Saturday, December 31, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Air Travel Safer than Ever

Deaths from air travel are at a record low, as Joshua Freed and Scott Mayerowitz of the Associated Press report. There have only been 153 fatalities in the last ten years, two deaths for every 100 million passengers flying commercially, as calculated by the Associated Press from government accident data.

Although the airline industry survived terrible financial losses -- $54.5 billion in the last ten years, safety remained a priority and actually improved in the United States. Some nations remain significantly riskier for flying – Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia today have notably high rates of air crashes. Africa, which has three percent of the world’s air traffic, had 14 percent of the world’s fatal crashes.

Worldwide, 2011 was the second safest year on record to fly, with 507 persons dying in crashes. Seven of the twenty-eight planes in fatal crashes occurred on airlines prohibited from flying into the European Union due to known safety issues. The safest year worldwide was 2004 with 323 deaths, but there were fewer passengers that year.

Significant factors for the improved air safety:
  • New aircraft and their engines reflect what was learned from previous mistakes. Accident investigations have changed procedures to avoid repeating past errors.
  • Information is shared more thoroughly and efficiently than before. Databases allow pilots, airlines, manufacturers and government regulators to track the accidents and the near misses. Some statistics are kept runway-by-runway to spot opportunities to improve safety.
  • Safety audits by outsiders such as the International Air Transport Association, an industry group that began its audit program in 2003. In addition, airlines demonstrate to the industry and to other airlines t6hat maintenance and safety procedures are proper – a method that has also decreased insurance rates for airlines by ten percent over the last decade.
  • An experienced workforce that has been working for decades, especially in North America and in Europe. Experience makes for better split-second decisions and for more thorough training of younger employees. As an example, former US Airways captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger spent thirty years as a pilot and was praised for his safe ditching of a plane in the Hudson River in 2009 after multiple bird strikes stalled both engines shortly after takeoff. [All passengers were recovered after the water landing with no fatalities].
  • Luck. It takes just one accident of a large aircraft to ruin the safety trend for a year, but this has not occurred lately. Very large capacity aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, are coming. These planes have a very large passenger capacity.
The most recent fatal crash in the United States was Colgan Air Flight 3407, a regional carrier flying as "Continental Connection." That crash, in 2009, killed 49 people as well as a man in a house, which was hit by the plane. All fatal crashes in the U.S. in the last ten years happened on these regional airlines, which are separate companies with smaller planes under such brands as "United Express," "American Eagle" and "Delta Connection."

The last large airline crash in the United States was American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001, which crashed just after taking off from New York, killing 265 people.

There have been some close calls – in April, a Southwest Airlines Aircraft ruptured a five-foot section of its fuselage, causing a loss of cabin pressure. A year earlier, another Southwest plane came within 200 feet of colliding with a small private aircraft at an airport in California. An American Airlines jet landing in the rain in Jamaica in December of 2009 was unable to come to a halt on the runway; it crashed through a fence, crossed a street and stopped o the beach. In December of 2005, a Southwest jet skidded off a Chicago runway; there were no passenger fatalities, but a 9-year-old boy was killed, though he was riding in a passing car at the time.

The bad economy may have indirectly made flying safer. In a boom time, airlines grow quickly and there is pressure to create new captains. In the present environment, they spend longer assisting and learning from the present captains.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Mystery of Attacks by "The Birds"

Dan Vergano of USA Today reported on December 27th that the real mystery of bird attacks in Monterey Bay in 1961 that led to the Alfred Hitchcock motion picture The Birds may have been solved.

Ocean environmentalist Sibel Bargu from Louisiana State University has examined stomach contents of turtles and seabirds which were gathered in Monterey Bay in 1961. They have found that 79% of the plankton in the samples have algae which make toxins. In a report published in Nature Geoscience, Bargu states that the chief toxin is is a nerve-damaging acid, one that results in confusion, seizures and death in birds.

A similar event involving contaminated mussels caused four deaths on Prince Edward Island, a province of Canada, in 1987.

Raphael Kudela, a plankton expert at the University of Southern California and author of a 2008 report on the Monterey Bay incident of 1961, inferred that the toxic acid was a likely cause of the event. He also noted that septic tank leaks could have fed these algae, although farm fertilizers have been blamed as the cause for years.

The USA Today article notes that leaky septic tanks were indeed installed in a housing boom in the Monterey Bay area in the early 1960s.

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"The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier

"The Birds"is a famous novelette by Daphne du Maurier, , first published in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. It is the story of a farmhand, his family, and his community, who are attacked by flocks of seabirds who have organized themselves into avian suicide warriors. The story is set in England shortly after the end of World War II. By the end of the story it has become clear that all of Britain is under aerial assault.
The story was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, released in 1963, the same year that The Apple Tree was reprinted as The Birds and Other Stories.

In 2009, Irish playwright Conor McPherson adapted the story for the stage at Dublin's Gate Theatre.

Plot Summary

Farm worker and war veteran Nat Hocken notices an unusual number of birds behaving strangely along the peninsula where his family lives, which he attributes to the coming winter. That night, he hears tapping at his bedroom window. When he opens it, he is pecked in the knuckles by a frightened bird. Some time passes, and the tapping resumes. As Nat opens the window again, a number of birds strike him and disappear. He hears screams from his children's room and rushes to them, only to find a swarm of small birds flying around their room. Nat fights them off with a blanket until dawn, when they fly away, leaving about fifty dead birds on the floor. He reassures his wife that the birds were restless because of a sudden change in the weather. The next day, Nat tells his fellow workers about the night's events; but they give it little importance. As he goes to the beach to dispose of the dead birds, he notices what appear to be dark clouds over the sea but are actually tens of thousands of seagulls waiting for the tide to rise. When Nat gets home, he and his family hear over the radio that birds are attacking all over Britain, presumably because of the approaching winter. Nat decides to board the windows and block up the chimney. Later, he goes to pick up his daughter, Jill, from the school bus stop. Then he sees his boss, Trigg, with a car and asks for him to give Jill a lift home. Trigg cheerfully claims that he and some others are unfazed by the announcements and plan on going out and shooting the birds. He invites Nat to come along, but Nat rejects Trigg's offer and continues home. Just before he reaches home, the gulls descend, attacking him with their beaks. Nat reaches the cottage with minor injuries. Soon massive swarms of birds are diving for the house. A national emergency is declared on the radio, and people are told not to leave their homes. The birds continue to crash mindlessly against the cottage. During dinner, the family hears what sounds like gunfire from planes overhead, followed by the sound of the planes crashing. The attacks die down, and Nat calculates that they will only attack at high tide. The next day, when the tide recedes, Nat goes out to get supplies from the neighbors. There are piles of dead birds around the houses, but the birds still alive simply watch him from a distance. Nat goes to the farm where he is employed and finds Trigg and his wife dead. Later on, he also sees the postman's body by the road and realizes there are no signs of life from any of his neighbors' homes because they have all been attacked and eaten by the birds. Nat returns home with the supplies; and, in a few hours, the birds resume their attack. The story ends as Nat smokes his last cigarette while the birds continue their siege.

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A cogent summary of the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds is at:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Huge Entitlement Liabilities Calculated by GAO

Bryan R. Lawrence is the founder of an investment partnership in New York. He wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that was published December 28, 2011.

Lawrence notes that the Government Accountability Office issued a financial statement for the federal government on December 23, the Friday just before Christmas. It was released at a time when it was correctly calculated not to get much press, and it didn’t. Lawrence thinks it should be looked at closely.

Since 1997, the USA has been one of a very select group of countries that publishes a financial statement based on "accrual" basis accounting rather than mere "cash basis" accounting. [Accrual accounting is required for financial statements carrying the audit opinion of an American certified public accountant, as cash statements are correctly regarded as inherently misleading. Every single annual financial statement from every corporation in America that issues stock or has significant bonds is prepared using the accrual basis – the blog author]. GAO prepared the latest statement, and it has a reputation for fair and impartial work.

The GAO uses the professional technique, "net present value," to determine the amount of liability the government has for for future Social Security and Medicare promises. "Net present value" is the total value of streams of expenses in the future, discounted at a reasonable rate to the present time, something like figuring out the current value of a mortgage indebtedness by adding up and discounting all the future mortgage payments.

And here’s what Lawrence says about the calculation: "In fiscal 2011, the cost of the promises grew from $30.9 trillion to $33.8 trillion. To put that in context, consider that the total value of companies traded on U.S. stock markets is $13.1 trillion, based on the Wilshire 5000 index, and the value of the equity in U.S. taxpayers’ homes, according to Freddie Mac, is $6.2 trillion. Said another way, there is not enough wealth in America to meet those promises.

"If the government followed corporate accounting rules, that $2.9 trillion increase would be added to the $1.3 trillion cash deficit for fiscal 2011 that has been widely reported. And a $4.2 trillion deficit is something that Americans need to know about. "

The Treasury department, on the other hand, though acknowledging the importance of accrual accounting, only uses accrued figures in its "Citizen’s Guide" for benefits of government employees and veterans. The massive present value of promises to the American people at large are excluded.

The cost would have been a lot worse but for two assumptions that the GAO found questionable but did not apply estimates to improve the accuracy of the financial statements.

Lawrence notes that the annual increase in present value indebtedness for Social Security and Medicare is partly due to an ageing population in the USA. The Medicare numbers for the present value of the obligation are probably understated, because the GAO is following the actual text of the Medicare law, which requires cost controls on reimbursements to doctors – which legally should undergo an immediate 27 percent cut.
This drastic action, though part of current law, is "very unlikely" according to Lawrence.

The Medicare future estimates from the government assume that ObamaCare will reduce health cost growth by 1.1 percent per year, although the GAO has doubts about that and so do the trustees of the Medicare board.

What would happen if the doctors continue to be reimbursed as they are at present and the Obamacare cost reductions do not pan out? "The result is a $12.4 trillion increase in the cost of the promises, to more than $46 trillion. Given Congress’s history with the doc fix, and the general paralysis in Washington, it’s hard to argue with the GAO’s lack of confidence in Congress’s ability to honor its own cost controls."

Blog Author’s Comments

Corporations and entities with significant publicly-traded bonds are required to provide audited annual financial statements that use net present value to calculate the liability for pensions (in accordance with FASB 86 of 1985) and to provide net present value liability figures for the net present value of future health benefits (FASB 106 of 1991).

Government organizations, finally, were encouraged to supply this information in accordance with government auditing standard GASB 45 (phased in beginning in 2007).

Lawrence’s article mistakenly attributes the requirement for accrual accounting to the government. It was the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the participating American Institute of Certified Public Accountants that wrote and enforced these standards. This is important because now, post-September 28, 2008, under TARP I, FASB pronouncements cannot be issued until reviewed and approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission, an enormous power grab indeed.  GASB 45 applies to state and local governments, but I have no knowledge that the federal government has agreed to accept these standards for its own financial reporting.

The trustees of Social Security and Medicare have their own board and, in early January of 2011, they issued a report showing, near the back in a chart, that the net present value of future Social Security and Medicare promises is already $45 trillion. Another report is due out in about ten days. This blog will report the latest figures when they are posted to the Internet by the government.

[Note: the blog author is a retired certified public accountant who for years prepared draft audited financial statements with nine-figure entries for FASB 86 retirement benefits as well as for FASB 106 retiree health benefits.]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Russia Criticizes USA Human Rights Record

The Associated Press reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry Wednesday issued a 90-page report on injustices committed elsewhere in the world. Previous American State Department accusations of human rights failures in Russia have been made in regular annual reports, and the Foreign Ministry report may be a rebuke and reply.

The Russia report also berates the NATO operation in Libya, nations of the European Union, Canada and Georgia, but the longest section, twenty pages, are taken up by American rights violations.

Specifically mentioned are
  • The prison at Guantanamo Bay, "legalizing indefinite and extrajudicial custody and the return of court martials."
  • Violating the rights of Muslim Americans as part of the war on terror
  • Errors by American courts: "Judicial errors are the Achilles heel of American justice as concerns capital punishment." Specifically, 130 persons were sentenced to death in the last 30 years who were later cleared of the offenses, some following execution
  • Setting up roadblocks to prevent independent candidates from running for office
  • Permitting governors to nominate senators for open seats, even corrupt governors such as now-convicted Illinois former Governor Rod Blagojevich
State Department spokesman Mark Toner replied, "In terms of our human rights record, we're an open book."

Summarized from:;_ylc=X3oDMTNubmQwNWh1BF9TAzIxNDU4NjgyNzQEYWN0A21haWxfY2IEY3QDYQRpbnRsA3VzBGxhbmcDZW4tVVMEcGtnAzIzNWNkZDE1LWNhMWItMzgzNS1iMGU0LTUxOTQxY2MwZmM5YQRzZWMDbWl0X3NoYXJlBHNsawNtYWlsBHRlc3QD;_ylv=3

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Negative Quiddity: Obamacare

Sally Pipes is CEO of the Pacific Research Institute and writes on health care. She has a book on this subject coming out next month. She also wrote an opinion piece for the December 26, 2011 Forbes magazine. Her article included the following points:
  • Almost two-thirds of doctors expect the quality of medical care to decline under Obamacare, according to a survey from consulting firm Deloitte. Only 27 percent of doctors expect the law to lower costs.
  • Nine of ten doctors expect insurers to raise premiums for employers and individuals. One one quarter of doctors feel Obamacare will reduce health insurance costs for consumers.
  • Health are takes about $1 for every $6 in the economy – by 2020, it will account for about $1 in every $5, a fifth of the nation’s GDP.
  • The Congressional Budget Office expects that Americans in the "non-group market" will see premiums rise by $2,100 under Obamacare.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation states that 2011 family premiums topped $15,000, a nine percent increase over 2010. The year before Obamacare was passed, 2009, premiums went up by three percent.
  • Half the nation’s doctors expect access to care to diminish because health reform will result in the closure of hospitals.
Ninety percent of doctors fear they will receive inadequate payments and suffer higher administration costs. Less than one-quarter of doctors think paperwork requirements will ease up. Sally Pipes notes that, "Time spent wading though paperwork is also time no longer available for actually practicing medicine."

Pipes’ new book, The Pipes Plan: The Top Ten Ways to Dismantle and Replace Obamacare, will be released in January.

Summarized from:

Monday, December 26, 2011

List of Foods With High Trans Fat Content

Trans fats give food a thicker, richer taste.  Foods with trans fats last a lot longer on the shelves of your grocery store.  But the chemical make up of trans fats can be very bad for your heart, because these fats have all the "bad" cholesterol of saturated fats like butter, and, additionally, they can lower "good cholesterol" and increase inflammation.

Some food factories and some fast food chains have removed or reduced the amount of trans fats in the food they offer.  But many haven’t done so.

Here, finally, is a straightforward list of 22 foods with high trans fat content.

French fries
Anything fried or battered
Pie and piecrust
Margarine sticks
Cake mixes and frostings
Pancakes and waffles (even homemade mixes for pancakes)
Fried chicken
Ice cream
Non-dairy creamers
Microwave popcorn
Biscuits and sweet rolls
Ground beef
Breakfast sandwiches
Frozen or creamy beverages
Meat sticks
Asian crunchy noodles
Frozen dinners
Canned chili (get turkey chili instead)
Packaged pudding

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Political Cartoons Are Going Downhill

Who Polices Political Cartooning?

By Bill Rall, picked up by Uexpress
An Art Form in Crisis Ignores the Rot Within

"Ted Rall, mop-headed antiestablishment political cartoonist, has abundant talent, a 1,400-drawing portfolio, seven years' experience, the acclaim of peers and the approval of newspaper editors who, every so often, print his work. What he lacks is someone who will hire him full-time."

That's from The New York Times.

In 1995.

Editorial cartooning, a unique art form whose modern version originated in 18th century France and has become more pointed, sophisticated and effective in the United States than any other country, was in big trouble back then. Newspapers, the main employers of political cartoonists, were closing and slashing budgets. Those that survived were timid; cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists who produce the best cartoons, those that stimulate discussion.

Things are worse now.

Much worse.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by but the number of full-time professional political cartoonists now hovers around 30. In 1980 there were about 300. A century ago, there were thousands.

Cartoonists blame tightfisted publishers and shortsighted editors for their woes. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprinted material. "If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for ten bucks a week, why would he pay $70,000 a year for a guy in his hometown?" asked Handelsman, then the cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Pacayune, in the 1995 Times piece cited above.

There's also the Internet. As happened across the world of print media, the Web created more disruption than opportunity. Dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.

Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away book publishing. If the titans of multinational media conglomerates can't figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists who make fun of the president don't stand a chance.

We can only control one thing: the quality of our work. It pains me to admit it, but to say we've fallen down on the job would be to give us too much credit.

We suck.

Day after day, year after year, editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors--Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels, ships of state labeled "U.S." sinking in oceans marked "debt," cars driving off cliffs, one hurricane after another, each labeled after some crisis new or imagined. Cut-and-paste art styles slavishly lifted from older cartoonists down to the last crosshatch. Work so bland and devoid of insight or opinion that readers can't tell if the artist is liberal or conservative. Cartoons that make no point whatsoever, such as those that mark anniversaries of news events, the deaths of corporate executives like Steve Jobs, and even holidays (for Veterans Day: "freedom isn't free").

To be sure, editors and publishers have hired and promoted the very worst of the worst. Prize committees snub brilliance and innovation in favor of safe and cheesy.

In the end, however, it's up to the members of any profession to police themselves individually and collectively. I often say, no one can publish your crappy cartoon if you don't draw it in the first place.

Amazingly my colleagues have chosen to ignore the existential crisis that faces American political cartooning. Rather than rise to the challenge, their work is becoming even safer and blander.

Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year political
cartooning has been hit by two plagiarism scandals. David Simpson, a long-time Tulsa political cartoonist with a history of this sort of thing, was fired by the weekly paper there after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly on a lightbox. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was recently forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after long-standing rumors of stealing ideas exploded into a series of too-close-for-comfort pairings of his work and classic material from The New Yorker.

They're only the tip of the iceberg.

There are plagiarists who have Pulitzer Prizes sitting on their shelves.  There are even more "self-plagiarists"--people who shamelessly recycle the same exact cartoon, changing labels on the same image in order to meet a deadline. They shortchange their readers and their clients--and collect the biggest salaries in the business.

Meanwhile, it is impossible for the "young" generation of talented cartoonists who came out of the alt weekly newspapers--those under 50--to find work at all.

Within the mainstream of the profession the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. They make excuses for serial plagiarists, self-plagiarists, and hacks. At this writing the professional association for political cartoonists, which in 2009 imposed its first penalty for plagiarism in its 50-year history under my presidency, has still failed to act to enforce that rule or issue a code of ethics.

"This is bad for the profession," I heard from more than one colleague after the Stahler story broke. "Let's be quiet."


What's bad for the profession is bad work. How can we expect editors and publishers to respect us unless we respect ourselves?

(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is

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Comments by the blog author

Great American political cartoonists like Herb Block and Bill Mauldin did a lot to shorten the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Not only were the cartoons well-drawn, ironic, and memorable, but they were drawn with detail, especially the facial expressions.
Johnson was drawn as a cold-blooded, power brokering manipulator, which in fact was what he was. Nixon was shown with shifty eyes, a scowl, and a certain bluffing exterior over his interior fear.

A great cartoon artist can show the citizens what a powerful man is really like underneath it all. But that takes talent, and the profession is shrinking. As it shrinks, it is promoting the doodlers who can’t draw a face accurately or elicit a shock-humor laugh.

As political cartoons get duller and cornier, spinners and calculating politicians gain. This is a sad situation for informed citizens.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Real Santa

The History of Santa Claus:

Seven Interesting Facts

By The Week's Editorial Staff , December 23, 2011

From why he wears a red suit to when he got hitched to Mrs. Claus, a look at the mythmaking behind jolly old St. Nick

As Christmas approaches, children around the world have Santa on the brain. They're anxiously wondering if they've been overly naughty or sufficiently nice, and eagerly daydreaming about their potential gift hauls. But exactly how did the jolly, bearded North Pole resident evolve into the cultural icon we know today? Here, seven interesting facts about his evolution:

1.  He was real... sort of

Folklore may have turned Santa Claus into a toy distributor who mans a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer, but he is actually based, loosely, on a real person. Born around the year 270, St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in what is now Turkey. He earned a reputation as an anonymous gift giver, says MSNBC, by paying the dowries of impoverished girls and handing out treats and coins to children — often leaving them in their shoes, set out at night for that very purpose. Since his death, Nicholas has been canonized as the patron saint of children.

2.  He's only been 'Santa Claus' for 200 years

A Dutch tradition kept St. Nicholas' story alive in the form of Sinterklaas, a bishop who traveled from house to house to deliver treats to children on the night of Dec. 5. The first anglicizing of the name to Santa Claus was in a story that appeared in a New York City newspaper in 1773.

3.  Satire first sent Santa down a chimney

In his satiric 1809 book A History of New York, Washington Irving did away with the characterization of Santa Claus as a "lanky bishop," says Whipps. Instead, Irving described Santa as a portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe. Irving's story also marked the first time Santa slid down the chimney, says the U.K.’s Independent.

4.  "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" introduced the reindeer

Clement Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas — which is now more commonly referred to as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" — was first published anonymously in the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. The 56-line poem introduced and popularized many of Santa's defining characteristics — chiefly, that he drove a sleigh guided by "eight tiny reindeer."

5.  Coca-Cola created the modern Mr. Claus

When Father Christmas first began showing up in illustrations, he wore many different colored robes: Green, purple, blue, and brown, among others. Beginning in the late 1800s, it became popular to outfit Santa in a red suit. Artist Louis Prang depicted him that way in a series of Christmas cards in 1885, and The New York Times reported on the red garments in 1927. But the modern image of Santa Claus as the jolly man in the red suit was seared into American pop culture in 1931, when artist Haddon Sundblom illustrated him that way for a widely-circulated campaign for Coca-Cola.

6.  The department store Santa is a 120-year-old tradition

In 1890, Massachusetts businessman James Edgar became the first department store Santa, according to The Smoking Jacket. Edgar is credited with coming up with the idea of dressing up in a Santa Claus costume as a marketing tool. Children from all over the state dragged their parents to Edgar's small dry goods store in Brockton, and a tradition was born.

7.  Santa was a bachelor until the late 1800s

The first mention of a spouse for Santa was in the 1849 short story A Christmas Legend by James Rees. Over the next several years, the idea of Mrs. Claus found its way into several literary publications, like the Yale Literary Magazine and Harper's Magazine. But it wasn't until Katherine Lee Bates' widely-circulated 1889 poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride that Santa's wife was popularized ("Goody" is short for "Goodwife," or "Mrs.")

Sources for the above Santa history: Colour Lovers, Independent, MSNBC, The Smoking Jacket

Friday, December 23, 2011

Four Big 2011 Science Breakthroughs

By The Week's Editorial Staff, December 23, 2011

From neutrinos to new planets, a look at some of the year's most important discoveries

1. Upending the laws of physics
Researchers at the CERN laboratory in Geneva announced in September that they'd clocked subatomic particles called neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. That finding directly contradicts Albert Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity, which holds that nothing can outrun light. If neutrinos can, they could arrive at a destination before they even left, opening the prospect of time travel. Or could it be that neutrinos move through an undiscovered fifth dimension, separate from the three dimensions of space and one of time that we know about? Those ideas are so shocking that even the CERN team "wanted to find a mistake" in their data, says team leader Antonio Ereditato. But they didn't. And so far, further testing has failed to dismiss the finding, says theoretical physicist Matthew Strassler, as "a doorway into something fundamental and deep we don't know about nature."

2. Reasons to listen to your gut
Bacteria in our intestines may play a major role in the health of our minds and bodies. German researchers have discovered that just as each human being has a specific blood type, each of us also has one of three separate families of bacteria residing in our guts. A person's "enterotype" likely establishes itself in infancy and appears to affect everything from how well food is digested to how drugs are absorbed. The discovery of the three distinct gut ecosystems "was a surprise, and it's good news," says researcher Peer Bork. The finding could help physicians diagnose and treat serious digestive disorders, and also help explain why the effects of medicines and nutrients vary widely from person to person. Further studies have shown that ingesting a bacteria species found in certain yogurts and cheeses calms stressed-out mice — pointing to the prospect of treating psychiatric disorders with microbes instead of drugs.

3. Closing in on alien life
A galaxy-wide search for Earth-like planets has returned a startling number of candidates. Using NASA's Kepler space telescope, astronomers this year announced they'd spotted 2,326 new worlds and counting. Ten of those planets are close in size to our own and orbit their suns in the "habitable zone," where temperatures could be balmy enough to support liquid water — and potentially life. The best contender yet, Kepler-22b, looks to be a hospitable 72 degrees and circles a star very similar to our sun. The data pouring in from the spacecraft, launched in March 2009, are "game-changing," says Kepler principal investigator William Borucki. "It's just a tremendous amount of new knowledge." Already, other researchers are scanning the most promising Kepler finds for signs of alien life.

4. A new weapon against aging
The fountain of youth might one day flow within our own cells. Scientists working with mice have discovered that if they remove a special kind of cell that promotes aging, a host of age-related conditions disappear: The genetically modified rodents didn't develop cataracts, their skin didn't wrinkle, and they maintained high levels of energy throughout their lives. The so-called senescent cells have lost the ability to divide, and as they build up in aging tissue, they release toxins that destroy robust neighboring cells. Scientists devised a way of killing off those senescent cells, and the procedure "suggests therapies that might work in real patients," says Norman E. Sharpless, an expert on aging. If purging the cells works in people as it does in mice, the treatment could ward off a host of age-related diseases, from cancer to dementia, and keep us vigorous longer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Higgs Boson Still AWOL

LHC researchers Still Can’t Find Higgs Boson, Settle for New "Chi" Particle
By Jason Mick (blog – picked up by TechDaily) December 22, 2011

The LHC does what every good particle smasher does -- find a new type of subatomic particle

The Large Hadron Collider has finally began to fulfill its potential. After a string of early malfunctions, the world's largest collider has set records for the highest energy particle collisions. Now, even as the smashing continues, the hard part begins -- combing through the mountains of data looking for interesting discoveries.

At the top of their wish list is the legendary Higgs boson, nicknamed the "God Particle", by the more colorful media establishment. The Higgs boson is a theoretically predicted particle that would confirm the standard model of particle physics, explaining why some particles have mass and others don't. Alternatively if the supersymmetry model holds true, up to five Higgs boson variants could be observed, disproving some of the standard model's theory.

I. LHC Finds a New Particle -- but not the Higgs Boson, Yet

Well, some of the data collected thus far has been scoured through, and disappointingly no evidence of the Higgs boson emerged. Instead researchers discovered a new kind of Chi (X) particle.

The Chi (X) particle is composed of a bottom quark (also known as a "beauty" quark) and its anti-particle equivalent, the anti-bottom quark.

Quarks are tiny subatomic particles, which make up the constituents of atoms -- like electrons, protons, and neutrons. Any particle made up of quarks is called a hadron. Their are two kinds of hadrons -- those made up of three quarks (baryons) and those made up a quark/anti-quark pair (meson). Since the new Chi particle is composed of a quark/anti-quark combination, it belongs to the meson subclass of the greater hadron family.

Mesons have integer spins, meaning that they are bosons (like the Higgs boson!). Boson particles obey Bose-Einstein statistics.

Chi mesons have a isospin of 0 (which dictates their strong interactions) and a positive G-parity on that isospin. Together this is represented in shorthand as 0+. The previously discovered chi particles had positive (P) parity and C-parity, and angular momentum values ranging from 0 to 2. The previously known Chi mesons are -- χb0(2P) (0+0++), χb1(2P) (0+1++), χb3(2P) (0+2++). The new particle is a "higher energy" Chi particle, in that it has a higher angular momentum number of 3. It's been dubbed χb(3P) -- (0+3++). Given the mass of the bottom quark -- over four times the mass of a proton -- it is unlikely that the LHC would have enough energy to create higher energy Chi particles.

II. LHC Passes a Time-Honored Accelerator Rite of Passage

Andy Chisholm, a PhD student from Birmingham, England, who worked on the project told BBC News that the location of the new Chi particle was a lucky find. He comments, "Analysing the billions of particle collisions at the LHC is fascinating. There are potentially all kinds of interesting things buried in the data, and we were lucky to look in the right place at the right time."

Finding its first particle is sort of a right of passage in the particle collider world. Past accelerators like FermiLab's Tevatron labored for years or more before finding their first particle, then went on to find many more particles over a fruitful run.
University of Birmingham physicist, Professor Paul Newman comments on this right of passage, stating, "This is the first time such a new particle has been found at the LHC. Its discovery is a testament to the very successful running of the collider in 2011 and to the superb understanding of our detector which has been achieved by the Atlas collaboration already."

Thus far at least 175 mesons have been discovered.

With each new meson discovered physicists creep a bit closer to understanding the strong force. This understanding helps them better known what to look for when trying to find the kind/kinds of Higgs boson(s) predicted by the standard and supersymmetry theories of particle physics. In that sense the discover of the new Chi quark may not be a "pay dirt" hit so to speak, but it's also not entirely a wash in the Higgs boson chase.

It also provides a bit of validation and good publicity, desperately needed to help the public appreciate the value of the accelerator -- which cost approximately $4.4B USD to build, and another billion or so to operate. Keeping the 17 mile, 28 km (circumference) accelerator productive will help it avoid a fate similar to America's Tevatron. If they can do that, physicists can continue their merry hunt for the Higgs boson and a better understanding of how our universe works on the most fundamental level.

Sources: Arxiv [Printserver; CERN] at http://arxi.orglabs/1112.5154 , BBC News at

Unedited from:
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              Comments by the Blog Author

I was tooling along calmly through this article, trying to groove on the subatomic physics of the research, when suddenly a chill ran up my spine and I stopped cold. Here’s what made me gasp and take a deep breath:

"Thus far at least 175 mesons have been discovered."

Whoa! We pump enormous energy into particles, speed them up near the speed of light, and smash them. In doing so, we pump energy into the smashed shards of matter. There are 175 different theoretical shards of one type of matter, the "meson." All 175 of these are short-lived particles.

What is this going to tell us about the large amount of "missing’ mass in the "standard model" of subatomic physics? What have we learned from these short-lived, perhaps synthetic and manmade particles? Not much. But if we find a different shard and describe it, more funding will be forthcoming.

Let’s compare this expensive contraption, the Large Hadron Collider, to some genuine and obviously fructive science, the periodic table of the elements. The periodic table was the source of the February 24, 2011 entry of this blog, itself the most viewed of all the postings to date.

At the end of that posting, I wrote this afterward:

"Charles Janet (1849-1932) devised a periodic chart which flows easily and without breaks through the increasing shell levels. Janet also conceived of an element "zero" consisting of two neutrons (with no electrons nor protons) as well as negative matter in a negative periodic table, in other words, he correctly theorized the existence of anti-matter. Janet died in 1932, just before the discovery of the neutron, the positron [itself the first known anti-matter particle] and heavy hydrogen (which is a hydrogen elemental atom with a second neutron). See – the special periodic chart at this link shows the elements in clear, increasing shell order. Janet's correct speculations, though he was neither a physicist nor a chemist, show the intuitive power and probable truth to his model of the periodic table of the elements. His correct speculation of the existence of antimatter commands high respect."
                                    --February 24, 2011 conclusion of that blog entry

So a clever and inventive examination of the periodic table – by a non-chemist and non-physicist – correctly predicted the existence of antimatter. Where is this kind of power and accuracy in modern physics?

We don’t have a physics model that will reveal to us (not just physicists, but all of us who know how to think scientifically) what the Higgs Boson is or why it is unnecessary. How many large Hadron colliders do we have to build to find it?

I speculate that the answer is "an infinite number." We are charging up a blind alley. The LHC will teach us less about physics than the energized and short-lived hyper-radioactive heavy elements have taught us about chemistry. It’s an inefficient, white elephant of a piece of equipment, smashing matter into shards (175 mesons!) that don’t reassemble into a coherent overall model.

I offer the physics community a better idea. Note the way photons boil off a strip of metal in an incandescent light. Note the way photons are emitted from florescent gas when electricity flows through that gas –- this is because the electricity raises the outer shell levels of some of the atoms, which return to a normal shell level and either create or reveal a photon in the process of "going down" to a lower shell level.

"How does this happen?" The photon is the smallest known particle. It’s so small we can’t even measure its mass. Let’s look into that. Let’s find out a lot more about this very fundamental, very stable particle (it can travel through space unchanged for at least 13 billion years). Let’s see what a STABLE small particle will offer us in terms of modeling subatomic physics. We can look at this process backwards, as well – the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein earned a Nobel Prize in 1921. How is it that a "massless" photon can eject an entire electron?

Answers to these simple questions come first in physics. Let’s grossly expand our understanding of a small, stable subatomic particle, the photon, until we know what it does, how it does it, whether it forms crystals, and how much it weighs. Then, and only then, if we need it, build a LHC. Or perhaps, instead, we should build a cheaper, cleverer machine that will tell us more about physics.

In the meantime, I condemn the CERN collider as a white elephant.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Email Fraud Is Cleverer Than Ever

By Deb Shinder, Tech Republic, December 12, 2011

Takeaway: Email-based cybercrime continues to thrive, but even the savviest users might fall for a clever scheme.  Deb Shinder offers tips to help you and your users remain vigilant.

Use of the communications infrastructure for for illegal or fraudulent purposes has been a problem since the inception of such systems. The U.S. Congress passed legislation outlawing mail fraud in 1872. It was inevitable that, when an electronic substitute came along, criminals would take advantage of it to further their scams.

Phishing may seem like "old news," but the phishing emails continue to pour in. During the holiday season, they become more prevalent - and in some cases, more sophisticated. And even if you think you’re too smart to be taken in, if you’re really smart, you’ll heed the seasonal advice that "You better watch out" and look closely before you click on links or attachments in any email messages, no matter who appears to have sent them.

Perhaps even more important, be sure to warn those in your organization or household, who may not be as tech-savvy as you, of the need to be particularly vigilant now. Don’t assume that just because they’ve been warned before, they won’t fall prey to the new tricks; busy people caught up in the spirit of the holidays tend to be more vulnerable.

Don’t be provoked into a hasty reaction

Scammers have a whole arsenal of tactics they use to try to get you to react, from pulling on your heartstrings with tales of starving children or puppies about to be euthanized to scaring you half to death with "official notices" from the IRS or your credit card company. Even if you’ve seen it all, some messages can evoke a visceral reaction that could cause you to click before you think - and that’s exactly what the criminals are going for.

My husband and I both experienced a moment of shock when we received copies of an email purporting to be from our wireless phone provider. It was formatted in the same way as the real messages we frequently get from the provider, but this time, instead of notifying us that our monthly statement was ready in the average amount we usually see, it announced that the bill was almost $2000!

It’s not like this was completely impossible. My husband had just returned from a trip to Russia, where he had taken his phone. We had gotten a genuinely shocking bill in the amount of over $800 a few years ago when he went to Israel and didn’t realize the ramifications of data roaming. And even though he had taken care to keep data turned off this time, my first thought was that he messed up and ran up another big bill.

But before I clicked on anything, I looked a little more closely. The return address appeared to be from, but wait a minute - the message was sent to one of my secondary email accounts, which is not the one that’s on file with Verizon. Upon further examination, the language in one place wasn’t quite right, either. An examination of the headers revealed the truth: the message originated from an address outside the country, and authentication results showed that the IP address did not match the address shown.

Many computer users, however, undoubtedly react emotionally to the large amount of money they "owe" and click the link to get the details before checking out the message more thoroughly. And it’s not as if current email software always makes it easy to even find the Internet headers. In Outlook 2010, for example, you have to open the message, go to the File tab, and click the Properties button. That’s not particularly intuitive for someone who doesn’t do it all the time.

Because people often run up larger bills during the holidays than at other times of the year, scammers will take advantage of your fear that the big bill might actually be legit to try to fool you into clicking a link that will take you to a malware-laden site or downloading an attachment that contains a malicious payload.

You can’t necessarily trust "trusted" senders

We all have certain people whose messages we trust because we trust them. We know grandma isn’t going to (intentionally) send us porn links or viruses, but if grandma is technically naïve, we also know that her computer might very well have gotten infected without her knowledge. Thus, even though we trust grandma herself explicitly, we may not consider her to be a trusted sender.

The real danger comes from those we believe to be too security-conscious or too expert to have to worry about. A sad fact that I learned back when I was a police officer was that firearms instructors - those who had the most knowledge and experience with guns - so often experienced "ADs" (accidental discharges).

Likewise, it was the long-time traffic cops, the ones who had been doing stops for decades, who most often made the mistakes that led to them being shot when walking up to a vehicle. The reason for this is complacency - that sense that because you have experience and knowledge about something, you’re immune to its dangers. It leads you to let your guard down, to be less cautious than you should. And IT security professionals are just as prone to it as experts in any other field.

In fact, those who are most "expert" in IT tend to be the very ones who are most likely to turn off protective measures, such as blocking of attachments with particular file extensions, or use workarounds to defeat measures that are intended to keep them safe from malware.

Email dangers

There are three primary vectors for attacks via email: attachments, HTML mail, and links in the body of email messages. Opening attachments can activate the installation of viruses, trojans or worms that are embedded in the files. Scripts can be hidden in HTML pages. Links can take users to malicious web sites that surreptitiously dump "drive-by downloads" onto the system, or to phishing sites that resemble legitimate sites and thus trick the user into providing personal information and/or financial account information.

Cybercriminals use all of these techniques to attack systems, steal information, and commit other illegal acts.

Criminals can use email itself as the "weapon" in a denial of service attack. Email bombing is a term used to describe the sending of huge numbers of email messages to a victim in order to overload the email server or individual account. This can be done by subscribing the victim to a large number of high volume mailing lists, or by using tools for automating the bombing process that are made available through some black hat hacker sites.

Criminals often create "spoofed" email messages that appear to come from a source other than the actual sender. They may also use email anonymizer services to disguise the origin of their messages.

Email can, of course , be used for the same criminal purposes for which postal mail has been used.

Threatening email messages may constitute the crime of terrorist threat, assault by threat, or other specific offenses (depending on the laws of the state or country where they’re received). Email that doesn’t rise to the level of physical threats may fall under cyberstalking or harassment statutes.

White collar crime (financial crimes such as embezzlement, insurance fraud, bank fraud, blackmail, bribery, credit card fraud, insider trading, and so forth) often involve the use of email. Both violent and non-violent criminals use email because it’s convenient and leaves less physical evidence. Sending spam - unwanted commercial messages - maybe be considered a crime, too, under the U.S. federal CAN SPAM Act and various state laws.

Just as email can be the weapon in a cybercrime, email can also be the victim - that is, criminals may intercept others’ email messages to harvest the addresses, personal information or company trade secrets.

Preventing and stopping email-related cybercrime

Victims of email-related crime often don’t report the crimes to authorities because they believe there’s little that can be done. It’s certainly true that jurisdictional issues and the difficulty of identifying the perpetrators can make it difficult to prosecute these crimes, but a concerted effort by both individuals and businesses, in conjunction with law enforcement agencies, has brought down a number of criminal operations that used email to do their dirty deeds.

The partnering of large corporations with government to bring more resources to the effort to track down and disable cybercriminals can make a big difference, as well. Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit’s work on bringing down major botnets such as Rustock and Kelihos has helped reduce global spam levels. The DCU has also teamed up with Microsoft Research to use technology to track child sex trafficking. A group of private sector organizations called the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance, with members such as McAfee and TrendMicro, recently announced its intent to work with governments in fighting online crime.
The civil court system can be used against email abusers, in place of or in conjunction with criminal laws.

Because the level of proof is lower in civil cases, it may be easier to win cases against cybercriminals there. Microsoft’s lawsuits against the Rustock and Kelihos defendants were instrumental in the take-down of those bots. In a recent civil judgment, Yahoo won a $610 million award from scammers who tricked Yahoo Mail customers into providing personal information by running an email-based lottery scheme.

Of course, from the point of view of the victims, an ounce of crime prevention is worth a pound of prosecution. Companies and individuals can take steps to keep cybercriminals out of their email systems or to prevent the malicious code they send from doing damage. Firewalls, anti-virus, and anti-malware software is a given. All computer users should be educated on best email practices, including basics such as:
  • not opening unexpected attachments
  • not clicking hyperlinks
  • setting mail clients to display mail in plain text instead of HTML
  • protecting the privacy of your primary email account, and using a "throwaway" web mail account for purposes such as registering on websites and mailing lists, or giving your address to anyone who might use it for spamming or sell it to someone who does.
Companies can cut email risks by using web forms on their websites as a means for people to contact them, instead of publishing company email addresses.

Encryption can thwart the plans of thieves to harvest information from email messages, and it’s also important to remember to completely destroy the email messages stored on a computer’s hard drive if you give the computer to someone else or recycle it. The safest route is to physical destroy the drive; if that’s not feasible, use a program that overwrites the data multiple times. Remember that simply deleting files or even formatting a drive does not erase the data on it.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Scientific Advances Against Alzheimer's

By Eric Pfeiffer, The Sideshow, December 19, 2011

Scientists have isolated a gene in mice that works to give them "super memories" and reverses the course of several degenerative mental illnesses like Alzheimer's. And because of the similarity of mice and human brains, a powerful brain pill for humans may now not be far off.

The brains of both mice and humans release a gene known as PKR, which is triggered by the onset of Alzheimer's. But the newly discovered gene can apparently block PKR's release--a development that not only can reverse the course of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, but induces a state of "super
memory" in the mice it has been tested on.

"If we were to find an inhibitor, a molecule, a drug that will specifically block PKR, we should be able to do the same [in humans]," Maura Costa-Mattioli, who led the research study at Baylor University, told the Vancouver Sun. "And we did."

"We recognize that PKR plays a dual role, one in regulating simple everyday processes like the way neurons talk to each other [for] memory, but also has a stress response," added John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute who also contributed to the study.
More from the Sun:
A virus is one form of stress that triggers PKR, but Alzheimer's patients' brains also experience PKR-releasing stress, said Bell, whose cancer research led him to create PKR-deficient mice which he shared with Costa-Mattioli's lab. Researchers found that when PKR is genetically suppressed in mice, another immune molecule, called gamma interferon, increases communication between neurons, improving memory and making brain function more efficient, Costa-Mattioli said.
Reportedly, when PKR is blocked, the gamma interferon can work more or less spontaneously to improve brain functions--and can be activated via a simple PKR-inhibitor injection into a mouse's stomach rather than through more conventional and drawn-out gene therapy. The possible application for humans would lead to something like taking a "brain pill" to treat diseases like Alzheimer's, or simply to give the memory a significant boost:
When the researchers tested the PKR-deficient mice in a series of memory tests, those mice were able to pick up on patterns and remember them on the first try, while the other mice needed days to figure out how to solve the puzzle. The PKR-deficient mice consistently showed significantly better memory and learning abilities than their counterparts.
Of course, Costa-Mattioli said the goal is not to create a new society of super-memory powered people.

"Let's say we'd compare with Viagra. People use Viagra at whatever age, let's say 60, 65. But someone (who) is 40 goes to buy it, they can get it," he said. "But this is not our goal . . . Our goal would be to treat people who have a memory problem."

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There are more insights based on additional research on the protein that inhibits brain memory in mice at the February 29, 2012 Daily Quiddity blog.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Kim Jong Il Died

North Korea was created by the old Soviet Union in 1945 with the installation of a Korean Communist, Kim Il-Sung, as the liberating leader. This founder of North Korea died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, born in Vyatskoye, Soviet Union, 1941, served as the leader of the nation until his death last weekend.
As leader, Kim Jong Il continued the policy of using concentration camps to deal with the slighest dissent among the people. If a questionable statement was made, or an inconvenient counter-revolutionary question was asked, an entire family was sent to a camp. Seldom did any return to the community.

                                                     Kim Jong-Il

Kim Jong Il himself lived a luxurious life, enjoying at one time the status of being the largest customer of French cognac. He also had a film library of western motion pictures. The money for these luxuries came from a state-run counterfeiting operation. The phony American bills were flown by private jet to Asian money centers and converted into the cash used to buy personal luxuries for the leader.

Though North Korea was mismanaged to the point of public starvation in the early 1990s, Kim ruthlessly pursued a nuclear weapons program, even though people were cooking seaweed in order to have something to eat. Even the huge, white elephant showplace palatial hotel being built in the capital city had to be shelved for lack of money, especially since no money was forthcoming from Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed
and Boris Yeltsin was elected. But the nuclear program continued unabated.

How can such rampant and inhuman dictatorship survive? A rock steady totalitarian system without an underground was maintained due to the universal North Korean concept of "juche."


"…There is a reason why the regime of the Kims survives while, all around it, the Soviet bloc disintegrated and the Chinese opened up and reformed. The North Korean regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance and ridiculed in the West. But to the North Korean elites, juche is still a powerfully intoxicating brew of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority and utopian Marxism-Leninism. The party embodies all of these ideals--nationalism, filial respect, utopia.  Exploiting this confluence of philosophies and experiences, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il created "an impermeable and absolutist state that many have compared to a religious cult," wrote longtime Korea observer, Don Oberdorfer in his 1997 book, "The Two Koreas."

"Hence it hasn’t broken down, long after other regimes have, despite a smorgasbord of Western policies ranging from tough sanctions to occasional freezes in aid…"


Wikipedia has an article on Kim Jong-Il that includes these observations:


Like his father, Kim has a fear of flying and always travels by private armored train for state visits to Russia and China. The BBC reported that Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who traveled with Kim across Russia by train, told reporters that Kim had live lobsters air-lifted to the train every day.

Kim is said to be a huge film fan, owning a collection of more than 20,000 video tapes and DVDs. His reported favorite movie franchises include Friday the 13th, Rambo, Godzilla, Hong Kong action cinema and any movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. He is the author of the book On the Art of the Cinema. In 1978, on Kim's orders, South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee were kidnapped in order to build a North Korean film industry. In 2006 he was involved in the production of the Juche-based movie Diary of a Girl Student – depicting the life of a girl whose parents are scientists – with a KCNA news report stating that Kim "improved its script and guided its production".

Although Kim enjoys many foreign forms of entertainment, according to former bodyguard Lee Young Kuk, he refused to consume any food or drink not produced in North Korea, with the exception of wine from France. His former chef Kenji Fujimoto, however, has stated that Kim has sometimes sent him around the world to purchase a variety of foreign delicacies.

Kim reportedly enjoys basketball. Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ended her summit with Kim by presenting him with a basketball signed by NBA legend Michael Jordan. Also an apparent golfer, North Korean state media reports that Kim routinely shoots three or four holes-in-one per round. His official biography also claims Kim has composed six operas and enjoys staging elaborate musicals. Kim also refers to himself as an Internet expert.

US Special Envoy for the Korean Peace Talks, Charles Kartman, who was involved in the 2000 Madeleine Albright summit with Kim, characterised Kim Jong-il as a reasonable man in negotiations, to the point, but with a sense of humor and personally attentive to the people he was hosting. However, psychological evaluations conclude that Kim Jong-il's antisocial features, such as his fearlessness in the face of sanctions and punishment, serve to make negotiations extraordinarily difficult.

The field of psychology has long been fascinated with the personality assessment of dictators, a notion that resulted in an extensive personality evaluation of Kim Jong-il. The report, compiled by Frederick L. Coolidge and Daniel L. Segal (with the assistance of a South Korean psychiatrist considered an expert on Kim Jong-il's behavior), concluded that the "big six" group of personality disorders shared by dictators Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein (sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal) were also shared by Kim Jong-il—coinciding primarily with the profile of Saddam Hussein. The evaluation also finds that Kim Jong-il appears to pride himself on North Korea's independence, despite the extreme hardships it appears to place on the North Korean people—an attribute appearing to emanate from his antisocial personality pattern. This notion also encourages other cognitive issues, such as self-deception, as subsidiary components to Kim Jong-il's personality. Many of the stories about Kim Jong Il's eccentricities and decadent life-style are exaggerated, possibly circulated by South Korean intelligence to discredit the Northern regime. Defectors claim that Kim has 17 different palaces and residences all over North Korea, including a private resort near Baekdu Mountain, a seaside lodge in the city of Wonsan, and a palace complex northeast of Pyongyang surrounded with multiple fence lines, bunkers and anti-aircraft batteries.


According to the Sunday Telegraph, Kim has US$4 billion on deposit in European banks in case he ever needs to flee North Korea. The Sunday Telegraph reported that most of the money was in banks in Luxembourg.

The Ryugyong Hotel

Emblematic of this regime has been an enormous white elephant of a hotel, originally approved and partly constructed by the "founder" of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il’s father, Kim Il-Sung, in 1987The Ryugyong Hotel  construction began in 1987 under the "Great Leader"for a 1989 youth exhibition. After a 1,000 foot high steel frame was built, construction was abandoned as the nation nearly starved in the early 1990s. Under the "Dear Leader," the recently deceased Kim Jong Il, construction resumed. The facility may actually open as a multi-use hotel in 2012. There are reports that the elevator shafts are crooked. The quality of the concrete in the building has also been questioned.

The Orascam Group of Egypt, a telecommunications firm, is apparently completing the construction, though some have denied this connection.

Wikipedia reports: "Even though the Ryugyong dominates the Pyongyang skyline, official information regarding the hotel and its status have proven difficult to obtain. Though mocked-up images of the completed hotel had once appeared on North Korean stamps, the North Korean government denied the building's existence for many years. The government manipulated official photographs in order to remove the structure, and excluded it from printed maps of Pyongyang. The alleged problems associated with the hotel led some media sources to dub it "The Worst Building in the World","Hotel of Doom" and "Phantom Hotel".

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Czech Hero Vaclav Havel Dies

Vaclav Havel, playwright and leader of the "Velvet Revolution" for Czechoslovakian independence, died Sunday at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. He was 75 years old. A chain-smoker, he suffered from chronic respiratory issues since his many years in prison.

"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," Havel famously said.

President Obama, Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa of Poland, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered written tribute to Havel.

Havel was born in Prague in October, 1936. His wealthy family lost their property when the Communists took over in 1948. Denied a formal education, he obtained a degree from a night school and started his theater career as a stage hand, eventually becoming a playwright who penned plays and essays profoundly irksome to the Communists. His 1977 manifesto made him famous. Along with other writings, he served four years in jail, where his letters to his wife, Olga, became famous to the people of his country.

Demonstrations in August, 1988, exactly twenty years after the country was invaded by the Warsaw Pact, led to chants of Havel’s name by a young crowd. He was arrested in January of 1989 at another protest. His trial generated anger both at home and internationally. The pressure was so intense that he was released from jail in May. In November of that year, the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days afterward, a demonstration by thousands of Prague students was violently broken up by the police. Within two days, a broad opposition movement was founded, and in three boisterous weeks, communist rule was broken. Just as the Soviet tanks rolled out of Prague, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived for a concert. The country’s parliament, still in communist hands, ,made him President on December 29, 1989.

Havel was not pleased by the breakup of his nation into the Czech Republic and Slovenia in the early 1990s, and he resined as president. His popularity was such that he became president of the new Czech Republic in an uncontested race. Most of the subsequent pro-market reforms have been credited to his political rival Vaclav Klaus, who was then prime minister of the country and is now President.

The media became more critical of Havel, his wife Olga died on cancer in 1996, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, and he left office in 2003.

Havel’s second wife, Dagmar Veskrnova, and a nun who cared for him in his final months, were at his side at the time of he died.

Havel received dozens of awards, including Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize, the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, and several nominations for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Havel viewed the worldwide economic slump that began in 2008 as a reminder to retain basic human values even when trying to prosper. He published another play, "Leaving," about a struggling leader at the end of his time in power. This work attained critical acclaim.

Summarized from this Associated Press report:;_ylt=AiDEB9kE6RKBIOY75dGK1AKs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTNtdHEzdTF1BG1pdANUb3BTdG9yeSBGUARwa2cDMWI3N2JlYzQtMWE1NS0zNTEzLTg1N2YtNGU3YWY4MmI2ZTU1BHBvcwMxNARzZWMDdG9wX3N0b3J5BHZlcgNmODU0YzEwMC0yOWJjLTExZTEtOWZhZC1iODkwOGY1NmEwOWI-;_ylg=X3oDMTJlaTQzcG12BGludGwDdXMEbGFuZwNlbi11cwRwc3RhaWQDBHBzdGNhdANob21lBHB0A3NlY3Rpb25zBHRlc3QDTm9uZXdzcmVhZGVyb25uZXdzaG9tZQ--;_ylv=3  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Richard W. Fisher

The head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas agrees that businesses are seeing record profits and that banks have plenty of money to lend, in part because of Federal Reserve policies. Then he says this:

"I maintain that no matter how much cash you have on your balance sheet, or how compliant your banker might be, or how cheap the cost of money, you will not commit substantial capital to expanding your payroll or investing significant amounts to expand plant and equipment until you know what it will cost you to run your business; until you know how much you will be taxed; until you know how federal spending will impact your customer base; until you know the cost of employee health insurance; until you are reassured that regulations that affect your business will be structured so as to incentivize rather than discourage expansion; until you have concrete assurance that the fiscal "fix" the nation so desperately needs will be crafted to stimulate the economy rather than depress it and incentivize job creation rather than discourage it; or until you are reassured that the sinkhole of unfunded liabilities like Medicare and Social Security that Republican- and Democrat-led congresses and presidents alike have dug will be repaired so that our successor generations of Americans will prosper rather than drown in dark, deep waters of debt."

--Richard W. Fisher (President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas), December 16, 2011. The entire speech available at:

Fisher quotes Martin Luther King:

"Cowardice asks the question—is it safe? Expediency asks the question—is it politic? Vanity asks the question—is it popular? But conscience asks the question—is it right? … There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right."

and then says this:

"That time is now. Our nation’s economy is at risk. The Federal Reserve has done everything it can to reduce unemployment without forsaking our sacred commitment to maintaining price stability, or crossing over the monetary river Styx into full-blown debt monetization. I personally don’t care which party is in the White House or controls Congress. All I know is that the "honorable" members of Congress and presidents past, Republicans and Democrats alike, have conspired over time, however unwittingly, to drive fiscal policy into the ditch. They purchased their elections and reelections with popular programs so poorly funded that they now threaten the economic well-being of our children and our children’s children. Instead of passing the torch on to the successor generation of Americans, they have simply passed them the bill. This is the opposite of honorable. "

Friday, December 16, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, writer, journalist, and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Slate and other publications, has died at 62 from complications of esophageal cancer. He was being treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, at the time of his death.

It is my view that Hitchens was the last genuine, authentic, uncompromisingly and perfectionistic classical liberal. From John Locke to John Stuart Mill, the classical liberal stood for rational empiricism, for equality before the law for all sentient creatures, for the strict responsibilities of parenthood (rather like a leasehold for stewarding priceless assets) and for the advance of scientific knowledge liberated and expanded by an understanding – a thorough understanding! – of the humanities.  The very last link at the bottom of this post consists of reminiscences of another reporter -- who remembers Hitchens instant, encyclopedic knowledge of English literature.

Hitchens was a graduate of Balliol College at Oxford, from whence his exquisitely precise prose was honed. It also gave him the experience of performing ruthlessly thorough and unbiased research, a talent particularly manifest in the essays and books he wrote. And what books! He wrote one that indicted Henry Kissinger, a tome bristling with footnotes. The absurd adult lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who pranced about in Arkansas and then in Washington a few short steps from grand jury investigation for decades (No One Left to Lie To) is a classic full of ugly laughs. He even took on the puffy reputation of Mother Theresa!

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens is a remarkable book even for Hitchens, a large summary collection of his best later essays.  He even takes on the irrational beliefs of other liberals about the political left itself, particularly in his sterling insights into the disarray of the political left in Europe since a meeting in Vienna in 1927 and the effects of that schism on the Nazis and the Soviet communists – no modern liberal would have written about this so bitingly and incisively.

Hitchens became famous in the last decade of his life for his views contrary to religion, especially the three Abrahamic religions. Rather than quote his own inflammatory statements in this area, let me simply state a view he certainly held, which was splendidly summarized by John Horgan in Slate: "All religions…stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests." Hitchens would agree, and, notably, he did not himself turn to faith in his last days.

I think that the death of Christopher Hitchens has repercussions. He was a valiant and persistent critic of people and ideas that deserve close and unbiased examination. For at least that talent, he will be sorely missed.

Much more on Hitchens at:;_ylt=AvU_UdsJEJ0fNqst70BcaS2XCMZ_;_ylu=X3oDMTFnb25kdGRhBG1pdANCbG9nIEluZGV4IGJ5IEJsb2cEcG9zAzIxBHNlYwNNZWRpYUJsb2dJbmRleA--;_ylg=X3oDMTFvcGs0cnBnBGludGwDdXMEbGFuZwNlbi11cwRwc3RhaWQDBHBzdGNhdANibG9nBHB0A3NlY3Rpb25zBHRlc3QD;_ylv=3#more-25953

and at

Funny article about what it was like to share a tiny office with Christopher Hitchens in New York during the 1980s:

And from a journalist who was in Kuwait and Iraq with Hitchens:   

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Filming Light at 1 Trillion Frames per Second

LiveScience, December 14, 2011

Forget about slow-motion shots of a bullet destroying an apple or a hummingbird shaking off water. Making a slow-motion video of light beams bouncing around inside a 1-liter bottle required a new super-fast imaging system — one capable of taking 1 trillion frames a second. MIT's Media Lab has now made such a system possible by harnessing camera technology usually found in chemistry experiments.

An imaging system that makes light seem slow speaks for itself, especially when light travels 700 million miles an hour on a good day in a vacuum. But to better appreciate 1 trillion frames per second (fps), consider that the iPhone 4S camera shoots HD video at just 30 fps. Even Hollywood has relied upon a mix of digital wizardry and cameras shooting at 24 fps to capture its beloved slow-motion explosions. ("Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson just recently stepped up his game by choosing to film "The Hobbit" prequels at 48 fps.)

"There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera," said Andreas Velten, a postdoctoral researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

The MIT researchers used a streak camera that has a narrow slit to allow in particles of light, known as photons. An electric field deflects the photons in a direction perpendicular to the slit, but deflects late-arriving photons more than early-arriving photons because it keeps changing.

Such a difference allows the streak camera to show the photons' arrival over time, but it also captures only one spatial dimension through its Slit view. To create two-dimensional images for their super-slow-mo video, the researchers had to perform the same light-passing-through-a-bottle experiment over and over again as they repositioned the camera slightly each time.

An hour's worth of work led to hundreds of thousands of data sets. Next, the MIT team, led by Ramesh Raskar, Media Lab associate professor, turned to computer algorithms to stitch the data together into the two-dimensional images.

Such work came as a spinoff of another MIT Media Lab project by the Raskar's Camera Culture group — a camera capable of bouncing light off reflective surfaces and measuring the return time to see around corners.

The "world's fastest slowest camera" won't have any practical filmmaking purposes anytime soon because of the time it takes and the need to repeat each scene many times, Raskar said.

But Raskar suggested that using information from how light bounces around different surfaces could allow researchers to analyze the structure of manufactured materials and biological tissues. Such technology might resemble "ultrasound with light," he said.

If the ultrafast imaging technology gets fine-tuned, Raskar envisions using it to figure out how light's photons travel through the world. That might allow his team to recreate photos taken by a portable camera with compact flash to give the illusion of studio lighting.

The streak camera and laser that created the light pulses came with a combined price tag of $250,000. They were provided by Moungi Bawendi, a professor of chemistry at MIT, who also participated in the research.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Positive Quiddity:

I want to start off with a paean to and its services. The prices are competitive or superior to other places. Payment over the Internet is secure. The variety of books, music, videos and gadgets I amazing and ever-expanding. And it is a great way to research a picky topic, especially if you are looking for personal knowledge as well as some kind of technical written narrative.

Let me explain this odd statement about Amazon helping to perform research – it doesn’t appear on the face of it to make sense.

The key to Amazon research is knowing how to read the reviews. There is a rhetorical specialty out there in academia called logical argumentation. There are certain characteristics of a logical argument. It doesn’t attack based on personalities. It doesn’t state theories as facts. There are a lot of references to subject matter experts. The premises and inferences are sound and proceed in a comprehensible, logical manner.

When I look up music CD or video DVD or book on Amazon, I first scan the reviews to see if there are some that proceed along the lines of a logical argument. Then I carefully read and compare the logical reviews. This accomplishes two things. I’ve weeded out the whiny, petty or resentful reviews. And I’ve made contact with thinkers who care enough about the item to write sensibly about it, which carries the bonus that there is no ideological nor academic gloss, meme, or bias associated with the review writing. These are reviewers who know how to think clearly, but who are not babbling to get a good grade from a professor with biases.

If you pick up this knack of sorting reviews for logical consistency, then before making a purchase you have a group of written arguments before you to assist you with your decision. How about that!

There is a great bonus to shopping these reviews for logical argumentation. Such good quality reviews tend to have outside references – other music CDs, other movies or other books tend to be mentioned. And these high quality, outside references are a gold mine of other avenues worth researching. It’s easy to take notes of the reviews and continue to surf the net for more, higher-level questions about an area that interests you. Try getting service at that level from the local hippie bookstore!

So I would say that, overall, Amazon represents a modern, high-tech, electronic example of positive quiddity. Although there are some shortcomings: Amazon recently asked its customers to act as spies and check out prices at the bricks-and-mortar stores. Amazon ruthlessly seeks to evade paying state and local sales taxes. And Amazon has been accused, in a New York Times editorial by Richard Russo, of heartlessly pressuring and killing off the local independent bookstores, thus stabbing at the heart of local culture.

Slate magazine, in an article written by Farhad Manjoo, considers Russo’s argument and rejects the contention that Amazon seeks to destroy or homogenize the culture of a community. In a style and with literacy far exceeding the typical, sanctimonious, effete preening toward an NPR-style audience, Manjoo makes a fiercely clever and memorable argument on behalf of Amazon. This timely piece is available at:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Martin Feldstein

"Instead of increasing intra-European harmony and global peace, the shift to [monetary union] and the political integration that would follow it would be more likely to lead to increased conflicts within Europe and between Europe and the United States."
--Martin Feldstein in Foreign Affairs, 1997

In an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, Charles Lane [link further below], adds this:

"Feldstein foresaw that the trigger for political tension would be a sharp economic downturn, imposing different levels of unemployment on different members of the monetary union, because high-unemployment countries could not recover their competitiveness through currency devaluation."
and there is this analysis from an international certified public accountant firm:

"We are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty in the Eurozone. The potential political and economic outcomes emerging from the Eurozone crisis in 2012 are disparate, although all share a similar theme. A harsh adjustment to a new fiscal reality will be unavoidable, regardless of the path politicians finally decide to follow.

"The Eurozone that re-emerges next year is likely to be very different to the one we know today and the implications for business within and outside this region are enormous. We spend a lot of time advising boards and senior executives on the scenarios that they should consider and their potential impact on their bottom line. In this report, we bring you insights from a range of distinctive scenarios that we are recommending our clients use to prepare for potential outcomes that could take place next year.

"Growing market pressure and significant tranches of sovereign debt due for refinancing by early Spring point at a likely resolution to the current phase of the crisis around the first quarter of 2012. Politicians have taken more than two years to face up to this moment. And the resolution they finally agree is likely to be implemented overnight in order to minimise market actions that can make it harder to implement."

--a report by CPA firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (available at:

Charles Lane’s Washington Post editorial summarizes the report this way: "In the most benign, the European Central Bank takes mass quantities of bad debt onto its balance sheet and Europe avoids a depression at the expense of higher inflation and slower long-run growth.

‘The only difference among the other choices — organized default by the euro zone’s biggest debtors; a Greek exit from the euro; and the rise of a new, smaller euro zone led by France and Germany — is the depth of the recession each would trigger," writes Lane.


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Notes from the Blog Author

What’s this?! "…significant tranches of sovereign debt due for refinancing by early Spring…" says PWC in their report (apparently out of London). That isn’t what the financial press is covering in depth.  And PWC says this upcoming drop-dead refinancing necessity likely leads to a quickie overnight solution, intentionally not giving the market any time to think and react to the jarring, mandated change.

The Euro agreement never contained language allowing the central banking body to fire a compulsive debtor from the Euro, forcing any deadbeats out of the system and back onto an unstable, constantly self-devaluing local currency for any financially irresponsible member. The only way the Euro would ever have worked would have been to force any irresponsible parties to walk the plank. Such a policy still hasn’t been established.  So failure of the Euro was always merely a question of time.

Conclusion:  Martin Feldstein was right. And Margaret Thatcher was right.