The Belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions.

—  Robert Lynd

Caetera Desunt

June 30, 2011


The title translates to “The Rest Is Missing”

Ouem Elma Lake in Libya

“For some diehard Obamaphiles, Libya was the last straw.  This latest war of choice, in no way attributable to Bush, is an imperialist venture, undertaken on a disingenuous pretext that fell apart almost from Day One.  Intended, supposedly, to save civilian lives, the US/NATO bombing has unleashed a civil war. Libya exposes what Obama’s “multilateralism” amounts to: empowerment of right-wing politicians from the “old” Europe — like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy — keen on reviving the [past].  But the main problem is the way Obama launched it in violation of the War Powers Act and perhaps even Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution.  He did it not because Congress wouldn’t have gone along, but so that in the future he could claim, as Commander-in-Chief, the right to launch drones and drop bombs without asking Congress.” — Andrew Levine.  [I don’t have the information a US president possesses (I hope that’s correct), so I can’t say for certain that Obama doesn’t predominately do exactly what I would have done under the same circumstances.  But right now, it isn’t so clear.]

“Last week I joined 6 Republican and 3 Democrat colleagues to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its illegal war against Libya.  We must recall the origins of these attacks on Libya.  The Obama administration made no claim that Libyan leader Gaddafi was killing his civilian population.  Rather, the claim was that Libya might begin killing its civilians in the future.  One need not defend Gaddafi’s regime — and I most certainly do NOT — to object to this flimsy and dangerous rationale for violating the sovereignty of another country.  In our lawsuit against the administration, among other critical issues we are demanding that the courts provide relief and protection to the country from the administration’s policy that a president may commit the US to a war under the authority of the United Nations and NATO without authorisation from Congress, and that previously appropriated funds by Congress may be used for an unconstitutional and unauthorised war in Libya or other countries.  These are fundamental Constitutional issues and I expect the judicial branch to treat our challenge with the same level of gravity as we do in the legislative branch.  Remember, we were told that this attack would last “days, not weeks” and we are already 3 months and likely nearly a billion dollars into it.  As the bombings obviously target Gaddafi’s houses, even killing some of his family members, we can see that the real goal is regime change rather than protection of civilians.  Do we know much about the rebels whose side we have taken in what is, in fact, a civil war?” — US Representative Ron Paul

The day after Barack Obama took office, he signed a series of executive orders mandating the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as the global network of secret, CIA-run “black site” prisons.  In addition, he committed the US to observe the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.  The Bush administration had exempted US interrogators from these treaties, arguing that the Global War on Terror presented unprecedented intelligence-gathering challenges that had to be overcome by all means necessary.  Obama’s stated commitment to ban torture also extended to the outsourcing of interrogations to countries where torture could be employed without the legal barriers that exist within the US military and civilian justice systems.  He vowed to end the “extraordinary rendition” program whereby terror suspects were disappeared by US agents, transferred into the custody of 3rd-party intelligence services and tortured by foreign agents asking questions provided by the CIA.  The European Parliament estimated that the CIA flew at least 1,245 rendition flights between 2001 and 2007, but all information on those flights, including who the passengers were and how many people were abducted, remains shrouded in secrecy.  Such a policy contrasts with “rendition to justice,” a transfer that takes place at least nominally within the legal system.  This kind of rendition requires that the detainee be arraigned and tried in court on arrival in the US — without having been tortured during the capturing process.  More than two years later, the Obama administration has not followed through on most of these promises, even reversing several commitments.  Guantanamo not only remains open, but will take in new “high-value” detainees in the event of their capture.  Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, at least 20 secret prisons still actively torture “short-term transfer” detainees.  The classified prisons now grant access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.  Instead of operating directly under CIA control, they are run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  Nevertheless, CIA personnel still participate in interrogations held within their anonymous concrete walls.  [Why has Obama changed his position?]

Falling Home Values

Falling Home Values

The Spread of Medicaid

The Spread of Medicaid

When Net Worth is Red or Missing

When Net Worth is Red or Missing

  • Only 66.8% of American men had a job last year — the lowest level ever recorded.
  • In the US, 25% of all income is earned by 1% of the people.
  • The average American household uses 750 gallons of gas a year (2,840 litres — or almost 55 litres per week) and spends 23% of income on food and gas.
  • 60% of California public school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
  • US home values have fallen $6.3 trillion since the peak of the real estate market in 2005.
  • In 2005, median property tax was $1,614.  Today, though home values have sunk, the figure is $1,917.
  • 31% of homeowners in a recent survey say they’re “underwater” on their mortgage.
  • According to a recent census report, 13% of all US homes sit empty.
  • Average household debt in the US is 136% of average household income; in China, it’s 17%.
  • In 1965, 2% of Americans were on Medicaid; today, it’s 17%.
  • According to the Federal Reserve, between 2007 and 2009, median household net worth fell 23%; median household debt rose to $75,600.
  • According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 25% of all US households have zero or negative net worth (up from 18.6% in 2007).


Speaking with supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser in April, President Obama said that accused Wikileaks leaker Pfc Bradley Manning “broke the law,” Forbes reports.  Mr Obama’s comments followed an incident in which protesters seeking Manning’s release from prison interrupted his fundraising speech.  Manning’s prolonged detainment has been a source of controversy for the Obama administration for several months.  Manning has been transferred to a prison in Kansas from the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where he spent 9 months in restrictive conditions.  Manning faces nearly two dozen charges, including aiding the enemy, but no trial date has been set (and officials have said his case could take months, if not years, to be settled because of its complexity).  Though Manning has yet to stand trial, Mr Obama asserted yesterday that he is guilty.  “If you’re in the military, and — I have to abide by certain classified information,” Mr Obama explained to a supporter.  “If I were to release stuff, information that I’m not authorised to release, I’m breaking the law.  We’re a nation of laws.  We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate…  He broke the law.” It will be interesting to see what effect this has when Manning actually goes to trial.  [And, as mentioned in the comments section, it would be interesting to know who is in the position of being able to “authorise” the president to do anything.  So he’s no longer the commander-in-chief, then?]

How much would you pay for a search if it were not free?  Last year 3 researchers at the University of Michigan performed a small experiment to see if they could ascertain how much ordinary people might pay for access to search.  Their method was to ask students inside a well-stocked university library to answer questions asked on Google, but to find the answers only using the materials in the library.  They measured how long it took the students to answer a question in the stacks.  On average it took 22 minutes.  That’s 15 minutes longer than the 7 minutes it took to answer the same question, on average, using Google.  Figuring a national average wage of $22/hour, this works out to a savings of $1.37 per search.  If I do 25 searches per day (easily that), then I would need to pay more than $1,000 per month just for searches.  Wikipedia and Google Maps will add still more if they’re no longer free.  You could probably kiss all free blogs goodbye.  This is the great value add of the free web — answers, encyclopedia facts, directions, weather reports, recommendations.  Via J-Walk.

Houses and Debt

Residential House Price Indices (March 1999 = 100)

Residential House Price Indices (March 1999 = 100)

Household Debt (per cent of household disposable income) 1988 — 2009

Household Debt (per cent of household disposable income) 1988 — 2009

Australia’s house prices growth has been nothing short of phenomenal, leaving the other countries in its wake.  Despite a significant reduction of mortgage interest rates over the past 20 years, the ratio of average mortgage interest payments to average household disposable income has increased from around 6% in 2000 to 10% currently (after peaking at around 11.5% in 2008).  Whilst this ratio may look benign on the surface, only 35% of households in Australia have a mortgage.  So the actual repayment burden on indebted households is much larger than implied by the average.  Since the growth of house prices has significantly outpaced the growth of incomes, it follows that rising debt levels have been the key contributor to rising house prices in Australia.  Australia’s household debt levels — which include mortgage as well as other personal debt — compares poorly against other advanced nations.  An Australian house price correction is highly likely in the medium to longer-term.  House prices relative to incomes and rents, as well as household debt levels, have simply become too high to be maintained, and all it will take is either a change of sentiment, a deterioration of Australia’s economy, another global credit shock, or shifting demographics to bring house prices back into line.

As the name implies, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are anonymous.  You don’t have to sign anything, show ID or even reveal your real name.  But meetings aren’t private.  Anyone is free to attend — and free to recognise you: by your face, voice, or the stories you tell.  Anonymity isn’t the same as privacy.  One free tool, Tor, allows people to use the internet anonymously.  By joining Tor you join a network of computers around the world that pass internet traffic randomly amongst themselves before sending it out to wherever it’s going.  It’s called “onion routing,” first developed at the Naval Research Laboratory.  Communications between Tor nodes are encrypted in a layered protocol, hence the onion analogy.  But the traffic that leaves the Tor network is in the clear.  If you want your Tor traffic to be private, you need to encrypt it.  If you want it to be authenticated, you need to sign it as well.  Tor anonymises, nothing more.  The price you pay for anonymity is exposing your traffic to shady people — true anonymity is hard.  Just as you could be recognised at an AA meeting, you can be recognised on the internet.  Dark Web, a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, can identify anonymous writers by their style.  They look at a posting on an online bulletin board, for example, and compare it with writings found elsewhere on the Internet.  By analysing certain features, they can determine with more than 95% accuracy if the author has produced other content in the past.  If a name or other identifying information is in just one of those writings, the author can be identified.  Will this soon be admissible in court?

With the Irish Government on track to owe a quarter of a trillion euro by 2014, a prolonged and chaotic national bankruptcy is becoming inevitable.  By the time the dust settles, Ireland’s last remaining asset, its reputation as a safe place from which to conduct business, will have been destroyed and it will face economic ruin.  In 2009, Patrick Honohan was appointed governor of the Central Bank and assumed de facto control of Irish economic policy.  As a respected academic expert on banking crises, he commanded the international authority to have announced that the government’s bank guarantee had been made in haste and with poor information, and would be replaced by a restructuring where bonds in the banks would be swapped for shares.  Instead, he seemed unperturbed by the possible scale of bank losses, repeatedly insisting they were “manageable”.  Like most Irish economists of his generation, he appeared to believe Ireland was still the export-driven powerhouse of the 1990s rather than the credit-fuelled Ponzi scheme it had become.  Honohan’s miscalculation of the bank losses turned out to be the costliest mistake ever made by an Irish person.  Armed with his assurances, the Irish government confidently repaid bank bondholders, even those not guaranteed under the original scheme.  This suicidal policy culminated in repayment of most of the outstanding bonds.  Disaster followed within weeks.  Nobody would lend to Irish banks, so maturing bonds were repaid largely by emergency borrowing from the European Central Bank: by November the Irish banks owed more than €60 billion.  Despite aggressive cuts in government spending, the certainty that bank losses would far exceed estimates led financial markets to stop lending to Ireland.  Back when the euro was being planned in the mid-1990s, it never occurred to anyone that cautious, stodgy banks like AIB and Bank of Ireland, run by faintly dim former rugby players, could ever borrow tens of billions overseas, and lose it all on dodgy property loans.  [Who knew?]

Taxing What You Want to Discourage

Find the Taxes That Do Double Duty

Find the Taxes That Do Double Duty

A tax on any activity not only generates revenue, but also discourages the activity.  The second effect, of course, underlies the claim that taxes inhibit economic growth.  That’s often true of taxes on useful activities, a primary source of current tax revenue.  Job creation, for example, is discouraged by the payroll tax, and investment is discouraged by the income tax, which is also a tax on savings.  But the reverse is true when we tax activities that cause harm to others.  By entering a congested highway, we help to impose delays that in turn cost others thousands of dollars — even though entering those highways may save us only negligible time when compared with alternatives.  In buying a heavy vehicle, we put the lives of others at risk, even though a lighter one might have served us almost as well.  Taxes levied on harmful activities kill two birds with one stone.  They generate desperately needed revenue while discouraging behaviours whose costs greatly outweigh their benefits.  Antigovernment activists reliably denounce such taxes as “social engineering”— attempts to “control our behaviour, steer our choices, and change the way we live our lives.”  Gasoline taxes aimed at discouraging dependence on foreign oil, for example, invariably elicit this accusation.  But it’s a strange complaint, because virtually every law and regulation constitutes social engineering.  EVERY dollar raised by taxing harmful activities is one dollar less that must be raised by taxing useful ones.

Nuclear-powered submarines can operate submerged for months at a time.  Submariners are all volunteers rigorously tested before acceptance.  Even more than in conventional submarines, the physical and psychological stamina of the crew on nuclear-powered submarines becomes a crucial factor.  They must also deal, while on patrol, with being largely cut off from the outside world, including their families, for long periods of time.  Crew members live inside a pressure hull filled with the machinery required to keep them alive and allow the ship to function.  They must make do with the cramped spaces between the machines, enjoying little stowage space or privacy.  The submariner’s day lasts 18 hours: three 6-hour watch cycles, 1 on and 2 off.  He stands a duty watch, then has the next 12 hours for everything else: repair and maintenance tasks, study, relaxation, eating, and sleeping.  Then it’s back to the duty watch.  The greatest threats to a submerged submarine are fire and flooding.  Food for the crew is the bulkiest commodity in a submarine and becomes the limiting factor for patrol duration.  Fresh food lasts about two weeks, then it is canned, dried, and frozen food for the rest of the patrol.  When a submarine leaves on patrol, food fills every available corner.  Trash is tightly compacted in a cylindrical steel mesh container.  A 7 pound (3.2 kilogram) weight ensures that it sinks to the bottom of the sea (though plastics are now kept on board).  All submarines must enclose much more of their machinery and equipment within their hulls than surface ships — why they’re so cramped.  A submarine has only about 1/3 the living space per person that a destroyer of the same tonnage has.

The USS Florida slips through the Atlantic.  Stretched as long as two football fields, her silhouette moves like a shadow on the surface.  The Florida is what sailors call a “Boomer,” a submarine loaded with enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the former Soviet Union.  The order would come from the president of the US down to skipper David Duryea of the Florida.  A submariner for nearly 20 years, the Florida is his first command.  “We’d be given an order from the president to launch a strike,” says Duryea, explaining how he would command the missiles to be fired.  “I would be up in the control room supervising the positioning of the ship, making sure we’re at the right conditions to launch the missile.  And I would give the order down here to the weapons officer, who would then use a firing key…and give the order which would actually launch the missile by pulling the switch.”  Each missile carries 8 nuclear warheads.  Each warhead can be sent to a different target.  One Trident sub carries the power of 5,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Hiroshima.  The Navy figured it could transform the old Cold War doomsday machine into a weapon with a future.  Tridents are unique in the Navy because of their massive missile tubes.  Beneath the door, the space is 7 feet wide and 47 feet deep.  “It’s all space — 24 missile tubes,” says Duryea.  In the missile compartment, they are planning to make room for 100 Navy commandos, Special Forces known as SEALs.  The tubes themselves will be reloaded with launchers that fire cruise missiles like bullets from a gun.  “You think about it like a revolver, like a cylinder on a revolver, and it’ll hold 7 Tomahawk missiles.  There’ll be a total of 154 cruise missiles on this ship.”  [See?  All that debt was worth it.]

Improving Your View

Camping Out

Be Careful Rolling out of Bed in the Morning…

Jacob's Golden Ladder

Jacob’s Golden Ladder

El Capitan, Yosemite, California

El Capitan, Yosemite, California

This is one compulsion I don’t have, but I can see the attraction.

Americans lack financial literacy, having to learn about credit card use and debt primarily through personal experience.  Few receive training in school or at home; most don’t discuss family finances with their children.  Half of the participants in a recent study had debt they were unable to pay and 1/3 of those were dealing with collection agencies.  Credit is seen as a measure of worth — approval for a certain loan meant the person was “good enough for that car.”  Approval for big-ticket items such as cars and homes were seen as directly related to a value of the person.  Those with credit cards they pay off each month were mostly older with higher incomes.  Some younger participants noted they didn’t want to use credit cards, but felt pressure to build credit to finance cars and homes in the future.  Most had parents who encouraged them to have credit cards; these they began using at a younger age than parents.  Credit card use and heavy debt has become normalised in US culture.  Even though society says, “don’t get in debt,” the overwhelming message from the way credit is used creates a culture of debt.  One young participant without debt said she felt punished for not having a credit card; she was refused a cellphone and encounters embarrassing situations during business travel.  Penalising consumers for not using credit is wrong.  A credit score is a black box mystery; 3 US companies control credit information and its rules and equations are secret.  People are told to get credit cards, but not use them.  For some, this is like filling their freezers with ice cream but telling them not to eat any.  Financial literacy classes should be required in school; these classes should address credit card fees, compound interest, and also critique debt as a cultural value.

The International Monetary Fund has set a date for the moment when the “Age of America” will end and the US economy will be overtaken by that of China — in 2016.  In addition to comparing the two countries based on exchange rates, the IMF analysis also looks to a real-terms picture of economies using “purchasing power parities.”  It compares what people earn and spend in real terms in their domestic economies.  Under PPP, the Chinese economy will expand from $11.2 trillion this year to $19 trillion in 2016.  Meanwhile the size of the US economy will rise from $15.2 trillion to $18.8 trillion.  That would take America’s share of the world output down to 17.7%, the lowest in modern times.  China’s would reach 18%, and rising.  Just 10 years ago, the US economy was 3x the size of China’s.  We’ve lived in a world dominated by the US for so long that there is no longer anyone alive who remembers anything else.  America overtook Great Britain as the world’s leading economic power in the 1890s and never looked back.  And both those countries live under very similar rules of constitutional government, respect for civil liberties and the rights of property.  China has none of those.  The Age of China will feel very different.

Watching the Fire

"Oh, Honey, get the camera!" Appreciating Firemen Aftermath Watching It All Burn In Catalan "Cal" Means Hot and "Forn" Means Oven
  1. “Oh, Honey, get the camera!”  Is this a practice burn?  An insurance scam?  A family of arsonists?  A fake background?  No clue.  Photo source: ImpactLab
  2. This photo makes me appreciate firemen even more.  The early Sunday morning house fire (officials guess it started about 7:30am) was burning furiously — “fully involved” as firefighters say — by the time they pulled up at 7:45am.  Two residents of the house escaped the inferno, but firefighters located an unconscious occupant in a second floor bedroom next to the room engulfed with flames.  They rushed the victim to safety, for treatment by the ambulance crew on-scene — and after CPR, he was taken to the nearest hospital burn centre.  The crews of 7 fire engines and 2 trucks battled the blaze until past 9am.  Photo source: News
  3. When firemen were notified, the caller — a lady from out of the neighbourhood just driving by — mistakenly gave them the wrong address, so they arrived a few minutes late.  A nearby resident told investigators: “It seems like the whole neighbourhood was out watching the fire.  One guy was videoing it; lots of cellphones were out taking pictures.”  “Did you call for help?”  “No, I thought someone else did.  It was a huge fire.”  The man who was rescued died the following day.  He perhaps would have lived had someone called for help a bit sooner.  If you see a fire, don’t assume someone else is calling.  Fire stations don’t mind getting a dozen calls reporting it because they can use information gathered from each call to help crews prepare, en route, for what to expect and to verify the exact location.  Also, this house didn’t have a working smoke detector.  Make sure yours does.  Photo source: FatalFire
  4. These helicopter pilots watch as a controlled fire burns on Mount McLean in the Canadian province of British Columbia in a desperate attempt to reduce the amount of fuel for a wildfire burning on the mountain in the town of Lillooet.  Since April, more than 2,200 fires have torched 170,171 acres (68,867 hectares) compared to 1,066 fires that burned 27,170 acres (11,000 hectares) last year.  Most fires are being caused by lightning strikes.  The evacuations of Lillooet and Brooksmere came two weeks after 11,000 were forced to flee their homes near West Kelowna.  Photographer Darryl Dyck/AP.  Photo source: DailyMail
  5. In Catalan, “Cal” means hot and “forn” means oven.  31 August 2009: A massive fire in the Angeles National Forest nearly doubled in size overnight, threatening 12,000 homes in a 20-mile-long swath of flame and smoke, and surging toward a mountaintop broadcasting complex and historic observatory.  The fire was the largest of at least 8 burning up and down California after days of triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.  The Los Angeles-area blaze had burned at least 21 homes and was moving north, south and east through the rugged foothills northeast of the city.  Photo source: SacBee

“No one is forced to play the lottery.”  True.  Nor is one commonly forced to take that first hit of heroin.  Direct narcotics sales by the government could go a long way toward resolving US state and federal budgetary issues.  A former professional card counter (turfed from over 100 casinos in 16 states, who wrote a recent book on the subject), says he knows more than he wishes he knew about the psyche of gamblers and the spirit in which gambling revenues are generated.  The business is dirty almost beyond conception.  Blackjack professionals, he says, get a tad bitter at being treated like criminals for the simple act of playing, with an objectionably high skill level, the sole beatable game.  Casino management have no interest in a fair and balanced gaming environment.  Their job is to beat fish out of their money, period.  Predation, he says, is essential to the industry.

Suppose that groceries in the US were supplied in the same way as K-12 education.  Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties.  Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets.  Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address.  And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries “for free” from its neighbourhood public supermarket.  No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside its district.  Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer.  Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.  Public supermarkets would have captive customers and revenues supplied not by customers but by government.  Of course they wouldn’t organise themselves efficiently to meet customers’ demands.  Supermarket-worker-unions would use their significant resources for lobbying in favour of public-supermarkets’ monopoly power and against any suggestion that market forces are appropriate for delivering something as essential as groceries.  Some indignant public-supermarket defenders would even rail against the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as “customers” on the grounds that the relationship between the public servants who supply life-giving groceries and the citizens who need those groceries is not so crass as to be described in terms of commerce.  Recognising that erosion of their monopoly would stop the gravy train paying their members salaries without requiring paying customers to feel satisfaction, unions would ensure that any grass-roots effort to introduce supermarket choice meets with fierce political opposition.

The Best Movie Laboratories?

Mr Hyde Goes Seeking

Mr Hyde Goes Seeking



Dr Frankenstein's Lab

Dr Frankenstein’s Lab

  • Fredric March as Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931) directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
  • Laboratory set for L’Inhumaine (1924) directed by Marcel L’Herbier.  The set designer was Fernand Léger.
  • Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale.  The set was designed by Charles D Hall.

At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert.  Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world.   Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world where 8 humans were locked in with a mass of flora and fauna; a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge.  But from the start it was completely unbalanced.  The CO2 levels soared, so experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef.  Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables so there was less and less food to eat.  The men lost 18% of their body weight.  Then millions of cockroaches took over.  The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface.  And it got worse – oxygen started to disappear and no one knew where it was going.  The “bionauts” began to suffocate.  And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces.  A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded that it was simply a struggle for power.  Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches.  In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred.  The idea of nature underpinning all these visions of self-organisation was a fantasy.  They had thought to order a world without hierarchies, a machine theory leading to a static managerialism.  It did not work.  At the end of Biosphere 2, the ants destroyed the cockroaches, then ate through the silicone seal that enclosed the world.  Through collective action ants worked together and effectively destroyed the system.  They then marched off into the Arizona desert.  The group split into 2 factions who still don’t speak to each other.  Book written by faction 1.  Book written by faction 2.

Biosphere 2 was an ambitious project to create a self-sustaining gigantic sealed structure where people could live indefinitely (in preparation for long space voyages).  It ended up a failure in many ways.  Before it began, many week-long periods of simulated full closure tests were performed; data was gathered on their success.  The crew then calculated their anticipated workload and needs.  Overall these mini-missions were far too short to provide meaningful data as to whether or not the team had achieved a level of success that could sustain Biosphere’s 8 people for 2 years.  The facilities were commanding in size (over 3 acres under glass).  At approximately two and a half football fields, it remains the largest closed system ever created.  There were two experiments planned, appropriately named Mission 1 and Mission 2.  Mission 1 consisted of the 8 people isolated during 1991-93.  There was a 6 month hiatus that researchers used to evaluate conditions, then engineers provided improvements before beginning the second project, which had a crew of 7 people.  The second mission ended due to a management financial dispute on the outside, resulting in the lockout of on-site management and causing the mission to be ended prematurely.  The biospherians did not keep proper records, so that at the end of one of the biggest environmental experiments of all time, there was little to show for the time and money.  Among criticisms were:

  • The lack of a well-developed, written scientific plan.
  • An ad hoc mix of scientific initiatives of varying quality.
  • An overconcern with proprietary information which impeded the flow of scientific information and interaction.
  • Possible embellishments of data.

Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada

Aerial Views Can Be Endlessly Entertaining

Aerial Views Can Be Endlessly Entertaining

Look up Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada on Google maps satellite view.  At mid-zoom, it looks interesting enough, with circular irrigation spots on the left and stripes on the right.  Look at the item 1 circled in red in the photo — a bit up and left of downtown Medicine Hat.  What could that be?  Since the fields are green, it isn’t ice.  It doesn’t seem to be serviced by Google street view.  It seems to be crossed by a road of some sort.  And just above and to the left of that (item 2) is another curiosity which looks rather industrial in a close-up view.  (I suspect it has a direct connection to the other strange thing.)  I found there to be a number of terrain-related oddities in the vicinity: see item 3, the area east of the boundary of Highway 41 (Buffalo Trail) and Highway 41 (Trans Canada Highway).  The earth has veins up close.  And look closely at the intersection of Range Road 42 with the Trans Canada Highway (item 4).  Is the large round circle from irrigation?  Oddly, in a close up view, it is almost black and semi-transparent.  The terrain seems to be rock and zoomed in it looks more like a water-filled deep cenote (a deep round lake).  Yet (disappointingly), Google street view does work here — and it looks to be nothing more than a round grassy meadow.  Google giveth — and Google taketh away.  The difference in the appearance of details between mid level and close up is remarkable — and apparently not always more accurate.

By the 18th century, ageing spirits in barrels for a few years had become standard practice.  Exposure to oak improved the final product — coopers use heat to make casks, breaking down structural lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose into weird, interesting sugars that dissolve into the spirit.  Depending on humidity and temperature (and on whether the wood is American or European oak), tannins, sweet vanillin, smoky phenols, coconutty oak lactones, and dozens of other similar molecules also leach in.  Meanwhile, some of the ethanol oxidizes, eventually yielding ethyl acetate, which imparts a smoother flavour.  After a few years, what comes out of those barrels is awfully compelling.  American whiskey makers were selling aged booze as early as 1793, and brandy from the French region of Cognac typically spent a year or two in a barrel as well.  But that improvement came at a price.  Ageing meant losing some of the product to evaporation, through pores in the wooden casks.  That loss is called, evocatively, the angels’ share — a portion of spirit offered up to heaven in thanks for a miracle.  It’s no small thing: Whiskey makers calculate it at 2% a year by volume, which amounts to 18% over 10 years.  (Of course, that evaporation also concentrates everything left inside, improving flavour.)

Melvin “Mike” Lawless, 59, passed away 2 March 2011, at his home in Two Rivers.  He left behind 8 devastated children who were the light of his life.  Mike was a devoted father who absolutely adored his kids.  He loved all of his children and grandchildren and would have done anything in this world for any of them.  He is survived by his devoted children Ira, Tiffany, Melissa, Jackson, Nathan, Bernadette, Jeanne and Antonia; many precious grandchildren; and his loyal dog, Kobuk, who was with him until the end.  [The unusual thing?  Apparently, he had NINE children — because one of them — whose name is NOT on the list — apparently killed him.  That’s Blair on the right.]

Why Do the Rich and/or Attractive Need Dating Help Anyway?

An unusual dating site is a bit more — urm — forward?  plain-spoken? than most.  For the Generous: Date beautiful people — guaranteed!  For the Attractive: Get paid for dating — guaranteed!  “The typical user is a man who cruises profiles, selects a woman, and bids on a date” and she then “can accept, decline, or make a counteroffer”.  From Conor Friedersdorf: “The irony is that commodifying companionship is arguably more destructive to human dignity and society than is selling sex, even if you’re someone who takes a dim view of traditional prostitution.  Some people seem to be worried that What’s Your Price is a scam to profit off escorts.  (Their tag line is “Everyone has a price.”)  I’m more worried that it isn’t.”  [I have met a few psychologists / psychiatrists / therapists that I feel were doing little more than commodifying companionship.]

We are prejudiced against all kinds of other people, based on superficial physical features: We react negatively to facial disfigurement; we avoid sitting next to people who are obese, old, or in a wheelchair; we favour familiar folks over folks that are foreign.  Anything anomalous about a person’s appearance or behaviour (anything that deviates from our subjective sense of how a “normal” person looks and acts) can automatically trigger aversive emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.  (Disgust is the emotion that signals threat of infection.)  The behavioural immune system consists of a suite of psychological mechanisms that

  1. detect cues connoting the presence of infectious pathogens in the immediate environment,
  2. trigger disease-relevant emotional and cognitive responses, and thus
  3. facilitate behavioural avoidance of pathogen infection.

However, the system responds to an overly general set of superficial cues, which can result in aversive responses to things (including people) that pose no actual threat of pathogen infection.  This has many provocative implications — for the experience of disgust, for extraversion and social interaction, for xenophobia and other prejudices, and for the origins of cultural differences.

Non-sexual touch has a detectable power.  (Generally the touch referred to is a light touch on the upper arm, the safest place to touch someone you don’t know.)  People will give a bigger tip to a waitress who has touched them.  Participants were asked to sign a petition — while 55% of those not touched agreed to sign it, this went up to 81% of those participants touched once on the upper arm.  Those touched twice were even more likely except in Poland, where a man’s touch on another man’s arm seemed often to generate higher levels of homophobia.  Rising homophobia was not a problem in France — random men at a second-hand car market were touched lightly on the arm for 1 second; afterwards those who had been touched rated the seller as more sincere, friendly, honest, agreeable and kind.  People who normally tend to touch others (versus those being touched) are usually those with a higher status.  Participants who received massages twice a week for 5 weeks were not only more relaxed but also did better on a math test.  And finally, using only a touch on the forearm, participants tried to communicate 12 separate emotions to another person.  The receivers, despite not being able to see the toucher, or the touch itself, were pretty accurate for anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy.  Accuracy ranged from 48% to 83%.  Bear in mind: some people don’t like to be touched at all during everyday social interactions.

A Pet Cyclopes Didactylus (Anteater)

I Belatedly Arise and Prepare for Work

Hit the Snooze Button One More Time

I Always Remember to Brush My Teeth

What to Do After Breakfast

Faster, Please — I’m Late!

No Time to Pack a Lunch
At Least I Had a Good Breakfast

Only Time for a Quick Snack

I'll Take a Bow for a Job Well Done

Nice to Be Home after a Hard Day!

I Could Use Another One of These, Please

Relaxing at Last!

(By way of Google Translate): Mary Chilover says that her small anteater is smarter than many people she knows.  Mary’s parents, both biologists, found the baby anteater (native to Central and South America) on a road.  Apparently, its parents had been trampled while trying to cross.  Mary’s parents took the baby home and treated him.  Mary carried the anteater the whole time he was recovering, so, in the end, the parents adopted the anteater and named him Pua.

Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England each have their portraits appear on many postage stamps and coins.  It can be difficult to distinguish between the two men.  Can you pick who’s who from this photo?  The man on the left is the Czar: the uniforms may have fooled you because the royal cousins swapped them for the occasion!  Via Tywkiwdbi.

The iron-cored Earth behaves like a great magnet, generating a huge magnetic field around herself that protects her from blasts and harmful radiation from the sun.  A recently-released NASA visualisation shows this field, called the magnetosphere, as if it were visible — the way it would look from space.  The orange and blue lines depict the opposite north and south polarity of Earth’s field lines.  These can be detected by sensors that count charged protons and electrons moving in space.  The magnetosphere bulges on one side and tapers off on the other due to the direction of the solar wind’s stream of high-speed particles, which flow out from the sun.  The magnetosphere protects Earth from harmful radiation and hot plasma from the sun, deflecting it into space.  The interaction of the sun’s emissions and the Earth’s magnetosphere can disrupt radio transmissions and damage satellites and/or produce beautiful auroras.

Movies That Try to Predict the Future

A Lot of Them Never Made It

Things to Come

Enthusiasm Makes Up for a Lot

What 1930 Thought 1980 NYC Would Be Like

Wishful Thinking

Martian Revolt

  • A 1936 vision of the year 2036 via Things To Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, screenplay by H G Wells (who also wrote the book on which the film was based).  “What will the next hundred years bring to mankind?  The world of tomorrow, an underground city with its glass enclosed, compressed air elevators, overhead streets, overhead tracks for cigar-shaped ‘street cars’, apartments in tiers like the homes of the Pueblo Indians, its people getting the news of the day by television, is vividly portrayed in Things to Come, Wells’ vision of the ‘Next War’ and a rebuilt world.”  — excerpted from original press materials.  The entire film is online at the Internet Archive.
  • The 1930s imagine 1980s New York via the sci-fi musical Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler.  The set cost about $200,000 at the time, took 200 people and 5 months to build and was 225 feet long and 75 feet wide.  Some of the buildings were 250 stories tall.  Traffic flowed on 9 levels via belts powered by pulleys; rockets shot from star to star; VTOLs landed on roofs of buildings; a whole meal came in a capsule that could be swallowed in one gulp.  In 1980, people had serial numbers not names, marriages were arranged by the courts, prohibition was still an issue and men’s clothes had but one pocket (on the hip).  — excerpted from Just Imagine promotional campaign materials, reprinted in Ruth Waterbury’s Photoplay, the aristocrat of motion picture magazines.
  • The Martian royal palace set in Aelita (1924), directed by Yakov Protazanov with art direction from Alexandra Exter.  One of the earliest science fiction films and among the first films to come out of revolutionary Russia.  Intended as an ideologically correct counterweight to Hollywood films, Aelita tells the story of Earthling visitors to Mars who stir up a proletarian rebellion among Martian slaves, overthrow the monarchy, and establish the “Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Saliva contains the genetic secrets of a person’s age, according to researchers.  Analysing a saliva sample can determine an individual’s age to within 5 years.  The US discovery could help crime scene investigations and the development of personalised medicine.  The technique depends on a natural process called methylation which modifies the building-block chemicals which make up DNA.  Methylation patterns shift with age, altering DNA and contributing to age-related diseases.  The scientists identified 88 DNA sites which strongly correlated methylation to age.  These were then narrowed down to just two genes which had the most powerful age-related links to methylation.  The test could be developed into a forensic tool for crime investigators.  By analysing traces of saliva left in a tooth bite or on a coffee cup, experts could get a good idea of a suspect’s age.  In a minority of the population, methylation does not correlate with chronological age.  Using the saliva test to assess the 'bio-age’ of these individuals would help physicians evaluate their risk of age-related diseases.

How big is a million dollars in US currency?  The largest denomination of paper money in the US is the $100 bill.  If you want to get one million dollars cash into a small package, your best bet is to stack 10,000 of the $100 bills and bundle it.  Like most bills, $100s come from the bank wrapped in bundles of 100 bills — conveniently, this is $10,000.  But you’ll need to give the bank advanced warning of your xash needs.  The photo shows what a million looks like laid out on a bed.  It will fit into a paper grocery sack, but only $800,000 will fit into a plastic grocery bag.  It will all fit inside your microwave, but you would be able to see it through the door.  This is just in case you ever need to know.

Speak Any SQL?

Then you’ll probably think this cartoon is hilarious.

From a really in-depth review of the movie Biutiful:  Because the film ultimately is a melodrama, we need to think of Uxbal’s “fatal flaw.”  What is his ultimate bad decision?  What is it that brings him down?  I would say that it is self-delusion, that he attempts to believe that he is doing good in an economic reality when good isn’t necessarily a possibility.  Uxbal is always at the centre of cash exchange.  He takes cash from Chinese sweatshop workers; he takes cash from the grieved loved ones of the recently dead; he takes cash from the mob bosses and the union busters; he takes cash when he sells his father’s grave to mall developers.  His hands are dirty with cash as he exchanges it to make ends meet.  Yet, he tries to hold onto a personal moral code in an economy where morality isn’t really an active player.  He convinces himself he’s an advocate of the workers, but really he is just using them to make money.  In an attempt to assuage his guilt and complicity in their exploitation, he buys heaters to keep the workers warm in the basement where they sleep.  He buys the cheapest heaters money can buy, and the labourers die of asphyxiation overnight.  This is the turning point in the movie, the point when Uxbal is forced to see his role in the corruption.  He no longer can convince himself that he is playing saint.  He is just another person struggling to survive at the expense of others.  But this is not a judgemental moment.  Uxbal is neither guilty nor innocent.  He is just another person living in the slums and making do under the forces of global capitalism.

Rose petal-covered road near Lahore in Pakistan.  The petals have been spread out to dry.  Via Tywkiwdbi.  [I presume this space is private and must be closed to traffic.  Is the photographer standing in the road, or is this the edge?  Is there never any wind?]

Art-Deco Glory

Hispano-Suiza Dubonnet Xenia, one of the finest examples of automotive Art Deco, features an independent suspension designed by driver, pilot and aperitif heir Andre Dubonnet.  Each wheel was mounted on a single arm extending forward from kingpins at the end of the axle, while sealed, oil-lubricated coil springs and shock absorbers ensured a smooth ride.  The “Dubonnet suspension” was licensed to Alfa Romeo and Simca and sold to General Motors, which marketed it as “Knee-Action” suspension.  The sealed coil springs were leak-prone and wildly expensive to repair, however, and the technology never made it into post-war cars.  Suspension aside, the Xenia’s hand-built coachwork by Jacques Saoutchik makes a Talbot Lago look like a Renault Fuego by comparison.  It fits in the Mullin’s “French Curves” collection of pre-war French vehicles.  (Hispano-Suiza, though Spanish in heritage, built many of their cars in France through a French subsidiary.)  Park the Xenia next to any other car of the era and appreciate the difference.

In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls — and this ratio is biologically ironclad.  Between 104 and 106 is the normal range.  Any other number is the result of unnatural events.  Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls.  In China, its 121 — though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark.  China’s and India’s populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107.  But the imbalance is not only in Asia.  Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.  What is causing the skewed ratio: abortion.  If the male number in the sex ratio is above 106, it means some couples abort when they find out the mother is carrying a girl.  There have been so many sex-selective abortions in the past 30 years that 163 million girls are missing from the world.  This is likely to be of very large consequence.  Sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated stratum of society.  Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology, whether MRI scanners, smart phones — or ultrasound machines.  The behaviour of elites filters down until it’s part of the broader culture.  Unexpectedly, the decision to abort baby girls is usually made by women — the mother or, sometimes, the mother-in-law.  There is indeed compelling evidence of a link between sex ratios and violence.  High sex ratios mean a society will have “surplus men” — that is, men with no hope of marrying because there aren’t enough women.  Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio.  If “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it.  Choice is choice.  One Indian abortionist says: “I have patients who come and say 'I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’”  This is where choice leads.  This is where choice has already led.

Coffee: the Greatest Addiction Ever (I prefer tea, but whatever) is a mildly entertaining AND educational clip.  Every day the world consumes 300 tons of caffeine – enough for one cup of coffee for every man, woman and child.  The world’s largest buyer of coffee, the US, has to import nearly all of this as the coffee trees from which caffeine is harvested will only grow at commercial levels between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn in an area called the coffee belt.  Only a single state, Hawaii, is within that belt.

Get Your Wings UP!  Reach for the Sky!

The Eagle Has Landed

Help!  I Can’t Swim!

She's Beautiful!

Maybe I Can Rescue Her from That Glass Prison!

Maybe Duct Tape Would Be Better

I SAID Keep Them Up, Dammit!

African Grey parrots are as smart as 4-yeat-old children.  Note that none of these birds are parrots.

Since (as I write this) about 45 million people have seen this video, there probably aren’t more than two of you left who haven’t.  Called “The Ultimate Dog Tease”, it works so well because the dog looks so worriedly believable.

The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony [pdf file]: Lawyers place great import on testimony by the other side’s witness that favours their own side’s case.  For example, defense attorneys make much of prosecution witnesses’ recollection of exonerating details.  In light of psychological studies demonstrating the effect of bias on memory, the reliance and weight placed on such “admissions” may be appropriate, since witnesses are more apt to tailor their stories — and thus their memories — to the interests of the first listeners.  An eyewitness to a crime is more inclined to recount, and thus remember incriminating details, when speaking to a police officer intent on solving the crime.  If later the eyewitness still remembers details that throw doubt on the culpability of the suspect, such doubts should hold greater weight than the remembrance of incriminating details.  Bias creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness.  While confidence and accuracy are generally correlated, when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information.  This leads many to question the competence of the average person to determine credibility issues.  Juries are the fact-finders, and credibility issues are to be determined by juries.  The issue then arises whether juries are equipped to make these determinations.  Expert testimony may not be helpful.  Indeed, since the very act of forming a memory creates distortion, how can anyone uncover the “truth” behind a person’s statements?  Perhaps it is the terrible truth that in many cases we are simply not capable of determining what happened, yet are duty-bound to so determine.  Via NeuroPsyDoctor8.

Knowing How to Relax

A Tempest in a Teacup

In the Bath

Sunlight Melts Bones

In the Sun

He Died of Happiness

In the Pool

  • During a boat trip across the Gulf of Papagayo, the ship’s parrot decided that he couldn’t stand the heat of the Guanacaste summer.  That’s when he decided in would be a good idea to take a cool bath.
  • They’re all so perfectly centred, I can’t help but think that they haven’t been lying there for long.
  • Sunning on a lily pad?  Too perfect.

I suppose this could be called "Knowing How to Relax" — In the Snow?

I could find no information about this whatsoever.  I find it inventive, though perhaps not perfect.

Roo the Day

Joe Is Now Grown

Guard Duty

Rescue Rangers

Riding Home after a Hard Day at Work?

  1. A kangaroo stands among iron ore boulders in Western Australia.  With a population of 21.8 million people, Australia doesn’t have the workforce to exploit its enormous natural bounty.  [Then why do they make it so difficult to immigrate there?]
  2. These kangaroos were stranded by flood waters at Lake Burrendong, about 149 miles northwest of Sydney, 8 December 2010.  Heavy rain and widespread flooding damaged crops and blocked roads across huge areas of eastern Australia.  The kangaroos were on a submerged island, sitting up with only their heads above water.  After a very long and stressful afternoon all 18 very scared kangaroos were rescued and, although in poor condition, were able to be released and observed nearby.  Rescuers reported that during the rescue they had to contend with a multitude of spiders (many horror stories), frogs, mice and a couple of snakes all in the water with the rescuers and all desperately trying to find refuge.

Dad eventually pulled over at a frozen lake, which represented the sublime beauty of impermanence, but he was pretty annoyed about it.

Envy.  [From the Comments: “Pretty sure the old guy and young girl can both have what they want.”  My thought?  If the older lady’s diamonds are valuable enough, maybe 3 people could be happy.]

Special Delivery

These are the new envelopes my son designed for our animation company, Thaumaturgy Studios.
Go there.  Send me a message that you’d like a brochure and maybe I’ll mail you a letter in one.

Visit us online soon.  If you haven’t taken the directed theatre tour, you should.

Orson Welles as Citizen Kane

He knows a good thing when he sees it.