Saturday, August 31, 2013

Movie Review: Hunger Games

Introduction by the Blog Author
Hunger Games II is coming to a theater near you around Thanksgiving. Here’s an introduction in the form of a great review of the first Hunger Games movie from a "Top 1000 Reviewer" from – a great review of a great action movie. 822 of 1,076 people found the following review helpful!

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5.0 out of 5 stars

A masterpiece! An excellent film about courage, hope and human dignity facing the all powerful totalitarian tyranny!
By Maciej, March 22, 2012

"Hunger Games" is certainly the best film I have seen in many, many months, and it is a very successful adaptation of an excellent book.

In my personal opinion, both the book and the film are much deeper and much more ambitious, than what most critics and reviewers would make us believe. After reading the reviews in "New York Times", "Le Monde" and on "" (to cite only few) I was surprised that they mostly missed everything that is important in this film. With a kind of amused superiority, which people from Capitol in this movie would immediately recognize, the "professional" reviewers pointed at the obvious allusions to gladiator fights, the reality shows, the importance of trashy entertainment in today's TV, the search for a new franchise able to replace "Twilight", etc., etc.

But they almost entirely failed to see, that this film is first and above all about much more important things: how to keep hope, not lose the courage and preserve humanity and dignity under a totalitarian oppressive regime.

I believe that almost everybody now knows that when writing "Hunger Games" Susan Collins attempted basically a modern (even futurist) retelling of the old Greek myth of Theseus and Minotaur. According to this ancient tale, after losing a war, every year the city of Athens had to send a tribute of seven young men and seven maidens to the king of Crete. Once there the young people were locked in the Labyrinth, to be devoured by the monster Minotaur. This yearly punishment and humiliation lasted until Theseus, crown prince of Athens, volunteered to be one of the tributes and once locked in the Labyrinth he defeated and killed the Minotaur.

In "Hunger Games" what was once United States (and I think also Canada) is now called the Panem. It is a country divided in twelve Districts remaining under the control of the Capitol central metropolis. There was once thirteen Districts, but when they rebelled against the central power, the Capitol destroyed completely the District 13 with all its population and then defeated and submitted again the twelve others. In order to remind to its subjects how absolute is its power, the Capitol claims a yearly tribute - one girl and one boy of ages from 12 to 18 from every District. The tributes are then send to an arena and forced to fight, until only one remain alive. This yearly event is called the Hunger Games and it is shown live on TV to all the population of Panem. This film tells the story of what happened at the 74th edition of Hunger Games...

For Capitol the purpose of Hunger Games is to remind yearly how powerful is the central metropolis and how dire can be the consequences of its wrath, but also - and even more importantly in my opinion - to humiliate and degrade the people of the Districts by forcing them to become accomplices (even if under duress) of a barbarian custom in which some of their own children are send to the slaughterhouse. And as all bullies and abusers know, it is much easier to oppress, abuse and brutalize victims who lack self-esteem...

Well, in this film we can see how one of the tributes from District 12, an exceptionnal young girl named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), manages to turn the tables on the Capitol and by allowing people of Panem to regain some of their dignity she will be the pebble which starts the avalanche. The exact way in which she does that will not be revealed here, but both in the book as in the film it is described in a very intelligent and very moving way...

This may seem a rather improbable thing that a 16 years old child can do something that will ultimately bring down a seemingly invincible and all-powerful tyranny, but let's not forget that in the real world, the great wave of revolutions of Arab Spring began on 18 December 2010 with a desperate gesture of a dirt-poor 27-years old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after having been robbed and beaten by the corrupt local police one time too much... Less than two years after, the opressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya already collapsed, the seemingly invulnerable dictator of Yemen had to resign and the Syrian brutal regime is facing a massive armed rebellion..

Bottom line, this film is first and before all a story about how even a seemingly powerless person can horribly hurt a tyrannic regime with a magic potion made of lots of courage, an ice-cold determination, a great personal dignity, a little compassion, a handful of flowers, a couple of tears and one defiant and powerful gesture...

The powerful message and excellent scenario are not the only reasons why I consider "Hunger Games" as a masterpiece. Actors were selected very carefully and they perform well. Jennifer Lawrence is simply perfect - there is no other word to describe her performance! However, after seeing her in "Winter's Bone" and "X-Men: First class" I didn't expect anything less.

But the real surprise in this film comes from Josh Hutcherson who plays Peeta Mellark, the boy tribute from District 12. His character is more difficult to play, because Peeta is in the same time more limited but also more complicated than Katniss. Josh Hutcherson could have very easily fall in one of the many traps which are build in Peeta's character. By overacting or underacting he could have make him a wimp or a passive follower or an immature kid, but he avoided those snares with grace and his Peeta comes out of this film as a surprisingly complexe and also a very likeable character. He is certainly not a hero and a fighter like Katniss - but until the very end he preserves his honor, in a deadly place where he shouldn't ever be send...

A special mention goes to little Amandla Stenberg, who plays 12-years old Rue, the youngest of all the tributes. Her character is both secondary and in the same time incredibly important - and this little cute pixie played it perfectly!

Other, more known actors contribute to the success of this film. Woody Harrelson is excellent as Haymitch, the only person from District 12 who ever won in the Hunger Games and is now an advisor to Katniss and Peeta. Lenny Kravitz portrayed a perfect Cinna, the man in charge of image of tributes from District 12 in public appearances before the games begin. And finally there is the giant figure of Donald Sutherland, who plays the supreme ruler of Panem, President Coriolanus Snow. He is purely incredible. There is a moment in this film when he says to somebody "I like you" - and I believe that I have never heard such a terrible and deadly threat in one short sentence since the archifamous Schwarzenegger's "I will be back"...

I also absolutely adored the using of the cameras. In some moments of this film we have the impression of going after the characters with a camera, like a war correspondent following the fighters (this style was also very skillfully used in "The Shield" series). Of course not all the film is turned in this way, but mixing this kind of scenes with more conventional ones gives here an excellent effect.

The games themselves are very skillfully described and are a very dramatic tale, full of surprises and twists. I found them much much better than "Battle Royale", to which this book and film are often compared. The games are deadly and brutal, but there is only limited gore - I think this film is suitable for young teenagers, although not for children younger than 12. There is also absolutely no nudity, sex or strong language and I for one found it a most excellent thing.

There are still many more good things to say about this film, but I believe you should discover them by yourself. One more thing however about the book - it is of course possible to see and greatly enjoy this film without reading the book, but I believe that reading the novel first is a good idea. If reading the whole book is out of question, I would advise to read at least the first hundred pages. It will not reveal much about the games themselves, but it will allow for a better understanding of some of the key elements: the strength of the bond between Katniss and her younger sister, the history that Katniss shares with her hunting partner Gale, the complicated relation between Katniss and her mother and last but not least, the mysterious bond existing between Katniss and Peeta Mellark.

About this last point: if you did not yet read the book I do not want to spoil the pleasure of discovery so I will say just this - Katniss and Peeta lived for 16 years in the same village, but they never spoke one to another (except for an occasional "Hello") and they never touched one another in any way. And still, they share a secret as big as life and death, a secret which both bonded them together and in the same time separated them deeply... If you want to know the solution of this riddle you have either to watch very very carefully every scene of the film or simply read the book...

Conclusion: this film is a masterpiece! I loved it and I am going to buy the DVD as soon as it is available. And I am SOOO going to see the the second part, as soon as it opens!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Positive Quiddity: the Autodidact

Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is self-directed learning that is related to but different from informal learning. In a sense, autodidacticism is "learning on your own" or "by yourself", and an autodidact is a self-teacher. Autodidacticism is a contemplative, absorptive procession.
Some autodidacts spend a great deal of time reviewing the resources of libraries and educational websites. One may become an autodidact at nearly any point in one's life. While some may have been informed in a conventional manner in a particular field, they may choose to inform themselves in other, often unrelated areas. Many notable contributions have been made by autodidacts.
Autodidactism is only one facet of learning, and is usually, but not necessarily, complemented by learning in formal and informal spaces: from classrooms to other social settings. Many autodidacts seek instruction and guidance from experts, friends, teachers, parents, siblings, and community. Inquiry into autodidacticism has implications for learning theory, educational research, educational philosophy and educational psychology.
[Much much more at:] 
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List of Autodidacts
  • Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist and writer. However, Leonardo was not autodidactic in his study of the arts, as he was trained through the Guild system, just as other Renaissance artists had been.
  • Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer, essayist, and poet. Winner of the Jerusalem Prize.
  • Jose Saramago, Nobel Prize for Literature. His parents were unable to pay for his studies at early age, and he was forced to abandon the baccalaureate. At the age of 13, he began to study mechanics to repair cars. He continued the next thirty years working as a locksmith for a metal company, and in an agency of social services. His first novel (Terra de pecado) was published in 1947 without any success at all. He stopped writing for publication, although he continued doing manuscripts for himself. At the end of the 1960s, he joined the Communist party, and after the fall of the Fascist dictatorship in Portugal of 1974, he was the director of the nationalized newspaper Diario de Noticias. Just a few years after the putsch of the left wing failed in 1975, he began to write again to survive. In that point of his life, the fame came. In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize of Literature. A Bengali polymath who reshaped his region's literature and music. Author of Gitanjali, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.
  • The English visionary artist and poet William Blake was an autodidact. He was initially educated by his mother prior to his enrollment in drawing classes but never received any formal schooling. Instead, he read widely on subjects of his own choosing.
  • John Clare was self-taught and rose out of poverty to become an acclaimed poet.
  • Forensic facial reconstruction artist Frank Bender was self-taught. His well-known forensic career started off with a day trip to a morgue, asked to try to put a face on the deceased, brought measurements home, created a successful facial reconstruction that led to his first (of many) IDs. He took only one semester of sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
  • Howard Phillips Lovecraft, weird fiction writer and primogenitor of modern horror fiction, was a self-taught writer, critic and commentator. A pronounced child prodigy by the time he was of primary school age, reading memorized verse not long after learning how to walk, and composing and writing his own poetry by the time he was six. Growing up, Lovecraft attended school only in brief stints, his ill-health ending all scholastic endeavors prematurely. During this time Lovecraft read constantly, gifted with an abnormal talent for reading comprehension. Some of his favorite subjects were astronomy and chemistry, about both of which he went on to write amateur pieces of commentary and criticism. Not long after developing a great interest in the pulp magazines of his day, he began writing fiction himself- eventually becoming a preeminent writer of weird fiction in the pulp press, his work appearing in magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories.
  • Maxim Gorky was a self-taught man who rose out of poverty to become a world famous writer.
  • Naxzeer Naji, a top Pakistani Urdu news columnist and intellectual best known for his progressive writings has never attended any formal school because of the abject poverty of his parents. He has been in journalism for 50 years, started many popular magazines including Akhbar-e-Jenah and also served as the speech writer for the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
  • Feodor Chaliapin [late 19th and early 20th century Russian musician and singer]
  • Terry Pratchett, a writer of science fiction, fantasy and children's books, is quoted as saying "I didn't go to university. Didn't even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did."
  • Herman Melville, a writer best known for Moby Dick, engaged in self-directed learning through his life in literature, aesthetics, criticism and art.
  • Playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade but continued to educate himself by spending long hours reading at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library.
  • Playwright George Bernard Shaw left formal education while still in his mid-teens to become a clerk at an estate firm. He compared schools to prison and said that "I did not learn anything at school."
  • Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and short story writer, was primarily self-educated after high school. "... he read for hours at a time in bed", recounted his sister Marcelline. "He read everything around the house--all the books, all the magazines, even the A.M.A. Journals from Dad's office downstairs. Ernie also took out great numbers of books from the public library." His father wanted him to go to Oberlin for college, but Hemingway decided to become a reporter for the Kansas City Star.
  • Louis L’Amour, an author who left his home at the age of 15 to expand his horizons and worked many jobs while educating himself.
  • J.A. Rogers, the Jamaican-American author, was able to educate himself after only receiving a few years worth of primary education in Jamaica. He attended but never completed high school. While he was able to study commercial art at the Chicago Art Institute later in life, he got most of his knowledge in libraries and was able to produce many books based on race, history, sociology, and anthropology. He also mastered other languages such as Spanish, German, and French.
  • Ray Bradbury, author of fantasy, horror,science fiction and mystery novels, graduated from high school but did not attend college. In regard to his education, Bradbury was quoted as saying:
 "Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."  
  • Rudolph Dirks, one of the earliest and most noted comic strip artists, was an autodidact. He sold his first cartoon to a local newspaper when he was 13. For a while, he mainly designed ads. 17 years old, he sold cartoons to magazines like Life and Judge.. With jobs like cover images for pulp novels he made his living until the New York Journal hired him, where he earned fame as creator of The Katzenjammer Kids.
  • Alan Moore, creator of the graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen.
  • Johann Wolfgang on Goethe.

    Thursday, August 29, 2013

    NASA's Asteroid-Hunting Telescope

    Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) is a NASA infrared-wavelength astronomical space telescope launched in December 2009, and placed in hibernation in February 2011 when its transmitter turned off. It has discovered the first Y Dwarf and Earth trojan asteroid, as well as tens of thousands of new asteroids.

    WISE performed an all-sky astronomical survey with images in 3.4, 4.6, 12 and 22 μm wavelength range bands, over ten months using a 40 cm (16 in) diameter infrared telescope in Earth orbit. After its hydrogen coolant depleted, a four-month mission extension called NEOWISE was conducted to search for small solar system bodies close to Earth's orbit (e.g. hazardous comets and asteroids) using its remaining capability.

    The All-Sky data including processed images, source catalogs and raw data, was released to the public on March 14, 2012.

    On August 21, 2013, NASA announced it would recommission WISE with a new mission to search for asteroids with orbits that could potentially lead to a collision with Earth. Additionally, it will search for asteroids that a robotic spacecraft could potentially intercept and redirect to orbit the moon. The new mission will begin in September and is scheduled to last three years. With all coolant long used up, NASA plans to bring the temperature of the craft down from its current 200 K to the necessary 75 K by having the telescope stare into deep space for a while. This will cause most of the built up heat to radiate away. The spacecraft's instruments will then be re-calibrated and the new mission will commence.

    NASA said it hopes to discover 150 previously unknown target asteroids, known as near-Earth objects. The agency hopes to also learn more about the size and shape of 2,000 known asteroids. It will cost an estimated $5 million per year. The new mission was due in part to calls for NASA to step up asteroid detection after the previously undetected Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia in February 2013.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Mental "Sending" Has Been Achieved

    A researcher at the University of Washington has sent a brain signal over the Internet and the result has been to control the motion of a colleage’s hand who was seated on the other side of the campus.

    In February of this year, Duke University scientists used sensors to sent the thoughts of a rat in Brazil to another rat, which received the signals and copied the behavior of the Brazilian rat.

    Much of this research is aimed at helping those who are paralyzed, but it also opens a door toward mental sending and control of other people and animals as if they were robots.

    Much more on this rsearch can be found at this Reuters article by Sharon Begley at:

    Tuesday, August 27, 2013

    An emerging science: Astrochemistry

    Here is a long, fascinating post about astrochemistry. You see, those bond-flexing molecules in yesterday’s post have specific signatures that show up on a mass spectrograph when viewed from afar. This is how we can detect some of the chemistry of the universe. We are beginning to develop an understanding of how the elements and molecules were formed in the early universe from the knowledge that is being gathered. See this link:

    More about the emerging science of astrochemistry at:

    Footnote by the Blog Author
    There is one quibble that I have with the link above. It postulates that immediately after the "big bang," most of the universe destroyed itself, leaving a slight excess of matter, the rest of matter and anti-matter being evenly matched.

    I think there is a better explanation for the very early moments of the universe. Before the universe, there was an anti-universe composed nearly entirely of anti-matter. It came togther into a singularity and exploded (the big bang). For mathematical reasons that are above my level of understanding, such an explosion would destroy all information and structure and result in inside-out-and-upside-down particles – our universe of nearly complete matter (and almost no anti-matter). When the universe ends and all the matter rushes together, it will explode into a bounce that creates an anti-matter universe.

    This bouncing, banging,bouncing, banging universe fits the math and also, finally, unequivocably, ends the controversy about the second "law" of thermodynamics, which says the disorder in the universe is increasing.
    Therefore I subscribe to Martin Bojowald’s theory as shown in this October, 2008 Scientific American article:

    Monday, August 26, 2013

    The Amazing Story of Molecular Vibration

    Introduction by the Blog Author
    This is going to sound boring at first, but hang on to it until it gets interesting. They don’t teach this in that introductory chemistry class that bored you. Guess what? A molecule isn’t a tinkertoy of atoms grouped together in a heap. The outer atoms of the molecule move – they twist and vibrate. This post has LINKS that show you examples of these motions. And at the end of the post I have a surprise for you – something you probably never were told by anyone about the natural world.

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    From Wikipedia:

    A molecular vibration occurs when atoms in a molecule are in periodic motion while the molecule as a whole has constant translational and rotational motion. The frequency of the periodic motion is known as a vibration frequency, and the typical frequencies of the molecular vibrations range from less than 1012 to approximately 1014 Hz.

    In general, a molecule with N atoms has 3N – 6 normal modes of vibration, but a linear molecule has 3N – 5 such modes, as rotation about its molecular axis cannot be observed. A diatomic molecule has one normal mode of vibration. The normal modes of vibration of polyatomic molecules are independent of each other but each normal mode will involve simultaneous vibrations of different parts of the molecule such as different chemical bonds.

    A molecular vibration is excited when the molecule absorbs a quantum of energy, E, corresponding to the vibration's frequency, ν
    , according to the relation E = (where h is Planck’s constant). A fundamental vibration is excited when one such quantum of energy is absorbed by the molecule in its ground state. When two quanta are absorbed the first overtone is excited, and so on to higher overtones.
    To a first approximation, the motion in a normal vibration can be described as a kind of simple harmonic motion. In this approximation, the vibrational energy is a quadratic function (parabola) with respect to the atomic displacements and the first overtone has twice the frequency of the fundamental. In reality, vibrations are anharmonic and the first overtone has a frequency that is slightly lower than twice that of the fundamental.

    Excitation of the higher overtones involves progressively less and less additional energy and eventually leads to dissociation of the molecule, as the potential energy of the molecule is more like a Morse potential.

    The vibrational states of a molecule can be probed in a variety of ways. The most direct way is through infrared spectroscopy, as vibrational transitions typically require an amount of energy that corresponds to the infrared region of the spectrum. Raman spectroscopy, which typically uses visible light, can also be used to measure vibration frequencies directly. The two techniques are complementary and comparison between the two can provide useful structural information such as in the case of the rule of mutual exclusion for centrosymmetric molecules.

    Vibrational excitation can occur in conjunction with electronic excitation (vibronic transition), giving vibrational fine structure to electronic transitions, particularly with molecules in the gas state.
    Simultaneous excitation of a vibration and rotations gives rise to vibration-rotation spectra.

    Vibrational coordinates

    The coordinate of a normal vibration is a combination of changes in the positions of atoms in the molecule. When the vibration is excited the coordinate changes sinusoidally with a frequency ν, the frequency of the vibration.


    Internal coordinates

    Internal coordinates are of the following types, illustrated with reference to the planar molecule ethylene,

    H       H
      \      /
     /      \
    H    H
      Stretching: a change in the length of a bond, such as C-H or C-C
    • Bending: a change in the angle between two bonds, such as the HCH angle in a methylene group
    • Rocking: a change in angle between a group of atoms, such as a methylene group and the rest of the molecule.
    • Wagging: a change in angle between the plane of a group of atoms, such as a methylene group and a plane through the rest of the molecule,
    • Twisting: a change in the angle between the planes of two groups of atoms, such as a change in the angle between the two methylene groups.
    • Out-of-plane: a change in the angle between any one of the C-H bonds and the plane defined by the remaining atoms of the ethylene molecule. Another example is in BF3 when the boron atom moves in and out of the plane of the three fluorine atoms.

    In a rocking, wagging or twisting coordinate the bond lengths within the groups involved do not change. The angles do. Rocking is distinguished from wagging by the fact that the atoms in the group stay in the same plane.

    In ethene there are 12 internal coordinates: 4 C-H stretching, 1 C-C stretching, 2 H-C-H bending, 2 CH2 rocking, 2 CH2 wagging, 1 twisting. Note that the H-C-C angles cannot be used as internal coordinates as the angles at each carbon atom cannot all increase at the same time.

    Vibrations of a Methylene group (-CH2-) in a molecule for illustration

    The atoms in a CH2 group, commonly found in organic compounds, can vibrate in six different ways: symmetric and asymmetric stretching, scissoring, rocking, wagging and twisting as shown here:

    Symmetrical stretching

    Asymmetrical stretching





    The Wikipedia post for this text shows all six motions simultaneously:
    Afterword by the Blog Author
    It is commonly – and falsely—believed that all motion ceases at the termperature of "absolute zero." This is not true. Molecules stop moving with resperct to other molecules at abolute zero; inter-molecular motion ceases. But the stretching and twisting and wagging of various groups of atoms continues, slowly but unstoppably, even at absolute zero. Bluntly, molecules are always moving, even if they are locked to each other at absolute zero.

    Tomorrow there will be a post which demonstrates how these organic compounds can be detected with certainty in outer space. Tomorrow’s post also speculates about the formation of elements that took place earlier in the history of the universe – interstellar chemistry!

    Sunday, August 25, 2013

    Brain Switch Is A Possible Key to Schizophrenia

    Brain development switch could affect schizophrenia, other conditions
    DURHAM, N.C. – April 6, 2011 -- An international team of scientists lead by researchers from Duke University and Johns Hopkins University have discovered a key "switch" in the brain that allows neurons to stop dividing so that these cells can migrate toward their final destinations in the brain.
    The finding may be relevant to making early identification of people who go on to develop schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

    "This work sheds light on what has been a big black box in neuroscience," said Nicholas Katsanis, Ph.D., co-senior author of the work and Jean and George Brumley Jr., MD, Professor of Developmental Biology, Professor of Pediatrics and Cell Biology. "It helps answer the question of what happens when neurons stop dividing and start moving along to populate the brain."

    The study was published by Nature journal on April 6 in its advance online publication.

    Katsanis predicts that, for perhaps 10 percent of psychiatric illness, the illness is primarily driven by defects in this switch system. "So we now have ways to interpret variation in humans, in a context that is relevant to their particular cases, to their physiology – that is where medicine will move next," Katsanis said.

    Katsanis, who directs the Duke Center for Human Disease Modeling, and Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, were introduced to each other by a clinical colleague who thought that Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS) proteins that are involved in transport duties within cells might have a role in schizophrenia. Katsanis is an expert in using BBS genetic mutations and proteins to learn more about other diseases. BBS is a complex genetic disease with autism-like symptoms, cognitive defects and depression. Sawa is an expert on DISC1, the protein named Disrupted in Schizophrenia 1, known to be a major susceptibility factor for schizophrenia and related disorders.

    Together, they discovered that these proteins are involved in a key switch for neurons that is necessary for brain development. When DISC1 gains a phosphate group at a specific site, it recruits BBS1. When BBS1 is missing in this system, the team could observe defective neuron migration, while a model with no DISC1 at all leads to defects in both cell proliferation and

    We can now appreciate that some fraction of schizophrenia is truly developmentally regulated, Katsanis said.

    "Even though the disease manifests itself after pubescence, scientists have suspected that the underpinnings are prenatal," he said. "We can greet this news with sadness or see it as an opportunity: we may have 20 years to help before a person starts experiencing symptoms, if we can develop techniques to use early enough."

    The study also provides another example of how BBS proteins fit into neuroscience and provide another instance in which understanding of a rare phenotype (BBS) informs complex traits, like schizophrenia, profoundly, Katsanis said. "The trend in recent years has been to focus heavily on common disorders and to disregard disorders that might impact fewer people. Yet rare disorders continue to provide such important insights both into basic biological processes and complex disease."

    "With these findings, we have tools for interpretation in some schizophrenia cases," Katsanis said. About one in 100 children born go on to develop schizophrenia in early adulthood.

    Now the scientists are engaged in medical re-sequencing of patients with psychiatric illness with a specific focus on the groups of proteins involved in the switch process. "We will be able to ask focused questions about the amount of variation that this particular system contributes to the complex landscape of genetic disease," Katsanis said.

    Contact: Mary Jane Gore
    Duke University Medical Center

    Other authors include Edwin C. Oh and John F Robinson of the Center for Human Disease Modeling and Departments of Cell Biology and Pediatrics at Duke; and researchers from the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; the Departments of Physiology and Anatomy at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo; and the Molecular Pharmacology Group, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow.
    The study was supported by U.S. Public Health Service grants, from the Silvio O. Conte Center; grants from Stanley and RUSK foundations and from Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund; grants from NARSAD and S-R foundations; grants from the Macular Vision Research Foundation and the Foundation for Fighting Blindness; the Distinguished George W. Brumley Professorship; a grant from Health Labor Sciences; grants from Strategic Research Program for Brain; the Fight for Sight Postdoctoral Fellowship; and a grant from the Medical Research Council, UK.

    Saturday, August 24, 2013

    Mark Levin and "The Liberty Amendments"

    Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin has a book out called "The Liberty Amendments." These amount to new amendments to the Constitution – particularly, new planks that strengthen the Bill of Rights.
    Levin's suggested amendments include:

    1. Term limits, including for justices.
    2. Repealing Amendment 17 and returning the election of senators to state legislatures
    3. A congressional supermajority to override Supreme Court decisions (overruling what could be a stacked court)
    4. Spending limit based on GDP
    5. Taxation capped at 15%
    6. Limiting the commerce clause, and strengthening private property rights
    7. Power of states to override a federal statute by a three-fifths vote.

    Sounds clever to me! Levin is obviously thinking through a way to keep the separation of powers effective and limited government vital as the main operating principle of 21st century . Dozens of positive book reviews are at:

    Friday, August 23, 2013

    The Powerful New Magellan Telescopes

    The Magellan Telescopes are a pair of 6.5 m (21.3 ft) diameter optical telescopes located at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The two telescopes are named after the astronomer Walter Baade and the philanthropist Landon T. Clay.

    First light for the telescopes was on September 15, 2000 for the Baade, and September 7, 2002 for the Clay.

    A collaboration between Carnegie Institution for Science, University of Arizona, Harvard University, The University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built and operate the twin telescopes.
    It was named after the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

    In 2013, Clay (Magellan II) was equipped with an adapive secondary mirror called MagAO which allowed it to take the sharpest visible-light images to date, capable of resolving objects 0.02 arcseconds across -- equivalent to a dime 100 miles away.
    MagAO was originally intended for the Large Binocular Telescope, but the device was damaged before it could be installed. Project leader Laird Close and his team were able to repair and repurpose the broken mirror for use on Magellan II.
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    The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is a ground-based extremely large telescope planned for completion in 2020. It will consist of seven 8.4 m (27.6 ft) diameter primary segments, with the resolving power of a 24.5 m (80.4 ft) primary mirror and collecting area equivalent to a 22.0 m (72.2 ft) one. The telescope is expected to have over 5-10 times the light-gathering ability of existing instruments.
    Two mirrors are cast and the mountain top has been prepared for construction.
    Planned Site
    The confirmed location of the telescope will be the Las Campanas Observatory, which is also the site of the
    Magellan telescopes, some 115 km (71 mi) noffh-northeast of La Serena, Chile. Much as for previous notable telescopes, the site has been chosen as the new instrument's location because of its outstanding astronomical seeing and clear weather throughout most of the year. Moreover, due to the sparsity of population centers and other favorable geographical conditions, the night sky in most of the surrounding Atacama Desert region is not only free from atmospheric pollution, but in addition it is probably one of the places least affected by light pollution, making the area one of the best spots on Earth for long-term astronomical observation. Major site preparation began with the first blast to level the mountain peak on 23 March 2012.

    Unique Design Features
    The telescope is unique in that it will use seven of the world's largest mirrors as primary mirror segments, each 8.4 m (27.6 ft) in diameter. These segments will then be arranged with one mirror in the center and the other six arranged symmetrically around it. The challenge in this is that the outer six mirror segments are off-axis, and although identical to each other, are not individually radially symmetrical, necessitating a modification of the usual polishing and testing procedures.

    The mirrors are being constructed by the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. The casting of the first mirror, in a rotating furnace, was completed on November 3, 2005, but the grinding and polishing were still going on 6½ years later when the second mirror was cast, on 14 January 2012. A wide array of new optical tests and laboratory infrastructure had to be developed to polish this mirror, as it's coefficient of difficulty is 10 times that of any previous large astronomical mirror. A third segment is scheduled for 2013. Casting uses 20 tons of E6 borosilicate glass from the Ohara Corporation of Japan and takes about 12–13 weeks.

    Polishing of the first mirror was completed in November 2012. The second mirror is being processed at the mirror lab, and the third mirror segment will be cast in August of 2013. Materials for the fourth mirror segment have been purchased; that mirror will be cast in late 2014.

    The intention is to build seven identical off-axis mirrors, so that a spare is available to substitute for a segment being recoated, a 1–2 week (per segment) process required every 1–2 years.

    Although the primary mirror as a whole has a focal ratio (focal length divided by diameter) of f/0.71, the individual segments, being one third that diameter, have a focal ratio of f/2.14. The overall focal ratio is f/8 and the optical prescription is an aplanatic gregorian telescope. The telescope will make use of adaptive optics.

    Thursday, August 22, 2013

    Fairer but Weirder Electoral College Map

    Electoral college reform (fifty states with equal population)Neil Freeman, 2012

    The electoral college is a time-honored, logical system for picking the chief executive of the United States. However, the American body politic has also grown accustomed to paying close attention to the popular vote. This is only rarely a problem, since the electoral college and the popular vote have only disagreed three times in 200 years. However, it's obvious that reforms are needed.

    The fundamental problem of the electoral college is that the states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence. The largest state is 66 times as populous as the smallest and has 18 times as many electoral votes. This allows for Electoral College results that don't match the popular vote. To remedy this issue, the Electoral Reform Map redivides the fifty United States into 50 states of equal population. The 2010 Census records a population of 308,745,538 for the United States, which this map divides into 50 states, each with a population of about 6,175,000.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2013

    Hedonism versus Eudaimoia

    How Different Types of Happiness Affect Our Fundamental Being, Influence GenesBy John Ericson,, Jul 30, 2013

    Did you know that different types of happiness affect individuals in different ways? And did you know that these different types can exert their influence on a cellular level, making us feel happiness down to our very genes?

    Did you know happiness even came in different types?

    New research examines the way emotional responses work on a genetic and cellular level. While previous studies have mapped the effects of stress and other negative emotions on such a level, little time has been spent on positive emotions like happiness, hope and pleasure.

    Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotion and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, is the lead author of a new, groundbreaking study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "I've been studying the physical and psychological impact of positive emotion for 20 years, (and) the pattern of results we found with this study completely surprised me," she told reporters for CNN. "I've known anecdotally that positive emotions impact us on a cellular level, but seeing these results have given us proof that there is a real difference in the kinds of happiness we feel and its potential long-term consequences."
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    The study divided happiness into two separate categories: hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being.
    The two types have different effects ­­­- both on a cellular and personal level - and are derived from different sources of joy.

    The Hedonic Type

    Hedonism is derived from the Greek word hēdonē
    , an ancient term that has persisted through millennia. Initially, it denoted a philosophical doctrine characterized by pleasure without consequence, roughly analogous of consuming something sweet - hēdys - without feeling unhealthy.
    Eventually, puritanical thought and moral rigidity problematized this kind pleasure, giving the word the vaguely negative vibe it has today. Nowadays, it's often decried as a close relative of instant gratification.

    The Eudaimonic Type

    Like the hedonic, the eudaimonic stems from an Ancient, post-Socratic vocabulary used to describe moral ideals. That being said, eudaemonism largely subverts the core value of hedonism; this is a deeply political project, concerned with a good life rather than momentary happiness. It's derived from the Greek daimōn
    , "demon" - not the horror-movie kind, but the mighty spirit figuring in Cartesian thought and the thought experiments of thermodynamics.  

    Choosing the Right Type of Happiness

    The study found that out of these two, eudaimonic well-being is significantly better in the grand scheme of things, as a dependence on hedonic happiness can trigger cellular reactions similar to that caused by stress.

    "Hedonic well-being is dependent on your taking self-involved action to constantly feed this positive emotion machine," said Professor Steve Cole, the co-author of the study. "If something threatens your ability to seek out this kind of personal happiness - if you get injured, for instance, or you experience a loss - your entire source of well-being is threatened. You are living closer to the edge of that kind of stress."

    To avoid this, he recommends maintaining a reliable source of eudaimonic happiness.

    "But if you find well-being in the connections you have to others and in pursuing something that
    involves collaborating with other people, if in that circumstance you get sick or injured or suffer a personal loss, that community you've worked so hard to connect to, they will help you get through," he explained.

    In other words, while a piece of cake or new pair of shoes may indeed brighten your day, you should never lose sight of the lasting sources - those you truly feel, all the way down to your genes.

    Tuesday, August 20, 2013

    Rare Condition Prevents Children from Aging

    An extremely rare genetic condition prohibits babies from growing or from aging. One eight year old child, Gabby Williams, weighs eleven points and is cared for like a newborn, Chris Weller reports from Yahoo! Health. This story was also covered on ABC news.

    Only a small group of people in the entire world share this condition. There is a 29-year-old Florida man with the body of a ten year old and there is a woman in Brazil, aged 31, who has the body of a two-year-old. Modern medicine has not been able to determine a cause for this condition, but further research may allow scientists to overcome "the inertia of aging," in which the body’s rate of change slows to a negligible amount.

    What doctors would like to know is a method to allow the human body to develop into the twenties and then arrest further aging, creating a kind of immortality.

    One of the factors preventing humans from living forever involves telomeres, the tips at the end of chromosomes. As cells replace themselves repeatedly, these ends got worn and frayed, ultimately losing the ability to replicate themselves. If the illness were fully understood and aging was arrested, then old age
    would lack greater risk for cancer, disease and illness. Humans could remain physically and mentally able.

    Other factors cause teleomeres to fray and age, including oxidative stress, glycation and chronological age. In Gabby Williams case, doctors are unable to predict how long they believe she will live.

    Monday, August 19, 2013

    What is a tax haven?

    A tax haven is a state, country or territory where certain taxes are levied at a low rate or not at all.
    Individuals and/or corporate entities can find it attractive to establish shell subsidiaries or move themselves to areas with reduced or nil taxation levels relative to typical international taxation.. This creates a situation of tax competition among governments. Different jurisdictions tend to be havens for different types of taxes, and for different categories of people and/or companies. States that are sovereign or self-governing under international law have theoretically unlimited powers to enact tax laws affecting their territories, unless limited by previous international treaties. There are several definitions of tax havens. The Economist has tentatively adopted the description by Geoffrey Colin Powell (former economic adviser to Jersey): "What ... identifies an area as a tax haven is the existence of a composite tax structure established deliberately to take advantage of, and exploit, a worldwide demand for opportunities to engage in tax avoidance." The Economist points out that this definition would still exclude a number of jurisdictions traditionally thought of as tax havens. Similarly, others have suggested that any country which modifies its tax laws to attract foreign capital could be considered a tax haven.

    According to other definitions, the central feature of a haven is that its laws and other measures can be used to evade or avoid the tax laws or regulations of other jurisdictions. In its December 2008 report on the use of tax havens by American corporations, the U.S. Government Accountability Office was unable to find a satisfactory definition of a tax haven but regarded the following characteristics as indicative of it: nil or nominal taxes; lack of effective exchange of tax information with foreign tax authorities; lack of transparency in the operation of legislative, legal or administrative provisions; no requirement for a substantive local presence; and self-promotion as an offshore financial center.

    A 2012 report from the Tax Justice Network estimated that between USD $21 trillion and $32 trillion is sheltered from taxes in unreported tax havens worldwide. If such wealth earns 3% annually and such capital gains were taxed at 30%, it would generate between $190 billion and $280 billion in tax revenues, more than any other tax shelters. If such hidden offshore assets are considered, many countries with governments nominally in debt are shown to be net creditor nations. However, the tax policy director of the Chartered Institute of Taxation expressed skepticism over the accuracy of the figures. A study of 60 large US companies found that they deposited $166 billion in offshore accounts during 2012, sheltering over 40% of their profits from U.S. taxes.

    The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identifies three key factors in considering whether a jurisdiction is a tax haven:
    1. Nil or only nominal taxes. Tax havens impose nil or only nominal taxes (generally or in special circumstances) and offer themselves, or are perceived to offer themselves, as a place to be used by non-residents to escape high taxes in their country of residence.
    2. Protection of personal financial information. Tax havens typically have laws or administrative practices under which businesses and individuals can benefit from strict rules and other protections against scrutiny by foreign tax authorities. This prevents the transmittance of information about taxpayers who are benefiting from the low tax jurisdiction.
    3. Lack of transparency. A lack of transparency in the operation of the legislative, legal or administrative provisions is another factor used to identify tax havens. The OECD is concerned that laws should be applied openly and consistently, and that information needed by foreign tax authorities to determine a taxpayer’s situation is available. Lack of transparency in one country can make it difficult, if not impossible, for other tax authorities to apply their laws effectively. ‘Secret rulings’, negotiated tax rates, or other practices that fail to apply the law openly and consistently are examples of a lack of transparency. Limited regulatory supervision or a government’s lack of legal access to financial records are contributing factors.
    However the OECD found that its definition caught certain aspects of its members' tax systems (some countries have low or zero taxes for certain favored groups). Its later work has therefore focused on the single aspect of information exchange. This is generally thought to be an inadequate definition of a tax haven, but is politically expedient because it includes the small tax havens (with little power in the international political arena) but exempts the powerful countries with tax haven aspects such as the USA and UK.

    In deciding whether or not a jurisdiction is a tax haven, the first factor to look at is whether there are no or nominal taxes. If this is the case, the other two factors – whether or not there is an exchange of information and transparency – must be analyzed. Having no or nominal taxes is not sufficient, by itself, to characterize a jurisdiction as a tax haven. The OECD recognizes that every jurisdiction has a right to determine whether to impose direct taxes and, if so, to determine the appropriate tax rate.

    While incomplete, and with the limitations discussed below, the available statistics nonetheless indicate that offshore banking is a very sizeable activity. In 2007 the OECD estimated that capital held offshore amounted to between US$5 trillion and US$7 trillion, making up approximately 6–8% of total global investments under management. A recent report (2012) by Tax Justice Network (an anti-tax haven pressure group) places the estimate considerably higher: between US$21 trillion and US$32 trillion (between 24-32% of total global investments). A report by the IMF in 2000 based upon interbank settlement figures estimated the crossborder cash held on-balance sheet at US$4.6 billion, although this included major U.S. and European financial centres.

    A Wall Street Journal study of 60 large US companies found that they deposited $166 billion in offshore accounts in 2012, sheltering over 40% of their profits from U.S. taxes.

    A 2012 report from the Tax Justice Network estimated that between USD $21 trillion and $32 trillion is sheltered from taxes in unreported tax havens worldwide. If such wealth earns 3% annually and such capital gains were taxed at 30%, it would generate between $190 billion and $280 billion in tax revenues, more than any other tax shelters. If such hidden offshore assets are considered, many countries with governments nominally in debt are shown to be net creditor nations. However, the tax policy director of the Chartered Institute of Taxation expressed skepticism over the accuracy of the figures. If true, those sums would amount to approximately 5 to 8 times the total amount of currency presently in circulation in the world. Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute says that the report also assumes, when considering notional lost tax revenue, that 100% money deposited offshore is evading payment of tax.

    The International Monetary Fund produced calculations based on Bank for International Settlements data suggest that for selected offshore financial centres, on-balance sheet cross-border assets held in offshore financial centres reached a level of US$4.6 trillion at end-June 1999 (about 50 percent of total cross-border assets). Of that US$4.6 trillion, US$0.9 trillion was held in the Caribbean, US$1 trillion in Asia, and most of the remaining US$2.7 trillion accounted for by the major International Finance Centres (IFCs), namely London, the U.S. IBFs, and the Japanese offshore market.

    A 2006 academic paper indicated that: "in 1999, 59% of U.S. firms with significant foreign operations had affiliates in tax haven countries", although they did not define "significant" for this purpose.

    A January 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said that the GAO had determined that 83 of the 100 largest U.S. publicly traded corporations and 63 of the 100 largest contractors for the

    U.S. federal government were maintaining subsidiaries in countries generally considered havens for avoiding taxes. The GAO did not review the companies' transactions to independently verify that the subsidiaries helped the companies reduce their tax burden, but said only that historically the purpose of such subsidiaries is to cut tax costs.

    In 2011, the Caribbean Banking Centers which include Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Netherlands Antilles, and Panama held almost two trillion dollars in United States debt.

    A 2012 study by the Tax Justice Network gave an indication of the amount of money that is sheltered by wealthy individuals in tax havens. Conservatively, it estimated that a fortune of $21 trillion is stashed away in off-shore accounts, $9.8 trillion alone by the top tier, - less than 100,000 people who each own financial assets of $30 million or more. The report indicated that this hidden money results in a "huge" lost tax revenue - a "black hole" in the economy -, and many countries would become creditors instead of being debtors if the money of their tax evaders would be taxed.

    Further, this system of tax evasion is "basically designed and operated" by a group of highly paid specialists from the world’s largest private banks (led by UBS, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs), law offices, and accounting firms and tolerated by international organizations such as Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the OECD and the G20. The amount of money hidden away has significantly increased since 2005, sharpening the divide between the superrich and the rest of the world.

    Lost Tax Revenues
    The Tax Justice Network in its 2012 report said global tax revenue lost to tax havens is between USD $190 billion and $255 billion per year, assuming a 3% rate and a 30% rate. Citizens for Tax Justice said that countries reporting 43% of the $940 billion of overseas profits declared by U.S. multinational corporations only made 7% of their investments overseas.

    2007 estimates by the OECD suggested that capital held offshore amounted to somewhere between US$5 trillion and US$7 trillion, making up approximately 6–8% of total global investments under management. Of this, approximately US$1.4 trillion is estimated to be held in the Cayman Islands alone. In October 2009, research commissioned from Deloitte for the Foot Review of British Offshore Financial Centres (London is a tax haven for much of Europe, Asia, and South America, it should be noted) said that much less tax had been lost to tax havens than previously had been thought. The report indicated "We estimate the total UK corporation tax potentially lost to avoidance activities to be up to £2 billion per annum, although it could be much lower." An earlier report by the U.K. Trades Union Congress, concluded that tax avoidance by the 50 largest companies in the FTSE 100 was depriving the UK Treasury of approximately £11.8 billion.

    The report also stressed that British Crown Dependencies make a "significant contribution to the liquidity of the UK market". In the second quarter of 2009, they provided net funds to banks in the UK totalling $323 billion (£195 billion), of which $218 billion came from Jersey, $74 billion from Guernsey and $40 billion from the Isle of Man.

    The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research has suggested that roughly 15% of countries in the world are tax havens, that these countries tend to be small and affluent, and that better governed and regulated countries are more likely to become tax havens, and are more likely to be successful if they become tax havens.

    No two commentators can generally agree on a "list of tax havens", but the following countries are commonly cited as falling within the "classic" perception of a sovereign tax haven.
    • Andorra
    • Bahamas
    • Cyprus
    • Liechtenstein
    • Luxembourg
    • Monaco
    • Panama
    • Samoa
    • San Marino
    • Seychelles
    Other sovereign countries that have such low tax rates and lax regulation that they can be considered semi-tax havens are :
    • Ireland
    • Netherlands
    • Switzerland
    Non-sovereign jurisdictions commonly labelled as tax havens include:

                        British Crown Dependency
    • Guernsey
    • Jersey
    • Isle of Man
    British Overseas Territory
    • Bermuda
    • British Virgin Islands
    • Cayman Islands, British Overseas Territory
    • Turks and Caicos Islands
    • Campione d’Italia, Italy
    • Kurdistan, Iraq
    • Cuacao (Netherlands)
    • Labuan, Malaysia
    • Jebel Ali Free Zone, United Arab Emirates
    • Alaska, United States
    • Delaware, United States
    • Florida, United States
    • Nevada, United States
    • Texas, United States
    • South Dakota, United States
    • United States Virgin Islands (United States)
    • Washington, United States
    • Wyoming, United States
    Some tax havens including some of the ones listed above do charge income tax as well as other taxes such as capital gains, inheritance tax, and so forth. Criteria distinguishing a taxpayer from a non-taxpayer can include citizenship and residency and source of income. For example, in the United States foreign nonresidents are not charged various taxes including income tax on interest on U.S. bank deposits by income tax; since the Clinton administration the IRS has proposed collecting information on these depositors to share with their home countries as a regulation; these regulations were eventually finalized in April 17, 2012.
    Incentives for Nations to Become Tax Havens
    There are several reasons for a nation to become a tax haven. Some nations may find they do not need to charge as much as some industrialized countries in order for them to be earning sufficient income for their annual budgets. Some may offer a lower tax rate to larger corporations, in exchange for the companies locating a division of their parent company in the host country and employing some of the local population.

    Other domiciles find this is a way to encourage conglomerates from industrialized nations to transfer needed skills to the local population. Still yet, some countries simply find it costly to compete in many other sectors with industrialized nations and have found a low tax rate mixed with a little self-promotion can go a long way to attracting foreign companies.

    Many industrialized countries claim that tax havens act unfairly by reducing tax revenue which would otherwise be theirs. Various pressure groups also claim that money launderers also use tax havens extensively, although extensive financial and know your customer regulations in tax havens can actually make money laundering more difficult than in large onshore financial centers with significantly higher volumes of transactions, such as New York City or London.

    In 2000, the Financial Action Task Force published what came to be known as the "FATF Blacklist" of countries which were perceived to be uncooperative in relation to money laundering; although several tax havens have appeared on the list from time to time (including key jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands, Bahamas and Liechtenstein), no offshore jurisdictions appear on the list at this time.

    Sunday, August 18, 2013

    First Blue Rose Engineered

    Information on the First Blue Rose


    There are over 25,000 rose varieties in the shades of red, white, pink and yellow. Most traditional hybrid roses contain red pigments. Through genetic engineering, the world's first blue rose has been developed, opening the door to new rose varieties in shades of blue.


    Suntory, a Japanese company, in cooperation with Florigene, an Australian biotechnology company, began work on a true blue rose creation in 1990.

    Time Frame

    The first blue rose was genetically engineered in 2004 and released for sale in the fall of 2009 in the Greater Tokyo, the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area and Aichi Prefecture areas of Japan.


    The first blue rose has 100 percent blue pigment in its petals. The red pigmentation naturally found in roses has been suppressed.


    Throughout the history of rose development, the color blue has been nearly impossible to achieve because roses lack a natural source of blue pigment.


    The first blue rose is named "APPLAUSE" to congratulate its developers. The word applause rhymes with rose in the Japanese language.

    Note by the Blog Author
    There is a problem. These roses certainly do look purple (like the rose "Blue Girl") rather than really blue.

    Photo from:

    Saturday, August 17, 2013

    The Social History of Viruses

    By the Blog Author
    Rabies, dengue fever, yellow fever, polio, smallpox (now extinguished worldwide), measles, influenza and HIV are all viral diseases. Certain viruses carry genetic material from one species to another. Viruses are particularly common in the oceans, where they remain largely unstudied. Below is a very brief excerpt from a long article in Wikipedia about the social history of viruses.

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

    The social history of viruses describes the influence of viruses and viral infections on human history.
    Epidemics caused by viruses began when human behaviour changed during the Neolithic period. Having been hunter-gatherers, humans developed more densely populated agricultural communities, which allowed viruses to spread rapidly and subsequently to become endemic. Viruses of plants and livestock also increased, and as humans became dependent on agriculture and farming, diseases such as potyviruses of potatoes and rinderpest of cattle had devastating consequences.

    Smallpox and measles viruses are among the oldest that infect humans. Having evolved from viruses that infected animals, they first appeared in humans in Europe and North Africa thousands of years ago. The viruses were later carried to the New World by Europeans during the time of the Spanish Conquests, but the indigenous people had no natural resistance to the viruses and thousands of them died during epidemics. Influenza pandemics have been recorded since 1580, and they have occurred with increasing frequency in subsequent centuries. The pandemic of 1918-19, in which 40–50 million died in less than a year was one of the most devastating in history.

    Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner were the first to develop vaccines to protect against viral infections. The nature of viruses remained unknown until the invention of the electronic microscope in the 1930s, when the science of virology gained momentum. In the 20th century many diseases both old and new were found to be caused by viruses. There were epidemics of poliomyelitis that were only controlled following the development of a vaccine in the 1950s. HIV is the most pathogenic new virus to have emerged in centuries. Although scientific interest in them arose because of the diseases they cause, viruses can be beneficial, driving evolution by transferring genes across species and playing important roles in ecosystems.

    Friendly Viruses
    Sir Peter Medawar (1915–1987) described a virus as "a piece of bad news wrapped in a protein coat". With the exception of the bacteriophages, viruses had a well-deserved reputation for being nothing but the cause of diseases and death. The discovery of the abundance of viruses and their overwhelming presence in many ecosystems has led modern virologists to reconsider their role in the biosphere.

    It is estimated that there are about 1031 (100 billion trillion) viruses on Earth. Most of them are bacteriophages, and most are in the oceans. Microorganisms constitute more than 90 per cent of the biomass in the sea, and it has been estimated that viruses kill approximately 20 per cent of this biomass each day and that there are fifteen times as many viruses in the oceans as there are bacteria and archaea. Viruses are the main agents responsible for the rapid destruction of harmful algal blooms, which often kill other marine life, and help maintain the ecological balance of different species of marine blue-green algae, and thus adequate oxygen production for life on Earth.

    The emergence of strains of bacteria that are resistant to a broad range of antibiotics has become a problem in the treatment of bacterial infections. Only two new classes of antibiotics have been developed in the past 30 years, and novel ways of combating bacterial infections are being sought. Bacteriophages were first used to control bacteria in the 1920s, and a large clinical trial was conducted by Soviet scientists in 1963. This work was unknown outside the Soviet Union until the results of the trial were published in the West in 1989. The recent and escalating problems caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria has stimulated a renewed interest in the use of bacteriophages and phage therapy.

    The Human Genome Project has revealed the presence of numerous viral DNA sequences scattered throughout the human genome. These sequences make up around eight per cent of human DNA, and appear to be the remains of ancient retrovirus infections of human ancestors. These pieces of DNA have firmly established themselves in human DNA. Most of this DNA is no longer functional, but some of these friendly viruses have brought with them novel genes that are important in human development. Viruses have transferred important genes to plants. About ten per cent of all photosynthesis uses the products of genes that have been transferred to plants from blue-green algae by viruses.

    This and much more available at this link:

    Friday, August 16, 2013

    Reporter Jack Germond Dies

    John Worthen Germond (January 30, 1928 – August 14, 2013) was an American journalist, author, and pundit. His journalistic career spanned over 50 years; Germond wrote for the Washington Star and The Baltimore Sun. Together with Jules Witcover, Germond co-wrote "Politics Today," a five-day-a-week syndicated column, for more than 24 years.

    Early Years
    Germond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, an only child, and raised in a middle-class household in Boston and Trenton, New Jersey. When he was 13, his family moved to Mississippi, and then to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Germond finished high school. After attending Louisiana State University for one semester, he served in the U.S. Army in 1946–47, returning to college on the GI bill and then graduating from the University of Missouri with degrees in journalism and history.

    He began his career working for Gannett’s Rochester Times-Union in 1961. He moved to the Washington Star in 1974, became a syndicated columnist and national editor, and went on to The Baltimore Sun when the Star folded. He began to appear on Meet the Press in 1972, the Today Show in 1980, and the NBC and PBS program The McLaughlin Group from its inception in 1981.

    A fixture on The McLaughlin Group for 15 years before abruptly resigning, he later appeared on CNN, and appeared for a time on the PBS program Inside Washington. In 2011 he wrote several pieces on the 2012 Presidential election for The Daily Beast, an online-only publication.

    Personal Life
    Germond and his first wife, Barbara Wipple–a fellow student at the University of Missouri–were married shortly after he graduated in 1951. They had two daughters, Mandy and Jessica.

    In 1984, Germond met Democratic party operative and political activist Alice Travis. Germond and Barbara subsequently divorced, and Germond married Travis in 1988. She had two children from a prior marriage and is the Secretary Emeritus of the Democratic National Committee.

    Germond died at his home on August 14, 2013, aged 85.

    Notes by the blog author
    Jack Germond died Tuesday after a long career. He did his own legwork and detail checking. On the air he was witty and factual, giving him a credibility far above that of the average pundit. Some accurate and respectful eulogies for his passing are available at these links:

    Thursday, August 15, 2013

    Development of Artificial Intelligence

    Brief History of Artificial Intelligence
    Thinking machines and artificial beings appear in Greek myths, such as Talos of Crete, the bronze robot of Hephaestus, and Pygmalion’s Galatea. Human likenesses believed to have intelligence were built in every major civilization: animated cult images were worshiped in Egypt and Greece and humanoid automatons were built by Yan Shi, Hero of Alexandria and Al-Jazari. It was also widely believed that artificial beings had been created by Jabir ibn Hayyan, Judah Loew and Paracelsus. By the 19th and 20th centuries, artificial beings had become a common feature in fiction, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Karel Xcapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Pamela McCorduck argues that all of these are examples of an ancient urge, as she describes it, "to forge the gods". Stories of these creatures and their fates discuss many of the same hopes, fears and ethical concerns that are presented by artificial intelligence.

    Mechanical or "formal" reasoning has been developed by philosophers and mathematicians since antiquity.
    The study of logic led directly to the invention of the programmable digital electronic computer, based on the work of mathematician Alan Turing and others. Turing's theory of computaton suggested that a machine, by shuffling symbols as simple as "0" and "1", could simulate any conceivable act of mathematical deduction. This, along with concurrent discoveries in neurology, information theory and cybernetics, inspired a small group of researchers to begin to seriously consider the possibility of building an electronic brain.

    The field of AI research was founded at a conference on the campus of Dartmouth College in the summer of 1956. The attendees, including John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon, became the leaders of AI research for many decades. They and their students wrote programs that were, to most people, simply astonishing: Computers were solving word problems in algebra, proving logical theorems and speaking English. By the middle of the 1960s, research in the U.S. was heavily funded by the Department of Defense and laboratories had been established around the world. AI's founders were profoundly optimistic about the future of the new field: Herbert Simon predicted that "machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do" and Marvin Minsky agreed, writing that "within a generation ... the problem of creating 'artificial intelligence' will substantially be solved".

    They had failed to recognize the difficulty of some of the problems they faced. In 1974, in response to the criticism of Sir James Lighthill and ongoing pressure from the US Congress to fund more productive projects, both the U.S. and British governments cut off all undirected exploratory research in AI. The next few years would later be called an "AI winter", a period when funding for AI projects was hard to find.

    In the early 1980s, AI research was revived by the commercial success of expert systems, a form of AI program that simulated the knowledge and analytical skills of one or more human experts. By 1985 the market for AI had reached over a billion dollars. At the same time, Japan's fifth generation computer project inspired the U.S and British governments to restore funding for academic research in the field. However, beginning with the collapse of the Lisp Machine market in 1987, AI once again fell into disrepute, and a second, longer lasting AI winter

    In the 1990s and early 21st century, AI achieved its greatest successes, albeit somewhat behind the scenes. Artificial intelligence is used for logistics, data mining, medical diagnosis and many other areas throughout the technology industry. The success was due to several factors: the increasing computational power of computers (see Moore’s law), a greater emphasis on solving specific subproblems, the creation of new ties between AI and other fields working on similar problems, and a new commitment by researchers to solid mathematical methods and rigorous scientific standards.

    On 11 May 1997, Deep Blue became the first computer chess-playing system to beat a reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. In 2005, a Stanford robot won the DARPA Grand Challenge by driving autonomously for 131 miles along an unrehearsed desert trail. Two years later, a team from CMU won the DARPA Urban Challenge when their vehicle autonomously navigated 55 miles in an urban environment while adhering to traffic hazards and all traffic laws. In February 2011, in a Jeopardy! quiz show exhibition match, IBM’s question-answering system, Watson, defeated the two greatest Jeopardy champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, by a significant margin. The Kinect, which provides a 3D body–motion interface for the Xbox 360, uses algorithms that emerged from lengthy AI research as does the iPhones's Siri.


    Wednesday, August 14, 2013

    The Voodoo Macbeth

    In 1936, the Federal Theatre Project (part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration) put unemployed theater performers and employees to work. Welles was hired by John Houseman and assigned to direct a play for the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Theater Unit. He offered them Macbeth. The production became known as the Voodoo Macbeth, because Welles set it in the Haitian court of King Henru Christophe, with voodoo witch doctors for the three Weird Sisters. Jack Carter played Macbeth. Canada Lee, who two years before had rescued Welles from a potentially dangerous scrape with an armed theatre-goer, played Banquo. The incidental music was composed by Virgil Thomson. The play opened April 14, 1936, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem and was received rapturously. It later toured the nation. When the lead actor, Maurice Ellis, fell ill on tour, Welles quickly boarded an airplane to fly to the location and stepped into the part, playing the role in blackface. At the age of 20, Welles was hailed as a prodigy. A few minutes of the Welles production of Macbeth was recorded on film in a 1937 documentary called We Work Again.

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    The Voodoo Macbeth
    is a common nickname for the Federal Theatre Project’s 1936 New York production of William Shakeseare’s Macbeth, featuring an all-African-American cast directed by Orson Welles. The production relocated the setting of the play from Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island based on Haiti, and acquired its nickname due to its use of voodoo imagery in place of the witchcraft in the original play. A box-office sensation, the production is regarded as a landmark theatrical event for several reasons: its innovative interpretation of the play, its success in promoting African-American theatre, and its role in securing the reputation of its 20-year-old director.  
    The Works Project Administration was an attempt at an economic stimulus during the Great Depression, under its aegis was Federal Project Number One responsible for generating jobs in the arts for which the Federal Theater Project was created. At the lobbying of civil rights activists a Negro Theater Unit was created. It was split into two halves, the "Contemporary Branch" to create theatre on contemporary black issues, and the "Classic Branch", to perform classic drama. The aim was to provide a point of entry into the theatre workforce for black actors and stagehands, and to raise community pride by performing classic plays without reference to the colour of the actors.
    Shakespeare's play is about the downfall of a usurper in medieval Scotland, who is encouraged in his actions by three witches. The central idea behind Welles's production was to perform the text straight, but to use costumes and sets that alluded to Haiti in the 19th century, specifically during the reign of the slave-turned-emperor Henri Christophe. Although the main reason for this choice was that it was an appropriate setting for an all-black cast, Welles felt that it also enhanced the play's realism: he thought the production's popularity was partly due to the fact that the idea of voodoo was more credible to a contemporary audience than was medieval witchcraft.

    In many productions, the character of Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, is often cut. Instead, Welles turned the character into a pivotal figure. Performed by Eric Burroughs as a huge man with a bullwhip, Hecate ended the play with the line "The charm's wound up", transferred from Act 1. Welles's 1948 film version of Macbeth, in which Hecate does not appear, also ends with this line.

    The production used a single, unchanging set of a castle in a jungle. The backdrops featured stylized palm trees and skeleton imagery.

    It is not certain whether the production removed references to Scotland from the text. Welles's promptbook keeps them intact, but in the surviving film record of the production's climax, the line "Hail, King of Scotland" is truncated to "Hail, King".

    The leadership roles in the Negro Theater Unit were all white. John Houseman, the director of the NTP, invited the young white director Orson Welles to direct a production of Macbeth. Welles was only 20, but was already a major radio star, and seized the opportunity to prove himself as a promising director. The designer was Nat Karson. The lighting was created by Abe Feder, one of the first full-time lightingdesigners. Feder had a difficult relationship with Welles, whom he believed was too young and ignorant of the practicalities of theatre; he continued to hold this opinion when interviewed decades later.

    Since the production's hierarchy was inherently racist, Welles also faced some difficulties in asserting authority with the black cast and crew, who were "not accustomed to being bossed around by preppy young whites". However, Welles won over the cast with his youthful energy and his warmth. Black cast and crew members interviewed decades later said that they felt included in the creative process. Welles, who was wealthy from his radio work, pleased everyone by cramming the rehearsal space with food and drink.

    The production opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. It then had a brief run on Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, before touring local high schools. It then toured the country, including performances in Bridgeport, Hartford, Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and finally returning to New York at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn (October 4–17). A few minutes of the production can be seen in the 1937 film We Work Again, a U.S. government documentary about the work projects. The film, which is now in the public domain, can be viewed online. The production was invited to London, but Welles declined, because he was trying to secure his career in New York.

    The entire cast and crew numbered over one hundred people, but only five of them were professional actors. Welles cast Jack Carter as Macbeth and Edna Thomas as Lady Macbeth. Both were light-skinned, and wore dark makeup in order to avoid looking different from the rest of the cast. Thomas played Lady Macbeth as a mother figure to Macbeth. Canada Lee played Banquo. Lee had met Welles prior to his involvement with the production, at a performance of Stevedore. The audience had been whipped into a frenzied shouting match, and Lee rescued Welles from being attacked by another audience member wielding a knife.

    Carter was a former criminal and an alcoholic, but Welles cast him despite being warned of his habit of disappearing for weeks on binges. Carter understood the importance of the production to his career, and kept his drinking under control during the Harlem run. Welles expended a great deal of time on helping Carter channel his adrenalin into a solid performance. The two men bonded, and would hit the nightspots of Harlem together after rehearsals. However, his behavior became so problematic that he had to be replaced, by the performer of macDuff, Maurice Ellis, during the show's Broadway run (Ellis's performance is the one recorded on film). Welles would later claim to have played Macbeth himself in blackface, after Ellis fell ill one night on tour in Indianapolis.

    There were few professional African-American actors available and many of the cast members had never acted in Shakespeare before. Welles believed, however, that they showed a better understanding of the rhythm of the iambic pentameter than many professionals.

    Welles also hired a team of African drummers, some of whom were knowledgeable about voodoo practices, to accompany the witch's speeches with drumbeats. They were led by Sierra Leonean drummer Asadata Dafora.

    Before the production opened, the Harlem Communists tried to agitate the community against the project, wrongly believing that Welles had cast black actors in order to create a comic or burlesque version of Shakespeare. The theatre was picketed throughout rehearsals. One man attempted to slash Welles's face with a razor, but Canada Lee, a former boxer, stopped him.

    According to Welles, the anger was suddenly replaced "for no reason at all" by widespread excitement and pride in the community as the opening night approached. The "Voodoo Macbeth" defied all expectations, becoming a box-office sensation. Seventh Avenue had to be closed for 10 blocks on either side of the theatre and the opening night played to a packed house, and continued to do so for nine weeks.
    Most reviewers, including those from the New York Times and the New York Daily News loved the production, praising its energy and excitement. However, Carter was criticized for poor verse delivery, and for seeming more interested in displaying his physique than acting. One reviewer, Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune, was negative about the entire cast, accusing the actors of being inaudible and timid. In response, one of the African drummers created a voodoo doll of Hammond, stuck pins in it, and encouraged Welles to take responsibility for any torments Hammond suffered as a result. Welles says he found this amusing, until Hammond died shortly afterward.

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    Comment by the Blog Author
    I have read several places that audiences were hypnotized by the Voodoo Macbeth and never forgot it. It may be the finest achievement in American theatre. I myself have seen a brief 8mm film of a glimpse of this production, and it is electrifying.