Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


News and Site Updates Archive 2010/02/28

Patriotism is a favourite device of persons with something to sell.

- H L Mencken

28 Feb '10 -

Our society has a warped perception of true risk.  We're taught to fear vaccinations, mould, shark attacks, airplanes and breast implants when we really should worry about smoking, drug abuse, obesity, cars, and basic hygiene.  Going by pharmaceutical advertising, our most critical health needs are to have sex and to fall asleep.  We expect our health should always be perfect; if it isn't, a pill fixes it.  With every ache and sniffle we run to a doctor or buy useless quackery or homeopathic cures.  We demand unnecessary diagnostic tests, narcotics for bruises and sprains, antibiotics for viruses.  Due to time constraints, fear of lawsuits, and pressure, our doctors usually comply.  Yet the secret of medicine is that almost everything gets better or worse no matter how we treat it - usually better.  The human body is exquisitely talented at healing.  Even in intensive care, we really just optimise conditions for natural healing - mostly giving oxygen, fluids, and raising or lowering blood pressure as needed.  It's as if you could put your car in the service garage, make sure you give it plenty of gas, oil, and brake fluid - and the transmission fixes itself.  We're hypochondriacs.  A good doctor should tell patients that their baby gets ear infections because they smoke, that it's time to admit they're alcoholics, that they need to deal with discomfort because narcotics just make it worse, that what's really wrong is they're too damned fat.
An increasing number of commercial flights use shortcuts that take them near the North Pole or the South Pole.  In polar regions, flights are vulnerable to cosmic storms that can interfere with communication and navigation systems and/or expose travellers to worrisome doses of radiation.  Last year, there were more than 7,000 polar flights, compared with just a dozen a decade earlier.  For the past decade, the sun has been in a low-sunspot cycle.  But soon, a burst of energy from a solar flare could knock out GPS navigation systems while a radiation storm could expose people on a polar flight to the equivalent of a dozen chest X-rays.  Despite these risks, airlines have pursued polar flights aggressively because they let planes fly the shortest path between North America and Asia, or Argentina and New Zealand.  Passengers reach their destinations sooner and the airlines can save thousands of gallons of fuel.  But everyone should be aware of risks so they can, if they so desire, select safer alternatives.  When a solar flare is spotted, planes may not have sufficient fuel to divert but will need to land at an airport nearby - if there is one, and if weather permits.

House Prices Adjusted for Inflation
(Presumably this only applies to the US - after all, does any place else really matter?)  From Robert Shiller, Irrational Exuberance

At all levels, from 1994 to 2004, US state and local government employment grew.  Judicial and legal employees increased by 28%, public safety workers by 21%, teachers by 22%.  Bureau of Labor Statistics chart the growth in state and local government employees since 1946 - their number swelled from 3.3 million then to 19.8 million today — a 492% increase (the country’s population grew by only 115%).  Since 1999, the number of state and local government employees has increased by 13% compared to a 9% population increase.  The US had 2.3 state and local government employees per 100 citizens in 1946 and 6.5 now.  In 1947, 78% of the national income went to the private sector, 16% to federal, and 6% to state and local governments.  Now, 54% is private, 28% goes to the feds, and 18% to state and local governments.  The trend is ominous: bigger government means more government employees who become a permanent lobby for continual growth.  This may have reached critical mass: the number of government employees at every level may be so high that it's politically impossible to roll back bureaucracy and rein in costs.  People supposed to serve the public have become a privileged elite exploiting political power for financial gain and special perks.  With its political power, this interest group rigs the game so there are few meaningful checks on demands.  Government employees now have far higher pay, benefits, and pensions than the vast majority working in the private sector.  Even the incompetent or abusive can be fired only after a long process and only for the most grievous offences.  It’s a 2-tier system in which rulers make steady gains at the expense of the ruled.  Predictable results: higher taxes, eroded public services, unsustainable levels of debt, and massive roadblocks to reform.
US businesses have fired 8.5 million people, or 7.4% of those on the payroll when employment peaked in December 2007.  Local governments kept hiring through September 2008, and since then have fired 141,000 workers or less than 1% of the 14.6 million they had at the peak, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Americans find themselves with local-government payrolls that in many cases remain at record levels.  Unions also refuse to reduce headcount - seeming to be as tone-deaf as the ranks of investment bankers were in late 2008.  Politicians have talked about firing employees for years but haven’t.  Almost every day, California newspapers and blogs carry stories about cities contemplating bankruptcy because of labour and pension costs.  They also write about members of the $100,000 Club, those government workers who have been able to retire with 6-figure pensions, often while still in their 50s.  Rising labour costs and unfunded pension and benefits liabilities aren’t confined to California state and local government, though - this is a national issue, one that hasn’t received a lot of attention.  Unlike outrage provoked by Wall Street’s bonuses, there’s no element of class warfare here.  The hard-working men and women whose jobs, retirement savings and benefits have been whittled away in the recession won’t be too sympathetic to the men and women who have 8-hour days, overtime pay, guaranteed pensions and full health plans.  It’s easy to see how government employees built their own entitled little world.  What’s a little harder to comprehend is how everyone let it happen.

Goods Producing versus Government Payrolls in Thousands
Source: US Department of Labor

The Goods Producing category currently includes fewer than a million workers in mining and logging, about 6 million in construction and 11.7 million in manufacturing.
The Government category includes 2.8 million federal employees and almost 20 million state and local workers, just over half of whom work in education -
about 8 million in local education - K thru 12, presumably - and 2.5 million in state education - universities, presumably.
(This is a bit like supporting a royal family...)
China grew at 10% real growth for a decade.  When building new plants, they made the assumption that past growth would continue into the future.  But the natural demand for goods from the developed world is now lower as demand was driven, in large part, by heavy borrowing by US and European consumers.  Future growth will be lower because China's customers are deleveraging.  The result is huge overcapacity.  Government intervention, corruption and political capital allocation decisions take things to a new level of financial insanity in China.  Provinces are given growth targets that they must meet.  South China Mall, the 2nd-largest shopping mall in the world (second only to Dubai Mall) has a 1,500-store capacity and 7.1 million square feet; it opened in 2005 but 99% of the space still sits empty.  A new city, Ordos, was built in Inner Mongolia.  Designed to hold a million residents, Ordos is a ghost town.  Yet China still shows positive GDP growth of 6 - 8%.  Is this really true?  How would we know?
Blue ice occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes a part of it.  During the glacier's travels, air bubbles that were trapped in the ice are squeezed out and the size of the ice crystals increases, making it clear.  In some areas, earthquakes have raised the blue ice above the ground and created formations much like large frozen waves.  The ice is blue for the same reason water is blue: an overtone of an oxygen-hydrogen (O-H) bond stretches and absorbs light at the red end of the visible spectrum.  Due to the hard ice surface, flat patches of blue ice have been used as runways suitable for aircraft fitted with wheels rather than skis in Antarctica.

Does glacier ice last longer in drinks?  Yes, a little, because the ice crystals are larger.  Crystals melt from the outside and large crystals expose less surface area per unit volume of ice; therefore, ice with larger crystals melts more slowly.

Tony Travouillon is an Australian Frenchman (French Australian?) who studies atmospheric turbulence and its repercussion for astronomy, image degradation, adaptive optics and interferometry.  He is involved in the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) project.  He also takes astonishing photos of blue icebergs (I took 4 of his images - 11, 9, 8 and 7 - and concatenated them for the large photo below; the smaller images at left and right are photos 14 and 6 respectively).
The defendant and his accomplices entered a bar in Tucson, Arizona and committed a robbery at gunpoint.  Shortly after the robbers had fled, the proprietor experienced a heart attack and died.  The defendant argued that the victim's death was accidental and unintended and could not constitute murder.  Moreover, he maintained that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the robbery actually caused the victim's death.  The court disagreed, finding first that accidental, unintended consequences could form the basis of a murder conviction and second, the court pointed to the testimony of a pathologist that the death was caused by anxiety resulting from the robbery at gunpoint.  The court held that this provided adequate evidence to support causation.  (If a son gives his father a fatal heart attack when the father hears that the son has been arrested for drug use, is the son then a murderer as well?)
Some years ago, the famous San Diego Zoo opened a second, larger branch called the San Diego Wild Animal Park.  It was built around an enormous open-field enclosure where the animals roam free.  To see the animals, visitors ride on a monorail called the Wgasa Bush Line which circles the enclosure.  Here's the true story of how the Wgasa Bush Line got its name: they wanted to give the monorail a jazzy, African sounding name, so they sent out a memo to zoo staffers saying, "What shall we call the monorail at the Wild Animal Park?"  One of the memos came back with "WGASA" written on the bottom.  The planners loved it and the rest is history.  What the planners didn't know was that the zoo staffer had not intended to suggest a name.  He was using an acronym which was popular at the time.  It stood for "Who Gives A Shit Anyhow?"

Mt Rushmore: what's on the other side?  Roll over photo (or click link at left once) to find out.

In many nonhuman primates, the colour red enhances males' attraction to females.  In 5 experiments, the authors demonstrate a parallel effect in humans: red, relative to other colours, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable.  Men seem unaware of this red effect, and red does not influence women's perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men's perceptions of women's overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence.  The findings have clear practical implications for men and women in the mating game and, perhaps, for fashion consultants, product designers, and marketers.  Furthermore, there is value in extending research on colour signalling to humans and in considering colour as something of a common language, both within and across species.
A related study shows that men with high testosterone levels are most attracted to women with feminine faces.  The article doesn't state if men with less testosterone are most attracted to women with less feminine faces, but it wouldn't surprise me.

A female face tends to be more rounded or oval overall, with two rounded corners of the hairline at the top and a rounded chin and jaw below.  A face with a more square appearance - including a wide, square-cornered jaw - is considered less feminine and can be an indication of relatively high testosterone levels.

10 Levels of Intimacy in Today's Communication

In the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, for the past decade physicists have been accelerating gold nuclei around a 2.4-mile underground ring to 99.995% of the speed of light and then colliding them in an effort to melt protons and neutrons and free their constituents — quarks and gluons.  The goal has been a state of matter called a quark-gluon plasma, which theorists believe existed when the universe was only a microsecond old.  Bubbles smaller than the nucleus of an atom form, which last only a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second.  But in these bubbles are "hints of profound physics."  The temperature of the quark-gluon plasma is 4 trillion degrees Celsius - "by far the hottest matter ever made" - 250,000 times hotter than the centre of the sun and well above the temperature at which theorists calculate that protons and neutrons should melt.  But the quark-gluon plasma does not act the way theorists had predicted.  Instead of behaving like a perfect gas, in which every quark goes its own way independent of the others, the plasma seems to act like a liquid.

Factoid: Conditions in the RHIC fireball are such that a cube with sides about one quarter the thickness of a human hair could contain the total amount of energy consumed in the United States in a year.

You needn't feel guilty about taking a mid-day nap - a new study suggests napping for an hour or so refreshes your brain, boosting your ability to learn.  39 healthy young adults were placed into either a nap or no-nap group.  At noon, all participants performed a learning task exercising the hippocampus, a region of the brain that helps store fact-based memories.  Both groups performed at comparable levels.  Then, at 2pm, the nap group took a 90-minute siesta while the no-nap group stayed awake.  Later, at 6pm, participants performed a new round of learning exercises.  Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning.  In contrast, those who napped did markedly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn.  Humans are bi-phasic sleepers - meant to sleep in bouts, not long stretches.  About 1/3 of US adults say they typically take a mid-day nap.  (Really?  Where?  In their cars?)  It's as though the email inbox in your hippocampus fills and, until you sleep, clearing out those emails, you can't receive more - they bounce until you sleep and move what's already there into other folders.  This memory-rebooting process occurs when nappers engage in stage 2 non-REM sleep, which happens between deep sleep (non-REM) and the dream state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM).  Previously, the purpose of stage 2 sleep was unclear; new results offer evidence as to why humans spend at least ½ their sleeping hours in this state.

In case you have no good place to nap at work, you might want to try this device, which apparently will allow you to sleep standing up.

Who are these people?  Click on the image for a larger view.
This site has 99 more but if you just want to see who these 7 are, click here once.
There's nothing like eating a good baked potato - and ending up in the emergency room with botulism.  In El Paso, Texas, a 1994 botulism outbreak was caused by potatoes baked in aluminium foil, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Potato skin is covered in Clostridium botulinum spores.  In the sealed environment created by the foil wrapper, the skin of the potato doesn't get hot enough to eliminate botulism - and with the lack of air, the spores germinate on its skin as it cools.  Baking a potato without aluminium foil and eating it before it has a chance to cool too much are ways to avoid botulism, reports the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Who was the oldest participant in the 2010 Winter Olympics?  Why, that would be Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a Mexican Alpine skier, photographer, businessman, and pop singer known as Andy Himalaya.  Hubertus, 51, is descended from the reigning dynasty of a former principality in what is now Germany.  He founded the Mexican Ski Federation in 1981 and first skied for Mexico at a Winter Olympics in the 1984 games in Sarajevo.  A son of Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and Princess Ira of Fürstenberg, Hubertus was born in Mexico, of which his paternal grandmother was also a native.  He is fluent in several languages and grew up mainly in Austria, of which he is also a citizen.  Hohenlohe has a brother, Christoph, who currently resides in Liechtenstein.  Hubertus has participated in 13 World Championships and set a World Record.  He only spends a few weeks in Mexico a year (in Cabo San Lucas), but he has Mexican nationality which makes him eligible to compete for that country.

It seems Havana is somewhat famous for its statues.  Many of them are found in quite natural poses, such as John Lennon
sitting on a 16th Street park bench, Spanish dancer and choreographer Antonio Gades at the doors of the Palacio de Lombillo,
or Ernest Hemingway leaning on his favourite corner of the bar of El Floridita, casually dressed and wearing sandals
with a book by his side and a glass that is frequently changed for him.

The United States assumed territorial control over Guantánamo Bay under the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty, which granted it a perpetual lease.  By virtue of its complete jurisdiction and control, the US maintains de facto sovereignty over this territory.  The current government of Cuba regards US presence in Guantánamo as illegal and insists the Cuban-American Treaty was obtained by threat of force in violation of international law.  In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the US Navy fleet attacking Santiago needed shelter from the summer hurricane season.  They chose Guantánamo because of its excellent harbour.  US Marines landed with naval support and helped to established the Naval Base nicknamed "Gitmo", which covers 116 square kilometres (about 45 square miles) on the western and eastern banks of the bay.  A perpetual lease for the area around the bay was extracted in 1903 from the first president of Cuba.  In 1934, annual payment was set at just over US$4,000 and the lease made permanent unless both governments agreed to break it or until the US abandoned it.  After the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro objected to the lease, but a single lease cheque was cashed (Cubans say only because of "confusion" in the early days of the revolution), so the US maintains that that showed acceptance.  According to Castro, the remaining cheques, made out to "Treasurer General of the Republic" - a title that ceased to exist after the revolution, are all kept uncashed in his office, stuffed into a desk drawer.  He says the lease agreements were imposed on Cuba under duress and are unequal treaties, no longer compatible with modern international law.  However, Article 4 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties prohibits retroactive application of said Convention to already existing treaties - so the standoff continues.
Clouds can apparently form in the wakes of the front row of wind turbines (those shown are located offshore, at Horns Rev [Reef] in the North Sea off the west coast of Denmark).  These wakes, in turn, can affect wind power production.  The downstream wind turbines lose 20 - 30% of their power, and sometimes even more, relative to the front row.  The spacing of the turbines is 7 diameters (there are 80 of them altogether in this particular location).  Optimal placement could no doubt be determined mathematically, though apparently there will always be wake effects to contend with no matter how the turbines are spaced.  Texas has used a "disordered" placement with good results.  NZ often effectively places them on uneven ground.  Unfortunately, no power source deployed on a large scale will be without a significant impact on the surrounding environment.

The atmosphere dissipates more than 30 times all the energy used by mankind.  (And if you can't harvest it all, knowing this helps how?)
The wind turbine blade shown is 61.5 metres long and weighs 17.7 tons.

There are 86 photos on display at this site - most of them rather remarkable.  Apparently making scale models is Smith's passion - and he obviously got to be quite good at it as he has completely recreated the town in which he grew up.  The buildings are 1/24th scale [1/2 inch = one foot].  They are constructed of Gator board, styrene plastic, Sintra (a light flexible plastic that can be carved and painted) plus numerous found objects such as jewellery pieces, finishing washers and printed material.  He says none of the photos are retouched or photoshopped in any way.
At a time in life when many attorneys have either retired or are putting the brakes on their careers, Alice Thomas is revving hers up.  Now 79, she completed her course work at McGeorge School of Law in December and has already lined up a job working with elder law issues at a Reno, Nevada firm.  That should help her start making a dent in the $70,000 of student loans she racked up pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney.  She will be at least 80 by the time she passes the bar exam, which she expects to take either in California or Nevada in July.

More here.

Rainbow Leaves

A judge's race or gender makes for a dramatic difference in the outcome of cases he or she hears — at least for cases in which race and gender allegedly play a role in the conduct of the parties.  In federal racial harassment cases, one study found that plaintiffs lost just 54% of the time when the judge handling the case was an African-American.  Yet plaintiffs lost 81% of the time when the judge was Hispanic, 79% when the judge was white, and 67% of the time when the judge was Asian American.  A second study looked at federal appellate cases involving allegations of sexual harassment or sex discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act.  Plaintiffs were at least twice as likely to win if a female judge was on the appellate panel.  Judges — no matter for which side they ruled — took the same procedural steps to reach their decisions but judges of different races took different approaches on how to interpret the facts.  US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a much-debated comment several years ago: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life."  The studies don't answer the question of whether a Latina judge reaches better conclusions, but, at least in some cases, it appears likely that she reaches different conclusions from a white male jurist hearing the same evidence.
Devon Loch was a racehorse owned by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, which entered history books when he collapsed 45 metres before the winning post at the 1956 Grand National steeplechase.  The horse was in the lead, but suddenly decided to jump over an invisible hurdle, and then collapsed.  On his belly, his forelegs out in front, Devon Loch tried to get back onto his feet and more or less collapsed again.  His jockey dismounted and it was over - another horse had won.  However, the mystery surrounding the horse's collapse elevated the jockey, Dick Francis, to front-page status.  Although the Queen Mother jovially dismissed the incident as "That’s racing," her horse trainer urged Francis to retire at the top of his game.  He did, but remained good friends with the Queen Mother, who once fetched him water personally when he choked at a dinner.  The media, on the other hand, never let him forget that unfortunate incident.  Dick Francis found a second career as one of the most famous thriller writers of the 20th century.  (He has recently died.)

In Melbourne, Australia

An estimated ten trillion unused frequent flyer miles are currently in circulation, worth about $165 billion in tickets.  A good portion of those will expire unused because airlines often close inactive accounts with little warning.

If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it.

- Norman Thomas

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