Friday, June 29, 2007

Question for Mac People

My wife has become assimilated. First an iPod, now a Mac.

After decades in the PC world, the question is:
what Mac-specific software is out there (particularly for photo management) that she would not know about?

Feel free to post any other suggestions about tools that work well with the Mac. For example, we have a wireless router for our stuff, but it does not seem to play well with the Mac. AirPort?

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Observing Middle America

One can see almost anything while driving across the country, but one thing I had trouble seeing these days is a "W" sticker. I only saw one sticker in two days on the Interstate. This is a major change in one year, particularly since the route I take goes by two major army installations.

This suggests that even the 25% who still support W are not so sure they want their neighbors to know that they do.

English Only irony continues:
I saw a "Yo Soy el Army" bumper sticker. Interesting that the Republican Presidential candidates are not exactly playing the 'support our troops' game on this one.

I also proved that a physicist can see physics problems anywhere. I saw a really nice "statics" problem in a cantilevered highway sign in Kentucky, which used a box truss rather than a pole for the vertical part. Perfect.

Forgot this one:
Indiana has a new specialty license plate. I have to wonder if they know it translates into Arabic as "We Trust in Allah".

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cray computers

I think I owe Rebecca, whose dream computer is the Cray 1, a photo of its first descendant:

Even built it myself! Of course it actually is just a cardboard model of a Cray X-MP that was also a calendar.

When I saw one of those on a desk, I just had to track down the source and make one myself.

Like Rebecca, I loved Cray's computers. His CDC6500 design was my second computer, and I knew it inside and out. Its RISC design made it easy to program, since I could easily keep the state of the machine in my head. Wrote some cool stuff for it, including a macro package that turned the assembler into a FORTRAN in-line compiler and a multi-tasking operating system that beat M$'s (much later) original DOS by a mile. Although the 6500 was wildly out of date by then, I count it as my first supercomputer.

My first computer was some Honeywell model that the school system let my physics teacher use in the off hours. I slammed some code to do a trivial numerical integral (using a Riemann sum) of the potential energy of a beaded chain. It was really doing a calculator sum, but calculators did not exist until a few years later. Used it to show that the potential energy of a free-hanging curve (a catenary) was less than that of other (distorted) shapes held in place by pins. Looking back, that was so cool for its time that it probably would have won some science fairs if I had bothered to enter it. Little does Mr. P know where that experience took me.

Over the years, I used a CDC7600, a Cray 1 (which was sort of the evolved 8600, sort of not), an X-MP, and a Cray 2 (which was sort of the 9600, the plausible reason I give for HAL being in the 9000 series). The immersion in liquid coolant made the Cray 2 rather unique and particularly photogenic. The ETA-10 (the successor to the CDC Star, the ultimate CISC architecture) was immersed in liquid Nitrogen for cooling, which was extremely cool (literally) but could not be seen.

Rebecca, if you want to design an emulator for the Cray 1, I found a copy of the Hardware Reference Manual on the web. Page 3-25 shows the hack he did on the multiply unit to save money at the cost of some minor computational flaws, some of which are documented at that point in the manual.

Seymour Cray was a genius. We lost a lot when he was killed in an accident on a freeway when his Jeep Grand Cherokee overturned.

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Doubly Tagged?

It would seem that two people circulating in a similar part of the blogosphere (first Twice Tenured, but it was Rebecca's that I noticed first) have sequentially ! tagged me with the latest meme. Amusing. I'd already seen this meme elsewhere, but had not given it much thought.

The Rules:

  • I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.
  • Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.
Hmmmm. Both of my taggers skipped that last rule!

Names of those tagged are inside the full article.

Where to begin with the eight random facts? Well, since a computer scientist in the applied math world got my attention ...

  • I took a year of PhD-level Numerical Analysis as an undergrad math major. If I had not grown bored of math (in a junior class, not that one) and gotten recruited into physics, I probably would have gone to grad school in Applied Math. I still owe Dr. G for getting me into this physics career that I love so much.
  • But I still have a very nice PDE solver. Old School stuff: partial pivot plus various bells and whistles. On cards. Somewhere.
  • I have oatmeal for breakfast every morning, even in the summer.
  • I scored all sorts of goals in intramural soccer despite never playing it until I was in grad school, but am pathetic at basketball, which I "played" my whole life.
  • Not too many people take quantum mechanics as a senior just to fill out their schedule, but I did, the same year I took grad applied math. My QM prof recruited me into physics, but it was the sophomore QM prof that actually hooked me on it.
  • I always play a game of Free Cell while the computer finishes booting up Windoze.
  • I once turned down a tenure-track faculty job, and still have no regrets about that decision.
  • I personally know (on a first name basis) the Drug Czar.
Now, who to tag.

I should tag The Little Professor, for using xyzzy in a post last week. That was a flash from the past. Would it violate the spirit of the meme to mention that I know how to get a perfect score by leaving the magazines somewhere and then not doing something? And that we figured out how to get (actually keep) that last point by disassembling the computer program? Plugh!

Next up:
The Thomas (who comments here and there but has not posted anything new in months), Astroprof, Sherman Dorn, Dean Dad (eight facts from his blog vacation?), Profgrrrrl (where I'd like to hear some unexpected things about Thailand), and Chad, over at Uncertain Principles, should consider themsleves tagged, along with anyone else who wants to play.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Rated G?

Rated G

No contest with profgrrrrl's PG, Dr. Crazy's R, or Jennifer's NC-17 over at Cocktail Party Physics.

I guess pointing out random obscene political activities does not register on their counter. Pretty unsophisticated program, but what do you expect?

OK, I did not expect it would give No Quarter an NC-17 because Larry uses the word "torture" 11 times and (are you ready for this?) Dick (as in Dick Cheney) 10 times!

ROTFLMAO. [I wonder if the program knows what that means? And if this article will raise my rating to a PG?] I guess kids can't be allowed to watch the evening news this year.

But the really funny aspect of this is the following:
You would never guess that I have a softball team shirt with the initials of Dung Tongue The Great on it.

Do I still need to include that when I reply to Rebecca's tag? If I need it.

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Great Moments in Student Notes

Unlike some other bloggers, I have never written about notes sent by students - but the logic in this one is priceless.

Handwritten and left in my mailbox sometime after I last checked it, which was more than three hours after the final exam ended. That makes it after the course officially ended.

Although Student was technically "in my class", I doubt if most of the students in the class would have recognized Student. Student had been absent for the last three weeks of a six week class and had arrived late or been absent for about half of the first three weeks. Student did not take the final exam.

Student writes (editted excerpts only):

I gave up because I didn't think I could pass your class. .... If I fail this class, I won't be able to graduate.

Right. So why did you give up and guarantee that you wouldn't graduate?

For that matter, why didn't you try actually taking the class: Attending every day on time, reading the book before class, and doing the homework? You know, act like a student? After a week or so of that, you might find out that you could pass the class. (If you read my earlier comment on the end/start of summer, you would know that everyone who took the final exam passed that class. Getting 90+ % on the HW was a big part of that for most of them.)

But I am not complaining, just venting to entertain my few readers.

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Softball with Chris Matthews

Where to begin? With free campaign ads.

Once again we see a show containing a variety of free campaign ads shown by NBC under the pretense that their presence on the web makes them news. (At least they acknowledged the obvious, that Fred Thompson's slickly produced evasion of any discussion of health care was a pre-campaign campaign spot.) I hope this does not mean that the networks are going to pick winners and run their spots for free, like they did when they endorsed the assertions of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans, yet that is what I saw tonight.

One thing about this campaign is already obvious to me. Only one candidate has raised enough money to run an ad that he actually pays for on one of the various cable channels that I watch. Mitt Romney. I have seen several of his paid ads over the past month or two, and none by any other candidate. The others are getting theirs run for free.

Then there is the question of the Vice President's branch of government.

Lots more softballs pitched on that one.

It is fine with me if the Vice President asserts that all of his actions have been performed within his single Constitutional duty: serving as the President of the Senate. That means that he was not a member of the executive branch when he participated in all of those meetings, which means he and (more importantly) no one else at those meetings has a right of executive privilege if asked questions about them. Those meetings are just like any other one where a member of Congress is present, with no expectation of executive privacy.

It also suggests to me that the President Pro-tempore of the Senate has the same authority granted to the President of the Senate by the President of the United States whenever the President of the Senate (the Vice President) is absent. That would include classifying and declassifying documents for any political purpose, even if it were to harm national security like the V.P. and his minions did by outing every covert agent who had ever worked with Valerie Plame on the single most important issue of our time: nuclear proliferation. However, I would suggest the President Pro-tempore focus on rendition and torture at the behest of some members of our government.

But if he wants to claim that any of his discussions are subject to executive privilege, as one might suspect due to his office being in the White House and Executive Office Building, then he must be bound by all of the laws that apply to any other person acting in the government at the behest of the President. Or be impeached for failing to do so.

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Pootwattle on Names

Pootwattle appears to be addressing the familiar observation that most scientists think giving something a name is akin to understanding it. Or not.

Pootwattle the Virtual Academic(TM) says:

The hermeneutic of the image invests itself in the writing of the proper-name effect.

Smedley the Virtual Critic(TM) responds:

Pootwattle's useful restatement of the relationship between the hermeneutic of the image and the writing of the proper-name effect addresses an important subject but forgets to mail it, if I may permit myself a slight witticism.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Newton's Principia

The Smithsonian magazine had a little blurb about the Principia in "This Month in History" for July 2007. It is the 320th anniversary of the invention of my student's favorite two classes: calculus and calc-based physics.

Made me think, gee, its seems like almost twenty years ago.

Actually, it was 20 years ago that I got a chance to read the original book.

You see, I'm so old that I remember when MTV had music videos. I remember when the "Washington meeting" of the APS, the April meeting attended by everyone except condensed matter physicists, was always held in Washington, DC. (Now it appears in more centrally-located cultural centers, such as Jacksonville, FL.) So much for being able to see a major Picasso exhibit on a lunch break. But I digress.

On a whim, I wandered over to the Library of Congress during a gap in talks I thought would be interesting. I knew that 1987 was the 300th anniversary of the book, and wondered if I could see one of the originals. It turns out that the answer was "yes". What a great experience, a connection to the origins of physics.

My most striking impression was that the pages of the book did not look that old. I have paperback books that look older. (The same was true of the Gutenberg Bible on display in the lobby.) That really made me appreciate the value of rag paper over the wood pulp we use today. We are quite correct to worry about whether digital media can be read 100 years from now, but it can't be as bad as many of our books.

Most libraries have a facsimile copy of the book (on pulp paper, so it already looks 320 years old) and/or a copy of the Cotes translation. It is worth reading to see how clearly Newton presented the main ideas of physics, and how convoluted his geometrical proofs of the calculus were. In particular, pay attention to how he invented the "vis insita" to give a name to the force Aristotle said was needed to keep things moving. His method of removing Aristotelian thinking was to define it as distinct from an "impressed force". Worth thinking about when we deal with all of those counterintuitive ideas about motion that our students bring to the classroom.

Modern textbooks take different approaches to this conceptual problem. Newton offers one that is not used much today.

PS - My understanding is that physicists don't drink enough at the hotel bar to make us desirable guests for conferences in the big Washington hotels.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Study Skills Classes

I came late to the party when Dean Dad blogged about study skills courses, although my late comment did show up as the only one on his IHE clone of that blog.

I added one other followup to the main blog, but there were several points I figured I should use my own blog to comment on. (pardon the dangling participle)

Ivory commented that there would not be a "Work 101" class to prep them for their careers, which overlooks the significance of college (and college success classes) in the development of those skills. Even if our "workforce" and "transfer" classes don't get them all the way there, the more we manage to teach them about the need to take personal responsibility for their own learning, the better off they will be.

Ivory also mentioned the FITF (first in the family) issue as one that drove the adoption of a study skills class at hir [*] college, but added "But this assumes a lack of initiative in that group that I'm not comfortable with that." I don't think it assumes that at all. It assumes a lack of experience and family lore about how college differs from high school. My blog about what kids need to hear at orientation, particularly items 3 and 4, touches on some of those things. These kids have lots of initiative. They don't understand the culture, and no one has told them it is different from high school.

[*] hir is not a typo, it is a clever him/her blending borrowed from ProfGrrrrl.

BTW, I'm not picking on Ivory. Several of the Anonymous comments made similar points; Ivory was just the first. I shared some of those questions about a skills class until I read Zucker's article in the "Notices of the American Mathematical Society" about the lack of study skills in new students at John's Hopkins, including ones who are taking Calc III as freshmen. If kids with 1500+ SAT scores have a problem, why should we expect ones with 600 or 700 (total) to know how college works?

Random observation: My father, a college grad, told me that college was going to be different from high school. That it would be harder, and I would have to do homework. (He was wrong. I did not have to do any homework to speak of until I took a grad-level math class my Sophomore year. I'm not counting writing computer programs, because that was fun.) College had gotten easier, and my HS, english classes in particular, had prepared me really well. So had the CC where I took my first year of calculus while in high school.

Back to the comments.

I once shared the views of some of the posters about a study skills class. Until I learned about ours through a program I participated in. Our class includes how the college works, including advising ... not to mention the mere existence of the catalog and what is in it. (They get one at orientation, but do they know they should read it? And is it written at the grade level of a typical high school grad, which might be 9th grade or so based on our exit exam?) It covers careers, and how to use our resources to learn the difference between construction and engineering, and between accounting and bookkeeping. I think there is even a unit specifically on the different ways you study for math and history.

One comment mentioned the competence of the teachers, who were often counselors. Ours were originally taught by a few of our best counselors and faculty who teach "prep" classes. Those early classes were extremely effective. (Classes with really good teachers often have that characteristic.) With expanded enrollment, they are taught by many counselors, faculty from the "prep" courses and regular college classes, and even by adjuncts. There is a master syllabus, but one can't help wondering if it would still work as well as it did at the start. To me, the most promising thing in the reports about the study (and the study, CCRC Brief number 36, itself) is the statistical evidence that these course work. The signal persists when important confounding variables are tested.

Another comment mentioned that it probably does not hurt to have an easy class that they like going to every day. I won't discount that. Get them on campus for that class, and maybe they will go to math or english that day also.

Dr. Crazy mentioned teaching a linked course, which is something our college is trying. It helps the students in two ways. It locks in a convenient schedule, and it forms a community of learners that can start to study together. Not only does it help them to know that the faculty care about their success, it helps when other students care about how each other are doing.

I really like the idea of a skills class for Seniors, mentioned by Intelligent Evolver. Engineering schools have a "senior design" class whose purpose is to begin the transition to being an engineer. That class is doubly valuable if they did not have an internship. Who tells a physics undergrad that grad school will be really different? It is probably worse in other fields, because at least some physics majors participate in an REU program.

I'll close with a few remarks that were already posted in DD's blog.

Walker commented "Is it that the students gained more because someone “cared” as I am beginning to see." Very likely. These students discover someone cares, so they assume the rest of us do ... and become students who contact us in advance if they have to leave early or miss a class.

The second anonymous said: "many students just want to try and fake their way through the class." They do this because it worked for them in high school. See the link above to what needs to be in orientation: You had to attend every day in HS, and your teachers had to pass you. The opposite is true in college.

The complaints from The Myth about non-students not reading the book, etc, fall in this same category.

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Irony in Politics

Flashback to the third Republican debate on June 5th.

One of the topics was whether English should be the official language of the United States. Not surprisingly, none of the candidates opposed it, although Sen. McCain did note that doing so might violate one of our treaties with the Navajo in his state.

Others had complained about "press 1 for English". My wife commented that you would think Republicans would respect the free market at work.

The irony?

The debate ended at 9 pm. I clicked over to ABC and what was on? The "NCLR ALMA Awards", featuring subversives such as Eva Longoria, Cameron Diaz, Emilio Estevez, and Prince. The program was put on by the National Council of La Raza. But that was not the ironic part. That came at the first advertising break, featuring the lead sponsor.

Chevrolet. The ad (apart from the logo, Chevrolet Subete) was in English, featuring hard working hispanic contractors with their Chevy pickup. I could only imagine what Tom Tancredo would be thinking if he had seen that. Certainly not "What is good for General Motors is good for the country".

Then came the second break, featuring another major sponsor in the lead ad.

That ad was entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles, featuring lots of hard working middle-aged hispanics. The offender was none other than AARP.

We were howling at that one. Would any of the Republican candidates for President have the guts to tell AARP that they should not have run that ad?

Soon after the AARP ad was a Me Encanta advertisement for McDonalds. And what's good for McDonalds .... ?

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Visiting Alumni

Remembered this while posting a comment to Chad's blog celebrating the graduation of some of his students despite all the negative waves on the internet.

I had a great drop-in visit from an alumnus last week.

I'm wandering aimlessly in the halls when I see a familiar face, who has dropped by looking for me and Dr. Calc Three to tell us he had graduated with his degree in Computer Engineering from Wannabe Flagship U and has a job starting in August.

Now I already knew he had graduated (in good time, I might add) from my spies, but the job was excellent news. Cool job for starting out, and in a major city near his home turf. They are getting a good one.

You see, he was a kid who survived the inner city long enough to join the Marines. How he got to Ishkabibble CC, over 1000 miles from his home, is one of the mysteries of life. He came to us via Iraq, and became part of one of my strongest classes. The Marines-only study group he was in contributed a lot that year, because the only thing that works harder than a Marine is a group of several Marines. Combine that with his natural problem-solving skills, some good math classes, and learning all I could teach him, and he had a huge head start over the slacker HS kids who started at Wannabe Flagship.

The leadership and work ethic of vets is common around my CC, and I think it helps focus the minds of the others in my class as well. They are adults who know for sure that this is not Grade 13.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer ends as summer begins

Finished off my last grading until August rolls around. I love that I could finish up this summer class before Summer itself begins.

They did very well, but the best part of this class was that one of them may be alive because of what he learned in the class.

This is a class where one topic is momentum, and I put a lot of emphasis into the physics of collisions and how seat belts work to reduce the impact on your body by increasing the time it takes for your body to stop. He was wearing his seat belt when he was in a very high speed crash, and his comment to me suggested that he did not always wear it. His crash was bad enough that he was injured by the seatbelt. He thought that was a bad thing until I explained to him that those bruises and sprained ribs mean he experienced 40 to 50 G's, and that 80+ will kill most people. Not much margin there.

For the rest, the nice part was that my cheerleading worked. "Only positive waves, Moriarty". Everyone who took the final exam got at least a C, which is a lot more than some of them expected after the first exam!

And for those who track "grading music":

  • Temptations (greatest hits CD)
  • Beatles (excerpts from "Love")
  • excerpts from "Xauxa" by a Peruvian group, Kuyayky
  • Santana (greatest hits CD)
  • Beach Boys "Surfin Safari"

Had to end with a summer song!

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Pootwattle on College Reorganization

More from Pootwattle, who some claim is a random academic sentence generator at the University of Chicago.

Pootwattle the Virtual Academic(TM) says:

The divisibility of pedagogical institutions provides a context for the renunciation of binary opposition.

Smedley the Virtual Critic(TM) responds:

Pootwattle's thoughtful reevaluation of the relationship between the divisibility of pedagogical institutions and the renunciation of binary opposition is a crucial contribution to the field.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Formula One

I became a Formula 1 fan way back when Michael Schumacher was at Benetton, in the sad year when Senna was killed due to a mechanical failure of a Williams car. I was seriously wondering if I would find it as interesting this year with Michael gone, even with the obvious talent of Alonzo.

Now the question is: Why is Lewis Hamilton better on tracks he has never seen?

I think the answer is two-fold. Despite his great talent, there has to be a learning curve involved in running that kind of car in competition rather than just on test tracks, so it could just be a coincidence that his first two poles and first two victories have come on tracks he did not see until he arrived in North America. However, I think the answer is that his talent shows when he gets on a new track. He might be held back a bit on a track he previously raced with a less capable car, remembering a racing line that is less suited for an F-1 car.

The remaining questions are:

Did McLaren realize just what a talent they had coming up, while they were grooming him for Formula 1?

Can he carry this new knowledge with him to France and on to a championship?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Un-Conventional Wisdom?

Originally conceived back in April, composed last week, polished off on Sunday, June 17.

The Conventional Wisdom is that moving the primaries earlier in the year, what Meet the Press refers to as Tsunami Tuesday on February 5, will result in the Presidential nomination being locked up less than halfway between now and the election next November. This was articulated in an April 16, 2007, Comment in The New Yorker by Hendrik Hertzberg, but similar thoughts are behind most of the ranting on the evening cable "news" shows.

I think they are wrong. They are arguing from a false premise.

In the past, the nomination was locked up by the fourth round or so because of attrition. People who won an early round (such as Iowa or New Hampshire) and then slipped in a later round (such as South Carolina) ran into trouble fund raising or lost "momentum", and the bottom half of the pack never even made it into the ones that became definitive. That is less likely to happen this time because there won't be time for that to happen.

What happens if there are 9 or 10 names on each ballot when February rolls around? Someone will win here, someone else will win there, and yet another will win over there. Its not like the leader in nationwide polls will take all of the delegates. It will play out state by state. I predict that February will bring us a hung convention (probably a pair of them) like the nation has not seen since 1960.

Want to know what might happen? Read "The Making of the President, 1960", the book that made me into a political junkie.

People arguing that Gore needs to decide now, or forget it, are idiots. His best chance is to sit it out and wait for the party to turn to him. Unlike others who might have best used this strategy (such as Fred Thompson, whose strength is that his politics are poorly unknown), he is a proven Presidential candidate. Rove's attack dogs already took their best shot at him, and even then had to win it in the courts.

He will be paired up with whichever Dem comes out with the least negatives. One might lead to a nostalgic Gore-Clinton bumper sticker, where 20% of the voters would think that Bill was back on the ticket.

On the Republican side, Bloomberg should keep quiet about a third party and work for a spot on a post-Iraq unity ticket with Hagel, unless Romney goes that way. There will be a lot of blood spilled before the Republicans are done, and that convention could be as crazy as the 1960 Democratic one was.

Why did I say post-Iraq? Because I am convinced that Bush's surge-and-run past has one more cycle in it, leaving McCain (and the other pro-W-war candidates) as screwed as McCain was when Rove got done with him in South Carolina.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Pootwattle on Knowledge

Check out the random academic sentence generator from Pootwattle at the University of Chicago. The uplink to their analysis of the (bad) bad sentence of the week should be required reading for people who write like I sometimes do. More importantly, the "Tell me how it works" link takes you to a good explanation of how bad writing happens.

Pootwattle the Virtual Academic(TM) says:

The reintegration of factual knowledge is often found in juxtaposition with, if not in direct opposition to, the historicization of process.

Smedley the Virtual Critic(TM) responds:

Pootwattle's loosely organized musing on the relationship between the reintegration of factual knowledge and the historicization of process is unconvincing.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Today in Cuba

The NBC Today show is in Havana, Cuba, today.

A few thoughts:

1) When they cut away to New York, I wondered why they did not have their other crew in Little Havana. That would have been interesting!

2) What is Fox thinking right now? General Electric (through its NBC Entertainment division) is a Traitor to the US? My brother is working for a traitor!

3) If they had been in Little Havana as well as Havana, could they have arranged an interview with Castro's in-laws in Florida and then turned it into a surprise "meeting" with their family in Cuba? That would be some "must see TV".

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