Friday, December 15, 2006

Switch to Blogger Beta

I just switched to blogger beta. I'm slowly adding tags to my older posts, and I'll be putting the label categories in the sidebar. Hopefully (fingers crossed) there won't be be any technical problems.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Advent Day 14: How to select gifts

It may be counterintuitive, but the best way to select a gift for someone you love is to pretend they are a stranger. As Cognitive Daily explains a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research:
Here's the key finding: When partners' tastes were different from their own, then they were better at predicting each others' tastes if they believed they were predicting the tastes of a stranger. So, if your partner has different tastes from you, then even if you learn exactly what their tastes are, that information doesn't help you make predictions about their tastes. Instead, you substitute your own tastes.
It's probably a good idea to keep that in mind when you think you've found the "perfect" gift for your spouse or significant other.

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For stars who can't dance or ice skate . . .

Finally, a reality series for geeks like me: Biochemistry with the Stars

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent Day 13: Holiday-Themed Games

This time of year lots of games pop up with a holiday theme. Not surprisingly, many of them are tied in with shopping shopping shopping.(All the games described below are platform independent, but require flash.)

For example, Office Max has 20 different "microsites", with games such as Reindeer Arm Wrestling and the hangman-like Save the Snowman. They also have silly sites like Stuck to a Pole, starring a kid who just had to lick a frozen pole, and North Pole Dancing, where you make Santa dance. If you are bored, check them all out (via AdJab).

Mission in Snowdriftland is an advertisement-adventure game from Nintendo. It's like an advent calendar, with one new unlockable goodie each day in December. According to Jay is Games " ... it contains all sorts of delightful unlockable goodies—from screenshots and wallpapers to videos and ringtones—from several of Nintendo's latest DS handheld and Wii console offerings."

Viral Chart is tracking many other XMAS-related "viral" advertising-related games.

For a non-commercial offering, Orsinal has a new game for the holidays: Winterbells. Like the other games at Orsinal.com, the game is simple to play, yet addictive, and has charming graphics and music.

All in all, lots to keep your hands busy while you (pretend to) work.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Advent Day 12: Santa Science

North Carolina State University professor of aerospace engineering Larry Silverberg explains how Santa can visit the entire world in a single night using his knowledge of the theory of relativity.
Silverberg is not so naïve as to think that Santa and his reindeer can travel approximately 200 million square miles – making stops in some 80 million homes – in one night. Instead, he posits that Santa uses his knowledge of the space/time continuum to form what Silverberg calls “relativity clouds.”

“Based on his advanced knowledge of the theory of relativity, Santa recognizes that time can be stretched like a rubber band, that space can be squeezed like an orange and that light can be bent,” Silverberg says. “Relativity clouds are controllable domains – rips in time – that allow him months to deliver presents while only a few minutes pass on Earth. The presents are truly delivered in a wink of an eye.” (NCSU Press Release)
Check out Dr. Silverberg's web site for a fuller explanation and videos.

Clearly Christmas is the perfect opportunity to introduce your little ones to Einstein's theories!

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Advent Day 11: Sweet Tracks

If you like contemporary holiday music, you might want to check out Best Buy's Sweet Tracks. They have 14 songs free for download if you are willing to create an account with them. The artists include: Keith Urban, Train, New Found Glory, Dave Koz, Flyleaf, Chris Botti, Melissa Etheridge, Nick Lachey, Brian Wilson, Lifehouse, Holly Brook, Lucy Walsh, Feist and Kaci Brown.

I'll admit to non-"with-it"ness, since I only recognize a few of those artists - Keith Urban who is some kind of country singer, Melissa Etheridge who sings adult rock, and Brian Wilson, who, long long ago, was a Beach Boy. Oh, and Lifehouse, who I happened to see live, but I don't remember what the music sounded like (it was a pretty insipid set until they covered Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up").

You apparently need to install the Rhapsody player to listen to the songs and be running Windows XP or 2000 to download the music. Since I'm on a Mac, I'll just take their word that this is a sweet deal.

For people with iTunes:

This week's free song from the iTunes Music Store is Sarah McLachlan singing Silent Night. The last one was James Taylor singing an unusual version of Jingle Bells, so I'm going to download this one out of curiosity.

If you prefer free with no strings attached (the best option IMHO):

You can now download the lovely brass "O Holy Night" as shown on Studio 60 for free - either download directly, or go to the Studio 60 web site

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Real Heroes

Two sisters living in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border received a warning from the Taliban:
It said their work went against Islam and that if they continued they would "end up facing the penalty."
The two women ignored the threat, and they and three other family members were killed.
What were they doing that was so offensive? Teaching.

This was no isolated incident. Over the past year, at least 20 educators have been killed and 198 schools have been burned down in Afghanistan. The Taliban position is that boys should only have religious education and girls shouldn't be taught at all. Their agenda is ignorance.

Last Sunday, the LA Times ran an article on the situation there (free registration or bugmenot). The article profiles teachers such as Mohammed Aref, who was gunned down in front of his students by the Taliban.
The militants are active once more across at least half of the country, including the southern province of Helmand, where Aref died in December 2005. Afghanistan's corrupt police and weak army are unable to provide much security.

Over the last year, insurgents have burned at least 146 schools, and insecurity has forced 215 others to close, the Afghan Education Ministry says. Zuhoor Afghan, an advisor to Education Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, says about 220,000 students have quit school because they fear for their lives.

To his wife and their seven children, and the many villagers who respected him, Aref was a mujahid, a courageous man engaged in a holy struggle to defeat ignorance and hatred so Afghanistan might know peace.

"He loved teaching," said his brother, Mohammed Rafiq Mohammedi. "It was important to him because he wanted students to learn what he knew and build the nation, to work for the people."
Even in areas where the Taliban is not active, there are problems in the education system.
Across the country, schools are in crisis because of corrupt contractors, shoddy building practices and a chronic shortage of textbooks and trained teachers, said Afghan, the Education Ministry official.
Parents are understandably torn between wanting an education for their children, and fearing for their safety. Many had very high expectations when the Taliban was ousted from power and are disappointed and disillusioned.

And yet, despite the real danger of bullets and bombs, Afghanis continue to teach. Educators such as Fatima Mushtaq put education above their own comfort and safety.
When the Taliban's mullahs ruled, she ran a secret school for women. Now, as head of education for Ghazni province in central Afghanistan, she is defying the extremists' efforts to turn back the clock. And, as a woman in a deeply conservative region, she also fights entrenched sexism and sclerotic bureaucracy.
These brave men and women are working to help improve the lives of millions of Afghanistan's children.

They are real heroes.

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Advent Day 10: Xmas Lights

(Yup, I skipped day 8 and 9. I always seem to be a bit behind.)

One of the things I love about this time of year are the lights, lights, lights.
It's not the same looking at little images online, but the upside is that some of the big online light displays are helping collect money for charity. Here are a few examples:

• Alek Komarnitsky became known for his "web-controlled" Christmas light display in 2004. It turned out, that was a hoax. This year he claims his light display is real. Just go to his web site, and you can turn off and on sets of the lights, or inflate or deflate big Santa or Frosty decorations. He is also raising money for the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. He's already collected more than $5,000 this year.

• Visit Lindsay Lights to see a big home light display in Ontario, Canada. You can watch a video of how they set up the more than 70,000 lights, or view them by webcam. They also collect donations for local charities. Over the past four seasons, they have donated more than $23,000 to organizations such as the Toronto Humane Society, Princess Margaret Hospital and the SickKids Foundation.

• In previous years, engineer Carson Williams produced a big home light display synchronized to music. The traffic eventually got out of hand, so this year he instead designed the Christmas in Lights display in his hometown of Mason, Ohio. Be sure to watch the video - it's pretty amazing. (But, honestly, I'm glad he wasn't my next door neighbor.)

Williams doesn't collect for charity, but I'm sure there are many worthy organizations in your home town that would welcome a donation. Why not donate simply in the spirit of the season?

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advent Day 7: Can You Make a Winning Christmas Ornament, Menorah or Kinara?

The Kodak "A Thousand Words" blog has how-tos on using printouts of your digital photos to Christmas ornaments and a cute suggestion for making "my kids in a snow globe" cards.

If you are feeling creative in a newsy sort of way, check out the NPR Holiday Craft Contest.
Design either a handmade menorah or kinara (the candle holder for the Kwanzaa holiday) or a Christmas tree ornament. We are looking for designs that reflect the news of 2006. We also welcome quirky, funny and/or offbeat designs.
There will be two winners in each category.
Prizes: Swag from the NPR Shop: The Hanukkah Lights Gift Set for the menorah winner; an NPR Jazz Christmas Collection with Marian McPartland for the ornament winner; the I Heard it on NPR set of world music, jazz and blues CDs for the kinara winner.

Deadline: Dec. 11, 2006, no later than 11:59 p.m.
Get all the details here.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Advent Day 6: The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time

John Scalzi speculates on what might be the 10 least successful holiday specials. You'll have to read the piece to find out why The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: "A Most Illogical Holiday", Noam Chomsky: Deconstructing Christmas, and The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents the Assassination of Saint Nicholas just didn't catch on with the public.

This has been around a while, but it's still humorous in light of the real specials the networks trot out this time of the year. (And yes, the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special was very real.)

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Day 5: Studio 60 Christmas Tribute to New Orleans Musicians

Last night's episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had a moving subplot about New Orleans musicians who are displaced because of Hurricane Katrina. The highlight was a moving all brass version of O' Holy Night (interrupted only by Danny's cute declaration of love for Jordan).


The music will be available for free download from the iTunes music store, but as of this writing isn't available yet. (The current limited-time-only free Christmas single of the week is James Taylor singing Jingle Bells.) You can also watch this week's entire episode for free at NBC.com, or watch the rebroadcast on December 18.

According to the NBC web site, the musicians are Troy Andrews, Trumpet; Kirk Joseph, Sousaphone; Roderick Paulin, Saxophone; Frederick Shepherd, Saxophone; Stephen Walker, Trombone; Mervin "Kid Merv" Campbell, Trumpet; Bob French, Drums - all New Orleans musicians.

They were playing on behalf of Tipitina's Foundation. From their website:
The Tipitina's Foundation a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, has worked diligently to uplift the music community of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the Foundation responded by rebuilding New Orleans' music culture. Initially, the Foundation addressed the immediate needs of our exiled musicians and allowed them to carry on with their lives. Now the foundation is using the legendary music club, Tipitina's Uptown, as the center of its relief efforts by hosting a newly-opened Music Co-op Office that allows musicians to conduct their business activities during the daytime, free legal and accounting seminars, free music lessons for music students, regular Master Seminars, and help with housing information. An important aspect of the rebuilding process has involved finding replacement instruments for both professionals and music students alike. So far the foundation has given away over $500,000 of new instruments. Through these efforts, the Tipitina's Foundation is saving the musical traditions of New Orleans.
I have a soft spot for musicians, and this sounds like a worthwhile charity.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Day 4: Make a Christmas Card from Your Own Photo

Do you want an easy way to make your own Christmas cards? The Christmas Text Generator lets you upload a picture or photo and add your own greeting using one of 20 different holiday-themed fonts. The only drawback is that the fonts are named "Preview 1", "Preview 2", etc., so you have to just go through the list to find the one you want. (via the Generator Blog)

Alternatively, you can download holiday fonts directly from one of the free/inexpensive font sources. For example Harold's Fonts has King Xmas Font for free or Snowflake Monogram fontfor only $5 . DaFont.com has a bunch of free Christmas fonts, such as Christmas Flakes, Candy Cane Font, and Christmas Lights Font, as well as both religious and secular holiday icon sets. All of the fonts should work on either PCs running Windows or Macs. Once they are installed on your computer, you can use your favorite graphics program to make a personalized and unique holiday card.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent Day 3: Free Classic Christmas Music from Canada

Do you like old recordings? The Virtual Gramophone is a database of Canadian recordings from 78-rpm records and cylinder recordings. There are many Christmas-related entries, including Oh! holy night, recorded in 1908 (MP3), Jésus de Nazareth, recorded in 1929 (MP3) and Adeste fideles, recorded in 1928 (MP3). To find more search for the term Christmas and limit to Digital Content:MP3 (or RA - Real Audio).

Also for classical music lovers: BBC Radio 3 Bach Advent Calendar

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Roll on you Bears!

Oski Wow-Wow!
Whiskey Wee-Wee!
Olee! Muckie-eye!
Olee! Berkeley-eye!
California! Wow!

No, I'm not drunk, I'm just celebrating Cal's 26-17 defeat of Stanford in this year's Big Game.

Of course there are no roses.
If the Bears had beaten Arizona (6-6, 4-5) and all other results, including USC's loss to UCLA, remained the same, Cal would be going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959. Instead, the Bears settle for a share of the conference title, their first since 1975.
Back in the day we were happy when Cal won more than half of their games, so this is good news indeed.

Cal will be playing in Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl. All I know about TAM is that they aren't the Texas team that makes the devil horns sign, and they are the Texas team that makes a giant bonfire every year (a dozen students were killed at the bonfire a few years ago, so they hold it off campus now). The game has no significance in the greater scheme of things, which, IMHO, is the way it should be. It is only a game.

(go Bears)

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent Day 2: Irreverent Spirit of Christmas

Long long ago, when I was a mere lass (or at least in my 20s), there was the Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted animation festival. Long before the Cartoon Network had the [adult swim] block of programming, they showed weird animation shorts that were clearly meant for adults, rather than kids. One of the shorts they premiered was called Spirit of Christmas, and featured an evil Frosty the Snowman who is defeated by Jesus, created by two students, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. A couple years later, Parker and Stone were commissioned to make a second short which features Jesus vs. Santa. While crude, the characters and humor are immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Parker and Stone's later creation, South Park.

Both videos are now on YouTube (of course!), and have been assembled for you on the Look at This. . . blog. If you aren't familiar with South Park, be warned that the shorts include (paper cut out animation) violence, foul-mouthed kids and lots of irreverence. I would say it's definitely NSFW.

(This is a bit sacrilegious for an "Advent" post, but the whole "shopping and Santa" emphasis of Christmas has little to do with religion anyway.)

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