Ours Is a Tolerable Planet


News and Site Updates Archive 2009/07/31

There is no humour in heaven.

- Mark Twain

1965 Marriage31 Jul '09 - Who is this mystery couple?  Click photo for larger image and link to answer...  A video shot on the Rokko Liner in Kobe, Japan shows how paperclips stand on end when the train accelerates and brakes.  The magnetism is produced by the electric current that drives motors located under the floor; presumably it poses no harm to humans, though it can damage credit cards, mobile phones or other electronic devices left on the floor.  (Note, this is a regular train, not a maglev.)  There have been instances of multi-track magnetic tapes from recording sessions suffering drop-outs after being left on the floor of London Underground trains, even for brief periods - but probably true only where motors are under the carriage.  Generally the middle of a carriage is less affected than either end.  Via Neatorama...  "I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible.  Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride a bicycle.  Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere I was willing to let her go.  Should I send my children out to play?  There is a small grocery store around the corner, 200 yards from our front door.  Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts?  Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together, she on her bike, me following along a safe distance behind.  What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our residential neighbourhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn't encounter a single other child.  Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?" - Michael Chabon

Federal Debt Held by the Public under the Congressional Budget Office’s Long-Term Budget Scenarios (Percentage of GDP): Under current law, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path, because federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run.  Although great uncertainty surrounds long-term fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the ageing of the population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario for current law.  Unless revenues increase just as rapidly, the rise in spending will produce growing budget deficits.  Large budget deficits reduce national savings, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, in turn depressing economic growth in the United States.  Over time, accumulating debt causes substantial harm to the economy.  (The future may not be as comfortable as the past.  Gird yourself.)

Imprinting is a rapid form of learning in which animals develop preferences through brief exposure to things early in life.  Nativists (researchers who align themselves with the "nature" perspective) attribute the quick learning to a genetic predisposition, pointing to examples like ducklings following their mother's call as soon as they hatch.  But research has shown that embryonic ducks, while still in the egg, are exposed to sounds from their embryonic siblings as well as sounds that they themselves make.  When these so-called "talking eggs" are deprived of these embryonic experiences, they do not show a preference for their mother's call upon hatching.  Clearly, to say that imprinting in ducks is innate does not come close to capturing the elegance and complexity of the real process...  Upon meeting the medical staff, he was filled with terror...  Kiwi households are getting smaller: The size of NZ households (that is, the number of people living in a single dwelling) is decreasing.  The average household has 2.6 people and this will reduce to 2.4 over the coming 20 years.  This is largely a result of fewer 2-parent households with children, and more couples not having children.  At the same time, the houses are getting larger.  From 1990 to this year, the average house size has increased by 39% (from 140 square metres to 195 square metres).  New Zealand has, on average, the 3rd largest houses in the world after the USA and Australia.  Canada is next.  NZ can't really be compared to the UK and Europe where the main housing type is apartments half the size of NZ stand-alone dwellings.  A large personal residence is one advantage of living in New Zealand.  (Source: General Finance Mortgage newsletter 31 July 2009)

Not a totally novel idea - and instead of praying, he could've wished upon a star, or gone to a witch doctor or conjurer for the same effect.  (Do a search for "bringing the dead back to life" or similar for some odd websites.)  I don't think, by definition, a god can have a sense of humour because humour requires an element of the unexpected - and how can anything be unexpected to an omniscient being?

“I wonder whether [Sarah Palin] is energizing the 15 - 20 year olds,” Ron Paul muses.  “That would be a question I would have. Because she doesn’t talk about the Federal Reserve and some of these issues.  She doesn’t talk too much about personal liberties, civil liberties, getting rid of drug laws, attacking the war on drugs, punishing people who torture.”  Having spent much of her tenure as Alaska's governor scheming to fire her ex-brother-in-law from the state police and having her press secretary issue statements contradicting her daughter's 18-year-old former boyfriend, Palin evidently mistook national politics for one long Miss Congeniality contest. "The rise of Idiot America ... is essentially a war on expertise ... In the new media age, everybody is a scientist, preacher, historian or sage.  And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert." - Charles P Pierce, from Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free...  God's Resignation Speech: People who know me know that besides faith and family, nothing's more important to me than the world I created in seven days.  Earth's mission? − to contribute to the Universe.  It's really strategic IN the universe as the air crossroads OF the universe, as a gatekeeper of the universe...  This planet, blessed with air, water, wildlife, minerals, New Jersey, AND oil and gas.  It's energy, you know what I mean?  EN-ER-GY.  I gave you energy.  All in all, I think pretty much everyone can agree that I did my job to the best of abilities.  My Earth accomplishments speak for themselves.  People rag on me a lot.  I mean a lot of people love me, but generally I get a lot of flak.  It's pretty insane − my staff and I spend most of our day dealing with other people's PETTY grievances instead of progressing our planet now (via Palingates).

The illusion of bent lines.  What, you may think, does this have to do with politics, Palin or Alaska?  "Illusion" and "bent" are the primary similarities.  I call them Palin lines.

Visible in coastal areas of South Central Alaska are stands of old spruce trees, denuded of branches and bark, standing like sentinels.  Often called "ghost forests," these came to be after the Good Friday earthquake in March 1964 - an impressive 8.4 - 8.6 on the Richter scale, the largest ever recorded in North America.  The epicentre was just north of Prince William Sound; it caused 131 deaths, many from tsunamis.  Because large sections of ground shifted vertically, some coastal areas sank several feet, putting spruce tree roots into salt water, which eventually killed them.  Over time they'll decompose, but for now they're a reminder of the power that lies beneath...  The brain centres that control speech also control hand gestures [beats] made during speech.  In some unknown way - perhaps by increasing overall activity in these centres - beats facilitate speech, helping put thoughts and feelings into words...  In some cases, a high rate of beat gestures appears to reflect difficulty converting thoughts and feelings into speech.  Beats reveal something about the size of the thought units, or mental packages, that underlie speech.  A thought unit can vary from from the small, simple, and isolated (a single idea, word, phrase, or sentence) to something larger and more complex (groups of ideas, sentences, or complete story lines).  Large thought units are likely well integrated, tied together in meaningful, consistent, logical fashion to form a script.  Beats appear to mark off these units: more beats indicate smaller units.  Recent evidence suggests that psychopaths use more beats than normal people, particularly when talking about things considered emotional - for example, describing the way they feel about family members or loved ones.  Like a tourist using high-school French to ask directions in Paris, psychopaths have trouble putting into words emotional ideas because these are vague and poorly understood.  In this sense, emotion is like a second language to the psychopath.  Also, psychopaths' thoughts and ideas are organised into rather small mental packages and readily moved around.  This can be a distinct advantage when lying or selling. - Robert Hare, Without Conscience

Andrew Chase has designed a series of mechanical animals for a picture book called The Trionic Morphatractable Engineer.  The cheetah messenger is his latest.  Photographer and designer Chase invents anatomically complicated animals made of metal, including an elephant, a giraffe, and a cheetah.  The cheetah, for example, is 24 inches (61 centimetres) high and 50 inches (1.27 metres) nose to tail; it weighs about 40 pounds and took about 60 hours, spaced over 10 weeks, to build.  It is constructed of electrical conduit, transmission parts, and 20 gauge steel.  More photos.  Video.
Head On / Deutsche Guggenheim / Berlin, Germany / 2006: With a few wolves scattered in the front gallery, 99 life-sized replicas of wolves in total run, gallop, and jump toward the far end of the exhibition hall where a wall stands.  The bravery of the wolves is met head on by the unyielding wall.  As leading wolves go down, more follow with force and determination.  As those in front fall and pile up, those behind take up their positions like lemmings.

An NJIT architecture professor and a student have designed a network of modular floating docks to harness clean energy for New York City.  The docking stations would plug into conventional NYC piers.  Eventually, these would extend further into the river to optimise clean energy generation while increasing public green space and tidal pools for wildlife.  The system could encourage energy awareness by increasing visibility of the connection between the water and the city.  The stations would alleviate the need for conventional power to light city streets: 3 vertical turbines fastened to the underside of modular floating docks could harness river currents.  Each module would generate up to 24 kilowatts of constant energy created by the bi-directional 4-mile-per-hour current.  This would supply 350 LED streetlamps.  More than 200 species of fish are found in the Hudson and its tributaries.  The estuary's productivity is ecologically and economically valuable to much of the Atlantic Coast; key commercial and recreational species like striped bass, bluefish, and blue crab depend on nursery habitat there.  Bald eagles, herons, waterfowl, and other birds feed from the river's bounty.  Tidal marshes, mudflats, and other significant habitats in and along the estuary support a great diversity of life, including endangered species like the shortnose sturgeon.  There is no mention if these things would be affected by this clean energy generation.

When shipped from France to New York, the Statue of Liberty came in 350 separate pieces and it took 4 months to put them together.  She was completed on 28 October 1886.  Huge copper sheets form the face of Lady Liberty.  She is more handsome than beautiful.  Lightning strikes her on a regular basis.  The Statue of Liberty functioned as a lighthouse from 1886 to 1902.  At that time the US Lighthouse Board was responsible for its operation.  There was a lighthouse keeper and the electric light could be seen for 24 miles (39 km) at sea.  As a lighthouse, it was the first in the United States to use electricity; there was an electric plant on the island to generate power for the light.

40 items from McDonald's menus from around the world: shown from their Asia menu is "Sausage and Egg Twisty Pasta", a breakfast item containing, "sausage, eggs and pasta in chicken broth and other greens." (Other? What else is green?)...  Friends or foes?  Thousands of jumbo flying squid - carnivorous calamari, which can grow up to 100 pounds - have invaded the shallow waters off San Diego, spooking scuba divers.  On a recent night, diver Shandra Magill watched in awe as a dozen squid with doleful, expressive eyes circled her group, tapping and patting the divers and gently bumping them before dashing away.  One especially large squid suspended itself motionless in the water about 3 feet away and peered at her closely, its eyes rolling, before it vanished into the black.  A shimmering incandescence rippled along its body, almost as if it were communicating through its skin.  But the next night, things were different: a large squid surprised Magill by hitting her from behind and grabbing at her with its arms, pulling her sideways in the water.  The powerful creature ripped her buoyancy hose away from her chest and knocked away her light.  Yet some divers continue to believe they're more curious than aggressive...  Things to do with liquid nitrogen: Put on a rubber surgical glove with a hot dog (sausage) stuck in one of the fingers.  Put the hot dog into liquid nitrogen and then, to the amazement of your friends, smash your "finger" with a hammer.  (Keep in mind which finger!)  Freeze a can of shaving cream and then peel the can away from the cream.  Put the canless cream into someone's car.  Let the oven-like heat that builds up when the car sits in the sun defrost the shaving cream.  2 cans should fill an entire car...  The poor economy is taking a toll even on the dead: an increasing number of bodies in Los Angeles County go unclaimed by families who can't afford to bury or cremate their loved ones.  The demands on the county crematorium have been so high that officials stopped accepting bodies from the coroner.  Once the county cremates an unclaimed body - typically about a month after death - next-of-kin can pay the coroner $352 to receive the ashes (that same fee from the morgue is $466).  Just claiming a body from the LA County coroner costs $200.  Once claimed, private cremations usually run close to $1,000.  Funeral homes charge an average of $7,300 to transport and bury a body in a simple grave, according to the National Funeral Home Directors Association.  The Cremation Society of Los Angeles says the number of cremations has increased about 15% since the economic downturn last year; they cremate about 400 bodies a year and charge about $700.  Alternatives?  See Things to Do When You're Dead.

Wake turbulence is created by the airplane itself.  Some of the airflow over the wing slides down the wing and spirals off each wingtip creating a mini horizontal tornado.  This tornado is small and does not last long, but it can play havoc with an unsuspecting aircraft flying through it before it has dissipated.  Sometimes wake turbulence can be visible.  If you're lucky enough to fly when the temperature and dew point are very close together — conditions that sometimes exist just before or after a rain shower or when fog is imminent — you can see large clouds forming over the wings just after takeoff or on landing.  From the outside you will notice the clouds "sliding" off over the wingtips and streaming off behind like the trail of a sky-writer.  Wake turbulence was captured in this photo of a British Airways flight descending through thin clouds near London last year.  A C-17 Globemaster III from the 14th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, SC flies off after releasing flares over the Atlantic Ocean near Charleston during a training mission May 2006.  The "smoke angel" is caused the vortex from the engines.  (US Air Force photo/Tech Sgt Russell E Cooley IV)

Show-off...  Some birds don't want to get involved...  Just why is there so much debt in the Anglo-Saxon world?  Bankers and regulators know well that it is in nobody’s long-term interests to have allowed borrowing to escalate to a position where the US now owes far more as a multiple of the economy than at the start of the Great Depression.  The answer is capitalism’s dirty little secret: excessive lending is the only way to maintain the living standards of the vast bulk of the population at a time when wealth is being concentrated in the hands of an elite.  The amount by which the elite has benefited is startling, and illustrates the problem with lightly regulated free markets: the rich get much richer while the rest do not get richer at all.  According to Société Générale economists, the inflation-adjusted income of the highest-paid 5th of US earners has risen by 60% since 1970, while it has fallen by more than 10% for the rest.  The Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, is wealthier than the bottom 3rd of the US population put together – about 100 million people.  These are staggering statistics, confirmed by measures such as the US and UK’s ever-rising Gini coefficients, which estimate income disparity.  Another way of putting this is that the share of profits in gross domestic product is at a 100-year high, or was until very recently.  These are structural issues needing structural solutions...  Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the US, and Japan are in varying states of fiscal ruin, and those tipping into demographic decline (unlike young Ireland) have an underlying cancer that is even more deadly.  The West cannot support its gold-plated state structures from an ageing workforce and depleted tax base.  A string of make-work stimulus plans in Japan - famously building bridges to nowhere in Hokkaido - has ensured that their day of reckoning will be worse, when it comes.  The IMF says Japan's gross public debt will reach 240% of GDP by 2014 - beyond the point of recovery for a nation with a contracting workforce.  Sooner or later, Japan's bond market will blow up.  So - what's next?

A public service message from the inimitable Dr Boli.
Tobermory belongs to Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley, who are entertaining a weekend house-party.  Their guests include a professor who claims to have invented a way of instructing animals in the art of human speech.  Furthermore, he has been teaching Tobermory, who is ushered in.  Lady Blemley asks him if he would like some milk.  "I don't mind if I do," he replies to general astonishment.  The conversation opens out.  "What do you think of human intelligence?" asks one of the guests, Mavis Pellington.  "Of whose intelligence in particular?" asks Tobermory.  "Oh, well, mine for instance," says Mavis, with a feeble laugh.  "You put me in an embarrassing position," replies Tobermory.  "When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested, Sir Wilfred protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded.  Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brainpower was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car."  Another guest, Major Barfield, then tries to change the subject.  "How about your carryings-on with the tortoiseshell puss up at the stables, eh?" he asks Tobermory.  "One does not usually discuss these matters in public," replies Tobermory.  "From a slight observation of your ways since you've been in this house, I should imagine you'd find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs."  Needless to say, the entire household then flies into a panic.  "Why did I ever come down here?" asks a guest called Agnes Resker.  Unfortunately for her, it is Tobermory who comes up with the answer: "Judging by what you said to Mrs Cornett on the croquet lawn yesterday, you were out for food.  You described the Blemleys as the dullest people to stay with that you knew, but said they were clever enough to employ a first-rate cook, otherwise they'd find it difficult to get anyone to come down a second time."  The story of Tobermory - which ends with all the houseguests conspiring in his assassination - should act as a deterrent for anyone thinking of investing £129 in a Bowlingual Voice machine.

Both the church and most scientists believe that in the beginning the earth had special powers to generate life.  There is, however, no evidence to support the theory of "abiogenesis" (also known as "organic soup"), which has been repeatedly disproven and discredited.  Every attempt to create life from non-life has failed miserably.  But if life were to suddenly appear on a desert island we wouldn't claim it was randomly assembled in an organic soup or created by the hand of god; we'd conclude it washed to shore or fell from the sky.  The earth too, is an island, orbiting in a sea of space, and living creatures and their DNA have been washing to shore and falling from the sky since our planet's creation; and this is how life on Earth began.  Microbes, and their DNA, survived the cataclysm that wrought destruction to the parent star which gave birth to our own sun.  As only life can produce life, then life on Earth also came from life which may have originated on planets which orbited the parent star.  When threatened with death, microbes form spores that can remain dormant for hundreds of millions of years.  The inner layers of a nebular cloud and protoplanetary disk also protect against radiation and extreme cold, helping spores to survive.  Numerous published studies have proven that microbes can easily survive an interplanetary journey.  Many species of microbe have evolved the ability to survive a violent impact and ejection into space; the frigid temperatures and vacuum of an interstellar environment - the UV rays, cosmic rays, gamma rays, and ionizing radiation they would encounter - and the crash landing onto the surface of a planet.  Obviously, they would not have evolved these capabilities if their entire ancestral and genetic history had been confined to Earth and the conditions of this world.  Microbes are preadapted for travel through space.  In fact, microbial fossils have been discovered in 15 meteors (carbonaceous chondrites), most impacted by supernova and predating the origin of our solar system.  (So the earth was fertilised?  Impregnated with life?  That puts the Gaia hypothesis in a new light.)

Regarding the Apollo 8 mission more than 40 years ago: As the astronauts in their spacecraft emerged from behind the moon, they were surprised and enchanted by an amazing view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon.  Bill Anders quickly snapped a picture of the spectacular Earthrise.  His timing couldn't have been better - it was Christmas Eve, 1968, the close of one of the most turbulent, fractured years in history.  The picture offered a much needed new perspective on "home."  For the first time, humankind looked at Earth and saw not a jigsaw puzzle of states and countries on an uninspiring flat map – but rather a whole planet uninterrupted by boundaries, a fragile sphere of dazzling beauty floating alone in a dangerous void.  The astronauts were, by their own admissions, profoundly moved.  "It changed my life," said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut.  "You only see the boundaries of Nature from there - not those that are manmade," said Eugene Cernan of Apollos 10 and 17.  "It is one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had."  There are many compelling reasons to return.  Former space shuttle astronaut Joseph Allen thinks our own planet is one of them: "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the earth.  But that may in fact be the most important reason"...  On 11 July 2009 Ireland passed its Defamation Bill by one vote.  One of the aspects of this bill makes it illegal to criticise religion, any religion, under penalty of fines up to 25,000 (nearly US$35,000).  The Irish police can (under this law) break into a person's home to confiscate copies of any books which might be critical of any religion - many Christians are critical of differing religions, so atheists are not the only ones being targeted here.  Simply claiming that the Pope is not infallible might be considered blasphemous to many Catholics.  Claiming that the prophet Joseph Smith was not really visited by angels and given magic golden plates would be blasphemous to Mormons.  Mentioning the prophet Mohammad without adding the phrase "peace be upon him" would be considered blasphemous to Muslims.  And claiming that Scientology is a sham would be blasphemous to Scientologists...  My question: What does it take to start a religion?  Anyone want to join my church?  I'll call it the Church of Cosmology.  The universe is alive.  Worship it.  Oh - and other than that?  Support space travel.  The earth is doomed.  Face it, folks.  Let's travel.  The sooner the better.  Otherwise?  Better ideas appreciated.

Queen Elizabeth was visiting sick children in a Scottish hospital.  After performing her planned duties, she wandered off to other parts of the hospital.  Walking into an unidentified ward, she went up to a patient in bed and asked him how he was doing.  He replied:

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly played in tune.....

Finding the response somewhat inappropriate she wished him good day and moved down the ward to a room where another man was sitting quietly.  In response to her inquiry, he began singing:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min'?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' lang syne?

Somewhat baffled by this sequence of events she found a 3rd room, where her greeting was met with:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie ...

She gave up, and left the ward.  On her way out, she encountered the head nurse.  "Is this the psychiatric ward?" she asked.

"No, Your Majesty," the nurse replied.  "It's ... the Burns unit."


Society honours its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.

- Mignon McLaughlin

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