Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Bored at Work Challenge #1: Expedia

It's no secret that we get bored at work, and it's not a secret that we fill countless hours finding novel ways to occupy our time so as to avoid both work and the inevitable boredom both work and not doing work create.

Sometimes I go onto Expedia and just check out how much flights to London, or Barcelona, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or Santiago, or Johannesburg cost just to give myself a little thrill. Out of this little exercise, I created a fun game. Please interpret "fun" loosely here.


If you want to kill some time, I challenge YOU, the reader, to find the longest travel time for a one-way trip you can on Expedia. We'll have a few basic guidelines:

1. The trip must originate from Dulles Airport (IAD)

2. You must use Expedia. This is to account for possible discrepancies across websites.

3. Layovers are allowed, but stopovers are not. That is, you cannot make the trip go from IAD -> DEN on May 15 and then DEN -> SFO on Sept 20. That's stupid.

4. You must post your itinerary in the Comments section with some basic info, e.g. March 28, IAD -> FRA -> GVA (8 h 43 m)

5. Multiple entries are allowed.

Other than that, you're free to roam.

The winner of the competition gets a free case of beer. I'm going to check your work, so don't cheat.

I'll start off the competition, and I'm also going to participate. Check the comments section to see who the current leader is.

CURRENT LEADER: Brice Lord, IAD -> ORD -> LHR -> ISB (48 h 30 m with connections)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Unrealized movie technology

If you're like me, which you are, you grew up with expectations of seeing not-too-futuristic technology used in the not-too-distant movie future show up in your everyday life. Some kids found these gadgets so cool and so helplessly attractive that they actually made up lies about its arrival to the marketplace.

Here's an ode to technologies and products we were all waiting for but that never came. It's not going to be an ode, like in a rhyming pattern, that'd be gay, it's just an ode-ode.

1. You can't spell "childhood myths" without "Hoverboard." Debuted in the trough of "Back to the Future II: Back to the Future Again," the hoverboard was a futuristic version of a skateboard that hovered instead of, well, skated I guess. The producers of this movie obviously knew what the hell they were doing, because when the movie was released in 1989, skateboarding was huge, and so the Hoverboard concept was met with fanatical desire. But, since Tony Hawk had not yet turned 40, skateboarding had no icon and the whole idea faded a few years later. The only thing anyone remembers from that movie were the flying cars and that scene where Marty McFly tries to escape from Biff and his fashionable future gang by taking his hoverboard over a pond in the middle of Futuretown, USA. The horror of time travel immediately became palpable to an anxious audience when the hoverboard strangely fails and leaves Marty stranded in the middle of the pond, hovering in place just inches above. "Hoverboards don't work on water!" shouted Biff, while looking into the camera, seemingly explaining this directly to the audience. "How foolish to think you could just travel into the future and get along with things as usual," thought the audience. Biff, though, had a hoverboard that worked on water, and it not only performed that remarkable feat, it was also built to intimidate. I remember it had like sharp edges and knife-like points on it, things the Consumer Safety Board might have a problem with. Anyway, 2015, the year in which BTTF II took place, is fast approaching, and there's no signs of a hoverboard. Of course, the technical infeasibility of building a hoverboard didn't stop some asshole from starting an all-too-believable rumor that someone had built one and was selling them and that they'd be in stores within like a year or something. It was so pervasive that it lingers on to this day. In fact, the guys on Mythbusters actually tried to build a hoverboard. It didn't work very well. The real irony is that a hoverboard would probably look pretty good to Michael J. Fox right about now. Whoah, that's low. Apologies all around.

2. Need to get downtown in 2 minutes? Are you in the future? Great, then just hop on into this tube. Once you jump on in, the tube will take you pretty much anywhere your imagination can conjure within instants. That's how revolutionary the tube infrastructure is. Nevermind the fact that you'd probably need to use an incredible amount of air pressure, enough to burst people's eyes, to send humans flying around at supersonic speeds. Also ignore the fact that tubes would need to bend, and so you'd end up with clumps of dead people who were slammed against the sides of the tubes as it bent around a sharp corner. Aside from all of these seemingly unsurpassable technological hurdles, to this day, I still want a fucking tube system. I'll take the random carnage and eye-popping any day; I hate sitting in traffic, and I hate leaving early for things that will take more than 5 minutes to get to. If I ever become a billionaire, which is looking pretty likely right now as I sit in my cubicle, I'm going to build my own personal tube system between my house, a bar, a wings place, some hot chick's house, and the beach. If I need to go anywhere else I'll just either have it delivered to me or buy the place I need to go to and have it moved next door to me. I'm not completely sure what show to blame for my exceeding expectations, but I think it's the Jetsons. Those fuckers.

3. Let's say I wanted to join a mining expedition several thousand meters underwater. How would I get there? How about instead of breathing air, I breathe a superoxygenated liquid? You may vaguely remember that scene in The Abyss where they put a rat in some pink fluid and the rat breathes the oxygen-rich fluid after flailing about for a little while. As it turns out, the rumor at the time that the rat was actually breathing that fluid was correct. The rumor that it will be used in diving and space travel in the near future was not. It turns out that there's occasionally some bad side effects to breathing superoxygenated liquid, like dying from oedema or hemorrhaging, which isn't too much of a surprise since we're built to breath gaseous air, not liquidous liquid. This technology would make my dream of dropping some acid and swimming around beaches, terrorizing the local sealife with a trident while pretending to be Poseiden a reality. Not that I'd ever do that since I'm terrified of the ocean, of course. Liquid breathing is yet another case of "Yeah, whatever happened to that?"

4. Robots. I wanted to come right out and say it that time. Robots robots robots. I'm not sure when predictions of robots doing our everyday chores began (again probably the Jetson, though more likely H.G. Wells) but it's been the biggest bust next to the tube system. Instead of robots cleaning out toilets and tying our shoes (i, Robot) or eradicating all of mankind (Terminator) they're stupidly hobbling into walls and having monotone, digitized conversations with plants. Honda's ASIMO was heralded as a breakthrough because it could walk on two legs and recognize a couple commands. If these things went berserk, it wouldn't be much different than having a couple remote control cars with dying batteries harassing you; all you'd have to do is find a step or a stool or a grassy patch and continue eating your sandwich. Whenever it is that robots finally do become human-like, it better be a company called SkyNet that creates them, just to freak everyone out. In fact, I think someone else thought of this, because it looks like some Algerian is already on the case.
Above image: "Four coffees, huh? Uhh, okay, close enough, I guess."

5. Remember how cool that game of holo-chess was in Star Wars, and how badass it was in Total Recall when Governor Schwarzenegger threw out that holo-cube into the middle of the bad guys and they all tried to shoot him but he got the last laugh because it was just a hologram of him and he ended up shooting them all in the back instead? Yes, you do, and it WAS badass. But where's my holo-TV, my holo-phone, my holo-pets, my holo-friends, and my holo-porn? I swear to god that holograms were supposed to take over as the dominant form of looking at stuff like 20 years ago, but I sure as shit don't see any naked holo-men mincing around my apartment when my Moroccan boyfriend, Michael, is out of town (or at the grocery store, teehee!). Holograms are going to end up in a museum before they end up in my living room. The advent of ubiquitous hologram technology is just like virtual reality technology, it's always on the horizon. More like the fucking event horizon. Ouch! Got em with science that time.

Above image: exactly what not to expect within the next 20 years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

300: It was pretty good.

Historians and Iranian officials agree: Zack Snyder's 300, an adaption of Frank Miller's graphic novel (aka "comic book") by the same name, is not historically accurate. Aside from making headlines by restating obvious presumptions, I'll move onto the actual movie itself.

My expectations for this movie were probably the biggest problem. Upon seeing the trailer, I envisioned 2 hours of pointless battle and unbelievably badass characters. I got both, but my dream was interrupted with distracting, intermittently anachronistic dialogue and a still-born plot. In retrospect, I don't blame this on the director or actors, and here is the single most important piece of advice I can give you if you have yet to see this movie: it's a comic book. Comic books don't make boring, complex, subtle political distinctions wedge conflicting characters' motivations apart, they just pick two categories: good, evil; and let them go at it. it's beautifully simple.

So this format has some conditions.

I'll be the first (and not the last) to say that I hated Sin City (also Frank Miller--from Olney, MD no less). It's multiple plots had nothing to do with each other and some of them never came to climax or conclusion. I found the 1920's-noir dialogue forced and annoying, and the inclusion of bizarre supernatural characters downright stupid...though Tobey Maguire's "character" was pretty cool, especially for being Tobey Maguire. It seemed like the movie rode in back of its visuals, and that didn't work for me.

300 is better.

Each shot in 300 is prescribed and unapologetically overdramatic; villains and heroes pose in each shot as if each is a living statue of our 21st-century Romanticised vision of ancient civilization; the sky is in endless tumult; and violence is quick and simple, a pleasure for those involved.

300 had similar characteristics, yes, but I guess the setting of the plot--ancient Sparta--was far more supportive of this style. The fabled magic and creatures of the time period, such as oracles, etc, were stylized, but it made the scenes that much cooler. The movie existed more in the realm of fantasy than of history (one reason why its historical criticisms are fucking retarded), which is obviously more welcoming of artistic license. One issue, however, was the dialogue. It would switch between time-period appropriate fancy-talk and Die Hard tough-guy speak. It was a little distracting, and kinda made the whole movie less enjoyable. But again, thinking back to all those comic books I read, their dialogue was all cliched. If you're going to make a comic book movie and be accurate to the source, that's how it's going to turn out.

By far, and obviously, the most entertaining scenes were the battle scenes. Aside from the fact that the Spartans all had badass beards and throaty Scottish accents (for warriors, a far better choice than that cheeky British accent), battle scenes would pit the Spartans against escalating numbers of gay Persians that, with each wave got more evil, more fanciful, more powerful, and more cunning. It reminded me a lot of a video game actually. I found these scenes to be by far the coolest. I also didn't mind the instances with bare boobs, either; those were welcome additions.

I think the most satisfying part of the movie was that everyone who had it coming to him got it with no questions asked. There is little doubt revenge has been exacted when a sword gets plunged into someone's stomach and turned a few times.

As for the plot, whatever, I have mixed feelings. Less plot would have made room for more battles, and more plot would've been fruitless considering the dialogue and battle-focused basis of the whole story. So I guess it's about right. When it comes to pure action movies (see Blade), plot is the last thing on my mind.

All in all, after thinking about it for a few days, I definitely enjoyed the movie and would enjoy seeing it again. I think its stylization and boiled-down, no-nonsense entree is going to be very popular in the future. With a little refinement, this genre could be groundbreaking.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Energy, etc

So this is a more serious post, well, more serious than the beard post.

Where I work there's a lot of people who know a lot about a lot of different stuff, so I run into some pretty interesting information every now and then. This is the expectoration of that interesting info I heard; I know what adjective I used.

Energy's a hot topic right now. This is because of a fun concoction of high gas prices, instability in the area of the world that provides a lot of that gas (not to mention also literally setting its price), and rising concerns that, indeed, mankind is so dominant a species that it is actually affecting the planet's climate and environment in deleterious and irreversible ways. Enter self-interested politicians, green politicians, lobby firms, NGO's, foreign governments, environmentalists, international treaty bodies, government bureaucracy, corporate interests, and consumer single-mindedness, and you can see how things can get pretty wacky. In fact, considering all these things, it's amazing anything gets done whatsoever. That's nothing to cheer about, but, well, whatever.

It's no secret that Americans epitomize consumption; we're the original consumer economy. Of the 15 terawatts of energy consumed globally every year--this includes fuel for cars, electricity for lights, and batteries for vibrators--fossil fuel use (gas, oil, coal) accounts for 86% of that. Oil, by itself, accounts for 38% of global energy consumption. We (the U.S.) consume 64% of the world's oil production. This oil is used beyond just fuel in your car, it's also converted into jet fuel, plastics, and yes, the petroleum jelly you're so fond of. The large majority of oil is converted to gasoline, however. In the U.S., we use about 64% of our oil to fill our cars with gasoline.

Working our way down all those fun percentages, we wind up figuring out that the U.S. uses about 16% of the world's total total energy consumption for its cars. That's a lot of gas. That's also a good reason for why fuel efficiency has been such a hot topic lately. Americans like to move around so much so that a bit more than a quarter of total U.S. energy consumption is used in the transportation sector. In other words, if you can change how much gas we use, it would have a profound effect on the three points of conflict I originally listed.

So, if, say, in 2006 the U.S. government had raised emissions standards to be comparable to China's--that is, raised it from 25 MPG (miles per gallon) to 35 MPG--we would have saved 28.5 billion gallons of gasoline, or, in other words, we would've used 20% less gasoline. I actually used a figure of 28 MPG for the U.S., since by my fuzzy math it turns out that represents actual consumption.

Below: World fuel economy standards. The y-axis is in MPG.
Now, why the hell have I gone through all the trouble of calculating this? I'm wondering that myself right now, and that's most likely because I'm getting hungry...I need to eat soon, but it's cold outside, so I can't walk too far. Shit.

Anyway, by now it should make sense why energy-conscious individuals think it's important to increase fuel efficiency as a means of better controlling our situation. To give you some perspective on the importance of this subject, the article on Wikipedia I used to reference some of these oil statistics is longer than articles on religion, God, Christianity, democracy, and European history (not combined, though that would be more dramatic, so just pretend I said that). And out of the cacophony of views and ideas people have had for improving this over the years, the U.S government in 1975 enacted the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) "in response to the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo," [this is coming straight off the feds' website] whose goal was to "improve automotive efficiency...for passenger cars and light trucks...The near-term goal was to double new car fuel economy by model year 1985 (to 27.5 MPG)." A laudable goal, surely. Because of some boring bureaucratic tomfoolery, the CAFE (to the cafe!) for cars was lowered during 1986-1989 but then raised back to 27.5 MPG. Not so surprisingly, the price of oil quite literally crashed in 1986 until the Gulf War began in...take a guess...1990. It's just government at work.

This brings me (finally) to the point of this homily. Along comes ethanol. I could write a whole other diatribe about the smoke and mirrors of the ethanol buzz, but I'm going to focus more on a curious piece of legislation enacted in 2000 that includes some language on vehicles that are capable of burning ethanol. This little law says that any automobile that is capable of burning Ethanol 85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) will receive fuel efficiency credits towards its CAFE MPG. This means that if your ("you" meaning Ford in this case) shiny new Ford Focus in 2000 is getting 23 MPG and you need 27.5 MPG to make the cut, you can add the capability to burn E85 to and that'll nudge you up to par. Seems innocent, right? Actually, it doesn't even seem innocent.

It's no stretch to say that increasing a car's fuel efficiency means a lot of money to spend for the car companies (not to mention less oil to sell for the oil industry). They have to retool the entire engine and fuck with its aerodynamics, etc. While for a car to be able to burn E85 it's a pretty straightforward task on the exhaust system; costs about $50-100 per car. I doubt this logic escaped our lawmakers' grasp when writing this legislation. I have a feeling the car industry told them, in fact.
What this means for fuel efficiency is while automobiles are indeed required to meet emission standards, there's this cute little loophole for them all to jump through so as not to actually meet the standards, all the while it looks like the car companies are actually trying to be more green. And if you think, "Oh, but Brice, but if I use E-5 exclusively in my cute Ford Focus then it will actually get 27.5 MPG! LOL!1!" then you are hilariously mistaken. Per unit volume, ethanol gets 30% less energy conversion--i.e., it's 30% less powerful--than gasoline. So, when you burn E85 in your cute Ford Focus, you'll start wondering if there's a leak in your fuel line since you keep having to stop for gas more often. That is, of course, if you can manage to find and pick out from the 200,000 standard gas stations one of the 1,200 stations in the country that has E85.

So why would the government do such a thing? Why would they create a rule to dilute the CAFE's standards? Pressure from the car and oil & gas industries. E.g.: in 2002, the oil and gas industry gave $25,000,000 to Congressional members. That same year, the automobile industry, despite being mired in debt of course, gave over $15,000,000 to Congressional members. Contributions in 2000 were roughly 40 and 20% larger, respectively.
With so much money in its pockets, Congress obviously finds it hard to think green, ironically. It's like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas (thanks to the Economist for that quote).

Or, to put it simply, the car and oil industries paid for a law that would use more oil.
Below: Missourians enjoy an offputting mix of environmentalism and racism.