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News and Site Updates Archive 2010/01/31

Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.

- Friedrich August von Hayek

31 Jan ' 10 -

The art market is difficult to quantify and even its size is only an estimate (it was thought to be about US$65 billion in 2008).  Moreover, how do you assess the price of a painting when four Picasso portraits of Dora Maar (one of Picasso's many mistresses), all from the 1940s and all of comparable size, sold for between US$4.5 million and $85 million within a 3-year period?  I don't know which, if any, of the paintings of Dora Maar shown below were among those sold at such widely varying prices.  But it seems obvious that some of Picasso's paintings of her certainly have lots more appeal than others.  It isn't the size of a painting, nor even its subject matter or even just the identity of the person applying the paint which determines full value.

It seems to me that the more times Picasso painted Dora Maar (many more times than shown here), the less he tried to make her look good.  Then he left her for someone else and the cycle began again.

Fernande Olivier was Pablo Picasso’s first love; though she was already married, they were together 9 years.  As a jealous lover, he often locked her up when he went out.  He eventually left her for Eva Gouel - a short-lived affair due to Eva's death from tuberculosis.  Fernande reportedly lived the rest of her life in sorrow.  Olga Koklova, a Russian ballet dancer, was Picasso's first wife.  They had a son, then he left her for a 17-year-old - though he never divorced Olga because he didn't want to divide his wealth with her.  She supposedly stalked him for years (perhaps trying to serve him divorce papers?).  Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso's youngest mistress, bore him a daughter, then he left her.  She hanged herself after his death (perhaps finally accepting he would never return to her).  Dora Maar, a photographer half his age, was his lover for 7 years - during his Guernica period.  (Her features appear in what is likely Picasso's most famous painting.)  Dora became a religious recluse and poet after Picasso left her.  Like her predecessors, she was said to suffer mental health problems after Picasso left.  Dora was often portrayed in his paintings as weeping because he said that was "her inner nature."  Françoise Gilot met Picasso when she was 23 and he was in his mid 60’s.  During their 10-year relationship, they had a son and daughter.  Tiring of abuse and unfaithfulness (in particular with Genevieve Laporte), she left him, sending Picasso into a deep funk.  Jacqueline Roque was the last woman in Picasso's life.  She lived with him for 20 years until he died in 1973.  Meanwhile, Françoise sought legal means to legitimize her children with Picasso - so he encouraged her to divorce her then husband, Luc Simon, so that he could marry her, saying this would secure their rights.  After Françoise filed for divorce, Picasso secretly married Jacqueline Roque (he was then 79 and Jacqueline 35) in order to exact revenge for Françoise leaving him.  Françoise later married American researcher-virologist Dr Jonas Salk.  Picasso created more works of art based on Jacqueline than any of his other loves; in one year he painted over 70 portraits of her.  After Picasso's death, Jacqueline prevented his children from attending the funeral.  Several years later, Jacqueline shot and killed herself.  Apparently Picasso spent his life vacuuming up attractive young women and spewing out expensive paintings.

The top 10 fears that people have are, in reverse order with the worst last:
, Dogs, Flying, Thunder and lightning, Dark, Heights, Other people, Scary places, Creepy crawlies, and (finally) Snakes

Dentists: Pliers aren't as bad as going to the dentist?  Personally, I'd fear pliers a lot more.
Dogs: Each year, 4.7 million people in the US are bitten by dogs, of which 386,000 are seriously injured and over 200 die.  Are you right to trust your instincts if you cross the street when you encounter a snarling pit bull with an equally forbidding owner?  A new study suggests that the owners of so-called "vicious" dogs commit more crimes than those who do not own such a dog.  It's not just a dog's breed but also the character of its owner that likely makes the dog aggressive.  It takes both nature and nurture to make a bully.
Flying: Sometimes a fear of flying may in fact be a good thing...  Fear of flying creatures, on the other hand, could soon be on the rise.
Thunder and Lightning: These are from the files of the late (and incomparable) atmospheric photographer Eric Nguyen (obviously he didn't fear thunder and lightning).

Below is something that frightens few (except maybe people in small planes who unexpectedly find themselves flying too near the rotating cloud cylinder): a roll cloud taken January 2009 at Las Olas Beach in Maldonado Uruguay.  Roll clouds appear sporadically around the world, however they occur every spring over Burketown in Queensland, Australia and visitors descend on the town in September to view those clouds (called Morning Glories) that can stretch up to 600 miles long and can be a mile high.


Dark: Fear of the dark is common among children and to a varying degree can still be found in adults.  A pathological fear of dark is sometimes called nyctophobia (from the Greek words for night and fear), scotophobia, from the Greek word for darkness, or lygophobia, from the Greek word for twilight.  An apprehension of the dark is different from nyctophobia in the sense that some apprehension is natural whereas nyctophobia is pathological.  Fear of dark is heightened by imagination - it is not fear of absence of light, but fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by darkness.  Nyctohylophobia is fear of dark wooded areas or forests at night.
Heights: At 4pm on 3 January, in a residential area of Shanghai, a 50-year-old man jumped from the 6th floor, landing on a bed of flowers below, and was knocked unconscious.  The jumper was sent to the hospital.  Residents later said the man in question jumped as he was holding a young girl; after impacting with the ground, she was squashed under him, which is why he wasn’t killed.  According to eyewitnesses: "Upon seeing that man clutching that woman while jumping, I thought it was a tragic double suicide.  When they landed I heard a loud bang, which sounded like an exploding tyre.  As for what woman, well, it was a dressed up inflatable doll, the kind of fake woman made specially for men to play with.  Go figure."

Having a blow up doll in the house is a good idea.  When you’ve got nothing to do you can hold it in bed and have some fun.  When something’s wrong you can hold it in your arms and jump out of a window without dying.

Other People: Anthropophobia is the fear of people or society.  90% of people feel stage fright when they face the prospect of a public performance.  This includes being asked to give a speech, a recital, a dance performance, or performing a role on stage.  At the beginning of one’s career, nearly every public performer reports experiencing stage fright.  As performers keep on performing, this begins to diminish.  About 20% of people have severe anxiety about public performance and those usually try to do everything they can to get out of a situation that will put them in the spotlight.  Individuals, who experience social anxiety, however, have a different kind of stage fright.  For them, the whole world is a stage and even informal social situations are nothing less than public performances.  Meeting and interacting with other people in an everyday social situation, such as in a work setting, a social club, a concert, et cetera, is like performing under the scrutiny of an audience.  For a socially anxious person this audience is not perceived as a gathering of friends and fans, but of unsparing critics.  See "Better Playing through Chemistry" for a discussion of the ethical considerations of overcoming performance anxiety.
Scary Places: The former Russian Security Council secretary, Alexander Lebed, said in an interview on 60 Minutes on 9 September 1997, that more than 100 suitcase nukes are missing from the breakup of the Soviet Union.  In the first 3 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the black market in nuclear weapons and materials began to boom.  Then-secretary of defence Dick Cheney said that recovery of 90% of the nukes in Russia would represent "excellent performance."  Such an excellent performance would mean that 220 weapons would have been lost, stolen, or otherwise unaccounted for.  On 11 October 2001, George Tenet, then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency, met with President Bush to convey the news that at least 2 suitcase nukes had reached al Qaeda operatives within the US.  The news sent the president through the roof, prompting him to order his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to America.  The danger posed by unsecured nuclear material is not just a Russian problem.  Enough civilian plutonium for many nuclear weapons exists in Germany, Belgium, Japan, and Switzerland, and some 20 tons of civilian highly enriched uranium exists at 345 operational and shut-down civilian research facilities in 58 countries, sometimes in quantities large enough to make a bomb.

Fear of signs?

Creepy crawlies: Scorpions don't bother to waste venom killing a victim if they don't have to.  Instead, they use a pre-venom that causes extreme pain, resorting to the deadlier version only when necessary.  When first confronted by a threat, scorpions produce a clear liquid on their stingers.  Their more deadly venom, a thick liquid like a milkshake is produced later if the threat continues.  It's a clever strategy because the deadly true venom uses lots of proteins and peptides that are costly for the scorpion to make.  Instead, it tries first to get by with a faster-acting and more painful toxin that doesn't kill, but is easier to make.  The first scorpion weapon, the pre-toxin, gets its kick largely from potassium salts that block receptors in animal cells, rapidly causing severe pain.  It's of more than just biological interest that, through evolution, the scorpion has developed a way to generate pain and frighten predators and, if necessary, to follow this with a highly poisonous peptide toxin.
Snakes: The discovery of African rock pythons close to the Florida Everglades wetlands is a worrying development for wildlife officers already troubled by the rising population of Burmese pythons bred from pets dumped illegally in the wild.  Should the two species mate, they could create genetically superior offspring more aggressive, powerful and resilient than their parents — possibly with the ability to strike down even human prey.  Rock pythons are so mean they come out of the egg striking - this is one vicious animal.  The arrival of the Burmese python was the biggest, most devastating problem that Florida could ever have imagined - but now they have a worse one.  Native to Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons — which can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds — have gained a place in the Everglades in the past decade.  Tens of thousands are now believed to prowl south Florida, preying on native wildlife, including alligators.  Now along come their cousins...
It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive.  Yet just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl when they're killed.  Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help.  Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.  Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.  The more scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze.  Plants forage for resources like light and soil nutrients and anticipate rough spots and opportunities.  By analysing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and will try to grow in a different direction.  Their roots ride the underground rhizosphere and engage in cross-cultural, chemical, and microbial trade.
When intelligent people make poor decisions: In December 2008, two seemingly unrelated events occurred: Stephen Greenspan’s book, Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It, was released. Greenspan, a professor of psychology, explains why we allow other people to take advantage of us and discusses gullibility in finance, academia, and law.  His book ends with helpful advice on becoming less gullible.  Concurrently, Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, greatest in history (costing unsuspecting investors more than $60 billion), was exposed.  In a Ponzi scheme, a manager uses funds from new investors to pay off old ones.  Since there's no legitimate investment activity, it collapses when there are insufficient new victims.  Madoff’s scheme unravelled when he couldn’t meet requests for redemptions from investors stung by the financial meltdown.  The irony is that (bright and well regarded) Greenspan lost 30% of his retirement savings in Madoff’s scheme - drawn to investment returns that looked, in retrospect, too good to be true.
At a conference dealing with spine surgery, a surgeon presented the case of a female patient with a herniated disc in her neck and pain caused by a pinched nerve.  She had already failed typical conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medication, and waiting it out.  The surgeon asked the audience to vote on two choices for surgery: the newer anterior approach [the surgeon removes the entire disc, replaces it with a bone plug, and fuses the discs] versus the older posterior approach [the surgeon removes only the portion of the disc compressing the nerve - no fusion is required because the procedure leaves most of the disc intact].  The vast majority voted for the first alternative.  The speaker then asked the audience (almost entirely male), "What if this patient is your wife?"  The majority then voted for the second alternative.  Why?  The fee for the newer and more complicated procedure IS typically several times that of the older procedure...
"My short-term goal is to bluff my way through this job interview.  My long-term goal is to invent a time machine so I can come back and change everything I've said so far."  
  "Where do I see myself in 5 years?  Right now, I'm seeing myself in your office - standing over your body, revolver in hand - I pull my resume out of your filing cabinet, slowly crumple it, and drop it onto your mangled corpse.  Then I'm like 'Vacation approved!' as I walk out the door.  H-m-m-m.  Could be as soon as 3 years.  You never know."
Suppose your organisation is interviewing candidates for an important job.  Would it be better for one trusted person to have an extended interview with them, or for several people to talk to them for less time?  How many people would you need to conduct the interviews?  Would 3 be enough?  Would 10 be too many?  If 10 is good, would 20 be even better?  Studies show more than 6 interviewers add little if any improvement.  Brief interviews work pretty well for intelligence, but not so much for conscientiousness.  In fact, you'd probably be better off checking references than making a guess based on what you see in an interview. Who is this mystery person?  (Click photo for larger image; click red button for answer.)


An onomast is a person who studies proper names, especially personal names (though it isn't something that would exactly appeal to me as a career).

A team of researchers (including scientists from the University of Florida) has shown that insect colonies follow some of the same biological "rules" as individuals, a finding that suggests insect societies operate like a single superorganism in terms of their physiology and life cycle.  For more than a century, biologists have marvelled at the highly cooperative nature of ants, bees and other social insects that work together to determine the survival and growth of a colony.  The social interactions are much like cells working together in a single body, hence the term superorganism — an organism comprised of many organisms.  In life, two of the major evolutionary innovations have been how cells came together to function as a single organism, and how individuals joined together to function as a society.  "We understand a considerable amount about how the size of multicellular organisms affects the life cycle of the individuals based on metabolic theory, but now we are showing this same theoretical framework helps predict the life cycle of whole societies of organisms."  At left is a replica of a harvest ant colony's underground home. Controlled breathing at a slowed rate can significantly reduce feelings of pain.  Chronic pain sufferers, specifically fibromyalgia patients, report less pain while breathing slowly, unless they're overwhelmed by negative feelings, sadness or depression.  The findings offer an explanation for prior reports that mindful Zen meditation has beneficial effects on pain and that yogic breathing exercises can reduce feelings of depression.  These results also underline the role that a person's positive or negative attitude can have on feelings of pain.

I discovered at a young age that I could slow my heart rate by holding my breath for several seconds many times in a row.  I assumed that it gave my lungs more opportunity to filter oxygen which meant my heart didn't need to beat as fast.  A slowed heart may reduce pressure in inflamed areas enough to be noticed?  But reducing depression?  For it to work, must you believe in something spiritual?  (I'm out of luck in that case...)

The total surface area of earth is 510,072,000 square kilometres.  71% of the surface is water and 29% is land.  ChartsBin, who provided this graph, has several pages of graphic depictions including Capital Punishment Around the World and Landlocked countries.  Sometimes a chart makes information a lot easier to grasp and retain.

And on what kind of surface do you find boats?  (I mean usually?)

In 1934, four years before Superman finally found a home at National Allied Publications, Jerry Siegel desperately needed an artist to work on his as-yet-unsuccessful strip.  In an effort to secure his services, Siegel wrote a letter to Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton (who turned the offer down): "In his laboratory, the last man on earth worked furiously.  He had only a few moments left.  Giant cataclysms were shaking the reeling planet, destroying mankind.  It was in its last days, dying.  The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as the laboratory walls caved in upon him.  The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year 1935AD.  A passing motorist sighted the metal cylinder and upon investigating discovered the sleeping babe within.  The infant was placed in an orphanage.  The first day, it playfully bent its metal bed out of shape.  The astounded attendants, of course, did not realise they were caring for a child whose physical structure was millions of years advanced from their own.  The babe, named Clark Kent, was a physical wonder.  At the age of 5, when an older boy sought to bully him, Clark sent him flying thru the air.  (Mothers did not permit their children to associate with him, he was hated in school sports because he never lost.)  Clark's colossal strength was a source of wonder and pleasure to him.  He found, at 12, that he could easily shatter the world's high jump and dash records.  His powers increased unbelievably.  When maturity had been attained, Kent discovered he could leap over a 10-story building, raise unheard-of weights, run as fast as an express train, and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his tough skin.  Early, Kent decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.  And so was created SUPERMAN, champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!"  (The storyline ultimately got changed a little bit.) German prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that the CIA deployed a team of Blackwater operatives on a clandestine operation in Hamburg, Germany after 9/11, ultimately aimed at assassinating a German citizen with suspected ties to Al Qaeda.  This brewing scandal in Germany is the latest allegation to surface in what is a clear pattern of the United States conducting clandestine rendition and assassination operations within the borders of allied countries.  In November, an Italian judge convicted 23 US intelligence operatives in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian imam from a Milan street as part of a CIA extraordinary rendition operation.  Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr was taken to Egypt, where he said he was tortured.

In December, the CIA announced that the agency had cancelled its contract with Blackwater to work on the agency's drone bombing campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan and said Director Leon Panetta had ordered a review of all existing CIA contracts with Blackwater.  "At this time, Blackwater is not involved in any CIA operations other than in a security or support role," a CIA spokesman said on 11 December 2009.  But two Blackwater contractors were among the dead in the 30 December suicide bombing at the CIA station at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.  While the CIA said in December that Blackwater only continues security and support roles for the CIA, NBC News reported that the Blackwater men were not doing security at the time of the blast.  Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince, recently claimed he was personally a CIA asset who has conducted clandestine black operations around the globe.

American soldiers were sent to Iraq to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.  There were, of course, some less-altruistic objectives such as taking control of Iraqi oil resources and stationing an American garrison in the heart of the Middle Eastern oil region.  But for the American public, the adventure was presented as an idealistic enterprise to topple a bloody dictator who menaced the world with nuclear bombs.  That was years ago and the war is still going on.  Barack Obama, who opposed the war right from the start, promised to lead Americans out of there.  In the meantime, in spite of all the talk, no end is in sight.  Why?  Because real decision-makers in Washington had no idea of the country which they wanted to "liberate" and help to live happily ever after.  Iraq was from the beginning an artificial state - British masters glued together several Ottoman provinces to suit their own colonial interests.  They crowned a Sunni Arab as king over the Kurds, who are not Arab, and the Shiites, who are not Sunni.  Only a succession of dictators, each more brutal than his predecessor, could prevent the state from falling apart.  The Washington planners weren't interested in the history, demography or geography of the country which they entered with brutal force.  The way it looked to them, it was simple: one had only to topple the tyrant, establish democratic institutions on the American model, conduct free elections, and everything else would fall into place by itself.  Contrary to their expectations, they shattered everything, destroyed the country and then got bogged in a swamp.  To hell with idealism, to hell with lofty aims, to hell with all military doctrines – they’re now simply buying off tribal chiefs, who constitute the reality of Iraq.  Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one's government is not necessarily to secure freedom. - Friedrich August von Hayek The organ "shortages" common in other countries are exacerbated in China by traditions about death: the beliefs that a dead body must remain intact before burial to be ensured eternal rest and that death occurs only when breathing ceases and the heart stops beating; the condition of "brain death" is not recognised by Chinese culture.  As a result, many Chinese are highly suspicious of and even fundamentally opposed to organ harvesting and transplantation.  Without an established transplantation system, and with cultural norms opposed to organ donation, some degree of confusion surrounding transplantation is to be expected.  But the problems in China are worse than shortages and confusion.  Allegations first surfaced around 1990 that organs were being harvested from executed Chinese prisoners.  Human Rights Watch in 1994 reported that, while Chinese executions originally drove the organ trade, eventually the situation flipped: the demand for organs led to rushed executions of prisoners whose guilt was not unequivocally established, as well as to the collection of organs without consent and the use of illegal methods of execution for the sake of preserving the desired organs.  Before long, accusations of persecution and torture surfaced, and by 2001, an op-ed in the Washington Post voiced suspicions about a possible link between, on one hand, "the grotesque harvesting and sale of human organs from freshly killed Chinese prisoners" and, on the other hand, "the escalating number of death sentences in China for even nonviolent offenses" as well as curious reports of hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners dying "by 'accident' or 'suicide'" while in prison.  The average waiting time for a transplanted organ in China is very short — often just a week or two for "transplant tourists" visiting from foreign lands — suggesting "the existence of a large bank of live prospective 'donors'." The ultimate tragedy in Haiti isn’t the earthquake, it’s that country’s lack of economic freedom.  The earthquake simply but catastrophically revealed the inhuman consequences of this fact.  Registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, the Haitian earthquake killed tens of thousands of people.  But the quake that hit California’s Bay Area in 1989 was also magnitude 7.0 and it killed only 63 people.  This difference is due chiefly to Americans’ greater wealth.  Americans build stronger homes, buildings and roads, are better nourished, and have better health care and better search and rescue equipment.  In contrast, Haitians cannot afford to build sturdy structures and roads - Haitian builders often add sand to their concrete because concrete is so expensive there.  The result is weaker buildings.  Nor can Haitians afford health care and emergency equipment.  While rich countries may experience as many natural disasters as do poor countries, persons in rich countries are less likely to die.  Specifically, a country of 100 million people with a per-capita income of $8,000 will experience about 530 fewer deaths from natural disasters each year than will a country with the same population but where per-capita income is only $2,000.  Raise the per-capita income from $8,000 to $14,000 and the annual expected death toll from natural disasters falls by another 233 persons.
Things That Fly
Inverted perspective Preaching to the Choir Flying Leap The Life of a Bird
(A cockatoo, to be exact, step by step - more interesting than expected.)

Goodbye, Cruel world!

If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognise that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.

- Friedrich August von Hayek

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