Showing posts from 2007

Black Swans

Science can't prove anything. No watter how much evidence may exist that something is so, it only takes one counter example to show that it isn't. But that's not a weakness of science, it's the way things work. Our unwillingess to accept it is a weakness in the way we think. In 17th century Europe the only swans anyone had ever seen were white. In fact, "all swans are white" was used as the standard example of a scientific truth—until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia— black swans. Here's one I photographed in New Zealand. The fact is, as Francis Bacon warned, our minds are wired to deceive us. "Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Assuming there's more order in nature than is actually there is something that crops up frequently—faces in clouds, figures in tree bark and peanut-butter, even religious explanations for natural proce

The Claus That Refreshes

Really, St. Nicholas didn't celebrate Christmas and probably never saw, or knew about, reindeer because he lived in what's now Turkey . The Dutch legend Sinterklaas traveled on a gray horse and wore bishop's robes. Thomas Nast is generally credited with “inventing” the image popularly recognized as Santa Claus when he first drew him for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover to memorialize the family sacrifices during the Civil War. But Nast’s Santa was not a "jolly old elf", rather he was melancholy, sad for the separation of soldiers and families. In any event, the idea that Nast “invented” Santa Claus overlooks the centuries-long antecedents to his invention. In 1823, for example, a more cheerful fellow was depicted in an anonymous poem entitled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (now popularly known as " The Night Before Christmas "). The poem appeared in a Troy, New York newspaper depicting Santa as a jolly fellow who rode in a sleig

A Different Angle on A Solar Eclipse

NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (aka STEREO) has a pair of satellites in orbit that can take pictures of the Sun simultaneously from different angles, providing a 3D view of our nearest star. As it turns out, there are times when the Moon passes between the Sun and one of the spacecraft, and from STEREO’s angle it's an unusal view. From the Earth, the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, but it's also about 400 times bigger than the Moon so the Sun and Moon are about the same apparent size in the sky. When there's a solar eclipse the Moon slides in front of the Sun, just barely (some times not quite) covering it. For STEREO the Moon appears much smaller than we see it, but the Sun is still at about the same distance so the Moon appears a lot smaller than the Sun. Not long after STEREO's launch the Moon passed directly in front of the Sun as seen from one of the spacecraft, and STEREO caught it, and now you can see it too.

You lose most body heat through your head

A well known clothing manufacturer (can't tell you their name, but their initials are REI) claims that you lose 75% of your body heat through your head. They sell hats, you might guess. A wetsuit manufacturer claims you should wear a rubber hood because you lose 80% of your body heat through your head. Don't try it on the subway, but it might help some in the water. Think about it, though, if all that was true you could get naked, put on a hat, and be warmer! Research is under way... According to Guyton & Hall's Textbook of Medical Physiology , a nude person in dry, calm air loses about 60% of their body heat simply by radiation through their skin. Makes you hot, er...cold, just thinking about it, right? Actually, you radiate much like a light bulb, but infrared energy, not visible light. In fact, you radiate as much as a 100 watt bulb when you're sitting still. You're even brighter (light-wise) when you exercise, not so much if you have poor circulation.


In a recent survey respondents said they thought NASA gets about 25% of the total U.S. budget. It really is about half of one percent! Americans in general have no idea what NASA’s “cost” is. In fact, most members of the public have no idea how much any government agency’s budget is. What we do know—and have recently documented—is that the public perception of NASA’s budget is grossly inflated relative to actual dollars. In a just-completed study, we asked respondents what percentage of the national budget is allocated to NASA and to the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services, among other agencies. NASA’s allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget (the NASA allocation in 2007 was approximately 0.58% of the budget.) The next highest over-estimate was for the Department of Defense, which received approximately 21% of the budget in 2007 and was estimated o

Want to live longer? Go To Iraq!

The University of Pennsylvania just published a report in Population and Development Review coauthored by Samuel Preston and Emily Buzzell with surprising findings. One is that the death rate overall for troops in Iraq is less than half the death rate for the U.S. civilian population when all ages are included. Navy and Air Force personnel serving in Iraq have lower death rates than comparable civilians at home. Go figure. They also found that the death rate for deployed Marines in Iraq is 8.59 per thousand per year, more than twice that of the Army, nine times that of the Navy and 20 times that of the Air Force. The death risk analysis is based on 2,706 deaths among U.S. troops in Iraq from March 20, 2003, when the first occurred, to Sept. 30, 2006. Risks relative to service, rank, race and other factors are based on deployments and outcomes through Nov. 30, 2006

What Do You Call A Comet With No Tail?

Comet 17P/Holmes is now visible to the naked eye, and an even more striking sight if you use binoculars or a telescope. Nobody is sure why, probably trapped gas*, but this particular cosmic iceball flared to become a million times brighter in just 2 days. Everyone associates comets with a long curved tail, but this one doesn't have one. Still, it's easy to spot from even a city location and distinctly un-starlike. Even low-power binoculars reveal a ghostly smudge surrounding a bright center. In early May the comet reached its closest point to the Sun in its 6.88-year orbit, and that was when it should have been most visible as the Sun cooked off trapped gases and melted ice. But nothing happened. But then, as the comet moved further away from the Sun, it amazed everyone when it suddenly brightened. Put a kettle on the stove and it doesn't boil. Take off and suddenly it does. Weird. Thanks to our orbit on the inside track, today (November 5th), we've caught up to it some

Virus more powerful than a car

Relative to its size, a molecular motor used by viruses is twice as powerful as an automobile engine. That's why even very large viruses can self-assemble so rapidly. Researchers used laser tweezers to measure forces generated by the nanoscale motor that packs DNA into a virus during the assembly of an infectious virus particle. This power allows the virus to reel in its long genome with remarkable speed. “The genome is about 1,000 times longer than the diameter of the virus,” explained Douglas Smith, an assistant professor of physics at UCSD and co-author of the study . “It is the equivalent of reeling in and packing 100 yards of fishing line into a coffee cup, but the virus is able to package its DNA in under five minutes.” The researchers say that their work could ultimately lead to better ways of designing antiviral medications. Drugs that target the DNA-packaging process could block the infection cycle by preventing viral assembly. Such drugs could also interfere with the abi

Where's the bathroom?

"¿Donde esta el baño?" "Ou sont les toilettes?" "Ein ahmer-hathe min fathe-lick?" Some answers to that question can panic a traveler. Perhaps no answer is as disturbing as, "Bathroom? What bathroom?", particularly when delivered with a sweeping gesture toward an endless, featureless landscape. The toilet habits of Americans are based, thanks to largely urban and suburban upbringing, on high expectations. Indeed, discussions about the relative advantages of one-ply or two, quilted or not, folded or bunched, can go on at length, in certain odd social circumstances, without second thought to the availability of toilet tissue, nevermind an appropriate place to use it . In privyless generations an outhouse would have been a step up. Pioneers in covered wagons, no doubt, dreamed of a two-holer for the relative comfort afforded as protection from Nature's vagaries. Add pages torn from a Sears catalog and the next thing to luxury was at hand when com

An appendix is a good thing

No not a book appendix, silly. The one in your belly. It's been dissed all these years—everyone says it's superfluous, has no function, tits on a boar, that kinda thing—but it's actually useful, it turns out. And not just the way Alfred Sherwood Romer and Thomas S. Parsons suggest in The Vertebrate Body (1986), p. 389: "Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.” Docs at Duke University Medical School published a report this week that say it produces and protects good germs for your gut. But it can kill ya. In fact, over 300,000 were hospitalized in the U.S. with appendicitis in 2005, and about 300 to 400 Americans die of appendicitis each year. Remember , there are more bacteria cells than human cells in your body—10 to 1, actually. (Ewww.) But what happens if the bacteria in your intestines die or are, to use a delicate word, purged? Diseases such as cholera or amoebic dysentery clear your guts of useful bacteria (oh yeah,

High Dynamic Range

Exposure values or EVs are numbers that refer to combinations of lens aperture and shutter speed. Your eye is capable of discerning 12EV but a typical camera can only handle about 6. So? So if you shoot the same image at a range of speeds and sandwich them together you can see a higher dynamic range, one closer to what you're used to seeing with your eye. Photoshop has a handy tool that will help combine multiple images, and there are several stand-alone programs to help too. Here's a shot properly exposed for the tree trunk (click any image to enlarge): There's 4.0EV difference between the black, dark tree trunk and the bright, white surf and clouds behind. Here's the shot combined with a properly exposed beach (Kauai HI). There are a few artifacts that give away the fact that more than one images is involved: note the branches at the top that were moving in the tradewinds. If there are moving people or cars in one of the shots they'll look ghostly. This picture,

Was St. Augustine psychic?

St. Augustin, you may recall, was the first archbishop of Canterbury, and was considered the Apostle to the English and a founder of the English Church. [Yike! No he wasn't, as a sharp eyed reader noted in the comment below. Mea Culpa, wrong Saint Augustine. The right one was 200 years earlier (November 13, 354 – August 28, 430) and was one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity, and considered to be one of the church fathers. He framed the concepts of 'original sin' and 'just war'.] About 1400 [make that 1600] years ago he wrote: "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from r

Can Moonbeams Heal?

Oh puh-leeze. Must be a slow news day. CNN is touting, front page, an old story from a local TV station in Tuscon that breathlessly reported there's an outfit in Arizona selling moonlight as a cure all. The piece starts, "Conventional wisdom says that whenever there's a full moon, strange things happen." Right off the bat you know this is gonna be a crock. Or at least you know that if you understand that 'conventional wisdom' is generally wrong—and definitely wrong in this case. Conventional wisdom had it that the Sun rotates around the earth, remember. Come to think of it 20% of the people in the U.S. still do. Conventional wisdom, for that matter, used to be that Thor made thunder, although that might more rightly be called religious 'wisdom.' Why can't people get it through their heads that you can't believe everything that comes into it. "Don't believe everything you think," as the bumper snicker says. The CNN report goes on s

Email routing algorithm (not)

I you ever wondered how email gets from here to there watch this short video. If you never did wonder about that, watch it anyway. It's fun.

Extra Foamy

A Starbucks latte option is 'extra foam.' It makes your drink more like a cappuccino, but with out the cinnamon. The folks at Yamba, Australia, near Sydney had foam with their water recently. In fact, their whole beach and many of the nearby buildings were swallowed by the stuff. The foam, light as bubble bath foam, stretched 30 miles out into the Pacific Ocean It was created by just the right combination of salts, chemicals, dead plants, decomposed fish and seaweed churned up by powerful currents. Storms off the New South Wales Coast and further north off Queensland created a huge disturbance in the ocean, hitting a stretch of water where there was a particularly high amount of the substances which formed into bubbles.

You can help locate meteoroids

On Friday night/Saturday morning, August 31/September 1, there will be an outburst meteor shower. An outburst is a sudden, short burst of a lot of meteors, Aurigids in this case. This is debris left over from the 2000-year-period comet Kiess, and the Earth doesn’t pass through the meteor stream very often so they're very difficult to predict. But the best guess just now is that there will be about 200 meteors visible per hour at the peak -- but the peak comes at 4:36 AM Pacific Daylight Time, which means that it won't be visible from anywhere but the western United States and Hawaii. The Aurigid Laptop Meteor Observation Project will use the Internet to accomplish something that has never been done before: combine the observations of thousands of people in order to build a three-dimensional map of a meteor stream. For all of history, meteors have been observed by independent observers, giving us an ant's-eye view of the forest. But with the Internet, the ants can combine t

Why Won't You Do As I say?

In the Dimensional Change Card sorting (DCCS) task, 3-year-olds can usually sort cards successfully by a first rule - whether by shape, color, size, etc. When asked to switch then to another rule, most 3-year-olds will perseverate by continuing to sort cards according to the first and now-irrelevant rule. This occurs even when the current rule is repeated every single time they're asked to sort a card! Children will even correctly repeat the name of the rule they should be using, and then proceed to actually sort the card by the old rule. By age 4, however, most kids are able to successfully switch to a second rule (though many will still have trouble when asked to switch again). What then changes between 3 and 4 to allow this shift away from a remarkably strange behavior? A new study by Wolfgang Mack begins to answer this question. Mack concludes that the verbal information conveyed by the experimenters at the end of the first sorting rule—at the beginning of the second is merely

Just Wow!—over and over and over

TED (Technology Entertainment Design) is an annual conference held in Monterey, California. TED describes itself as a "group of remarkable people that gather to exchange ideas of incalculable value". Its 'performance' covers a broad set of topics including science, arts, politics, global issues, architecture, music and more. The speakers themselves are from a wide variety of communities and disciplines Take a look at the speakers/performer list . Lectures, music, dance, a sense many of the best of humanity's thinkers, performers, and builders of tomorrow. Jan Goodall-chimpanzees, Jeff Bezos-Amazon, Martin Rees-cosmology, Rev. Tom Honey-religion, Bono - music (U2), Steve Jobs - Apple, and the list just goes on and on. Click on a speaker that interests you and on their page you'll find a small video box that allows you for free (instead of $6000 attendance fee) to see and hear their presentation. There's an enlarge button on each video, and co

Closeup of a star

Over about two and a half days (August 16-18, 2007), the Sun's prominences were seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Ahead spacecraft. Prominences are clouds of cooler gases controlled by powerful magnetic forces that extend above the Sun's surface. Look carefully and you can sometimes see the gases arcing out from one point and sliding above the surface to another point. In an interesting sequence near the end of the clip, the upper prominence seems to arch away into space. Such sequences serve to show the dynamic nature of the Sun. But did you know you could put you hand in a bucket of sun and not even feel any heat? Temperature is a measure of the energy in a substance (the speed of the molecules), but the sun at the surface is so diffuse that the few fast moving molecules wouldn't even be noticeable.

An espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee!

A cup of brewed coffee has about 110 milligrams of caffeine, and potent as it may seem an espresso about 80mg. But of course that's based on volume; 8 ounces for a cup of coffee and 1.5 oz for espresso. Drip coffee has about 13mg/oz., espresso has a whopping 51mg/oz, and instant decaf only has .31mg/oz. A can of Coca-Cola has about 23mg of caffeine, Pepsi Cola 25mg, Mountain Dew 37mg, and TAB 31mg. A cup of tea has about 40mg of caffeine, while an ounce of chocolate contains about 20mg. This all comes up because I'd had a hard time concentrating lately. I'd be jumping from webpage to webpage, back to email, over to Flickr, back to email, check out the news, and and and . . . . Decided to cut out caffeine (about 8 cups a day), and boy did I find out what cold turkey means. By the end of the first day and all through the second I had a headache that Tylenol couldn't cure. Second night, third day, and third night I had legs that ached as if I'd run 10 miles. By day fou


The Pentagon Sends Messengers of Apocalypse to Convert Soldiers in Iraq By Max Blumenthal, Posted on August 8, 2007, Printed on August 18, 2007 Actor Stephen Baldwin, the youngest member of the famous Baldwin brothers, is no longer playing Pauly Shore's sidekick in comedy masterpieces like Biodome. He has a much more serious calling these days. Baldwin became a right-wing, born-again Christian after the 9/11 attacks, and now is the star of Operation Straight Up (OSU), an evangelical entertainment troupe that actively proselytizes among active-duty members of the US military. As an official arm of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, OSU plans to mail copies of the controversial apocalyptic video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces to soldiers serving in Iraq. OSU is also scheduled to embark on a "Military Crusade in Iraq" in the near future. "We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to

A Bitter Dose Of Reality

This blog was started because I often found myself exclaiming, "Wow! Really?" I though other folks might enjoy some of the wowsers, amazing facts and foolishness I discovered. This one I didn't enjoy—yet another indication along with our education and healthcare systems, that suggest we're rapidly moving toward second class nation status. Paul Craig Roberts* in Online Journal provides some evidence, although he didn't say it directly, that we've already achieved that dubious distinction: Early this morning (August 9th) China let the idiots in Washington, and on Wall Street, know that it has them by the short hairs. Two senior spokesmen for the Chinese government observed that China’s considerable holdings of US dollars and Treasury bonds "contributes a great deal to maintaining the position of the dollar as a reserve currency." [China threatens 'nuclear option' of dollar sales, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, London Telegraph, August 9, 2007]

Oh, come ON!

There's yet another internet hoax* going around that starts something like: "If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following. . . ." It goes on to claim, among other things, that if the worlds population is represented by 100 people "1 would own a computer." That means there are only 0.01*6.6 billion or 66 million computers out there? Actually, in 2003 62 million US households alone had a computer, and many have more than one according to US Census Bureau . And the email claims, "1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education" According to the 2000 United States census, 24.4% of Americans have at least a bachelor degree, or another higher degree. The US population is around 302 million. 302 million*0.24.4 = 73.7 million people in the US have a degree, but whoever wrote this claims 6.6 billion*0.01 = 66 million people in

Stretching the limits of fashion

Chinese fashion show promoted condoms to combat HIV. One of the docs we see is just back from three weeks in China--he goes there every 2-3 years, has been for the last 30. Said this visit was very disturbing. Thanks to the one child law children are now unable/unwilling, by themselves, to take care of their elderly parents--virtually the basis of Chinese culture for the last 10,000 years. Living on a farm, and all working together, the family could manage. Now the kids take their folk's new national pension and buy sex from the few women around (girl babies were killed, considered less desirable). Not a good outlook for the largest population in the world. And consider this:

Get Your Story Straight

A delicious moment of reality. Consultant, reporter, author and former NASA employee Jame Oberg nails British TV news on their snide claim that astronauts flew aboard the Shuttle drunk. They didn't. The issue involved a Suyuz launch and a T-38 flight, not the Shuttle, as reported. But worse, Jim points out, the press missed the bigger story - astronauts apparently are not subject to the same medical screening as civil servants at NASA nor, for that matter, private pilots.

Twins are okay, why not clones?

Bioethicist Hugh McLachlan argues the reason we're so against the idea of cloning humans--cloning is a criminal offense in many countries--has to do only with irrational fears of risks we readily accept in other areas of reproduction. One argument is that it is morally wrong to replicate people. But environmental factors will ensure the resulting individual is not an identical copy, either psychologically or physically. Besides, McLachlan points out, we accept genetically identical people in the form of twins. If anything, clones would be less alike than twins because they would be different ages and be brought up in different contexts. Another concern is safety, but in other areas of reproduction (and life in general) safety alone isn't sufficient grounds to make something illegal. There may be an increased risk of miscarriage or deformity, but for people born as a result of cloning, it is their only chance of life. Cloning is therefore not a risk but an opportunity. If you co

An Unconcious Violinist

Here's a thought provoking analogy written by Judith Jarvis Thomson from Philosophy & Public Affairs , Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971). "You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will ha

Tibimet Cogitate (Think For Yourself)

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe ... till we come to a hard bottom ... which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake ... below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or state, or set a lamp-post safely . -- Thoreau, in Walden : I understand that 50% of the people in the world are dumber than the other half, by definition. But I'm suspicious it's actually more than that. Still, there's nothing wrong with being dumb or naive or uneducated. If you're honest. If you're honest, you start with, "I don't know." And you can stop there. It's okay not to know. And you don't have to make stuff up if you don't. We used to do that to explain things like thunder and death, and it didn't work too well. Lightning still killed people even though we pray

Inside Information

Ever wonder how things work inside. Well, okay, I suppose you need to go get an advanced degree in physiology or medicine if you really want to understand how they work. But if you've ever just wondered what things really look like in there, take a look at this CT scan image. If you have to get a CT scan or MRI yourself, ask for a copy of the scans on CD. They should be willing to provide it without cost (or hastle). Now pop the CD into your Mac running OS 10.4 and go get a free open source copy of OSIRIX . Instead of a little image like the one here, you'll see it full screen, with all kinds of cool tools to change the density, color, angles, etc. Ta-dah, all you'd ever want to see of your own insides--and then some.

They'll Eat You Alive

Female mosquitoes, the only kind that will infect you, have to at eat least every 3 days. When they do, they ingest the human equivalent of a bathtub full of blood (2.5x body weight). In the process they accidentally inject parasites along with anti-coagulant spit. All manner of animals, not just humans, get malaria from rats and bats to chimps and humans. In other words, malaria parasites aren't very particular where they live, so you'll find them almost everywhere. A typical mosquito carries 100,000 malaria parasites in its glands. 50,000 of the parasites could live in a space the size of the period at the end of this sentence, but it only takes one to kill you. Researchers suspect that the deaths of half the people that have ever lived were caused by malaria. Washington, Jefferson, and Ulysses S Grant suffered from it. 1,000,000 soldiers died from it during the Civil War from it. During WW2, more Americans died in the Pacific from it than from combat. Even now, 3000 kids die

Brute force

When you absolutely positively have to have it there tomorrow, and when "it" is about a quarter of a million pounds of stuff, who do you call? The Russians, of course. The USAF Air Mobility Command is depending on Russian Anotov An-124 charters to move their cargo around, averaging three flights a week in FY2006. For that matter, a European consortium has a three year agreement for two An-124s on full-time charter, two on six day notice, and two on 9 day notice, and have committed to using the aircraft for 2000 hours a year. The An-124 has a gross weight just under 1,000,000 pounds, and payload of 330,750 pounds. Here's one swallowing the fuselage of a Navy EP-3, the one that was damaged by an over unenthusiastic Chinese fighter pilot off Hinan Island afew years ago.

Pale Blue Dot

Drop Five Second Rule . . . Or Die

Most of us use the five second rule, right? Food dropped on the floor is okay to eat if you pick it up within five seconds. But if you think about it, that doesn't make much sense. And if you study it, it turns out, that idea makes no sense at all. In 2003 a high school student, Jillian Clarke, found significant numbers of bacteria were transferred from a contaminated surface to food in less than five seconds. I'm mighty proud that we still have high school kids out there that care about such things. But on the other hand . . . duh! Now, the Journal of Applied Microbiology carries a report Clemson University researchers have found that the bacterial transfer rate from surface to food decreases over time (also, duh). But in some cases over 99% of bacterial cells were actually transferred within the first five seconds. Speedy little devils, ain't dey? The researchers took a look at how quickly Salmonella would transfer from wood, tile, and carpet to bologna and bread. Tra

Excerpts from Berkshire Annual Mtg Q&A

Now here's a dose of reality you can take to the, I mean invest . Some excerpts from the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting Q&A session. Answer by Charlie Munger (CM) and Warren Buffet (WB). You had some really extraordinary things happening in credit markets, because people were panicking or they thought that other people were going to panic. We'll have other events like that again, not exactly the same. As Mark Twain said: "History doesn't repeat itself ... but it rhymes." ----------- Q: Do you think gambling companies will have a great future? WB: Gambling companies will have a great future as long as they're legal. People like to gamble and they do so in stocks, incidentally. Day-trading came very close to meeting the standards of gambling. The human propensity to gamble is huge. If the Super Bowl is on -- or even a bad game -- you enjoy more if there's a few bucks on the game. We insure against hurricanes, so I watch The Weather Channel.