Hatsune Miku

How did I not know about this before?

Just over ten years ago the Japanese company Crypton Future Media released computer software that can be used to generate a female singing voice, originally in Japanese and later in English and Chinese as well. A fairly straightforward user interface lets you enter words and music for the virtual singer (derived from digitally manipulated samples of voice actress Saki Fujita) to perform.

The product makes use of Yamaha's Vocaloid technology, which had already been used to create other artificial singers, but Crypton cleverly gave their version a name (Hatsune Miku, which I'm told means something like "first voice from the future" in Japanese) and a cartoon drawing of her created by manga artist Kei Garō. Hatsune Miku was originally marketed to professional musicians and music producers, but she soon attracted a lot of amateur composers and large number of fans around the world. Free animation software called MikuMikuDance (often shortened to just MMD) and later MikuMikuMoving (MMM) made it possible to create music videos that were no doubt a major factor in her rapidly growing popularity. (For more history, see the Wikipedia article.)

Here's an example, the first Hatsune Miku song I listened to, and a fairly catchy one:

Link: https://youtu.be/qmf9JkedPR8

When a recording star gets popular, fans naturally want to attend a live concert. You might think this would be a problem for a computer-generated singer, but take a look at this performance in Tokyo, with Hatsune Miku on stage accompanied by human musicians. She's appeared around the world before huge cheering audiences.

Link: https://youtu.be/uHj-F0VS1Nc

By the way, lots of sources (including the Wikipedia article about her) erroneously call her appearance above a "projection hologram" out of a misconception about what "hologram" means. Holograms an be used to create three-dimensional images, but in general 3D images aren't holograms, and what you see above appears to be a straightforward 2K or 4K video image projected onto a thin transparent screen made of a fabric such as that used for sheer curtains. The same basic technique can be used for home Halloween decorations. See, for example, this family of products. (I'm not sponsored by them or endorsing them; I just found the link by Googling in order to illustrate the simple but effective technology involved.)

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World artists recreate world sites in miniature in Times Square

A relatively new attraction in New York's Times Square is Gulliver's Gate, something like a huge model train set the size of a football field reproducing famous locations around the world in 1:87 scale. It includes the city's own Grand Central Terminal (in cross-section, so you can see the various levels), the Panama Canal, the Taj Mahal, the Roman Coliseum, the pyramids at Giza, Rio's Copacabana beach, an erupting South American volcano, Stonehenge, and a good deal more, about a hundred locations in all, with moving trains, trucks, ships, balloons, cable cars, and so on and even some scenes from movies, all created by a team of 600 artists from eight countries.

If you like, you can even get yourself scanned and turned into a 3D-printed figure to be added to one of the locations, possibly one with special meaning for you.

Link: https://youtu.be/5hVx59NA6aU

There's a 360-degree tour on the PBS website here. If your browser supports it, here's a link to the 360 video on YouTube:

Link: https://youtu.be/K4-TBhs3v34

You can also find it by searching YouTube for "360 video: An up-close view of one miniature world's tiny tourist destinations". This is likely to work particularly well in the YouTube app on most smart phones.

(Which reminds me: I recently picked up a virtual reality headset for a smart phone for $15 at a CVS drugstore. They had it next to the pharmacy department, possibly in case you get motion sickness.)

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The U.S. team actually will compete for the World Cup

In a Mexican restaurant the other night I saw the U.S. soccer team fall to Trinidad y Tobago and thus get eliminated from next year's World Cup competition. (It said it on the screen: "EE UU eliminado.")

Except that this isn't quite true. The U.S. will be in contention for the world cup and given the team's history has a shot at winning. But it might be a team you forgot about. Stephen Colbert clears matters up below (after talking a bit about American football), and while he makes jokes, or course, what he says is quite true.

Link: https://youtu.be/D11GogBlKn4

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All you need to know about investing (or most of it anyway)

This eight-minute clip from PBS NewsHour does a pretty good job of synopsizing when people need to know about investing:

Link: https://youtu.be/JdUKhgW1gOo

An even shorter version would be to invest as much as you can in a tax-sheltered retirement or college savings account, preferably one offered through your employer if available. Roth IRAs are a good choice for retirement accounts. The best thing to hold in the account is usually a low-cost index fund that invests in a broadly diversified set of investments, such as a target retirement fund. Especially if you invest outside a retirement account, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) is usually a good choice and can have tax advantages.

Besides long-term investing you should have short-term savings, ideally enough to live on for six months or more, plus a down payment if you're hoping to buy a house. Pay off credit cards. Otherwise you're just giving away money to a bank. Borrow money only to buy a reasonably safe asset such as a house or a (not too expensive) car you need to get around.

Actually, there's more to it than that, including how to avoid scams, including from your seemingly friendly bank. The advice in the video is good, but you ought to spend a little time reading about personal finance from mainstream authors. Just be sure to avoid get-rich-quick schemes like the "Trump University" scam.

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John Oliver on Confederate monuments and remembering history

Here's yet another excellent segment from HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, this one about Confederate monuments and their connection to history. As usual he makes interesting points, and he does so very entertainingly. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, skip ahead to the 19 minute mark. Oliver's suggestions for new monuments in excellent:

Link: https://youtu.be/J5b_-TZwQ0I

Oliver makes a point I've made before myself (but of course he does it better): People who think that relocating the statues amounts to "erasing history" might want to reflect on how Confederate monuments themselves distort history by celebrating the people defending slavery and not those who fought against it, not to mention the slaves themselves.

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Trump's latest order really could destroy the individual health insurance market

Today President Trump signed a new executive order that would, once fully implemented, allow a lot of people to obtain cheaper but lousier health insurance. (Actually, as you can see in this clip, he almost forgot to sign it, but someone reminded him.) If you're currently healthy and don't think you will get seriously sick, this sounds pretty positive. After all, who wouldn't want to save money, and isn't choice a good thing? For people who are lucky enough to stay healthy, maybe, if you overlook the bigger federal deficit or higher taxes. For those who do get injured or sick, it's a disaster, though exactly how big a disaster is hard to say, because a lot of details remain to be determined. The policy probably won't be implemented for many months if at all.

But in the worse case scenario -- which isn't all that far fetched -- the order could make decent individual insurance impossible to buy for many people with pre-existing conditions.

For an outline of the order does and reactions to it, see this report (text and audio) from NPR's Scott Horsley. See also the following report on PBS News Hour, which puts the action in the broader context of Trump's other efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, such as drastically cutting the enrollment period for individual policies (which this year ends in mid-December rather than running through January as in the past):

Link: https://youtu.be/CHbWYm3IiLg

Journalist and blogger Kevin Drum praised outlets with analyses addressing the dangers of the policy, with headlines that bluntly summarize the negative assessment:

  • "Foiled in Congress, Trump Signs Order to Undermine Obamacare" (The New York Times)
  • "Trump begins Obamacare dismantling with executive order" (CNN)
  • "Trump signs order to eliminate ACA insurance rules, undermine marketplaces" (The Washington Post)

Drum sees a strategy behind this: "Trump’s plan, obviously, is that this chaos will force Congress to respond. Anything will be better than a collapse of the entire individual market. Even Democrats will be forced to support a Republican plan that will at least prevent the market from imploding." Maybe. Or maybe Trump really does believe he's arranging a way for people to buy cheaper insurance and doesn't realize the real-world consequences. Some time ago Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo proposed what came to be known as "Trump's Razor," a rule of thumb that roughly says that the stupidest explanation for Trump's actions are the most likely to be true.

Finally, here's something from Seth Meyers broadcast on Trump's 100th day in office. (I previously posted it back in April.) Just watch the first four minutes, which are full of a whole series Trump clips from the campaign that sound exactly like he's describing himself. Seriously, if you didn't see it before, watch it. It's definitely worth four minutes of your time.

Link: https://youtu.be/JPaodrB8T8Y

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More consequences of Trump's Obamacare sabotage

Yesterday Kevin Drum pointed out two more examples of the results of Trump's efforts to sabotage Obamacare, mainly by hinting he will refuse to permit the legally required cost sharing reduction payments to be made but refusing to say definitely. In California insurance companies are being required to put a 12.5 percent surcharge on Silver plan premiums to deal with the problem (though in the end this will effect only the highest income 20 percent or so whose premiums aren't subsidized), while in New Hampshire, where the individual market had stabilized, next year's policies will be much worse in terms of out-of-pocket spending, which premium subsidies won't cover. Drum concludes,

And by the way: even if Trump succeeds in destroying Obamacare, it’s still the law of the land. Insurers will still be required to insure anyone who asks for coverage, regardless of pre-existing conditions. That’s untenable, and the only response from the insurance industry will be to eliminate individual insurance coverage completely. Somebody on Capitol Hill better cotton to this pretty quick and—somehow—get Trump to lay off. If the Republican Party literally ends up eliminating the entire individual health insurance market, there aren’t words in the dictionary for how big a loss they’ll suffer in 2020.

For what it's worth, I previously posted about this on September 2, October 3, and October 9. I'm surprised it isn't getting more coverage in the national news media.

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The vice president's pet bunny has a book coming out

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife have a pet rabbit named Marlon Bundo, who apparently has written a children's books about how the vice president spends his days.

I hope the bunny mentions Pence's political stunt of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly in Air Force 2 from Las Vegas to California via Indianapolis just so he could walk out of a football game in protest of players kneeling in during the National Anthem to express sorrow about unnecessary police violence. The bunny could also suggest to the vice president that if he thinks the players are disrespecting the flag by kneeling before it, he could express his disrespect for the players by kneeling in front of them.

Anyway, here Jimmy Kimmel has excerpts from a version of the book that may not be the one sold in bookstores:

Link: https://youtu.be/LPIxZ_UvPRU

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No, the opioid epidemic isn't Medicaid's fault

One of the nuttier recent political notions is that addiction to opioid pain relievers and related drugs can be blamed on Medicaid, and more specifically the Medicaid expansion introduced by the Affordable Care Act.

It seems somewhat plausible, I supposed, that people with no health insurance have a harder time seeing a doctor or paying for prescription pain relievers and hence don't get addicted. But what this obviously overlooks is that people suffering chronic pain who can't afford a doctor or prescription drugs may turn to street drugs out of desperation.

What we should really be looking at is the evidence, as Dr Aaron Carroll does succinctly in this six-minute video:

Link: https://youtu.be/EQy5ef7CLfo

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