Sunday, April 27, 2008

interweb shoutout: xkcd

In the last few years I've been getting a lot more into graphic novels from artists like Chris Ware and Lilli Carré. But sometimes you just want a quick hit of cartoon humor, and I'm happy to say I've found a great new place for just that: xkcd.

Billed as a "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," xkcd is a thinking man's (and woman's) cartoon. While not lounging in the ball pit he installed in his apartment, author Randall Munroe makes his stick figures loveable by placing them in cerebrally advanced situations such as... Playing with the Large Hadron Collider! Digging (and dishing on) Mythbusters! Poking fun at the Drake Equation!

Anyone with nerdy tendencies should check this comic—and its accompanying blog—as soon as possible.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

saving the planet, one plastic bag at a time

Here we are, Earth Day 2008. It's funny, but I can't help feeling like it's the early 90s all over again. Gas guzzling is out. Recycling is in. And the Democrats are using the green vibe to their advantage (with similar results in November, I hope).

So what does it all mean? It means that we have some serious problems to face, and that at least for now, we have to cash in on this neo-eco-consciousness. It means changing your habits whenever you can. Simply holding onto that plastic water bottle you just purchased until you can get home to recycle it is a great start. So is unplugging all those appliances that use up juice just sitting there, even when they're turned off. It means voting for people who will make a commitment to a cleaner 2009 and beyond.

I know it sounds corny, people, but I for one don't want my great grandkids to be faced with the choice between moving to Mars or enduring certain death from painful cancer after the ozone is all but wiped out. And you shouldn't, either; I hear Mars is pretty chilly at night.

But seriously, the good thing about what's going on now is that it looks like big business is finally starting to listen. Who would have thought that hybrid car technology would have become so popular in a matter of just a few years? Electric cars, which were the wave of the future back in the early 90s, fizzled and died out before they ever had the chance to make it. But you can't watch a car commercial nowadays that doesn't mention the words "fuel economy," "mileage," "hydrogen," or "hybrid." (Okay, except for that silly VW one with David Hasselhoff.) So, I'm hopeful that people are starting to realize that "Earth-friendly" and "business-friendly" don't have to be polar opposites.

Anyway, my two suggestions for you on this Earth Day: Read this eye-opening series from The L Magazine writer Amanda Park Taylor on how to change your plastic-using ways (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5); and check out this set of free enviro-toons from the one, the only, BrainPOP.

Monday, April 21, 2008

danica in the fast lane

Congratulations to racer girl Danica Patrick for becoming the first woman to ever win a major Indy car race!

Patrick has been on the Indy scene for three years now, and has won numerous postseason awards, including 2005 IndyCar Rookie of the Year and three IndyCar Most Popular Driver awards. But until this weekend, Patrick had missed out on victory—sometimes, just barely. I like to think of her as the Phil Mickelson of Indy racing for having produced so much talk about her potential and taking such a long time to finally win. Needless to say, Lefty eventually left all the talk behind, and so it is now time for Danica to shut her naysayers up as well!

Incidentally, there was a neat article in Wired this month about just how in shape you have to be—both physically and mentally—to be a pro race-car driver. In particular you'll need a neck of steel and a tolerance for flaming toes. Who knew? Anyhoo, well done Ms. Patrick!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

cassini lives on

Oh, happy day! Today NASA announced that the Cassini spaceraft, which has been orbiting around Saturn and its moons for the past four years, will have its life extended until 2010. The mission, which has provided scientists with gobs and gobs of new data and images from the Saturnian neighborhood of our solar system (including the ridiculously cool shot you see here of a total eclipse of the sun), was originally scheduled to end this July. I interviewed Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco back in 2006 for Discover magazine, and she said she thought it would be "colosally shortsighted for NASA and Congress to halt the Cassini mission [this year], when it has become one of the most phenomenally successful endeavors we've ever undertaken." Apparently, her bosses agreed, and I couldn't be happier for the program, which was actually also one of the last missions that my uncle worked on before retiring from the European Space Agency (the mission is a joint NASA/ESA/Italian Space Agency project).

Monday, April 14, 2008

lords and vassals be gone!

Most of you have probably never heard of the tiny island of Sark, located just north of the Normandy coast in the English Channel. That's cool—I hadn't either until my brother told me about this place which, from the outside, might seem like your typical British protectorate. On the inside, though, Sark held a nifty little secret: Its government was a holdout from the 1600s, when feudalism ruled Europe! It actually turned out to be the last European territory with a governance in which a small group held all the land and much of the power—complete with lords and vassals and fiefs (oh, my)!

This week, however, feudalism received the ultimate death blow, as Sark's ruling body, known as the Chief Pleas, voted to move to a more democratic form of government. While there are still many kinks to be worked out (giving up one's hold over an independent island of 600 will be a tad more difficult than simply handing over the keys), the Chief Pleas will eventually be replaced by a 28-member elected body.

All politics aside, Sark seems to me to be an excellent place to check out on a short vacation. From the pictures alone, the island is gorgeous; there are only 2.13 square miles of it, but those lands are lush, green, and ripe for exploring. Sark has no cars either—you'll have to pick horse-drawn carriage; bicycle or motorbike; tractor; or battery-powered buggy as your mode of transportation. I actually sent away for a brochure a few years ago, and the tourism board called Sark "a naturalist's paradise," too. Okay, I'm so there! Too bad I missed out on meeting me some hipster vassals, though. Bummer.

why not us?

On Saturday, Spain's prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office for his second term. Nothing altogether remarkable there, but today was a different story. Zapatero's chosen cabinet was sworn in this morning, and of the 17 who took their positions at the highest rank of Spanish government, nine of them were women. You heard me right, folks: More than half of Spain's highest governing body is female—a first for any European nation.

This state of affairs seems even more remarkable to me than the idea of a female prime minister or president. What Zapatero has done is send a message that as long as men and women make up half of a country's population, women should have a fair shake as far as representing and governing their people. I find it particularly awesome that Zapatero selected 37-year-old Carme Chacón, a Catalan who happens to be seven months pregnant (that's her in the picture), as Spain's defense minister! Can you imagine any woman being picked over guys like Cheney, Rummy, and Gates to kick butt in overseas warfare? Even Hillary Clinton wouldn't dream of it. So we must now pull a David Byrne and ask ourselves, "Well, how did we get here?"

In the good old U.S. of A., we've been patting ourselves on the back of late, thinking we're doing better. And the truth is that we are: The 2006 midterm elections put more women into positions of power in Washington—including Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House—than ever before. But the tiny incremental steps we're making as far as actual representation seem laughable compared to other developed nations. Here are some interesting stats (source: Emily's List):

  • America Ranks 66th in the world for female representation. Some countries with a higher percentage of women legislators than the United States include: Rwanda (6), Cuba (7), Germany (15), Afghanistan (22) and Mexico (28).

  • Out of the country’s 3,000 municipalities, only 16% contain a woman mayor.

  • For elected statewide executive positions, 25.6% are women, including only 8 governors.

  • Women hold 22.6% of state legislature offices.

  • The federal level has the worst track record with only 14 Senators and 67 Representatives (15.1%).

  • Of the nearly 600 people who have served in the President’s cabinet or as cabinet-level officers, only 29 (approximately 5%) have been women.

Here's hoping American voters will start caring about stuff like this and realize that having women in positions of power really does make a difference. No one's asking for more than a fair share, but it's only right that, like in Spain, a democracy's government reflects its population. There's absolutely nothing more democratic than that. &infin