Nothing Much Happens


News and Site Updates Archive 2008/04/30

All news is an exaggeration of life.

- Daniel Schorr

30 Apr '08 - Around the same time the American West started heating up 5 years ago, Colorado started losing its lodgepole pine forests to a beetle infestation - about 60% have turned red and brown.  A decade-long drought may be to blame.  Colorado's signature aspen stands also are drying up.  Snowpacks melt earlier leaving less water for summer and now reservoirs which supply water to southern California are drying up - a crisis in the making.  Meanwhile, the price of grains, a staple in the diets of nearly 1/2 the world’s population, has almost doubled in the last 3 months, raising fears of civil unrest.  Food riots have erupted in several countries.  China has instituted price controls on food staples.  Pakistan uses armed troops to guard trucks delivering food.  Making things worse is the tens of thousands of farmers who have switched from food to fuel production to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.  20m acres of maize, wheat, soya and other crops which once provided animal feed and food have been taken out of production in the US and Brazil, Argentina, Canada and eastern Europe divert sugar cane, palm oil and soybean crops to biofuels resulting in big increases of all global food commodity prices.  The prospect of food shortages over the next 20 years is acute.

       Visualising pain...  States and societies seized during and after World War II by Hitler, Stalin, or both in sequence experienced not just occupation and exploitation but degradation and corrosion of the laws and norms of civil society.  The very structures of civilised life — regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges — disappeared or else took on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself became the leading source of insecurity.  Reciprocity and trust, whether in neighbours, colleagues, community, or leaders, collapsed.  Behaviour that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances — theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others and the opportunistic exploitation of their suffering — became not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself.  Dissent or opposition was stifled by universal fear.  War, in short, prompted behaviour that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime.  It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity...  Fears ranked from childhood through parenthood. (Examples: 5. Fear of pee accidents >In school >In bed >In friend’s bed  6. Fear of bras >Needing one >Not needing one >Anyone looking closely enough to know).

The incredible body paint artistry of Italian Guido Daniele

       Fantastically beautiful photos of auroras...  Transcranial magnetic stimulation, now used to treat epilepsy, has shown that it can artificially generate states of empathy and euphoria.  And you may have heard of propranolol, a drug that can help erase traumatic memories.  Let's say you've been assaulted and you want to take propranolol to delete the memory but the state needs that memory to prosecute the assailant.  Can it prevent you from taking the drug?  To a certain extent, memories are societal properties.  Society has always made claims on your memory, such as subpoenaing you.  Or what if you use transcranial stimulation to increase your empathy - would you be required to disclose that?  Could a judge throw you off a jury?  Could the Army turn you away?...  20% of scientists admit to using performance-enhancing prescription drugs (mainly Ritalin and Provigil) for non-medical reasons to "improve concentration"; 60% do so on a daily or weekly basis.  More than 1/3 said that they would feel pressure to give their children such drugs if they knew other kids at school were also taking them.  More than 57% of the respondents were 35 years old or younger...  It takes 10.2 litres of whole cow's milk to make 454 grams (1 pound) of butter (and in NZ, all cattle are grass-fed, thus insuring their milk and butter have a high nutrient content).

       Napoleon III compared China to a sleeping giant and warned: "When China awakes, she will shake the world."  After a long hibernation, China, and her 1.3 billion people - twice the population of the US and EU combined - is awaking almost overnight.  What amazes me about the photo at left (click for a large version) isn't the size of the room - although that is an impressive feature) but rather the fact that the employees have to wait in formation at attention until their names are called...  Rupert Murdoch began his assault on China with two strategic mistakes.  The first was to pay a staggering price - US$525m - for a majority stake in Star TV, a failing satellite broadcaster based in Hong Kong.  The second was to make a speech in September 1993, a few months after he had bought the business, which he had neither written nor read very carefully.  New telecommunications, he said, “have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere … satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels.”  The Chinese leaders were furious.  The prime minister, Li Peng, issued a decree banning satellite dishes from China.  Murdoch spent the next 10 years grovelling.

       One St Patrick's day, I tinted our mashed potatoes green.  No one but me would eat them.  Apparently the colour of the food we eat affects its taste.  Since blue is considered to be the least appetizing colour for food, wearing blue sunglasses as you eat may help you to eat less if you need to lose weight...  Send them your best email from Mom: "And how are you today?  I have a question for you.  Dad wanted me to ask you about the blog boy you know in DC.  How does he make money writing a blog?  Dad would like to do this too and wants to know how.  Your friend has a job doing it so maybe he knows.  Does he make a lot of money?  It sounded like he did, if he has his own apartment!  Dad’s tired of working at Schwab!" or "Hi honey, it’s mom.  I’m just worried about your eternal soul.  I love you.  Call me when you get home."...  The Tierney Lab's bad names contest turned up this: “Richard Head was a very successful photocopier salesman in Dallas.  He had business cards printed up with his first name as Dick.  He’d show up for a cold call and hand his card to the receptionist.  She’d burst out laughing and run to show the card to her boss, and then the boss couldn’t resist meeting him.  So he’d get 5 minutes to make a pitch, and he sold copiers like crazy.” - Michael Sherrod from Bad Baby Names (written with Matthew Rayback)...  Very spectacular aerial photography.  Page through some of the "Previous Posts" as there are several arresting shots.

       "Would an accidental laboratory release [of the foot-and-mouth disease virus used by researchers] at ... locations [such as Plum Island off the coast of NY's Long Island] have the potential to affect nearby livestock?" asked the 9-page document.  It did not directly answer the question.  A simulated outbreak of the disease in 2002 — part of an earlier US government exercise called "Crimson Sky" — ended with fictional riots in the streets after the simulation's National Guardsmen were ordered to kill tens of millions of farm animals, so many that troops ran out of bullets.  In the exercise, the government said it would have been forced to dig a ditch in Kansas 25 miles long to bury carcasses.  In the simulation, protests broke out in some cities amid food shortages...  There is one place Americans can be assured of having almost no rights — not to freedom of movement, fresh air, food or water, or even to working toilets.  It’s on the runways and tarmacs of the nation’s airports.  When passengers board a plane that becomes delayed, they can be held against their will, sometimes for hours on end, without basic comforts and necessities...   It was an attempt to evade responsibility in a case of extramarital paternity demand: he admitted that he had mixed his saliva with someone else’s (do I even want to know how?) in an attempt to mislead the experts and the judge.  After repeating the test it was revealed (with a probability of more than 99.999998%) that he was the biological father.  [Poor kid.]  Rules now require each donor rinse his mouth out in front of a witness...  Beautiful depth photo of wisps of hydrogen surrounding the Horsehead Nebula in Orion.

This wheelie bin poll appeared on Stuff 3 April, but it's gone now.  (Kiwis have a sense of humour, at least.)

       He conceived of the tank, the machine gun and the helicopter, but few of Leonardo da Vinci's sketched designs have truly been tested.  Except one...  The difficulty in translating one language to another is that words can change their meaning radically depending on the context in which they are used.  This can sometimes make understanding a bit tricky...  To-date, over 160 impact craters have been identified on earth.  Almost all of them have been recognised only since 1950; several new structures are found each year: there are several photos of craters (choose a continent, then click an occurrence), some of which have much larger versions (for example, Lonar Crater in India exhibits interesting formations that can be seen under the very clear lake surface)...  What limits willpower?  Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes.  Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to small changes.  Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control.  People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks; people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than the first.  Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods...  When it comes to oil, what constitutes too much profit?...  An adverse drug reaction to medicines has been defined as any harmful and unwanted effect at doses used for prophylaxis, diagnosis or treatment.  The repercussion is usually minimal, but sometimes, it can be serious and even endanger the patient’s life...  Current local time in the Chatham Islands.  (Notice anything unusual?  No?  Compare it to current local time in Wellington)...  The alien abduction lamp (via Boing Boing).

       Historians measure George W Bush against his 33 predecessors as the nation’s chief executive.  Among them, there is no doubt into which echelon he falls – his competitors are Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce, the worst of the presidential worst.  But does Bush actually come in dead last?  Yes.  History News Network’s poll of 109 historians found that 61% rank Bush as “worst ever” among US presidents.  And was his presidency a success or failure (thus far)?  On that score the numbers are still more resounding: 98% label it a “failure”...  Creeping fascism history's lesson: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.  The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” - James Madison, 4th President of the United States (1809 – 1817)...  There’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution.  Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 - 40% of Americans believe in each.  A 34-nation study found Americans less likely to believe in evolution than citizens of any of the countries polled except Turkey.  President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.”  Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only 1 in 3 has an idea of what DNA does.  Has a culture of “infotainment,” sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity impaired thoughtful debate about national policies?...  Vigilantes: Most psychopaths are male (for reasons unknown) and the trait seems to be present in both Western and non-Western cultures, including those with minimal exposure to media portrayals.  In 1976, anthropologist Jane M Murphy, then at Harvard, found that an isolated group of Yupik-speaking Inuits near the Bering Strait had a term (kunlangeta) they used to describe “a man who … repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and … takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment.”  When Murphy asked an Inuit what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, he replied, “Somebody would push him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”

       When the Airbus A380 made its maiden flight in October, Singapore Airlines set a swift pace for customising with private suites in 1st class.  With leather chairs and fully flat beds, suites are essentially hotel rooms at 30,000 feet.  The 12 suites each feature a 23" LCD tv, 35" wide leather recliner, large table, privacy blinds, a full-length wardrobe, and a chaise longue.  At bedtime, the chair tucks away to make room for a stand-alone bed, longer (though narrower) than a twin.  4 of the 12 suites can combine into two double suites and the beds joined for couples.  But curb your imagination - the airline is gently but tactfully informing passengers that its enclosed suites are not to be used for that...  My Beautiful Mommy is a new kids book about plastic surgery written by Michael Salzhauer, a plastic surgeon in Bal Harbour, Florida to help parents explain cosmetic procedures to their children.  Aimed at kids aged 4 - 7, it features a plastic surgeon named Dr Michael - a musclebound superhero type - and a girl whose mother gets a tummy tuck, a nose job and breast implants.  Before her surgery the mom explains that she is getting a smaller tummy: "You see, as I got older, my body stretched and I couldn't fit into my clothes anymore.  Dr Michael is going to help fix that and make me feel better."  Mom comes home looking like a slightly bruised Barbie doll with demure bandages on her nose and around her waist (via Boing Boing).  (No, this is NOT an endorsement plug)...  A YouTube video showing a replica of the US capitol being built with 22,000 playing cards - and then demolished.  Is this a waste of time?  A harmless amusement?  A work of performance art?  Only you know.

       A pariah dog is any member of packs of wild or feral dogs who live near human settlements.  They may be stray pets, descended from strays, or from litters dumped in wild or rural areas by unscrupulous owners.  Pariah-type feral dogs are typically medium-sized with yellow to rust-coloured coats...  Obama (like almost everyone) criticised former president Jimmy Carter, saying, "Hamas is not a state, Hamas is a terrorist organisation.  They obviously have developed great influence within the Palestinian territories, but they do not control the apparatus of power."  As Obama has frequently evinced a willingness to enter into discussions with nearly everyone and Hamas is actually a political party representing most of the Palestinian people and constituting a majority in the national parliament, the parsing is odd - if holding the position of prime minister after a democratic election isn't controlling "the apparatus of power," it isn't clear what the litmus test might be...  For men: 25 tips on how to stay married.  (Okay - many are corny and impractical - but if you're about to get married, you might even believe you can keep them up.  Example: "If you're wrong, say you're sorry; if you're right, shut up."  Sure.)...  In Australia, an interesting ad campaign by the Victorian government uses a black balloon as a unit of measure: 1 balloon can hold about 50 grams of greenhouse gas.  The balloons allow better visualisation of something that's otherwise unnoticed: our gaseous waste.  Each Victorian household produces over 240,000 balloons of greenhouse gas emissions per year; reducing personal energy use could help.  You need not download a reader to view - it is available on YouTube.  (Information Aesthetics via O'Reilly Radar).

       Queensland (Australia) National Party MP Shane Knuth has called for a national day dedicated to ridding the state of cane toads.  Based on Clean Up Australia Day, residents will be encouraged to place cane toads in their fridge, before euthanasing them humanely in the freezer.  Frogs, by the way, swallow by pushing their eyes down into their heads...  The areas of the brain affected by the drug methamphetamine are called pre-synaptic terminals, features which facilitate the flow of information between 2 areas of the brain.  When a person sees something new in his surroundings, he focuses attention on that item.  At the neuron level, that releases dopamine, a chemical involved in transmitting signals.  As he sees the new item over and over again, dopamine drops as synapses have adapted to the no-longer-new item.  Methamphetamine also makes the nervous system release dopamine, which helps the user to focus his attention on a particular goal.  Meth allows dopamine to filter information coming through the pre-synaptic terminals - so one can then attend a single goal or task while ignoring most other things.  But after chronic use, the filtering process becomes a permanent depression in activity for those terminals.  The only thing that can help these terminals recover - in mice - is re-administration of the drug - hence addiction.

       Spectacular tornado photos.  (But this Mulvane, Kansas house was spared.)...  Internet filtering takes place in at least 40 countries worldwide including many in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Related Internet content control mechanisms are also in place in Canada, the US, and a cluster of countries in Europe.  Drawing on a just-completed survey of global Internet filtering undertaken by the OpenNet Initiative and relying on work by regional experts and an extensive network of researchers, Access Denied examines the political, legal, social, and cultural contexts of Internet filtering in these states from a variety of perspectives.  Chapters discuss the mechanisms and politics of Internet filtering, the strengths and limitations of the technology that powers it, the relevance of international law, ethical considerations for corporations that supply states with the tools for blocking and filtering, and the implications of Internet filtering for activist communities that increasingly rely on Internet technologies for communicating their missions...  Though long, thick hair was often referred to as "woman's glory," it was also her burden.  Washing it, drying it, combing out the tangles, brushing it (50 - 100 strokes a day were recommended in ladies' magazines), plaiting it, pinning it up, and taking it down took a lot of effort.  The gifted children's writer E Nesbit dramatised this problem in a 1908 fairy tale called Melisande: or, Long and Short Division, where the princess's golden hair grows so fast that she is almost immobilised.  The date is significant, since in the early 20th century many women could and did decide to wear their hair short.  This choice, which now seems more or less inconsequential, was seen at the time as a serious, even dangerous sign of sexual freedom and independence — and often criticised as unattractive and unfeminine...  Our ancestors noticed the rhythmic motions of the moon.  The sun was useful for marking short time intervals, but it was the moon which aided them in marking longer periods of time.  Many calendars were based on the 29-day cycle of the moon - in fact, the ancestral form of the word month, is moonth...  There are 200,000 earthquakes recorded every year, with a magnitude 6 earthquake happening every 3 days somewhere in the world.

Journalism is literature in a hurry.

- Matthew Arnold

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