29 November 2014


An article at the BBC explores why so many Americans live in mobile homes.  "Not everyone who lives in a trailer park is poor."  My father lived in one in Texas for many years .

The WildCat is an impressive robot developed by the U.S. Defense Department. Video at the link.

The "choking game" is "an activity popular among 9- to 16-year-old kids in which they strangle themselves or each other — sometimes at parties or sleepovers — to get a high. The most common reported age of death is 13, Alex’s age. Many kids like Alex — smart kids who do well in school and have loving families — regard the Choking Game as a legal and safe alternative to drugs; one popular nickname for this is the Good Kids’ High."

The Atlantic explains how close New York City is to a food crisis, if supplies from outside the city are disrupted by natural or manmade events: "New Yorkers rely chiefly on food from across the country, or the other side of the world. And to complicate matters, in recent decades the big companies that run these systems... keep much smaller inventories than in years past, sized to meet immediate demand under stable conditions—a strategy known as "just-in-time."

 Some medical facilities in the U.S. are now permitting patients to be visited by their pets. "In the end, officials decided that the benefits — comfort and reduced stress for patients — were more substantial than the risks. 

The Ancient History Encyclopedia has TMI for right now, but it is a good link to bookmark for reference and future browsing.  Its content is exactly what the name suggests.

The World Memory Championships are a remarkable test of human abilities.  Components of the competition include:
1. Names and faces: recall as many as possible in 15 minutes
2. Binary numbers: remember as many binary figures, which are made up of 0 and 1, in half an hour
3. One hour numbers: to memorise as many random digits in complete rows of 40 in one hour
4. Abstract images: recall the sequence of abstract images in as many rows as possible in 15 minutes
5. Speed numbers: remember random digits, in rows of 40, as quickly as possible in five minutes
6. Historic/future dates: recall as many years as possible and link them correctly to given fictional events in five minutes
7. One hour cards: remember as many separate decks of 52 playing cards as possible in one hour
8. Random words: recount as many random words, such as dog, vase, spoon, in 15 minutes
9. Spoken numbers: memorise as many single digits spoken aloud in one second intervals as possible
10. Speed cards: recall as single pack of 52 playing cards in the shortest possible time.
Additional details are available in an article in The Telegraph.

The Sahara desert is experiencing a "catastrophic collapse of its wildlife." "Of 14 species historically found in the Sahara, four are now extinct, and the rest are heading that way.... the region has lost the Bubal hartebeest (which is entirely extinct), the scimitar horned ornyx (extinct in the wild), the African wild dog and the African lion, while the dama gazelle, addax, leopard and the Saharan cheetah have been eliminated from 90 percent or more of their range."

The earth has vast resources of fresh water - underneath the oceans. "The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900."

Some people think the U.S. and Canada should merge into one country.  "Such a merger makes perfect sense. No two countries on Earth are as socially and economically integrated as the U.S. and Canada... Truth be told, the merger of the U.S. and Canada is already well under way. As many as one in 10 Canadians (more than 3 million people) live full- or part-time in the U.S., and an estimated 1 million Americans live in Canada."

An op-ed piece at Salon argues that referring to every soldier as a "hero" cheapens the term.

FlirOne infrared cameras attach to a cellphone and can be utilized in a variety of ways to do your own home inspection looking for heat and water leaks.

The "jetway Jesus phenomenon" is a term flight attendants use to refer to passengers who get rides through airports in wheelchairs, then miraculously get up and walk.

Was Vincent Van Gogh murdered?  "And, anyway, what kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?"

Photos of vinyl hoarders and their hoards.

The first house in the United States to have electric lights was in Appleton, Wisconsin.  The homeowner operated a mill and set up a hydroelectric plant for the house.

A previously-unknown Shakespearean First Folio has been discovered in a French Jesuit library.

During WWI, tanks were designated "male" or "female."  The latter had machine guns.

"The former leader of a Christian ministry that promised to cure people "trapped in homosexuality" has revealed that he has married his gay partner."

"The two drugs have been declared equivalently miraculous. Tested side by side in six major trials, both prevent blindness in a common old-age affliction. Biologically, they are cousins. They’re even made by the same company. But one holds a clear price advantage. Avastin costs about $50 per injection.Lucentis costs about $2,000 per injection.  Doctors choose the more expensive drug more than half a million times every year, a choice that costs the Medicare program, the largest single customer, an extra $1 billion or more annually... Doctors and drugmakers profit when more-costly treatments are adopted... “Lucentis is Avastin — it’s the same damn molecule with a few cosmetic changes..."

The National Library of Norway is in the process of digitizing its entire holdings. "If you happen to be in Norway, as measured by your IP address, you will be able to access all 20th-century works, even those still under copyright. Non-copyrighted works from all time periods will be available for download. "

ELI5 explanation of why oil (and gasoline) prices have been plummeting


The title of this linkdump is one of the penultimate lines from The Court of Tartary, a fantasy by T.P. Caravan first published in 1963. In the story, a professor of English literature "awakens" to find his mind is entrapped in the body of a cow, and the herd seems to be destined to the slaughterhouse.
"Edward Harrison Dunbar, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., L.L.D., member of the Modern Language Association and authority on eighteenth century literature, was not prepared for the situation in which he found himself: it had never been mentioned by any of the writers of the Age of Reason....

And even as he ran he wondered if he couldn't prove that Edward Young was the true author of the third book of Gulliver's Travels, because he knew that if he stopped thinking scholarly thoughts about the eighteenth century he would have to admit that he had turned into an animal. So as he ran he considered the evidence turned up by the publication of the Tickell papers and the discovery of Swift's old laundry lists and Night Thoughts and the graveyard poets and Gray's Elegy and the lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea, and he had to admit that he was an animal....

There was no point in approaching his difficulty through the scientific method: he knew no science. There was no help for him in metaphysics: he had cleared his mind of Kant. Nor could the classics aid him: he had read Ovid, of course, and the Golden Ass, but he didn't see how they bore on his problem. And — he hated to admit it — nobody in the eighteenth century seemed to have wondered what would happen to a scholar who woke up and found himself a cow. All right. That left only his own experience to fall back on. But, being a professor, he had never had any experiences..."
He decides to use his hoof to draw a triangle in the dust.  Then... if I've piqued your curiosity, you can read the full story in ten minutes fulltext online at Scribd.


The photographs (found here, here, and here) embedded above in this weekend linkdump are of Prince's Island Park, located in the Bow River as it passes through Calgary.  The backside of the island abuts the community of Eau Claire, but its nicest feature is that the front of the island faces the delightful community of Sunnyside, a suburb of Calgary characterized by an uncommonly large number of intellectually sophisticated residents.

23 November 2014

Return of the Weekend Linkdump

Gotta do this.  Otherwise the links accumulate and multiply like coathangers in the closet.

Video of massive numbers of mullets (fish, not hairdos) becoming prey during their annual migration.

An introduction to the Paraguayan "Archives of Terror," which "listed 50,000 people murdered, 30,000 people disappeared and 400,000 people imprisoned."

In the United States, this year was "a record year for costume-buying, with more Americans than ever shelling out for children’s costumes ($1.1 billion), adult costumes ($1.4 billion) and costumes for pets ($350 million)."

Video of people annoying a giant anaconda.  The participants have been fined by local authorities, but the video does show the impressive size of the snake.

Halloween pranks by television weathermen.  See what happens when you stand in front of a green screen wearing a green-background skeleton costume, or if you just wrap a green cloth around your head.

Time-lapse video of the night sky captures the explosion of a bolide.

Apparently it's a thing now to create tattoos on horses by gluing glitter on the haunches.

Bergli Books (Switzerland) will publish a book exposing the "Asian Timber Mafia" that is devastating the rainforests of Borneo.

How to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

Scary dashcam video - this one in the United States, not Russia.  A man driving at night encounters traffic cones set up as a roadblock.  Not done by the police...

Why you can't outrun a grizzly bear.  This video taken from a vehicle on level ground, but I've seen other videos documenting their incredible speed while running up a steep mountainside.

A massive resource for anyone interested in clothing of the Elizabethan era.  Links for everything from underwear to hats.  Worth bookmarking.
An interesting commentary on Vladimir Putin's recent speech at the Russian equivalent of the west's Davos summit.  "A Russian commentator named Dmitry Orlov... said of Putin’s contribution, “This is probably the most important political speech since Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of March 5, 1946.”" "This is the speech not of some kind of nostalgic empire builder — Putin dismisses the charge persuasively — but of a man genuinely afraid that the planet is close to tipping into some version of primitive disorder. Absent less adversarial international relations, we reach a moment of immense peril."

Scientists offer a biologic/physiologic basis for people's perceptions of the existence of "ghosts."

"A dying grandmother was granted a final wish of seeing her favourite horse one last time - after the animal was brought to visit her in her hospital bed."

Ethnic plastic surgery - "procedures outsiders generally view as deracinating processes, sharpening the stereotypically flat noses of Asians, blacks, and Latinos while flattening the stereotypically sharp noses of Arabs and Jews."

Hacks for air travelers.

An informed Reddit thread discussing whether (or to what extent) the recent Rosetta mission has changed our understanding of comets.

An incredibly massive and detailed reading list of history books.

"After becoming frustrated with the superficial standards his female co-workers were held to in regards to the way they dress, Karl embarked on an experiment to test these standards on himself. He wore the same blue suit every day. First for a week, then for a month, then for a year... no one has noticed; no one gives a shit.”
Obamacare premiums will rise next year.  This graph puts that in perspective.

A website offers links to 73,000 private webcams whose owners have not secured them with passwords.  You can peek at the warehouse floor.  Or the baby's crib.

A mother decries the names of some modern cosmetics: "More than once I’ve been in the gruesome position of having to discuss with my daughter the benefits of 'Orgasm' over 'Super Orgasm', or deliberating over palettes labelled F Bomb, Bang and Spunk. Having to ask the shop assistant for one of them takes the conversation to another level altogether."

The lady in this photo -

- does not know what the internet is, but she does understand what a "get well" wish is, and would like to thank everyone ("Who ARE all these people???") for their kind comments.

Top photo found at Reddit/imgur; sadly, today the cheese will stand alone, because the Vikings as a team are in no shape to compete with them.  

Thumbnail embeds via an entertaining collection of business signs at 22 Words.

16 November 2014

I'm shutting down TYWKIWDBI

Not permanently, but for an indefinite time period, probably extending through the holiday season.

On Tuesday, shortly after I wrote that last post, I received a phone call informing me that my 95-year-old mother had fallen and injured herself.  Evaluation at the University Hospital here confirmed that she fractured her humerus when she landed on her elbow, driving the shaft into the head at an angle.  She is now stable in an assisted living facility, but this combined with her dementia results in a variety of medical and social needs that require my attention.

I may pop back here every now and then to do a linkdump as a mental health break for myself, but I just can't justify spending hours per day blogging as I have in recent years.

Bye for now...

11 November 2014

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Archaeologists in Bulgaria have uncovered another "vampire grave" dating to the first half of the 13th century:
"The skeleton, thought to be of a man aged between 40 and 50, had a heavy piece of ploughshare – an iron rod, used in a plough – hammered through its chest. The left leg below the knee had also been removed and left beside the skeleton."
"A Raleigh County [West Virginia] man pleaded guilty Thursday to repeatedly faking compliant water quality standards for coal companies, in a case that raises questions about the self-reporting system state and federal regulators use as a central tool to judge if the mining industry is following pollution limits."  Apparently self-reporting of compliance with environmental standards is unreliable???  I am shocked, shocked...

Casebook: Jack the Ripper claims to be "the world's largest public repository of Ripper-related information."

This Reddit thread will link you to a complete scan of the first issue of Action Comics (the first Superman comic).

The BBC has a lengthy and well-written article on the history of lead intoxication in humans.

A video from 1947 explains why you should consider a career as a librarian.

One reader of TYWKIWDBI emailed me to report that the right sidebar was "vibrating" while he was viewing the blog.  I had not heard of such a problem before, but I located a webpage discussing this as an occasional problem related to the presence of the "followers" (I've retitled it "like-minded people") gadget in the sidebar.  This defect is experienced by users of Chrome browsers at certain zoom levels.

Is Crossfit a cult?

Ars Technica has a review of OSX 10.10 Yosemite.

A man who developed a deep venous thrombosis and a variety of complications from it explains why you should consider working at a standing desk or at least stop sitting at your desk for hours at a time.

Deformutilation offers three galleries of photos of a Tibetan sky burial.   Part I focuses on the "body breakers" who chop up corpses: "Hatchets and cleavers are used to make precise cuts in the flesh, which is then carved into chunks of 'meat'. The internal organs are then cut into pieces, the bones are smashed  and then mixed with tsampa, roasted barley flour. This pulverized bone mixture is then scattered on the ground the birds descending to eat their meal..." Part II is hereAnd Part III.  This donation of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food."  I shouldn't need to warn you that the images are graphic.

You can use an apple corer to create "polka-dot pumpkins." Clever. We may try this next year. This and other ideas at Homes and Hues.

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a sphinyx from underneath sand dunes in California.

Because the UK does not offer assisted suicide, an elderly woman successfully starved herself to death.  "The former maths teacher, 86, did not have a terminal illness, but suffered a range of conditions that made her life uncomfortable including chronic back pain and fainting episodes."

Archaeologists have found evidence of a human campgrounds at an elevation of 14,700 feet (4,480 meters) in the Peruvian Andes, dating to about 12,400 years B.P.

The "Giant Rock" in the Mojave Desert is quite interesting.

In 1876 it "rained flesh" in Kentucky:
For several minutes, Crouch and her husband Allen watched as pieces of fresh, raw meat, some “delicate shreds as light as a snowflake” and others “a solid lump three inches square” fell from the sky. Mrs. Crouch said she was “impressed with the conviction that it was either a miracle or a warning.” The Crouchs’ cat, less concerned about meaning of the meat than his masters, "immediately gorged himself with the public breakfast so unexpectedly tendered to him." When it was over, the “Kentucky meat shower,” as it came to be known, left an area of the farmyard 100 yards long and 50 wide strewn with flesh. “Particles of meat” were found “sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground.” 
It was real, and not a prank.  A logical explanation is provided at Mental Floss.

The Telegraph offers a gallery of terrible real-estate-for-sale photographs, including this toilet-in-the-kitchen:

Top photo via Picdit.

The title quote comes from H. G. Wells' Outline of History (1920).

10 November 2014

The "drinkable book"

From the outside, "The Drinkable Book" looks like a normal book. It's about an inch or two thick, with 20 pages. But these pages do a lot more than convey information. Each page also serves as a water filter, a valuable tool for preventing waterborne illness in the developing world...

The pages are about a millimeter thick and contain silver nanoparticles. The silver can rid the water of harmful microbes, but has very little effect on humans... To use the book, you rip one of the pages in half, slide it into the filter box (which doubles as a cover for the book) and pour contaminated water through. After a few minutes, the [bacterial count] is reduced by 99.9 percent and is comparable to U.S. tap water...

The books cost just a few dollars to make; each piece of filter paper costs about 10 cents. The filters can last a couple of weeks, even up to a month. So the entire books could provide the tools to filter clean water for about a year.

Card manipulation

Not card tricks - just (literally) manipulation of the cards by people you wouldn't want to play poker with.

Via Neatorama.

Black members of Congress

Found at The Washington Post.

The "salmon cannon"

This week John Oliver presented a rather funny send-up of the "salmon cannon."  I think the original deserves to be appreciated in its own right.

The downside of terraforming

Consider this scenario:
A large number of humans have been prenatally genetically modified to live and work in a nonterrestrial location (they require subzero temperatures for comfort, need a different atmospheric gaseous composition, etc).  Then the planet they were destined to live on is vaporized by a supernova; there is no equivalent alternate planet in the known universe.

Now they need another location, so all of them are transported to a partially-suitable planet which will then be terraformed to their requirements.  This will require thousands of years, during which they will enter cryo-sleep, waking in groups at intervals for habitat maintenance until the external world is suitably modified.

So far, so good.  But now suppose that after the terraforming machines have been going for a few centuries a cohort of colonists awakens to discover that their new planet, thought on preliminary survey to contain only primitive plants and beasts, is actually host to what appears to be a sentient creature.  And that sentient race is obviously being forced to adapt to climate change at a rate exponentially faster than normal planetary evolution.

Are the humans ethically justified in continuing to terraform the new planet to their own needs if the process entails the genocide of the aboriginal inhabitants?
The story is The Keys to December, an 8,700-word (you can read it in an hour) novelette by Roger Zelazny, an acclaimed science-fiction author (Hugo Award x6, Nebula x3).  I first encountered this story a decade ago in the compilation The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth (Simon and Schuster, 2001). 

A brief review is here, along with the names of several other books that include it that might be available from your library if Doors of his Face is not.  If you insist on reading it online, the fulltext is here (in a somewhat awkward font).

What constitutes proper subject matter for postage stamps?

A couple weeks ago the Washington Post made note of some turmoil in the stamp collecting community regarding the selection of images to be used on forthcoming commemorative stamps in the United States:
As the U.S. Postal Service prepares to issue a stamp featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer next week, a postal expert whose 12-year term on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee ended earlier this year pleads with his former colleagues to resist the temptation to choose new stamp images “with the same profit motives as Big Macs, Slurpees, jeans or neighborhood tattoo parlors.”..

This airing of dirty laundry in the small but passionate stamp community... draws another fault line in an ongoing debate over whether the cash-poor Postal Service should pursue commercial stamp subjects to lure new collectors and revenue at the expense of more enduring cultural images...

The friction came to a head last fall, when the stamp panel grew concerned about how the Postal Service’s marketing staff was pushing pop culture that culminated with the release of stamps honoring Harry Potter...

“That said, while continuing to commemorate historic events and individuals, it is critically important that we offer subjects to interest younger generations and topical collectors into stamp collecting, such as Harry Potter, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and, most recently, Batman,” Saunder said.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuts at the National Postal Museum on Nov. 6.
I remember the Harry Potter stamp points of argument, which included not only the commercialization of philately, but also the "promotion" and "glorification" of witchcraft.  Then there was the controversy six years ago when a politically-correct stamp design took the cigarette away from Bette Davis.

I find it interesting that the current controversy over U.S. stamp designs follows by several months the apparently not-very-controversial issuance in Finland of postage stamps commemorating the artwork of "Tom of Finland," whose subject matter [see top image] is of a genre that would set off a firestorm of complaint in this country.  The Finnish stamps are available for purchase in the U.S., but of course not valid for postage here.

Last year the postal service in Finland issued a set of four stamps picturing the "prettiest outhouses in Finland."

Luxembourg tax shelters exposed

From The Guardian:
A cache of almost 28,000 pages of leaked tax agreements, returns and other sensitive papers relating to over 1,000 businesses paints a damning picture of an EU state which is quietly rubber-stamping tax avoidance on an industrial scale.

The documents show that major companies — including drugs group Shire, City trading firm Icap and vacuum cleaner firm Dyson, who are headquartered in the UK or Ireland — have used complex webs of internal loans and interest payments which have slashed the companies’ tax bills. These arrangements, signed off by the Grand Duchy, are perfectly legal.

The documents also show how some 340 companies from around the world arranged specially-designed corporate structures with the Luxembourg authorities. The businesses include corporations such as Pepsi, Ikea, Accenture, Burberry, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, JP Morgan and FedEx. Leaked papers relating to the Coach handbag firm, drugs group Abbott Laboratories, Amazon, Deutsche Bank and Australian financial group Macquarie are also included.
Lots of details at the link.

American plutocracy

A new paper by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics suggests that, in America at least, inequality in wealth is approaching record levels...
The top 0.1% (consisting of 160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.
From The Economist, where the chart is interactive.  The phenomenon is discussed in greater detail in another article there:
Because the bottom half of all families almost always has no net wealth, the share of wealth held by the bottom 90% is an effective measure of “middle class” wealth, or that held by those from the 50th to the 90th percentile...

The 16,000 families making up the richest 0.01%, with an average net worth of $371m, now control 11.2% of total wealth—back to the 1916 share, which is the highest on record...

How the 0.1% spend their money

Sotheby's expects the bidding for this "supercomplication" watch to reach $17,000,000.

A video at the Wall Street Journal, which I can't embed, attempts to explain why this watch is worth that much money.  It doesn't address the question of why a person should spend this amount of money on a watch rather than, for example, improving the world in some meaningful way.

07 November 2014

Photos by Gordon Parks

Parks' resulting work appeared in a 26-photo spread in [Life] magazine. "The Restraints: Open and Hidden" stood out among photography of the era because it used color photos to document the day-to-day impact of Jim Crow segregation on an otherwise anonymous extended family, the Thorntons, rather than focusing on the heroes and flash points of the Civil Rights Movement. When part of the family was kicked out of its Shady Grove, Ala., home and run out of town as a repercussion, Life magazine donated $25,000 to help the family relocate. By capturing the quiet dignity and humanity of Southern blacks, the series highlighted the inadequacies of the separate but equal doctrine at a time when the country was consciously grappling with race.
Both photos credit Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation, via Creative Loafing where there are more photos and comments

17th century witchmarks

As reported in the International Business Times:
Witch markings dating to the 17th Century have been uncovered by archaeologists at a stately home in Kent and are believed to have been created to protect King James following the gunpowder plot of 1605.

Experts working at Knole house discovered the witchmarks in a room built to accommodate royalty. They had been hidden for centuries in beams and joists below the floorboards and on a fireplace in the Upper King's Room...

The witchmarks, or apotropaic marks, are carved intersecting lines and symbols believed to form a "demon trap" to ward off evil and prevent demonic possession. The marks include chequerboard and mesh designs, as well as interlocking V-shapes on the beams and joists – a symbol that stands for Virgo Virginum that invokes the protection of Mary the Mother of God.

Interesting things about chickens

Excerpts from an article in the November issues of Harper's:
Before World War I, the majority of eggs came from people keeping a few chickens in their backyards in the suburbs. Today, barns of 150,000 hens are run by 1.5 men on average (one full-time worker in a single barn, another split between two barns...

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too...

Their eyes are especially ingenious. Human eyes work together and focus on one location, but chickens’ eyes work separately and have multiple objects of focus. A hen can look at a morsel on the ground with one eye and scan the area for predators with the other...

There are in fact no federal regulations regarding the treatment of animals on farms. We’ve heard of the Animal Welfare Act, but it turns out to exempt all animals on farms. There are only two federal protections that do apply to farm animals — one for slaughter and one for transportation. The USDA exempts chickens from both.
Much more information at the article, including informed commentary on the ethics and practical necessities of egg production.

Relevant demographics of the mid-term elections

Two graphs from a Washington Post article.  The first shows the age of people who voted in the last ten mid-term elections:

The second shows that this trend of an older populace will continue for our lifetimes:

A major question is what percent of each cohort will vote in future elections?  And how will the priorities and biases of age cohorts be different (or not) in future elections?

Addendum:  From The Dish, a graph showing that voter turnout in this most recent midterm election was the lowest in thirty years.

Those who didn't vote this week are invited not to comment on this post.

So you think you know a lot about music?

For the final exam in this course:  "Define, compare, and contrast five of the following musical genres.  Be specific." 

Canterbury scene
rock gaucho
vegan straight edge
technical death metal
black sludge
deep orgcore
fourth world
grave wave
fidget house
shiver pop
contemporary post-bop
full on
quiet storm

Selected from a longer list at Harper's, which in turn was selected from "a list of 1,266 musical genres compiled by Glenn McDonald, creator of everynoise.com, which seeks to produce a comprehensive music-classification system."

Long-neck beer

Posted at Reddit, where there is a photo of another one that formed in a mini-fridge:

Fake bomb detectors

Last year The Guardian carried a story about a UK businessman who sold fake bomb detectors to the Iraqis:
A jury at the Old Bailey found Jim McCormick, 57, from near Taunton, Somerset, guilty on three counts of fraud over a scam that included the sale of £55m of devices based on a novelty golfball finder to Iraq. They were installed at checkpoints in Baghdad through which car bombs and suicide bombers passed, killing hundreds of civilians...

He claimed they could detect explosives at long range, deep underground, through lead-lined rooms and multiple buildings. In fact, the handheld devices were useless. Their antennae, which purported to detect explosives, and in other cases narcotics, were not connected to anything, they had no power source and one of the devices was simply the golfball finder with a different sticker on it...
A former colleague of McCormick told the BBC he saw him set up accounts in false names for 15 Iraqi officials. He said they "don't care if people live or die"; the only thing they care about is "how much am I going to get back – cashback"....
A prison sentence is in my view an inadequate punishment for a crime of this nature; something more medieval should have been considered.

It was with great disappointment, therefore, that I read in Harper's last month that the fake bomb detectors are still being used in Iraq:
Today, as our cab arrived at Kut, Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoint wore U.S. tricolor desert camouflage, the same my unit had been issued for the invasion. It was as if the hidden army of Saddam had reappeared wearing our uniforms. They walked carefully along our cab with a fake bomb detector, purchased from a crooked British contractor who resold $20 American novelty golf-ball locators for $27,000 each. Corrupt Iraqi officials bought $40 million worth of them. The soldier stared intently at the indicator light, three years after their sale had been banned, a keeper of the lie. “Everyone knows it does nothing,” the passenger in the front seat said.
What a totally screwed-up country.

Photo  credit: SWNS.com

06 November 2014

The hands of Jane Seymour

This is a detail from a 1536 portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.  Posted not for the hands per se, but rather to marvel at the exquisite detail the painter (or his assistants) incorporated into the depiction of the fabric. How is that even possible with a brush - a single bristle?  or did painters use pen and ink to render some parts of their designs?

Via Large Size Paintings.

A critique of corporate health-care plans

From an op-ed piece in the StarTribune:
Honeywell International, founded in Minnesota, recently implemented a plan to reduce health care costs and promote healthy living for employees.

Sounds good so far.

But the company went a step further by penalizing workers financially if they and their spouses refused to agree to a biometric testing.

That’s a harmless enough sounding concept. But what it means is you let medical providers for the company draw blood to check for health problems, such as diabetes. It means they would also would test you, and your spouse, for blood pressure, HDL, total cholesterol and glucose. 

Oh, and they’d need your height and weight, and that of your spouse. And while they’re at it, let’s run a tape measure around your waistline to see how you are doing with that diet.
Failure to agree to the tests brings a hefty price, up to $4,000 per family in penalties and lost company contributions.
More details at the link.

A different perspective on the night sky

The time-lapse images of the night sky have been "stabilized" to show the stars in fixed positions and the earth rotating (not vice-versa, as our earth-based bias would suggest).

Via Reddit, where the thread includes brief comments on the lasers emitted from the observatories ("Basically, they use the laser to create an artificial star in the upper atmosphere. They then monitor its shape (which gets distorted due to turbulence in the atmosphere) and use that to correct the shape of the telescope's secondary mirror.")

"Side stitches"

The stitch, an exercise-induced pain in the side, is a medical mystery. Many physicians call it a spasm of the diaphragm. Others say it is akin to the headache—a symptom with a multitude of potential causes. The world’s perhaps most-published authority on the stitch, Australian scientist Darren Morton, disputes both of those theories, calling it an irritation of the parietal peritoneum, the outer lining of the abdomen.

Whatever it is, Dr. Morton’s research shows that the stitch afflicts about one in five participants in a typical distance race... For some it will be debilitating, reducing them to a walk. For others it will be a pace-slowing nuisance...

Though it can feel life-threatening, the stitch doesn’t cause death or injury, sports-medicine specialists say. Unlike a sprain, torn ligament or bone fracture, the stitch doesn’t require rest or recovery. For many, the stitch is fleeting, often vanishing as training increases. Most never seek medical treatment for it...

Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a local sharp and sudden pain especially in the side,” stitch isn’t a new word. “Tonight thou shalt have cramps, side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up,” says Prospero in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” In a first-century mention of the stitch, Pliny the Elder recommended treating it with “the urine of a she-goat, injected into the ears,”...

A 2000 study of his on prevalence by sport found that within the previous year the stitch had stricken 75% of swimmers, 69% of runners, 62% of horse riders, 47% of basketball players and 32% of cyclists.
If I had to bet, I would favor stitches being caused by diaphragmatic spasm induced by respiratory alkalosis.   But that's just a guess.

American sweater (1895)

Nice.  Found at Vintage Blog.

America functions as an oligarchy, not as a democracy

Who really matters in our democracy — the general public, or wealthy elites? That's the topic of a new study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. The study's been getting lots of attention, because the authors conclude, basically, that the US is a corrupt oligarchy where ordinary voters barely matter...
The Vox link discusses these conclusions in some detail.  This graph shows the probability of a policy being adopted by the U.S. vs the percentage of the general population that agrees with the policy:

And this one shows the approval probability vs the preferences of the economic elite and special interest groups:

The study is here.  This from their Abstract:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Vintage refrigerator (GE, 1957)

Via Vintage Blog.

How corporations avoid paying income tax

Everyone knows about these shenanigans, but nobody does anything about it. 
Pepsi, IKEA, FedEx and 340 other international companies have secured secret deals from Luxembourg, allowing many of them to slash their global tax bills while maintaining little presence in the tiny European duchy, leaked documents show.

These companies appear to have channeled hundreds of billions of dollars through Luxembourg and saved billions of dollars in taxes, according to a review of nearly 28,000 pages of confidential documents by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a team of more than 80 journalists from 26 countries...

The leaked documents reviewed by ICIJ involve deals negotiated by PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, on behalf of hundreds of corporate clients. To qualify the companies for tax relief, the records show, PwC tax advisers helped come up with financial strategies that feature loans among sister companies and other moves designed to shift profits from one part of a corporation to another to reduce or eliminate taxable income...

Luxembourg agreed to tax only one quarter of 1 percent of FedEx’s non-dividend income flowing through this arrangement - leaving the remaining 99.75 per cent tax-free.
The companies will argue publicly that this is all legal.  It's legal because tax laws have been created by the politicians they bought to make it legal.

05 November 2014

Product with sugar labeled as "no sugar"

Each pack weighs 15–18 g and contains about 36 Tic Tacs. New packs in Australia and Canada weigh 24 g and contain 50 Tic Tacs, and the Tic Tac "Big Box" weighs 49 g and contains 100 Tic Tacs. The "Big Pack" weighs 29 grams (1 ounce) and contains 60 pieces. The "Jumbo Pack" weighs 98 grams (3.4 ounce) and contains 200 pieces.

Each Tic Tac weighs just under 0.5 g. Since US federal regulations state that if a single serving contains less than 0.5 g of sugars it is allowable to express the amount of sugar in a serving as zero, and since a single serving of Tic Tacs is a single Tic Tac, Tic Tacs are labeled in the US as containing zero sugar.
Confirmed at the TicTac FAQs ("Tic Tac® mints do contain sugar").

"Book Week, 1930"

Is there still an official "book week?"

Via Vintage Blog.

An iPhone app that blocks texting while driving

"The AT&T DriveMode app for iPhone is now available on the App Store – making it the first free no-texting-while-driving application offered by a major U.S. wireless carrier that works on the iPhone. The app is easy to use. It silences incoming text message alerts, turns on automatically when one drives 15 MPH or more and turns off shortly after one stops. When activated, it automatically responds to incoming SMS and MMS text messages so the sender knows the text recipient is driving. It also allows parents with young drivers to receive a text message if the app is turned off."

03 November 2014

"The Monkey's Paw"

It's too late for this Halloween, but a classic supernatural horror story by W. W. Jacobs can be enjoyed any time. 
"It had a spell put on it by an old Fakir," said the Sargeant-Major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."

His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

"Well, why don't you have three, sir?" said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth."I have," he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

"And did you really have the three wishes granted?" asked Mrs. White.

"I did," said the seargent-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

"And has anybody else wished?" persisted the old lady.

"The first man had his three wishes. Yes, " was the reply, "I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw." 
Fulltext here, via The Dish.

p.s. - there is a compendium of illustrated short stories by the author at the name link.

Helping a blind dog - updated

One of our neighbors' dogs has suddendly developed blindness, so I've been searching the 'net for applicable resources and tips.  Pictured above is a home-made dog collar that incorporates cable ties to provide the equivalent of a cat's whiskers.

I found this item at Blind Dogs.net, which has a variety of other resources for owners of blind dogs, including a long list of tips to help both dogs and owners cope with the impairment.
5) Sew 1 or 2 "jingle bells" onto an elastic pony tail band (used for hair) to slip onto your own ankle, or attach bell to shoe laces, so your blind dog can hear where you are walking. 

12) Get down on the floor and crawl around at the dog's eye level to find anything that might be dangerous. Do the same in your yard... look for low growing branches etc. that could poke the eyes & trim.

16) Remember to speak to your dog when you are approaching to touch (especially while sleeping) to prevent startling him/her. 

19) Use a short lead to avoid tripping over the leash. Not usually needed, but you can thread the dog's leash through a few feet of PVC pipe to make rigid leash for "directing" in a specific direction. 

20) Sharp corners on coffee tables, furniture legs etc. can be padded with bubble wrap, fabric batting, or foam pipe insulation from the hardware store. 

22) Scent important areas....doorway/doggie door to go outside (vanilla extract, citrus, pine or furniture polish) place "scent" down low on the door or molding for best "sniffing". Scent any "danger" areas.

30) Carpet sample squares are "cheap" and while your dog is learning the layout of the house put carpet squares in the doorways going into each room to make it easier to find the door openings.
Dozens more tips at the link.  If you have experience in this regard and would like to offer helpful tips (or good links), to other owners, please feel free to leave comments.

Addendum:  Reposted from 2012 to add this video showing that more sophisticated "haloes" for blind dogs are now commercially available:

Via Neatorama.

Giant stone circles in the MIddle East

First noticed a centurty ago, but only now being studied:
Archaeologists in Jordan have taken high-resolution aerial images of 11 ancient "Big Circles," all but one of which are around 400 meters (1,312 feet) in diameter. Why they are so similar is unknown but the similarity seems “too close to be a coincidence" said researcher David Kennedy...

Their purpose is unknown, and archaeologists are unsure when these structures were built. Analysis of the photographs, as well as artifacts found on the ground, suggest the circles date back at least 2,000 years, but they may be much older...

The purpose of the Big Circles is a mystery, Kennedy said. It seems unlikely that they were originally used as corrals, as the walls were no more than a few feet high, the circles contain no structures that would have helped maintain an animal herd and there's no need for animal corrals to have such a precise shape, he said.
A gallery of photographs (including several at ground level) is here.

Television. Watching.

A columnist at Salon has trepidations about the newest video technology:
I am now the owner of a new “smart” TV, which promises to deliver streaming multimedia content, games, apps, social media and Internet browsing... The amount of data this thing collects is staggering. It logs where, when, how and for how long you use the TV. It sets tracking cookies and beacons designed to detect “when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message.” It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.” It ignores “do-not-track” requests as a considered matter of policy...

More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a “voice recognition” feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”..

According to retired Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, Internet-enabled “smart” devices can be exploited to reveal a wealth of personal data. “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvester,” he reportedly told a venture capital firm in 2012...

Of course, there is always the “dumb” option. Users may have the ability to disable data collection, but it comes at a cost. The device will not function properly or allow the use of its high-tech features.
More at the link.

Science video of the day: a feather falls in a vacuum

Educated viewers will anticipate the result, but seeing it happen is still a jaw-dropping experience.

Via Neatorama.
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