I study politics so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy
… in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

—  John Adams, 2nd US president

My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels

April 30, 2011

Goodbye, Sweet Sam

Goodbye, sweet Sam…

I’m here by myself for a few days.  This morning (as I write this), I found the family cat dead.  He and I had played late the night before — he had had no visible symptoms of illness or distress, so what had happened?  I was unable to locate any family member right then, everyone else having gone to New York for Easter.  I have no car, my yard is pavers and planter boxes — and now I have a dead cat and it’s the start of a 4-day holiday.  Before I could grieve, I had to be practical.  The city council had no facility to help.  My vet was closed for the holidays.  Ditto the SPCA.  My rubbish removers were not interested, nor were the next two collection firms I called — except a nice person who answered the phone at the last one said she’d see if she could get a friend to help.  She found one — a man who came over with his wife and dog and said he would handle everything and employ due respect.  So that much was done.  Next: dealing with remorse.  Had I not been caring for him properly?  Later, a search online using what few clues I had made me virtually certain Sam had died of feline cardiomyopathy.  (An odd relief, that.)  I could not have cured him no matter what I did — however, had I known, I could have medicated him and given him a strict special diet which should’ve kept him alive for a while — or I could’ve had a pacemaker implanted and he may have lived for a lot longer.  This cat was a real friend to all of us — a rare cat that was interested in everything and followed people from room to room because he liked to be around them.  What scale inside me compels? allows? me to say — “I’ll do whatever I can,” or “I’ll do anything short of a a pacemaker,” or even “I think we’ll just let nature take its course.”  Does each of those imply a certain level of love and care?  Or a certain level of guilt?  One reason it matters is that I think something similar is at the core of many countries’ current health care problems.  Spend enough money and you often CAN prolong life.  If you don’t spend the money, does that demean or devalue the life you don’t prolong?  (Or YOU?  Does “What goes around comes around” apply here?)  If we could potentially live forever, I can see where death would be something to be avoided at ALL cost.  But to prolong a curtailed life — sometimes very briefly?  How can we put a fixed dollar value on that?  I don’t claim to have an answer here.  I was not given the choice for this cat.  If I had been, and I had chosen one of the options which may have kept him alive longer, the financial burden would have been mine — yet not without some impact on the other members of my family.  But just suppose the decision I may need to make about health care doesn’t involve my friend the cat, but instead my tiny, extremely premature infant?  My frail parent?  My elderly and disabled spouse?  (I’m only speaking of prolonging life here — possibly even quite briefly — not saving it.)  If I must bear the financial burden, will my choice be the same depending on whether or not there is insurance?  It is this intolerable choice that the government (and insurance) removes from many — that is, potentially high cost is not then borne by only one person, but is spread thinly among a lot of people.  I see pet insurance is becoming more widespread, which does this for the other loved ones in the family.  Then it is the vet or the insurance company who decides.  I can, in turn, rail against him/them, or fate — but no one dare question my LOVE (as I would’ve done all anyone could reasonably expect).

Each year, Fidelity Investments estimates the health care costs for a couple in retirement until death.  The number is both terrifying and laughable, routinely in quarter-million-dollar territory.  Yes, $250,000 on top of the millions needed to fund retirement.  Oh, and it doesn’t include the cost of nursing home care.  The Boston-based financial company released its estimate for a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2011.  Surprisingly, the estimate dropped 8% to $230,000 thanks to recent changes in Medicare.  Unfortunately, the drop is expected to be a one-time only “break.”  Expenses should continue rising steadily in the future — the $250,000 figure is projected to double every 12 years.  US President Obama tends toward rationing care while Congressman Paul Ryan tends toward shifting some of the risk to individuals and their families and using market pressure to keep costs down.  (From the Comments: Let’s talk rationing for a minute.  For many old people, the last year of their lives eats up more money than all the 80-some years that went before.  Why do we spend so much money trying to keep old people alive?  I am almost 70, and made my living will years ago.  No extraordinary measures, do not resuscitate, with strong instructions to my children to pull the plug.  Nor should we spend huge amounts of money trying to keep babies born without vital parts alive.  We, as a society, need to become more realistic about health care in general.  Just because very expensive treatments exist, they need not always be employed.  Be sensible.)  A dilemma?  Or a Morton’s Fork?  Remember, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!


Are you affluent?  10% of your age times your household net income (0.10 x age x income) = your expected net worth.  If your actual net worth is above that, you’re affluent (for now).

“I’m sorry.  Now I understand.  Until last week’s budget deal, I never really appreciated the importance of adult conversation, bipartisanship, moderation and calming a bunch of bullies by giving up everything you promised the voters.  I’m going to try to mend my ways.  From here on out, I’m only going to advocate policies that have at least majority support with the American people.  I hope President Obama, and the media that so admires his lofty elevation above all debate, will join me.  In keeping with this standard I propose for starters that we raise to the top of the agenda the following items most Americans say they want:
Gay marriage
A faster withdrawal from Afghanistan
Legalized marijuana
An end to corporate personhood
Increasing taxes on the wealthy
No cuts in Social Security.
An end to capital punishment
Mr President, would you join us mainstream Americans for an adult conversation on these matters?  If not, could you advise us as to which programmes we should threaten to abolish in order to get your attention?  We’re kind of new to this maturity thing.” — Sam Smith

Effects of Congressman Paul Ryan’s House GOP Tax Plan at 2011 Levels

It’s reasonable to consider public opinion, but not reasonable to think it is somehow a guide to solving difficult problems.  Large majorities of people want contradictory things.  There is broad-based support for sustaining or increasing spending on practically everything the US government spends money on.  (Exception: Foreign aid, which is only a tiny fraction of the budget.)  There is broad-based support for lowering taxes.  There is, mathematically, zero way to square these two items.  There are further issues when you consider strengths of wants — a weak majority versus a strong minority.  Given that that list has — the author claims — MAJORITY SUPPORT, it’s typical to agree with at least some items.  But it’s tricky because how you phrase (and frame) questions has a huge impact.  “Bring our troops home?”  Sure!  “Admit defeat and withdraw?”  Never!  “Reform social security?”, when it follows a question asking if you know the scope of the unfunded liabilities?  Sure!  “Privatize social security?”, when coming at you cold, or after a nice priming question about the impact of the recent crisis on 401(k)s?  NEVER!  Note that while he says the majority supports an end to capital punishment, Google disagrees — over 60% of Americans are for it (though I’m not in that group).  I think you CAN find majorities for taxing the wealthy — though only 3% say the deficit should be solved solely via tax increases.  Sixty-four percent favour a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.  So it’s a bit disingenuous to list only tax increases and no spending cuts as there’s more support for spending cuts.  But there’s NO support for ANY cuts to ANY programme that costs the federal government more than 10% of its budget.  (Nor strong-enough support for any tax increases that would raise significant revenue.)

News accounts on the latest US federal budget deal give the numbers in a vacuum — for example, “The deal cuts $38 billion from last year’s budget.  It’s being called the largest domestic spending cut in US history”.  How can an individual voter make sense of quantities that are ordinarily written in scientific notation?  I think the easiest way is to divide everything by 100,000,000 (108).  Starting with federal spending, the FY 2011 federal budget is approximately $3.82 trillion (3.82×1012).  Of that, approximately $2.17 trillion will be paid for by taxes collected and the remaining $1.65 trillion will be borrowed.  If we divide everything by 100 million, the numbers begin to make more sense.  We have a family that is spending $38,200 per year.  The family’s income is $21,700 per year.  The family adds $16,500 in credit card debt every year in order to pay its bills.  After a long and difficult debate among family members, keeping in mind that it’s not going to be possible to borrow $16,500 every year forever, the parents and children agree that a $380/year premium cable subscription could be terminated.  So now the family will have to borrow only $16,120 per year.  (From Comment 23: “The political face of the debate appears to be one party that’s focused on abetting the accumulation of wealth through lower taxes, direct payments (bailouts), subsidies and reduced oversight.  [And — if it were true — would this be a bad thing?].  The other party seems just as myopically focused on the preservation of entitlements and unions.  Neither perspective benefits or addresses the needs of most Americans.  Whether it’s energy dependence, infrastructure or education the real drivers of prosperity don’t seem to merit focus, attention or dollars.”

Supposedly, People who lean to the left and have liberal views are more likely to have an enlarged anterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain associated with playing a role in regulating blood pressure and empathy.  On the other hand, those on the right with conservative tendencies tend to have a larger amygdala, the part of the brain involved in the processing and memory of emotional reactions.  The differences are consistent with what is known about the function of the two brain regions.  Research suggests that liberals are better able to cope with conflicting information and are more open to new experiences, while conservatives have a heightened sensitivity to threats or anxiety in the face of uncertainty.  Brain differences may also explain why some people have no interest in politics at all.  First: Is this proof there’s no free will?  Do we come hard-wired with beliefs already in place?  Or do our beliefs over time cause reinforcement in certain parts of the brain?  (In other words, which comes first?)  Second: There’s a long and inglorious history of people trying to massage research on brains or psychology to make “their” side of politics look good, and the other side look crazy.  The study used British conservatives, from a political spectrum very different than the US.  (And where might libertarians fall?)  There are issues with defining what liberal or conservative mean and issues with accepting people’s self-identification (as long-standing solid research outlines just how little most people know about political ideologies — thus their identifications could be inaccurate).  The study looks at the SIZE of areas of the brain and assumes that this direct correlated with intensity or function — in the case of the anterior cingulate, apparently it is assumed that bigger is always better.  This seems questionable.  Futher, researchers ascribe functions to the anterior cingulate and amygdala that are somewhat contentious.  Other research shows the amygdala to be highly correlated with having a large social network; a small amygdala is associated with having no friends, depression, and possibly autism.  The same research could be recast to support the view that liberals are depressed, autistic loners, whereas conservatives are happy, normal individuals.  Researchers who draw their conclusions using biased language don’t contribute much that’s useful.

Travelling from Singapore to Newark, NJ?  Better bring something to read, because you’ll be onboard almost 19 hours.  This flight takes you from New Jersey up through Canada and over the North Pole, through Russia, Mongolia and China — guaranteed to be a lovely ride.  Seating on this legendary flight SQ 21 consists of 100 business class lounge-esque chairs, each 30 inches wide.  They serve gin cocktails and salmon florentine.  You can watch over 400 movies, play over 60 computer games, listen to every song ever made, and chat up your well-heeled neighbours.  You might try out the trip from LA to Melbourne, on laid-back Qantas flight QF 094 (a flight I’ve taken).  They’ve won awards for their wine.  The flight takes 15.5 hours, but they’ll be some of the most easygoing, relaxed hours you’ve spent on a plane.  Other routes in the running for the World’s Longest Non-Stop Passenger Flight include Thai Airways flight TG 795 from LA to Bangkok (17 hours 30 minutes), Delta Flight 201 from Atlanta to Johannesberg, South Africa (16 hours 40 minutes) and Emirates flight EK 215 from Dubai to LA (16 hours 35 minutes).  Airlines are increasingly using planes with long-range capability due to lighter weight and a larger fuel capacity.  Boeing’s Dreamliner uses 20% less fuel than others flying long-haul (and also features a higher cabin humidity).

Brics Nations

In economics, BRICS is a grouping acronym that refers to the founding member countries Brazil, Russia, India, China.  In 2011, South Africa joined as a full member, after having been invited as a guest to the 2010 summit.  The founding members and South Africa are all at a similar stage of emerging market status due to their economic development.  It’s typically rendered as “the BRICS” or “the BRICS countries” or alternatively as the “Big Five.”  In April 2011, the “S” was formally added to BRIC to form BRICS after South Africa’s admission.  The acronym has come into widespread use as a symbol of the shift in global economic power away from the developed G7 economies towards the developing world.  These countries encompass over 25% of the world’s land and 40% of the world’s population and hold a combined GDP (PPP) of $18,486 trillion.  According to a paper published in 2005, Mexico and South Korea are countries comparable to the BRICS, but their economies are excluded because they’re considered more developed, as they’re already members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa issued a new call for reform of the dollar-dominated international monetary system and for greater supervision of commodity markets and capital flows, as the BRICS nations seek to boost their influence in debates about the global economy.  A joint statement issued by the heads of the 5 nations at a recent meeting on southern China’s Hainan island underscores their concerns about factors fueling inflation and currency volatility in many emerging economies.  They also want to shift away from reliance on the US dollar.  “Excessive volatility in pricesfor food and energy poses new risks for the ongoing recovery of the world economy,” they said.  “The regulation of the derivatives market should be strengthened to prevent activities that destabilise markets.”  [It is my understanding that regulation of the derivatives market is expected to INCREASE volatility.]  As part of the effort to reduce reliance on the dollar, development banks of the 5 countries agreed to open credit lines in their national currencies to each other, representing an attempt to create new centres of influence.  China’s President Hu Jintao and visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff agreed to quicken trade procedures for "gelatin, corn, tobacco leaf, bovine embryos and semen."  (There’s no holding back the Chinese on these issues.)

Sugar has unique characteristics — specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it — that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.  It is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.” This means we can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body.  The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different.  Fructose is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body.  Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consume the same number of calories of starch (glucose).  When sugar is in liquid form — soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them, say, in an apple (or several, to get an equivalent dose).  This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and type 2 diabetes (common to obese and overweight individuals).  Americans consume an average of 90 pounds per person per year of sugars.  The result?  The US Federal Transit Authority (FTA) proposes raising the assumed average weight per bus passenger from 150 pounds to 175 pounds, which could mean that across the country, fewer people will be allowed on a city transit bus. Current federal guidelines on average bus passenger weight are based on surveys in 1960-62 of what Americans weighed then.  Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says average weight is 194.7 pounds for men 20 and older and 164.7 pounds for women that age range.  “FTA believes that 175 pounds is an appropriate average weight to assume for testing buses,” the agency says.  The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airline travel, gauges average passenger weight at 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter.  The Coast Guard’s assumed average weight is 185 pounds for boats and ferries.

Anogenital distance (AGD) is the distance from the anus to the genitalia, the base of the penis or vagina.  It is considered medically significant for a number of reasons, in both humans and animals.  It is regulated by dihydrotestosterone, which can be disrupted by phthalates common in plastics.  Such endocrine disruption may affect the development of the brain.  Measuring the anogenital distance in neonatal humans has been suggested as a noninvasive method to determine male feminisation and thereby predict neonatal and adult reproductive disorders.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/04/us-genital-idUSTRE7230RO20110304 Men whose AGD is shorter than the median length — around 2 inches (52 millimetres) — have 7 times the chance of being sub-fertile as those with a longer AGD, according to a recent study.  That distance, measured from anus to the underside of the scrotum, is linked to male fertility, including semen volume and sperm count.  The shorter the AGD, the more likely a man is to have a low sperm count.  The study did not address what might cause certain men to have short AGD measurements but previous studies found a possible link between mothers who were exposed to chemicals called phthalates during pregnancy and the AGD of their infant and toddler sons.  Phthalates are widely used in industrial and personal care products, including fragrances, shampoos, soaps, plastics, paints and some pesticides.  Women with high levels of phthalates in their urine during pregnancy gave birth to sons 10 times more likely to have shorter than expected AGDs.  Approximately 25% of Americans tested have phthalates high enough to have caused this effect.

US researchers studying the effects of stress on the gut may have stumbled on a chemical compound that stimulates hair growth.  By blocking a stress-related hormone linked with hair loss, mutant mice that made too much of the hormone were able to regrow hair they had lost.  “Almost 100% of the mice responded.  The hair grows back fully.  It is a very dramatic effect,” a UCLA spokesperson who worked on the study said.  The findings could open new areas of research on hair loss in humans, especially in people whose hair loss is caused by stress and ageing (but, presumably, not male-pattern baldness).  As chronically stressed mice age, their hair turns gray and eventually falls out.  The researcher likened the effect to watching a US president age over the course of two 4-year terms in the White House.

Claiming (and Timing) Anarctica

  • Map of Antarctica showing most of the research stations past and present.  Some stations are very small, only a shelter or two and are seldom, if at all, used any more.  Very few are active in winter; among the stations still active: McMurdo, Scott, Dumont d’Urville, Casey, Mirny, Davis, Mawson, Syova, Neumayer.  The only continental stations open in winter are South Pole, Vostok and in 2004 Dome C.  Stations located in the peninsula are not shown but there are many of them.  Sections (some overlapping) which extend to the South Pole are claimed by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France (Adelie Land), New Zealand (Ross Dependency), Norway (Queen Maud Land), and the UK; the US and most other nations do not recognise territorial claims of other nations and have made no claims themselves (although the US reserves the right to do so).  No formal claims have been made in the sector between 90°W and 150°W.  Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent; during summer more solar radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than is received at the equator in an equivalent period; it is mostly uninhabitable.  Both Chile and Argentina have gone to great lengths to make their claims in Antarctica part of their national territory.  While there’s been no recognition of these claims by other sovereign states, both countries have engendered great nationalistic pride about them.  In August 1973, an Argentine cabinet meeting was held in the area claimed by Argentina.  Chile’s president Pinochet spent a week in Antarctica in 1977, which caused Argentina to devise a bold plan for claiming sovereignty.  In the fall of 1978, a pregnant Argentine woman was send to live in Antarctica.  In January 1979, Emile Marco Palma was the first child born there.  The Argentines followed with a wedding in February 1979.  Both countries have maintained colonies of civilian dependents living year-round at their bases, and tourism from bases both in Chile and Argentina has grown significantly in the last decades.
  • Could Antarctica be sliced differently to be more fair?  A map of the 7 countries currently “officially” claiming territory in Antarctica looks like a pie chart centred on the geographical South Pole.  If those claims were internationally honoured, one would be able to visit all 7 by simply walking in a circle around a single point.  But all claims were “frozen” by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, which has also stipulated no new claim can be made.  Present claimants are:
    • France (Terre Adélie, since 1924)
    • Chile (Antárctica, since 1940)
    • Argentina (Antártida Argentina, since 1943)
    • Australia (Australian Antarctic Territory, since 1933)
    • United Kingdom (British Antarctic Territory, since 1908)
    • Norway (Dronning Maud Land, since 1939; Peter I Island, since 1929)
    • New Zealand (Ross Dependency, since 1923)

All claims apply to areas south of 60°S (the northern limit of the Antarctic Treaty).  Between 90°W and 150°W only Peter I Island is claimed (by Norway — the only claim not a sector, that is, a “slice of the pie”).  Certain signatories – notably the US and Russia have expressed reservations about certain treaty restrictions.  Some claims overlap – notably between Chile, Argentina and the UK.  (The latter two already went to war over the nearby — but non-Antarctic — Falkland Islands in 1982.)  Brazilian geostrategist Therezinha de Castro proposes a different way of approaching the divvying-up of the South Pole – a method (of course) more beneficial to Brazil’s as-yet-unrecognised Antarctic claims, but which would eliminate the inherent danger of claims overlapping.  She proposes that all non-South American nations withdraw claims and bases from the South American sector of Antarctica (0°W to 90°W), and this sector would be is divided among the South American nations according to defrontação, or “open” sea access to Antarctica via meridional lines.  This would diminish the Chilean and Argentine sectors, give Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador a slice, and give Brazil the biggest piece.

  • “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” was once a popular song by a rock group called Chicago.  Those lyrics are especially appropriate when discussing time zones in Antarctica.  Since Antarctica is at the polar extreme of Earth, all 24 time zones converge there.  Thus, it can be Wednesday on one side of the International Dateline (which intersects the South Pole), and Thursday on the other.  “With so many time zones so close together, how do humans keep track of the time?” you ask.  The answer is, “location, location, location.”  Since the only people who live in Antarctica are working at international research stations, each station chooses the time it wishes to observe.  Many keep the time of their home countries.  Others stay on the clock of the city from which their ships depart.  A very few use the standard time of their geographic location.  (I think for NZ, all 3 of these would be the same time, making it rather easy.)

Admundsen-Scott Station (US)              Sat, 12:24 PM
Bellingshausen (RU) Fri, 08:24 PM
Casey Station (AU) Sat, 08:24 AM
Davis Station (AU) Sat, 07:24 AM
Dumont d’Urville (FR) Sat, 10:24 AM
Halley Station (UK) Sat, 12:24 AM
Macquarie Island Station (AU) Sat, 10:24 AM
Mawson Station (AU) Sat, 05:24 AM
McMurdo Station (US) Sat, 12:24 PM
Mirny Station (RU) Sat, 06:24 AM
Molodezhnaya Station (RU) Sat, 06:24 AM
Neumayer Station (DE) Sat, 12:24 AM
O’Higgins Station (CL) Fri, 09:24 PMdst
Palmer Station (US) Fri, 09:24 PMdst
Rothera Station (UK) Fri, 09:24 PM
SANAE IV (ZA) Sat, 02:24 AM
Scott Base (NZ) Sat, 12:24 PM
Syowa Station (JP) Sat, 03:24 AM
Vostok Station (RU) Sat, 06:24 AM

What’s This?

A Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) field team member throws hot water into the air to watch it turn to ice crystals and vapour on a -25ºF (-32ºC) day at Lake Fryxell field camp in Taylor Valley, Victoria Land, Antarctica.  Photograph by Chris Kennan, National Science Foundation.

Of course everyone is aware that our energy sources need to be greener — but in some cases, it may mean swapping one set of problems for another…  Thousands of bats have been killed by wind turbines, which it is estimated may cost farming industries billions annually (bats eat lots of insects).  Now, more pesticides will be needed.  Apparently, sudden changes in air pressure close to wind turbines can cause bat lungs to collapse, even if they don’t fly into the blades.  Soundwaves from underwater military sonar are far more distressing for whales than was previously thought and drives some terrified creatures to their deaths onshore.  But now scientist say that beaked whales may react with terror to noise from offshore wind turbines and oil and gas exploration.  It’s not known exactly which cetaceans are so affected, though it is known that some show less susceptibility to noise disturbances than others.

About Those Whales

  1. From National Geographic Visions of Earth: Portugal — Near the Azores, just below the sunlit Atlantic surface, sperm whales float in vertical repose.  Scientists think “drift dives” are a form of communal slumber.  Nevertheless, this species may sleep the least of any mammal.
  2. Humpback Whale Facts
    • Every humpback can be identified from the unique marking on the underside of its tail.
    • They can dive for up to 45 minutes and reach depths of 600 feet.
    • Humpback whales can weigh 2 tons at birth.  A full-grown whale can be 45 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons.
    • Nearly 40% of a humpback’s body weight is muscle.
    • They can see up to 400 feet underwater.
    • They can blow out air from blowholes at speeds of 300 miles per hour.  Their lungs can hold 2,500 gallons of air.

Male humpback whales are famed for the loud, long and complex songs they make during mating season.  Some scientists believe it is a way of advertising themselves to females, others that it allows migrating whales to stay in contact.  Each song lasts for 10-20 minutes and the males can sing continuously for 24 hours.  At any one time, all males in a population sing the same song.  But a new study shows that this song changes over time and spreads around the oceans.  Dr Ellen Garland, of Queensland University, said: “Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale.  Songs move like cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to the new version.”  This is the first time such a large, population-wide cultural exchange has been seen in the animal kingdom.

From National Geographic Visions of Earth: Its bright pouch agape and two-tone wings spanning perhaps 10 feet, a great white pelican in Walvis Bay, Namibia, sets its sights on a fish breakfast.  These migratory birds are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  I included a different view of (probably) this same bird the last time I posted.  Sorry, but I really like pelicans.  Modern pelicans, of which there are 8 species, are found on all continents except Antarctica.  In 2006, a pelican swallowed a living pigeon in St James Park, London.  According to tourists watching it, the pelican walked to the pigeon and grabbed it in its beak, hence starting the 20 minute struggle which ended when the victim was swallowed “head first while flapping all the way down”.  A pelican in Zoo Basel has been known to eat ducks.

What about seasons in Australia?  The Jawoyn, from the Northern Territory, recognise 6 seasons.  Jiorrk, the wet season, lasts from January to February.  Bungarung, the end of the rains, lasts from March to mid-April.  Jungalk, the hot start of the dry period, lasts from mid-April to the end of May.  Malaparr, the cooler, middle part of the dry period, lasts from June to the end of August.  Worrwopmi, the humid time, lasts from September to the end of October.  Wakaringding, the humid time when the first rains begin to fall, lasts from November until the end of December.

Mount Thor is a granite mountain in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada, this is the greatest purely vertical drop at 1,250 metres (4,101 feet), with an average angle of 105°.  This feature makes the site popular with climbers, despite its remoteness.

The Trango Towers are a group of dramatic granite spires located on the north side of the Baltoro Glacier, in Pakistan.  They are part of the Karakoram Range.  There are 4 identifiable summits.

Los Angeles’ Union Station

Los Angeles’ lovely Union Station opened in May 1939.  It is known as the “Last of the Great Railway Stations” built in the US, but even with its massive and ornate waiting room and adjacent ticket concourse, it is considered small in comparison to other union stations.  It was formerly designated the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, however, the name has been officially changed to Los Angeles Union Station.  Enclosed garden patios are on either side of the waiting room, and passengers exiting the trains were originally directed through the southern garden.  The lower part of the interior walls is covered in travertine marble, and the upper part is covered with an early form of acoustical tile.  The floor in the large rooms is terra cotta tile with a central strip of inlaid marble (including travertine, somewhat unusual in floors since it is soft).  Attached to the main building to the south is the station restaurant.  Although now usually padlocked and stripped of many interior furnishings, the topology of its rounded central counter, streamlined booths, and inlaid floor patterns remain.  The influential sci-fi film Blade Runner used shots of the waiting area as the 2019 police department.  Shown above is the East lobby.

More Union Station

Thinks Are Looking Down

Entrance to the Red Line Looking Down

Back to Looking Up

Red Line Entrance Looking Up, Night

Information Desk

The Information Desk Always Looks Unmanned

Makes me want to ride a train…

Information Desk

...at Union Station, looking in the opposite direction from the photo above)

Making Waiting as Pleasant as Possible…

Looks More Like a Church

The Waiting Room at Union Station

Time Enough

Detail of One of the Waiting Room Clocks


Today, Dining Is More Casual

Though this facility is still in use, none of the photos I saw depicted more than a scattering of people.
Note the fanciful ceiling in the middle photo.  Two of the wall clocks are visible in the photo on the left.

The Fred Harvey Room

Though this room no longer houses the restaurant, it is often in use for weddings.  Note the unusual tile pattern on the floor.  Maybe it’s a tribute to earthquakes?  I could little about it except that the architect, Mary Colter, drew inspiration from Navajo themes, so maybe it’s supposed to represent overlapping blankets?

Entrance to the Fred Harvey Room


Side Doors into Ticket Lobby

"Tickets, Please"

Doorway — Ticketing Room

Ticketing Room Doorway at Union Station

City of Dreams Aquarium

The River Once Looked Like This

Designed by May Sun


Los Angeles’ Native Flora and Fauna

The light fixtures in Union Station weigh 3,000 pounds apiece.

From The Union Station Guidebook, page 7: The much-derided, much neglected river is referenced in a 7,500 gallon aquarium undulating along a wall, which comprises the Union Station City of Dreams Aquarium.  Artist May Sun hoped to stock it with fish that once swam in the river, but those turned out to be extinct, unavailable or too small and so the fish are coastal saltwater and native Pacific.  On the walls of the aquarium are etched faces of Gabrielino Indians, Latino settlers, and indigenous coastal fish such as minnows, trout and lampreys.

Today, the Los Angeles River is encased in concrete and artificially diverted from its natural path, but it originally flowed near the site.  On its banks grew willow trees, cattails, curtains of grapevines, sycamore and cottonwood trees.  In the river lived minnows, trout and lampreys.  The first settlers of Los Angeles, the pobladores, occupied a site on the west bank, chosen because of the fertility of the soil and the abundance of water for irrigation.  The site was once the crossing of several Shoshonean trails.  A nearby “river bench” is clad in rocks from the river and from Tujunga Creek; water soothingly trickles onto artifacts embedded into the bench.  These were excavated from the original Chinatown (in the vicinity of Union Station) and were donated by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

The floor features inset images of turtles, trout, sycamore leaves and cattail leaves, as well as symbols of transportation (such as a wagon wheel).  The serpentine shape of a tiled bench and a water sculpture along its top take their shapes from the river.

This image of a golden eagle taking a fox away from a partially-eaten, snowbound carcass was taken by Finnish photographer Pekka Komi February 2006.  The impression created by the full series of images is that the fox came upon the eagle while the latter was feeding on the carcass rather than the other way around.  The eagle took exception to the fox’s intrusion.

High-end aquarium sales are booming — and almost all of them go to men.  Why?  Some cite Disney’s 2003 film Finding Nemo as the moment when aquariums started coming back.  Some say it’s Barbados and the rise of scuba diving.  Others say it’s the 1970s revival: chest hair, bad shirts, aquariums.  Or the Cheltenham & Gloucester pearl-diving commercial that was on television for so long.  Some say it must be the Maldives.  Some say it’s to do with urban claustrophobia and the lack of outdoor gardening space.  Others cite Brit art.  Others say it’s to do with the interior design extravaganza.  Some say bling, some say gadgets, some say calm and some say creation.  Others speculate that it’s because aquariums have everything: art, science, nature.  Be it aquascapers or oligarchs, footballers or hobbyists, tropical tanks or cold water, forums or YouTube — everyone agrees: it is about men.  What are they getting back?  Off the record, some shop owners point out that fish never know their keepers and thus this is an unusual human-pet relationship.  Others go deeper and say it’s about creating a parallel universe over which you have total control.  Some outsiders go darker still and say it’s about keeping pretty things in total dependency in a see-through cage.  But I’ve heard the opposite too: that men like to stare at fish for the same reason they become amateur astronomers, because it’s a pastime which carries them into a world untroubled by gender politics.  Make of this what you will.

Two fish are in a tank.  One says to the other, “So how d’you drive this thing?”

In an experiment entitled "Social Eavesdropping in the Domestic Dog", Italian scientists invited 100 dog owners and their pets into their lab.  The dogs sat quietly with their owners while two researchers ate cereal from a tub which also contained hot sausages.  When another person came into the room and begged to be given some of the cereal, one researcher readily shared her breakfast but the other shooed the beggar away.  When the dogs were later let off their leads, 2/3 of them approached the generous researcher in hopes of being fed a sausage.  The experiments showed that dogs appear to pay more attention to the tone of the voice used when dealing with the beggar, rather than merely whether food was handed over or not.  (Nevertheless, despite dogs’ cleverness, Britons with university degrees are 35% more likely to have a cat than a dog.)


Flowers around a Streetlight

Flowers around a Streetlight

Vented Umbrella

Vented Umbrella


Fireworks Display

Fireworks Display



Her Fashionable Hat

Her Fashionable Hat

Not long ago, I posted photographs of what I thought were spectacular images of water droplets.  I can’t believe I am already am posting more — it’s just that these are in a class by themselves.  The Bavarian photographer Markus Reugels drops the water onto trays, egg cups, or spoons and uses a very high-speed camera (shutter speeds up to 1/16,000 of a second).  By thickening the water with guar gum, he alters the shape of the splashes.  He also adds sugar and, by putting a rinse aid in the receptacle, increases the height of droplet splashes.  These pictures, he says, are not photoshopped.

Another clever raccoon who has found that being cute really pays off.

"The most epic flash drive of all time", reads the headline.  Perhaps this isn’t the MOST epic, but it certainly IS cool.

According to this site, roller skates were invented to compensate for the limits of ice skating (such as the limit that you can only ice skate where/when there is thick, flat ice), thereby making it possible to experience skating on the street year-round.  (Paved streets/footpaths probably had to come first.)  The Mercury skate is designed to decrease skater fatigue by providing a smoother ride on pavement with the least harm.  Undamped skate vibration can translate itself into harm to knee joints and (rather surprisingly) eyesight.  the Mercury skate has a vibration-absorbing damper and a removable calf cuff.  It isn’t in production.  (Why not?)  Designed by Pouyan Mokhtarani.

The Real Flying Squirrels

This is a consistently clever, entertaining, enlightening site.

What’s This?  Click on photo for answer.

Keeping a compact area tidy can be difficult because it requires constant effort – leave too much out of place and you lose your “staging area” for bringing back order. Nevertheless, I like efficient space utilisation. This was called the ultimate Murphy bed — but a wall bed alternative is perhaps a little more accurate.

Swedish couple Stefan and Erika Svanstrom with their baby daughter in tow, set off on their 4-month honeymoon in December 2010.  By the time the Stockholm family got to Munich, they were stranded in one of Europe’s worst snowstorms in living memory.  After that, they managed to experience massive flooding in Brisbane followed by the devastation of a cyclone in Cairns.  Just to complete the Aussie trifecta, they ended up near the Perth bushfires in February 2011.  Just before they arrived in New Zealand, Christchurch was hit by a devastating earthquake.  Their final destination: Tokyo — where they managed to experience the largest earthquake in Japan since records began.  But they persevered with their “romantic” disaster-plagued honeymoon no matter what befell them.  (There’s no truth to the rumour that some countries might be banning them from visiting in future due to their disaster-attracting powers.)  The trip of a lifetime was made possible because Stefan, an economist, received a nice severance package from his old job and Erika, a foreign affairs policy advisor for the Swedish parliament, was on maternity leave – their daughter is now 10 months old.

Elevator People

John Helliwell, emeritus professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, is a relentlessly upbeat and positive person, messianic in his message, but also a hard-nosed social scientist.  [With regard to happiness, it’s reminiscent of the When Harry Met Sally scene, where another dinner seeing Meg Ryan in ecstasy says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”  Only in John’s case, unlike Meg Ryan’s, his happiness is heartfelt.]  He had the group singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” and noted after the group sing that research shows that doing things with others, especially making music, is great for increasing happiness, as any choral group member can affirm.  He suggests you put on a positive front (it will eventually rub off on you), develop a sense of community both at home and at work, be generous in your daily life, and don’t rely on the media too much.  Many factors are good predictors of happiness: trust of others, social connections, lack of corruption, sense of freedom, religiosity, enough money for food, social support networks.  Helliwell notes that raising income of some within a group is not a productive strategy since those whose income is raised are happier but the others are less happy — in other words such a move is zero-sum.  In contrast, if you become more socially connected into your community, both you and your community members are happier, even if they aren’t more socially connected.  An experiment with a Singapore prison (“Captains of Lives and Yellow Ribbon Project”) converted the prison from being a place of punishment to a place to reintegrate people back into society: cooking competitions were held between inmates and residents from the community as were jogging races, et cetera.  The result?  Recidivism rates (released prisoners returning as inmates again) declined dramatically to 25% and staff retention rose (since they now had completely new roles).  It was suggested that we treat each elevator ride as a place for experimentation rather than as a brief prison sentence.

An Earth First! tree protecting itself from harvest?  Probably just a tree that belongs to someone with a good imagination and a sense of humour.

Nearly 1 in 5 American women now ends her reproductive years without children, up from 1 in 10 in the 1970s.  Global birth rates dropped from 6 children per woman to 2.9 between 1972 and 2008 as people migrated to cities.  And the sheep-to-human ratio in New Zealand, which currently stands at 10 to 1, seems sure to increase since a staggering 18% of adult men there have elected to get vasectomies.

Beginning last July, unprecedented monsoons dropped nearly 10 years’ worth of rainfall on Pakistan in one week, swelling the country’s rivers.  The water was slow to recede, creating vast pools of stagnant water across the countryside.  In Sindh, this drove millions of spiders into trees to spin webs.  At the height of the crisis, the flooded region covered an area the size of England.  Normally after a flood, the remaining stagnant water provides more opportunities for mosquitoes to breed — but people in Sindh reported far fewer mosquitoes than expected following the recent crisis.

Second Chance

A 1987 Dodge van is stuck on a rock overhang near Grand Junction, Colorado after the driver sent the vehicle off a cliff in an apparent suicide attempt.  The 34-year-old male driver survived the incident but park officials say that 27 people attempted suicide at this national monument last year.  My guess?  VERY few were unsuccessful.

Future History

I have enclosed a couple of random pages from my upcoming book.  Visit us at Thaumaturgy Studios!


A father walks into a restaurant with his young son.  He gives the boy 3 nickels to play with to keep him occupied.  Suddenly, the boy starts choking, going blue in the face.  The father realises the boy has swallowed the nickels and starts slapping him on the back.  The boy coughs up 2 of the nickels, but keeps choking.  Looking at his son, the father is panicking, shouting for help.  A well-dressed, attractive, and serious looking woman in a blue business suit is sitting at the coffee bar reading a newspaper and sipping a cup of coffee.  At the sound of the commotion, she looks up, puts her coffee cup down, neatly folds the newspaper and places it on the counter, gets up from her seat and makes her way, unhurried, across the restaurant.  Reaching the boy, the woman carefully drops his pants; takes hold of his testicles and starts to squeeze and twist, gently at first and then ever-so-slightly more firmly.  After a few seconds the boy convulses violently and coughs up the last nickel, which the woman deftly catches in her free hand.  Releasing the boy’s testicles, the woman hands the nickel to the father and walks back to her seat at the coffee bar without saying a word.  As soon as he is sure his son has suffered no ill effects, the father rushes over to the woman and starts thanking her saying, “I’ve never seen anybody do anything like that before, it was fantastic.  Are you a doctor?”

“No” the woman replied.  “I’m with the IRS.”