Owning and Being Owned
News and Site Updates Archive 2009/03/15
Never let a serious crisis go to waste.
- Rahm Emanuel
15 Mar '09 - In a 12-acre lake on the Pacific island of Palau live 10 million jellyfish. They thrive because the lake is rich in algae and there are no predators - causing them over time to have lost their stings. Tourists with permits can now swim or snorkel among the 6-to-9-inch creatures; there are so many that it feels like swimming "in jellyfish soup"... We could be living within a "hidden sector", an unseen aspect of the cosmos that may exist all around us (which may even include new forces of nature). Such strange hidden worlds emerge naturally from complex theories such as string theory (which attempts to mesh together the very small and the very large). Hidden worlds may, literally, be everywhere, populated by a rich menagerie of particles that have their own forces - yet we could be unaware of their existence because their particles interact so weakly with the familiar matter of our own universe. Of late, physicists have taken seriously the idea that particles from such hidden sectors could be dark matter, about which we know precious little except that its gravity is what keeps the universe we know from flying apart.
Had someone succeeded in killing Queen Victoria before she gave birth, maybe the British monarchy wouldn't've survived. None of her grandfather George III's dissolute sons produced a robust heir; her uncle George IV's daughter, Princess Charlotte, died at 21 in childbirth. King William IV, the uncle who inherited the throne, had 10 children by actress Mrs Jordan - unfortunately, though they were a vigourous brood who went on to breed many an interesting descendant (David Cameron, current Opposition Leader, is one), none was legitimate. Victoria's father died early on, so there was paranoia in court circles that she - and therefore the monarchy - might be lost. Her childhood was under constant supervision - even at 18 she had to hold someone's hand going up or down stairs; her food was tasted for poison; she shared a bedroom with her mother until she became queen. Luckily, she met her 1st cousin, Albert, with whom she had 9 children and from whom descended the royal families of Prussia (later Germany), Russia, Spain, Denmark, Greece and Sweden - despite the fact she was possibly illegitimate. Many suspected that Irishman Sir John Conroy, Comptroller of her mother's household, was her father - though chubby Victoria bore no resemblance to him. Around Albert, too, were rumours of illegitimacy due to his parents' divorce. (Maybe it goes with the job.) Their eldest child, Crown Princess Vicky, was mother of German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose militarist policies led to the outbreak of World War I. Albert had had a vision of a modern federalist Germany based on democracy - but, before seeing his plans carried out, he died of typhoid at 42. As time went by, Victoria increasingly relied on her Scottish manservant, John Brown. When she died, two sets of mementos were placed in her coffin at her request: by her side was one of Albert's dressing gowns. In her left hand was a lock of Brown's hair and his photo. (Curiously, she also wore Brown's mother's wedding ring.) I presume the idea of a monarchy is theoretically based (at least in part) on having a family dynasty which evidencs better-than-average leadership genes, useful in heading a country. Since children inherit basic personality from the father (and basic IQ from mother), possibly King William IV's eldest son would've been a more logical leadership choice than Victoria.
Going from logical leadership choices to to illogical leadership choices: Okay - I admit it. This is my favourite photo of Sarah Palin. Sorry, I don't know the source... I found the photo on the right of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez oddly disturbing. For one thing, I thought the hanging object was a baby on first glance. But even as a crucifix it's a bit strange. Let's make it look as real as possible, then feel it? What thoughts are running through his mind?... Can the right drug make you a better person? Would you, yourself, take a kindness pill? Would you want your country's leaders to take them?... After our distant ancestors developed language, everyone could benefit from the experiences of others. But the bandwidth of speech is low compared to one's own senses. Huge compression and decompression at each end of the communication is required. The process of describing and interpreting is enabled by detailed world models everyone carries in their heads. Because these models vary from person to person, the codec is lossy; misunderstandings are inevitable. But imprecision also makes words more timeless and intimate. If the impressions some words convey resonate with you, it's because they are literally built out of the way you view the world. Words can also lie - but along with interpreting words, we automatically assess the trustworthiness of their source. You can go to this article to read the rest of it if you like, but I don't recommend it - I thought it degenerated into a believer's discussion of religious fundamentalism that I found unimpressive - though these first 2 paragraphs had some merit. I also found amusing the up-front comment that this blogger "is not unacquainted with the grape".
Having children vaccinated against chicken pox has an unexpected effect - it raises the rate of shingles among the elderly. According to one US study, shingle cases have risen by 90%. How can a vaccine for children make old people ill? Because chicken pox and shingles are caused by the varicella virus; after a childhood attack of chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in the nerves until triggered in later life when it flares up as shingles. When adults come into contact with children who've just caught chicken pox, they get the natural equivalent of a booster shot of the virus which strengthens their resistance. In the past, when children got chicken pox, mothers would invite neighbour children to a "chicken pox party" so they, too, could become infected and get it over with. But parents benefited as well. A nationwide campaign to vaccinate children against the disease means adults are then exposed to fewer children with chicken pox so they miss out on this natural booster. By the age of 85, 65% of the elderly will suffer this often extremely painful disease. One wonders why adults can't just receive a booster shot themselves... People's reaction times are a far better indicator of their chance of living a long life than their blood pressure, exercise levels or weight, researchers have discovered. Men and women with the most sluggish response times are more than twice as likely to die prematurely. The thing that surprised me most is that researchers suggest that people’s reaction times are a measure of their intelligence, which in turn is an indicator of their body’s "system integrity" – how well it is wired together. There is growing evidence that people with higher IQs tend to live longer and healthier lives.
I found this rug for
sale on the
New York City Craigslist
site. It was described as a "true Persian carpet". It took me a bit
to realise exactly what the rug was depicting. I presume its source is
Iran?... In 1980,
a sudden explosion in a Titan missile base near Little Rock, Arkansas popped
the top off a silo like a cheap champagne cork and tossed the missile’s
9-megaton warhead straight up. Landing some 1,000 feet away, it was later
found to be pretty much intact. After reading about all the near-misses of
nuclear accidents through the years, it borders on the miraculous that there
hasn't been an accidental detonation before now. Let's hope our luck
holds... A research team has found biological evidence that
musical training enhances ability to recognise and respond to emotion in sound.
Brainstem processing of pitch, timing, and timbre was measured in both musicians
and non-musicians listening to a fragment of a baby's cry. Sensitivity to
the sound (in particular the complicated part contributing most to emotional
content) was measured through scalp electrodes. Musicians’ brainstems
locked onto the complex part of sound known to carry more emotional elements but
de-emphasised the simpler (less emotion conveying) part. This was not the
case for non-musicians. Those participants who had years of musical
experience or who had studied music theory were better able to process emotional
content. Acoustic elements that musicians process more efficiently are the
same ones that children with language disorders, such as dyslexia and autism,
have problems encoding.
Many people talk at their dogs endlessly, which encourages the dog to just tune them out. Instead of chattering on in a constant, meaningless way to your dog (or your husband), keep in mind that the words you use to communicate are important. Say less. Pay attention to the words and the tone you use. Words should create meaning in your dog’s (or your husband's) life, not add to his confusion... The Potsdam Giants was a Prussian infantry regiment composed of taller-than-average soldiers. Its founder was the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (1688 - 1740). The unit was known as the "Potsdamer Riesengarde" (Giant Guard of Potsdam), but the Prussian population quickly nicknamed them the "Lange Kerls" ("Long Guys"). The original required height was 1.8 metres (5 feet 11 inches), then well above average. The tallest soldiers were reportedly 2.17 metres (about 7 feet). The king himself was only 1.5 metres (4 feet 11 inches) tall. He once confided to the French ambassador, "The most beautiful woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers - they are my weakness." He gave bonuses to fathers of tall sons and to landowners who gave up their tallest farm workers to join the regiment. His agents kidnapped tall men from all over Europe. He even forced tall women to marry tall soldiers so they could breed more tall boys - but the king's idea to stretch his troopers to make them even taller was finally met with open rebellion.
Dr Syn was painted by Andrew Wyeth in 1981. Wyeth comes from an illustrious family: son of artist N C Wyeth, brother to inventor Nathaniel Wyeth, sister to painter Henriette Wyeth Hurd, and father to artists Jamie and Nicholas... Turks live under a secular law derived from the legal systems of post-Napoleonic Europe; they are seldom disposed to think that as Muslims they must live in a state of continual submission to a divine law that governs all social and political life. The 20% of Muslims who are Arabs, however, feel the mesmerising rhythms of the Koran as an unbrookable current of compulsion and are apt to take "Islam" (submission) literally. For them, this may mean renouncing not only freedom but also the very idea of citizenship, retreating from open dialogue on which secular order depends into the "shade of the Koran." Citizenship, by contrast, is precisely not a brotherhood that follows from shared acts of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, leaving fulfillment and meaning to the private sphere. Though a great achievement of Western civilisation, citizenship is not sufficient by itself to create a stable society. It needs associated meanings to which rising generations can attach hopes and a search for identity. Happiness comes not from pursuit of pleasure, but from sacrifice. What sacrifices (other than financial) do citizens make today? (Sending their sons off to fight perennial wars in the Middle East?) But some Muslims may make too many sacrifices to achieve happiness. For example, a 75-year-old widow in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to 40 lashes and 4 months in jail for "mingling" with 2 young men who are not close relatives. The widow is Syrian but had married a Saudi. The verdict demands she be deported after her sentence is carried out. The woman had asked the 24-year-old nephew of her late husband to bring her loaves of bread, which he did; one of his friends came along. The men and the woman were arrested by religious police after delivery of the bread; the men also were convicted and sentenced to lashes and prison. Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling. The widow told the court she considers her nephew as a son because she breast-fed him when he was a baby. But the court denied her claim, saying she didn't provide evidence. Commenting on the case, a lawyer said if it is proved that she is the nephew's foster mother through breast-feeding, then the charge of khulwa (illegal seclusion) will be nullified. But if his relation to her is only as his uncle’s wife then the charge will stand as she is eligible to marry him (she's 75 and he's 24 remember). The lawyer said a 75-year-old woman is usually not considered seductive yet she is a woman and unrelated men should not remain alone with her. Court rulings in such cases are based on Shariah, which does not differentiate between old and young. "Old age is not a sufficient ground for acquittal," he said. This incident has drawn new criticism for the kingdom's ultraconservative religious police and judiciary.
Who is this mystery couple? And this mystery schoolgirl? And where are they headed? (Hint: to the same place)
A team of British academics are creating a virtual reality helmet called Virtual Cocoon, which stimulates the senses so convincingly they've termed it "real virtuality". The prototype helmet connects wirelessly to a computer which feeds it information about a virtual world or another part of the real world. It features a high-definition high dynamic screen which produces pictures 10x darker, or 30x brighter than conventional tv. A tube connecting to a box of chemicals releases smells under the wearer's nose while a similar device can spray flavours directly into the mouth and provide texture sensations. Heat and humidity can be changed using a fan and heater, while surround-sound speakers recreate ambient noise - the first virtual reality device to engage the 5 senses. Unfortunately, it won't be for sale for another 5 years or so... Can you read personality from a face? Baby-faced men are, on average, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts. They are also more likely to be criminals (think Al Capone). Similarly, baby-faced boys can be quarrelsome and hostile but are more likely to be academic high-fliers. And women's faces disclose even more than men's do. Our personality moulds the way our faces look. One study found that angry old people tend to look cross even when asked to strike a neutral expression. A lifetime of scowling, grumpiness and grimaces leaves its mark. In another study participants examined news accounts of fictitious corporate misdeeds. In minor public relations crises, participants held a more favourable attitude toward a baby-faced CEO (large eyes, small nose, high forehead, small chin) than a mature-faced CEO. Study subjects perceived baby-faced CEOs as more honest. However, when the situation was serious - especially when it involved questions of competency - a baby-faced representative didn't help the company. In contexts where innocence conveys naïveté, a mature face is evaluated more favourably. For example, if a company fails to detect important defects in products, a baby-faced CEO is perceived to be detrimental.
Shovel or spade? According to Wikipedia, a spade is a "tool designed primarily for the purpose of digging or removing earth." A shovel on the other hand is a "tool for lifting and moving loose material." A spade "is sometimes considered a type of shovel" and a spade's "typical shape is a broad flat blade with a sharp lower edge" - at least on the page about spades. The page about shovels says a spade "usually has a point and is designed to be pushed into the soil with a foot. Spade blades usually have a rounded face without sharply upturned sides." So does a spade have a broad flat blade, or a point, a rounded face, and upturned sides? Personally, I had always thought that a shovel is squared off (as in the photo to the right) while a spade has a rounded point - though in Australia it appears you can call either one by either name. (How's that for precision?)... During melting markets, pension funds come under siege. If you’re covered by a "defined contribution" plan, contributions are invested - usually by your employer and usually in the stock market - and returns are credited to the employee’s account. Your retirement savings grow if the market rises or, as is the case now, bleed when it crashes. You carry the risk on your shoulders. The risk shifts to the employer under "defined benefit" plans in which future outlays are guaranteed. That seemed like a great idea for business as recently as 2007, when the market was rising and pension funds of America’s 500 largest companies held a surplus of $60 billion. Now they’re at a deficit of $200 billion, with fund assets dropping like a lodestone. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 requires companies to keep the accounts fully funded, meaning they must have enough money to pay all retirees should everyone decide to withdraw funds at once. Yet more than 200 of the 500 big-company plans are nowhere close to meeting that standard and those dire numbers are increasing. Companies with defined-benefit pensions may find themselves choosing between making payroll or topping up pension plans; many businesses therefore may freeze or even cut retiree benefits. These public and union-based defined benefit plans cover 27 million people and represent more than 30% of the $15 trillion dollars held in US retirement accounts.
Electronic waste is a resource that's being managed poorly. Phones and computers should be designed so recyclers can easily extract recyclable materials from the discards. In Germany alone 24 million mobile phones are thrown away each year, almost 1 for every 3 residents - but only 1 in 6 gets dropped off at a recycling centre. Nevertheless, a Hamburg-based refiner, one of a handful of precious-metal recycling firms in the world, recovers about 3.5 tons of gold worth some $110 million each year from mobile phones and other electronic scrap. A firm in Belgium recovers 6 tons of gold a year from waste. A metric ton of electronic waste contains as much as 347 grams (11.16 troy ounces) of gold and electronic waste is growing 3x faster than regular household garbage. This MUST be managed better since 60% of the world's population - more than 4.1 billion people - have mobiles. In Africa, 28% of the population now have cellphones compared to just 2% in 2000. In fact, developing countries account for two-thirds of those in use. (For comparison, only 23% of the world used the internet last year.) Sweden is most advanced in using information and communications technology followed by South Korea and Denmark. The UK is 10th ahead of the US, France, Germany and Japan... Major General (Retired) Leonid Shershnev, former head of Russia's military space intelligence, claims the collision between US and Russian satellites in early February 2009 may have been a test of new US technology to intercept and destroy satellites rather than an accident as reported by the news. The 2 satellites collided 800 kilometres (500 miles) above Siberia. The US military satellite involved was part of the "dual-purpose" Orbital Express research project, a mission managed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) meant "to validate the technical feasibility of robotic, autonomous on-orbit refueling and reconfiguration of satellites to support a broad range of future US national security and commercial space programs." Shershnev claims the US military is developing technology to allow inspection of orbital spacecraft by fully-automated satellites equipped with robotic devices; he suggests the collision indicates the US is now capable of manipulating "hostile satellites" - including destroying them.
Revered in India as "holy powder," the marigold-coloured spice known as turmeric (commonly used in curries, mustards, to colour cheeses, in sunscreens, and to deter ants) has been used for centuries to treat wounds, infections and other health problems. Research into the healing powers of turmeric's main ingredient, curcumin, has revealed an astonishing array of antioxidant, anti-cancer, antibiotic, antiviral and other properties. But how does it work? Curcumin acts as a disciplinarian, inserting itself into cell membranes and making them more orderly, a move that improves cells' resistance to infection and malignancy. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family... How important is commitment? In an experiment, students given a short course in taking black and white photos were taught how to develop their pictures in the darkroom. Half were told that they could pick one of their pictures to be professionally enlarged and developed, which they could then keep. The other half were told to pick 2 pictures to keep and advised they should wait until the last minute to make a final decision. The latter group had a continual temptation to change choices; they considered and reconsidered which of their prints were best. Later, participants were asked to rate their level of happiness with their prints. Who was happier - those who early on chose a photo and stuck with it or those who had flexibility and time to make perfect selections? As it turns out, people who could alter their choices were much less happy. The principle behind this: when we have to deal with a fixed reality, we can get used to it and even come to prefer it. But if we think we can change things, we don’t force ourselves to cope. Inevitable imperfections — whether in people or in pictures — can drive us to distraction. The same thing happens with marriage. If we think of marriage as an open market and always have an eye on other options, we are less likely to be happy and much more likely to divorce.
Acqua Liana (meaning "water flower") is property developer and author Frank McKinney's new £15 million ecological mansion in Manalapan, Florida. At left is his arched aquarium/wet bar (which may be the nicest aquarium I've seen). I would love to own something like that, except that it must be a nightmare to keep clean. Presumably he has servants - but I'm not sure how they could manage. Someone who always wanted an aquarium but never had one may not realise the effort involved in keeping algal growth under control. I predict that it isn't still around in 5 years - he should get all the pleasure from it he can before it begins to look scruffy. Perhaps he doesn't intend to actually put live fish in - I don't see any in the photo. That would certainly help - but one wonders why, then, he'd go to the trouble of having it built in the first place... A curious photo of a whale and one of a castle in Scotland that looks to be straight out of a fairy tale.
One last note: I'll be visiting New York City for the next 3 weeks. I'll try to post from there, but if that doesn't work, I may be a week or so late with the next upload.
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
- Albert Einstein
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