Saturday, April 28, 2007

The First Person Ever Photographed

Saw this photo on Wiki the other day and thought it worthy of posting (click to enlarge).

"Boulevard du Temple", taken by Louis Daguerre in late 1838 or early 1839, was the first-ever photograph of a person. It is an image of a busy street, but because exposure time was over ten minutes, the city traffic was moving too much to appear. The exception is a man in the bottom left corner, who stood still getting his boots polished long enough to show up in the picture.

This photo is ironic for several reasons:

1) Daguerre, the photographer, probably didn't know anyone would show up in the photograph. A very happy accident!

2) the first person ever photographed didn't even know their picture was being taken.

3) the first person ever photographed is unindentified; they might have been important, or not. We'll never know. Given how photography and video have become so pervasive in modern society—and how having one's picture taken unknowingly is so commonplace—it seems fitting that the first person ever photographed remains forever anonymous.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The ELE Series—Outbreak

In only a year and a half, the Spanish flu of 1918 killed as many as 90 million people around the world... that's more people in 20 months than AIDS has killed in 20 years.

Our modern understanding of hygiene has helped prevent similar catastrophes, but some viral outbreaks cannot be so easily navigated. Today's most dangerous virus is Marburg, originating from the same geographic "hot zone" as AIDS; with only a 0%-3% survival rate (no known patients have been discharged after having contracted Marburg) and no known cure, infectious disease scientists commonly refer to Marburg as a "slate wiper for humans". Most of us walk around ignorant of the dangers of a deadly flu outbreak, but Marburg scares the crap out of infectious disease scientists because their job is to be intimately familiar with this killer germ.

Marburg (pictured at left) is a hemorraghic fever, meaning it's a disease that "bleeds". Blood clots in the bloodstream clog small capillaries, which stop the blood supply to organs (including the brain), skin, intestines... basically, all affected parts of the body die prematurely, waiting only for the rest of the body to catch up. In the later stages of this virus, victims bleed from every orafice: mouth, gums, eyes, nose, ears, anus, vagina, fingertips. The virus attacks each cell of its host in an attempt to convert the host, cell by cell, into itself—this has the nasty effect of liquifying organs and turning the host's body into a walking time bomb of infection. By day three of exposure, one drop of blood may only have 200 viruses in it, but in only five days it will have duplicated its virus load to over five million. (A highly detailed account of Ebola's symptoms can be found here.) Since it is an Afrian tradition to physically care for cadavers after death, Marburg and other hemorhaggic fever cousins like Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan frequently decimate villages in that region.

Thankfully, Marburg and Ebola Zaire (pictured at left) can only be transmitted through blood and saliva and the virus is so "hot" that it burns up its victims before it can incubate and spread the virus far enough to do too much damage. Plainly put, as long as you stand back and wait, the poor infected victims will eventually die. The nightmare scenario nobody wants to think about is if Marburg or Ebola Zaire mutate into an airborne virus and does spread far enough that you don't realize how many people are incubating until it's already everywhere.

In 1989, 100 Macaque monkeys were illegally shipped to a warehouse is Virginia. Some of these monkeys were found dying of an unknown strain of hemorragic fever, the virus spreading quickly due to their cramped living conditions. No direct evidence showed humans could catch this particular strain of the hemorragic fever, but nobody dared risk it—all the monkeys were put down, their bodies incinerated. The warehouse was thoroughly disinfected with industrial strength bleach and extremely bright UV light to burn any remaining germs. While technically "clean", the warehouse remains vacant to this day. (You get the sense that authorities would have nuked the place if they could have.)

And then, a shocking discovery—after the warehouse had long been cleaned, it surfaced that a warehouse employee caring for the monkeys had caught a "cold" and vomited blood during a violent coughing fit... but a week later, he had completely recovered. Though highly coincidental, there was no certainty he had contracted the monkeys' virus. The awful truth is that nobody knew about this employee's cold until long after the monkeys had been cremated. Had this employee been incubating a deadly hemorraghic fever the whole time, who knows how far that virus could have travelled before authorities had stopped it? And if it had spread across the world, there wouldn't be enough bleach to disinfect such a wide area. A lot of people in the military and the CDC breathed a huge sigh of relief that day.

Our Next Monster in the Closet: Black Holes

Recommended reading: The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston

Monday, April 23, 2007

The ELE Series—Comets & The Oort Cloud

Perhaps the most well known of all ELE's are massive comets crashing into Earth, like in Armageddon or Deep Impact. The most popular theory explaining dinosaur extinction is a 6 mile long (10 kilometer) comet smashing into the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, 580 miles due south of present-day New Orleans. Its impact was 2 million times larger than the most powerful man-made explosion ever created and left a 112 mile crater (180k).

But where do these big rocks come from? On researching ELE comets, I learned about a spherical group of ice chunks far far outside our solar system called the Oort cloud:

Just as our planet has an orbit around our sun, our entire solar system (including our Oort Cloud) has an orbit within our Milky Way galaxy. More accurately, our solar system has two orbits: every 225 to 250 million years, it rotates around a semi-flat pancake of star systems we call the Milky Way galaxy. Our solar system goes round and round the Milky Way like a slow second hand on a clock, but every 28 to 30 million years it also orbits up and down, i.e., out of and into the thicker part of the Milky Way. In tandem, these two orbits make our solar system resemble a horse on a carousel oscillating up and down and round and round.

During one of these downward orbits into the dense thicket of the Milky Way's stars, our solar system increases its chances of coming close to stars, red dwarfs, black holes or anything else with significant gravitational pull. That could be a severe threat to us because any nearby gravity can distend the Oort Cloud and then—as the approaching star moves off again—its pull diminishes and launches comets out of our solar system's spherical Oort cloud shell towards the strongest source of our solar system's gravity—our sun... and thus to Earth.

Fortunately for us, Jupiter's massive gravity has repeatedly absorbed those comets; in fact, we even saw a set of these comets smash into Jupiter as recently as 1994: the Shoemaker-Levy comets.

And here is an animation of the impacts on Jupiter

Had Jupiter not been good enough to swallow these rocks for us, here's what the impact site might have looked like had any of them hit Earth:

In this image, the impact would have vaporized America's entire Northeastern seaboard and killed countless North Americans for thousands of miles surrounding the impact site. The explosion would have hurdled so much debris into our atmosphere that it would have likely triggered another ice age or or at least destroyed so many crops that it would have sparked worldwide hunger... and panic. And, shockingly, that's the best case scenario.

For a time, scientists thought comet 99942 Apophis would hit earth in 2029, but its trajectory now looks like it will miss Earth by 25,000 kilometers... and then return to hit Earth in 2035. While the chances are slim—1 in 45,000 that this comet will hit Earth sometime in the 21st century—this scenario is still terrifyingly possible. A comet the size of a house can cause a Hiroshima-sized explosion; 99942 Apophis is 320 meters (1/5 mile) wide and would release the equivalent of 880 megatons of TNT, at least 44 times the size of the 1908 Tunguska event that levelled 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers (830 square miles).

The good news is that our solar system is on an upward orbit out of the Milky Way's dangerous dense star clusters, meaning our civilization is looking forward to another 30 million years of relative freedom to evolve. The bad news is that this upward orbit is only about 1 million years out of its 30 million year orbit... and it takes about 1 million years for comets from the Oort Cloud to reach Earth.

Making matters worse, there might be many comets out there we don't know about—NASA has actually said it knows how to find these comets, but it just doesn't have enough funding to do the job properly. Ironically, that might be a blessing in disguise—NASA needs about 20 years' lead time to successfully alter a comet's trajectory, so if we all knew a comet were only a year away, we might all be better off not knowing the end is nigh.

Tomorrow's monster in the closet: Outbreak

A hat tip to Chris Walker for pointing me to Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which recounts the global struggles of recovering from a massive comet blast; recommended reading if this is your particular brand of obsession.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Zoë's dream animal? The Bunny.

Part of the fun of being a parent is dressing up helpless newborns in outfits they're embarrassed about for the next 20 years. Here's our favorite pic of Zoë, although there are 48 more pictures here:

Friday, April 20, 2007

The ELE Series—Measuring Our Future

I recently mentioned the Kardashev Scale and how it classifies our civilization as a Type 0.7, where a Type 1.0 civilization can harness the energy of an entire planet. Within my life, we've rocketed from a Type 0.67 to a Type 0.71 civilization and we'll likely exceed a Type 0.74 by the time I'm pushing up the daisies. Some scientists suggest we'll reach a full Type I civilization by 2200, followed by Type II by 5200, and finally a Type III by 7800.

Uh, what?

Okay, here's all that in kidspeak:

Type I = Harnessing a planet's energy = Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (where Mars is terraformed)

Type II = Harnessing a solar system's energy = United Federation of Planets in Star Trek

Type III = Harnessing energy from multiple solar systems = The Galactic Republic in Star Wars

Type IV = Mastery of space-time itself = the Time Lords in Doctor Who or the Q Continuum in Star Trek

Most of these projections are (of course!) wildly hypothetical, but there must be some use—or comfort, at a bare minimum—in knowing where our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren are headed... even if it's off course by a few decades.

How does all this relate to extinction level events? Because over the course of Earth's history, several ELE's nearly signaled the complete termination of life on Earth... which would have obviously slammed the brakes on any civilization advancement at all. Most ELE's aren't one trick ponies, either—they're return customers, meaning we've got to cowboy up if we're going to survive—and thrive. So far, thanks to blind luck (or divine protection, if that's your preferred flavor), we keep bouncing back after these catastrophic close calls, even if it does take millions of years. The fact remains, though: any one of those ELE's could change that in a hurry.

So what are these ELE's, exactly?

Tomorrow, you'll meet the first terrifying monster in the closet—The Oort Cloud.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The ELE Series—An Overview

The research I'm doing for a writing project involves the scope and nature of extinction level events (also called E.L.E.'s). The truth of it is that much of my reading is simply too amazing not to share. The universe is such a crazy and dangerous place which can freak you out if you're the right brand of paranoid. You may get a little stressed out reading some of this stuff, but there is a huge glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel... if you can stay the path.

There's too much to put it all in one place, so I'm going to break it up into a few easily digestible chunks:

  • MEASURING OUR FUTUREUsing the Kardashev Scale to get a glimpse into our far off future

  • ELE's: OUR MONSTERS IN THE CLOSETAn unflinching catalogue of adult nightmares (in two parts)

  • WITHIN OUR LIFETIMESurprising predictions on our swift evolution

Tomorrow we begin by orienting ourselves in time and space by Measuring Our Future.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Between you and I..." is wrong.

A British reporter once asked Sarah Ferguson, the Dutchess of Kent, how her daughter fared on the ski slopes and she replied, "between you and I, my daughter's an awful skier." I felt like I could hear poor Queen Elizabeth faint dead away, not because of her granddaughter's embarrassing lack of alpine skills, but because Fergie had stumbled over one of the most common misuses of the English language.

In all candor, I never really paid attention when my English teachers spoke about subjects and objects, but I did gather a sense for what was wrong simply from hearing it done frequently enough. Here's a refresher.

When a person performs an action, the personal pronoun describing them is the subject:

I talk to...
You talk to...
He talks to...
She talks to...
We talk to...
You talk to...
They talk to...

When the action is being done to a person or thing, their personal pronoun becomes the object:

... talk to me
... talk to you
... talk to him
... talk to her
... talk to us
... talk to you
... talk to them

This is why it is correct to say, "I talk to him", but not, "Me talk to he".

Say you have two people, Jim and Mary, standing on either side of a tree. Jim says to Mary, "The tree is between us." The tree is the subject, while Jim and Mary are the objects ("us"). Jim can also say, "The tree is between you and me," because "you" and "me" are personal pronouns used as objects.

Now, instead of a tree, imagine it's a secret: "let's keep this secret between us." This sounds correct, right? That's why it's also correct to keep the secret "between you and me."

Here are some other correct iterations:

You and I are next to the tree.
We are next to the tree.
The tree is next to us.
The tree is next to you and me.
The tree is next to them.
They are next to the tree.
Between us, he's a nobhead.
Between you, me, and the tree, there is no spoon.
Between you and me, if you make this mistake again, you are a nobhead.

And here's a detailed explanation about the surprisingly common object/subject confusion:
In the old days when people studied traditional grammar, we could simply say, “The first person singular pronoun is “I” when it’s a subject and “me” when it’s an object,” but now few people know what that means. Let’s see if we can apply some common sense here. The misuse of “I” and “myself” for “me” is caused by nervousness about “me.” Educated people know that “Jim and me is goin’ down to slop the hogs,” is not elegant speech, not “correct.” It should be “Jim and I” because if I were slopping the hogs alone I would never say “Me is going. . . .” If you refer to yourself first, the same rule applies: It’s not “Me and Jim are going” but “I and Jim are going.”

So far so good. But the notion that there is something wrong with “me” leads people to overcorrect and avoid it where it is perfectly appropriate. People will say “The document had to be signed by both Susan and I” when the correct statement would be, “The document had to be signed by both Susan and me.” Trying even harder to avoid the lowly “me,” many people will substitute “myself,” as in “The suspect uttered epithets at Officer O’Leary and myself.”

“Myself” is no better than “I” as an object. “Myself” is not a sort of all-purpose intensive form of “me” or “I.” Use “myself” only when you have used “I” earlier in the same sentence: “I am not particularly fond of goat cheese myself.” “I kept half the loot for myself.” All this confusion can easily be avoided if you just remove the second party from the sentences where you feel tempted to use “myself” as an object or feel nervous about “me.” You wouldn’t say, “The IRS sent the refund check to I,” so you shouldn’t say “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and I” either. And you shouldn’t say “to my wife and myself.” The only correct way to say this is, “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and me.” Still sounds too casual? Get over it.

On a related point, those who continue to announce “It is I” have traditional grammatical correctness on their side, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who proudly boast “it’s me!” There’s not much that can be done about this now. Similarly, if a caller asks for Susan and Susan answers “This is she,” her somewhat antiquated correctness is likely to startle the questioner into confusion.Source

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

3D Tech Will Save The Multiplex

About two years ago, I heard a movie distributor say that 3D technology was so advanced now that it would revolutionize the movie industry, revitalizing it in ways we wouldn't expect. I was skeptical at first, but when industry giants like James Cameron, Robert Zemekis, Peter Jackson and Jeffrey Katzenberg also get behind it, you have to ask yourself why. I mean, dude—James Cameron? Like, wow.

I saw this CNN article today and one sentence jumped right off the page: "For theaters owners and studios, [3D] technology could be a lifesaver, luring people back to multiplexes for an experience that cannot be matched by sophisticated home theater systems or stolen by pirates with hidden camcorders."

So it appears we're about to see the next great revolution in movies after all. Cool!

New 3-D movies more than a gimmick
POSTED: 9:31 a.m. EDT, April 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- By the end of the decade, Darth Vader could be rattling sabers with his enemies above the heads of moviegoers, and Buzz Lightyear could be flying off the screen on his way to infinity and beyond.

A growing number of blockbuster, live-action films and animated movies are expected to be offered in 3-D in the next few years, as thousands of theaters around the country are outfitted with the special projectors and screens needed to show the films.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, is so gung-ho about 3-D that he has said his studio might start exclusively releasing movies in the format as early as 2009 with its "Monsters vs. Aliens" movie.

"For Memorial Day weekend 2009, I would like to see 3,800 locations and 6,000 screens that we can put our movie on. And if they are there, then we will be exclusive in 3-D," Katzenberg said at a recent investors conference.

So far, moviegoers have reacted positively to the few 3-D films that have been released in recent years.

"Meet the Robinsons" from The Walt Disney Co. debuted March 30, earning $25.1 million in its opening weekend.

More than a quarter of that revenue came from the 581 screens across the country that showed the film in 3-D, the company said. Those moviegoers were even willing to pay a few extra bucks to don special glasses and watch characters leave the screen.

A number of high-profile filmmakers have 3-D project in the works, including Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron.

Walt Disney Co. has released 3-D versions of three animated films and recently signed a deal with Zemeckis to produce more. The studio is also rumored to be making the sequel "Toy Story 3" in 3-D, a report the studio declined to confirm.

These days, 3-D films are more than just a gimmick.

For theaters owners and studios, the technology could be a lifesaver, luring people back to multiplexes for an experience that cannot be matched by sophisticated home theater systems or stolen by pirates with hidden camcorders.

The theater industry is also battling competition from video games and other alternative entertainment along with Internet downloads that will soon deliver high-definition films directly to homes.

Film exhibition companies looking to protect their business believe 3-D will boost revenue. Some industry executives think theaters can add as much as 50 percent to the cost of a ticket for a 3-D feature.

"If we can sell 10 percent to 15 percent of our tickets annually at a higher price point, that's a real mover of the needle," Mike Campbell, chief executive of Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater chain, said at the investors conference.

About 700 theaters across the country are now outfitted with 3-D technology, with thousands of others moving to spend the $17,000 needed to install the equipment.

Moviemakers, meanwhile, estimate that making a movie in 3-D can add as much as $15 million to the cost.

Today's 3-D technology is far more advanced than that used in the 1950s, the heyday of gimmicky 3-D films.

Previous 3-D systems projected two images on the movie screen, one for each eye. That required the use of red and blue lenses or even glasses with mechanized shutters that opened and closed quickly to separate the images.

With newer systems, moviegoers still need to don special glasses but not the cheap cardboard variety with blue and red lenses.

Instead, special polarized lenses will separate the stereo images projected on specially coated screens.

RealD, a Beverly Hills company, is the leader in modern 3-D with systems that will be operating on about 1,000 screens by the end of the year.

Its technology uses a special movie screen painted with a silver oxide to direct more light back to the viewer instead of scattering wavelengths the way normal screens do.

The theaters also use digital projectors that show movies stored in bits on a computer hard disk rather than traditional film.

Dolby Laboratories Inc. recently unveiled plans to market its own 3-D technology that would work with existing movie screens.

"The momentum is gathering, and I think this is probably the most exciting thing from a filmmaking and filmgoing experience that has happened in my time in the business," Katzenberg said. "There's nothing more compelling than this."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Friday, April 06, 2007

Zoë meets world

Well, the Z girl isn't even two days old and everyone's suddenly after me to post pictures of her. Here are a few to tide you over, but over here, I've posted 23 more.

Zoë's here!

Zoë Elianna Pruden (or Harris Pruden) was born Thursday morning at 9:20 AM, after a 50 minute labor (meaning Tracie pushing in earnest). Zoë, weighing in at 6 pounds 3 ounces and 18 inches long, is perfectly healthy and has already pooped something resembling part algae, part toxic waste and part velcro. That's my girl!!

Tracie is fine, though recovering from a slight tear. She's exhausted but did an amazing job.

We've been told we'll be in this room until Friday sometime. Vistors welcome -- Room 3772. Direct Line: 916/703-8366 (My cell phone is dying)

I no longer have email at the hospital, so best to call the room directly.

Pictures to come...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Almost there...

Tracie is (finally) 100% dialated and effaced. We're in the home stretch now. Baby is ready to come out any time now...

3:16 AM

"Epidurals are the greatest thing ever."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Stupid Flat Pillow

She's smiling, but she's still struggling to get comfortable!

Things are going very well here. Tracie was admitted at four and is talking now to an anesthesiologist about whether to get an epidural. Baby expected to arrive by 8AM tomorrow, but could be sooner...

Early labor?

My wife called me at 2:03 today saying she thinks her water broke... which could mean I'll be meeting my baby daughter very very soon.

Off to the hospital... will post as soon as I know something!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Would you produce it?

If anyone has a good idea for film financing, please tell me.
John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan

Recently, I overheard an aspiring filmmaker and executive producer talking. The filmmaker asked the financier: "I'm making a short film. What kind of short do you think I could get financial backing for?" I wanted to pause the conversation, pull the filmmaker aside, and get him to ask himself the same question... as if he were a producer: would he produce his own short?

Financing is and always has been the most painful issue filmmakers face. The problem with filmmakers is that they're filmmakers, not producers. Everything would become clearer if they could only take off their filmmaker hat and put on their producer hat because producers want to invest in films that will make them money. Sure, film is art, with varying degrees of beauty (and beautiful people), but when the crew is wrapped, the game is still about how much money the financiers are going to make from their joint venture. Art or not, film is also commerce.

Oddly, filmmaking is similar to real estate: instead of buying a house for $100,000 and selling it for $500,000 after two years of equity appreciation, you're creating $500,000 of equity with only $100,000. And, just like real estate, you make money when you buy a product at a low enough price. Films like The Devil's Own (1997) with Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, and director Alan J. Pakula—three of the hottest talent and crew (at the time) and an exhorbitant $90 million budget to prove it—are doomed before they ever leave the starting gate. Buy low, sell high. [Ray reminded me that films are also unlike real estate because they depreciate in value. While true, a filmmaker's library, if worthy enough, can eventually be sold for gobs of cash. Just ask Roger Corman who sold his 400-film library to Disney.]

The magic formula for financing films is the rule of four: a film should only cost a fourth of what it's expected to make in gross profits. Unfortunately, that could mean a Come To Jesus meeting which filmmakers don't want to hear. But that's the reality of it—if a film is only going to make $400,000, then that film's budget can't exceed $100,000. Is it even possible to make a film for $100,000? A good film? Even a great film? Of course, some successful films have been made on less, but they are by far the exception to the rule, mainly because their total costs soar after a major production company picks them up and massages them up to spec. Robert Rodriquez loves touting that he made El Mariachi for only $7,000, but if you include the costs of post-production sound, distribution, and advertising, the total bill probably exceeded $500,000.

Back to my eavesdropped conversation—what kind of short do you think an aspiring filmmaker could get financial backing for?

From a producer's point of view, the answer should now become obvious: except for some generous patron of the arts, filmmakers wouldn't likely get any financial backing because short films don't make money. There's no market for shorts... so why would anyone want to put money into them? (Unless you're going for the Academy Award for Best Short... but if you do that, all bets are off.)

At the heart of this financing conundrum is risk assessment. If I wanted to grow my money, I'd invest in stocks, real estate, or I'd build a business. While producing a film is similar to real estate, investing in films is similar to the stock market. You can't win on every stock you buy, but if you diversify your risk enough, you'll cover your ass by releasing Kevin Smith's tanker Jersey Girl with Ed Sanchez's runaway hit The Blair Witch Project.

From a producer's eyes:

  1. Short films cost less... but aren't marketable, and are a higher risk investment than investing in a feature.

  2. Feature films without named talent cost less... but aren't as marketable as features with named talent, so they're a higher risk investment.

  3. Low budget feature films cost less, but their usual low quality makes them unmarketable, and thus riskier.

Strange as it sounds, if you want to produce really low budget films by cutting costs on actors, sound, editing, post-production, etc., then—in the eyes of a producer—you're actually decreasing your chances of getting financing.

Producers understand money, which breeds this singular truth: if you can convince a producer your film will make them $50 million, you can easily ask for $10 million to make that film. Of course, $10 million sounds like a ginormous budget to an aspiring filmmaker, but to a producer, that pile of gold assures them they're doing everything possible to protect their $50 million jackpot. New filmmakers operate under a false ceiling about how little their film is actually worth, but a film's ability to turn a profit, not its budget, is all that really matters to a producer. Budget is an afterthought, like a pricey insurance policy, which buys them peace of mind.

Thus, quite simply, the barriers to getting film financing are:

  1. Find a money-making film idea

  2. Convince producers it's a money-making film idea

  3. Make money with that film idea

At San Francisco's Classically Independent Film Festival, I asked Kevin Smith, "What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?" After thinking for a moment, he said, "Make sure you have a killer script. That's your secret weapon."

Great stories yearn to be retold... and that means money to any film producer. So ask yourself, if you were a producer, would you produce your own film?