I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!

—  Tom Lehrer

Don't Trust the Horse

May 15, 2011


In the year before it was launched, international oil companies appeared to show disinterest in the outcome of the invasion of Iraq.  Iraqis asked ironically if the rest of the world would have cared about the fate of their country if its main export had been cabbages.  It also doesn’t seem likely that the US and Britain invaded Iraq just for oil.  Reasserting US self-confidence as a super-power after 9/11 was surely a greater motive.  (I think they skipped along hand-in-hand.)  The UK went along with this in order to remain America’s chief ally.  Both President Bush and Tony Blair thought the war would be easy.  Would they have gone to war if Iraq had been producing cabbages?  Probably not.  That the war in Iraq was motivated by oil has been supported by those against the invasion, and denied by protagonists (though sketchy retrospective justifications are rather strained).  What is undoubtedly true is the profound benefit to the world’s biggest oil companies.  The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry.  They covered half Iraq’s reserves – 60 billion barrels — bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403 million ($658 million US dollars at the time) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.  Last week, Now, Iraq has raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day.  This is seen as especially important given regional volatility and now the loss of Libya’s output.  From the comments: “Two oil executives are elected President and Vice-President in an era of restricted oil supplies to an extremely oil-dependent economy and within a couple of years they’re invading the country which just happens to contain the earth’s largest untapped reservoirs of oil.  Hard to see how it could be anymore straightforward.”

The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus told his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, "Live in harmony.  Enrich the troops.  Ignore everyone else."  Caracalla didn’t follow the first part of that advice; in fact, one of his first acts was to murder his brother.  As for enriching the troops, this he took so seriously to heart that his mother remonstrated with him, urging him to be moderate and restrain his increasing military expenditures (which were resulting in burdensome new taxes).  The Emperor responded by saying there was no longer any revenue, just or unjust, to be found.  But not to worry, “for as long as we have this,” he insisted, pointing to his sword, “we shall not run short of money.”  He raised the pay of the soldiers by 50%, and to achieve this he doubled the inheritance taxes paid by Roman citizens.  When this was not sufficient to meet his needs, he admitted almost every inhabitant of the empire to Roman citizenship.  What had formerly been a privilege now became simply a means of expanding the tax base.  He then went further by proceeding to debase the coinage.  The basic coinage of the Roman Empire to this time — we’re speaking now about 211 AD — was the silver denarius introduced by Augustus at about 95% silver at the end of the 1st century BC.  The denarius continued for the better part of two centuries as the basic medium of exchange in the empire.  By the time of Trajan in 117 AD, the denarius was only about 85% silver, down from Augustus’s 95%.  By the age of Marcus Aurelius, in 180, it was down to 75%.  In Septimius’s time it had dropped to 60% and Caracalla evened it off at 50/50.  Caracalla was assassinated in 217.  (Excellent article there.)

Tax Breaks — Who Benefits?

If there is one big-ticket budget item on which Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground, it’s tax breaks.  Each of the various bipartisan deficit panels has called for a big reduction, saying such breaks — exemptions, deductions, credits and other loopholes — are inefficient and unaffordable.  All told, they cost the federal government about $1.2 trillion in lost revenue last year.  As it happens, the budget deficit was $1.3 trillion.

  • Exclusion for Employer-Provided Health Insurance: This tax break, the largest by far, cost the government $264 billion last year.  Obviously it helps many families, but it also has two big flaws.  First, it gives employers an incentive to pay more in health benefits (which are tax-free) and less in salary (which isn’t), thus artificially increasing medical spending.  Second, the exclusion doesn’t apply to all those households not lucky enough to have a job that comes with health insurance.  There’s no good economic rationale for the distinction.  What It Costs: Slightly more than the combined budgets of the Departments of Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Veterans Affairs.  The graph takes into account lost revenues from income tax only, not payroll tax.
  • Mortgage-Interest Deduction: This deduction, which allows homeowners to pay their mortgage interest with pretax income, may be the most popular tax break.  It may also be among the most unfair and least effective.  Canada, which doesn’t have such a deduction, has roughly the same ownership rate as the United States.  As the Tax Policy Center notes, the deduction’s biggest beneficiaries are affluent, and they generally would have owned homes anyway.  Some own two homes, claiming the deduction on both.  By contrast, many less-affluent families don’t even claim this tax break, because they save more with the standard income-tax deduxtion.  For a typical middle-income household, the mortgage deduction saved a meagre $215 last year, making it much less of a middle-class benefit than many imagine.  What It Costs: A little more than the entire military research and development budget.
  • Exclusion for 401(k) Contributions: The 401(k) exclusion does have some social benefits, because it encourages saving.  But it also has big downsides.  Tax breaks for stock holdings — not just for 401(k) plans but for dividends and capital gains, too — add to the problem.  Despite having one of the biggest corporate tax rates in the world, the US doesn’t collect all that much from the corporate sector thanks to myriad loopholes for companies and investors.  It’s the worst of both worlds: a more complicated tax code and a larger budget deficit.  What It Costs: About the same as the Medicare prescription-drug programme.

Bolivia is tabling a draft United Nations treaty giving “Mother Earth” the same rights as humans — having just passed a domestic law (Law of the Rights of Mother Earth) that does the same for bugs, trees and all other natural things.  (You can no longer kill a roach without a trial?)  The bid aims to have the UN recognise Earth as a living entity that humans have sought to “dominate and exploit” until the “well-being and existence of many beings” is now threatened.  Their domestic law speaks of the country’s natural resources as “blessings,” and grants Earth a series of specific rights that include life, water and clean air; the right to repair livelihoods affected by human activities; and the right to be free from pollution.  [A right you can’t enforce is not a right.]  It also establishes a Ministry of Mother Earth, and provides the planet with an ombudsman whose job is to hear Nature’s complaints as voiced by activist and other groups, including the state.  The application of the law appears destined to pose new challenges for companies operating in the natural-resource-rich country, which remains one of the poorest in Latin America.  Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, is Latin America’s first indigenous president.  Countries supportive of the treaty include Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda.

A thermal imaging project in the city of Boston has been put on hold because of privacy concerns.  Boston officials had hoped to have aerial and street-level photos taken across about 4 square miles of the city this winter using infrared cameras that would show heat loss in city homes.  Officials planned on sharing the photos and analysis with homeowners, and hoped the findings would increase enrollment in efficiency programmes (incidentally creating jobs in the insulation industry).  But the project hit a snag when the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts raised concerns that the infrared cameras reveal too much information about goes on inside the homes.  I thought they were just afraid it would show who was growing marijuana indoors, but after seeing one of the images, I can see a bit more what they mean.  In general, It’s fine.  But can someone use an image in court to prove a crime?  (Or an indiscretion?)

Agricultural Patterns Photographed from Space

Aragon and Catalonia, NE Spain

Aragon and Catalonia in northeastern Spain

Finney County, SW Kansas

Finney County, southwestern Kansas

Imperial Valley, near Salton Sea, California

Near Salton Sea in Southern California
Near Perdizes, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Perdizes, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Gezira Irrigation Fields, Al Jazirah, Sudan

Gezira, Al Jazirah, Sudan

Agricultural Fields along the Nile

The River Nile in Luxor, Egypt

Aren’t satellite views wonderful?

From National Geographic Visions of Earth: Parched people mob a vast well in the village of Natwargadh, Gujarat, India.  In this drought-prone western state, yearly monsoon rains can total less than 8 inches, and summer temperatures can top 115°F (46.1°C).  Photo by Amit Dave, Reuters, April 2010.

Steve Saint just got the first certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration for a flying car.  Saint, a Christian missionary, runs i-Tec, a firm that stands for “Indigenous people’s Technology and Education Center”, whose name suggest nothing but technology.  The I-Tec “Maverick” is a road-ready dune buggy outfitted with a Subaru engine.  Saint takes his “Saving the Third World” mission seriously.  He founded the company in an effort to solve problems of isolated tribes in Central and South America.  The Maverick is the result of 6 years’ work.  From zero to 60 miles per hour in under 4 seconds, its 170-horsepower 2.4-litre Subaru 3-cylinder engine takes the canvas-enclosed frame into the skies, where a 22-foot mast-and-cloth wing are deployed.  It needs 100 yards for takeoff.  Saint claims it will help missionary pilots and tribes become self-sufficient.  How that pans out exactly, with a low-weight/low-personnel carrying capacity remains to be seen.  It is still the first airworthy car.  The FAA classifies it as a “powered parachute”, not a “roadworthy plane” (as previous attempts had been categorised).  It will cost about US$84,000.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Turkey’s entry into the World War I in 1914 prompted Britain to open a new military front in the remote Ottoman province of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq).  British and Indian troops, sent to the Persian Gulf to protect British oil interests made rapid progress inland against weak Turkish resistance.  In less than a month, they had occupied the towns of Basra and Kurna.  Despite the unforgiving climate, British forces continued to march steadily up the River Tigris in 1915.  In less than a year, under the leadership of General Charles Townshend, they were a mere 120 miles south of Mesopotamia’s major city, Baghdad.  The tide turned quickly, however, at the Battle of Ctesiphon, in which Turkish troops withstood heavy casualties to defeat Townshend’s attacking forces.  The war continued into 1916 and despite a few more heavy defeats, Ctesiphon was finally taken.  In March 1917, British troops entered Baghdad.  The path was cleared for an advance into northern Mesopotamia, toward the heart of the Ottoman empire.  The war with Turkey finally ended October 1918.  Henry Matthew Brock (1875-1960) made a cartoon of 1915 highlighting the fact that, to most people in Britain at the time, the war in Mesopotamia was a distant and largely unknown campaign.

Japanese people may well be more honest than most.  But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most.  In a 2003 study on Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it.  For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20% of its value if the owner picks it up.  If it is not picked up within 6 months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella.  Japanese learn about this system from a young age and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously.  At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order (along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s).  Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst.  An old Japanese saying explains this reciprocal mindset: “Your kindness will be rewarded in the end.  Charity is a good investment.”  But there’s a flipside, too: “Unkindness will be punished.”

Roger Babson waged a war against…..gravity.  (And guess who won!)  Roger Babson was a quintessential rich and powerful American businessman, born in Massachusetts in 1875.  Soon after earning an engineering degree from MIT, he founded a financial analysis firm, which made him a millionaire within its first decade.  During the depression, he created a public works project in the spirit of the New Deal, in which he hired stone cutters to engrave inspiring messages into boulders in a park in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Stones advocating traits such as “KINDNESS” and instructing viewers to “HELP MOTHER” can still be seen there today.  In addition, he oddly felt that “old man Gravity” was not only directly responsible for millions of deaths each year, but also for millions of accidents — broken hips and other broken bones and numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles — as these were directly due to being unable to counteract Gravity at some critical moment.  He had 3 investigators in the US Patent Office at all times scanning through incoming patent proposals for any machine, alloy, chemical or formula relating to harnessing gravity.  He established the Gravity Research Foundation as a clearinghouse to collect and disseminate gravity-related information and to fund promising research projects.  In short, he wanted to expedite the discovery of a gravity shield.  He gave grants (sometimes in the form of DuPont stock) to universities to use for anti-gravity research (some of whom had trouble figuring out how to spend it).  At his death in 1967, no gravity insulator had been found.  Today, his money funds an annual essay contest — about gravity, of course.

Dry Dock

Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona

Very High Highrise

164-story Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Gas Line

Spiral Bridge, Chongqing, China

  1. Seen from a satellite, the 2,600-acre “boneyard” — a 64-year-old depot at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona — looks like a parchment lined with toy planes.  The site stores some 4,000 aircraft.  Are any ever removed from storage and used again?  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/xplanes/boneyard.html In fiscal year 2002, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) regenerated 18 F-16A Fighting Falcons for return to active service.  Many aircraft stored at Davis-Monthan are given entirely new, non-military assignments, such as dropping water on forest fires in the American West, aiding drug interdiction in South America, or hunting big-game poachers in Africa.  AMARC’s return on investment is impressive — in 2002, the facility gave 99 aircraft valued at $520 million a new life.  It reclaimed $732.5 million in spare parts, placing them back into active inventory.  Thus, on an annual budget of $47 million, AMARC returned a total of $1.25 billion in equipment to the Department of Defense.  All told, AMARC today hosts more than 4,300 aircraft, roughly 1/4 of which are in flyable storage, meaning they can be readied for takeoff in short order.  I could find no later statistics.  Satellite image by Geoeye, September 2010.
  2. From the top of the world’s tallest building — the 164-story, 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa — the economic history of Dubai (United Arab Emirates) is laid out.  Dense development reflects the recent boom; open spaces are remnants of an earlier era.  Taken in August 2010.  Photographer Samar Jodha.
  3. Vehicles form a line for natural gas on a spiral bridge in Chongqing, China.  Supplies of the fuel were diverted to snowed-in northern China November, 2009, sparking a shortage in the central and eastern provinces.

Scientists have discovered "cross talk" from the stomach to the brain which could influence how it develops .  This “chatter” can influence personality, learning capacity, and memory.  Research carried out by a team at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada used mice with no germs in their gut to identify that stomach bacteria influences how the brain is wired in two key areas.  The germ-free creatures’ genes in the hippocampus — the area linked to learning and memory — didn’t develop in the same way as those with germs.  The take-home message is that gut bacteria influences anxiety-like behaviour through alterations in the way the brain is wired.  The state of the immune system and of gut bacteria — who are in constant communication — influences personality.  So — does this mean taking antibiotics — which changes gut bacteria (often by a considerable amount), might change your learning capacity, memory and even personality?  For worse or better?  Has the overuse of antibiotics in our food — especially in meat and milk — changed enough personalities to affect whole countries?  Made them more aggressive, more willing to fight over scarce resources while saying they’re really doing something else?  Probably not that, but there may have been some effect worth noting.

Eco-conscious travellers buy off their global warming guilt with carbon offsets that promote wind farms and reforestation.  Meanwhile, aviation engineers are taking a different route, designing a more environmentally sustainable airplane that may overturn long-held notions of flight engineering.  The saucer-shaped airplane of the future releases 50% less carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than current airliners and would reduce pollutants and noise.  Aviation accounts now for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.  However, the industry is growing worrying fast.  By 2050, air travel could be 5% or more of total emissions.  Estimates vary, but flying in a plane is thought by some to release the equivalent of about 1 pound of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile (about the same as driving a car the same distance).  One idea is to return to propellers as they’re more fuel efficient than jets even when a jet (gas turbine) engine turns the propeller blades.  The big drawback is that propeller-driven planes are typically slower.  Still, some new propeller designs have thin, specially-curved blades that can achieve current airliner speeds (Mach 0.8 — roughly 530 miles per hour).  Unfortunately, the blades must turn so quickly that their tips create extremely loud shock waves.

Beasts of Burden

Consider that the average university student debt amounts to nearly $25,000.  That, along with other subsidies, scholarships and personal savings that some students depend upon for no less than 4 years to complete their studies are most definitely more than sufficient funds to have unstead bought a running, profitable business – a business that could eventually pay for an academic certification in cash, if desired.  Instead the money has gone for university.  Was it the right investment?

I and my younger son both graduated from a private university in New Jersey in 2007.  My older son graduated the same year from a public university.  Long ago, I had studied at both a private university and a public university in Texas.  The difference between the universities of today and the universities I recalled from years ago seemed striking (shocking, even).  Of course, my attitude toward the importance of learning is different now.  One thing I noticed was how many more students had English as a second language in NJ than was the case in Texas years ago.  The papers written by these students, while generally containing good or even very good ideas, often seem to have been written by a high school sophomre.  Yet it is admirable that someone has acquired enough facility to attend (and understand) classes taught in a language not their own.  Surely they shouldn’t be held to the same exacting grammatical standards as the other students?  But graders won’t know which students need concessions.  Either these students are penalised or else grammatical standards are lowered for everyone (the latter is what generally happened).  One thing that struck all of us forcefully: instructor evaluations should be ended or else the results should be used very differently.  They are NO indication of teaching quality but rather are a measure of the grade the student is given.  They are an enemy of intellectual rigour.

“Full-time university students in the 1960s studied 24 hours per week, on average, whereas their counterparts today study 14 hours per week.  The 10-hour decline is visible for students from all demographic groups and of all cognitive abilities, in every major and at every type of university.  It is visible for students who work for pay while in university, as well as for those who don’t.  Of course, new technologies could have made students more effective at studying than they used to be.  But most of the decline in study times predates these technologies.  Given that there’s no evidence of rising preparedness of university students, the conclusion is hard to avoid: things have been made much easier.  Most educators believe any skills truly worth acquiring involve hard work.  Put simply, thinking requires effort.”  (From the comments: “It’s not that students are studying less today, but that we’re admitting more students than in the 60s, some of whom study less than students did in then.”  “Anyone who teaches at We Aim to Please U is there to please the customers.  Anyone who does not please the customers is excoriated for being a 'bad teacher’ and then let go.  And tenure track positions are becoming scarcer and scarcer.  If you get one, you do whatever it takes to keep it — including pandering.”)  In the US, if male students failed in the 60s, they were afraid of being drafted and sent to Viet Nam.  That was a strong motivation to study for at least some of them.

Does University Make you Smarter?  (Define Smarter)

“I once thought my task was to increase the critical ability and intellectual imagination of my undergraduates.  I piled on books and papers in small classes; my students handed in their work; I graded it.  Two decades ago, I discovered that I had erred: My job is to stoke the coal that propels my state’s train.  The 325 students who now populate my classroom have told me essentially the same thing.  'Why are you here?’ I ask them.  'To get a better job,’ they tell me.  It’s a reasonable answer.  Once the most respected professors on campus were the best teachers; now they’re the most productive researchers and high-flying grant-getters.  Some universities use teaching as punishment and assign extra courses to faculty who don’t publish enough.”  (From the Comments: “In the 1940’s, only 5% of the American population had a bachelor’s degree.  Today, nearly 25% do.  I don’t think one can expect BAs to become as common as they are without some sort of decrease in value.”  “Universities sell employability credentials.  They’re a way of rationing scarce high-status high-pay jobs.  You can train more people, but you can’t make more status for them to get — and get paid for having — when they graduate.  As more people crowd in, they’re crowded out by raising the price of the credentials that get the status.”)

If you want to get laid, go to college.  If you want to learn something, go to the library. — Frank Zappa

(Today, would he have said, “...go online”?)

"Many schools try to increase income by admitting more students.  When there’s pressure to teach large classes to help the bottom line, the wisest policy is to assign little reading or writing and grade easily.  Teaching well takes lots of time and helping student to learn to read critically and write well cannot be done in lecture halls with hundreds of students.”  (From the comments: “Where’s the debate?  In my quick read, it seems there’s broad consensus — 'No, university does not make you smarter.’  The focus is on jobs, on having fun, on continuing to publish/pursue interests (the profs), and on bringing in more money to the institution.  Doesn’t university make anyone smarter, in any way whatsoever?  Looks quite dispiriting to me.”  “I’d like to know what percentage of the 'full time’ students are just that, ONLY students.  How many of them are holding down work/study jobs because grants are less available? Hours they could be studying are spent working in the dining hall.  How many are commuting to save on room and board?  There’s another hour a day or more they may have used to study in the past.  How many have a 20+ hour a week job, on top of full-time school?  Rising tuition requires money, paradoxically forcing students to work earlier in order to receive the education they need in order to get a better job.  A person can only do so much at once.  The traditional student that lives on campus and doesn’t have a car or a job as well…exactly what percentage of the higher education population is that now?  I’ll bet it’s a lot smaller than it was even 20 years ago.”)

“What passes for 'higher education’ is often just a costly experience that adds nothing to the individual’s knowledge and skills.  Large numbers of young people who have university degrees wind up doing jobs that high school students could easily learn.  Because we have a glut of graduates in the labour force, many employers now demand that applicants have degrees even for mundane jobs.  It has been accurately said that university is the new high school; the way we’re going, soon it’ll be the new middle school.  (From the comments: “Institutions of higher learning should be required to publish the employment data of all their graduates.  Once this happens, maybe, just maybe, it will no longer be common knowledge that going to university is always the best choice.”  “In the book Real Education by Charles Murray, it is estimated that an IQ of 115 is needed to study material that is truly at the university level.  Only about 1/6 of the population has an IQ > 114, but politicians, parents, and youths think almost everyone should go to university.  Universities are happy to take their tuition dollars.  To avoid flunking students of mediocre intellect and motivation, universities must water down their courses.”  “Course curricula in universities and high schools are not controlled by professors or teachers, not even by the bodies of knowledge embodied in the disciplines.  While the disciplines and educators might provide the framework for a given curriculum, the actual content and reading material covered in classrooms are determined by textbook publishers.  A thorough analysis of textbooks will reveal a common thread among all of them: highly programmed exercises, short and non-complicated syntax and narrative structures, controlled vocabulary as it relates to very specific concepts and skills.”  “The government should offer free tuition to the very best students.  That is one way to get students to compete.”)

Misrepresenting Your Credentials Is Risky

“Today’s students live in a world of hyper-connectivity and information exchange.  They receive their information in 5-minute episodes and it comes in many modalities — sound, text, video.  The typical university classroom is a stand-and-deliver environment that does not foster engagement, interaction, or exchange.  We might wish today’s student could tolerate our dated approach to instruction — but even if they could, the lives many lead do not conform to our conception of the traditional student.  Setting aside the most selective universities, many fewer students are full-time.  Many more are financially independent, work while attending school and have competing responsibilities at home.  This is just to suggest that we work increasingly with students who face competing demands for their time and attention.”  (From the comments: “Universities, and all learning, is organised based on centuries of information scarcity.  We are now in a new era of information abundance.  Information is everywhere, available all of the time, yet we still run college as if the talking head faculty member is the priest at the front of the church speaking to the uninformed who cannot access information any other way.”  “From time to time, we read of someone who has served well for decades, often in the public or non-profit sector, getting 'outted’ for having misrepresented their academic record on their job application.  That person is summarily booted out on his/her tush.  20 years of good service don’t mean a thing.  So, boys and girls, go to university, spend kilobucks, just so the Human Resources department won’t spit on you later. ")

How Students Use Technology to Cheat: #2 Calculator notes — In some classrooms, teachers manually check students’ calculators to make sure their notes are wiped clean before a test, though this is more common in high schools than universities.  A few university professors say they allow their students to bring notes of any kind to a test, whether electronic or hand-written, saying the real trick is writing the test questions in such a way that it doesn’t matter what resources the students have — they should be asked to demonstrate their thinking skills rather than to produce a single answer.  But the tests would be much more difficult to grade.

Athiests Best Informed about Religion: In one widely-seen video clip, comedian Stephen Colbert interviewed Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who co-sponsored a bill to require display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Colbert asked Westmoreland to name the Ten Commandments.  The Congressman, who wanted to make sure that everyone sees and remembers most famous “top ten” list in the world, struggled to name them: “Um…  Don’t murder… don’t lie…don’t steal…”  After some awkward silence, having named fewer than 1/3 of God’s commandments, Westmoreland gave up: “Um… I can’t name them all.”  Westmoreland is not alone.  According to a March 2007, USA Today survey, 60% of Americans can’t name the Ten Commandments.  Another measure of American misunderstanding of religion is how often one hears the phrase, “We should all just get along, all religions basically say the same thing.”  Actually, they don’t: the world’s major religions hold very different — and often fundamentally incompatible — beliefs.  Anyone who thinks that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism reflect essentially identical teachings is demonstrating a profound ignorance of those faiths.  The researchers polled nearly 3,500 Americans and asked them 32 basic questions about world religions, their texts, main figures, and tenets.  Most respondents got about 1/2 the questions wrong.  You can take the quiz yourself here.  (In case you wonder, I got all the questions right, and yes, I am an atheist.)

Soaring University Tuition

College tuition continues to outpace median family income and also the cost of medical care, food and housing.  Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.  Last year, the net cost at a 4-year public university amounted to 28% of the median family income, while a 4-year private university was 76%.  Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20% — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55% of median income, up from 39% in 1999-2000.  At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49% of the poorest families’ median income — that’s for only one year.

Americans now owe more than $904 billion on student loans, which is a new all-time record high.  Who will repay for those students that can’t?

According to Harper’s (via Paul Kedrosky’s Infectious Greed), some call this the hardest exam ever, with fascinating questions.  Is he kidding?  Some of the questions could have interesting answers, I suppose (but probably won’t), but the questions themselves are NOT electric by any means.  (In fact, I’d have dubbed this one of the lamest exams ever.)  There are no “right” answers and most answers will be bo-r-r-r-ing.  The only questions I’d even bother with are:

Should we worry about the fate of the British red squirrel?  (Which one?)
What has happened to epic poetry?  (New forms of entertainment.)
What can we learn from Las Vegas?  (I’d probably have asked, “What can we learn from Bugsy Siegel?”)
Is it worse to be cruel to a fox than to a leaf?  (Not than to a tree but to a leaf?  Bit odd, that.)
Does business entertaining differ from bribery?  (Yes.  For the most part, it’s both legal and tax deductible.)
And from the comments: Do epistemological questions have a correct answer?
Revolutions occur where oranges grow.  Discuss.

The test is given over 2 days to recent graduates of Oxford, with winners receiving an Examination Fellowship of 7 years.  Applicants take 4 exams of 3 hours each and in the 2 general-subject tests must answer 3 questions (like these?!) from a list.  No more than 3 fellowships are awarded in any year, and in some years none are given.  Last September, approximately 100 took the exam; 3 fellowships were awarded.  (Knowing how their answers compared to the other 97 would be instructive.)

Years ago, I had a co-worker who was a paraplegic due to an auto accident that occurred the night of her high school senior prom.  When I met her, 20 years later, she worked as a programmer from an ungainly motorised wheelchair.  She had a special van that she could drive using only her hands.  Her parents had a masseuse come in virtually every day to massage the muscles in her legs just in case some day a way could be found to have her damaged spinal cord nerves bypassed.  It’s too bad for her that ReWalk hadn’t been invented yet.  ReWalk allows paraplegics to stand, walk, and even to climb stairs.  The user wears an exoskeleton powered by computerised motors.  A consumer version should be available sometime in 2011 — though it will cost £50,000 or more.  It is currently being marketed toward the military for injured soldiers.  A wrist watch allows the user to select what they wish to do — stand, sit, walk or ascend.  Body movement (leaning slightly forward or back) controls the action’s start and stop.  Users seem quite pleased thus far.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

This apartment building is right around the corner from my house — it partially blocks my view from our rear balcony.  I would have thought I’d notice huge flowers in the sky — but perhaps I was taking a nap that day.  Behind those apartments are taller, newer, apartment towers.  I suppose no one wanted to provide rivals with free advertising — but couldn’t they have put something more logical in the sky?  (Like seagulls, or storm clouds, or Lucy with diamonds…)

“In Japan, there’s this giant push for robots for the elderly.  They argue there aren’t enough people to take care of the elderly.  There’s a second vulnerability at work, as well: the guy who visits his mother and says, 'If I leave her staring at a wall when I leave the nursing home, I feel terrible; if I leave her staring at the television, I feel not so terrible; if I leave her playing with a robot, I feel okay.’  It makes us feel better as children to see the interaction.  But not all interaction is equal.  To me, having an elderly woman talk about the death of a child, the loss of a spouse, fear about the end of life, to something that doesn’t understand what life is, what a child is, what death is, what it means to face the end of life — this is not an appropriate companion.  What are the greatest dangers of always being 'on’ or connected?  It’s the psychology of needing constant validation for every thought.  It’s the psychology of the transition from 'I have a feeling; I want to make a call,’ which is healthy, to 'I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text’ — where the sending of a text becomes part of the constitution of the emotion.  So that’s the first thing.  My second greatest concern is using other people as validation.  If you always look around for someone to support and validate you, that very quickly gets into you not really apprehending them as a whole person.  You start only looking for what you need.  The third concern is, if you never teach your children to be alone, they can only be lonely.  This is one of the biggest dangers in the generation that’s growing up: an incapacity for the solitude that refreshes and restores.  But we’re not going back.  I’m not a Luddite nor do I believe that this is just an addiction.  This is the technology of our lives — we’re not going to give it up.” — Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

If you (or your wife/partner) are considering breastfeeding your new baby, be warned: people get the wrong idea.  A recent study from Oxford University suggests that breastfed babies do better in school and are healthier.  Yet only 1/3 of mothers are still exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months (despite best-practice recommendations).  One reason could be that people apparently view women who breastfeed as less competent than "otherwise identical women."  In one study, participants were given two descriptions of actress Brooke Shields — one included “bottle-feeding” and the other “breastfeeding.”  Those who read she was breastfeeding found her “significantly more warm and friendly compared to the bottle-feeding mother, but significantly less competent in general, and less competent in math specifically.”  Breastfeeding is a handicap for women who hope to be hired for a job.  (Oddly, the culprit seems to be the mental image of her breasts, no matter whether they’re being used as instruments of sexual allure or infant nutrition.)  And it isn’t just men — men and women both seem to hold a prejudice against breastfeeding mothers.  The rate of American women breastfeeding is “stagnant and low.”  Gee.  Hardly surprising, is it?  But what is cause and what is effect?  And what can be done to fix it?

Re-Thinking Adobe Homes

The Eco-Dome is a small home design of approximately 400 square feet (40 square metres) interior space.  It consists of a large central dome, surrounded by 4 smaller niches and a wind-scoop in a clover leaf pattern.  The finished “very small house” is self-contained and can become a small guest house, a studio apartment, or be the first step in a clustered design (as the Eco-domes can be connected if desired), or can be used for the community in an Eco-Village of vaults and domes.  The domes are built from local earth stuffed into superadobe coils which are stabilised with cement or lime.  To built one takes a team of 3-5 people.

Balancing act: Ukraine’s duo of acrobats, called Artvan, perform at the same time as Italian artist Elvis Errani and his elephants during a rehearsal at the Massy circus.  (The photo at right is from Errani and his elephants’ performance at the Circus Scandinavia.)

Bathroom "Library" tiles.  I like this better than the bland tiles one usually sees in a bathroom — though I’ve never seen anything remotely like this for sale anywhere.  Hand-cut tiles and broken ceramics.  Via Tywkiwdbi.

“Pencil Versus Camera” by Belgian Artist Ben Heine

Lonely Panda

Lonely Panda

Artist Ben Heine

Artist Ben Heine



Heine appears to match pencil sketches with real life settings to create fanciful scenes.  (While these are clever, I at first presumed they must be turned into photographs to be viewed from the only real spot which would make them “work”.  But no — I see where hand and all is a painting.  I would have gone for the photograph technique, myself.)

Long exposure photography: Light drawing during insomnia by Lucas Janin, Eagle Rock, Los Amgeles.  I’ll admit this didn’t do much for me, but of all the long-exposure photos we looked at, my son Wolf liked this the best.

The Troll Under the Bridge is a piece of public art in the Fremont neighbourhood of Seattle, Washington in the United States located under the north end of the Aurora Bridge.  It is clutching an actual Volkswagen Beetle, as if it had just swiped it from the roadway above.  The vehicle has a California license plate.  The Troll is 18 feet (5.5 metres) high, weighs seven tons (6,349 kilograms), and is made of steel rebar, wire, and concrete.

Lemur Love

Ring-tailed lemurs Louis, Hedley and Dorothy

Ring-Tailed Lemurs

Sun Worshippers

Ring-Tailed Lemurs Basking in the Sun at Dawn

Enjoying a Bit of Warmth in Winter

Turning Up the Heat
Staying in Shape

Yoga for Lemurs

Keep on Dancing

Leaping Lemur

Family Night for Yoga Beginners

Lazy Lemurs

Lemurs are primates endemic to Madagascar.  (Madagascar is so important for primates that primatologists divide the world into 4 major regions: the whole of South and Central America, all of southern and southeast Asia, mainland Africa, and Madagascar, which ranks as a full-fledged region all by itself.)  Lemurs are named after the lemures (ghosts or spirits of the night) of Roman mythology because they have ghostly vocalisations, reflective eyes, and many species are nocturnal.  Although lemurs often are confused with ancestral primates, the anthropoid primates (monkeys, apes, and humans) didn’t evolve from them — lemurs merely share many morphological and behavioural traits.  Madagascar has a harsh, seasonal climate and lemurs evolved to cope — adapting so well that they’ve achieved a level of diversity rivaling all other primate groups.  Until shortly after humans arrived on the island (2,000 years ago), there were lemurs as large as a male gorilla.  Today, there are nearly 100 species but they’re much smaller — up to 9 kilograms (20 pounds).  They have nails rather than claws (although most possess a single elongated nail, called a toilet-claw, on the second toe which they use for scratching and grooming), divergent (pseudo-opposing) digits on hands and a widely-spaced big toe on their feet.  They have wet noses (as smells are very important to them) and they’re social and vocal and partly colour-blind.  Since they can safely eat poison ivy, I propose they be introduced into the American south.  In captivity, lemurs can live twice as long as they do in the wild, benefiting from consistent nutrition that meets their dietary requirements, medical advancements, and improved understanding of their housing requirements.  In 1960, it was thought that lemurs could live between 23 and 25 years.  It is now known that the larger species can live more than 30 years with no sign of aging (senescence) and are still capable of reproduction.

That’s lemmings, you idiot!

Though called a “flying lemur”, this animal is actually a colugo, an arboreal gliding mammal found in Southeast Asia.  To me, he looks like a cross between a flying squirrel and a bat.

Something Completely Different (or maybe not):

  • The Python theme music was from an American military march, “THe Liberty Bell”, written in 1893 by John Philip Sousa and chosen because there were no royalties to pay as it was in the public domain.
  • Chapman, Cleese and Idle were members of the Cambridge University Footlights, which at the time included future Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden as well as Yes, Minister author Jonathan Lynn.
  • The show’a title was chosen mainly because it sounded funny.  Others considered included Arthur Megapode’s Cheap Show, Gwen Dibley’s Flying Curcus, and Vaseline Review.
  • The Pythons wrote sketches in small teams but the decision about what was used was democratic.  If a majority found an idea funny, it was included.
  • The term spam for unsolicited email comes from the 1970 Monty Python sketch set in a cafe where nearly every item on the menu includes the canned luncheon meat.
  • Elvis Presley was a huge Monty Python fan.  His favourite film was Monty Python and the Holy Grail — a copy was in his video machine when he died.
  • The show’s catchphrase, “And now for something completely different,” came from a real phrase used by the BBC in radio and tv broadcasts.

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Terence Eating Popcorn

Terence Eating Popcorn

Bojangles Bar Sign

Bojangles Bar Sign

I went fishing this morning, but after a short time I ran out of worms.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cottonmouth with a frog in his mouth.  “Frogs are good bass bait,” I thought to myself.  Knowing the snake couldn’t bite me with the frog in his mouth, I grabbed him right behind the head, took the frog, and put it in my bait bucket.  Then, I realised I had a problem — how was I going to release the snake without getting bitten?  So, I grabbed my bottle of Jack Daniels and poured a little whiskey in his mouth.  The snake’s eyes rolled back and he went limp.  I released him into the lake without incident and carried on fishing using the frog.

A little later, I felt a nudge at my foot.  It was that same snake with two more frogs!