMG! I’m out of the frame! Do I even exist?

Perhaps that’s even a workable plan for some future reality show – a group of people are put in a house and left to their own devices without being viewed or recorded. When they come out they can tell us how positively weird it was to know they weren’t being watched.

How would it change your behavior if you knew a camera in the sky was recording everything you did outside?


That’s one way to write the date today, though some prefer 01/01/11, which I think is a bit fussy. Why go out of your way to tell people there’s nothing there? Let the nothingness speak for itself.

Apparently some feel 1/1/11 is a lucky alignment of numbers, and some couples have chosen to get married today to increase the likelihood that they will have a happy life together. And if both parties happen to think this wacky notion is a good idea, they probably will be happy together.

Some expect the year itself, 2011, to be about “getting things in order”, all because 2+0+1+1=4, and orderly, “universal” number. (1/1/11 ALSO equals 4!) Nice try “Universal 4” fans, but clearly you haven’t thought about the political imbalance in the 112th Congress, which will strive with all its might towards universal disorder if all the preliminary indications are correct. Did I say 112th Congress? 1+1+2+4! Egads!

People who are superstitious about numbers can become adamant about the importance of days like this. Later this year we’re bound to get some hand wringing over 11/11/11 – a preview perhaps of the hysteria surrounding 12/12/12.

The great thing about numbers is that they’re open to interpretation by people who want to prove something without any real facts to rely on. You know the famous line – “There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” You can use numbers to say whatever you like, or infer what you can’t even bring yourself to say.

For instance, the world should have been extremely wary about my birthday, though everyone but the closest observers completely missed the cosmic significance of 10/4/1955.

How was it important? Let me count the ways.

If you add all those numbers up as single digits (1+0+4+1+9+5+5), you get 25. Twenty five is the number of players that can be carried by a professional baseball team, and 10/4/55 is also the date that the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first (and only) World Series. Ebbets Field was 25 miles away from the hospital where I was born!

That’s not all. If you add them as 10, 4 and 55, you get 69. 15 plus 69 is 84, which is the atomic number of Polonium, a very radioactive substance. It was also my jersey number for that one season I was on the high school football team, getting pummeled by a series big guys who outweighed my by an average of 84 pounds each. Polonium poisoning is very bad and can gradually, but quite certainly, kill you. What happened to me on the football field also felt like slow death. Coincidence? I think not

Finally, if you add the numbers of my birth date as 10, 4, and 1955, you get 1969, which is a year nobody wants to re-live. There you have it. Bad omens all around.

See? Numbers can illuminate the important relationships between things that scientific, fact-driven minds might see as totally unrelated!

Are you superstitious about numbers?

Ring Out, Ring In

It’s New Year’s Eve!

I’m sure there are some who had a wonderful 2010. God bless them.

Many more will be happy to see it go. I will not carry fond memories of this year, though perhaps I should. It wasn’t all misery and disappointment – it just seems that way. And while each year can be said to have a distinct character, when you review it day by day it’s clear that on each trip around the sun you get a little bit of everything along the way, good and bad. The question is, what will you choose to dwell on?

There is a great temptation to slide over to the dark side. Here’s a pessimistic rhyme about the changing of the guard and the relentless, unpredictable variety of daily life, regardless of what year we say it is.

The Old Year’s toast. We’ll watch him hang.
The New Year’s here. And so’s the gang.

So Hail, Hail, Hail and hip hooray.
We’re glad the old one’s going away.

This new one owes us hopeful news.
Unending love and meager blues.

Though we’ll get both before it’s done.
From the year Two Aught One and One.

And one year hence as the sun goes down
We’ll run this fresh year out of town.

And find a new one to embrace.
Who’ll promise joy. And wreck the place.

Banish gloom and debunk defeatist bloggers!
Make an optimistic prediction for 2011.

R.I.P. Dr. Billy Taylor

I think of Jazz players as royalty in the world of musicians. They are a breed apart – not the best known and far from being the wealthiest, but there is an openness and a level of competence that is developed through playing jazz that doesn’t automatically come with your mastery of a different style of music. In other words, you can be a great rock and roll musician and still be kind of a dope. No news there.
To play well, jazz musicians have to be able to listen well. That discipline may be the thing that makes them, universally, the most pleasant and interesting people I’ve met in various radio studios through the years.

We lost one of our most scholarly jazzmen this week with the death of Dr. Billy Taylor. He embraced all those things that make the music great – knowledge, freedom and a love of collaboration. He also wore very large eyeglasses – possibly the biggest spectacles to be seen anywhere in public since the end of the 1970’s. But that’s another thing you automatically get when you become a jazz player – a level of comfort with the idea of being out of the mainstream.

Billy Taylor was a broadcaster too, and he was one of the rare ones who actually knew something. It case you haven’t figured it out yet, it is quite possible for a person to be on radio and/or TV a lot, like every day, without possessing any substantial knowledge or marketable talent. Dr. Taylor was an exception. He knew what he was talking about, and he had a passion for sharing it.

If you just want to her him play, here’s a short clip:

If you’d like to hear him discuss the music he loved, this is worth the time.

If you were going to be a Billy Taylor-like presence, introducing lay people to important concepts that guide something you love on an educational TV show, what would the show be about?

Now We’re Cooking!

It’s prehistoric remains week here at Trail Baboon. Yesterday we considered the ramifications of some ancient teeth uncovered near Tel Aviv that may upend our understanding of who was where, when.

Today comes news that our ancient, now extinct near cousins, the Neanderthals, were not the brutish, meat-only diners that many had assumed, but in fact, ate plants, and some of those plants were cooked. This is yet another step in countering the popular cultural image of the Neanderthals as dopey cavemen who were too backward and unimaginative to survive. The new vision of Neanderthals sometimes eating vegetables rather than always ripping apart some unfortunate ungulate (Elk again, mom? Really?) and devouring it raw gives us a more nuanced understanding of who they were.

Sophisticated eaters and engaging dinner companions whose laughing eyes were unfortunately shaded by their prominent foreheads. I’m sure in the years to come we’ll learn more about Neanderthal dining habits, including some of their favorite recipes:

Alley Oop Salad
Cave Dweller Cole Slaw
Bedrock Vegetarian Chili
Clubbed Squash

And my new favorite – Neander Valley Tabouli

2 cups seed of rough grass from mouth of cave
2 cups very hot water from fire keepers
1 bundle green stuff from underside of log, chopped
2 small crunchy ground melons, chopped
1 bunch ferns, (8) sliced
1/2 cup fresh chopped rotten bark flower (NOT the red one)
2 cups fresh chopped children of vine that grows up side of rock
1 clove smelly root, minced (optional)

Dressing: 1/2 cup juice of tiny yellow sun,
3/4 cup slippery juice from tree berries,
1 tablespoon tickle nose powder (black),
2 teaspoons seawater (with water removed).

Soak the grass seed from mouth of cave in hot water until mixture cools. Squeeze like helpless enemy caught in battle.
Use sharp edged rock to attack ground melons, ferns, rotten bark flower, vine children, smelly root and green stuff. Leave no survivors. Gather remains into bowl with grass seed.
Mix sun juice, slippery juice, nose powder and no water seawater. Pour over mixture.

Defend with unchecked ferocity from all interlopers and predators.

What’s the oldest recipe in your day-to-day repetoire?

Open Wide!

Here’s a late dispatch from enterprising freelance journalist Bud Buck, who in the best developing tradition of online media, makes his living re-reporting the work of other people. Bud’s note with this piece says he’s “trying a new, ground-breaking, personal style of reporting” that will make it necessary for me to double his usual fee.

When news broke that cave excavating scientists in Israel have identified 400 thousand year old remains from homo sapiens, I recognized the importance of the find right away. Previous research placed the earliest version of modern man in Africa just 200 thousand years ago. This find, if it bears up under further scrutiny, would double the length of known human history and might move the origins of man off the African continent completely. Amazing!

I rushed to find a reputable scientist who was also talkative enough to give me all the quotes I needed to write something that looked like a complete story. Alas, it’s a holiday week in the USA and even the archaeologists are at home with their families, or else stuck at the mall returning shirts that are too nice to wear in the field and not boring enough for use in the lab.

Reviewing the initial story from the Jerusalem Post, I noticed that the remains in question amounted to just eight teeth. Teeth! My dentist, Dr. Jim Jevitas, has an on-call “meet you anywhere” service designed for times just like this. I phoned him and he was pleased to rendezvous at a local coffee shop as long as I paid his standard holiday rates for a check up and light cleaning.

While he was setting up his dental tools and a very, very bright light that ran off a car battery he tucked underneath our table, I told Dr. Jevitas about the remarkable find in Qesem Cave, just 12 miles from Tel Aviv. The Doctor shocked me with the pronouncement that this sounded like the scientists had actually uncovered the site of one of the first suburban dentist offices.

“Patients always like it when you can give them free parking,” Dr. Jevitas said. “That’s human nature, don’t you think? Especially during a difficult procedure like getting a root canal, you don’t want to have to go plug a meter. I’m guessing that’s why they didn’t find this office right in the city. Open!”

I opened my mouth and the Doctor poked around my molars with a very, very sharp thing I couldn’t see. He muttered some things I didn’t hear clearly about my gums and flossing. My mind was reeling with images of a 400 thousand year old suburban dentist’s office. How did they numb the patients? What were the waiting-room magazines like? As soon as I had a chance I told him everything I knew about the remains. He was intrigued.

“Hmm. Interesting. The teeth were just lying there on the ground? That’s unusual. We put ours in a little drawer, but I suppose after 400 thousand years a lot of the furnishings in the office have worn out and even turned to dust. I’m guessing this ancient dentist didn’t work with many children, since the kiddies always want to take their teeth home to leave for the tooth fairy. I’ve heard of adults-only practices, but it’s no way to make money. Grown-ups are scaredy-cats and a lot of them won’t make an appointment. Open!”

I opened my mouth and the Doctor did some scraping and digging that made me almost as uncomfortable as the people at the table next to us. I had nearly enough material to make an article – all I needed was something possibly controversial – a quote casting a bit of doubt on the whole thing. After rinsing and spitting into the Doctor’s now-empty coffee cup, I told him the lead archaeologist on the project, Dr. Avi Gopher, was quoted saying “Further research is needed to solidify the claim.”

“Hmmm,” said Dr. Jevitas. “Dr. Avi Gopher sounds like a made-up name for an archaeologist. He is either a totally fictitious character, or a very patient man. Are you sure you didn’t read about this in The Onion?”

And then he shocked me again when two of the metal clasps on my boot contacted the posts of the car battery under our table. The very, very bright light went out, the coffee shop manager came over, and our meet-you-anywhere dental appointment was over.

Good news! I don’t have any cavities! This is Bud Buck!

I’m not sure I’ll pay Bud the extra money he wants for this story, though it does sound like the interview was a very expensive one to get. Still, it makes me wonder.

What interesting artifacts would a future archeologist find in the remains of your home?

Winning The Weather Game

Big idea guy and self-described “Adventure Capitalist” Spin Williams has been watching the weather for an investment opportunity. I have a feeling he’ll soon be underwriting shovel brigades on the Russian tundra.

Here at the meeting that never ends, we’re excited to hear about the tremendous blizzard hitting the East Coast. For that matter, we’re thrilled about all the other blizzards and prodigious snowfalls that have been happening worldwide, causing droopy domes, travel problems and airports that resemble youth hostels with people sleeping everywhere! What fun!

And I don’t say that just because I’m in sunny California. Los Angeles hasn’t been very sunny of late, what with all the pre-melted blizzards we’ve had in the past few weeks. They arrive like they have been shot out of a fire hose. Whee!

But anyone who knows me also knows I’m always looking for something new – something that affects the way people see the world and alters their behavior. The leading edge of change – that’s where I make my living.

The thing that caught my attention was this commentary in the New York Times where a climate scientist named Judah Cohen makes the case that global warming is actually the cause of this recent wave of extreme wintry weather. Warmth leading to cold? Consider my mind officially boggled! And not only that – he contends that one key, but overlooked, aspect of the Rube Goldberg Contraption that is our world’s weather is the snow cover in Siberia!

I’ll spare you a detailed explanation, but basically the bowling ball of melting polar ice runs into the plate glass window of atmospheric moisture, releasing the swinging weight of increased precipitation which, in it’s pendulum-like rocking, pulls back the spring loaded boot of Siberian snow cover, which kicks down the line of dominos that is the jet stream, toppling the last domino into a confetti- filled bowl that represents the arctic air mass which then jiggles its way down the slippery ramp that doubles as the face of North America, tripping a switch that starts the table fan of colliding cold and moist weather systems, thereby tipping the bowl over in front of the aforementioned fan, which leads to a sudden explosion of white flecks everywhere in the room.

Or something like that.

Anyway, my “take away” from Mr. Cohen’s article is this – if we want to clear the snowy streets of New York in December, we have to dig out Novosibirsk in November. And I don’t mean plowing out the major arterials, I mean de-icing and un-whitifying the whole place. Maybe you do it with massive trucks and salt, or shovels, or flamethrowers. I don’t know. Or else you cover over that reflective snow with big solar energy absorbing fabric panels, like the fence that guy Christo put up.

Is it a big job? Sure, but by taking on the big jobs, you can make a big difference! Here’s the encouraging part – Russian snowplow drivers are a lot cheaper to hire then the ones that work for NYC. And they’re already positioned right where we need them! Finally, a kind of “outsourcing” that really makes sense!

How many hundreds of millions would businesses and residents along the prosperous north east coast of the USA pay to avoid what they’re going through today? Heck, if we could just get the financiers on Wall Street and the cast of Jersey Shore to put up a small portion of their combined wealth, I’ll bet The Siberian Sunshine Company (TM) would turn an immediate profit! Investors, form a line!

Another over-the-top notion from a guy who never stops figuring the angles. My only “take away” from Spin’s idea is that the world’s weather could have been designed by Rube Goldberg. Interesting concept, but probably not even close to the truth. Winter weather is much more complicated and a lot less fun than Goldberg contraptions, which are only baffling for the sake of being baffling, and typically do not lead to the shut down of major cities.

What part of your life is Rube Goldberg-esque?

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