Of Consequence


News and Site Updates Archive 2009/04/06

Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.

- G K Chesterton

6 Apr '09 - I apologise for being late in posting.  First, I'm still in New York (for 2 more days).  The working conditions here, while not at all primitive, are nevertheless different than those under which I'm accustomed to labouring - I prefer 2 screens and a comfortable chair; I need files I forgot to bring with me, et cetera.  (It's surprising how little adversity it takes to drive one completely out of the mood.)  Then, in the middle of that, our long-term ISP changed hands and the resulting drop in service levels (including outages and glitches) forced our move to another.  But it's over now.  Sorry...  I ran across this on the US Naval Institute's site: "With tensions already rising due to the Chinese navy becoming more aggressive in asserting territorial claims in the South hina Sea, the US Navy seems to have yet another reason to be deeply concerned.  After years of conjecture, details are emerging of a 'kill weapon' developed by the Chinese to target and destroy US aircraft carriers.  Posted on a Chinese blog viewed as credible by military analysts and translated by the naval affairs blog, a recent report describes an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that can strike carriers and other US vessels at a range of 2,000 kilometres.  The range of the modified Dong Feng 21 missile is significant in that it covers the areas that are likely hot zones for future confrontations between US and Chinese surface forces.  The size of the missile enables it to carry a warhead big enough to inflict significant damage on a large vessel, providing the Chinese the capability of destroying a US supercarrier in one strike."

All evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama bin Laden.  Negative evidence alone compels a conclusion that Osama is long dead.  Since October 2001, when Al Jazeera's Tayseer Alouni interviewed him, no reputable person reports having seen him.  Audio and video tapes alleged to be him convince no impartial observers - some videos show a Semitic aquiline nose; others show him with a shorter, broader one.  Next to that, differences in colours and styles of beard are small stuff.  Nor do tapes sound like him.  Computer voice recognition software used to ensure security for banks compared voices on 15 undisputed recordings of Osama with voices on the 15 subsequent recordings attributed to him.  All the latter ones differed from one another as well as from the genuine tapes.  The CIA, however, found them all authentic.  What methodology supports their conclusion?  Also, increasingly secular language is inconsistent with Wahhabism.  The Osama figure in the December 2001 video (which many take as his assumption of responsibility for 9/11) wears gold rings — decidedly un-Wahhabi — and also writes with the wrong hand.  The messages are all fakes - and not convincing ones - but the CIA has judged them all good.  What does that tell you?  Terrorism, says Thomas Friedman, is what states want to happen or let happen.  What if, in the real world, infiltrators from professional intelligence services use amateur terrorists rather than the other way around?  It means that when Bush spoke, and when Obama speaks, of America being at war against extremism or extremists, they are either being stupid or acting stupidly to avoid dealing with the nasty fact that many governments (the US included) wage indirect warfare.  The CIA's authority comes from the congruence between its prejudices and those of America's ruling class.  Tell people what they want to hear and you don't have to be too careful about facts and conclusions.  The problem in short is the unwillingness of people in government and the "attentive" public to exercise intellectual due diligence in international affairs.

Paraphrasing investigative reporter Seymour Hersh: "After 9/11, the CIA was deeply involved (without legal authority) in domestic activities against people they thought were enemies of the state; they [still] haven’t been called on it.  The New York Times recently mentioned the Joint Special Operations Command - JSOC - an elite wing of our special operations community set up independently that, in the Bush-Cheney days, reported directly to Cheney's office.  Congress had no oversight; it’s an executive assassination ring essentially.  Under President Bush’s authority, they went into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and found people on a list and executed them and left."  This sounds like the plot for several movies I've seen...  When oil prices spiked last summer to $147 a barrel, the biggest corporate casualty was oil pipeline giant Semgroup Holdings, a $14 billion private firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It had racked up $2.4 billion in trading losses betting that oil prices would go down.  Its short positions amounted to the equivalent of 20% of the nation's crude oil inventories.  With the credit crunch eliminating any hope of meeting a $500 million margin call, Semgroup filed for bankruptcy in July.  Now some people involved in cleaning up the financial mess suggest that Semgroup's collapse was more than just bad judgment and worse timing.  There is evidence of a malevolent hand at work: oil price manipulation by traders orchestrating a short squeeze to push up the price of West Texas Intermediate crude to the point that it would generate fatal losses in Semgroup's accounts.  What transpired was apparently no less than a $500 billion fraud on the people of the world - that's how much people would've overpaid for crude if indeed it was a scam pushing up oil prices by $50 a barrel for 100 days.  Who was apparently behind it?  Citibank, Merrill Lynch and especially Goldman Sachs.

... Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves ...
- John Milton, Samson Agonistes

Milton also wrote of "Blood, death, and dreadful deeds".  This was in 1671.  I guess he was prescient.  "We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land."  And if you have to kill innocent civilians in the process, God will understand.  "Break down doors with armoured vehicles and shoot anyone inside, floor by floor" because "any person who's in Gaza is a terrorist."  When the Jewish people realise there is no god, where will THAT leave them?  (I guess they can still be capitalists who need oil.)  Excessive force used in the recent Gaza operation left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, a majority of them civilians; thousands were injured as whole neighbourhoods of Gaza were levelled.  But a Military Police Investigation unit closed the inquiry into Israeli soldiers' accounts of serious violations of the army's rules of engagement (such as using children as human shields) by concluding that it was all a bunch of rumours.  It wasn’t white phosphorus - the jellyfish-like white tentacles that are a signature for a white phosphorus burst were probably a Palestinian fireworks display.  (So everything's all right then!)  The Israeli Defense Force destroyed 20 ambulances, sure - but ambulances could be carrying terrorists!  A US bumper sticker said in the Viet Nam war days: "Kill ‘em all and let God sort 'em out!"  Maybe the IDF could use the ones they had left over?

The crew of a Royal Navy submarine were condemned to an agonising death because the Admiralty decided it was more important to save the vessel than the 99 men trapped on board, according to a newly unearthed official document.  HMS Thetis partly resurfaced with the men still alive inside and rescuers could have saved them in 5 minutes by cutting air holes through the 5/8-inch-thick steel hull.  A larger hole could then have been cut to let them out.  But the Admiralty refused to allow the rescue because the hull would have been permanently weakened.  At the time - June 1939 - World War II loomed and saving the submarine was deemed more important.  The inquiry reported the great loss of life was due to "the failure of those inside to escape"...  The loudspeaker message begins: "Ladies and gentleman, I'd first like to welcome you aboard.  During this flight we will be providing you with air drawn directly from the engines, which will be pumped into the cabin through vents in the ceiling.  We wish to inform passengers that the air taken from the engines sometimes becomes contaminated with engine oils or hydraulic fluids.  When this occurs, you will be inhaling a selection of neurotoxins and carcinogens, exposure to which may cause short and long-term health problems.  Because you cannot open a window, you can't escape these toxins.  But you won't see anything and you might not detect any smell.  We hope you have a pleasant flight."  Aerotoxic syndrome is a phrase coined to describe the illness that results when the air that plane passengers breathe becomes contaminated.  Said to affect the body in much the same way that nerve gas does, the consequences of inhalation are instant and long-lasting.  Pressure groups representing those affected claim that for 50 years there's been a fundamental flaw in the way air is pumped into planes.  All it takes is an oil leak in an engine and in seconds poisonous fumes fill the cabin.  The effects can ruin a holiday - but if it's the pilot who falls ill, the consequences are potentially far, far more serious.

During periods of peak activity the sun emits slightly more energy than during periods of low activity.  The amount of energy that strikes Earth’s atmosphere - called total solar irradiance (TSI) - fluctuates by about 0.1% over the course of the sun's 11-year cycle.  During the Maunder Minimum, a period of diminished solar activity between 1645 and 1715, sunspots were rare on the face of the sun, sometimes disappearing entirely for months to years.  At the same time, Earth experienced a bitter cold period known as the "Little Ice Age."  After examining the historical TSI database, some scientists have suggested that solar irradiance could account for as much as ¼ of recent global warming.  The 0.1% variation in solar irradiance is certainly too subtle to explain all of the recent warming.

But, what if - as many assume - much longer solar cycles are also at work?  Could a modern day Maunder Minimum offset the warming influence of greenhouse gases or even throw us back into another little ice age?  We don't know for sure.  But the lack of expected sunspots thus far in this solar cycle is beginning to get attention.  Research shows such variations in the sun's emissions can affect the ozone layer and the way energy moves both vertically and horizontally through the atmosphere.


A packet of one hundred US$100 bills is less than ½ an inch thick and contains $10,000 - it fits in your pocket easily and is more than enough for a week or 2 of shamefully decadent fun.  You could stuff a million dollars into a grocery bag and walk around with it.  When you get to a billion, you're getting somewhere.  But a trillionThat's when it gets surprising...  The extent to which boomer wealth was based on home values is highlighted by a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, entitled "The Wealth of the Baby Boom Cohorts After the Collapse of the Housing Bubble".  The report details how the collapse has left the majority of those around retirement-age almost completely reliant on entitlements.  The net worth of median households in the 45 to 54 age bracket has dropped by more than 45% since 2004, to just over $80,000.  Households headed by those aged 55 to 64, meanwhile, have lost 38% of net wealth.  The result is that many baby boomers will only have entitlements to rely on in their retirement.  Make that entitlements, roommates, and each other.  As more and more boomers scale down their retirement plans and consider alternative living arrangements, it's worth asking: Is shared housing such a bad thing for aging boomers?  Does a return to the Communal idea, borne of economic necessity, also have emotional, social, and environmental benefits?...  His wife was hinting about what she wanted for their upcoming anniversary.  She said, "I want something shiny that goes from 0 to 200 in about 3 seconds" - so he bought her a scale.

One of the oldest banks of its kind in the US, Xytex International, on Tuesday rolled out a stimulus package for customers who are hurting in these tough economic times.  Xytex is a sperm bank, and it's offering up to US$200 off a vial of sperm to clients wishing to start or add to their family, but need a little help.  The deal involves vials from "select" donors, who come a bit cheaper than the usual "standard" donor.  Select donors are men from whom Xytex has "many, many vials because they're very successful donors or able to stop in several times a week" or - for whatever reason - from whom they have a huge inventory and it is being made available in a sort of clearance sale.  Select donor units run between $250 and $350, representing a savings of between $135 and $235 on comparable vials from a standard donor, which start at $385 and go up to $585.  Why are some more expensive?  They don't say, but that would be the most interesting thing to know.  Because the donor was taller?  More athletic?  Financially successful?  Had no defects?  (Their sanctimonious attitude is a bit annoying.)  For several articles about sperm donations, including the pitfalls of ordering sperm off the internet, see Trying to Multiply in the section on Men deeper in this website...  Men with low testosterone (feminine men) invest in relationships and offspring more than men with high testosterone (masculine men).  You'd think women would prefer them, maybe?  But women who are in the fertile phase of their cycle become quite attracted to masculine men - even to the point of preferring their (deeper) voices.  Attractive, feminine women seem to prefer masculine men all the time, whereas less attractive/less feminine women seem more open to men with lower testosterone during other times of the month.  Perhaps attractive women have less difficulty securing a long-term commitment from the he-men?  (Findings like this make us all seem like machines)...  And speaking of testosterone: If you've ever thought you'd have made a good lawyer, you can try your hand at some of the questions in this LSAT practice test (this is a pdf file)...  The finalists of UK's International Garden Photographer of the Year award.  The tree on the right was my favourite.

What would a Yellowstone eruption be like?  The eruption 640,000 years ago blew a hole in the earth’s crust as big as Connecticut, buried areas as far as 100 miles away in molten lava, and threw up ash that came down as far away as Iowa and Louisiana.  Such an event today - even with warning - could be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.  There would be hundreds of thousands of immediate casualties and enough ash and dust thrown into the atmosphere to blot out much of the sun, plunging the earth into a dark winter lasting years.  Global starvation - and war over what food remained - might follow.  After Indonesia and Japan, the US is the most volcano-rich country.  Currently, 169 US volcanoes are geologically active, most in Alaska, Hawaii, the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest and California; only 65 are "historically active" - that is, they have written documentation of past eruptions.  What causes some volcanoes to explode in devastating and deadly eruptions, while other volcanoes calmly pour their lava across the landscape with virtually no explosions whatsoever?  The most important factor that determines what type of eruptions that a volcano will experience is chemistry - the substances found in the magma determine how it will erupt.  A volcano whose molten magma contains large amounts of a substance called silica tends to explode with great energy while those that contain little or no silica usually do not explode, but instead calmly release rivers of lava across the landscape.  Volcanoes do not typically change their eruption type - those that explode, will always explode, while those that release their lava in calm flows, will always do so...  Crabs feel pain when they are boiled and would remember it if only they could escape the pot, scientists believe.  Research has shown that when hermit crabs are given small electric shocks, they try to avoid being zapped again.  This finding could have important implications for the food industry, where many chefs boil crabs, lobsters and prawns alive in the belief that they are impervious to pain.  Previous research has shown that crabs have personalities, with some facing challenges head-on while others retreat into their shell at the first sign of trouble.

Divan - A long backless sofa, especially one set with pillows against a wall so that it can double as a bed. Davenport - A large sofa, often convertible into a bed. Sofa - A long upholstered seat typically with a back and arms.  It has framing, webbing, springs, padding, fabric and finishing (cushions, skirt and/or feet). Couch - Upholstered item for comfortable seating of more than 1 person; typically has an armrest on either side.  Common types are loveseat (British two-seater) and settee or sofa (2 or more seats).  A sectional sofa ("sectional") is formed from 2 - 4 pieces; usually includes at least 2 joining at 90° angle or slightly greater.  Variants include fainting couch (backless or partial-backed), chaise longue (long with 1 armrest), canapé (ornamental 3-seater), and ottoman (generally considered a footstool).

Five cats that look like actor Wilford Brimley.  This is my favourite...  According to new research, better decisions come from teams that include a "socially distinct newcomer".  That's psychology-speak for someone who is different enough to bump other team members out of their comfort zones.  Researchers noticed this effect after conducting traditional group problem-solving experiments.  The twist was that a newcomer was added to each group about 5 minutes into their deliberations.  When the newcomer is a social outsider, teams are more likely to solve the problem successfully.  Newcomers in the experiment don't necessarily ask tougher questions, possess novel information, or doggedly maintain a conflicting point of view - but they change the dynamic among the old-timers who have come to share a common identity.  When a member of the group discovers that he agrees with the new outsider, he feels alienated from his fellow old-timers - consequently, he is very motivated to explain his new point of view on its merits so that his peers won't lump him in with the outsider.  He feels very uncomfortable because this puts his social ties with other team members at risk.  His detailed explanations for his different opinion causes the group to analyse differing opinions and critical information much more thoroughly, and that facilitates much better decision-making results.  From a self-reporting perspective, what people perceive to be beneficial (a group that gets along and is in complete agreement) turns out to be wrong; teams that feel they work least effectively together are ironically usually the top performers.

22 September 2012: the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light.  Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived.  Within seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment.  Then all lights in the state go out.  Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.  Our modern way of life, with its reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences.  The incursion of plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth's magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids.  The grids are not built to handle this sort of direct current; the magnetic cores of the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from transport voltage to domestically useful voltage are saturated by strong magnetic fields resulting in runaway current in the transformer's copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts.  The grid is interdependent with water and sewage treatment, supermarket delivery infrastructures, power station controls, financial markets and many others.  A severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people.  After that, no water, no trains, no more gasoline (which requires electricity to pump out of underground tanks) - even emergency generators would soon run dry.  Serious disaster would follow.  Such a strike (called the "Carrington event") happened in 1859; people alive at that time hardly even noticed.  Today, it would cost in the trillions and recovery could take decades.  (The photo is a screen shot from the video on that page)...  The Cartwheel galaxy measures more than 100,000 light years across.  It is located 500 million light years from earth; its unusual shape is due to a catastrophic collision with one of the smaller galaxies (on its upper left) hundreds of millions of years ago.

Who is this mystery man (and is he finally telling the truth)?...  In wealthy nations around the world, momentum is building for increases in the cost of alcohol.  The rationale is to stop people drinking to the point where other people's lives are affected by drunks vandalising property, urinating and vomiting in the street, attacking people including family members and causing death and injury by driving under the influence.  In other words, the goal is to stamp out "passive drinking" - the damage done to innocent bystanders and society in general when people drink too much...  On a related note: Providing housing and support services for homeless alcoholics costs taxpayers less than leaving them on the street, where taxpayer money goes towards police and emergency health care.  Stable housing also results in reduced drinking among homeless alcoholics.  My thought is it could also result in taxpayers who feel better about themselves and who are less resentful of the unfortunate...  Both Hepatitis-B (HBV) and hepatitis-C (HCV) are global health problems.  They can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer and cause millions of deaths each year.  Treatments to contain or cure these infections have been difficult to find.  Researchers continue to explore potential therapies and the immune system response to the diseases.  Immunological response to co-infection with both HBV and HCV has turned up something interesting: for patients with chronic HCV, HBV superinfection can lead to being cured of HCV.  29 HCV patients were matched by age, gender and risk factors to 29 people who did not have HCV.  All of the patients developed acute HBV during the same time period.  The patients with HCV were more likely to have a severe course of illness, and one died of liver failure.  However, 6 out of 24 of them emerged HCV-free.  This would work out to a 3 - 4% chance of dying versus a 25% chance of being cured.  Would YOU take that risk?

In a scene reminiscent of Narnia, Michael, the circus "mane" attraction, leaps gracefully through the air with tamer in tow.  His feat is greeted with rapturous appplause from the Big Top crowd in St Petersburg.  Riding bareback is Askold Zapashny who takes the lion through his routine then kisses him on the nose to show what a big pussycat he is.  Askold and his brother Edgar form the Zapashny Brothers, who come from a long line of lion tamers and hold the world record for the longest jump while riding a lion - 7 feet 6 inches. This site is oddly called Weird, Confusing and Irritating Photography but I didn't find most of the photographs engaging enough to be classified as such.  I've included the one I liked best.

A gene called DNA-PK appears to regulate the process in the liver that turns carbohydrates into fat.  Mice with a disabled version of this gene stayed slim even when fed the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet.  The DNA-PK-disabled mice were leaner and had 40% less body fat compared with a control group on the same diet.  As an added benefit, they also had lower levels of cholesterol in their blood.  And speaking of carbohydrates, the West Michigan Whitecaps, a minor league baseball team, will be offering up major league cholesterol, carbohydrates and calories in a new menu item added this year - a 4,800 calorie burger featuring 5 beef patties, 5 slices of cheese, nearly a cup of chili and liberal doses of salsa and corn chips, all on an 8-inch sesame-seed bun.  It weighs 4 pounds and will cost US$20.  (The photo is a screen shot from the video on that page)...  People whose faces turn red when they drink alcohol may be facing more than embarrassment.  The flushing may indicate an increased risk for a deadly throat cancer.  The flushing response, which may be accompanied by nausea and a rapid heartbeat, is caused mainly by an inherited deficiency in an enzyme called ALDH2, a trait shared by more than 1/3 of people of East Asian ancestry - Japanese, Chinese or Koreans.  As little as ½ a bottle of beer can trigger the reaction.  The deficiency results in problems in metabolising alcohol, leading to an accumulation in the body of a toxin called acetaldehyde.  The malignancy, called squamous cell esophageal cancer, is also caused by smoking and can be treated with surgery, but survival rates are very low.  Even moderate drinking increases the risk, but it rises sharply with heavier consumption.  An ALDH2-deficient person who has 2 beers a day has 6 - 10 times the risk of developing esophageal cancer as a person not deficient in the enzyme.

Stuyvesant High School is a New York City public high school that specialises in mathematics and science.  It is one of the most competitive public high schools in the United States, sending more students to some of the nation's most prestigious universities than most other public or private schools.  (The average SAT test score is 2090 out of 2400.)  The school opened in 1904 on Manhattan's East Side and moved to a new building in Battery Park City in 1992.  Stuyvesant is noted for its strong academic programs, having produced many notable alumni including four Nobel laureates.  US News & World Report ranked it 23rd in their 2008 list of America's best "Gold-Medal" high schools.  It's at the end of the block where I'm staying in New York City.  It has 3,125 students and they all seem to leave at the same time...  Don't forget to brush your teeth and to floss!  A recent study has revealed that an increase in the number of different periodontal bacteria increases the odds of having a heart attack...  Two animal-related YouTube videos I found to be worth watching...  "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.  If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.  But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Resting and grazing cattle and deer tend to align their body axes in the geomagnetic North-South direction.  The mechanism(s) that underlie this behaviour remain unknown.  But extremely low-frequency magnetic fields (ELFMFs) generated by high-voltage power lines disrupt alignment of the bodies of these animals.  Body orientation of cattle and roe deer was random on pastures under or near power lines.  Moreover, cattle exposed to various magnetic fields directly beneath or in the vicinity of power lines trending in various magnetic directions exhibit distinct patterns of alignment.  The disturbing effect of the ELFMFs on body alignment diminishes with the distance from conductors...  In a psychological experiment first designed by Wolfgang Köhler, people are asked to choose which of the shapes on the right is named Booba and which is named Kiki.  95% to 98% of people choose Kiki for the angular shape and Booba for the rounded shape.  This has implications for language development, in that the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary.  The rounded shape may most commonly be named Booba because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound.  Similarly a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound Kiki.  The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well.  Note also that, in the Roman alphabet, the angular shape mimics the angular letters K and I, while the rounded shape mimics the rounded letters B and O.  The kiki visual shape has a sharp inflection and the sound "kiki" does, too.  Your brain recognises the common property of jaggedness.  So I wonder what the 2 - 5% of people who reversed them were thinking - to me, that would have been the interesting part.

Scientists used MRI to scan the brains of 216 healthy boys and girls ages 6 to 18 from a range of ethnic groups and socioeconomic statuses, mirroring the 2000 census.  These children also took intelligence exams testing analogies, vocabulary, reasoning and visual-spatial skills.  The scientists discovered that intelligence is linked in general to the thickness of the "grey matter" - the cerebral cortex of the brain, which plays a key role in memory, thought, language and consciousness.  It is dispersed throughout areas associated with integrating information coming from diverse areas of the brain.  If one looks at the average thickness of the cortex in these children, the differences between the lowest and highest IQs is on the order of a half-millimeter - or roughly 1/3 as thick as a penny.  Future research will focus on what role, if any, the "white matter" of the brain - the insulation for the grey matter - plays.

Purely by accident, I ran across a link to this site where the poster called it "News of the Planet".  His name is Richard Allen Daly and he is an architect in New York.  I'd like to tell him "Thanks".  (And you, too, for reading this page.)

Money will not buy happiness, but it will let you be unhappy in nice places.

- Unknown

For other updates click "Back" (for newer) or "Next" (for older) below

Back Home Up Next