When Truth Is Shallow


News and Site Updates Archive 2009/04/19

It is better to have men ask why you have no statue, than to question why you have one.

- Unknown

19 Apr '09 - Despite their name, cuttlefish are not fish but molluscs, related to squid, octopi, and nautiluses.  They are among the most intelligent invertebrate species.  The ancient world valued them as a source of the unique brown pigment they release from their siphons when alarmed - hence the word for cuttlefish in Greek and Latin is sepia.  Cuttlefish possess a porous cuttlebone, which provides buoyancy.  Cuttlebones given to parakeets and other caged birds are a source of dietary calcium.  Cuttlefish can alter their skin colour at will remarkably rapidly; their skin flashes a fast-changing pattern to communicate with other cuttlefish and as camouflage from predators.  This colour-changing utilises groups of red, yellow, brown, and black pigmented cells above a layer of reflective protein cells (up to 200 specialised cells per square millimetre).  Each pigment cell has 6 - 20 muscle cells on the sides to squeeze ink out; the reflective cells act as mirrors.  Cuttlefish can change the polarisation of this reflected light to signal others.  Their eyes are among the most highly developed and they have W-shaped pupils.  The eyes are fully operational before birth allowing them to observe their surroundings while still in the egg. Their blood is blue-green because it uses a copper-containing protein to carry oxygen instead of an iron-containing protein.  They have 3 hearts because copper is less efficient at carrying oxygen than hæmoglobin.  Some types of cuttlefish have a lethal toxin in their muscles.  Their ink was previously known as Indian ink, widely used by artists and calligraphers in the past because of its dark brown pigment.

10 principles for a black-swan-proof world?

  1. What is fragile should break early while still small.  Nothing should ever become too big to fail.
  2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains!
  3. People who drive school buses blindfolded (and crash them) should not be given new buses.  Instead pick smart new people with clean hands.
  4. Don't let people making "incentive" bonuses manage nuclear plants – or your financial risks.  They'll cut corners on safety to show "profits" while claiming "conservatism."  Capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not merely rewards.
  5. Counterbalance complexity with simplicity.
  6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with warnings.
  7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence; governments should never need to restore confidence.
  8. Do not give addicts more drugs if they have withdrawal pains - they need rehab.  The debt crisis is structural.
  9. Ideally, citizens shouldn't depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement - they should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they don't).
  10. Make an omelet with broken eggs.  This crisis can't be fixed with makeshift repairs; teach people to navigate their world with fewer certainties.

It should come as no surprise that a really beautiful work of art can come from a person who also does things unspeakably heinous (just look at Hitler's paintings and at his design for the Volkswagen).  A striking piece of award-winning sculpture - an entire choir and orchestra created in meticulous miniature detail by folding, cutting and tearing the score of Beethoven's 9th Symphony - was done by a double rapist and child-killer, who has served 20 years of a 30 year sentence.  He says he's rebuilding his life through "artistic endeavour".  (This reminds me of controversial French novelist Jean Genet who, in 1949, was threatened with a life sentence after 10 convictions; Cocteau and other prominent figures including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside.  Genet never returned to prison)...  Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports.  What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves?  Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savoured?  Maybe it is time to rework Andy Warhol's observation that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes: thanks to spectator sports, each of us can know fame for most of our lives, so long as we are satisfied with the ever-shifting, warmed-over shadow of someone else's.  Do spectator sports offer quick and easy entree into an instant community?  There are exaggerated stimuli in other members of the animal world that evoke exaggerated responses.  Perhaps this is one such...  He who should inspire and lead must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

21-year-old Nikolas Evans died after being punched and hitting his head on the ground in a fight.  His mother harvested her dead son's sperm and hopes to find a surrogate, allowing her to one day raise his resulting child.  It's a decision that ethicists say raises troubling questions; one called the potential baby a "replacement child."  (Is this somehow worse than having a child mainly for its ability to provide replacement parts?)...  The Chinese cyber spies have penetrated deep into US systems — including its secure defence network, banking systems, electricity grids and they've even put spy chips into its defence planes, a top US official on counter-intelligence has said.  "We’re also seeing counterfeit routers and chips; some of those chips have made their way into US military fighter aircraft.  You don’t sneak counterfeit chips into another nation’s aircraft to steal data.  When it's done intentionally, it's done to degrade systems or to have the ability to do so at a time of one's choosing."  He added: "Do I worry about those grids, and about air traffic control systems, water supply systems, and so on?  You bet I do."  Is the US pathologically paranoid?  Or finally perceptive?  There's no way I can know that (though we will all no doubt have our private opinions).  So what can I say?  Perhaps the clever shall inherit the earth?...  Happiness is not a reward - it is a consequence.  Suffering is not a punishment - it is a result. - Robert Green Ingersoll...  8 different sorting algorithm animations (including insertion, selection, bubble, shell, merge, heap, quick and quicker) using 4 different initial conditions and showing the advantages and disadvantages of each (in case you ever need to know).  No algorithm is perfect, so the choice of which one to use depends on the particular application...  3D face optical illusion: rolling eyes on a hollow mask.  (Short, probably worth it to see once, though not wildly impressive)...  A person is never happy except at the price of some ignorance. - Anatole France...  All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. - Mark Twain

Life is all about ass.  Everyone's either covering it, laughing it off, kicking it, kissing it, trying to get a piece of it, or simply just being one...  Members of a large family of proteins critical to immune function (collectively known as HLA molecules in humans and MHC molecules in mice) also have an important role in learning and memory; they sit on the outer surfaces of most of our cells displaying fragments of the cell's innards (called peptides) for window-shopping by roving inspectors called T-cells.  When a T-cell "sees" a peptide with an error - a sign of possible infection or cancer - it can attack directly or alert the immune system.  Knocking out the expression of most MHC molecules in a brain region that processes visual stimuli surprisingly causes developmental abnormalities in visual system circuitry - so at least some MHC molecules are needed for normal tuning of at least those vision circuits (and likely other senses as well).  2 molecules - called "K" and "D" - are expressed in the cerebellum, a part of the brain critical to motor learning.  By detecting and reporting differences between what's intended and what actually gets done, this circuitry guides the body toward ever-better piano recitals or tennis games.  Motor skills are perfected via strengthening and weakening of connections called synapses.  Mice lacking K and D proteins are better at learning complex motor skills because their synapses alter more easily, implying that these molecules normally put a brake on the nervous system's ability to alter in response to changing conditions.  When you remove MHC molecules, you remove this brake.  In the wild, motor performance - running from predators, chasing down meat - is good, so if K and D deficient mice learn and retain motor skills better, why hasn't evolution selected for this?  Because several forms of learning - cognitive, spatial, recognition - don't take place in the cerebellum.  There are tradeoffs between one kind of learning and another - some organisms may be better able to escape but won't know exactly what to do in the next environment they see after they run away.  Other MHC molecules are expressed in other types of neurons in other parts of the brain.  All limit how much circuits change by strengthening or weakening connections between nerve cells.  There is a tantalising (if controversial link) between immune function and developmental brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.  It is worth noting that every ability appears to have an associated price tag!

I see where at least some students in Florida will soon be required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.  It isn't stated whether or not the words will be required to be said as well.  What is being accomplished here?  The comments section is interesting - one says, "I pledge allegiance to the ideals of the United States of America.  And to the country as it should be: one nation under good.  Indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL.  Not some.  All."  (Not bad.)  The very next commenter suggests that those who don't want to stand should get in the closet and stay quiet.  Another says, "Anyone living on American soil [should] show respect and honour our way of government and our troops that even today are fighting and dying to keep our way of life and Freedom."  [Really?  Fighting where?  Way of life does include having enough oil, I suppose.]  Sally says, "To impose rituals on others is un-American.  And to say someone should 'move to another country' if they don't stand is un-American, too.  What makes our nation great is that there are many diverse opinions and we have rights to express (or not express) ourselves in the ways that we as individuals want to.  Not standing for the pledge hurts no one.  It is a right.  Many students who do not want to pledge stand silently or sit quietly to respect others who want to participate.  It is their right."  (Very good, Sally.)  Lioness adds, "No, I don't think students should HAVE to stand for the pledge of allegiance.  They can choose not to stand, and I can choose not to pay for their education.  So, either stand, or move to Somalia, where I'm sure they won't require you to stand for our pledge.  If you won't pledge your allegiance to your country, you need to move on."  (Thanks, Lioness.  I have.)  And that about covers it.

Historically, piracy is a crime of opportunity  - and few places have conditions more favourable than the statelessness afflicting Somalia since the collapse of the country's last effective government in 1991.  In exchange for a share in the ransoms, wealthy Somali businessmen finance, purchase and outfit mother ships and skiffs and recruit and arm crews.  In various ports, paid informants send data about vessels' defences, crews, cargos and itineraries enabling pirate gangs to select targets and plot interception courses.  Ransom payments cause more and more Somalis to embark on this lucrative career.  Developing a coast guard that constantly patrols the shore could help to take down these pirate networks - but that would require a functioning government.  Despite President Obama's vow to take action against rising banditry, brigands seized still more vessels and hostages, bringing total sailors held by Somali pirates to over 300 on 16 different ships.  Pirates extort $1 million or more for each ship and crew — they made $150+ million last year.  Pirates are easy to spot on the streets of Garoowe, a regional capital; their Toyota 4x4s cluster around new whitewashed mansions on the edge of town.  But to approach a pirate is to invite kidnapping or robbery.  In Somalia, everything is done through connections (clan, family, or friend).  Pirates are aware that media call them burcad badeed, or "ocean robber" - but they refer to themselves as badaadinta badah or "saviour of the sea," (sometimes translated as "coastguard").  One leader jokes that he is "Chief of the Coastguard" because to him his actions protect his sea - hijackings are a legitimate form of taxation levied in abstentia on behalf of the defunct government.  His story is typical of many: 14 years ago, he was a lobster diver.  Since then, reefs offshore have been devastated by foreign fishing fleets using steel-pronged dragnets.  "We're not murderers," he says, "we've never killed anyone."  For each pirate captured, dozens of young men are desperate to replace him.  The UN special envoy for Somalia has sounded an alarm about rampant illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste off the coast.  "Because there is no (effective) government, there is much irregular fishing from European and Asian countries," he said.  He asked several international non-governmental organisations "to trace this illegal fishing, illegal dumping of waste.  It is a disaster off the Somali coast, a disaster (for) the Somali environment, the Somali population."  East African waters have huge numbers of commercial fish species, including prized yellowfin tuna.  Foreign trawlers use prohibited fishing equipment, including nets with small mesh sizes and sophisticated underwater lighting systems to lure fish into traps.  Somalia’s pirates are a motley crew: some are ex-fishermen, others guns for hire.  International response has been, unsurprisingly, military.  But addressing deeper issues is needed.  However, UN Secretary General Moon’s appeal to 50 countries for broader assistance received almost no response.  Of the countries that contribute naval vessels to anti-piracy, half engage in fishing as well.  Pirates now target all types of vessels from fishing trawlers to yachts to oil tankers.  Somalia's 3,300-kilometre coast is the longest on the African continent and the UN estimates that 700 foreign-owned vessels are fully engaged in unlicensed fishing offshore.  Vessels from France, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Belize and Honduras exploit fish stocks with impunity.  US Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that all 4 of the Maersk Alabama pirates were teenagers - the one who was captured rather than killed now face a maximum sentence of life in prison.  Somali pirates have vowed to retaliate for the deaths of their 3 colleagues shot by US Navy snipers.  And so it goes.

Fairbanks, Alaska
17 March 2009
Fairbanks, Alaska
23 March 2009
Unknown, Alaska
13 March 2009
Tromse, Norway
4 March 2009

Auroras are usually seen around the spring and autumn equinox, most often in Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and the Scandinavian countries,
though they can also be witnessed in northern Scotland.  They are caused by charged particles in the earth's magnetosphere colliding with atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere
when the solar wind reaches the edge of the earth's magnetic field.  Apparently I like the lights in Alaska best because 3 of the 4 I picked (from 29) were from there.

Texas Governor Rick Perry fired up an anti-tax "tea party" with his stance against the federal government and for states' rights while some in his US-flag-waving audience shouted, "Secede!"  Perry called his supporters patriots but suggested Texans might at some point get so fed up they'd want to secede from the union.  "There's a lot of different scenarios," Perry said.  "We've got a great union - there's absolutely no reason to dissolve it.  But if Washington continues to thumb their noses at the American people, who knows what might come out of that?  But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."  He said when Texas entered the union in 1845 it was with the understanding that it could pull out.  However, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Texas negotiated the power to divide into 4 additional states at some point if it wished but not the right to secede.  Texas did secede in 1861, but the North's victory in the Civil War put an end to that.  A recent poll of 500 Texans shows that 31% believe (incorrectly) that the state retains the right to form an independent country.  And another 18% said, given the opportunity, they would vote for Texas to secede.  [I grew up in Dallas, and was taught in both history and civics classes that Texas HAD retained the right to secede.  I am quite surprised to find that to be untrue.]

Sir Clement Freud, who has died aged 84, was perhaps best known for his deadpan performances on Just A Minute, BBC Radio 4's comedy panel programme.  One of his best-known jokes:

When Inland Revenue decided to audit Cyril, they summoned him to their office for an appointment with their most thorough auditor.  The auditor wasn't surprised when Cyril arrived with his solicitor.  The auditor told Cyril, "Sir, you cannot deny that you have an extravagant lifestyle, no full-time employment, and pay no taxes on the grounds of your contention that you win money gambling.  I must tell you that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise finds that explanation difficult to believe."
"I am a great gambler and can prove it," said Cyril.  "Would you like a demonstration?"  The auditor considered for a moment and agreed.  Cyril said, "I bet you £1,000 that I can bite my own eye."
The auditor thought for a moment and finally said, "Okay, It's a bet."
Cyril removed his glass eye and bit it.  The auditor looked sick.
"I'll bet you £2,000 pounds that I can bite my other eye," said Cyril.  The auditor could tell Cyril wasn't blind, so he accepted the bet.  Cyril removed his false teeth and bit his good eye.  The stunned auditor now realised he had bet and lost £3,000 with Cyril's solicitor as a witness.  He got very nervous.  "Double or nothing?" Cyril casually asked.  "I'll bet you £6,000 that I can stand on the right hand side of your desk and piss into the rubbish bin on the far side without getting one drop anywhere in between."
The auditor, twice burned, was cautious but examined the proposal carefully.  Cyril was not a tall man and the desk was 8 feet wide.  He decided there was simply no way Cyril could do that, so he agreed once more to the bet.  Cyril stood at the side of the desk, unzipped his trousers, strained for all he was worth but could not make the stream reach the bin on the far side.  Cyril finished up having urinated pretty well all over the auditor's desk.  The auditor, however, was leaping with joy, realising that he had just turned a major loss into a sizeable win.  But then the auditor noticed that Cyril's solicitor was moaning, head in his hands.  "Are you okay?" he asked the solicitor.
"Not really," said the solicitor.  "This morning, when Cyril told me he had been summoned to this audit, he bet me £20,000 that he could come in here, piss all over your desk and you would be happy about it - and I took that bet."

Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe: "We have discovered distinctive red/gray chips in all the samples we have studied of the dust produced by the destruction of the World Trade Center.  Examination of 4 of these samples, red/gray chips collected from separate sites, show marked similarities in all 4 samples.  One sample was collected by a Manhattan resident about 10 minutes after the collapse of the 2nd WTC Tower, 2 the next day, and a 4th about a week later.  The properties of these chips were analysed using optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, X-ray energy dispersive spectroscopy, and differential scanning calorimetry.  The red material contains grains approximately 100 nm across which are largely iron oxide, while aluminium is contained in tiny plate-like structures.  Separation of components using methyl ethyl ketone demonstrates that elemental aluminium is present.  The iron oxide and aluminium are intimately mixed in the red material.  When ignited, the chips exhibit large but narrow exotherms occurring at approximately 430°C, far below the normal ignition temperature for conventional thermite.  Numerous iron-rich spheres are clearly observed in the residue following the ignition of these peculiar red/gray chips.  The red portion of these chips is found to be an unreacted thermitic material and highly energetic."  Affiliation: Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.  Huh?  The implication, I thought, was that the towers were assisted in their destruction by more than just the planes and fire.  However, this evidence is far from conclusive.  Was the metal powder merely a by-product of the destruction?  I'm no scientist, but it seems possible.  So is some good accomplished by publishing this?  Or not?

Regarding Minnesota's interminable Senate vote recount: early on, the Franken team complained that some absentee votes had been erroneously rejected by local officials.  Instead of immediately issuing a clear set of rules as to which absentees were valid, the state Supreme Court and the canvassing board oversaw a haphazard process by which some counties submitted new batches to be included in the tally, while other counties did not.  The resulting additional 933 ballots were largely responsible for Franken's narrow lead.  During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6,500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933.  The 3-judge overseeing panel finally defined what constituted a "legal" absentee ballot: countable ballots had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.  But the panel only applied these standards going forward.  In the end, the judges allowed only about 350 additional absentees to be counted.  They did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees already legally included, yet now "illegal" according to their own ex-post definition.  If all this sounds familiar, think Florida 2000.  In that Presidential recount, officials couldn't decide what counted as a legal vote, and so different counties used different standards.  The Florida Supreme Court made things worse by changing the rules after the fact.  If disparate absentee-voter treatment is allowed to stand, every close election will be settled by a legal scramble to change the vote-counting rules after Election Day.  Minnesota should take the time to get this one right.

You would think after failing on so many levels, the school that provides more business leaders than any other (Harvard) might feel some remorse over the economic meltdown.  Not in the least.  It’s onwards and upwards, with the very people who blew apart the world’s financial plumbing now demanding to fix the leak.  You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lakshmi Mittal – and there’s not an MBA among them.  Yet the MBA industry continues to grow, and business schools provide vital income to academic institutions: 500,000 people around the world now graduate each year with an MBA - 150,000 in the US alone - creating their own management class within global business.  Given the present chaos, shouldn’t we be asking if business education is not just a waste of time, but actually damaging to our economic health?  (The author should realise that just because Harvard helped bring down the economy, that doesn't mean the rest of those with MBA's are responsible.)

Acacia pollen Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) pollen Sand milkwort (Polygala arenaria) seed

These strange alien structures are among the seeds and pollen conserved at the Kew Millennium Seed Bank.
Seeds from more than 10% of the world's flowering plants – around 30,000 species – have been collected in the decade since the bank was established.

Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, is a Canadian born British historian and columnist who was for a time the 3rd biggest newspaper magnate in the world.  He controlled Hollinger International, which published The Daily Telegraph (UK), Chicago Sun Times (USA), Jerusalem Post (Israel), National Post (Canada), and hundreds of community newspapers in North America.  In 2003, following investor complaints, Hollinger International reported to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about misconduct at the company, including violations of fiduciary obligations by officers.  Black resigned under pressure as CEO; he was subsequently charged with mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice, found guilty of diverting funds for personal benefit, and convicted and sentenced to serve 78 months in federal prison.  Black has now served one year in a Florida prison.  When asked to describe his daily routine, he responded: "I get up just after 7 except on the weekends and holidays when it is possible to sleep in.  I eat some granola and go to my workplace where I tutor high school-leaving candidates one-on-one, though sometimes I have to deal with up to 4 at a time around my desk, and talk with fellow tutors and other convivial people.  I lunch around 11 with friends from education, work on emails, play the piano for 30 - 60 minutes, return to my tutoring tasks by 1, return to my unit at 3, deal with more emails, rest from 4 to 6, eat dinner in the unit then, and go for a walk in the compound or recreation yard for a couple of hours, drinking coffee well-made by Colombian fellow-residents, and come back into the residence about 8:30, deal with emails and whatever, have my shower et cetera, around midnight, read until 1 - 1:30am and go to sleep.  On the weekends it is pretty open."  (He makes it sound like a vacation - but I doubt that he's having quite as much fun as he'd like people to think)...  Sarah Palin's (fortunately rejected) nominee for Alaska Attorney General is Wayne Anthony Ross.  In 1993, Ross responded thusly to an appeal from "Lawyers Against Discrimination" (a group opposed to the repeal of a non-discrimination ordinance which had prohibited Anchorage from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual preference):

"I received your letter regarding the Anchorage homosexual rights ordinance.  While I am not surprised to see some of the names on your letterhead, I am most disappointed in other names thereon.  I had more respect for some of you than I do now.  I am in favour of repeal of the measure.  I see nothing involving civil rights in this matter.  We all, heterosexual or homosexual, have certain rights.  This bill seems to give extra rights to a group whose lifestyle was a crime only a few years ago, and whose beliefs are certainly immoral in the eyes of anyone with some semblance of intelligence and moral character.  It is a shame that you folks don't have some causes you could become involved in that are of benefit to society in general.  Instead, you support degenerates.  No wonder the legal profession is treated with less respect than we wish!  If, as you apparently believe, morality is not based on long-standing God-given and God-instilled principles, but is something that changes from time to time based on public perception of right and wrong, then that is even more reason for you to allow this referendum to go to a vote of the people.  After all, isn't it your position that public morality is based upon whatever the public decides?  None of you has done anything publicly (to my knowledge) to attempt to protect the millions of lives of innocent children killed each year through abortion, yet you collectively contribute $5,000 to the cause of sexual perversion.  It is quite disheartening to me to see my fellow members of our honourable profession display such a lack of proper priorities."
(From page 7 of the May - June 1993 Alaska Bar Rag).

The ordinance was ultimately rescinded and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or preference remains legal today in Anchorage - and the rest of Alaska.  Clearly, I have no "semblance of intelligence and moral character" because I believe homosexuality is pervasive in the animal kingdom and therefore must have survival benefits...  Forget chasing rainbows.  It doesn't work.  If you want rainbows, chase storms. - Unknown

Unfunny money: Simply thinking about words associated with money seems to makes us more self-reliant and less inclined to help others.
Just handling cash can take the sting out of social rejection and even diminish physical pain.
Some people's brains react to money as to a drug, while to others money is more like a friend.
Money makes people feel self-sufficient and separate from others; money causes people to increase their efforts to attain personal goals.
Those strongly motivated by money often find their marriages ending in divorce.
Hungry volunteers are less likely to donate to charity than satiated volunteers.
Those with a high desire for money who image winning a big lottery go on to eat the most candy in taste tests.
People whose appetites have been piqued by sitting in a room with a delicious smell give less money in game situations than those who play in normal-smelling rooms.
Our brains process ideas about money using the same pathways evolved to think about food.
People report "experiential purchases" such as going to the theatre or travel as bringing more happiness than material purchases such as clothes.
A concrete purchase may cost more and last longer but good experiences bring more pleasure.

Imagine that it is the last day of the month and you have $20 in your chequing account.  Your $2,000 salary will be automatically deposited into your bank later today.  You walk down the street and buy yourself a $2.95 ice cream cone.  Later, you also buy yourself a book for $25.95 and an hour later you treat yourself to a $2.50 cup of café latte.  You pay for everything with a debit card and feel good about the day - it is payday, after all.  That night, sometime after midnight, the bank settles your account for the day.  Instead of first depositing your salary and then charging you for the 3 purchases, they do the opposite - qualifying you for an overdraft fee.  You'd think this would be enough punishment, but banks are even more nefarious - they use an algorithm that charges you for the most expensive item (the book) first.  Boom, you're over your available cash and are charged a $35 overdraft fee.  The ice cream and the latte come next, each with its own $35 overdraft fee.  A split second later, your salary is deposited and you are back in the black - only $105 poorer.  This practice costs consumers about $17.5 billion in fees every year...  Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length. - Robert Frost

A cell that contains brown fat acts like a furnace, consuming calories and generating body heat.  Rodents, unable to shiver effectively to keep warm, use their brown fat cells instead.  So do human infants, who don't shiver well, either.  But it was generally believed that humans lose all brown fat after infancy.  This assumption, however, has been proven wrong.  Nearly every adult has blobs of brown fat that can burn huge numbers of calories when activated by the cold, as when sitting in a chilly room (around 63° F or 17° C).  Thin young women have the most brown fat cells - brown because they are filled with mitochondria, the energy factories of cells and mitochondria contain iron, making the tissue a reddish brown.  Mice predisposed to obesity were put into a cold room (41° F) for a week.  They activated their brown fat and, as a result, lost 14% of their weight (47% of body fat) while eating a high-fat diet having 2½ times more calories than they'd have eaten at room temperature...  Over the past decade, Botox has become a synonym for the eradication of wrinkles, a kind of shorthand for the entire enterprise of cosmetic medicine.  But with the popularisation of new medical uses, therapeutic applications of the drug are poised to outstrip cosmetic treatments in both revenue and prominence.  In the hunt to discover the next blockbuster medical use for Botox, doctors have injected it experimentally into muscles and glands all over the body, making it medicine’s answer to duct tape.  According to recent medical journals, physicians use it to treat chewing problems, swallowing problems, pelvic muscle spasms, drooling, hair loss, anal fissures and pain from missing limbs.  Injections of Botox act like minuscule poison darts that temporarily blunt chemical nerve signals to certain muscles or glands, reducing their activity.

If "beefy" or "curvy" describes you, here is a word of warning: United Airlines will aggressively enforce their new policy allowing them to charge heavier passengers twice to fly.  Passengers who "are unable to fit into a single seat in the ticketed cabin, are unable to properly buckle the seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender and/or are unable to put the seat's armrests down when seated" will be denied boarding unless they purchase an extra seat.  If no empty seat exists, the passenger will be forced to take a later flight.  The seat purchase or upgrade must be completed for each leg of the itinerary.  Do I think that seems fair only because it doesn't affect me?


The Guitar Store storefront located in central Southampton. /  A fantastically cute little kid.                 

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known - what the contemporary self seems to want: to be recognised, to be visible.  This validates us; this is how we become real — by being seen by others.  The great contemporary terror is anonymity, but what disappears is solitude.  (This author argues that solitude gives you a chance to commune with god - for me, it provides an opportunity to reflect.)  The Romantics felt to find the Self one must be alone in Nature.  Further, the Self was validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence (before the advent of marketing. of course).  The Romantic ideal of solitude developed partly as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city.  In modernism, the city is menacing - inescapable, even.  (Hell is other people.)  But today, our great fear isn't submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd.  Between the world wars, a child grew up part of an extended family within a tight-knit community.  He became the grandparent of a kid who sits alone in front of a big tv in a big house on a big lot.  But the internet now allows isolated people to communicate and marginalised people to find one another.  Unfortunately, it all too quickly became too much of a good thing; a decade ago we sent emails from a desktop computer over a dial-up connection.  Now we send text messages on our cellphones, post pictures on Facebook or Flickr, videos on YouTube, and follow complete strangers on Twitter.  The goal is simply to become known, a miniature celebrity.  How many friends do I have on Facebook?  How many people read my blog?  How many Google hits do I generate?  Visibility secures our self-esteem, becomes a substitute for genuine connection.  Loneliness isn't absence of company, it's grief over that absence.  Continue to protect yourself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus!

A small, dense object only 12 miles in diameter is responsible for this X-ray nebula that spans 150 light years.  At the centre of this image (made by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory) is a young and powerful pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star which spews energy into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand.  The lowest energy X-rays are coloured red, medium range green, and most energetic blue.  Astronomers think this pulsar is about 1,700 years old (as measured in earth's time-frame when it became observable here) and is about 17,000 light years away. This circularly symmetric supernova remnant contains a dense, rotating dead star at its centre - a textbook case of what an exploding star looks like after 2,000 years.  When a massive star collapses, outer layers are energetically blown away.  Depending on the original mass, a dense object (neutron star or a black hole) can form at the explosion's centre.  Such a neutron star, known as a pulsar when it rapidly rotates, can be kicked by the thermonuclear shock wave created in the explosion, causing it to race through space at millions of miles per hour.

In his most recent job as vice president for a company that services the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, Greg Sam built a quality-oversight program from scratch into a staff of 350 working worldwide, from the corporate headquarters to offices in China, Japan, Ireland and France.  For this, he earned a mid-6-figure income and travelled the globe (2 dozen business trips a year).  At his company's 50th anniversary celebration in Puerto Rico, he delivered the keynote speech in Spanish.  In France, he sometimes conducts business in French.  In fact, Mr Sam is so good at what he does, he was fired.  He came in and built a global quality assurance program - but now that it’s in place, a person of his skills and caliber isn't required to continue running it...  Happiness is merely the remission of pain. - Unknown

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon 20 July 1969, one of the first sights they encountered from space was a vast patch of white across the lower South American continent, which they instantly took to be glacial but was in fact southern Bolivia's Salar De Uyuni, a little-known but expansive desert of cactus, rainwater lagoons and 10 billion tons of salt covering nearly 5,000 square miles.  Salar De Uyuni, or more specifically the vast quantities of lithium beneath its Northern-Ireland-sized salt table, could be the answer to the transport problems of the 21st century.  Brine bubbles below the salt crust.  When first pumped from the ground, the brine looks like dirty slush - but left beneath the desert sun, the water slowly evaporates, leaving a yellowy mineral bath that could easily be mistaken for thick olive oil: lithium, the lightest of all metals found on earth and the hidden power behind our modern technological life.  To get at the lithium below the white crust will cause irreparable damage to this landscape.  In Salar De Uyuni in particular the lithium is highly diluted across the plains so very extensive extraction operations would have to be deployed across huge swathes of the region.  The process would also put incredible pressure on water supplies...  What will the world be like if it is 4°C warmer, as scientists predict it probably will be within 30 - 60 years?  Not good.  The world will be divided by two latitudinal dry belts where human habitation will be impossible, says Tokyo University's Syukuro Manabe.  One will stretch across Central America, southern Europe and north Africa, south Asia and Japan; while the other will cover Madagascar, southern Africa, the Pacific Islands, and most of Australia and Chile.  That means the global population will have to crowd into the few places where habitation is possible: Canada, the UK, Greenland and Scandinavia, New Zealand, and the parts of the Antarctic that thaw.  Some parts of West Africa may also be able to sustain life.  (I've told you many times that NZ is the right place to be.)

History teaches us that systemic financial crises are protracted affairs.  First, asset market collapses are deep and prolonged.  Real housing price declines average 35% over 6 years; real equity price declines average 55% over a downturn of about 3.5 years.  Second, the aftermath of banking crises is associated with large declines in output and employment.  The unemployment rate rises an average of 7 percentage points over the down phase of the cycle which lasts on average over 4 years.  Output falls (from peak to trough) an average of over 9%, but the duration of the downturn averages around 2 years.  The real value of government debt tends to explode following a systemic financial crisis, rising an average of 86% in major post–World War II episodes.  For political expediency reasons, cuts in public spending are likely to fall first on maintenance, public sector capital formation and other forms of productive public expenditure, including spending on education, health and research.  For both the US and UK, there is a material risk that the general government deficits (14% of GDP or over for the US and 12% for the UK) will either have to be monetised permanently, implying high inflation, or will lead to sovereign default.  In no country is business fixed investment, residential construction, spending on home improvement and purchases of new automobiles and other consumer durables likely to pick up soon.  External financing will be scarce and costly.  (In other words, get used to the status quo.)

Orbiting stars flood space with their gravitational waves.  These 2 white dwarf stars orbit each other approximately every 5 minutes.  The short orbital period implies that they are only about 50,000 miles apart (1/5 of the distance from the earth to the moon) and are moving in excess of a million miles per hour.  Energy loss by gravitational waves will cause the stars to move closer together.  X-ray and optical observations indicate that the orbital period of this system is decreasing by 1.2 milliseconds every year, which means that the stars are moving closer together at a rate of about 2 feet per day.  (Animation projecting what will happen in the future.) These 2 young galaxies are in the process of merging.  The merger has triggered a prodigious burst of star formation and provides fuel for the growth of the galaxies' central supermassive black holes (which are currently about 70,000 light years apart).  In a few hundred million years these galaxies will become quasars and ultimately large spherical galaxies that harbour central supermassive black holes with masses of about a billion suns.

To simplistically pin the world's ills on population growth is to ignore innovation and efficiency.  Past estimates of population growth have overestimated world fertility rates and underestimated the social trends which lead to fewer babies.  If fertility rates decline just a bit more than predicted, the world population will begin to shrink by 2040; we waste about half the food we grow and up to 60% of the world's water supply.  Some people need children for hope and motivation - and even more: a big problem in the next 100 years will be figuring out how a shrinking base of younger workers will be able to pay for a fast-expanding population of elderly retirees...  Polio: A Virus' Struggle (a graphic novella) via The Science Creative Quarterly.

Shock waves radiate from the epicentre of the massive 6.3 seismic event in the medieval town of L’Aquila in Italy.  Scientists are mapping surface deformations during the earthquake and its numerous aftershocks using a technique known as SAR Interferometry.  The interferogram shows 9 fringes surrounding the epicentre, where the ground moved up to 25 centimetres.  This tragedy has claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands homeless...  Did you shop at Macy's, but with the economic decline, do you now visit Walmart instead?  Did you say goodbye to Mr Goodwrench and take your business to a tire retread shop?  Credit companies, in an attempt to protect themselves against consumer defaults, have been known to profile our "economic personalities."  By constructing a model of what we charge and where we shop (and how it changes over time), they hope to detect who is under economic duress.  American Express may already have used such data to lower certain cardholders' credit limits.

The only source of knowledge is experience.

- Albert Einstein

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