Negative Entropy


News and Site Updates Archive 2009/05/31

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

- John Maynard Keynes

31 May '09 - It is likely that either spouses or adult children of the deceased choose the photograph that accompanies an obituary announcement in the local newspaper.  They understandably want to choose a photo that they think represents their spouse or parent at his or her peak.  But the way we as a society define peak years is apparently changing rapidly over time.  Adult children may want a picture of Dad when he was at his best but that becomes younger and younger than when he actually died.  The discrepancy is larger, even, for women.  Maybe it's merely that individuals live longer with chronic illnesses - and obituary photos intend to show a younger, healthier phase.  Nevertheless, researchers conclude that ageism is increasing.  This company's niche is remodelling 18-gauge steel coffins collected from local funeral homes (primarily in Southern California).  Health and safety law forbids funeral homes reselling used coffins to the general public; some coffins were needed for viewing or for the service only and some merely have blemishes rendering them unsuitable.  Nevertheless, all of the 4 or 6 cast iron couch legs are embossed with a universal biohazard insignia for compliance because once a human body is placed in a coffin, it's considered biohazardous as a precaution (in case someone's body fluids leaked).  Doesn't that make you want to rush right out and buy one of these couches?  But the coffin's history doesn't matter as all second-hand coffins are completely reconfigured.  The results are unique, quite sturdy, and lovely products (via BookofJoe).

Are Bush veterans suddenly speaking out against Donald Rumsfeld?  This is the cover for 1 April 2003

On the morning of Thursday 10 April 2003, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon prepared a top-secret briefing for George W Bush.  This document, known as the Worldwide Intelligence Update, was a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful of Pentagon leaders and the president; Rumsfeld himself often delivered it by hand to the White House.  The briefing’s cover sheet generally featured triumphant, colour images from the previous days' war efforts: on this particular morning, it showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square, a grateful Iraqi child kissing an American soldier, and jubilant crowds thronging the streets of newly liberated Baghdad.  Above these images, just below the headline Secretary of Defense, was a quote that may have raised some eyebrows.  It came from The Holy Bible, from the book of Psalms: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him…  To deliver their soul from death."  This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery (unrevealed until now) became routine.  ["Routine" may mean as little as 2 - 3 weeks.]  It may be that the scriptures were seen as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the from this book.  No matter that, if leaked, the images would reinforce impressions that the administration was embarking on a religious war and could escalate tensions with the Muslim world.  And even more fanaticism.

Consider the fact that more than 70% of 177 emerging or reemerging diseases have originated in animals.  There's a critical need to better understand pathogen transmission from animals to man and from man to animals.  Veterinarians serve as a "bridging population," spreading pathogens to their families, their communities and the various groups of animals for which they provide care; their risk of infection is is often higher than that of other occupational groups with extensive exposure to animals such as farm workers.  Veterinarians often fail to routinely use recommended personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns and respiratory protection devices because of discomfort, lack of availability, cost and the belief that the risk is low.  Perhaps a bit of special training is in order?  But, then, the healthy human mouth is home to a tremendous variety of microbes including viruses, fungi, protozoa and bacteria.  The bacteria are the most numerous - there are 100 million in every millilitre of saliva and more than 600 different species in the mouth alone, half unknown to science because they're quite hard to grow in a lab.  Changes in bacterial activity lead to dental caries and gum disease as well as numerous diseases.  And it isn't just the mouth - human skin is a "virtual zoo" of bacteria - yet many of these bacteria are known to play a vital role in keeping skin healthy.  Oddly, a study of fruit flies kept in a bacteria-free environment showed they didn't outlive their grubby siblings.  Apparently, about as many bacteria provide benefit as do us harm - but we usually kill them both indiscriminately.  In fact, bacteria can have surprisingly rich and complex lives.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death worldwide, and periodontitis, which leads to the loss of connective tissue and the bone support of teeth, is the major cause of tooth loss in adults over 40 years.  Periodontitis is very common - around 90% of people aged over 60 suffer from it.  Research has already shown a genetic basis for both diseases.  Both CHD and periodontitis are propagated by the same risk factors - most importantly smoking, diabetes and obesity - and there is also a gender relationship, with men possibly more liable to these diseases than women.  Researchers have also shown similarities in the bacteria found in the oral cavity and in coronary plaques, and both diseases are characterised by an imbalanced immune reaction and chronic inflammation.  It is now known that there is a strong genetic link.  I had always understood that the gum disease could actually cause the CHD, but the genetic component connection may instead indicate that the gum disease is a red flag indicator for the likelihood of heart disease.  Research is ongoing.

The Royal Perfornmance of Swan Lake
(photo by Matt Blakemore)

Blackmore has a lot of reflection photos - like this one
of Half Dome in Yosemite.  His photos are, of course,
of a much higher quality than my reproduction here.

Blakemore went to to have fun with his
photos.  (Never think photographers lack a sense of humour!)

In February 1971, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell experienced a little understood phenomenon sometimes called the "Overview Effect".  He describes being completely engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness.  Without warning, a feeing of bliss and timelessness overwhelmed him.  He describes becoming instantly and profoundly aware that each of his constituent atoms were connected to the fragile planet he saw in the window and to every other atom in the Universe.  He describes experiencing intense awareness that Earth, humans, other animal species, and systems are all one synergistic whole.  He says the feeling that rushed over him was a sense of interconnected euphoria.  On 6 March 1969, Rusty Schweikart experienced something very similar to what Mitchell experienced; he describes an intuitive sensing that everything is profoundly connected.  Dozens of other astronauts have felt the very same thing.  This acute awareness of all matter as synergistically connected sounds somewhat similar to certain religious experiences.  Where does this feeling come from and what function does it serve?

Ross Horsley's  My First Dictionary, a subversively humorous site...  We're born thinking that we’ll live forever.  Then death becomes an intermittent reality as grandparents and parents die and tragedy of some kind removes one or two from our own age cohort.  At some point, death becomes a normal part of life — a faint dirge in the background that gradually gets louder.  What is that point?  One crude measure is when you can expect, on average, one person of roughly your age in your family or social circle to die every year.  At that point, any given death can still be terrible and unexpected, but the fact that people your age die is no longer a legitimate surprise (the related fact that must be faced is that you will, too).  If 100 Americans start the voyage of life together, on average one dies by the time the group turns 16.  At 40, their lives are half over.  At 63, the group starts losing an average of one person every year - then it accelerates.  By age 75, only 2 of each 3 are left.  By age 100, 3 remain.  Most people who are successful in midlife were losers in high school.  For adults, values change; the deck is reshuffled and everyone gets another shot for financial and family success.  Then the deck is shuffled again for the last chapter - how long you live, how fast you age, whether you win or lose the cancer sweepstakes or the Parkinson’s bingo.  All these things have little to do with success or failure in the previous 2 rounds.  There may be justice in that...  Two colours are called complementary if grey is produced when they're combined...  What are the most popular songs played at funeral services?  Number 1 is "My Way," by Frank Sinatra; second is "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC; third is "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen.  Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has a new lease of life after its recent success on a talent show...  Introversion and extroversion are inborn traits, and the difference between them is not that one is gregarious and at ease in the world and the other shy and awkward.  Rather, extroverts are outwardly motivated and gain energy from interaction with the outside world while introverts are more inwardly directed and drained by interaction with others.  Introverts’ thinking tends to be deep and slow, we require copious time alone, we prefer probing conversation to shallow chitchat, and our social lives are geared more towards intimate one-on-one interactions than "more the merrier" free-for-alls.

In geography, the antipodes of any place on Earth is its antipodal point - that is, the region on the Earth's surface which is diametrically opposite to it.  Two points which are antipodal to one another are connected by a straight line through the Earth's centre.  The antipode of where I am on Jessie Street in Wellington appears to be in a field just south of the town of Alaejos, which is just NE of Salamanca in Spain.  The antipode of where I sometimes live in Battery Park City near the tip of Manhattan is in the Indian Ocean off the southwest corner of Australia.  (For some reason, I like knowing trivia like this.)  Anyway, the antipode map will compute the location for you of any place you specify....  While we're speaking of New York, here's an interesting fact: the Hudson River’s main current has, for all of recorded history, clung to lower Manhattan’s edge, skimming along the West Side.  Battery Park City, built in the 70s, now juts out into that flow.  Since then, the current has been cutting a new channel out toward the centre of the river.  That current is scraping mud off the top of the Lincoln Tunnel where it never did before; the underwater traffic tubes have lost 25% of their soil coverage in some spots.  If the tubes became exposed, they risk shifting and cracking and they're also more vulnerable to terrorist threats.  The Port Authority is studying solutions.  In 1903, a barge in the Arthur Kill — the oily, mucky arm of the harbour between Staten Island and New Jersey — capsized, spilling its cargo of silver ingots.  It carried 7,678 bars; about 6,000 were quickly recovered.  The rest are presumably still there.  At today’s price for silver, they're worth about $26 million.  Every now and then, someone tries to find them but so far, no luck.

The ice that covers much of Greenland is melting faster now due to global climate change, raising world sea levels.  But sea level does not rise evenly around the globe.  Sea level in the North Atlantic is currently 28 inches lower than in the North Pacific, because the Atlantic has a dense, compact layer of deep, cold water that the Pacific lacks.  Sea levels off the northeast coast of North America - including Boston and New York - could rise by 12 - 20 inches more than other coastal areas because the rate of ice-melting in Greenland could send so much fresh water into the salty north Atlantic Ocean that it could change the vast ocean circulation pattern.

"Autumn" by Taurus13 "Golden Path" by Tais - This is autumn in Chairi
Lake, Bulgaria, deep in the heart of the Rodopi
Mountains, close to the small town of Trigrad.
"Morning Lights" by Kiefer
"Autumn Birches" by Опилкин "Hazy Autumn Day" by Arkady Day
Slight autumn fog in a field at sunset.

"Renminbi" means People's Currency and is the name of China's money, while "yuan" is the base unit of said currency.  The Chinese never say renminbi - but then again, they don't say yuan either.  It's kuai ("piece") in normal speech.  When used in English in the context of the modern foreign exchange market, the Yuan or Chinese yuan most commonly refers to the renminbi (CNY).  The distinction between yuan and renminbi is analogous to that between pound and sterling.  A yuan equals 10 jiao ("feathers") and each jiao is 10 fen ("cent").  Yuan is related etymologically to the Japanese yen because both have historical meanings of roundness (as in coins): during the Qing Dynasty, the yuan was a round silver coin.  During the period 1948 - 1955 as communist forces took control of most of China, a new currency was introduced (in banknote form only) denominated in yuan.  This became the sole currency of mainland China at the end of the civil war.  A new yuan was introduced in 1955 at a rate of 10,000 old yuan = 1 new yuan.  This is known as the renminbi yuan.  At the moment, the renminbi is far from ready to achieve reserve currency status.  China must first ease restrictions on money entering and leaving the country, make its currency fully convertible for such transactions, continue its domestic financial reforms and make its bond markets more liquid.  It will take a long time for the renminbi to become a reserve currency, but it can happen.  If China and other countries diversify their reserve holdings away from the dollar — as they eventually will — the US will suffer.  America has reaped significant financial benefit in the past - in particular, a strong market for the dollar allows them to borrow at better rates, thus being able to finance larger deficits for longer and at lower interest rates (because foreign demand keeps Treasury yields low).  The US issues debt in its own currency rather than a foreign one, thus shifting the losses of a fall in the value of the dollar to creditors.  Having commodities priced in dollars has also meant that a fall in the dollar’s value doesn’t lead to a rise in the price of imports.

Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George.  Jack is married but George is not.  Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?  This question is meant to check your rationality rather than your IQ.  (ANSWER at the bottom of the page.)  Ponzi schemes, recovered memory theory, conspiracy theories, tax-evasion schemes, win-the-lottery scams, fraudulent investment schemes, Holocaust denying, UFO abductions, astrology, overconfidence, Intelligent Design, creationism and religious fundamentalism are examples of a "contaminated" (irrational) mind...  Another type of contamination?  Kudzu (or kuzu in Japan) was just beginning to invade our property when we lived in North Carolina in the 1980s.  I would go out a couple of times a week to pull up any starts I saw - a neighbouring farmer told me that once kudzu establishes itself, the only way to be rid of is to till the soil down a couple of feet and rake through it for seeds and sprouting bits.  (Close weekly mowing will deplete the plant until it dies as well.  Grazing goats or llamas can also kill vines over time.)  We had about 3 acres of large pines and hardwoods - and I'd seen kudzu take over similar nearby places, coating everything with such a leaf blanket that all the trees died.  Yet I hear kudzu isn't all bad: it's a legume and therefore fixes nitrogen in the soil.  Its hay is nutritious for animals, though the yield-per-acre is low because of too many vines.  An extract of kudzu reduces alcoholic cravings; it contains anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial agents and helps prevent cancer and leukemia.  It treats migraine and cluster headaches and is recommended for allergies, diarrhea, tinnitus, vertigo, hypertension and diabetes type II.  In China, it's considered one of the "50 fundamental herbs".  It can be used to make soap, jelly and compost.  Kudzu has been found as far north as New Jersey and costs the US half a billion dollars a year in control efforts and lost cropland.  It appears to be becoming a problem in NE Australia and in parts of Italy.

Who is this mystery woman?  In the complete opposite direction from her we have Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles (Collins) a humour (?) book whose subject is the former US vice presidential candidate.  This book is a satire written by "the editors of the Wasilla Iron Dog Gazette."  In that same spirit of satire, two HarperCollins editors, Bruce Nichols and Adam Bellow (son of Saul), "spoke on behalf of the authors."  The book features digitally altered photographs of Palin and her family, annotated in "the Governor’s own hand," which provide "a fascinating running commentary on her life."  Fascinating to whom?  Mentioning this book does NOT constitute an endorsement, just a juxtaposition.  (BTW, most of the photos on this page can be clicked for a larger image.)  Most of us will insist there are valid reasons for going to Harvard or buying a BMW or an iPhone — and there are, of course.  The education and the products both yield many kinds of rewards.  But much of the pleasure stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the "Big 5" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.  A series of experiments shows that people are more likely to spend money and effort (and votes?) on products and activities if they're first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or with stories about dating.  After this priming, men are more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations.  Women become more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity — a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for 3rd world farmers via spending extra for Starbucks’s "fair trade" coffee.  How much good are these signals actually doing you?  Not much - who even notices?  Instinctively, we treat strangers as if they’re potential mates, friends, or enemies.  But happiness and survival today don’t depend on your relationships with strangers - it doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or from a stranger in an airport.

Why being beautiful may not be such a wonderful gift after all: "Age is a terrible avenger.  The lessons of life give you so much to work with, but by the time you’ve got all this great wisdom, you don’t get to be young anymore.  And in this world, that’s just about the worst thing that can happen — especially to a woman.  Whoever said youth is wasted on the young actually got it wrong; it’s more that maturity is wasted on the old.  I was both emotionally unkempt and mentally unhinged — deeply depressed, drugged, sensitive, and nasty all at once — during the years I was supposed to be spousing up.  My judgment was so lousy, I probably deserve plentiful wedding gifts — Tiffany silverware to serve several dozen — for all the people I didn’t marry, because the men I dated were awfully bad choices, and I was not such a good bet myself.  These days, I am a stable adult professional — a practicing attorney, capable of common sense — but I still know how to live life on the edge.  I was a terrifically brooding and mature teenager, then a whiny and puerile adult, and now I may finally approximate the grace of a person who has come of age.  But it took a very long time — probably far too long.  Now that I am a woman whom some man might actually like to be with, might actually not want to punch in the face — or, at least, now that I don’t like guys who want to do that to me — I am sadly 41.  I am past my perfect years.  Eventually, at some somber and sobering calendar date, most of us lose our looks and likewise one of our charms — and I will lose mine.  At which time, for me at least, there won’t be much point to life anymore at all." - Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation


If a robot has arms of metal cylinders with bolts, to make it more humanlike, we paint them in skin tones.  Cosmetic efforts increase familiarity and likeability.  But consider: there may be a grey area where the robot becomes too familiar for comfort but not enough like us to be indistinguishable.  Recall in the past when you felt sympathy for a handicapped person with a prosthetic arm or leg.  Today, prosthetic hands have improved such that some can't readily be distinguished from the real at a glance (they have veins, muscles, tendons, fingernails, fingerprints); the colour is that of human pigmentation.  These limbs have a verisimilitude on par with false teeth - too real?  When we subsequently notice it's fake, it seems strange - we shake the hand and are surprised by hard tissue and coldness - there's no sense of familiarity; the limb is uncanny.  In mathematical terms, strangeness is negative familiarity.  The prosthetic hand is therefore shown in the diagram above at the bottom of an "uncanny valley."  When we die, we fall into a trough of that valley because our bodies are cold, our colour changes, our movements cease.  Our impression of death can be explained by a plunge from the 2nd peak to the uncanny valley (shown by a dashed line).  At least this line falls into the valley of a corpse, not that of the living dead!  [I presume this is science humour?] This explains the mystery and why humans might naturally have evolved such a "strangeness" feeling - at one time, it served our self-preservation.  But that feeling is no longer necessary.  More.
  Iceland is on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where magma wells up to form fresh crust.  Hawaii also sits on a plume, but in the Pacific. 

Periodic thickening of the techtonic plates stretching outward from both mid-ocean ridges suggests that there is a 15-million-year pulse in the magma plume that is thought to be driving them both at once. 

As the magma plumes in Iceland and Hawaii appear to have strengthened in sync with each other, this suggests a shared origin at the core - this could be considered a planetary "heartbeat".

Is plate techtonics, then, a sign of life?

About Wolfram|Alpha: a good friend recommended I try this, so I did.  At first I thought it was me - I skipped the sample questions they suggest you try and started asking my own.  I couldn't form a single question I cared about that I was able to get an answer to - it always said, "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input" or else "Functionality for this topic is under development."  I thought the problem must be mine.  But later the same day, I ran across a Slate article that stated, "in my few days of using it, I've found Wolfram Alpha almost completely useless."  The author concludes, "It's an idiot savant, smart about a few things but profoundly ignorant about large swaths of human knowledge."  I prefer the term savant syndrome myself, but I can't fault the sentiment.  I also agree that Wolfram|Alpha will undoubtedly improve over time, though it doesn't seem to learn from its unsatisfactory answers, so I'm not certain just how much improvement is likely.  If Wolfram is overloaded with traffic or just not working properly, it will let you know.  The creepy thing, though, is how it lets you know: "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.  Wolfram|Alpha has temporarily exceeded its current maximum test load."

The All-You-Need-to-Know Department: Fiji’s government has extended for another 30 days its "emergency regulations" that, among other things, control public gatherings and forbid the media from printing stories that "undermine the Government and the State of Fiji."  These rules allow the Permanent Secretary of Information the ability to place censors in newsrooms, accompanied by plainclothes policeman.  Fiji’s government says the 30-day extension was "highly necessary," and that censorship will "help the country progress towards democracy."  In fact, "the people of Fiji are now experiencing a remarkable change from what used to be highly negative and sensationalized news to a more positive, balanced and responsible reporting by the media," says Government and Military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Neumi Leweni.  We lived in Lami Town (outside Suva) in Fiji for several months in 1994. I made several friends there and grew to love the place.  I hope they get their problems worked out before their tourist business (which supports many many Fijians) suffers any more than it already has...  Beautiful and creepy, this huge hole in the ground situated in Darvaz, Uzbekistan was once a gas drilling site where 35 years ago geologists discovered a massive cavern filled with an unknown gas.  It is claimed that since there was a danger of poisonous gases in the cavern, the drilling company decided to ignite the gases before proceeding with the drilling.  The hole has been burning ever since.

The journal Nature took a poll asking if readers sharpen their focus, concentration, or memory by taking drugs such as Ritalin or Provigil (generic modafinil, developed to treat narcolepsy).  One of 5 said yes.  A majority of the 1,400 responders said healthy adults should be permitted to take brain boosters for non-medical reasons; 69% said mild side effects were okay.  Though a majority said such drugs shouldn't be available to children with no diagnosed medical condition, 1/3 admitted they'd feel pressure to give "smart drugs" to their kids if other parents did.  Competitive anxieties are already in the workplace.  In an advice column in Wired a reader worries about a rising star at work who uses unprescribed modafinil to put in crazy hours.  The boss is unhappy that the reader isn't as productive.  On Internet forums people trade advice about dosages and "stacks" — improvised combinations of neuroenhancers.  ("Cut a tablet into ┬╝ths and take 25 mg every 4 hours; have a great and productive day with no side effects.")  In a recent post, a 52-year-old full-time worker studying for an advanced degree at night writes that after experimenting with modafinil he settled on 2 daily doses of 100 milligrams each, believing he performs better and is more animated in discussions.  New psychiatric drugs create markets for themselves; disorders become widely diagnosed after new drugs come along.  In this way Ritalin and Adderall made ADHD a household name; advertisements for antidepressants define shyness as a malady.  If a pill clears up the wavering focus of sleep-deprived youth or mitigates the tip-of-the-tongue experience of middle age, then those rather ordinary states come to be syndromes.  "Drugs get better and the market get bigger."  But there's a trade-off - individuals better able to focus on one thing filtering out distractions tend to be less creative.  What'll it be for you?  Remember that as of today, neuroenhancers create an unfair advantage for those users willing to break the law to gain that edge.  Don't want to use drugs to make yourself smarter?  How about a computer chip, then?  The Pentagon’s mad-science division Darpa has a $4 million program to start up "Silent Talk" whose goal is to allow user-to-user communication on the battlefield via analysis of neural signals without use of vocalized speech.  That’s on top of the $4 million the Army gave to the University of California to investigate potential computer-mediated telepathy.  (Do punishments for thought crimes loom?)  On the other hand, you could just spend time searching the web, sharpening your brain by yourself - the leftmost pink-and-white brain read a book while the right one searched the web - but only those with high web-search experience register this extensive activity in decision-making and complex-reasoning portions of their brains.  (So get busy!)

Big Ant International won a Gold Pencil for Design (Public Service Poster) at the One Show Design Awards
for 4 posters designed to wrap around poles, campaigning for an end to war in Iraq and pointing to the Global Coalition for Peace website.
Grenades, rifles, missiles and tank guns go round a pole to catch up with the aggressor in each poster.  "What goes around comes around" is the theme.


I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe.  I could not disagree more.  As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.  What's more, they undermine the rule of law.  They alienate us in the world.  They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America.  They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.  In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

- US President Barack Obama

ANSWER:  Yes.  If Anne is married, then she is looking at George, who is unmarried.  If Anne is not married then Jack, who is married, is looking at her.

Bureaucracy is not an obstacle to democracy but an inevitable complement to it.

- Joseph A Schumpeter

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