Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The dingo dog of Australia

The dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is a free ranging dog found mainly in Australia, as well as Southeast Asia, where it is said to have originated. It is currently classified as a subspecies of the grey wolf, Canis lupus.
A dingo's habitat ranges from deserts to grasslands and the edges of forests. Dingoes will normally make their dens in deserted rabbit holes and hollow logs close to an essential supply of water.

The dingo is the largest terrestrial predator in Australia, and plays an important role as an apex predator. However, the dingo is seen as a pest by sheep farmers due to frequent attacks on livestock. Conversely, their predation on rabbits, kangaroos and rats is of benefit to cattle stations.
For many Australians, the dingo is a cultural icon. There is fear of the species becoming extinct, similar to the case of the thylacine in Tasmania, commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, thought to have become extinct in the 20th century. The dingo is seen by many as being responsible for thylacine extinction on the Australian mainland about two thousand years ago, although a recent study challenges this view. Dingoes have a prominent role in the culture of Aboriginal Australians as a feature of stories and ceremonies, and they are depicted on rock carvings and cave paintings.

Domestic and pariah dogs in southern Asia share so many characteristics with Australian dingoes that they are now considered to be members of the same taxon Canis lupus dingo, a particular subspecies of Canis lupus. While the relationship with humans varies widely among these animals, they are all quite similar in terms of physical features.

A dingo has a relatively nroad head, a pointed muzzle and erect ears. Eye colour varies from yellow over orange to brown. Compared to other similarly sized familiaris dogs, dingoes have longer muzzles, larger carnassials (large teeth found in many carnivorous mammals), longer canine teeth, and flatter skulls with larger nuchal lines.

Origin and Genetic Status
Since dingoes were the largest wild placental mammals in Australia at the time of colonisation and looked similar to domestic dogs, their origin has always been questioned and much debated. Achaeological and morphological studies indicated a relatively late introduction and a close relationship to other domestic dogs. Their exact descent, place of origin and date of arrival in Australia were not identified, nor whether they had once been domesticated or half-domesticated and had gone feral, or whether they had already existed as truly wild animals.

It is widely held that dingoes have evolved or were bred from the Indian wolf or Arabian wolf around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, as was assumed for all domestic dogs. This theory was based on the morphological similarities of dingo skulls and the skulls of these subspecies of wolves. However, genetic analyses indicated a much earlier domestication.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Positive Quiddity: Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Shrader Lawrence (born August 15, 1990) is an American actress. Her first major role was as a lead cast member on TBS’s The Bill Engvall Show (2007–2009) and she subsequently appeared in the independent films The Burning Plain (2008) and Winter’s Bone (2010), for which she received nominations for the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Satellite Award, Independent Spirit Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress. At age 20, she was the third-youngest actress ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. At age 22, her performance in the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook (2012) earned her the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, Satellite Award and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress, amongst other accolades, making her the youngest person ever to be nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress and the second-youngest Best Actress winner. At age 23, her performance in the comedy-drama American Hustle (2013) earned her nominations for the Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Lawrence is also known for playing Raven Darkholme / Mystique in the 2011 superhero-action film X-Men: First Class, a role she will reprise in X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. Beginning in 2012, she gained international fame for playing the leading heroine, Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games film series, an adaption of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy of novels. Her performance in the films garnered her notable critical praise and marked her as the highest-grossing action heroine to date. Lawrence's performances thus far have prompted Rolling Stone to call her "the most talented young actress in America." In 2013, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, ELLE Magazine named her the most powerful woman in the entertainment business, and she ranked No. 1 on AskMen’s list of Top 99 Most Desirable Women of the year.

Early Life
Jennifer Lawrence was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, to Karen (née Koch), a children's camp manager, and Gary, owner of construction company Lawrence & Associates. She has two older brothers, Ben and Blaine, and is of English, German, Irish, and Scottish descent. She acted in local theater and, by the age of 14, had decided to pursue an acting career, persuading her parents to take her to New York City to find a talent agent. Prior to finding success in Hollywood, Lawrence attended Kammerer Middle School in Louisville. She graduated from high school two years early with a 3.9 average, aiming at a career in acting. While growing up and in between acting, Lawrence served as an assistant nurse at the children's summer day camp that her mother ran.

2010-12 Breakthrough
Lawrence's lead role in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which won best picture at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, is often cited as a breakout performance for her. She portrays Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old in the Ozark Mountains who cares for her mentally ill mother and her younger brother and sister. The performance was highly acclaimed by film critics. David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, said "the movie would be unimaginable with anyone less charismatic playing Ree." Peter Travers from the Rolling Stone also spoke highly of her and noted that "her performance is more than acting, it's a gathering storm. Lawrence's eyes are a roadmap to what's tearing Ree apart." Receiving accolades for her performance, Lawrence was awarded the National Board of Review Award for Best Breakthrough Perfornace. She received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress on January 25, 2011, becoming the third-youngest actress to date to be nominated for the category, and also accrued nominations from the Golden Globe Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, and the Satellite Awards among others. Also in 2011, Lawrence co-starred in the independent film Like Crazy, which premiered at the 2011 Sundancre Film Festival.

In March 2011, Lawrence was offered the part of Katniss Everdeen in the film The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins. Despite being a fan of the books, Lawrence took three days to accept the role because she was initially intimidated by the size of the movie and how it might affect her career. She underwent extensive training to get in shape for the role, including stunt training, archery, rock and tree climbing, combat, running, parkour, pilates and yoga. The film was released on March 23, 2012, and set a record for the third-largest opening weekend, making a record-breaking $152.5 million in three days for a non-sequel film.

The success of the Hunger Games, and Lawrence as Katniss, was notable for breaking the male-centric nature of action films—prior to The Hungers Games, among the "top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star.". Forbes stated "No one who has seen The Hunger Games would question star Jennifer Lawrence's ability to play an action star."

Though the film generally received positive reviews, Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss Everdeen was the most highly praised, with Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter saying Lawrence embodies Katniss, "just as one might imagine her from the novel" and "anchors" the whole film "with impressive gravity and presence", ultimately calling her "the ideal screen actress." Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles Times stated that Lawrence is the "best possible performer as Katniss and is the key factor in making 'Hunger Games' an involving popular entertainment with strong narrative drive that holds our attention." Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert also agreed that "Lawrence is strong and convincing in the central role."

Acting Style
Donald Sutherland compared Lawrence to Laurence Olivier and also described her as an "exquisite and brilliant actor." Film director David O. Russell has praised her effortless acting that make her performances look easy. Lawrence stated "I've always studied people and been fascinated by their reactions and feelings. And I think that's the best acting class you can take – watching real people, listening to them and studying them."


Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Moviola Film Editor

Entrepeneurs Iwan & Mark Serrurier
They're not as renowned as Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, but their invention is every bit as significant--to film editors, at least. Most editors can't imagine a cutting room without a Moviola. Still, few of us know anything about the obscure father/son team, Iwan and Mark Serrurier, who masterminded the editor's indispensible tool. Iwan, who created the Moviola in 1924, and Mark, who took over in 1946, were humble men who derived satisfaction from work itself, not from public acclaim. They shared a deep sense of obligation toward their product and customers--an attitude that never brought fame or fortune during their lifetimes, but won them the respect of the film industry worldwide. In 1979, Mark agreed to accept a special Academy Award for Technical Achievement only after it was assured that his late father's name would also appear on the statue. The Oscar sat unceremoniously on Mark's kitchen table until his death from Alzheimer's disease on Valentine's Day 1988. "It's interesting that my grandfather invented the Moviola because he wasn't a moviegoer or an editor," says Steve Serrurier, the son of Mark and a successful set designer in his own right. "He and my father were structural engineers at the cutting edge of high tech. It's ironic that they realized such success due to the sheer simplicity of the Moviola. I guess that's the trick. It's easy to make something complicated, but it takes genius to create something so simple."

"Moviola seemed the best..."
Like a classic Horatio Alger story, the Serrurier saga is defined by ingenuity, hard work and persistence in the face of failure. A Dutch-born electrical engineer, Iwan Serrurier came to the U.S. at the turn of the century, intrigued by the technical advances taking place here. He settled with his wife in Pasadena where he made a hefty profit in the real estate boom, and later went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a draftsman. "He was bored and wanted to do something more creative with his engineering background," says Steve, who spent summers as a young boy working at Moviola Co. "Iwan got bit by the film bug. He took pictures like crazy. Look at all these..." he urges, opening his grandfather's bulging family album. Around 1917, Iwan got the idea that a home movie projector enclosed in a beautiful wooden cabinet, like a Victrola, would be welcomed by the public. He thought studio executives, in particular, would find it useful for viewing dailies in the comfort of their own offices. He built a rough model, recieved a patent and asked his five children to submit names for the new machine. Of the twenty or more names suggested over dinner one night, "Moviola" seemed the best. "It's a take off on Victrola," says Steve. "Remember, the name initially referred to the projector for the home, and had nothing to do with editing."

In 1923, Iwan manufactured about 15 of these machines. The idea was good, but a tough sell. It's main flaw was the exhorbitant price tag. Costing $600 in 1920 (roughly the equivalent of $20,000 today), who could afford it? Iwan made the rounds of the movie studios, but had little success generating enthusiasm. During 1923 and 1924, he sold only three machines. Finally, he met an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios who showed him how movies were being edited at the time. The pieces of film were studied over a light well, spliced and then run in the projection room, this process being repeated several times until the cut was acceptable. It was said that some cutters could move the film intermittantly by hand and see a moving picture. The editor at Fairbanks thought the Moviola might be useful for editing if it could be modified for use on the editing table. No problem. Over the weekend, Iwan"roughed together" an editing machine. He removed the projection lens and lamp house, turned the machine upside down and attached a viewing lens. He didn't bother to adapt a motor, but simply hooked a hand crank to the intermittant movement, which he had brilliantly adapted from a clock. It was a crude mechanism designed purely to determine whether it was something editors could use. The editors at Fairbanks loved it! In 1924, Iwan sold his first editing machine to Douglas Fairbanks Studios for $125 (approximately $4,500 today). "when you stripped the machine of its gorgeous wood cabinetry, the cost came down quite a bit," explains Steve.

Success and Worldwide Recognition
Overnight, the editing community embraced the Moviola. Early customers included Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, Charles Chaplin Studios, Buster Keaton Productions, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, and MGM. The first dozen machines were made from mechanisms on hand. When demand continued, Iwan designed the Moviola Midget, powered by a sewing machine motor. By 1928, the market for editing machines was pretty well saturated, but the advent of sound changed that quickly. In July, Moviola Co. located in the rear of an apartment on Gordon Street in Hollywood, on block from Columbia Pictures. Business grew steadily, and many machines were sold to firms in foreign countries. Iwan ran the entire operation with meager office staff of three. Sales, correspondence, purchasing and production occupied his daytime hours/ In the evenings, he designed new products and improved the earlier ones. He built sound heads for optical sound (Movietone); turntables for disc recordings (Vitaphone); viewers for 16mm, 35mm, and the early 65m and 70mm films; a projector; synchronizers; rewinders; sound readers; and, in 1938, preview machines. World War II brought a sharp increase in demand for Moviola machines to fill military and propaganda needs. Thanks to the Moviola, Americans were kept abreast of the latest war developments. Boxes containing a tiny editing device and splicing machine were sent overseas in droves. Journalists shot, processed and edited their films on location, sending the finished result backto the United States--newsreels.

Moviola Helped Define the Industry
Young Mark Serrurier, meanwhile, had inherited his father's passion for engineering and was busy garnering his own accomplishments. After graduating from Caltech, he directed the design of the dome and structural parts of the 200 inch Palomar Telescope. This was a major coup and his "Serrurier truss" has been used on every reflector telescope built since. During World War II, he worked on the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Van Karmen wind tunnel for testing jet aircraft engines. When the war ended in 1945, Mark reported to duty of another sort. "as the oldest son in a European family, he inherited Moviola," offers Steve, who has spent the past several months going through his father's papers. As newly appointed president of the company, Mark set out to upgrade the Moviola. He redesigned it with new castings and patterns, and developed a more effective manufacturing process. It was essentially the same machine, only better. The most visible change: Moviola was now painted green instead of black. Competitors began springing up in Hollywood, New York, and England, but none could touch the Moviola. The newer mechanisms were complicated to operate and difficult to maintain. "The business took off so quickly that nobody could ever catch up. Besides," adds Steve, "the name--Moviola--was so right. Owning a Westrex or Acmeola simply wasn't the same."

Success and Competition Go Hand In Hand

By 1949, Moviola had become a household word. Iwan, who had retired and was suffering from diabetes, was delighted when Webster's called to request the correct definition of Moviola for its dictionary. Moviola also played a key role in the murder mystery film Turmoil starring Hugo Haas, and was mentioned regularly in comic strips from coast to coast. Despite a burgeoning business, Mark maintained a hands-on, personalized approach. He devoted as much time and energy to Moviola Co. as had his father. "He and my grandfather really enjoyed the business," observes Steve. "They stayed in it for years. Most people start a company, pump it up to its maximum and sell it--not them." A two-year back order not withstanding, Mark and his crew of 75 continued to build the machines by hand--one a day, 30 a month. After several years, he learned to increase his output to 50 a month, but that was the most he could produce without sacrificing quality. "If someone wanted a moviola, he'd say, 'Sign here. It will be delivered in the year 1950' or whenever. Sales were $2 million a year, but he had $4 million in orders on the books." Moviolas were in short supply, but Mark went out of his way to make them available. He never refused a customer for lack of money. He told young editors who were ambitious but poor, "Pay me when you can." If a machine was on back order--as it inevitably was--he would rent one to a customers at a favorable price until theirs was ready. "My father knew he was the only game in town," recalls Steve, "but he never took advantage or used it over people." All the while, Mark continued to work on new developments. He designed a preview machine for Walt Disney that was specifically suited for the unique demands of animation. He developed a three-headed machine for Desi Arnaz that sped up the editing process on television shows like I Love
Lucy and Our Miss Brooks.

Full Circle
Although Moviola Co. appeared indomitable, it was not immune to the unrest that swept the nation during the Sixties. To Mark's deep disappointment, the men in his shop, whom he had supported and worked beside for years, voted to bring in a union in 1965. "My father took it as a very personal loss because his men had voted him down," recalls Steve. "He had a heart attack shortly after." Weakened by his heart condition, Mark no longer had the strength to supervise the day-to-day details of running the company. In 1966, he sold it to Magnasync for $3 million. The new owners promptly doubled production, and realized their investment within a year. Despite retirement, Mark's ingenuity knew no bounds. He made use of his engineering background when helping son Steve design award-winning floats for the famed Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Together, they created some of the most structurally advanced floats ever seen, equipped with working roller coasters and other elaborate mechanisms. Toward the end, Mark's life came full circle. He returned to engineering--always his first love, and he developed a close working relationship with his son, similar to the one he had shared with his own father. He recieved acknowledgement from his peers--an Academy Award and a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Today, Moviola is owned by J & R Film Company, but the Serrurier legacy thrives. The fact that Moviola remains the worldwide film editing standard, 63 years after its introduction, will forever attest to the Serrurier genius.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

AK-47 Inventor Kalashnikov Dies

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (10 November 1919 – 23 December 2013) was a Russian general and small arms designer, most famous for developing the AK-47 assault rifle and its improvements, AKM and AK-74, as well as the PK machine gun.

Kalashnikov was, according to himself, a self-taught tinkerer who combined innate mechanical skills with the study of weaponry to design arms that achieved battlefield ubiquity. Even though Kalashnikov felt sorrow at the weapons' uncontrolled distribution, he took pride in his inventions and in their reputation for reliability, emphasizing that his rifle is "a weapon of defense" and "not a weapon for offense".

Early Life

Kalashnikov was born in Kurya, Altai Krai, Russian SFSR, to Aleksandra Frolovna Kalashnikova (née Kaverina) and Timofey Aleksandrovich Kalashnikov. In 1930, his father and most of his family were deprived of property and deported to the village of Nizhnyaya Mokhovaya, Tomsk Oblast. In his youth, Mikhail suffered from various illnesses and was on the verge of death at age six. He was attracted to all kinds of machinery, but also wrote poetry, dreaming of becoming a poet. He went on to write six books and continued to write poetry all of his life. Kalashnikov's parents were peasants, but, after deportation to Tomsk Oblast, had to combine farming with hunting, and thus Mikhail frequently used his father's rifle in his teens. Kalashnikov continued hunting into his 90s

After completing seventh grade, Mikhail, with his stepfather's permission, left his family and returned to Kurya, hitchhiking for nearly 1000 km. In Kurya he found a job in mechanics at a tractor station and developed a passion for weaponry. In 1938, he was conscripted into the Red Army. Because of his small size and engineering skills he was assigned as a tank mechanic, and later became a tank commander. While training, he made his first inventions, which concerned not only tanks, but also small weapons, and was personally awarded a wrist watch by Georgy Zhukov. Kalashnikov served on the T-34s of the 24th Tank Regiment, 108th Tank Division stationed in Stryi before the regiment retreated after the Battle of Brody in June 1941. He was wounded in combat in the Battle of Bryansk in October 1941 and hospitalized until April 1942. While in the hospital, he overheard some fellow soldiers complaining about the Soviet rifles of the time.

Seeing the drawbacks of the standard infantry weapons at the time, he decided to construct a new rifle for the Soviet military. During this time Kalashnikov began designing a submachine gun. Although his first submachine gun design was not accepted into service, his talent as a designer was noticed. From 1942 onwards Kalashnikov was assigned to the Central Scientific-developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army.

In 1944, he designed a gas-operated carbine for the new 7.62x39 mm cartridge. This weapon, influenced by the M1 Garand rifle, lost out to the new Simonov carbine which would be eventually adopted as the SKS; but it became a basis for his entry in an assault rifle competition in 1946.

His winning entry, the "Mikhtim" (so named by taking the first letters of his name and patronymic, Mikhail Timofeyevich) became the prototype for the development of a family of prototype rifles. This process culminated in 1947, when he designed the AK-47 (standing for Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947). In 1949, the AK-47 became the standard issue assault rifle of the Soviet Army and went on to become Kalashnikov's most famous invention. While developing his first assault rifles, Kalashnikov competed with two much more experienced weapon designers, Vasily Degtyaryov and Georgy Shpagin, who both accepted the superiority of the AK-47. Kalashnikov named Alexandr Zaitsev and Vladimir Deikin as his major collaborators during those years.

                                                              Kalashnikov in  1949

Later Career
From 1949, Mikhail Kalashnikov lived and worked in Izhevsk, Udmurtia. He held a degree of Doctor of Technical Sciences (1971) and was a member of 16 academies.

Over the course of his career, he evolved the basic design into a weapons family. The AKM (Kalashnikov modernized assault rifle) first appeared in 1963, was lighter and cheaper to manufacture owing to the use of a stamped steel receiver (in place of the AK47's milled steel receiver), and contained detail improvements such as a re-shaped stock and muzzle compensator. From the AKM he developed a squad automatic weapon variant, known as the RPK (Kalashnikov light machine gun).

He also developed the general-purpose PK machine gun (Kalashnikov machine gun), which used the more powerful 7.62x54R cartridge of the Mosin-Nagant rifle. It is cartridge belt-fed, not magazine-fed, as it is intended to provide heavy sustained fire from a tripod mount, or be used as a light, bipod-mounted weapon. The common characteristics of all these weapons are simple design, ruggedness and ease of maintenance in all operating conditions.

Approximately 100 million AK-47 assault rifles had been produced by 2009, and about half of them are counterfeit, manufactured at a rate of about a million per year. Izhmash, the official manufacturer of AK-47 in Russia, did not patent the weapon until 1997, and in 2006 accounted for only 10% of the world's production. Kalashnikov himself claimed he was always motivated by service to his country rather than money, and made no direct profit from weapon production. He did however own 30% of a German company Marken Marketing International (MMI) run by his grandson Igor. The company revamps trademarks and produces merchandise carrying the Kalashnikov name, such as vodka, umbrellas and knives. One of the items is a knife named for the AK-74.

During a visit to the United States in the early 2000s, Kalashnikov was invited to tour a Virginia holding site for the forthcoming American Wartime Museum. The former tanker Kalashnikov became visibly moved at the sight of his old tank in action, painted with his name in Cyrillic.

On 17 November 2013, Kalashnikov was hospitalized in an Udmurtian medical facility. He died on 23 December 2013 at a hospital after a prolonged illness.
Weapon Designs
During his career, Kalashnikov designed about 150 models of small weapons. The most famous of them are:
  • AK-47
  • AKM
  • AK-74 / AKS-74U / AK-74M / AKS-74
  • AK-101 / AK-102
  • AK-103 / AK-104
  • AK-105
  • AK-12
  • RPK / RPK-74
  • PK / PKM / PKP
  • Saiga semi-automatic rifle

                                                      Kalashnikov at the Kremlin, 2009
  • "I'm proud of my invention, but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists ... I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower."
  • "Blame the Nazi Germans for making me become a gun designer ... I always wanted to construct agriculture machinery."
  • "I created a weapon to defend the borders of my motherland. It's not my fault that it's being used where it shouldn't be. The politicians are more to blame for this."
  • "When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed' ... So this has been my lifetime motto – I have been creating weapons to defend the borders of my fatherland, to be simple and reliable."
  • "I sleep well. It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence."

Friday, December 27, 2013

Brief History of the Compact Disc

Compact disc, or CD for short, is a digital optical, disc data storage format. The format was originally developed to store and play back sound recordings only (CD-DA), but was later adapted for storage of data (CD-ROM). Several other formats were further derived from these, including write-once audio and data storage (CD-R), rewritable media (CD-RW), Video Compact Disc (VCD), Super Video Compact Disc (SVCD), Photo CD, PictureCD, CD-i, and Enhanced Music CD. Audio CDs and audio CD players have been commercially available since October 1982.

Standard CDs have a diameter of 120 millimetres (4.7 in) and can hold up to 80 minutes of uncompressed audio or 700 MiB (actually about 703 MiB or 737 MB) of data. The Mini CD has various diameters ranging from 60 to 80 millimetres (2.4 to 3.1 in); they are sometimes used for CD singles, storing up to 24 minutes of audio or delivering device drivers.

At the time of the technology's introduction it had much greater capacity than computer hard drives common at the time. The reverse is now true, with hard drives far exceeding the capacity of CDs.

In 2004, worldwide sales of CD audio, CD-ROM, and CD-R reached about 30 billion discs. By 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide. Compact discs are increasingly being replaced or supplemented by other forms of digital distribution and storage, such as downloading and flash drives, with audio CD sales dropping nearly 50% from their peak in 2000.

Further Development and Decline
The CD was planned to be the successor of the gramaphone record for playing music, rather than primarily as a data storage medium. From its origins as a musical format, CDs have grown to encompass other applications. In June 1985, the computer-readable CD-ROM (read-only memory) and, in 1990, CD-Recordable were introduced, also developed by both Sony and Philips. Recordable CDs are an alternative to tape for recording music and copying music albums without defects introduced in compression used in other digital recording methods. Other newer video formats such as DVD and Blu-ray use the same physical geometry as CD, and most DVD and Blu-ray players are backward compatible with Audio CD.

By the early 2000s, the CD had largely replaced the audio cassette player as standard equipment in new automobiles, with 2010 being the final model year for any car in the US to have a factory-equipped cassette player. With the increasing popularity of portable digital audio players and solid state music storage, CD players are being phased out of automobiles in favor of minijack auxiliary inputs and connections to USB devices.

Meanwhile, with the advent and popularity of digital audio formats, such as the 256 kbit m4a, sales of CDs began dropping in the 2000s. For example, during the eight-year period ending in 2008, despite overall growth in music sales and one anomalous year of increase, major-label CD sales declined overall by 20% although independent and DIY music sales may be tracking better according to figures released March 30, 2009 and CDs still sell greatly nonetheless.

CDs are susceptible to damage during handling and from environmental exposure. Pits are much closer to the label side of a disc, enabling defects and contaminants on the clear side to be out of focus during playback. Consequently, CDs are more likely to suffer damage on the label side of the disc. Scratches on the clear side can be repaired by refilling them with similar refractive plastic, or by careful polishing. The edges of CDs are sometimes incompletely sealed, allowing gases and liquids to corrode the metal reflective layer and to interfere with the focus of the laser on the pits. The fungi Geotrichum candidum, found in Belize, has been found to consume the polycarbonate plastic and aluminium found in CD's.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Absurdly Clever Radio: "Easy Aces"

Easy Aces, a long-running American serial radio comedy (1930–1945), was trademarked by the low-keyed drollery of creator and writer Goodman Ace and his wife, Jane, as an urbane, put-upon realtor and his malaprop-prone wife. A 15-minute program, airing as often as five times a week, Easy Aces wasn't quite the ratings smash that such concurrent 15-minute serial comedies as Amos ;’n’ Andy, The Goldbergs or Vic and Sade were. But its unobtrusive, conversational, and clever style, and the cheerful absurdism of its storylines, built a loyal enough audience of listeners and critics alike to keep it on the air for 15 years.
Accident of Circumstance

Goodman Ace (b. Goodman Aiskowitz, 1899–1982) was a film critic for the Journal Post in his native Kansas City. On radio station KMBC, he read comic strips to children on Sunday mornings and reviewed films on Friday evenings. One night in 1930, the cast of the 15-minute show that followed his slot failed to show up, and Ace found himself having to fill in the time. His wife, Jane (b. Jane Epstein, 1897–1974), had accompanied him to the studio that night, and the two engaged in an impromptu chat about their weekend bridge game. This brought such a favorable response that the station invited Ace to create a domestic comedy---even though neither of the couple had ever really acted before.

At first, according to radio historian John Dunning (in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio), the show oriented entirely around the couple's bridge playing, and nearly died the same way, when Jane Ace was said to have lost her temper over her husband's constant needling of her style of play, and threatened to quit the show entirely. Ace revamped the show into "a more universally based domestic comedy revolving around Jane's improbable situations and impossible turns of phrase." The result was one of radio's most respected comedies, going on to a fifteen-year air life despite its never being a ratings blockbuster. It was the first KMBC program to go on to become a network radio show.

Easy Aces
moved to WBBM Chicago in 1930 on a trial basis; the Aces themselves launched a write-in appeal to test the size of their audience and thousands of letters convinced original sponsor Lavoris to renew the deal for 1932-33. (A typical Ace maneuver, according to Dunning, was to buy trade publication ad space poking fun at the show's modest rating: after all, a typical Ace ad would say, the ratings were polled by telephone and the Easy Aces audience never answered the phone while the show was on.) The program began airing on the CBS network in March 1932. That summer, the Aces sought New York backing and found it in the Blackett, Sample and Huimmert agency headed by Frank Hummert, soon to become radio's top soap opera producer with his wife Anne but then producing various other programs.

Hummert liked the Aces' style and the show's low overhead and put them on CBS as often as four times weekly, as an afternoon offering, before Anacin (marketed at that time by American Home Products’ Whitehall Pharmaceutical division) moved them to 7 p.m. in 1935---right up against Amos 'n' Andy. They couldn't possibly out-rate that hit, but they could and did build a loyal audience of their own. The show moved to the NBC Blue Network and a 7:30 p.m. time slot Mondays and Wednesdays, beginning in 1935, before returning to CBS in 1942, holding the same time slot on Wednesdays and Fridays. The show became a half-hour entry one night a week from 1943 through January 1945. It ended only when Goodman Ace and Anacin had a disagreement over a musical bridge in one of the episodes; he, in turn, criticized their use of cardboard packaging instead of tin for their headache tablets, calling it a "gyp").

In 1934 the couple was signed by Educational Pictures to do Easy Aces two reel comedies. Dumb Luck was released 18 January 1935, with the Aces reprising their radio roles. In 1936-37, the "Easy Aces" narrated a series of one-reel comic travelogues for the Van Beuren Corporation, released thru RKO Radio Pictures.

Easy Aces
storylines often ran several episodes, though there were many single-episode stories, and the show was performed live on the air but in an isolated studio, without an audience, which made perfect sense considering its conversational style. Goodman Ace wrote the show's scripts and played the exasperated but loving husband of Jane Ace as his deceptively scatterbrained, language-molesting, more than periodically meddlesome wife. (Like many radio couples of the day, the Aces used their real names on the air, though no one ever addressed Ace by his first name---it was always Ace---and Jane chose the maiden name of Sherwood for her on-air character.)
There were no sound effects beyond the almost ambient-like playing of normal life sounds, and the Aces' inexperience as actors probably worked in their favour: they simply played as though they were allowing listeners to eavesdrop on their own real-life conversations, allowing Easy Aces listeners more than those of many shows to believe the Aces really could have been their own unusual neighbours. The couple worked from a card table with a microphone sunk in its center, feeling it was easier to talk to each other in this manner rather than standing at a microphone. In addition, as Arthur Frank Wertheim noted in his book Radio Comedy, Ace shunned belly laughs in favour of consistent character humour. "A lot of times, on the air," Wertheim quoted Ace as saying, "I noticed comics in a sketch do a joke that destroys the character because it gets a big laugh."

                                                  Jane and Goodman Ace in 1939

The cast included Mary Hunter as best friend and boarder Marge; Paul Stewart as ne'er-do-well brother-in-law Johnny; Martin Gabel as Neil Williams, a newspaper reporter and Marge's love interest; Helene Dumas as Southern maid Laura; Ken Roberts as Cokie, an orphaned young adult "adopted" by the Aces; Ann Thomas as Ace's secretary; Ethel Blume as the Aces' niece, Betty; Alfred Ruyder (remembered best as Sammy on another old-time radio mainstay, The Goldbergs) as Betty's husband, Carl Neff; Peggy Allenby as Mrs. Benton, a nosy, gossipy neighbour who turned up now and then to leave openings for Jane to fret and gnash over imagined slights or indiscretions; and, Truman Bradley and Ford Bond as their announcers. When Easy Aces relocated from Chicago to New York, the actor who played Marge's husband did not move along with the rest of the cast; Ace wrote him out of the script with a divorce for the couple and a new boyfriend for Marge. He then received a letter from an extremely loyal fan who said that since he did not believe in divorce, he would stop listening to the show unless Marge's ex-husband was written out of the story as dead.

They made it seem as natural as tying their shoes: Ace himself prodded his network to build set tables with microphones embedded beneath them, not in front of or above them, the better to ease the prospect of mike fright among their co-performers and allow them to sound like themselves and not actors. Further along that line, Ace refused to rehearse an episode more than once, the better to avoid destroying the spontaneity that made the show work as it did.

"I am his awfully-wedded wife"

That and almost everything else could be forgotten amidst Jane Ace's linguistic mayhem, much of it provided by her wry husband's scripts and enough improvised by her. (Mary Hunter's real laughter, at Jane's malaprops or Ace's arch barbs, was practically the show's laugh track, years before anyone ever thought of using canned laughter.) Known as often as not as "Jane-isms," the better remembered of her twisted turns of phrase were more than a match for Gracie Allen’s equally celebrated illogical logic, anticipating such later word and context manglers as Jimmy Durante, Lou Costello, Phil Harris and, especially, All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The famed Jane-isms included:
    • Congress is back in season.
  • You could have knocked me down with a fender.

  • Up at the crank of dawn.

  • Time wounds all heels.

  • Now, there's no use crying over spoiled milk.

  • I'm completely uninhabited

  • .
  • Seems like only a year ago they were married nine years!

  • I am his awfully-wedded wife.

  • He blew up higher than a hall.

  • I look like the wrath of grapes!

  • I wasn't under the impersonation you meant me!

  • He shot out of here like a bat out of a belfry.

  • I'm sitting on pins and cushions.

  • The coffee will be ready in a jitney.

  • This hangnail expression...

  • I don't drink, I'm a totalitarian.

  • We'll be together like Simonized twins.

  • Well, you've got to take the bitter with the better.

  • Jane Ace's malaprops were less limited in their word play than the Mrs. Malaprop of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. She was scripted as having a knack for making right the muddled situations she made muddled in the first place, by stumbling into the solutions right before her original muddling might have blown everything to smithereens. Some critics such as the New York Herald-Tribune's John Crosby noted her language molestation betrayed a "crazy like a fox" intelligence with its own logical illogic, but as Crosby himself said, "There are a lot of Malaprops in radio but none of them scrambles a cliché quite so skillfully as Jane."

    Cheerful Absurdity
    The show's storylines, crafted to allow for steady unfurling of absurdities, included dealing with deadbeat brother-in-law Johnny falling into work as a private investigator; accidentally discovering a potential boxing champion when first thinking about adopting an orphan; losing (in a crooked politician's crooked deal) and then regaining Ace's real estate business; Jane becoming a professional bridge player (as the instructor's living example of how not to play bridge!); Jane's misguided attempts to help her husband's business affairs (mostly under the influence of a domineering woman who had manipulated her husband's business success); and, and various Jane-instigated romantic mishaps. (Jane: "Well, you could have knocked me over with a fender"; Ace, deadpan: "There's an idea"). There were frequent allusions to playing bridge, as well, even when the game wasn't a storyline centerpiece; this may have been the Aces' own nod of thanks to the subject that provoked the show's creation in the first place.

    Even this gently droll show couldn't avoid controversy. At one point, Easy Aces lost its longtime sponsor, Anacin, after a company representative objected to a musical interlude. (The Aces at one point used small music themes, usually spun off a line of dialogue toward the end of the previous scene.) Ace rejoined by suggesting he didn't like Anacin switching from small tins to small cardboard boxes to package its aspirin. "They sent me a two-word answer: 'you're fired'," Ace remembered in a radio interview many years later.

    Easy Aces
    survives with many of its best episodes intact thanks to a bit of foresight on the Aces' part. They owned the rights from the beginning, recorded ("transcribed," in the day's vernacular) just about all its episodes, and sold the syndication rights to over three hundred episodes from 1937-1941 to the Frederick Ziv Company, a Cincinnati-based distribution firm (and later producers of television shows like Bat Masterson), in 1945.
    These episodes became a bigger ratings hit in syndicated play than when the Aces and cast performed them originally. They are the Easy Aces episodes long since available to old-time radio collectors, in above-average sound condition, but minus their commercial spots, edited away the better to foster future, differently-sponsored airings. (The Library of Congress is believed to have perhaps one or two hundred more Easy Aces episodes in its collection as well.)

    Jane Ace all but retired from public life (taking a very brief turn as what her husband called "a comedienne now making her come-down as a disc jockey" in the early 1950s) after Easy Aces was laid to rest at long last. The Aces were hired as NBC Radio Monitor "Communicators" in 1955; they were given a spot just after Dave Garroway. The couple was also signed to an NBC Radio show for women called Weekday that went on the air not long after Monitor's debut. Weekday was aired Monday through Friday. They also went into commercial work.

    Goodman Ace enjoyed a second career as a writer. He wrote for radio (most notably, as head writer for Tallulah Bankhead’s weekly variety show, The Big Show, but also for Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, Danny Kaye, and others), for television (most notably, for Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Perry Como, Robert Q. Lewis, and Bob Newhart), and as a weekly columnist for Saturday Review (formerly The Saturday Review of Literature). Those columns eventually yielded three anthologies: The Book of Little Knowledge: More Than You Want to Know About Television, The Fine Art of Hypochondria, or How Are You and The Better of Goodman Ace.

    But it was Easy Aces that made its co-stars and writer's name forever. Appropriately, the show and the Aces were inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.

    A Canadian television sitcom, The Trouble with Tracy, was adapted from the Easy Aces scripts in the early 1970s. Through a variety of factors, that show has been labelled by some television critics as one of the worst TV comedies ever produced.

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    Afterword by the Blog Author

    The two-reel picture Dumb Luck, released in January of 1935, interests me. I suspect this was an influence on William Powell and Myrna Loy in their performances as the married couple Nick and Nora Charles in a series of very successful Thin Man movies.

    Nor is it surprising that Goodman Ace’s writing talents made it into the television age. Jane’s commercial messages made it all the way into 1960s radio, especially when introduced by a frequent radio tag line from Easy Aces, "Isn’t that awful?"

    There’s an excellent and rather long article about Easy Aces (including a very long list of the show's funny malapropisms) written by Walter Beaupre available on line at


    Wednesday, December 25, 2013

    "Pat" Weaver -- TV's Greatest Executive

    Sylvester Barnabee "Pat" Weaver (December 21, 1908 – March 15, 2002) was an American radio advertising executive, who became president of NBC between 1953 and 1955. He has been credited with reshaping commercial broadcasting's format and philosophy as radio gave way to television as America's dominant home entertainment. His daughter is actress Sigourney Weaver.

    Personal Life
    Weaver was born Sylvester Barnabee Weaver in Los Angeles, California, the son of Eleanor Isabel (née Dixon) and Sylvester Laflin Weaver (1876–1958). He was of Scottish descent (possibly Clan MacFarlane), as well as of Ulster Scots and early New England ancestry. He was a great-great-grandson of Charles Laflin, a gunpowder manufacturer, who came to America in 1740 from Ulster, Ireland, settling at Oxford, Worcester County, Massachusetts. Charles Laflin and his family were living at Oxford, Massachusetts, when he purchased land in 1749 in the Southern (South-) village (-wick) part of the town of Westfield, Massachusetts. He was the brother of comedian Doodles Weaver. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1930, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He also served in the United States Navy from 1942 through 1945.

    He married Elizabeth Inglis in 1942. She was born Desiree Mary Lucy Hawkins on July 10, 1913 in Colchester, Essex, England; and died on August 25, 2007 in Santa Barbara, California. She made her screen debut in Borrowed Clothes (1934) as well as having a number of small parts in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s's early movies. She reached the high point of her career when she co-starred with Bette Davis in William Wyler’s movie The Letter. She retired from acting when she married in 1942. The couple were the parents of two children; Trajan Victor Charles and Sigourney (born Susan Alexandra). Weaver also appeared with his daughter Sigourney in the sci-fi film Aliens.


    Weaver worked for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency during the golden age of radio. In the mid-1930s he produced Fred Allen’s's Town Hall Tonight radio show, and he then supervised all the agency's radio programming. NBC hired him in 1949 to challenge the CBS network's programming lead.
    At NBC, Weaver established many operating practices that became standard for network television. He introduced the practice of networks producing their own television programming, then selling advertising time during the broadcasts. Prior to that, ad agencies usually created each show for a particular client. Because commercial announcements could now more easily be sold to more than one company sponsor for each program, a single advertiser pulling out would not necessarily threaten a program.

    Weaver created Today in 1952, followed by Tonight Starring Steve Allen (1954), Home (1954) with Arlene Francis and Wide Wide World (1955), hosted by Dave Garroway.

    He believed so deeply that broadcasting should educate as well as entertain that he typically required NBC shows to include at least one sophisticated cultural reference or performance per installment—including a segment of a Verdi opera adapted to the comic style of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s groundbreaking Your Show of Shows.

    Weaver did not ignore NBC Radio, either. In 1955, as network radio was dying, Weaver gave it one of the greatest adrenaline kicks in its history with NBC Monitor, a weekend-long magazine-style programming block that featured an array of news, music, comedy, drama, sports, and anything that could be broadcast within magazine style, with rotating advertisers and some of the most memorable names in broadcast journalism, entertainment and sports.

    He was the developer of the magazine style of advertising which was very favorable towards the Networks. The sponsors would purchase blocks of time (typically one to two minutes) in a show, rather than sponsor an entire show. This style suited the networks. Like a magazine, a television network could now control what advertisements were being broadcast and no one advertiser could own exclusive rights to a particular show.

    NBC Monitor
    long outlived Weaver's tenure running the network. Following disputes with chieftain David Sarnoff, Weaver departed. His ideas were either too expensive or too highbrow for company tastes. His successors (first, Sarnoff's son, Robert; then, Robert Kintner) standardized the network's programming
    practices with far less of the ambitiousness that characterized the Weaver years.

    In 1960, years after leaving NBC, Weaver displayed his frustration with the network in an article in the Sunday Denver Post. What once was the "Golden Age" of television in the early 1950s, slowly diminished by the end of the decade into the early 1960s when he claimed networks made a series of bad decisions.
    In the article he noted management problems within NBC, CBS and ABC: "Television has gone from about a dozen forms to just two-news shows and the Hollywood stories. The blame lies in the management of NBC, CBS and ABC. Management doesn't give the people what they deserve. I don't see any hope in the system as it is."

    He died in 2002 at his home in Santa Barbara, California at the age of 93.

    Further Reading
    • Currey, Josiah Seymour. Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, a Century of Marvelous Growth, Volume 5 Chicago. Publisher: Clarke Publishing Company, 1912.
    • Cutter, William Richard. New England families, genealogical and memorial: a record of the achievements of her people in the making of commonwealths and the founding of a nation, Volume 3 Publisher: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1913.
    • Hart, Dennis. Monitor (Take 2) Publisher: iUniverse, 2003
    • Reed, William Field. The descendants of Thomas Durfee of Portsmouth, R.I. Publisher: Washington, D.C., Gibson Bros., Printers. 1900


    Tuesday, December 24, 2013

    A Splendid Santa Claus Biography

    Introduction by the Blog Author
    L. Frank Baum wrote 14 books about the magical land of Oz. He also wrote short stories and poems. But one of his best books is a biography of Santa Claus. Two chapters are particularly brilliant – the meeting of the forest spirits to vote on whether or not to bestow the Mantle of Immortality on Claus, and the chapter narrating the great spiritual battle between good and evil. Below are two Amazon.com reviews of Baum’s
    The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

    + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
    How the legend got started By A Customer on June 6, 1998
    Four Stars Format: Paperback

    The author of The Wizard of Oz deserves consideration and respect for the delightful fantasies he has provided the world. This syrupy recreation of Santa's youth, manhood and ultimate immortality is quaintly charming--if you are young at heart. There are several serious issues mentioned: if we are to die, why are we born at all? No outright religion is preached, but this is Baum's philosophy: "Everything perishes except the world itself and its keepers...but while life lasts, everything on earth has its use. The wise seek ways to be helpful to the world, for the helpful ones are sure to live again."

    This book recounts how an orphan named Claus found his true calling--to bring joy to the children of the world. Every man has his own mission, but Claus' dilemma is the morality of giving gifts to rich children, when there are so many who are poor. One chapter deals with the age-old battle between Good and Evil.
    Baum describes how each custom associated with the secular celebration of Christmas came into existence--without reference to the Nativity. Baum truly loved children, as he dedicated most of his writing to their enjoyment. He concludes about Sants Claus: "No one..was so greatly beloved as Santa Claus, because none other was so unselfish as to devote hismelf to making others happy. For a generous deed....spreads and leaves its mark on all nature and endures through many generations." A sentimental tale for children of all ages.

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    A magical tale about the life of Santa Claus By A customer on December 6, 1997
    Five Stars Format: Paperback

    Santa Claus. Two simple words that can make most children smile. L. Frank Baum once again has touched the spirits of many with his tale based on the legendary Santa Claus. I remember it being read to me by my father as a young child. As an adult, it is still magical with every reading. The story tells the tale of an abandoned baby in the woods who was adopted and raised by fairies in their forest. As Claus, a mortal, grows up among the fairies and other fascinating immortals, he learns all of their ways and secrets. When he is old enough, the Great Ak takes Claus on a journey to see how humans really live. After the trip, Claus leaves the fairy's forest to live on his own, for he has decided to try and help mankind. The first toy, was a cat that he had whittled, and painted to look real. It was given to a young, lost boy to comfort him. With this gift, and the help of his immortal friends, Claus began his legend of unselfish giving. Over the years, he was named a saint by the many who he touched. There are beautiful stories and illustrations of his gift-making and giving, along with those of the obstacles that he faced, including a fierce battle between good and evil immortals. From his adoption, to the night when Santa Claus became immortal, the book comes to life in the imagination. It is a tale that will touch children, as well as adults - perfect for nighttime reading during the holidays. As the holidays approach, I again look forward to losing myself in the spirit and magic,of Santa Claus.


    Monday, December 23, 2013

    The Disgusting Human Botfly

    The human botfly, Dermatobia hominis
    , is one of several species of fly the larvae of which parasitise humans (in addition to a wide range of other animals, including other primates). It is also known as the torsalo or American warble fly, even though the warble fly is in the genus Hypoderma and not Dermatobia and is a parasite on cattle and deer instead of humans. 
                                                                 adult female human botfly

    Dermatobia fly eggs have been shown to be vectored by over 40 species of mosquitoes and muscoid flies, as well as one species of tick; the female captures the mosquito and attaches its eggs to its body, then releases it. Either the eggs hatch while the mosquito is feeding and the larvae use the mosquito bite area as the entry point, or the eggs simply drop off the muscoid fly when it lands on the skin. The larvae develop inside the subcutaneous layers, and after approximately eight weeks, they drop out to pupate for at least a week, typically in the soil. The adults are large flies resembling bumblebees. They are easily recognized because they lack mouthparts (as is true of other Oestrid flies).
                                                               Human botfly larva (red arrow
                                                                      points to the mouth)

    This species is native to the Americas from Southeastern Mexico (beginning in central Veracruz) to northern Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica, though it is not abundant enough (nor harmful enough) ever to attain true pest status. Since the fly larvae can survive the entire eight-week development only if the wound does not become infected, it is rare for patients to experience infections unless they kill the larva without removing it completely. It is even possible that the fly larva may itself produce antibiotic secretions that help prevent infection while it is feeding.

    Recently, physicians have discovered that venom extractor syringes can remove larvae with ease at any stage of growth. As these devices are a common component of first-aid kits, this is an effective and easily accessible solution.

    A larva has been successfully removed by first applying several coats of nail polish to the area of the larva's entrance, weakening it by partial asphyxiation.

    Covering the location with adhesive tape would also result in partial asphyxiation and weakening of the larva, but is not recommended because the larva's breathing tube is fragile and would be broken during the removal of the tape, leaving most of the larva behind.

    The easiest and most effective way to remove botfly larvae is to apply petroleum jelly over the location, which prevents air from reaching the larva, suffocating it. It can then be removed with tweezers safely after a day.

    Oral use of ivermectin, an antiparasitic avermectin medicine, has proved to be an effective and non invasive treatment that leads to the spontaneous emigration of the larva. This is especially important for cases where the larva is located at inaccessible places like inside the inner canthus of the eye.


    Sunday, December 22, 2013

    Best Analyses of 2008 Crash

    Best Books Analyzing the Crash of 2008
    An introduction by the blog author

    There are two outstanding books about the financial meltdown of 2007. One of them is Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. Although not greatly emphasized in this book, the first three pages of chapter seven talk about Texas Senator Phil Gramm and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a very major legal change which unleashed the crash of 2008. Reckless Endangerment provides us with a sound legalistic look at what went wrong, what laws were foolishly changed, and who the corporate crooks were that caused this disaster. This book represents sound investigative journalism.

    But there’s another, better book that came out late in 2007 –-before the crash – and which explained the instruments that made the crash possible. It’s a better book because nothing has been done to prevent these instruments from precipitating another such crash. The better book is A Demon of Our Own Design by Richard Bookstaber, himself a Wall Street insider heavily involved in the design and modification of derivative instruments in the 1980s and 1990s. Bookstaber spent ten years, from 1997 to 2007, writing his analysis and then publishing it. His analysis was profoundly sound and it was available before the crash itself revealed that he was right.
    Here is an outstanding and detailed book review of his published research.
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    A Demon of Our Own Design
    by Richard Bookstaber Customer Book Review on Amazon.com
    Most Helpful Customer Reviews160 of 170 people found the following review helpful
      The Wisdom of the Cockroach
    by Justice C. Litle on September 13, 2007
    Format: Hardcover Amazon Verified Purchase

    In recounting his time as risk manager at a number of prominent houses (Morgan Stanley, Salomon Brothers, Citigroup etc.), Bookstaber completes the i-banking trifecta. First there was the Michael Lewis classic, Liar's Poker, detailing the juvenile bravado and macho antics of the trading floor. Then Jonathan Knee gave an intimate portrait of the i-banker deal making culture with The Accidental Investment Banker.

    And now, in A Demon of Our Own Design, we get a glimpse at the risk management side of things... a sort of master plumber's walking tour through the bowels of the system, with technical descriptions of exactly what happens when pipes burst and boilers explode. (Some will find Bookstabers' level of detail intolerably dull; others will find it quite fascinating. I was in the fascinated camp.)

    Nature of the beast

    In describing the finer points of risk arbitrage, Bookstaber explains why it's normal -- expected even -- for trading desks to take a good whack every so often. The nature of the beast is to make relatively steady profits, month in and month out, and then give back a chunk of those profits when something goes haywire. (That's how you move huge sums on an arb desk; grind out small bets that are almost guaranteed to work, juice up the returns with leverage, and try not to be in the vicinity when the rare position goes kablooey.)

    In light of this general modus operandi, perhaps it isn't surprising that the "quant" funds recently took a major hit (as of September 2007). They had been minting money for an extraordinarily long period, had the leverage to show for it, and now, after the recent "oops," seem to be generally back in business.

    In fact it appears natural for much of Wall Street to work in this "make a little, lose a lot" fashion... the key idea being that all the little updrafts make up for the once-in-a-blue-moon downdrafts. (Such calculus works better for the fee collectors than the fee payers, but that's a different kettle of fish.)

    Bookstaber's detail-rich description of the various trades that investment houses put on, many of them lasting years, is also enlightening. The details seem to confirm that, by and large, Wall Street is a gigantic, slow moving, conventional-returns type machine. (And what else could it be, really, with such an ocean of capital to allocate and so many jobs to fill? There is only so much creativity and contrarianism to go round.)

    A dangerous combination

    Risk manager war stories aside, Bookstaber's goal is to hammer home a key philosophical point regarding risk. He wants readers to understand that financial markets are inherently unstable, and this reality places limits on how far we (or anyone) should go in pursuit of outsized returns.

    To make his point, Bookstaber uses various analogies to describe how the market is a highly complex, tightly coupled system... and to explain why the combination of high complexity and tight coupling is particularly dangerous.

    The counterexample Bookstaber gives of a highly complex, loosely coupled system is the US Postal Service. The USPS has countless potential points of failure and myriad moving parts, but there are no catastrophic linkages involved. A lost package does not set off a disastrous daisy chain of events in which millions of packages are lost.

    In contrast, the classic example of a highly complex, tightly coupled system is a nuclear reactor. The reactor is tightly coupled because any point of failure can lead to a knock-on chain reaction; one small thing going wrong can set the entire mechanism on a path to disaster. Being a highly complex, tightly coupled system, the market is less like the postal service and more like the nuclear reactor, in that the combination of aggressive leverage, complex methodologies and heavily interlocking parts leads to significant potential for catastrophe.

    Exquisitely adapted

    Another serious problem is Wall Street's deeply ingrained tendency to push the envelope. (Richard Lowenstein put it exceptionally well in his book Origins of the Crash: "Finance has its own Peter Principle, by which a successful model will be adapted to progressively riskier causes until it fails.")

    In this habit of fighting for every inch of profit, Wall Street is like a self-evolving animal overquick to embrace the particulars of its immediate environment. The more precisely an animal is attuned to a particular "fitness landscape," the better that animal can thrive... in the short term at least, as long as everything stays just so. To be exquisitely adapted (as opposed to robustly adapted) is to be vulnerable to the slightest change.

    Thus when the fitness landscape DOES change -- as it inevitably will -- the heavily specialized competitors tend to get crushed (if not go extinct). If a strategy-gone-sour broadsides a large enough group of market participants, the entire financial ecosystem can be thrown into turmoil. When the turmoil from this upheaval spills into the broader economy, wreaking havoc in its wake, the "demon" spoken of in the book's title is unleashed. (As this reviewer interprets it anyway.)

    Wisdom of the cockroach

    So the problem, in sum, is Wall Street's tendency to `overadapt' to every appealing landscape it encounters, building up complexity and leverage to dangerous levels in doing so.

    Bookstaber's suggestion is to heed the wisdom of the cockroach.

    The cockroach has survived a longer time span, and a wider variety of harsh environments, than humans could ever match. It is one of the creatures man cannot wipe out no matter how hard he tries. And yet, the cockroach's key risk management strategy is embarrassingly simple... simpler, even, than putting in a stop loss. The deeper point is that simple equals robust; by refusing to get fancy, and sticking with the tried-and-true, the cockroach ensures its reign as champion survivor.

    Bookstaber uses the cockroach (and other examples from nature) to argue that we, too, should consider cutting back on our excessively specialized ways. The cost of a rough-edged strategy is forgoing excess profits in accomodative environments... but the benefit is increased likelihood of survival in a much wider range of environments, including the truly harsh ones. (As Jim Grant likes to joke, if so many of these credit-driven vehicles can barely handle prosperity, how are they supposed to fare when adversity hits?)

    Harrumphs all round
    Bookstaber's finger-wagging solution (be less fancy; take less risk) has the ring of common sense to it, especially in the way it frustrates all those market participants determined to have their cake and eat it too.

    For those who seek to wring every last nickel out of the market (as LTCM used to brag of doing), Bookstaber argues persuasively that flying too close to the sun will always be perilous. The commitment to leveraging every edge on a broad scale inevitably leads to disaster-prone configurations, no matter how smart the players.

    For those who think the answer is greater regulation of markets, i.e. more rules, Bookstaber shows how extra layers of bureaucracy can actually bring about the exact opposite of the intended affect. Perversely, layers of red tape can (and often do) make a situation more risky, by increasing confusion and complacency simultaneously.

    Nor is greater information disclosure the answer. If the market's traditional liquidity providers (traders, market makers, speculators etc.) are forced to disclose their positions to the world in real time, they will react in the manner of poker players forced to play their hands face-up. To the extent that disclosure resolves uncertainty, it also drives market participants from the game. And because "liquidity is a coward" as the old saying goes, always running away when you need it most, strict disclosure rules would likely make bad market conditions worse at the least opportune times.

    Some left smiling

    Two groups in particular may be left smiling at the end of this book -- value investors and trend followers. In both the theory and practice of their normal operations, value investors and trend followers intuitively embraced Bookstaber's message a long long time ago, favoring longevity and robusticity over the temptations of adjusting to the moment.

    It is perhaps not surprising, then, that value investors and trend followers are arguably the most profitable market participants by far on an absolute-dollar basis, hauling in hundreds of billions in profit over the course of many decades. They are champion survivors too... with a touch more class than the cockroach.


    Saturday, December 21, 2013

    WikiHouse Open Source House Design

    WikiHouse is an open source project for designing and building houses. It endeavors to democratize and simplify the construction of sustainable, resource-light dwellings. The project began in 2011 as an experiment by Tav, James Arthur, Beatrice Galilee, Nick Ierodiaconou and Alastair Parvin at the Gwangju Design Biennale in Gwangju, South Korea. Created as a collaboration between London-based design practice 00:/, the creative collective Espians, and the civil and structural engineering practice Momentum, the project has since grown to include many chapters around the world.
                                                                 WikiHouse prototype

    WikiHouse enables users to download Creative Commons-licensed building plans from its website, customize them using SketchUp, and then use them to create jigsaw puzzle-like pieces out of plywood with a CNC router Construction of WikiHouse structures requires no special parts because the cut pieces of wood snap together with wedge and peg connections inspired by classical Korean architecture. The frame of a WikiHouse can be assembled in less than a day by people with no formal training in construction. The frame must then be finished with cladding, insulation, wiring and plumbing before it can be inhabited

          Scale models of two different WikiHouse designs

    As of December 2013, there are currently no inhabited WikiHouses, although there are a few completed prototypes in addition to a usable walkers' shelter in Fridaythorpe, England. These WikiHouses are single-story, square-shaped structures with sloped roofs and small foundations that measure about 175 square feet (16.3 m2).

    After winning a cash prize at TED Global in June 2012, the project invested the prize money into a partnership with the Brazilian youth mobilization project Dharma and the analysis agency BrazilIntel to build WikiHouses in the poorest favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The goal of the partnership, dubbed WikiHouseRio, is to provide a single "maker lab" where one CNC router can be shared by the community while also allowing and encouraging community members to develop their own designing and building skills. The WikiHouse team plans to eventually create similar maker labs in other underdeveloped communities around the world. There are also plans to use WikiHouses as disaster-relief housing in earthquake-prone countries such as Haiti, Japan and New Zealand.

    Media reaction to WikiHouse has focused largely on the experimental nature of the project, comparisons with IKEA furniture, and the potential difficulty in finding and costs of using CNC routers. American science fiction author Bruce Sterling also gave a review of the WikiHouse design, describing it favorably as a dwelling "I could quite likely build and inhabit, personally".


    Friday, December 20, 2013

    New Van Allen Belt Discovery

    Scientists solve a decades-old mystery
    in the Earth's upper atmosphere
    By UCLA Newsroom December 18, 2013

    New research published in the journal Nature resolves decades of scientific controversy over the origin of the extremely energetic particles known as ultra-relativistic electrons in the Earth's near-space environment and is likely to influence our understanding of planetary magnetospheres throughout the universe.

    Discovering the processes that control the formation and ultimate loss of these electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts — the rings of highly charged particles that encircle the Earth at a range of about 1,000 to 50,000 kilometers above the planet's surface — is a primary science objective of the recently launched NASA Van Allen Probes mission. Understanding these mechanisms has important practical applications, because the enormous amounts of radiation trapped within the belts can pose a significant hazard to satellites and spacecraft, as well astronauts performing activities outside a craft.

    Ultra-relativistic electrons in the Earth's outer radiation belt can exhibit pronounced variability in response to activity on the sun and changes in the solar wind, but the dominant physical mechanism responsible for radiation-belt electron acceleration has remained unresolved for decades. Two primary candidates for this acceleration have been "inward radial diffusive transport" and "local stochastic acceleration" by very low-frequency plasma waves.

    In research published Dec. 19 in Nature, lead author Richard Thorne, a distinguished professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, and his colleagues report on high-resolution satellite measurements of high-energy electrons during a geomagnetic storm on Oct. 9,
    2012, which they have numerically modeled using a newly developed data-driven global wave model.

    Their analysis reveals that scattering by intense, natural very low–frequency radio waves known as "chorus" in the Earth's upper atmosphere is primarily responsible for the observed relativistic electron build-up.

    The team's detailed modeling, together with previous observations of peaks in electron phase space density reported earlier this year by Geoff Reeves and colleagues in the journal Science, demonstrates the remarkable efficiency of natural wave acceleration in the Earth's near-space environment and shows that radial diffusion was not responsible for the observed acceleration during this storm, Thorne said.

    Co-authors of the new research include Qianli Ma, a graduate student who works in Thorne's lab; Wen Li, Binbin Ni and Jacob Bortnik, researchers in Thorne's lab; and members of the science teams on the Van Allen Probes, including Harlan Spence of the University of New Hampshire (principal investigator for RBSP-ECT) and Craig Kletzing of the University of Iowa (principal investigator for EMFISIS).

    The local wave-acceleration process is a "universal physical process" and should also be effective in the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn and other magnetized plasma environments in the cosmos, Thorne said.

    He thinks the new results from the detailed analysis of Earth will influence future modeling of other planetary magnetospheres.

    The Van Allen radiation belts were discovered in the Earth's upper atmosphere in 1958 by a team led by space scientist James Van Allen.

    The new research was funded by the NASA, which launched the twin Van Allen probes in the summer of 2012.


    Thursday, December 19, 2013

    Quantitive Easing Isn't Working

    QUESTION: We didn’t see Quantitative Easing stimulate the economy? Was it all the money pouring out the cracks to overseas?


    November 27, 2013

    + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

    Reply from Martin Armstrong:

    You have to look deeper than the headlines. Yes, it sounds like a lot of money $85 billion a month should have been inflationary in a closed system. But pick up the rug and you will see the real dirt.
    The previous Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee minutes from October 29 had a gem buried in there that I have suggest should be carried out with direct regulation over banks. Buried deep in those minutes was the mention of a possible step to reduce the interest paid to banks on the excess reserves that they hold at the Fed.

    Banks are obligated to hold what are called "required reserves" at the Fed that amounts to about 10% of deposits. Currently, the Fed holds about $77 billion in required reserves for which they pay the banks 0.25 percent interest. However, the banks can also choose to hold what’s called "excess reserves" at the Fed. This is where things get interesting. It was under Quantitative Easing, when the Fed bought bonds from banks and in return they gave them a reserve credit on the Fed’s balance sheet. This became the "excess reserves", which have grown to $2.3 trillion. These "excess reserves" earn interest of 0.25 percent. The banks sold the bonds but used the cash really for trading and have not lent the money into the economy. So obviously, there was no inflation or stimulation by this stupid swap with no strings attached as always.

    Those expecting inflation have not only overlooked the money that leaves the system as China has $3.6 trillion in reserves, but the banks have $2.3 trillion of completely safe assets earning 0.25% that are also these "excess reserves".. This is not money lent into the economy so it has not created jobs. It has been more hot money as banks are liquid enough to trade with that money rather than lend it out. They are hoarding cash.

    The Fed should not pay interest on these reserves and then you will see that they will begin to be employed. They need to restrict their usage and.prevent that money from being used for trading. The banks are there to lend to the economy. If they will not lend to small business, they should pay interest to the fed on "excess reserves" not employed in the economy as LOANS prohibiting their use for proprietary trading. The Fed needs to limit credit card interest to no more than 10% or 3x rates paid on reserves (which is ever lower). The banks are gouging consumers, sucking up disposable income by interest charges, reducing the purchasing power of the consumer that further suppresses the economy, and then the government keep raising taxes. The consumer is getting squeezed from banks and government.

    Banks will scream at what I am saying while they mull it over in Washington behind closed doors.

    However, food stores do not earn keystone (2x cost) as do clothing and jewelry stores. Banks should not be allowed to gouge consumers to increase their highest rates of returns. We use to have limits on interest rates until Volcker removed them so he could raise rates into 1981. The consumer has been screwed ever since and the national debt exploded that is now driving up taxes.

    Banks should not be hedge funds nor should they be earning 20% interest rates when reserve rates are 0.25%. The $2.3 trillion in "excess reserves" is simply outrageous and ultimately deflationary for it is indistinguishable from hoarding. So Larry Summers should target the real hoarders and not the people.


    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

    The Cambrian Explosion: Unresolved

    The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was the relatively rapid appearance, around 542 million years ago, of most major animal phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record. This was accompanied by major diversification of other organisms. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years, the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude and the diversity of life began to resemble that of today. All present phyla appeared within the first 20 million years of the period, with the exception of Bryozoa, which made its earliest known appearance in the Lower Ordovician.

    The Cambrian explosion has generated extensive scientific debate. The seemingly rapid appearance of fossils in the "Primordial Strata" was noted as early as the 1840s, and in 1859 Charles Darwin discussed it as one of the main objections that could be made against his theory of evolution by natural selection. The long-running puzzlement about the appearance of the Cambrian fauna, seemingly abruptly and from nowhere
    , centers on three key points: whether there really was a mass diversification of complex organisms over a relatively short period of time during the early Cambrian; what might have caused such rapid change; and what it would imply about the origin and evolution of animals. Interpretation is difficult due to a limited supply of evidence, based mainly on an incomplete fossil record and chemical signatures remaining in Cambrian rocks.
    How Real Was the Explosion?
    The fossil record as Darwin knew it seemed to suggest that the major metazoan groups appeared in a few million years of the early to mid-Cambrian, and even in the 1980s this still appeared to be the case.

    However, evidence of Precambrian metazoa is gradually accumulating. If the Ediacaran Kimberella was a mollusc-like protostome (one of the two main groups of coelomates), the protostome and deuterostome lineages must have split significantly before 550 million years ago (deuterostomes are the other main group of coelomates). Even if it is not a protostome, it is widely accepted as a bilaterian. Since fossils of rather modern-looking Cnidarians (jellyfish-like organisms) have been found in the Doushantuo lagerstatte, the Cnidarian and bilaterian lineages must have diverged well over 580 million years ago.

    Trace fossils and predatory borings in Cloudina shells provide further evidence of Ediacaran animals. Some fossils from the Doushantuo formation have been interpreted as embryos and one (Vernanimalcula) as a bilaterian coelomate, although these interpretations are not universally accepted. Earlier still, predatory pressure has acted on stromatolites and acritarchs for around 1,250 million years ago.

    The presence of Precambrian animals somewhat dampens the "bang" of the explosion: not only was the appearance of animals gradual, but their evolutionary radiation ("diversification") may also not have been as rapid as once thought. Indeed, statistical analysis shows that the Cambrian explosion was no faster than any of the other radiations in animals' history. However, it does seem that some innovations linked to the explosion – such as resistant armour – only evolved once in the animal lineage; this makes a lengthy Precambrian animal lineage harder to defend. Further, the conventional view that all the phyla arose in the Cambrian is flawed; while the phyla may have diversified in this time period, representatives of the crown-groups of many phyla do not appear until much later in the Phanerozoic. Further, the mineralized phyla that form the basis of the fossil record may not be representative of other phyla, since most mineralized phyla originated in a benthic setting. The fossil record is consistent with a Cambrian Explosion that was limited to the benthos, with pelagic phyla evolving much later.

    Ecological complexity among marine animals increased in the Cambrian, as well later in the Ordovician. However, recent research has overthrown the once-popular idea that disparity was exceptionally high throughout the Cambrian, before subsequently decreasing. In fact, disparity remains relatively low throughout the Cambrian, with modern levels of disparity only attained after the early Ordovician radiation.

    The diversity of many Cambrian assemblages is similar to today's, and at a high (class/phylum) level, diversity is thought by some to have risen relatively smoothly through the Cambrian, stabilizing somewhat in the Ordovician. This interpretation, however, glosses over the astonishing and fundamental pattern of basal polytomy and phylogenetic telescoping at or near the Cambrian boundary, as seen in most major animal lineages. Thus Harry Blackmore Whittington’s questions regarding the abrupt nature of the Cambrian explosion remain, and have yet to be satisfactorily answered.