Opinions: the Greatest Deception
News and Site Updates Archive 2008/12/31
I am more afraid of an army of one hundred sheep led by a lion than of an army of one hundred lions led by a sheep.
- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
31 Dec '08 - Happy New Year!
Former US President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea hear British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speak at the Clinton Global Initiative in September in New York City. Clinton said he'd back his wife, Hillary, as secretary of state but has even bigger political hopes for daughter Chelsea... What to do? The smartest people in banking are hoping Obama's Treasury Department will analyse what the major banks are worth in a worst-case scenario, then determine if they have viable, survivable equity-to-asset ratios. Those that do should get more government investment. Those that are close should be forced to find new investors and merge. And those not viable should be shut down and have the bad assets bought by a government-owned body (to sell over time) and their deposits shifted to healthy banks to make those banks even healthier. Some experts believe we still need to close 1,000 banks — and this process will be painful... The biggest Ponzi scheme in history has inspired a fun new drinking game: Ponzi Crawl. This is a pub crawl that adds a new person to buy a round at each location. Each new person is promised that they will get free drinks at all future bars if they buy this round. Obviously, whoever joins the ponzi crawl last — gets screwed!
Spiritual experiences associated with selflessness are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. All individuals, regardless of cultural background or religion, experience the same neuropsychological functions during spiritual experiences such as transcendence. The first function of the parietal lobe is to integrate sensory information to form a single perception (cognition). The second function constructs a spatial coordinate system to represent the world around us. Individuals with damage to the parietal lobes often show striking deficits, such as abnormalities in body image and spatial relations — they no longer have a sense of a body, so they feel "spiritual"... A paralegal, recently laid off, wanted to get back at the "establishment" that he felt was to blame for his lost job. So when he craved an expensive new tie, he went out and stole one. The story, relayed by a psychiatrist, is an example of the rash behaviours exhibited by an increasing number of Americans as a recession undermines a lifestyle built on spending. In the coming months, mental health experts expect a rise in theft, depression, drug use, anxiety and even violence as consumers confront a harsh new reality and must live within diminished means.
New legislation backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would allow Russian authorities to label any government critic a traitor. The bill, which is expected to become law, would expand the definition of treason to include damaging Russia's constitutional order, sovereignty or territorial integrity. That, rights activists say, would essentially let authorities interpret any act against state as treason — a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Activists say that would catapult Russia's justice system back to the times of Stalin's purges, calling it "legislation in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler"... Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, waded into the mire [of shame of those in public life who've made scientifically unsupportable statements in 2008] with her dismissal of some government research projects. "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not," Ms Palin said. But a geneticist takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of fruit fly studies (they share ½ their genes with humans). "They've been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in understanding the ageing process." Unfortunately, this otherwise decent article includes the following unsupported statement: "The real crime against humanity continues to be the enduring misery caused by the major mental illnesses across the globe, and the continuing lack of resources devoted to supporting those afflicted." Excuse me? Global mental illness is the REAL crime against humanity? IF there are huge numbers of mentally ill around the world — what is the cause? When did this happen?
Once a month, the Moon makes one complete orbit around the Earth. Stuck here on the surface as we are, we see the Moon moving across the sky as it orbits. Sometimes, rarely, its path intersects that of the Sun and we see a solar eclipse. A little more common is a lunar eclipse, when the Moon enters the Earth’s shadow, and again we’re stuck on the ground, so we see the Moon darken and sometimes turn blood red. But we never see the moon pass in front of the Earth, because we’re on the Earth. However, our spacecraft are not so disadvantaged. (When I first saw this, I thought the Large Hadron Collider had been restarted and melted a hole through the Earth)... The NZ Health Ministry's National Radiation Laboratory specialist unit, based in Christchurch, deals with 5 — 10 incidents a year, most of them relatively mundane. "There are about half a dozen packages of radioactive isotopes coming into the country every week for medical and scientific purposes. Occasionally the packaging gets damaged in transit and we'll be called in as a precautionary measure. We've never had a situation in which someone has done something that put the public at risk — though we came close about 10 years ago." After an industrial accident in Auckland, radioactive material was sealed in 500 kilograms of lead. Later, it was stolen. "A couple of people were chipping off the lead in their garage to use for fishing sinkers. Fortunately family members discovered what they were up to before they reached the radioactive core, otherwise we could have had a significant problem."
"Simple Toilet," as envisioned by Alejandro Bona, University of Art and Design Lausanne (ECAL), Switzerland... The pay system on Wall Street lavishly rewards the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to be an illusion. Consider a hypothetical example of a money manager who leverages up clients’ money with debt, then invests the bulked-up total in high-yielding but risky assets (say, dubious mortgage-backed securities). For a while — as long as a housing bubble continues to inflate — he (it’s almost always a he) makes big profits and receives big bonuses. Then, when the bubble bursts and his investments turn into toxic waste, his investors lose big — but he keeps those bonuses. Okay, maybe this example isn’t hypothetical after all. So, how different is what Wall Street does from the Madoff affair? Madoff allegedly skipped a few steps, simply stealing clients’ money rather than collecting big fees while exposing investors to mysterious risks... The implication [of a study on overconfidence versus market efficiency] extends beyond the gridiron. Football players aren't the only employees whose future performance is hard to predict. In fact, football teams are in a better position to predict performance than most employers choosing workers — teams get to watch job candidates perform similar tasks at the college level, then administer additional tests on highly diagnostic traits like strength and speed. Once hired, performance is graded - every action is visible on film from multiple angles. Compare that to a company hiring a new Chief Executive Officer (or an investment bank hiring an analyst, a law firm hiring an associate, et cetera). Outside candidates have been performing much of their jobs out of view. Observers see only a portion of choices made; unchosen options are rarely visible. Even once a CEO is hired, the company's board of directors is unlikely to measure performance nearly as well as a team evaluates its quarterback. There is little reason to think that the market for CEOs is more efficient than the market for football players (via The American Prospect Comments)... More [regarding the US National Football League draft]: Top picks do perform better than lower-round choices, but performance falls much more slowly than compensation. The most value per dollar can be found in the 2nd half of the 1st round and in the 2nd round, where players have good performances on average but are not as expensive. The payoff peaks at about the 43rd pick (the 11th pick in the 2nd round of this year’s draft), who brings in a 5-year performance worth around $750,000 more than his price. Of those first 43 selections, the No. 1 pick is actually the worst in cost-benefit terms, since that player eats up so much of the budget. This phenomenon is growing more pronounced over time. Same with a CEO??
Climate change is coming - just about everyone agrees on that. What they can't seem to agree on is which direction is it going?
On its opening day in June 2000, the Millennium Bridge began to wobble so violently after thousands of pedestrians tried to walk across that it had to be closed. The 320-metre-long suspension bridge, connecting the financial district of the City of London to Bankside in south London, had been hailed as a "pure expression of engineering structure." It was assumed that the fault was that its design had failed to take into account the tendency of pedestrians to synchronise their leg movements. But a re-evaluation found that the wobble was caused by the tiny forces on the bridge generated when each foot is adjusted during walking to keep a person's balance. The problem was solved by fitting 91 dampers to absorb lateral and vertical oscillations. It re-opened in 2002 after £5 millon in changes. Click photo to enlarge... "Don't kill yourself over a big pile of paper. In fact, Dan Gilbert's studies have shown that 12 months after the event, there is absolutely no difference in the self-reported happiness of lottery winners versus newly paralysed parapalegics. You'll be fine, just get back to work finding new ways to create meaning." — Ryan Petersen, Import Genius... "What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?" — Adam Smith... "I began to think about my options: I’d have to sell the cottage in West Palm Beach immediately. I’d need to lay off Yolanda. I could cancel the newspaper subscriptions and read everything online. I only needed a cellphone. I’d have to stop taking taxis. And who could highlight my hair for almost no money? And how hard was it to give yourself a really good pedicure?" — Alexandra Penny, sex book author and artist on hearing that her funds invested with Bernard Madoff were gone... Steven Spielberg, through his Wunderkinder Foundation, was one of those stung by Bernard Madoff. The Jewish Journal has suggested Spielberg make a movie about Madoff — they have even suggested a title: Swindler’s List... One year in 40 seconds (via Neatorama).
Many amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology field. Some proudly call themselves "biohackers" — innovators who push technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before profits. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public can use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored free off Craigslist, that drops to 80° below zero (the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive). A biotechnology watchdog organisation warns that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs can escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage but defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in his garage. (Click image to enlarge)... Author Iris Chang (Rape of Nanking) seems to have believed that her real enemies resided in Washington not Tokyo. As she pointed out, the Bush administration was desperate to ingratiate itself with Tokyo in its efforts to retain at least nominal Japanese support for the Iraq war. Was the US government watching Chang at the end? In truth, because of a legal ban on spying on US citizens, Washington tends to "outsource" such work to other nations. So the real question comes back to what Tokyo was doing. Given the size of the stakes and the fact that the Bush administration would almost certainly turn a blind eye, it is hard to see how the Japanese government would not have spied on her.
It is estimated that between 40 and 70% of the variation in body mass index is caused by genes rather than environment but until recently the only genes that have been linked with obesity are those that cause changes to the body's physiology, such as the LEP gene responsible for the leptin hormone, which controls energy intake and expenditure. Until 2007, no genetic associations had been found for common obesity, but today almost all those uncovered are likely to influence brain function. New obesity treatments will be aimed at changing people's psychology towards food rather than their physical desire to eat... Nature has created a perfect scaffold to grow a heart in the network of collagen fibres, fibronectin and laminin along which heart cells are normally strung. A British group hangs the hearts of rats and pigs in their lab after washing all the cells from the organs. The remaining gelatinous scaffolds are injected with embryonic stem cells and fed a nutrient-rich solution. Within 4 days, the hearts can contract; within 8 days they can be attached to a pacemaker and filled with fluid; they beat. In the future, a scaffold from a pig or a cadaver plus stem cells from your body can grow a self-derived organ. [This research] opens the door to the notion that you can make any organ: kidney, liver, lung, pancreas... [By donating,] by subsidising the irresponsible financial decisions of your alma mater, you're helping it keep tuition costs out of reach for all but the richest of students. Think of it this way: If you believe that the government should bail out the automakers with no strings attached so that they can continue business as usual, then by all means: send money to your old school and pray that they decide to use it smartly. But if Detroit has taught us anything, it’s that large, old, entitled institutions don't restructure until they're hamstrung. Economic turmoil is forcing everyone, from corporations to individuals, to reexamine their finances and reconsider their poor choices. This is a good thing, and a lesson to be learned for universities too, if their alumni will let them learn it.
Okay, I can see where flat bulbs would be a good idea from a transport and storage perspective. But since many sockets are upright, I can envision the gap on either side of the bulb filling with dust or cat hair. Or a fingertip accidentally touching the metal when removing a stuck burned-out bulb. Or something. Some aspect makes me uneasy. Have you tried one? Did you like it? Email me, please... Individuals with a higher sense of power experience less compassion and distress when confronted with another’s suffering, compared to low-power individuals. In addition, high-power individuals’ heart rates decrease as they are confronted with painful stories; that is, high power people display more autonomic emotion regulation, which buffers them against others' distress. Further, they report a weaker desire to establish relationships with research study partners. High-power individuals may suffer in interpersonal relationships because of their diminished capacity for compassion and empathy. The many benefits enjoyed by people with power may not translate to the interpersonal realm. Interestingly, there are fewer high-power people than usual during this global economic downturn. Charities report some of the best donation results ever... Some reports say Bristol Palin's baby was born Sunday, others Saturday — in either case, on a day with few people in the hospital — allegedly at 5:30am. Neither hospital nor Palin's office confirm. Obviously, no real reporting was done, just repetition of an announcement made by the family — no medical report or hard evidence. If, as I suspect, Bristol is adopting a baby, it may already be a few days old, so no pictures will be forthcoming until that isn't obvious. In case you think this too elaborate to be real — figure out another way this could have been handled once Sarah Palin generously made a decision to pass Trig off as her own. She couldn't have guessed the repercussions then. Why does it matter now? If Palin stays out of politics, it doesn't. Otherwise, here's a great example of power squelching compassion: Palin virtually threw her daughter under a bus in an attempt to save her own political career. Is this the sort of person you'd vote for?
"The thrill of being next to something potentially lethal, incredibly noisy — that's the stuff I like: control and power, just as kids like playing with blasters," doctor and amateur scientist Peter Terren, 52-year-old father of 3, said of his Tesla coil hobby. "This needs a good understanding of the physics involved, a certain amount of faith and balls of steel — or simple stupidity"... Offering admission and financing to virtually every student who wants to enroll has resulted in a university dropout rate of nearly 50% — and an incredible amount of money down the drain. But there are plenty of 4-year schools willing to take money from anyone who can pony up — whether that money comes from parents, government, or the student's paycheques until he’s old enough to buy discounted movie tickets. They have seats to fill and bills to pay, and sure, they'd all love to be Harvard, but they'll take what they can. And student lenders? Absolutely no incentive to encourage responsible borrowing because they get paid back — you can file bankruptcy 400 times and your student loans will still be there, interest and penalties accruing daily... What's the most widely prescribed medication for Australian women? Did you guess antidepressants? They're used by 8% of young women, 14% of the middle-aged, and 18% of older women. If you think those figures sound low, consider: 40% of young depressed women don't ask for medication; many older women can't afford it. Oh, wait. Is this an example of the global mental illness that constitutes humanity's real crime? Life isn't proving to be rewarding enough?
It is thought that 30-year-old Bonnie, an orangutan living in the zoo in Washington DC — taught herself to whistle after hearing keepers do it. Bonnie also taught her orangutan pal Indah — who created her own tunes rather than merely copying Bonnie's... Alien Minds: Cephalopod mollusks (includes octopi, squid, cuttlefish) have evolved the most sophisticated nervous system of all invertebrates; their cognitive abilities reflect that. The brain of an octopus contains 170 million neurons — comparable to brains of some vertebrates. In relation to body size, its brain is as large as some birds. Having evolved independently, the structure of an octopus’s brain looks utterly alien compared to more familiar brains of vertebrates. Its exquisitely-sensitive flexible tentacles contain as many neurons as its brain; severed tentacles are capable of coordinated movement. Octopi can distinguish and classify objects based on size and shape, learn to navigate simple mazes, and solve problems such as removing tasty food from a sealed container. Neuroscientists found octopi can learn a task by watching another octopus perform it. They trained octopi to choose between a red and white ball. If the octopus was correct, it got a piece of fish as reward; otherwise, it received a mild electric shock as punishment. Once the training was complete, investigators let an untrained octopus watch a trained animal perform from behind a glass barrier. When allowed to select between the two balls themselves, the observer octopi made correct choices. Learning by demonstration is closely related to conceptual thought.
Interaction bidding: Hear yourself asking: "Do you fancy a coffee?" The listener may respond in 1 of 3 ways:
While I think the Winepod, the world’s first personal winery, is æsthetically pleasing and acknowledge that it would've appealed strongly to me at one point in my life — today, at US$4,499, it seems mostly self-indulgent. Still, if your business is recession-proof and you're looking for ways to validate that you've become a discerning adult, go for it. Owner ProVina is funded by VantagePoint Venture Partners, a leading venture company that "provides creative growth strategies and capital to companies transforming global markets" (and "uses many boilerplate terms"). With more than $4.0 billion of capital under management, they invest in technology-driven companies at all stages of development and their funds will ramp ProVina’s production to meet global demand. (Meeting global demand may in fact prove easier than originally expected)... "We realise that governments don't view saving whales to be as important as round the world yacht racing or offshore fishing, so we weren't surprised to hear that NZ and Australia have stated that they will not be prepared to rescue any Sea Shepherd crew in the event of accident or attacks from Japanese whalers. The Australian government has announced they will not send a Customs vessel to the Southern Ocean this year and the entire Australian Navy has been tied to the docks and the sailors sent home for 2 months in a cost saving measure. NZ Foreign Minister told the media that NZ 'cannot underwrite the welfare and safety of every individual who is in the Ross Sea.' This year there'll be no Australian or NZ ships in the waters of the Australian Antarctic Territory — only Japanese whaling ships, possibly a Japanese gunboat, the Steve Irwin and our crew"... The ship found 2 Japanese whalers in the Australian Economic Antarctic Exclusion Zone but they were unable to produce evidence the Japanese had taken whales in the sanctuary... Researchers have found out what made the 1918 flu pandemic so deadly — a group of 3 genes that lets the virus invade the lungs and cause pneumonia. Most flu experts agree that a pandemic of influenza will almost certainly strike again. No one knows when or what strain it will be but one big suspect now is the H5N1 avian influenza virus.
Scientists wired up both men and women to an MRI scanner while they played a video game involving winning on-screen territory. After analysing the data, researchers find participants show activation in the brain's mesocorticolimbic centre, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, show much greater activation, and the amount increases as they gain more territory, vanquish more opponents, and score more points. This is seldom the case with women, however (via Neatorama)... There’s a brand new replica of the Taj Mahal in Bangladesh. It’s about 800 miles from the old, worn-out one in Agra, India. Local film maker and hotelier Ahsanullah Moni came up with the idea for the life-size replica of India's monument of love. He built it on 4 acres of land close to his home in the village of Sonaragaon. It cost US$58 million. He said, "Everyone dreams about seeing the Taj Mahal but very few Bangladeshis can make the trip because it's too expensive for them." The Bangladeshi director also plans to use the newly built Taj as a giant movie set. Meanwhile, the Indian embassy in Bangladesh has voiced its displeasure over the exact copy — and is hoping to sue for copyright infringement. The original Taj Mahal palace was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth in 1631. Surely India copyright law doesn't extend that far back?... An enlightening article about raising an adopted child: "I don't care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your non-biological child isn't the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood," writes Rebecca Walker, the estranged daughter of the prize-winning author Alice Walker in her book, Baby Love. "Yes, I would do anything for my first [non-biological] son, within reason. But I would do anything at all for my second [biological] child without reason, without a doubt."; I hope her first son doesn't read her book. Assuming what she wrote is true for others as well, is it better to acknowledge this to yourself? Surely not to your child!
Physicists at the University of Toronto cracked the mystery behind the strange and uncannily well-ordered hexagonal columns found at such popular sites as Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway, California's Devil's Postpile, or the incredible base of the Scottish island Staffa. They used water, corn starch, and a heat lamp to discover that the size of the hexagons is determined by cooling speed. Click image (showing Boyabat in Turkey) to enlarge. Perhaps mudflats form in a similar way? Iceland also has nice columns as does Mount St Helens in Washington state. (I really like these things)... Male college students with a gene associated with rule-breaking behaviour rate most popular in a group of previously unacquainted peers. DNA was collected from more than 200 male university students in 2 separate samples. After interacting in a lab setting for an hour, students filled out a questionnaire about whom they most liked in the group. In both samples, the most popular students turned out to be ones with a particular form of a serotonin gene associated with rule-breaking behaviour. Yet another study showed women prefer males recognised by their peers for their skills, abilities, and achievements — not for their use of coercive tactics to subordinate rivals — unless they're athletes. So it's unclear exactly what is meant by "rule-breaking" — which rules?... In the current economic environment, increased financial literacy is absolutely essential for people to understand the issues as consumers and as voters. No one should leave high school without a solid foundation of practical financial skills. Students should be able to understand credit card offers, evaluate investments, compare insurance products, and understand their rights and responsibilities as consumers. It's a lot more useful than Latin.
Khreshatik Street, the central street of Kiev, during a snowfall in the Ukrainian capital before Christmas (Click image to enlarge)... While a majority of Americans have moved region at least once in their lives, now nearly 4 in 10 have not left their home towns. But it appears "home" is a relative concept. While 26% say home is where they were born or raised, a similar number say it is where they currently reside, 18% say it is where they have lived the longest, and 4% say it is where they went to high school. Among naturalised Americans the majority consider the US as home, while 4 in 6 Americans born abroad described the US as home (but I am not one of them)... Yudit del Rincon, a 44-year-old lawmaker, went before the state legislature this year with a proposition: Let’s require lawmakers to take drug tests to prove they are clean. Her colleagues greeted the idea with applause. Then she sprang a surprise on them: Two lab technicians waited in the audience to administer drug tests to every state lawmaker. We should set the example, she said. They nearly trampled one another in the stampede to the door (via Neatorama)... As El Al landed, the intercom boomed: "Remain seated with seat belts fastened until this plane comes to a complete stop. We also remind you cellphones may not be used until the exit doors have opened. To those of you still seated, we wish you a Merry Christmas. To those of you standing in the aisles and talking on your cellphones, we wish you a Happy Hanukkah."
This tree in Santa María del Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico has an estimated age of 2,000 years... If the American level of meat consumption — about 217 pounds per person per year (just under 100 kilograms) — were suddenly replicated worldwide, the total global grain harvest could support just 2.6 billion people — or less than 40% of the existing population, and barely a quarter of the 10 billion expected by 2070. In fact, the only way current grain supplies can support anywhere near 10 billion people is if everyone consumes meat at the Indian rate — about 12 pounds per year... Want to design a computer game? Here's what NOT to do.
Who is Barack Obama? Contrary to the rumours you have heard, I was not born in a manger.
- Barack Obama, in his comedy routine at the Al Smith Dinner
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