Basic Awareness


News and Site Updates Archive 2009/06/19

As we all know, the true cost of something is what you give up to get it.
So, taking any one path means forsaking all those other paths (whose number has in recent decades been rising).
The paradox of choice, then, is that more choices make us subjectively less happy.
But if you ask people whether having fewer choices would make them happier, no one ever actually says that yes, it would.

- Tim Worstall, The Adam Smith Institute

19 Jun '09 -


"What is a salmofan?" you may very well be thinking.  Let me ask you: would you enjoy your food less, the same, or more if you ate with a blindfold on or in a pitch black room?  I think I'd like food better - at least at first until the novelty wore off - because with fewer distractions I'd pay more attention to flavour.  (But I'd spill more.)  Some people would enjoy their food less because much of their pleasure comes from the way food looks.  (These are folks who can't eat green mashed potatoes despite it being St Patrick's Day.)  Wild salmon gets its red colour from dietary krill.  Farmed salmon often get protein from domestic animal by-products.  I don't know what colour that makes their flesh - apparently not red, however, because the salmofan is designed to let fish farmers select the colour they want to achieve via addition of colouring agent canthaxanthin (which can cause eye defects and retinal damage in humans if too much is ingested) or astaxanthin (produced synthetically from petrochemical sources and which can add 15 - 25% to the cost of production).  Why must the salmon be red?  Because we've come to expect it.  Grey or brown or green (whatever colour farmed salmon would naturally be) would taste the same as the stuff dyed red, though many people wouldn't buy it, so they'd never know (and wouldn't eat it if someone else bought it).  This group contains exactly ½ the members of my family.  I think people who need food to look good may have weaker stomach acid.  They therefore need visual cues as well as taste and smell to be sure they don't eat something bad because weaker stomach acid could allow more bacteria to get through.

Many hypothermia victims die each year in the process of being rescued.  In "rewarming shock," the constricted capillaries reopen almost all at once, causing a sudden drop in blood pressure.  The slightest movement can send a victim's heart muscle into wild spasms of ventricular fibrillation.  In 1980, 16 shipwrecked Danish fishermen were hauled to safety after 90 minutes in the frigid North Sea.  They then walked across the deck of the rescue ship, stepped below for a hot drink, and dropped dead, all 16 of them...  Typhoons may have a benefit: those which hit Taiwan unleash long, slow earthquakes, a phenomenon that may save the island from devastation.  Slow quakes entail a slippage in the fault that unfolds progressively over hours or days, rather than a sudden, violent release that destroys buildings and lives.  A typhoon causes a fall in atmospheric pressure which reduces pressure on land over the fault so that one side of the fault can lift slightly.  Otherwise, stress would continue to accumulate.  Nevertheless, mudslides and floods can still wreak immense devastation...  Lightning hits the planet about 100 times every second, or roughly 8 million times a day.

Passengers on a Chinese Shandong Airlines flight were asked to get out and push the 20-ton plane about 800 metres when it broke down shortly after landing.  It took the 69 passengers and 7 crew two hours to reach the gate.  This is but one of the many fascinating experiences related on travel writer Doug Lansky's site The Titanic Awards which details the worst of those occasions when "everything goes wrong".  Bad experiences are suppressed by newspapers because they might negatively affect advertising revenue.  But, as Lansky says, "if the media is not holding poorly run airlines, hotels, restaurants, tour operators, tourist boards and their like accountable, who will?" (via Stuff).  Be sure to check out the naughty baggage handlers - a real eye-opener to airline passengers...  Designer plasters made of leather for only US$15 for a pack of 3.  Luis Vuitton band-aids are also available, but you have to email for a price on them.  Does it make you want to cut yourself just so you can wear one? (via Neatorama).

Subdivision: Goldenwood Shores
This is a work of art.  However, should such a place actually exist (and some come close), if you lived there, would it get tiresome or always seem fresh and unique?  (You would use more fuel and it would take you more time.)
When people consider products for future use, "desirability" is a primary consideration.  When people consider a product for immediate use, "feasibility" become a higher priority.  For example, consumers who contemplate purchasing a new word processor for future use give great weight to quality-related features only, whereas those who consider purchasing it immediately attach importance to the ease of learning how to use it as well.  People evaluating an apartment for immediate occupancy tend to value its affordability, while those evaluating it for moving into in some months' time place more emphasis on spaciousness.  In somewhat related research, people shopping in stores with wide aisles tend to buy products of less variety than those shopping in stores with more cramped aisles.  I'd assume that stores with limited space (think convenience or "Mom and Pop" stores) tend to put less of each product out for consumers so that they can maintain a level of variety similar to their larger competitors.  The sight of varied products virtually side-by-side (rather than, say, a whole shelf of Cokes over a whole shelf of Perrier) apparently triggers the impulse to try something new.  Maybe smaller stores sell out of the brand you came for so you pick a similar brand?  I guess even self-evident things need initial testing.

Surgery has become an integral part of global health care, with an estimated 234 million operations performed yearly.  Surgical complications are common and often preventable.  As an experiment, a 19-item surgical safety checklist (containing items like "Does everyone know the patient's allergies?", "Were all needles, sponges and instruments counted after surgery?" and "Have all specimens been labelled correctly?") designed to improve team communication and consistency of care was introduced.  The hospitals were located in Toronto, Canada; New Delhi, India; Amman, Jordan; Auckland, New Zealand; Manila, Philippines; Ifakara, Tanzania; London, England; and Seattle, Washington, USA.  The rates of death and complications among patients declined (by up to half) in all of them.

"Nana, the matriarch of the elephant herd, gathered her clan, loped up to the fence and stretched out her trunk, touching the electric wires.  The 8,000-volt charge sent a jolt shuddering through her bulk.  She backed off.  Then, with her family in tow, she strode the entire perimeter of the enclosure, pointing her trunk at the wire to check for vibrations from the electric current.  As I went to bed that night, I noticed the elephants lining up along the fence, facing out towards their former home.  It looked ominous.  I was woken several hours later by one of the reserve's rangers, shouting, "The elephants have gone!  They've broken out!"  The two adult elephants had worked as a team to fell a tree, smashing it onto the electric fence and then charging out of the enclosure.  I scrambled together a search party and we raced to the border of the game reserve, but we were too late.  They had somehow found the generator that powered the electric fence around the reserve.  After trampling it like a tin can, they had pulled the concrete-embedded fence posts out of the ground like matchsticks, and headed north." - Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.

The president of Canon Electronics removed all chairs from his company and installed security devices so an alarm goes off if you don't walk fast enough.  His feels forcing employees to stand not only saves money but increases productivity and enhances employee relationships.  In the hallway, if a worker walks slower than 5 metres every 3.6 seconds, an alarm and flashing lights go off, notifying everyone that here is an inefficient waste of air.  A sign on the hallway floor reads, "Let's rush: If we don't, the company and world will perish"...  Traditional light bulbs work by running electricity through a thin wire which heats up and glows.  Most energy used goes into heating; only 2% becomes light.  Fluorescent bulbs heat a coiled wire only enough to throw off electrons which convert low-pressure mercury vapour into plasma.  This heavy-metal vapour emits ultraviolet light.  The white powder on the inside of the glass converts UV into visible light by fluorescence — hence the name.  This uses 25% of the energy to make the same intensity light and lasts longer - but incandescents are easy to manufacture and environmentally gentle; mercury vapour is toxic.  New compact fluorescent bulbs limit mercury to 5 milligrams - but a tiny fraction of that can make you seriously ill: shaking hands, drooling, memory loss, weakness.  Break one of these bulbs in your house, current advice is to open a window, then run and don't come back for at least 15 minutes.  Or keep your incandescents and just turn them off when you're not home to save money?  There may soon be another option: light emitting diodes have an energy efficiency similar to fluorescents but a friendlier environmental impact.  (No mercury!)  They're expensive today because most are based on a sapphire substrate.  But researchers at Purdue University found a way to use silicon metalized with zirconium nitride insulated with aluminium - this means cheaper LEDs will be available in a couple of years - and they're about 4 times more efficient than incandescents and last as long as 15 years before burning out.

Sean Quinn: "In the hockey analogy, Palin wouldn’t get within a thousand miles of an NHL All-Star Game because she’s not a scoring talent.  She’s a role player, an emotion-rouser.  Emotion messes with the chalkboard-drawn game plan and thus achieves a specific strategic objective.  She can make game-changing agitation plays that rouse her home team and provoke the other side into counterattacks that – 100% of the time – end up punishing the team who hits back.  Democrats would be smart to understand her as such, and I see a lot of reaction that doesn't seem to grasp what Palin is doing and the value she's providing.  I see a lot of Democrats taking a lot of bait."  Longest sentence ever created including the word bold?  "I'll know that I have spoken up and I will speak up to thank people like Mr Reagan as we honour his dad, to encourage you too, Alaskans, to do the same and don't just hang in there and go along to get along but stand up and speak up, and be bold and demand that Washington be prudent with our public monies and prioritise for America's security, and forget the political correctness that makes one guard your conversation, and couch our words so cautiously that they lose meaning, and we lose effectiveness, and then we lose hope because we start thinking that politicians are only worried about their poll numbers and attracting campaign contributions for their next bid so that they can hold on to some title and some position." - Sarah Palin...  How many elements of the periodic table can you name in 15 minutes?  Find out!  By the way, the periodic table will soon have a new addition - the "super-heavy" element 112.  It can't be added until it is officially named - but there seems little reason to hurry - thus far, only 4 atoms have ever been observed.

Clay Bennett illustrates high-def tv.  The point?
"Even though you can see it better, it's still garbage."

This is one of the major landfill sites for the London area; the Mucking Marshes (from aerial photography by Jason Hawkes).  Just seeing the scope of what we throw away over a year can overwhelm our senses.  I think that visiting dumps, incinerators, water purification plants, junkyards and recycling plants is instructive for alert citizens. A different kind of trash: If Elton John and Donatella Versace team up to create a hotel, it might look like Dubai's Burj Al Arab.  Self-described as "tremendously bold," it's perhaps the world's most expensive hotel.  View a walk-through of a 2-bedroom suite.  Impressive, though some rooms (bedroom ceiling mirrors notwithstanding), appear a bit - ummmm - garish.  But I'd enjoy my stay anyway.
In New York City, when there’s a rainstorm, far more water goes into the drainage system than sewage-treatment plants can handle.  So the overflow pipes open wide and all our wastewater — including the untreated effluvia of 8 million people — goes straight into the ocean.  The day after a storm, the harbour is brown and thick with stirred-up silt that is shot through with human waste.  Sometimes you can even see shreds of toilet paper.  When divers emerge from the harbour on those days, their suits have to be scrubbed down with bleach or kerosene before the men can strip them off.

US government officials are concerned that the quality of the Global Positioning System (GPS) could begin to deteriorate as early as next year, resulting in regular blackouts and failures – or even dishing out inaccurate directions to millions of people worldwide.  The network of GPS satellites that constantly orbit the planet are overseen by the US Air Force, which has maintained the GPS network since the early 1990s.  According to a study by the US government accountability office (GAO), mismanagement and a lack of investment means that some of the crucial GPS satellites could begin to fail as early as next year.  The first replacement GPS satellite was due to launch at the beginning of 2007, but has been delayed several times and is now scheduled to go into orbit in November this year – almost 3 years late.

It might seem a total wonder that a smoker won't quit after hearing that puffing away is a leading cause of death, or that an obese person can't shed a few pounds after learning that lethal ailments loom for the overweight.  But scientists have come up with a host of reasons why humans stick to bad habits, and they are zeroing in on what to do about it.  Among the reasons:

bulletInnate human defiance.
bulletNeed for social acceptance.
bulletInability to truly understand the nature of risk.
bulletIndividualistic view of the world and the ability to rationalize unhealthy habits.
bulletGenetic predisposition to addiction.
You'd think people were on a one-track mission to self-destruct rather than desiring immortality.  Humans tend to live for now and into the limited future — not the long term.

Have you hugged your cat today?  A growing body of medical research suggests that people who own or interact regularly with animals may be healthier than people who don't.  One study found that cat owners are less likely to die of a heart attack than non-cat owners.  Others point to how pet interaction may help protect against allergies, asthma, and even some kinds of cancer.

If you have a purpose in life — lofty or not — you’ll live longer.  It doesn’t seem to matter much what the purpose is, or whether the purpose involves a goal that’s ambitious or modest, people who report a greater level of purpose are substantially less likely to die over a 3-year follow up period as compared to people with a lower level of purpose.  But I don't think this shows that purpose causes the effect of living longer.  Perhaps people who sense they're approaching death are less goal-oriented.

According to a 2008 survey by Technorati (who runs a search engine for blogs), only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days.  That translates to 95% of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.  Judging from conversations with retired bloggers, many of the orphans were cast aside by people who assumed that once they started blogging, the world would beat a path to their digital door.  But not all fallow blogs die from lack of reader interest - some bloggers find themselves too busy with, say, homework and swim practice, or perhaps even housework and parenting.  Others graduate to more immediate formats, like Twitter and Facebook.

Jim Lewis and Jim Springer first met 9 February 1979 after 39 years of being separated.  They were identical twins who had been separated at birth, raised in different families, and had grown to adulthood completely unaware of each other's existence.  Jim Lewis finally found his twin brother, Jim Springer, after years of searching through court records.  When the two first met, Lewis described it as "like looking into a mirror."  For starters, both had the same first name.  They were physically identical.  But when they got talking, the similarities were astounding.  Both had childhood dogs named Toy.  Both had been nail biters and fretful sleepers.  Both had migraines.  Both had married 1st wives names Linda, 2nd wives named Betty.  Lewis named his 1st son James Allen, Springer named his James Alan.  For years, they both had driven a light-blue Chevrolet to Pas Grille Beach in Florida for family vacations.  They both drank Miller Lite, smoked Salem cigarettes, loved stock car racing, disliked baseball, left regular love notes to their wives, made doll furniture in their basements and had added circular white benches around the trees in their backyards.  Both Jims had at one time held part-time posts as sheriffs.  Their IQs, habits, facial expressions, brain waves, heartbeats, and handwriting were nearly identical.  The Jim twins lived apart but died on the same day, from the same illness.

Old Jews telling jokes. (I didn't call them that - they call themselves that!)  Very professionally filmed, too...  Young teens texting friends: American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the 4th quarter of 2008 — almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier.  The phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation.  Psychologists expect to see teenagers break free from their parents as they grow into autonomous adults, but if technology makes staying in touch very, very easy, you have adolescents texting their mothers 15 times a day asking for advice...  The US debt now sits at an incredible $668,621 per household (including Medicare and social security obligations).  If each household pays their share at a mere 3% interest per year, it will take 30 years of paying $34,092 each year - almost $3,000 per month to pay it off.  According to US Census Bureau data, the 2007 median household income was $50,233 before taxes.  Some belt-tightening may be required, though inflation and population growth will help a little...  Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has advanced enough that it can be difficult to distinguish it from reality.  But the creation of the sounds that accompany the images are still largely the work of skilled "Foley artists" working with physical props.  Soon, though, computers may be able to generate eerily accurate sounds for film soundtracks too.

In the Iowa gambling test, participants choose cards from 4 decks.  With each card they draw, they either win or lose money, and the object of the game is to win as much as possible.  Some of the decks are associated with small gains and small losses, but will earn a player money over time.  Certain "bad decks" carry higher rewards, but also incur larger penalties, and lose money over time.  If the player adopts an optimal strategy, he makes a profit.  But patients with frontal lobe damage don't learn from their experiences.  They continue to choose from the bad decks.  Rats in a similar situation but using gates with varying rewards of food and varying length lockout penalties quickly find the best strategy for amassing the most food...  "A blind friend of mine fell completely head over heels in love with a girl he thought the world of.  They started dating.  He talked about her all the time and, as mates do, he stopped going down to the pub and started to prefer homemade meals and a nice bottle of wine with his loved one.  I remember him saying how much he liked her soft voice and her perfume.  They had similar politics, liked the same films, read the same books - a match made in heaven.  Then, his brother met her and unpleasantly told him she looked 'a right dog.'  My friend dumped her.  She was devastated.  I found it terribly sad but half understood where he was coming from.  So insecure was he about the world and what image and attractiveness meant, that he felt he had to get rid of someone who could reflect badly on him because he didn't know any better.  And on this occasion, he deferred to his brother who could see, after all."

Erotomania is a rare delusion in which the subject believes that another person is in love with him or her.  The patient
believes that the other person declared his or her affection first, often by special glances, signals, telepathy, or messages
through the media.  Usually the patient “returns” this affection by means of letters, phone calls, gifts, and visits to the
confused recipient.  The illness is often a secondary disorder in patients with schizophrenia or bipolar mania.

Urine should be pale yellow to show you're optimally hydrated.  But just what does "pale yellow" look like?  Collect a
urine sample in a clear plastic cup and compare it to the colours in the beakers. The lighter your specimen the better.  If
you tend to drink sporatically during the day, check 3 urine samples in a row and average them to obtain a proper reading.
You must use a sample cup to get a proper sample else dilution with toilet water may lead you to think
you're more hydrated than you really are.  - Runner's World June 1999

In the Flesh: Leonardo da Vinci may have painted his famous Mona Lisa in a number of styles - including nude.  This painting, which features many parallels to the original Mona Lisa, was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci at purchase in 1845.  The newly revealed painting, hidden for almost a century within the wood wall of a private library, shows a portrait of a half-naked woman with clear links to the famous (and clothed) Mona Lisa.  But it may just be based on one of the artist's now-lost works.  The painting is on exhibit at the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where Da Vinci was born in 1452...  "The Sims attracts people who wouldn't normally play video games," says Rod Humble, head of Electronic Arts' gigantic Sims label.  "It's amazing how balanced it is between genders - we usually start off with a slight majority of males, then end it with a slight majority of females.  We allow players to do whatever they want.  That goes for careers and relationships and is really interactive storytelling.  The lack of language helps - ironically because you don't hear the Sims speaking, it really helps people tell their own stories.  Internally, we've referred to the Sims as 'hamsters with jobs', and it's an idea that it's half a pet, half a person simulator.  We sort of keep that balance that you're part looking down on them, but part playing as them"...  Beefcakes may be able to attract women by rippling their muscles, but the downside of all that brawn is a poor immune system.  Women tend to prefer more toned men, and muscle-bound men tend to have more sexual partners than slender men (and more muscled men tended to lose their virginity at a younger age compared to skinny men).  But that musculature comes with a cost: testosterone, a hormone that promotes secondary muscle growth, suppresses the immune system of all animals, including people.  Muscles also increase appetite, so being overweight can develop as a problem as well.

Do you think you're smarter than most?  Chances are, your children will feel the same way about themselves.  A new study of thousands of twins suggests that intellectual confidence is genetically inherited, and it is independent from actual intelligence.  (This may explains the misplaced arrogance of some people.  Some are like Slinkies - not really good for anything, but you can't help smiling when you see one tumble down the stairs)...  Babies cry for one of 5 reasons: hunger, annoyance, boredom, stress (which includes feeling pain), or sleepiness.  The crying will continue and usually escalate until the parent responds appropriately.  Like gurgling and smiling, crying strengthens parent/child bonding.  Successful empathic encounters engendered by crying thus are a primary building block of babies’ developing neural networks.  But empathic failures can have dire consequences.  Some parents can’t figure out what’s causing the crying because of their own excessive anxiety, depression, narcissism, autism, or some other disorder that smothers empathy.  As they become more frustrated, the crying crescendos and parent and child become locked in a negative feedback loop that, if entrenched, can result in developmental delays, emotional disorders, even child abuse.

How NOT to write a personals ad: "Interesting, intelligent, active, fun, funny, simple, loyal, spontaneous, open-minded, laid-back.  I love music, travel, sports, the outdoors, movies, drinking, going out (but sometimes I like to stay in).  Comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans or formal wear.  Friends and family are very important to me.  My friend told me about this site, so I thought I’d try it out.  I like road trips, dive bars, sarcasm.  I’m tired of games.  I work hard and play hard.  Looking for a partner in crime."

Just how important is good spelling, anywayIt deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.  Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.  This item spread across the internet in 2003; ostensibly it originated with Cambridge researchers, however, it appears that it actually originated in a phd thesis at Nottingham University in 1976.  My point in including it here is merely to point out that people who are real sticklers about spelling in casual writing need to be sure they are clear on why it bothers them so much.

Nearly 3/4 of the people who took the Massachusetts elementary school teacher’s licensing exam this year failed the new math section - only 27% of the more than 600 candidates passed.  Possibly this means students will not be getting a good basic grounding in math before moving into secondary school and that would be too bad.

A Presbyterian, Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin took a small communion kit with him to the moon so he could take holy communion there.  The chalice is now back at the Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas, where it is used in an annual service.  Aldrin did not read the biblical verses he had intended to over the radio before he took communion owing to a lawsuit that had been brought against NASA by atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair - who had earlier become incensed at the reading of verses from the Book of Genesis by the Apollo 8 crew.  She said government employees on a scientific mission should not promote religious ideas.  The Supreme Court threw the case out on the grounds that it had no jurisdiction in outer space.

More than two-thirds of astronauts questioned suffered from headaches on missions yet were headache free back on Earth.  The disabling headaches appeared unique - described by the crew as "exploding" - and were generally unrelated to common space motion sickness.  Microgravity is known to cause lower oxygen levels in the blood and this may be the trigger.  Microgravity also causes a shift in the body's fluid towards the brain which raises intracranial pressure.

Elastigirl.  Wow.  I found this somewhat disturbing.

Remember, if you smoke after sex you're doing it too fast.

"I've joined Alcoholics Anonymous.  I still drink, but under a different name."

Giant jellyfish are taking over parts of the world's oceans due to overfishing and other human activities.  Nomura jellyfish are the biggest in the world and can grow as big as a sumo wrestler.  They weigh up to 200 kilograms and can reach 2 metres in diameter.  Jellyfish are normally kept in check by fish, which eat small jellyfish and compete for jellyfish food such as zooplankton but with overfishing, jellyfish numbers are increasing.  Jellyfish feed on fish eggs and larvae, further impacting on fish numbers.  To add insult to injury, nitrogen and phosphorous in run-off cause red phytoplankton blooms, which create low-oxygen dead zones where jellyfish survive, but fish cannot.  Click image to enlarge...  Mullets: Business in the front, party in the back...  People’s expectation about the value of what they’re consuming profoundly affects their experience.  We know that people have favourite beverage brands, for instance, but in blind taste tests they frequently can’t tell one from another: the value that marketers attach to the brand, rather than the drink’s flavour, is often what truly adds to the taste experience.  Recent brain imaging studies show that when people believe they’re drinking expensive wine, their reward circuitry is more active than when they think they’re drinking cheap wine - even when the wines are identical.  Similarly, when people believe they’re taking cheap painkillers, they experience less relief than when they take the same but higher-priced pills.  (This reminds me of the blind man above who liked the girl until he found that others were not enriching him with their envy.)

Amongst the elderly, most oppose too much, discuss too long, act too late, and regret too early.

Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.

- Frank Borman

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