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 processes such as evolution.

Our brains are wired to understand stories, thanks to the way we evolved. They're not wired to understand uncertainty. So we make up stories to explain complex thing we don't and can't know.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this in Fooled by Randomness, an fascinating look at why we're inclined to deceive ourselves when it comes to statistics. In The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable he looks at how our inability to deal with uncertainty effects our ability to predict, and deal with, the future.

The problem, he writes, is that we place too much weight on past events when simple chance is the best explanation. "History does not crawl, it jumps," he writes, an example of wild power law swings that shape our world.

Important, even earth-shaking events, are rare and unpredictable. Black Swans, he argues, are like the most significant events in our world—rare and unpredictable. So creating stories—conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and religious myths, for example—are our emotionally satisfying but useless solution.

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 sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. The author, it later was revealed, was Clement C. Moore, a well known professor of biblical learning in the General Theological Seminary in New York from 1821 to 1850.

Regardless of where he came from, our modern day Khris Kringle is largely a product of Coca-Cola. In 1931 the company decided to give him a makeover. Before that time, Santa Claus appeared as anything from a green elf to Nast's somber St. Nicholas to even a gaunt figure in animal skins. The company hired an artist, Haddon Sundblom, to create a fatherly fellow with a billowy beard, extensive girth, rosy cheeks...and a bottle of Coke, of course. Each year thereafter, a new painting helped ingrain the image in American, and worldwide, culture.


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.

You lose another 15% of your body heat through conduction to air. Your fast moving little skin molecules rub up against slower (colder) air molecules and warm them up while you cool down. Add a breeze to move all that warmed up air out of the way so you can warm up some more, and you can lose another 15% through convection. Wind chill happens!

Couch potatoes take heart, just sitting there contemplating Vanna's navel, you're burning calories and losing heat when water evaporates from your body surface and even when you just breath, for that matter. You lose 16 calories an hour and over a half a quart of water a day through your skin and lungs. What goes in must come out?

When you sweat profusely you can remove heat up to 10 times faster, you can produce over 3 quarts of sweat an hour (where's your 7-day deodorant pad?), and you can lose as much as 1/4 cup of salt a day.

So if you're all bundled up, yeah, put on a hat. But all the rest of your body needs covering too. Please.


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 on average to receive approximately 33%.

In other words, respondents believed NASA’s budget approaches that of the Department of Defense, which receives almost 38 times more money (see “Putting NASA’s budget in perspective”, The Space Review, July 2, 2007). Once people were informed of the actual allocations, they were almost uniformly surprised. Our favorite response came from one of the more vocal participants, who exclaimed, “No wonder we haven’t gone anywhere!”

No wonder, indeed!

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, and we'll be as close as we're going to get to it as the comet heads back out to the outer reaches of the solar system.

To see it, look northeast about 30° above the horizon (unless you're in Alaska) at 9 P.M. It should appear about twice as high as the bright star Capella. It will climb almost directly overhead between 2 and 3 A.M. Best of all, the waning crescent Moon remains out of sight for the next week or so until after 1 A.M.

*What's the difference between a tavern and an elephant passing wind? One's a bar room, the other is a BAROOM! Auntie Marion's favorite joke. Her second favorite (she had a thing about elephants) was about a guy waving a rag over his head. Fellow says, "Golly, why are you doing that?" Guy says, "Keep elephants away." Fellow says, "But there aren't any elephants around here." Guys says, "Works good don't it!"

So what do you call a comet with not tail? Spot.

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 ability of the virus to inject its DNA into the cells it infects because injection is facilitated by the high pressure at which the genetic material is packaged within the virus’ outer shell.

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 compared to a few presumably carefully chosen leaves. In fact, toilet paper, per se, didn't appear on the scene until the mid-1800's when a 'thunder mug' under the bed represented real luxury and a commonplace alternative to late night forays outdoors.

But even today the intrepid traveler can be faced with daunting circumstances in search of the illusive excratorium and a wad of TP. In India, for example, you're more likely to find rolls of toilet paper on restaurant tables than in bathrooms, the better to wipe runny noses after spicy food. For that matter, just down your street and around the corner you'll find what are euphemistically referred to as 'sanitary' facilities that are anything but. Even a supposedly predictable restaurant chain's Buoys or Gulls room, with carefully initialed hourly inspection sheets, may leave you wishing you'd found another port in the storm. Modern airliners, with hundreds of engineering hours devoted to what amounts to little more than a high-flying teflon-coated outhouse, may challenge your standards, ingenuity, and athletic skill. And consider the gravity of the situation faced by an astronaut.

You'll be relieved to know, however, that in most other parts of the world people don't seem to worry about these issues as much as Americans. In many foreign countries 'down the street and around the corner' may be where you go...literally and figuratively, with no pretense at sanitary. Simply squatting by the road is considered perfectly modest and acceptable in many places. If they don't worry about it, you needn't either.

No one but American tourists seem to notice the al fresco facilities in Italy or street corner toilets in France, where see-under modesty panels are de rigeur. In Japan porcelain fixtures are a relatively new amenity, replacing a simple hole in the floor. Faced with such a novelty more than one undaunted Japanese lady daintily mounted the bowl facing the wall in a pose not unlike the youngster in the famous Norman Rockwell doctor's office scene.

Admittedly, other cultures apparently do consider hygienic issues, but with a more functional bent. Billy Wilder opined that France was the only country where the money falls apart and you can't tear the toilet tissue. And Americans are often bemused by the water fountain next to the toilet upon their first encounter with a European bidet. King George V proclaimed (from the throne?) that you should always go to the bathroom when you have a chance. In Morocco and parts of India, Africa, and Asia only the right hand is used for eating, ensuring that alimentation and elimination never go hand in hand.

In the end, American's abroad are advised to leave their bathroom habits behind, do what you have to do, and take a roll of paper with you--or at least a copy of this article. As one critic wrote, "I sit in the smallest room of the house. Your story is before me. It will soon be behind me."

A fitting end?

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, been there done that, from both ends). The appendix's job is to reboot your digestive system. Kinda like rebooting your computer from one of those keychain memory sticks.

Your appendix, it turns out, is a safe cul-de-sac for bacteria, located just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine. Today, if your gut bacteria die, it can usually be repopulated easily with germs they pick up from other people. (Wash your hands!) But before modern-day dense populations, and during regional cholera epidemics, it wasn't as easy to cultivate another batch of bacteria, so the appendix came in handy.

Interestingly, in less developed countries, where the appendix may be still useful, the rate of appendicitis is lower than in the U.S.. Prostate cancer is lower among people who, um, use that more too. Both may be examples of an overly hygienic society producing an over reaction by the body's immune system.

I wonder if eventually we'll find the same sort of thing about the tonsils?

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 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, taken just after sunrise, is made up of 4 images with a range of 6.5 EV. When the sky was properly exposed the mountain was just a black silhouette. Properly exposed for the mountain, the sky was completely blown out, totally white.

Here's a better example I made a while back in a dark hangar.

But take a look at these and these!

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 reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."
-- The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor
So was he psychic? No, of course not, no one is. But it looks like this kinda thing has gone on before. Young Earth Creationists, the Intelligent Design bunch, those that don't think evolution is a fact, and others literalists who claim the Bible proves the nonsense they spout could take a hint from one of their own, seems to me.

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 sagely, "Whether it's hocus pocus or science, moonbeam healing has its believers." Well, duh. And some people believe in fairies and angels. Since when is that news?

Seems these idiots down in Arizona have set up a 50 foot reflector to collect moonlight. One Eric Carr was willing to go on record after spending a few minutes basking in a moonbeam. Doesn't need asthma medicine anymore, he saud. Changed his life.

Yup sure did. Used to just be a closet nut case, now everyone knows.

Figure anyone thought about the fact that moonlight is just reflected sunlight? Or that in this case it is reflected reflected sunlight?

Why not tout the healing power of mirrors?

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 their observations and, for the first time in history, we'll be able to see the whole forest at once!

The technology required is trivial: a laptop and a pair of eyeballs. All you do is watch the meteors and click the mouse whenever you see a meteor. A small Java applet records the time of your mouseclicks into a file. The next day, you email that file to the project coordinators, and they put it into a monster program that combines all the observations of all the people and builds a satellites-eye-view movie of where the meteors hit. The results will be available for everybody.

To participate, download the Aurigid program onto your laptop. On meteor night, you go outside at the right time, lie down, face East, turn on your laptop, and launch the Aurigid program. Whenever you see a meteor, you click the mouse. Observe meteors for as long as you want. When you're done, quit the Aurigid program and shut down your laptop. The next day, type your longitude and latitude into the log file, and email it to us. That's all it takes. Here are detailed instructions.

You can find more information on the Aurigid outburst at the NASA/SETI web page here.

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 insufficient for many 3 year olds to understand what they should be doing. Accordingly, providing pre-training may help through this route.

Oddly, Mack showed that switching performance can be improved simply by asking an irrelevant question, but he provides no explanation for this fascinating finding. One idea, based on Kirkham et al's attentional inertia account of perseveration, is that children are merely fixated on the first rule and need some sort of strong external prompt to think of something else.

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 controls to go back or speed ahead

My goal is to watch every single one, one a day. Most are only 20 minutes or less. Based on those I've watched so far you won't be disappointed in a single one.

For example Jennifer Lin

If you follow only one link from this blog in your life, let it be this one to this performance by pianist and composer Jennifer Lin. Lin, then 14, starts by playing Joseph Hoffman's "Kaleidoscope," then Robert Schumann's "Abegg Variations." She talks about the process of composition and discusses the state of flow, when she can improvise beautiful music instantly -- a state of mind that cannot be forced. Lin invites audience member Goldie Hawn to choose a random sequence of notes, from which she improvises a beautiful and surprisingly moving piece, known to draw tears even via podcast. She finishes with a lightning performance of Jack Fina's "Bumble Boogie.

For example Jeff Hawkins on the human brain.

Jeff Hawkins' Palm PDA became such a widely used productivity tool during the 1990s that some fanatical users claimed it replaced their brains. But Hawkins' deepest interest was in the brain itself. So after the success of the Palm and Treo, which he brought to market at Handspring, Hawkins delved into brain research at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience in Berkeley, Calif., and a new company called Numenta.

Hawkins' dual goal is to achieve an understanding of how the human brain actually works -- and then develop software to mimic its functionality, delivering true artificial intelligence. In his book On Intelligence (2004) he lays out his compelling, controversial theory: Contrary to popular AI wisdom, the human neocortex doesn't work like a processor; rather, it relies on a memory system that stores and plays back experiences to help us predict, intelligently, what will happen next. He thinks that "hierarchical temporal memory" computer platforms, which mimic this functionality (and which Numenta might pioneer), could enable groundbreaking new applications that could powerfully extend human intelligence.

Or try this dance group

Pilobolus dance company members Otis Cook and Jennifer Macavinta perform the sensuous duet "Symbiosis." Does it trace the birth of a human relationship, or the co-evolution of a pair of symbiotic species? That's left for you to decide. Gorgeous, organic choreography blurs the boundaries between the two performers, who use the body's own geometry to lift, move and combine. The music, recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch Records, is a compilation of works: "God Music" from Black Angels by George Crumb, "Fratres" by Arvo Pärt, and "Morango ... Almost a Tango" by Thomas Oboe Lee.

Or this provocative Brazilian artist talking about and illustrating creativity (takes a couple of minutes to get to it, but it's unique and somewhat humorous)

Artist Vik Muniz delights in subverting the expected. He creates images from wire, thread, sugar, chocolate, even dust and clouds that simultaneously comment on art and are art. In a charming talk, he describes how growing up in Brazil turned him into a trickster, and shows lots of his work -- gorgeous photographs and constructions filled with mischievous spirit.

Or Sir Martin Rees on "Earth in its final century?"

In a taut soliloquy that takes us from the origins of the universe to the last days of a dying sun 6 billion years later, renowned cosmologist Sir Martin Rees explains why the 21st century is a pivotal moment in the history of humanity: the first time in history when we can materially change ourselves and our planet. Stunning imagery of cosmological wonders show us the universe as we know it now. Speaking as "a concerned member of the human race," Rees harkens to the wisdom of Einstein, calling for scientists to act as moral compasses, confronting the coming developments and ensuring our role in "the immense future."

Remember, all of these can be stopped, restarted or even allow you to replay a piece you might have missed or misunderstood.

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 four I felt human. Yup, all known symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

Recounting the ordeal to a friend he told me that when he was in the Army he drank so much cofee that he had withdrawl symptoms on weekends. Couldn't figure out why by Sunday afternoon he was a wreck. Flight Surgeon told him it was coffee. Sure 'nuff.

Use of caffeine apparently goes back to stone Age, and coffee dates back to 9th century Ethiopia, although it was banned in 12th century Turkey. Nevertheless, coffee is the most widely used psychoactive stimulant in the world, and 90% of Americans use the drug everyday.

Not trying to make a point here, but it is one of those things that made me say, "Wow! Really?"

This is what caffeine does to a spider:


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 perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war torn region," OSU declares on its website about its planned trip to Iraq. "We'll hold the only religious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq."

The Defense Department's Chaplain's Office, which oversees OSU's activities, has not responded to calls seeking comment.

"The constitution has been assaulted and brutalized," Mikey Weinstein, former Reagan Administration White House counsel, ex-Air Force judge advocate (JAG), and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me. "Thanks to the influence of extreme Christian fundamentalism, the wall separating church and state is nothing but smoke and debris. And OSU is the IED that exploded the wall separating church and state in the Pentagon and throughout our military." Weinstein continued: "The fact that they would even consider taking their crusade to a Muslim country shows the threat to our national security and to the constitution and everyone that loves it."

. . .

With the endorsement of the Defense Department, OSU is mailing "Freedom Packages" to soldiers serving in Iraq. These are not your grandfather's care packages, however. Besides pairs of white socks and boxes of baby wipes . . . OSU's care packages contain the controversial Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game. The game is inspired by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling pulp fiction series about a blood-soaked Battle of Armageddon pitting born-again Christians against anybody who does not adhere to their particular theology. In LaHaye's and Jenkins' books, the non-believers are ultimately condemned to "everlasting punishment" while the evangelicals are "raptured" up to heaven.

. . .

Left Behind player kills a UN soldier, their virtual character exclaims, "Praise the Lord!" To win the game, players must kill or convert all the non-believers left behind after the rapture.

View the full story online at:

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]

Should the US proceed with sanctions intended to cause the Chinese currency to appreciate, "the Chinese central bank will be forced to sell dollars, which might lead to a mass depreciation of the dollar."

If Western financial markets are sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the message, US interest rates will rise regardless of any further action by China. At this point, China does not need to sell a single bond. In an instant, China has made it clear that US interest rates depend on China, not on the Federal Reserve.

The precarious position of the US dollar as reserve currency has been thoroughly ignored and denied. The delusion that the US is "the world’s sole superpower," whose currency is desirable regardless of its excess supply, reflects American hubris, not reality. This hubris is so extreme that only six weeks ago McKinsey Global Institute published a study that concluded that even a doubling of the US current account deficit to $1.6 trillion would pose no problem.

Strategic thinkers, if any remain who have not been purged by neocons, will quickly conclude that China’s power over the value of the dollar and US interest rates also gives China power over US foreign policy. The US was able to attack Afghanistan and Iraq only because China provided the largest part of the financing for Bush’s wars.

If China ceased to buy US Treasuries, Bush’s wars would end. The savings rate of US consumers is essentially zero, and several million are afflicted with mortgages that they cannot afford. With Bush’s budget in deficit and with no room in the US consumer’s budget for a tax increase, Bush’s wars can only be financed by foreigners.

No country on earth, except for Israel, supports the Bush regime's desire to attack Iran. It is China’s decision whether it calls in the US ambassador, and delivers the message that there will be no attack on Iran or further war unless the US is prepared to buy back $900 billion in US Treasury bonds and other dollar assets.

The US, of course, has no foreign reserves with which to make the purchase. The impact of such a large sale on US interest rates would wreck the US economy and effectively end Bush’s war-making capability. Moreover, other governments would likely follow the Chinese lead, as the main support for the US dollar has been China’s willingness to accumulate them. If the largest holder dumped the dollar, other countries would dump dollars, too.

The value and purchasing power of the US dollar would fall. When hard-pressed Americans went to Wal-Mart to make their purchases, the new prices would make them think they had wandered into Nieman Marcus. Americans would not be able to maintain their current living standard.

Simultaneously, Americans would be hit either with tax increases in order to close a budget deficit that foreigners will no longer finance or with large cuts in income security programs. The only other source of budgetary finance would be for the government to print money to pay its bills. In this event, Americans would experience inflation in addition to higher prices from dollar devaluation.

This is a grim outlook. We got in this position because our leaders are ignorant fools. So are our economists, many of whom are paid shills for some interest group. So are our corporate leaders whose greed gave China power over the US by offshoring the US production of goods and services to China. It was the corporate fat cats who turned US Gross Domestic Product into Chinese imports, and it was the "free trade, free market economists" who egged it on.

How did a people as stupid as Americans get so full of hubris?
*Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration. He is the author of Supply-Side Revolution : An Insider's Account of Policymaking in Washington; Alienation and the Soviet Economy and Meltdown: Inside the Soviet Economy, and is the co-author with Lawrence M. Stratton of The Tyranny of Good Intentions : How Prosecutors and Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice.

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 the whole world. Huh?

"70 would be unable to read" What? Take a look at these UN statistics: 61% of India and 93.5% of China is "Literate"; that's 40% of the worlds population right there. If UN stats are right India: 1.1 billion * 0.61 = 671 million people China: 1.3 billion * 0.935 = 1,215 million people. I could accept maybe 25% of the world is unable to read, but 70%?

Point is, this is just three of the claims this stupid piece gets wrong. It's simply one of those internet hoaxes that people mindlessly love and send to others, and—in keeping with modern style, nobody bothers to questions. Just because someone says something is doesn't make it so. For that matter just becuase you can think of something doesn't make it so either. Don't believe everything you think.

You want to see some accurate scary numbers try this:


*As the World Turns
-- Author Unknown (too chicken to admit it)

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.

There would be:

57 Asians 21 Europeans 14 from the Western Hemisphere, both north and south 8 would be Africans

52 would be female 48 would be male

70 would be non-white 30 would be white

70 would be non-Christian 30 would be Christian

89 would be heterosexual 11 would be homosexual

6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United States

80 would live in substandard housing

70 would be unable to read

50 would suffer malnutrition

1 would be near death

1 would be near birth

1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education

1 (yes, only 1) would own a computer

When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for acceptance, understanding and education becomes glaringly apparent.

And, therefore. . .

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.

If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more blessed than 3 billion people in the world (nearly half of the Earth's population).

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.

As you read this and are reminded how life is in the rest of the world, remember just how blessed you really are.

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 could only have been born as a clone, with the risks that entails, would you have wanted your life to have been prevented?

Other arguments McLachlan attacks are more outlandish, red herrings such as the idea that it might alter the gene pool, or that despotic leaders might use cloning to create armies of ideal soldiers. Only a tiny percentage of people will consider cloning because, after all, sexual reproduction is cheaper, safer and more fun. Only those with no other option are likely to resort to cloning.

Even if growing numbers of clones could affect the gene pool, is that a reason for making the practice illegal? It's not as though there is any "natural" or preordained path along which our species is meant to develop. Global travel has probably had a far greater effect on the gene pool than cloning ever could, and nobody uses that to argue for a ban on it.

As for state-run cloning factories, any organized program to rear babies for a particular purpose would clearly be abhorrent, whether the children were produced by sexual intercourse, IVF or cloning. This has no bearing on whether individual couples should be allowed to choose cloning as a method by which to have a child. Similarly, if someone was cloned without their consent, that would be unethical and should be illegal, but it is not a reasonable objection to cloning any more than rape is an objection to sex.

McLachlan concludes, "In a free society, actions should be legal unless there is a case for making them illegal. We do not need to justify cloning in order to say that it should be legal (although it would clearly benefit those infertile couples for whom there is no other way to have a child that is genetically related to them). It should be for those who want cloning to remain a crime to justify themselves."


Hugh McLachlan is professor of bioethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, UK. He is author, with J. Kim Swales, of From the Womb to the Tomb: Issues in medical ethics (Humming Earth, Glasgow, 2007)

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 have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you."

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says,

"Tough luck. I agree. But now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."


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 prayed to Thor to stop.

Then, as now, you could say, "I want to find out why." And some people did.

If, after trying hard, thinking for yourself and not taking other people's word for it, you still don't know, then--if you're honest--you'll admit, "I still don't know." And you can stop there. It really is okay.

But if you're curious and have the stamina, you' ll say, "I'm gonna keep trying until I find out. Maybe I will, and maybe I won't. But I'll try." And some people do.

If you aren't curious, or don't have the stamina--and you're honest--you'll say, "I don't know and I just can't find out;  but I'm okay with that." But not too many people do that. An awful lot of people just make things up.

But, fortunately, lots of curious people have spent lots of energy to find answers to a lots of things for lots of years. They've even looked for answers to how best to look for answers, and how to know if you have the right one.

The method people adopted and refined works so well that we've been able to figure out why things fall when you drop them, and why clouds make loud sparks, and why north is that way, and why grass is green and grows, and why we get sick. We've even figured out why distant galaxies are where they are, why your skin is the color that it is, and how you can split atoms to make electricity. We don't have all the answers, but that's okay. We're working on it.

This method of finding things out, and all we've learned using that method, all we've done with the knowledge we've gained, is the best method we've found. It's not based on authority or dogma, it's based on the fact that some people always think the answers we have are not the complete answer. And that's a good thing, unless your just gripe and don't try to find a better answer. Fortunately, honest people try to come up with better answers, and they test their ideas and explain them to as many knowledgeable people as possible and argue and refine and retest and adopt and reject. Other, fundamentally dishonest people, just claim they have a better answer, argue with everyone else's answer, but won't make the effort to provide an alternative.

There really are people that claim the world is flat, we're the center of the universe, men didn't land on the moon, the US government arranged 9/11, the Nazis really didn't kill all that many Jews, and Allah not Jesus is God (or vice versus).

If you think you have a better answer, you should try to prove it. In fact, if you think you have a better method for arriving at the truth about the way things work then, by all means, you should try to prove that!

But if you're not smart enough to understand the answers other people have come up with using the best method available, or if you're smart enough but too lazy to learn the answer, then the best answer is just be honest and say, "I don't know." And shut up.

The theory of evolution, for example, isn't something you believe or not. It's something you understand or not. The same is true for the theory of relativity and the theory of electromagnetism. The same method was used to find the answer to all three--and lots of other facts about the way things work. You can't disagree with one without disagreeing with all of them. Unless you're dishonest, of course.

Maybe Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said it best in his 1974 Caltech commencement address:

It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. . . .

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another. . . .

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.


For more along these lines, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has written 'In defense of dangerous ideas'. And so has lawyer Timothy Sandefur.

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 every day in Africa from malaria.

DDT could have eradicated it worldwide, but environmentalist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), because of here concern for falcons, sea lions, and salmon, singlehandedly managed to get it banned. DDT is harmless to humans, but according the NIH the DDT ban may have killed 20,000,000 children. How's that for a legacy?

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.

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. Transfer from carpet to bologna was low, but wood and tile contaminated the sausage instantly. Can you say, "Splat?" I knew you could.

Note: in some cases only 10 bacteria cells are needed to cause illness, and fewer than 100 E. coli bacteria can kill you.

So the five second rule may actually work for very clean surfaces (double da-uh), but don't steak, er . . . stake your life on it.

You do scrub the counter after playing with your food, I mean making dinner, right? Take a hint.

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.

When the states found out what a great source of revenue it is, they made it easier and easier to gamble. I put a slot machine on the third floor of my home and I could give my kids any amount (in dimes) and I would have it back by the evening.

To quite an extent, gambling is a tax on ignorance. If find it socially revolting when the government preys on the ignorance of its citizenry. When the government makes it easy for people to take their Social Security checks and pull [slot machine] handles, it relieves taxes on those who don't fall for it. It's not government at its best.
CM: The casinos use clever psychological tricks for people to hurt themselves. It's a dirty business and I don't think you'll find a casino soon in Berkshire Hathaway.


Q: Given your experience in underwriting insurance, any thoughts on helping to solve the health-care mess?

CM: It's too tough! Warren and I can't solve that one.

WB: We try to look for easy problems -- you can do that in investing. We don't go around looking for tough problems. We do very little in health insurance. If we were looking for solution in the private sector, we would look for one with very low distribution costs. Charlie's view reflects mine at present.


Q: You've repeated several times that you could earn annualized returns of 50% a year if you were managing small amounts of money -- how would you accomplish this? Buy-and-hold investing or through Ben Graham "cigar butts", arbitrage, etc.?

WB: If I were working with a small sum, I'd be doing very different things than the things I'm doing now. Your universe expands -- you have many, many options, if you're investing that small amount. You can earn very high returns with very small amounts of money. Not anybody can do it, but if you know something about value investing, you can do very well. If we were deploying $1million, we'd earn very high returns on capital. If Charlie and I were working with $500,000 to $1 million, we would find small things and they wouldn't all be stocks.


Q: What is your opinion on the subprime market?

WB: [Poor practices in the subprime market] resulted in a lot of people buying houses they shouldn't have. The individuals and, in some cases, the institutions are going to suffer in varying degrees. The question is whether this will spill over into the general economy. I would guess that if unemployment doesn't rise significantly and interest rates stay relatively low, it will be a problem for those involved, but it's unlikely that that factor alone triggers anything massive.

I looked at the 10-Qs and 10-Ks of some financial institutions recently and it appears that some of the borrowers were making low initial payments such that the value of their principal increased. Later on, these people were expected to make substantially higher payments. I think it's dumb lending and dumb borrowing (talking about negative-amortization loans). Those people and institutions were betting on prices continuing to go up. That worked for a while . . . until it didn't work. Then you have too much supply coming on the market. Demand dies off and supply is massive. You'll see plenty of misery (you're seeing some), but it's not likely to be a huge anchor to the economy.

CM: What we had was a combination of sin and folly. The accountants allowed the institutions to show profits on loans that no one in their right mind would have allowed to show a profit until the loan matured to a better condition. The minute you pay people high commissions to make loans to the "undeserving poor", or the "overstretched rich," you're in trouble. I don't see how those who did it can still shave in the morning, because the face looking back is evil and stupid.

WB: You have loans where some people weren't even making the first two or three payments -- that shouldn't happen. We saw a preview of this with the manufactured home industry years ago. Securitization has fed the problem. Discipline goes out the window. Don't think it will cause massive troubles though. But there are several areas of the country where real estate will be difficult.


Q: For a 23-year-old with ambitions, genetic wiring, seed capital, what opportunity areas do you see over next 25-50-100 years for the purpose of massive value creation?

WB: Read everything in sight, when you have chance to talk to someone like Lorimer Davidson, you learn more in hours than you do in university. We've made money in many ways, some we didn't expect. We just kept looking. You knew, say during the Long Term Capital Management crisis, there would be opportunities to make money. A very high percentage of opportunities. Can't lay out in advance, need a mental reservoir to prepare yourself. It's a way of being programmed.

CM: First place to look is the inefficient markets - don't guess where one thing is happening.

WB: Have a lot going in areas where there are few others. The RTC [Resolution Trust Corporation] was a perfect example -- selling an asset in which they had no economic interest, the seller was motivated just to sell, not realize value. Buyers were more motivated. There won't be a scarcity of opportunities in your life, though you might have days when it feels like it.


Q: You purchased $5.3 billion in shares in the first quarter in the face of rising equity markets. What does it say about your attitude towards hurdle rates?

WB: Stocks didn't rise in Q1 (they didn't go down either), although they did go up last month. Did we change our standards? I don't think so, but you can't be 100% sure. If you haven't had a date in a month, you can say you would have dated that girl on the first day (Laughter)... but I think we would have dated that girl.

We've got plenty of money available, and we would sell stocks if we really needed to buy a big business. We're as prepared as we would ever be. We want a very attractive business. TTI was a great business -- wish it was five times the size. We know the kind of people we want, the kind of business we want, and one way or another, we'll swing [the bat].

CM: One thing I can tell you is that we won't make the kind of returns on our current investments that we made 10 or 15 years ago. It's a different world.

WB: We won't come close!


Q: On the use of Beta ... Why would a rational investor substitute volatility (the opinion of the market) for their own intellect? Could you expand on your thoughts?

WB: Volatility does not measure risk. The problem is that the people who have written and taught about risk do not know how to measure risk. Beta is nice because it is mathematical, it is easy to calculate and it is wrong - past volatility does not determine the risk of investing. In early 1980s, farmland that had gone for 2,000 an acre, went for $600 an acre. Beta shot up. I was apparently buying a riskier asset at $600 than at $2,000. Real estate not frequently traded. Stocks give you the ability to measure this volatility nonsense.

Because people who teach finance use the mathematics that they have learned, they translate volatility into all types of measures of risks -- it's nonsense. Risk comes from the nature of certain types of business, and from not knowing what you're doing. If you understand the economics of the business that you're engaged in and you trust the people you are partnering with, you're not running significant risk.

I don't think I can recall a loss on marketable securities with Charlie, even though we have bought securities with very high betas. Volatility as risk has been very useful for those who teach, never useful for us.

CM: We would argue that it's at least 50% twaddle, though these people have very high IQs. One of the reasons we've done well is that we recognized early on that very smart people will do very dumb things and we tried to figure out why (and who, in order to avoid them).

WB: A roulette wheel will pay a lot of money to the one [player], but we'd love to own a lot of roulette wheels.


Q: I'm curious to know who are your present day heroes (beyond your father, Davy, and Ben Graham)?

WB: I've got a number of them and I'm not sure I want to name them, because the ones you don't name might feel left out. But the one thing is that none of those people have ever let me down.

Choosing your heroes is very important. Associate with people who are better than you. Marry up and hope you can find someone who doesn't mind marrying down.

CM: You're not restricted to the living in choosing your mentors. Some of the best people are dead.


Q: Ethanol thoughts?

CM: The idea of running automobiles on corn is one of the dumbest I've ever seen. You want a social safety net. The most basic safety net is food and now you're going to raise the cost of food? I love Nebraska, but this is not my home state's finest moment.


Q: [From a 10-year old girl] What are the best ways a 10-year-old can make money?

WB: I thought a lot about that as a 10-year-old. [There are statistics according to which the] younger you were when you did your first piece of business correlates with better business success later on, which sort of makes sense. I probably tried about 20 different businesses by the time I got out of high school. Do whatever you can do that people don't want to do and will pay you to do. Ten years old is probably too young for paper delivery, you might have to wait until you're 13 or 14. Ask people what other people who were that age did to make money.

CM: Make yourself a very reliable person and stay reliable your entire life and it will be very difficult for you not to do well.

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Q: Dow Jones, Murdoch, what advice to give to long-suffering New York Times shareholders?

WB: I think the long-suffering shareholder has probably made a mistake -- we've said for a good many years that newspapers were overpriced as valuation was based on rear-view mirror, not window. The woes of the newspaper business are not connected to the difference in how they structure the equity at the New York Times or other places. Assume that Gutenberg, instead of inventing movable type decided to run a hedge fund to really make something of himself. If his descendant, Gutenberg the 28th, came along today with an idea to build expensive presses that run all night to deliver pieces of paper so they can read about what happened yesterday, I don't think we'd back him. The position of newspapers today still reflects past inertia and momentum. I don't care how smart you are, the forces you're going against are inexorable. Not much any genius can do about that. Used to sell 300,000 sets of World Book per year, they now sell about 22,000 sets -- not through any fault of World Book. Companies with no dual-share structures have suffered too -- look at Buffalo News, earnings are about 40% off the peak, and we have tremendous penetration and great management.

CM: The deal share structure was there at the beginning. It is a contractual agreement. To think that you can stamp your foot and cry for a change in the contract seems a little childish.


Annual and quarterly reports are here.