Finessing the Inevitable


News and Site Updates Archive 2008/11/15

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.

- Albert Einstein

15 Nov '08 - NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is back in business.  Just a couple of days after the orbiting observatory was brought back online, Hubble aimed its prime working camera at a particularly intriguing target, a pair of gravitationally interacting galaxies called Arp 147.  The left-most galaxy (in the centre of the image) is relatively undisturbed apart from a smooth ring of starlight.  It appears nearly on edge to Earth's line of sight.  The right-most galaxy exhibits a clumpy, blue ring of intense star formation, most probably formed after the galaxy on the left passed through the galaxy on the right.  Just as a pebble thrown into a pond creates an outwardly moving circular wave, a propagating density wave was generated at the point of impact and spread outward.  As this density wave collided with material in the target galaxy that was moving inward due to the gravitational pull of the two galaxies, shocks and dense gas were produced, stimulating star formation.  The dusty reddish knot at the lower left of the blue ring probably marks the location of the original nucleus of the galaxy that was hit.  Arp 147 lies in the constellation Cetus, more than 400 million light-years from Earth...  What is notable about the following?  A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.  She needs rest; nevertheless, her demented fevers render her sleepless (her sleeplessness enfeebles her).  Might Virgil find bliss implicit in this primitivism?  Books form cocoons of comfort - tombs to hold bookworms.  Dull susurrus gusts murmur hushful, humdrum murmurs: hush, hush.

Japanese scientists have cloned mice whose bodies were frozen for as long 16 years and said it may be possible to use the technique to resurrect mammoths and other extinct species.  Really? That's the application for which this procedure will be seen as most important? I doubt that.  I expect the wealthy will want to have themselves cloned because that's the closest they can come to immortality (at least for the immediate forseeable future).  Human cloning is not quite online as yet - and cryogenics (having a body deep frozen in hopes it can be revived at some point - see "Relatively Dead") is little more than wishful thinking - and too expensive to keep up indefinitely.  The solution is to have tissues frozen until cloning is perfected and "resurrection" can occur.  If this cloning is not done until after the tissue donor's death, then perhaps that will circumvent some people's objections (since there will not be more than one alive at a time).  The interest from assets in trust should be enough to pay for keeping mere tissue frozen - and all wealth could be placed in trust until after the "re-birth".

There's a canyon in Aguateca, Guatemala with 80-metre-high sheer growth-covered walls that are only 2 metres apart at the base (very slippery and filled with insects, too).  The canyon once served as a defensive position for the Maya.  (Click the image for a very large alternate view)...  Why-NZ-Is-a-Great_Place-to-Live-Reason-1: The US Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.  Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said in September they would comply with congressional demands for transparency in a $700 billion bailout of the banking system.  Two months later, as the Fed lends far more than that in separate rescue programs that don't require approval by Congress, Americans have no idea where their money is going or what securities the banks are pledging in return...  A photograph of your apartment key is enough to enable someone to unlock your door, thanks to new technology.  Computer science students took close-up shots of keys with a cell phone camera.  Then, using a 5-inch telephoto lens, they stood on top of a building and took photos of keys sitting on a table 200 feet away.  In both examples, they were able to capture sufficient data to create duplicate keys (via Neatorama)...  Just-So-You-Know: People typically remain contagious 3 days after recovering from the flu-like illness caused by noroviruses.

Bunnicula has moved to Newcastle...  Tetragametic chimerism is a term used to describe people made up of 2 (and in one known case 3) genetically distinct types of cells - caused by non-identical twin embryos fusing in the womb.  In each organ or system, one profile dominates while the other occurs in a minority of the cells.  Chimerism can also occur as a result of a transplant, transfusion, or mutation (though this tends to isolate the condition to only 1 or 2 organs).  If fusing embryos are of the same sex, it may never be known that this has occurred.  Some cases of hermaphroditism are due to opposite sex embryo fusions.  Tetragametic chimerism could affect as much as 10% of the population.  There is growing evidence that chimerism in one form or another may not be rare.  In fact, some researchers think most, if not all, of us are chimeras of one kind or another.  Far from pure-bred individuals composed of a single genetic cell line, our bodies are cellular mongrels teeming with cells from our mothers, maybe even from grandparents and siblings...  On a related note, an evolutionary tug-of-war may exist between genes from Father’s sperm and genes from Mother’s egg.  This can tip brain development one of two ways: a strong bias toward Father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum toward fascination with objects/patterns/mechanical systems at the expense of social development.  A bias toward Mother moves it along what researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood (its own and that of others).

What non-food item do pets eat most often?  Socks.  But some don't stop there.  X-rays reveal knives, needles, coins, pins - and even the occasional rubber duck...  Why-NZ-Is-a-Great_Place-to-Live-Reason-2: Britain's security agencies and police will be given unprecedented and legally binding powers to ban the media from reporting matters of national security under proposals being discussed in Whitehall.  The committee also wants to censor reporting of police operations that are deemed to have implications for national security.  The committee members are particularly worried about leaks, which they believe could derail investigations if reported in the media.  Civil liberties groups say these restrictions would be "very dangerous" and "damaging for public accountability".  They also point out that censoring journalists when the leaks come from officials is not really justified...  A question for pistol shooters: Should the shooter who can hit the target most accurately be rewarded, or the one who can hit it most accurately under pressure in public?  Given that big-time sports are now a spectator activity, the correct choice is the 2nd one — best performance in front of a crowd is rewarded (this undoubtedly holds for politicians too).  But that doesn’t necessarily mean best.  Nor does it mean that using beta blockers to suppress performance anxiety is necessarily a disgrace in other situations.  If Barack Obama decides to take a beta blocker before a big speech, few of his audience will feel cheated.  If a neurosurgeon uses a beta blocker before performing a delicate spine operation, who objects?

Unusual, poorly-proofread, or baffling newspaper advertisements (a couple are quite amusing)...  Plastic test-tubes and dishes used in laboratories are made with chemicals that can disrupt reactions and could be botching experiments worldwide.  The test-tube chemicals, a disinfectant called DiHEMDA and a lubricant called oleamide can migrate out of plastic into experimental fluids and stop proteins from behaving normally.  Laboratories all over the world have been using these plastic tubes, pipettes and dishes.  The extent of the problem has yet to be determined, but may be huge...  The family tree of telecommunications companies (in the US) shows that they never do business as just one entity when 10 will do.  Why?  Compliance with local regulations?  Taking advantage of tax loopholes?  Obfuscation?  Simple fondness of complexity?  Subsidiaries and complex corporate structures are the raison d'être for these companies...  The United States may be on course to lose its AAA rating due to the large amount of debt it has accumulated, according to Martin Hennecke, senior manager of private clients at Tyche.  "The US might really have to look at a default on the bankruptcy reorganisation of the present financial system and the bankruptcy of the government is not out of the realm of possibility."  (Time to get on the "Gloom and Doom" bandwagon?)

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed.  The English is clear enough to lorry drivers - but the Welsh reads "I am not in the office at the moment.  Send any work to be translated." (via Neatorama) Horse is winning.

Who is the mystery man on the left?  Or the one on the right?...  Reverse Etiquette: The other day, a stroller-pushing mother semi-vigorously bumped into me at 6th Avenue and 8th Street.  [She said nothing, so] I expressed remorse, and added, “No one says I’m sorry anymore, so I do it for them.”
“My idea is that if I say I’m sorry, then at least the words have been released into the universe.”
She stared at me with equal parts irritation and faint horror, as if I had just asked her to attend a 3-hour lecture on the history of the leotard.
I continued: “The apology gets said, even if it’s not by the right person.  It makes me feel better.  And maybe you’ll know what to say next time.”
“Wow,” she said...
"Our goal is to generate electricity for 10¢ per watt anywhere in the world," said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which will manufacture nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes.  "They will cost approximately US$25 million [£13 million] each.  For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $250 per home."  The miniature reactors, only a few metres in diameter, will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

Tourism brings in NZ$1 million-an-hour in foreign currency.  That's $24 million a day, $8.8 billion a year - it's 20% of NZ's annual foreign exchange earnings.  Tourism is our biggest single export earner and a $21 billion industry.  As I write this, you can buy a $NZ1 for under US$.58 - yes, the tickets to visit here may be in US dollars - but the price of fuel is low now.  Visit NZ while you have the chance - you know you always wanted to!  No, I'm not being paid.  I just love this place...  Why-NZ-Is-a-Great_Place-to-Live-Reason-3: China's government has tried various measures to regulate the booming online gaming market and curb web use by teens.  In 2006, it ordered all Chinese Internet game manufacturers to install technology in their games that demands players reveal their real name and identification number...  In 1999, California lawmakers adopted a measure called 3% at 50 that allows local and state police officers and firefighters to retire at 50 years of age with 3% of their highest annual salary - multiplied by the number of years served.  The legislation granted thousands of public-safety workers a retirement payout of 90% of their former salaries for life.  This benefit, bolstered by post-9/11 recruiting, swiftly became a major staple for most California cities.  Those full-natured benefits created a bidding war among Northern California cities, and Vallejo negotiated lucrative wage increases with police and firefighter unions to stay competitive.  Three years ago, the city agreed to a 20% pay increase between 2007 and 2009; an average police officer now makes $121,000.  When benefits are included, the number rises to more than $190,000.  By 2007, 80% of Vallejo's budget was dedicated to police and firefighters.  As tax revenue plummet, Vallejo's finances have buckled under pressure of these labour contracts.  Retired Vallejo employees are now owed almost $220 million in unfunded pension and retirement-health benefits and the city has declared bankruptcy.

Gargoyle comes from a Latin word, meaning gullet or drain - because that's what they are.  Although most have grotesque features, the term gargoyle has come to include all types of images - monks, chimeras and people (many humourous).  Many of these do not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques.  Though they were more for ornamentation than drainage, many of these are now also called gargoyles.  Conspicuous stone gargoyles have carried rain from the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame for more than 600 years.  Down through the years they've allow rainwater to fall free of the cathedral, thus preventing damage to the masonry.  After the introduction of the lead drain pipe in the 16th century the gargoyle's notoriety faded out but they were still used as decorations.  In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.  Many of the gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris were added by restoration architect E E Viollet-le-Duc from 1845 to about 1864...  Attackers bent on shutting down large websites — even the operators running the backbone of the Internet — are arming themselves with (effectively) vast digital fire hoses capable of overwhelming the world's largest networks.  In these attacks, networks are hijacked to form botnets that spray random packets of data in huge streams over the Internet.  Large network operators have tried to avoid these large-scale distributed denial of service attacks by building excess capacity into their networks - like a large shock absorber.  But the chief security officer of AT&T says he still worries about the growing scale.  "We have a big shock absorber," he said.  "It works, but it'll fail if there's some Pearl Harbor event."  Is it just me, or does it seem foolish to tell attackers (who are hired by rivals in corporate, political or military conflicts) that their 40-gigabit attacks are getting close enough to be worrisome?


Great stairs: Lello Bookshop, Porto
Hotel The Gray, Milano
Didden Village, Rotterdam
(Click for larger image)

Ancient Greek and Roman researchers collected numerous fossils of large extinct mammals and displayed them in temples and museums.  They identified fossils as the relics of giants, heroes and monsters of myth.  Some ancient writers argued that the enormity of the supposed "human" remains proved the human race had since degenerated, becoming smaller and weaker.  The fossil record is a barely noticed source for many of the myths of the Old World.  Protoceratops, which lived in the twilight of the dinosaur age more than 65 million years ago, had a beak like a bird.  At maturity, it was typically 8 feet long, about the size of a lion.  It also had a bony "frill" at the back of the neck that the ancients could have mistaken for the roots of wings - thus griffins...  Michael McConnell, the American Director of National Intelligence, predicts rising demand for scarce supplies of food and fuel, strategic competition over new technologies, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.  Conditions for "large casualty terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or less likely, nuclear materials" also will increase, he thinks.  He describes a multi-polar world in 2025 shaped by the rise of China, India and Brazil, whose economies will by then match those of the Western industrial states.  "In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power, now underway, from West to East is without precedent in modern history," he explains.  Territorial expansion and military rivalries are not likely but cannot be ruled out.  "We judge these sweeping changes will not trigger a complete breakdown of the current international system, but the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks and many, many challenges"...  Worldwide earthquakes with sound and colours representing quake strength (low pitch red pulses are the big ones) covering the period May to July of this year.  It surprises me just how many large ones keep popping up.

Be careful when booking your stay over the Internet in a place you haven't seen before.  Why?  Roll over the photo at right to see what could happen...  Jim O'Neill, 65, was alone in the cockpit of his 4-seater Cessna when he suffered a stroke and found himself flying totally blind at 15,000 feet.  He frantically radioed a mayday alert.  Air traffic controllers attempted to guide him to the nearest airfield but this proved impossible.  Luckily for O'Neill, an RAF pilot in a small plane was already in the air.  He found O'Neill and established radio contact.  O'Neill was ordered to turn left and right, go lower or straighten up.  Thus he was guided the 15 miles to the nearest RAF base and after 3 failed attempts, he safely touched down...  It was an hour before low tide in Maine's Boothbay Harbor, yet without warning, the muddy harbour floor suddenly filled with rushing, swirling water.  In 15 minutes, the water rose 12 feet, then receded.  And then it happened again.  It occurred 3 times, each time ripping apart docks and splitting wooden pilings.  Exactly what caused the rogue waves remains unknown but they could have been caused by a powerful storm squall or the slumping of mountains of sediment from a steep canyon in the ocean - a sort of mini tsunami.  The last time such rogue waves appeared in Maine was at Bass Harbor in 1926.

Fruit art with a sense of humour...  It's tricky finding the centre of a giant, squishy object like Earth.  The problem is like trying to measure the centre of mass of a glob of Jell-O, because Earth is constantly changing shape due to tectonic and climatic forces.  If Earth were completely solid and perfectly round, finding its centre of mass would be simple.  However, it isn't perfectly round - it is a slightly buckled sphere in which the midsection bulges outward.  And because mass is distributed unevenly across its surface (more mass means more gravitational tug), the point around which the planet is balanced is offset from the actual centre of Earth.  Plus, mass doesn’t stay put, but instead changes over time as glaciers melt, tectonic plates move and volcanoes empty out to lay massive lava on Earth’s surface.  These changes in mass atop and beneath Earth’s surface cause the centre of mass to shift slightly over time...  To be among the trees is pretty powerful stuff.  You can put just about anything into a tree - from monkish yurts to multistory retreats, complete with every convenience, even plumbing.  Some pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their treehouses; many cost far less.  The most extravagant projects demand sites with multiple trees so you can be in the trees, not on top of them.  But even the most bare-bones of them are hand-built, timber-framed structures, assembled by a small crew of craftsmen dangling in harnesses from tree branches.  One caveat for anyone considering life among the boughs: treehouses move.  A lot.  An engineer who supplies specialty parts for treehouses lives full-time in 700 square feet located 14 feet up in an Oregon evergreen grove.  He likens it to living on a moored houseboat.  "You have to be comfortable with a certain amount of horizontal travel" is how he puts it.

In summertime, a large tree can suck up 300 litres of water a day - almost 80 gallons.  Thus, with trees growing along their dikes, the Dutch don't need to run water pumps in summer.  With a population of 16.5 million, the Netherlands covers an area roughly 1/3 the size of New York State, its former colony, yet about 1,270 people crowd into every square mile (5 per hectare), compared with 409 in New York.  They need more room - both for people and crops.  Are manmade barrier islands the answer?  (To the right is a proposed island that looks like a tulip - surely the symbolism isn't lost on you.)  Do they need more dikes?...  Unhappy people watch an estimated 20% more television than very happy people, after taking into account their education, income, age and marital status.  TV viewing is "easy" - viewers don't have to go anywhere, dress up, find company, plan ahead, expend energy, do any work or spend money in order to view.  Combine these advantages with the immediate gratification offered by television, and you can understand why Americans spend more than half their free time as TV viewers...  Sentimentality and desire for the past is known as nostalgia.  A new study indicates that nostalgia may serve a greater purpose than just taking one back to the good old days.  individuals who feel the loneliest report receiving the least amount of social support and feel the most nostalgic.  In addition, when nostalgia is induced in a person, he feels he has greater social support.  Nostalgia amplifies perceptions of social support and in this way counteracts feelings of loneliness...  Teacher: What is 2k + k?  Student: 3,000...  Trigonometry for farmers: swine and coswine...  Q: What is non-orientable and lives in the ocean?  A: Möbius Dick...  Life is complex because it has both real and imaginary components...  Math problems?  Call 1-800-[(10x)(13i)2]-[sin(xy)/2.362x]

bulletThe Taronga Zoo's 3-week-old pygmy hippo baby, Monifa.
bulletAu clair de la lune / On n'y voit qu'un peu (click image for larger version).
bulletAn-Android's-Dream: A robotic sheep has been developed that features GPS navigation, obstacle avoidance sensors and lawn mowing teeth.  It will move around your backyard on articulated legs, cutting grass along the way (via Neatorama).
bullet3-D printing allows artists to create objects that would be incredibly difficult, costly, or time consuming using traditional processes.  The sculptures at right above were manufactured using a laser sintering process (a laser fuses small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders).  The laser selectively fuses the powdered material by scanning cross-sections generated from a 3-D digital description of the part (for example from a CAD file or scan data) on the surface of a powder bed.  After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness, a new layer of material is applied on top, and the process is repeated until the part is completed.  Many jewelers use 3-D printers to make wax castings.

Bush followed tradition by pardoning the turkey, Liberty.  Liberty used the opportunity to seek intimate contact...  The future is here - it’s just not evenly distributed yet...  The fertile valley of the Nile River runs northward through Egypt.  Cairo is located where the river widens into the broad fan-shaped delta.  Other cities dot the green making it look speckled to a satellite.  The Nile changes the Mediterranean's colour (likely a mixture of sediment, organic matter, and possibly marine plant life) for miles.  Farther west, the bright blue colour of the water is sediment that is less organically rich or else is sand...  Build a bridge from North America to Eurasia?  This can't be done!  Oh.  It has been done?  Then where is it?...  Despite the economic gloom, people still spend money on their pets.  Each morning, Lulu and Lola get a warm breakfast of scrambled organic eggs or porridge.  They're washed and perfumed daily and groomed once a week (shampoo, conditioning treatment, blow-dry, massage, pedicure).  They have a wardrobe full of clothes and a £2,000 4-poster wrought-iron, gold-monogrammed dog bed with pink organza curtains and their own special steps to climb up.  Their cashmere pillows and blankets cost £250 each.  They eat dog food of the highest-quality from stainless steel bowls elevated on a cast iron stand to be at the correct angle and height.  What more could they want?

Society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring factions.

- Bertolt Brecht

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