Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.

—  Reggie Leach

Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur

April 15, 2011


The title means “He who is silent appears to consent.“

Two of the photos below are of the moon and two are of the planet Mercury.  Can you tell which is which before reading the captions?

  1. Larger, denser, and with almost twice the surface gravity of Earth’s moon, Mercury still looks moon-like at first glance.  This image was taken from a distance of about 27,000 kilometres (about 17,000 miles).
  2. The most detailed look at the far side of the moon to date, this image is comprised of over 15,000 wide-angle-camera photos taken between November 2009 and February 2011 by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.  Unlike the near side, basaltic volcanism is restricted to fewer, smaller regions and the battered highland crust predominates.
  3. Shaped like a target ring bull’s-eye, the Mare Orientale is one of the most striking large scale lunar features.  Only partially flooded by lava, Mare Orientale is over 3 billion years old, about 600 miles (950 kilometres) across, and was formed by the impact of an asteroid-sized object (which luckily didn’t hit Earth, though no one was around to notice).
  4. This double-ringed crater on Mercury appears to be filled with smooth plains material, perhaps volcanic in nature.  The MESSENGER spacecraft took this image in 2008 during its closest approach to Mercury.  However, Mercury’s most notable double-ringed crater is Caloris — whose forming impact caused a compression wave to ripple though the middle of the planet and deformed rocks on the other side of the planet.

This is the planet Venus, whose north pole is located at the centre of the image.  Apparently this isn’t its proper colour, which is really a drab grey.  Venus has the densest atmosphere of all the terrestrial planets in our solar system (the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of Earth — like diving a kilometre deep in the Pacific), consisting mostly of carbon dioxide.  When it was younger, it may have possessed earth-like oceans — but it has virtually no magnetic field.  Though it has — or at least has had — volcanoes, it doesn’t seem to have had any lava flow from them.  It’s a fairly young planet and may lose its internal heat — possibly allowing it to some day become somewhat more Earth-like?  (But does that matter?  Humans would never want to live there.)

From the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) Earth Probe, for the month of September 2000.  Areas of depleted ozone over the Antarctic are shown in blue.  The area is 3 times larger than the entire land mass of the United States and was at that time the largest such area ever observed.  However, at right is the largest ever recorded to date, from September, 2006.  The full extent of the damage that CFCs have caused the ozone layer is not known and won’t be known for decades.  It’s estimated that by 2015, the Antarctic ozone hole will have reduced by 4%, but complete recovery isn’t expected to occur until the year 2050 or later.  It has been suggested that a detectable (and statistically significant) recovery won’t happen until around 2024, with ozone levels recovering to 1980 levels by around 2068.  One thing I’d like to know — are the depictions of Antarctica correct in each photo?  If so, then the reduction in the area of ice between the two is rather remarkable.

The largest canyon in the solar system cuts a wide swath across the face of Mars.  Named Valles Marineris, this grand valley is over 3,000 kilometres long, measures as much as 600 kilometres across, and delves as much as 8 kilometres into the planet.  By comparison, Earth’s Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA is 800 kilometres long, 30 kilometres across, and 1.8 kilometres deep.  The origin of the Valles Marineris remains unknown, although a leading hypothesis holds that it started as a crack billions of years ago as the planet cooled.  While Mars is larger and more massive than Mercury, Mercury has a higher density.  This results in the two planets having a nearly identical gravitational pull at the surface.  It is thought that Mars was struck by a Pluto-sized body about 4 billion years ago.  This event created the smooth Borealis basin that covers 40% of the planet.  Mars lost its magnetosphere (likely due to another impact) more than half a billion years ago — thus its atmosphere is thin due to the undeflected solar wind blowing much of it away.  (Venus has no magnetosphere, but the solar wind doesn’t seem able to blow its incredibly dense atmosphere away, so something has been oversimplified somewhere.)  If humans ever live on Mars, ir will have to be deep underground to avoid the planet’s intense solar radiation.

Full Phase at Perigee

The moon in mid-March had a full phase occurring within an hour of perigee (when the moon is closest to Earth), making it appear 14% larger and 30% brighter than a full moon near apogee (the most distant point in its elliptical orbit).  In this photo, the full moon is distorted by the atmosphere as it rises over Boston.  The next chance you’ll have to see the moon this bright is 6 May 2012.  The Moon appears to wobble from left to right because Earth’s gravity pulls harder on it the closer it is — it travels faster when closer to Earth.  Its rotation rate matches its average orbital speed but, since the orbital speed varies while the rotation rate remains fixed, it appears to wobble a bit, allowing us to see 59% of its surface from Earth rather than a mere 50%.  The moon completes an orbit in 27.3 days, but, because Earth is also moving, a full lunar cycle is 29.5 days.

TrES-4, located 1,500 light years from Earth, is the biggest planet known.  This titan (at left) is nearly twice as wide as Jupiter, but only 88% as massive.  That makes it less dense than cork.  Okay, it’s no longer the biggest planet known.  New observations of the exoplanet WASP-17b (at right) suggest that that planet is even bigger than TrES-4b, with a radius twice Jupiter’s.  The exoplanet is some 1,000 light years from Earth and has a mass of just half Jupiter’s, making it an even fluffier mystery.  It is the first planet discovered to have a retrograde orbit, meaning it orbits in a direction counter to the rotation of its host star.

How thin are the rings of Saturn?  Brightness measurements from different angles have shown Saturn’s rings to be about one kilometre thick, making them many times thinner, in relative proportion, than a razor blade.  The robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn has captured a shot that dramatically highlights this thinness.  Titan looms just over the rings, while dark ring shadows on Saturn show the sun to be above the ring plane.  Close inspection of the image reveals the smaller moon Enceladus on the far right.

Uranus is the 7th planet from the sun.  It has the 3rd-largest planetary radius and 4th-largest planetary mass in the solar system.  Uranus is similar in composition to Neptune, but isn’t as interesting except for the fact that it rotates on its side.  It has the coldest planetary atmosphere in the solar system, with a minimum temperature of 49K (–224°C).  Like the other giant planets, it has a ring system, a magnetosphere, and numerous moons.  Seen from Earth, its rings sometimes appear to circle the planet like an archery target and its moons revolve around it like the hands of a clock.  Wind speeds on Uranus can reach 900 kilometres (560 miles) per hour).
Neptune is the 8th and farthest planet from the sun, 4th-largest by diameter and 3rd-largest by mass.  It’s 17 times the mass of Earth.  Neptune’s atmosphere, similar to Jupiter’s and Saturn’s in being composed primarily of hydrogen, helium, and traces of hydrocarbons and (maybe) nitrogen, also contains a higher proportion of “ices” such as water, ammonia and methane (the latter is why it looks blue).  Its atmosphere is notable for active and visible weather patterns driven by the strongest sustained winds of any solar system planet — recorded wind speeds as high as 2,100 kilometres per hour.  Neptune’s outer atmosphere, one of the coldest places in the solar system, has temperatures at its cloud tops approaching −218°C (55K).  Temperatures at its centre, however, approximate 5,400K (5,000°C).

Emerald-Cut Nebula

What could cause a nebula to appear square?  No one is quite sure — yet.

Small objects frequently collide with Earth.  There is an inverse relationship between the size of the object and the frequency that such objects hit.  Asteroids with a 1 kilometre (0.62 mile) diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years on average.  Large collisions with 5 kilometre (3 mile) objects happen approximately once every 10 million years.  The last known impact of an object of 10 kilometres (6 miles) or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event 65 million years ago.  Asteroids with diameters of 5 to 10 metres (16 to 33 feet) enter Earth’s atmosphere approximately once per year, with as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (approximately 15 kilotonnes of TNT).  These ordinarily explode in the upper atmosphere and most or all solids vaporise.  Objects with diameters over 50 metres (164 feet) strike Earth approximately once every 1,000 years, producing explosions comparable to the one known to have detonated above Tunguska in 1908.  Objects with diameters smaller than 10 metres (33 feet) are called meteoroids (or meteorites if they strike the ground).  An estimated 500 meteorites reach the surface each year, but only 5 or 6 of these are typically recovered and made known to scientists.  The photo is of Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, created about 50,000 years ago.

Four enormous chevron sediment deposits at the southern end of Madagascar (one of which, called the Fenambosy Chevron, is 180 metres high and located 5 kilometres inland) contain deep-ocean microfossils fused with metals typically formed by cosmic impacts.  All these chevrons point toward a spot in the middle of the Indian Ocean where newly-discovered Burckle Crater, 29 kilometres (18 miles) in diameter, or about 25 times larger than Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, lies 3,800 metres (12,500 feet) below the surface.  It is suggested that a large asteroid or comet impact around 2800-3000BC produced a mega-tsunami at least 180 metres (590 feet) high, a catastrophic event that would have affected humanity’s cradles of civilisation.  Numerous ancient writings from various cultures make reference to a “great flood”.  It has been hypothesized that at least some of these legends may be associated with this mega-event.  (Some may be due to enormous tsunamis from other origins.)

The Río Cuarto craters are a group of impact craters located in Córdoba Province, Argentina.  There were 10 depressions, 4 of substantial size.  One crater, named the Drop, is about 200 metres wide and 600 metres long.  Two more large craters, the Eastern Twin and Western Twin, both about 700 metres wide and 3.5 kilometres long, are located 5 kilometres to the northeast.  Another major crater, the Northern Basin, about half as big as one of the Twins, is sited 11 kilometres further to the northeast.  The long axes of the craters all point northeast.  It is believed the craters are about 10,000 years old, caused by an asteroid striking at an angle of no more than 15° from the horizontal, with the impact itself having 10 times more explosive energy than the Barringer Meteor Crater event and 30 times more than the Tunguska event.  The asteroid came in from the northeast, bright as the sun, hitting the ground at the Northern Basin, creating a mountain of fire about 10 kilometres wide and 50 kilometres long, scattering off pieces downrange to form the Twins and the Drop.  The fireball incinerated all life downrange in a firestorm with a parabolic-shaped footprint that created hurricane-force winds, erasing the butterfly-shaped pattern of debris characteristic of such low-angle strikes.  The asteroid was likely a carbonaceous chondritic type, resembling something like a big lump of coal.  The impact probably released huge clouds of toxic carbon monoxide that killed off wildlife in the area, assisted by heavy concentrations of toxic nitric oxides created through ionisation by the object’s fiery passage through the atmosphere.  It is likely that the impact resulted in serious atmospheric effects and may even have had short-term effects on global climate.  Any witnesses surely died.

Look Who’s Talking

If humanity someday meets extraterrestrials, can we communicate?  At the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, researchers train for contact by attempting to talk with dolphins (who have large, sophisticated, elaborately-developed brains and a complex social structure; they form alliances, share duties, display personalities — put a mirror in the tank and they even recognise themselves).  Dolphins have a remarkable capacity to pick up language; some have learned hundreds of words using gestures and symbols and they can understand the difference between statements and questions, concepts like “none” or “absent,” and that changing word order changes sentence meaning.  (Essentially, they get syntax.) Some studies suggest they even have their own language.  These are all qualities one hopes to see in aliens.  Yet with dolphins, our attempts have merely involved teaching them our language rather than meeting in the middle.  In the new study, when a particular key is pressed on a large submerged keyboard, a human tosses that dolphin the corresponding prop.  In addition to being labelled with a symbol, each key is paired with a whistle that dolphins can mimic.  A dolphin can ask for a toy either by pushing the key with its nose, or by whistling.  Some of trained spotted dolphins have recruited bottlenose dolphins, another species, into their games.  (In the wild, dolphins communicate across cetacean species lines, coordinating hunting with other dolphins, even sharing babysitting duties.)  Interestingly, the learning sessions are most successful when, before playing, humans and dolphins swim together slowly, in synchrony, mimicking each other and making eye contact.  (These are assumed to be signs of good etiquette among dolphins.)

Organisms have evolved to do everything in their power to avoid being extinguished.  Why expect any organism to lie down and die for the dinner table?  This is also true of plants — who aren’t the inert pantries of sustenance we might wish them to be — witness the endless thorns, stinging hairs and deadly poisons with which they’re armed.  All this effort looks like an organism trying to survive.  When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode.  It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighbouring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses; in other cases, they lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing them damage.  Inside the plant, repair systems engage and defenses are mounted involving signalling molecules coursing through their tissues to rally their cellular troops.  They sometimes even enlist the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins.  Eat mushrooms instead?  They’re closer evolutionary relations, even, than green plants.  Slavery and genocide have been justified by the assertion that some kinds of people don’t feel pain, don’t feel love — aren’t truly human — in the same way as others.  The same thinking has led to other practices less drastic but still appalling.  For example, physicians once withheld anæsthetics from infants during surgery because it was believed these not-yet-quite-humans didn’t feel pain.  Unfortunately, human beings survive by eating other living things — one way or another.

A shibboleth is any distinguishing practice indicative of one’s social or regional origin.  It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.  Today in the English language, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any “in-crowd” word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders.  The word is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.  Shibboleths can also be customs or practices, such as male circumcision.  Cultural touchstones and shared experience can be shibboleths of a sort.  For example, people about the same age who are from the same nation tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years.  One-hit wonders prove particularly effective.  Much the same is true of alumni of a particular school, veterans of military service, and other such groups.  Discussing shared memories is a common way of bonding.  In-jokes can be a similar type of shared-experience shibboleth.

Millions of dead fish recently surfaced in Redondo Beach, a beachside suburb of Los Angeles.  THese fish, including anchovies, sardines and mackerel, floated lifeless in Basins 1 and 2 of the north side of King Harbor Marina.  “There are no visible signs of any toxins that might have caused [the die-off] and our early assessment is that this is oxygen depletion,” the City Manager said.  “This is similar to what we experienced 5 years ago but that was distinctly a red tide event.  Now, there’s no discolouration of the water, no associated foaming in the waves, no oil slicks or leaking of toxic substances.”  They are using robotic vehicles to probe the harbour for other clues about the cause of the fish kill.

Earth’s Personalised Plates

Mankind inhabits the earth subject to geological consent — which can be withdrawn at any time.  All geological events are sudden and unexpected, if not entirely unanticipated.  There was a horrifically destructive Pacific earthquake in New Zealand in February 2011 and an even more violent magnitude 8.8 event in Chile almost exactly a year before and, of course, the recent Japan quake.  All these involved more or less the same family of circum-Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries — and though there is no hard scientific evidence to explain why, earthquakes do tend to occur in clusters: a significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often — not invariably, but often enough to notice — followed weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side.  It is as though the earth becomes like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side vibrates and rings all over.  Now there have been catastrophic events at 3 corners of the Pacific Plate — northwest, southwest, southeast.  That leaves one corner unaffected — the northeast.  That fault line is the San Andreas, underpinning San Francisco.  This makes the geological community apprehensive.  The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast figures the probability of an earthquake 6.7 or higher is 67% for Los Angeles, 63% for San Francisco, and 10% for an 8- or 9-force quake in the Cascadia subduction zone.  For the San Andreas Fault to rupture (with unimaginable consequences for the millions who live above it), a triggering event must occur.  Now 3 have, making some thoughtful people in the American West very nervous indeed — wondering, as they often must, whether the consent that permits them to inhabit so pleasant a place might be about to be withdrawn sooner than they would have hoped.  The Cumulative Earthquake Activity image at right is one in a series of animations intended for the HoloGlobe exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.  The yellow dots represent earthquake activity occurring between 1960 and 1995.  They closely follow the plate boundaries.  I found there to be one notable exception, however — the relatively short horizontal mid-Atlantic border between the North American Plate and the South American Plate.  There are also relatively few earthquakes on the upper side of the Scotia Plate at the southern tip of South America.

A tsunami wave on the high seas is largely imperceptible.  The wave crests are very far apart and not very high.  Crests can be as much as 300 miles from each other.  Their speed is proportional to the square root of the ocean depth.  In mid-ocean these waves can move 500 miles per hour or even faster; close to landfall, they are more likely to be travelling a few miles per hour — still terrifying if you’re in front of one, but slow enough that people with proper warning and escape routes can ideally be evacuated.  Tsunami waves are apparently examples of what physicists call a “soliton,” a phenomenon first described by John Scott Russell in 1834.  They do not dissipate like sound waves (you don’t hear conversations from Tokyo on Santa Monica beaches, for example).  They lose very little energy as they travel.  When they get to the shallow water near shore, they slow down — but since their energy remains the same, the wave increases in height to compensate for the diminishing speed.  These gargantuan waves are what cause the damage.  As is well-known, they can arrive in a series and the first one may not be the one which is most dangerous.  There are usually many strong aftershocks after an initially large quake and these aftershocks can also generate tsunamis.

And that dark stuff in the water is…?  Actually, it’s thousands of sardines, anchovies, stripped bass and mackerel off an Acapulco beach (these fish are alive, not dead like the ones that showed up in Redondo Beach).  Apparently this is not a common sight, and, since they appeared shortly after the Japanese earthquake-related tsunami, perhaps their arrival is related to that event (posssibly due to notable disturbances in ocean currents).  Delighted fishermen scooped up fish in buckets, needing no rods or nets.

This is a highly exaggerated rendering to illustrate how, due to the mass of rock underfoot, gravity isn’t the same in every location.  It’s strongest in yellow areas and weakest in blue ones.  Visit this site for a interactive geoid model that spins, so you can see what the “level” surface of an idealised planet would look like from anywhere on Earth.  (Earth’s interior mass is not evenly distributed, you see.) The illustration on the right shows the gravity anomaly at the location of Japan’s most recent large earthquake.

Total Energy Use in US Homes — 1978 vs 2006

The decline in energy for heating is largely due to more efficient heating equipment, better window design, and more and better insulation.  These things more effectively seal homes.  Additionally, some decline is associated with population movements toward warmer areas.  But the share of residential electricity used by appliances (including more air conditioning needed for those warmer areas) and electronics in US homes nearly doubled (from 17% to 31%), so that energy use in 1978 and 2005 remained virtually unchanged.  In 1978, most households had only one television.  In 2009, the average household had 2.5 tvs and more than 45% had at least one with a screen size of 37 inches or larger.  (Screen size and average energy consumption per television have continued to grow over time.)  DVD players and DVD recorders did not exist 15 years ago, but are now widespread — in 2009, 79% of homes had a player and 43% a recorder.  Nearly 1/3 of households have at least 4 rechargable electronic devices (such as cell phones).  In 1978, personal computers were expensive and not typically used by US households.  In 2009, 76% had at least one computer and 35% had multiples.  Via The Daily Dish.

Lake Sarez, eastern Pamir mountains, eastern Tajikistan, is known to Central Asians as the region’s “Sword of Damocles.”  At 61 kilometres long and more than 500 metres deep, Sarez is one of the biggest high-altitude bodies of water on Earth (elevation 11,200 feet).  It was created a century ago in a remote part of what was then czarist Russia.  In 1911, a 7.4-scale earthquake, common in the Pamirs, shattered a mountain adjacent to the Murgab River.  The resulting landslide formed a half-mile high natural dam that blocked the river.  Geologists have been warning about the Sarez threat since Soviet times.  Now it’s urgent.  In the 1990s, the water level was rising 8 inches a year.  Now it’s 35—60 inches.  Scientists say the dam will burst — whether a quake dislodges a rockslide that creates a wave that crests the dam, or melting glaciers brings the water to the top, computer models predict a devastating inland tsunami sooner rather than later.  17 cubic kilometres of water will be instantly released and a wall of water 800 feet high will cascade down a series of river valleys in 4 countries.  Five million people — mostly residents of landlocked deserts that routinely reach 125ºF — would be drowned by snow melt.  Most of the arable land in Central Asia will be destroyed by silt.  Tens of millions of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Afghans and Tajiks could starve.  This might happen in 10 years — or next week.  Fixing this problem would save more people than so-called wars fought for freedom do.

Does autumn exist in Auckland?  I grew up in Dallas, Texas, where I was taught that spring occurs on the vernal equinox — that was the 20th of March in 2011.  I presumed that same date would denote the autumnal equinox in NZ (it being on the other side of the equator) — the beginning of autumn.  But apparently not — the first day of autumn here is the 1st of March, decided in 1780, I gather because it’s easier to remember.  NZ only technically has 4 seasons in most parts.  Auckland and Northland have a long warm season and a short cold season, with Auckland being either wet or less wet.  The warm season gets cooler or warmer with two short transitional periods in the month of May, and again in September.  There are virtually no deciduous trees, so you can’t tell from falling leaves that autumn has begun.  NZ is at 37º to 47º north of the south pole.  The British Isles has in common with NZ an oceanic temperate climate — but at 30º to 40º latitude south of the north pole, it gets on average only 1,500 hours of sunlight a year, compared to Auckland’s 2,050-odd hours (along with its characteristic humidity and heaps of rain).  Mornings and nights begin to get cooler in April.  June and Matariki, the Māori new year around the winter solstice (marked by a constellation in the night sky that becomes visible) tell us the cold season has arrived.  It stays around for a few months, starts to end in September around the spring equinox, and we’re back to warm weather, liberally sprinkled with rain.

More than 10 million Americans moved from one county to another during 2008.  The interactive map at this site visualises those moves.  You can click on any county in the US to see their comings and goings: black lines indicate net inward movement, red lines net outward movement.  Some places are like buckets being emptied — try Detroit.)
From the comments (03/13/11 08:13 AM EDT): “A more interesting map would be one that shows the migratory patterns of Americans leaving the US.  Most of the lines will lead to Canada, Europe and Israel…  North America is on the verge of collapse and [Americans] have no obligation to stick around.”
(Gosh, all this time I thought Canada was in North America.)


This really needs no caption.

Japan should have had sealed backup diesel generators or updated some of their designs.  However, nuclear still compares very, very well to other energy sources.  The air pollution data is mainly from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European study Externe.  The WHO compiled peer reviewed health studies on air pollution from many institutions.  Occupational health and safety statistics track the deaths of workers in the different industries.  (Lots of supporting data there.)

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TeraWattHour)
Coal — world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal — China 278
Coal — USA   15
Oil   36   (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas    4   (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass   12
Peat   12
Solar (rooftop)    0.44  (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind    0.15  (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro    0.10  (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro — world (including Banqiao)       1.4   (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear    0.04  (5.9% of world energy)Energy Source

These figures don’t really reflect the full impact of Fukushima — that information isn’t available as yet and the figures I could find vary so widely — from 20 to about 4,000 — that they aren’t really useful.  But the death rate for nuclear energy in the future will likely need a somewhat bigger black box.

The accepted wisdom in Washington policy circles is that the US must cut Social Security if they’re serious about dealing with the deficit.  Before anyone rushes to shave the benefits of retirees it might be worth asking why.  Charts touted by deficit hawks show the cost of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid projected to go through the roof in the decades ahead, while the cost of everything else is more-or-less under control.  This looks ominous.  But if Social Security is pulled out from the category with Medicare and Medicaid, and instead placed in the category with everything else, the chart looks almost exactly the same.  The real story is that Medicare and Medicaid costs are projected to go through the roof because the cost of health care is.  We can put in any programme – veterans benefits, Head Start, foreign aid – together with Medicare and Medicaid and show the cost of these 3 together will bankrupt us.  Lumping Social Security with Medicare and Medicaid conceals the reality that the real long-term budget problem is health care costs.  (A quote from President Obama 2 years ago: “The big problem we have with entitlements is not Social Security, it’s Medicare.  Medicare and Medicaid, the two health care programmes that the federal government helps support, those are the things that are really breaking the bank.”)  The US already pays more than twice as much per person for health care as other wealthy countries but gets little obvious benefit for its additional expense.  Per person health care costs in the US are projected to rise even further relative to both GDP and to comparable costs in other countries.  Some people take good care of their health; others don’t.  Some are blessed with good genes; others aren’t.  Should smokers have to pay more (for example)?  I think a voucher system could be made to work.  People get so much health care allocated per year and can save vouchers for those years when everything goes wrong.  This could encourage more preventive care.  Exercises like this don’t get anyone anywhere, but they do serve to help me understand the problems better.


Washington Monument Syndrome, also called Mount Rushmore Syndrome, is the name of a political tactic allegedly used by government agencies when faced with a reduction in the rate of projected increases in a budget or with actual budget cuts.  The most visible and most appreciated service that is provided by that entity is the first to be put on the chopping block.  The name derives from the National Park Service’s alleged habit of saying that any cuts would lead to an immediate closure of the wildly popular Washington Monument.  The Washington Monument Syndrome emerged as a euphemism for cutting the most visible services after George Hartzog, the 7th National Parks Director, closed popular national parks like the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon for two days a week in 1969.  The intent of the closures may not have been to get people to complain to Congress but the effect was that Congress received complaints and Hartzog was fired and the funding was restored.

The simple phrase “You Are Not Alone” may be the most-opened subject line for email.  That single subject line has had an average open rate of 90% and has been used successfully on emails ranging from content marketing to personal development to potty training — the results are always the same.  There are plenty of ways to appeal to primitive human needs in an email subject line, but many can (and will) send your message directly to the spam folder.  Not only does the “You Are Not Alone” get opened, it has a high reply rate.  It responds directly to the need for community and connection.  People work harder to keep something they have than to gain something they want.  Negative headlines and copy alert your audience to a potentially serious problem — which you then address and solve.  By helping people keep something important to them, you gain trust.  Feel manipulated?  Don’t EVER send me an email with “You Are Not Alone” in the subject, because my spam filter will be on the lookout.  (Perhaps the sentence in bold helps to explain some of the US’s current budget woes?)

Just Like Being There

The first shot seems to have been set in or near Forsand Municipality, Norway.  The second shot is freestyle mountainbiking at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  The last shot is skiing in Tahoe.

This is not meant to be an endorsement of this particular camera — for one thing, I’ve never owned, used, or even seen one — but I am quite taken with the hands-free photos and clips it produces (like the 3 photos above).  It can be mounted on helmet, wrist, roll bar, chest, head, tripod, or just about anywhere else.  The resulting videos aren’t exactly works of art, but they do give a fantastic idea of what surfing, skiing, snowboarding, biking, paddling, base-jumping, and racing must feel like (mostly scary but also exhilarating).  It takes you one step further than Google Earth in vicarious experience.

Everyone knows you can catch a cold or the flu.  But can you catch a cavity?  Not only is it possible, but it occurs all the time.  While candy and sugar get all the blame, cavities are caused primarily by bacteria that cling to teeth and feast on particles of food from your last meal.  One of the byproducts bacteria create is acid, which destroys teeth.  Just as cold germs can be passed from one person to the next, so can these cavity-causing bacteria.  Most infants and children pick them up from their caregivers.  Adults can get them — and gum disease as well — from kissing.

How Does Acid Make People Trip?  It all starts in the thalamus, a node perched on top of the brain stem, right in the middle of the brain.  Most sensory impressions are routed through the thalamus, which acts as a gatekeeper, determining what’s relevant and what isn’t and deciding where the signals should go.  Consequently, perception of the world is governed by a combination of bottom-up processing starting with the incoming signals, combined with top-down processing in which selective filters are applied by the brain to cut down this overwhelming amount of information to a more manageable and relevant subset that can be processed.  Drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, tune down the thalamus’ activity.  Essentially, the thalamus on a psychedelic drug lets unprocessed information through to consciousness, like a failing email spam filter.  Colours become brighter, people see things they never noticed before, and make associations that they never made before.  A particular feature of the experience is a general increase in complexity and openness, such that the usual ego-bound restraints allowing humans to accept given preconceived ideas about themselves and the world around them are challenged.  The tendency is for users to assign unique and novel meanings to their experience and to appreciate that they’re part of a bigger, universal cosmic oneness.  Deciding which drugs to make legal/illegal sometimes seems to me about as rational as whom to go to war with for those “humanitarian reasons”.


He was unearthed in September 1991 in the Eastern Alps near the Austro-Italian border by a couple of German tourists trekking through the Oetz Valley, after which he was named.  He was about 46 years old when he met his violent death and had lain there for roughly 5,300 years.  Examinations revealed that he had been wounded by an arrow and possibly finished off with a mace blow to the face.  It is thought the arrow tore a hole in an artery beneath his left collarbone, leading to massive loss of blood — and the shock caused Oetzi to suffer a heart attack.  The fact that the arrow’s shaft was pulled out before his death may have worsened the injury.  Archæologists believe Oetzi, who was carrying a bow, a quiver of arrows and a copper axe, may have been a hunter or warrior killed in a skirmish with a rival tribe.  Researchers say he was about 159 centimetres tall (5 feet 2.5 inches), weighed about 50 kilograms (110 pounds), was arthritic, and infested with whipworm (an intestinal parasite).  He now has a curious immortality.

Medical and prescription records of 580,000 children over an 8-year period show that youngsters who were given one course of medication such as penicillin or other antibiotic treatments by the age of 3 or 4 were 1.84 times more likely to be diagnosed later with bowel disease than those who had never received the drugs.  The risk of developing the illness increases by 12% every time the medicines are prescribed.  Children who receive antibiotics are found to be nearly twice as likely to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and 3½ times more at risk of Crohn’s disease (whose symptoms include abdominal pain, weight loss and nausea).  Scientists believe that the medications can destroy “good” bacteria and other microflora which helps to protect the digestive system and this encourages harmful bacteria to grow.  But this link does not prove causality — possibly children with weak immune systems frequently get prescribed antibiotics but, with or without them, may have trouble in later life.

It’s been ingrained in people that if you have a fever, you treat it — 25% of adults would give a child a fever-reducing medication for a temperature — even one below 100ºF (37.8ºC).  Parents don’t appreciate that fever is the body’s way of fighting infection, a sign that the immune system is doing its job battling invading viruses, bacteria and other bugs.  Studies in animals show that those whose fevers are not lowered with medications recover from illness faster than animals whose fevers are treated.  But parents and caregivers seem to think it’s important to get a child’s temperature back to normal as soon as possible.  In one study, 85% of parents said they would wake a feverish child in order to give fever-reducing medications.  But doctors and parents are being urged to consider comfort as the main reason to provide fever-reducing medications.  If a child has a fever of 100º but is playing and eating, it’s likely not necessary to treat it.  However, if the child is lethargic, cranky and achy, ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be soothing.  Parents should call a doctor if additional symptoms such as vomiting, coughing or a lack of urination are present.  One important exception: all fevers in infants younger than about 3 months should be checked — a newborn has a weak immune system and can therefore become seriously ill.

A new meaning for the term jailbird?  A notorious South African jail where Nelson Mandela spent 6 years as an inmate is rehabilitating criminals by giving them the responsibility to rear parrots and other birds.  The Correctional Bird Project at Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison tasks inmates to take care of chicks and young birds before they’re sold as tame pets to bird lovers.  This sounds like an excellent project to me.  After hurricane Katrina, rescued cats were sent to prisons from animal shelters with good results — and the prisoners got to keep them.

Time Travel

Seeing the child in the adult — or vice versa: these are people that show remarkable correlation today with a photograph taken decades earlier.

  • 54 years between the 1st pair of photos (Lucia in Buenos Aires).
  • 32 years between the 2nd pair of photos (Matias in Uruguay).
  • 33 years between the 3rd pair of photos (Sue in London).
  • 22 years between the 4th pair of photos (Marina in Buenos Aires).

I think Sue’s features change the least but, though Marina’s photos have the fewest intervening years, they are the most astonishing.  Via Tywkiwdbi.

Stem cells are biological cells found in all multicellular organisms.  They can divide through mitosis and differentiate into diverse specialised cell types — and they can self-renew to produce more stem cells.  In mammals, there are two broad types of stem cells: embryonic, which are isolated from the inner cell mass of blastocysts, and adult, that are found in various tissues.  In adult organisms, stem cells and progenitor cells act as repair systems for the body.  Pluripotent adult stem cells are rare and generally small in number but can be found in many tissues, including umbilical cord blood.  A great deal of adult stem cell research has focused on clarifying their capacity to divide or self-renew indefinitely and their differentiation potential.  Medical researchers believe that stem cell therapy has the potential to dramatically change the treatment of human disease.  A number of adult stem cell therapies already exist, particularly bone marrow transplants used to treat leukemia.  In the future, doctors anticipate being able to use technologies derived from stem cell research to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, muscle damage, and other impairments.

A clinician will draw some of your blood into which will be introduced transcription factors to activate the programming machinery of your DNA.  This will create your own pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.  These cells have full telomere lengths restored, thus effectively turning back the clock of cellular ageing to zero.  These new pluripotent stem cells — made from your own cells — are identical to embryonic stem cells in that they don’t (yet) age and can be potentiated to become any cell type in your body.  They can also be multiplied and stored indefinitely.  Only when these cells have started down the path to their final cell state does the biological clock begin ticking.  Your rejuvenated pluripotent stem cells can then be converted into adult stem cells that repair hearts and vascular systems (endothelial precursor stem cells).  When there are enough of these cardiovascular repair cells, they can be given back to you via transfusion.  There’ll be no immune reaction, because they’re your own cells.  These new cells, though, will be only weeks or months old biologically and displace your older, less-effective ones.  Once in your body, your new rejuvenated stem cells produce the various cells needed to replace old, damaged heart and vascular cells.  These new cells are vigorous, fully functioning, and youthful.  In time, you’ll essentially have a new heart and vascular system without surgery.  The same technology can and will be used to rejuvenate your immune system.  [Apparently, most of this is available now, merely awaiting regulatory approval.]

Advice for Screenwriters: If it becomes necessary for one of your characters to make a sincerely truthful statement after a series of prevarications has damaged his credibility, the statement must begin with the word “hell,” as in “Hell, I s’pose you deserve this more than I do,” or “Hell, I was never really in Mogadishu.”  It is impossible for a sentence properly begun with the word “hell” used as an interjection to contain any insincerity whatsoever.

Notre Dame Cathedral — Paris

One visitor was unaware that tripods were not allowed.  So he used one.  And ended up with this lovely photo.

After age 21, problem gambling is considerably more common among US adults than alcohol dependence, even though alcohol dependence has received much more attention, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions.  Problem gambling has often been described as rare, but investigators combined results from two national surveys — one of youth ages 14—21 and the second of adults 18 and older — to identify patterns of US gambling and alcohol use across the lifespan.  They found that gambling, frequent gambling, and problem gambling increase in frequency during the teen years, reach the highest levels in the 20s and 30s and then fall off among those over 70.  Frequent gambling is twice as frequent among men (28%) as among women (13%).  The odds of any gambling in the past year are significantly higher for whites than for blacks or Asians, although the odds of frequent gambling are higher for blacks and Native Americans, the study found.  It is also notable that frequent and problem gambling become more common as socioeconomic status gets lower.  Problem gambling must have been a well-hidden vice among my friends when I lived in the US.  I knew a number of people who drank too much, but recall very few that gambled.  But there were no casinos and no Lotto where I lived.  In fact, all gambling was illegal at that time.  That undoubtedly made a huge difference.

My husband recently returned from a seminar in New Orleans.  He said the entertainment one night was Grandpa Elliot playing on a big screen — but halfway through, it was revealed that he was there in person, playing along with the video.  The mixing on this clip is excellent and I like the idea of global collaboration.  Corny, perhaps, but I did enjoy it.  And this is another around-the-world ensemble effort — this time including Bono.

This is a clip of the award-winning Japanese comedy performance duo Gamarjobat, comprised of Ketch! (with red mohawk) and HIRO-PON (with yellow mohawk).  Some parts of their skit are remarkable.  Via Speaking of Animation.

Young and Old

Unorthodox speed enforcement, located in a Nelson (South Island) suburb in New Zealand, spotted by Heather Farr.

The Cast of Galaxy City’s Cosmo Theatre

Front row: Penny, Terrence, Stan, Reggie Rabbit, Hattie.
Middle row: Manny, Cully, Manfried, Walter.
Back row: Amanda, Benny, Donnie and Amir.

Be sure to visit us!  Thaumaturgy Studios, Ltd., Wellington, NZ

If you wind up adrift on a tiny lake of show-dog urine you’ll need some kind of oar, which is why I peddle poodle piddle puddle paddles.