Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Too much time on his hands?

Courtesy of BoingBoing, we learn of the Disintegrator.

It's a full-auto rubber-band gun. According to the inventor's Web site, it has 24 revolving barrels, carries a full load of 288 rubber bands, and can fire over 40 bands a second (2,400 per minute, if you can reload fast enough!).

The video below shows the Disintegrator in action. WARNING: the video has the loudest and most obnoxious music I've heard in a while, so turn down the volume or shut the speaker off entirely!

*Sigh* . . . boys and their toys!


More fun with Lolcats

My favorite Lolcats site, I Can Has Cheezburger?, has had some extremely good entries over the past few days. I can't resist sharing a few. A click on each picture will take you to the original post on ICHC.


Ever heard of a 'memristor'?

Even if you haven't, you may soon be using one. Scientists at Hewlett-Packard have just built the first one - and it looks very interesting. According to a news report:

Basic electronics theory teaches that there are three fundamental elements of a passive circuit - resistors, capacitors and inductors.

But in the 1970s, Leon Chua of the University of California at Berkeley, theorised there should be a fourth called a memory resistor, or memristor, for short, and he worked out the mathematical equations to prove it.

Now, a team at Hewlett-Packard led by Stanley Williams has proven that 'memristance' exists. They developed a mathematical model and a physical example of a memristor, which they describe in the journal Nature.

. . .

Williams likens the property to water flowing through a garden hose. In a regular circuit, the water flows from more than one direction.

But in a memory resistor, the hose remembers what direction the water (or current) is flowing from, and it expands in that direction to improve the flow. If water or current flows from the other direction, the hose shrinks.

"It remembers both the direction and the amount of charge that flows through it. ... That is the memory," Williams said.

The discovery is more than an academic pursuit for Williams, who said the finding could lead a new kind of computer memory that would never need booting up.

"If you turn on your computer it will come up instantly where it was when you turned it off. That is a very interesting potential application, and one that is very realistic," Williams said.

I don't know so much about instant-boot computers. That's a 'nice to have', but hardly an essential. However, think about this thing in artificial intelligence systems. I programmed some primitive AI systems back in the 1980's. The idea was to have software - a program - that could assess and judge conditions and apply a solution in the real world. If one could have electronic components that have a 'memory', as this memristor seems to have, couldn't one associate AI software with hardware that also learns, or remembers, past states?

This could be very, very interesting for robotics. Watch this space.


Let your fingers do the . . . vomiting???

A news report warns that your computer keyboard may be five times dirtier and less hygienic than the average toilet seat.

Many users are at risk of becoming ill with stomach bugs, according to the consumer group Which?

It warned that 'qwerty tummy', named after the first six letters on a keyboard, could sweep through workplaces after tests on equipment in its own London offices showed alarming results.

One keyboard was so dirty that a microbiologist ordered it to be removed, quarantined and cleaned.

It had 150 times the acceptable limit for bacteria and was five times as filthy as a typical lavatory seat.

Anyone who eats a sandwich or piece of fruit having been tapping on such a keyboard can pick up bacteria that could lead to a stomach upset.

. . .

"The main cause of a bug-infested keyboard is eating lunch at desks, as the food deposits encourage the growth of millions of bacteria.

"Poor personal hygiene, such as dodging hand washing after going to the lavatory, may also be to blame.

"Most people don't give much thought to the grime that builds up on their PC, but if you don't clean your computer, you might as well eat your lunch off a lavatory seat."

Which? found that one in ten people never clean their keyboard, while 20 per cent never clean their mouse.

Around half cleaned their keyboard less than one a month.

Food for thought, that. I know I don't clean my keyboard regularly - but then, I'm the only one that uses it, so I'm not exposed to anything I haven't put there!

(I wonder what happened to that linguini alle vongole that fell down behind the spacebar a few months ago?)


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Now here's an offer you can't refuse!

Sometimes I find a Web page that makes me laugh out loud.

This is one.

From their advertising blurb:

Now you can own one of the actual bullets fired at Hillary Clinton by Bosnian Snipers in 1996.

From the harrowing tale of bravery lived by First Lady Hillary and daughter Chelsea, comes a rare historical artifact, an actual Bosnian Sniper's bullet, that very well could have changed the course of history forever.

The world witnessed it. History recorded it. Hillary told it!

After thousands of painstaking hours of investigation, exploration and tense negotiations with nefarious clandestine snipers and secret contacts within the Bosnian government, we finally acquired 418,387 bullets actually fired at Hillary Clinton at the Tuzla Airfield in Bosnia, 1996. These bullets we're only recently smuggled into the U.S. and are now available to the general public. These bullets are not just a part of history, they are history, and now you can own one of these rare and precious artifacts.

And perhaps my favorite testimonial from the site:

"All I can say is wow! My second chance to hold Clinton history in my hand!"
...Monica Lewinski, Former White House Intern

Needless to say, the site's a spoof . . . but a very well done one!


The motorized unicycle Segway clone???

I don't think I want one of these for Christmas, thank you.

According to the Daily Mail:

A young inventor has created a motorbike with a twist – it uses two wheels but they are positioned right next to each other, giving it the illusion of being a powered unicycle. And even better, it might help save the planet.

Ben Gulak has spent several years building the electric Uno that uses gyroscopic technology - like the infamous Segway commuter device - to stay upright.

The bizarre-looking contraption has only one switch - on or off - and is controlled entirely by body movement.

The rider leans forwards to accelerate to speeds of 25mph and back to slow down. It has two wheels side-by-side and has been turning heads wherever it has been ridden.

Don't get me wrong - I like motorcycles. However, I prefer to have my wheels fore and aft, with my feet forming the remaining corners of a nice diamond formation on the ground. They call it 'stability' - something I'm not sure I'd have astride that thing!

(Besides, local drivers would probably be so wide-eyed at seeing it they'd run into me!)


How many people drink the bathwater?

Fancy a frothy beauty treatment?

The Chodovar Family Brewery in the Czech Republic has come up with just the thing.

According to a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia:

Klara is a balneologist, a master and commander of the bath. She tells us that while a regular tap pipes in locally sourced Il-Sano mineral water, our tubs will also contain 8-10 litres of unpasteurised Chodovar 10, a dark brew that is pouring rapidly from a brass beer font fixed to the foot of each bath. Add some crushed herbs and dried yeast, mix it all together and you have a beer bath, excellent for "soothing muscles, warming joints and healing the complexion", according to the brewery.

. . .

"It is very beneficial for overall health," Prokes says. "It increases circulation, decreases blood pressure and purifies the skin because of the proteins, the high vitamin B content and also because of the minerals in the water." Soaking in beer, he adds, is also very relaxing for the mind and good for wellbeing.

. . .

At a tepid 34 degrees, the bathwater is a little lukewarm for my liking. It's also somewhat unsettling to see a crusty layer of herbs and beer foam forming on the surface. It's not at all as sticky as one would imagine but the taste (yes, I drank my own bathwater) is far from palatable.

But a few minutes later, the beer seems to be working its magic. I feel myself relax as we soak quietly, the gentle sound of Ave Maria piping from hidden speakers.

. . .

I had forgotten we need to drive back to Prague.

I can visualise being pulled up and the disbelief on the police officer's face.

"No officer," I'd have to explain. "I swear to you, I haven't been drinking. I've only been bathing in beer."

Y'know, I don't think that excuse would go down too well where I live. The police would be so horrified at the external, rather than internal, application of beer that they'd arrest you for heresy!


Monday, April 28, 2008

The wisdom of the unsage

Via e-mail from Fred (thanks, buddy!) I received these side-splitters.

1. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

2. A fine is a tax for doing wrong. A tax is a fine for doing well.

3. He, who laughs last, thinks slowest.

4. A day without sunshine is like, well, night.

5. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

6. Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't.

7. Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.

8. The 50-50-90 rule: Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you'll get it wrong.

9. It is said that if you line up all the cars in the world end-to-end, someone would be stupid enough to try to pass them.

10. If the shoe fits, get another one just like it.

11. The things that come to those that wait, may be the things left by those who got there first.

12. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit in a boat all day drinking beer.

13. Flashlight: A case for holding dead batteries.

14. The shin bone is a device for finding furniture in the dark.



If any of you are racing fans (of the automotive variety), you may have been watching the second round of the Le Mans series over the weekend.

If so, you would have seen Stéphane Ortelli total his Courage-Oreca LMP1 in rather spectacular fashion.

In case you missed it . . . here it is.

Would you believe he walked away from that with only an ankle injury?


Five centuries later, it works!

More than half a millennium ago (523 years, to be exact), Leonardo da Vinci designed a parachute.

His design languished unused and largely forgotten (probably because human flight was a few centuries ahead, and no-one thought of jumping out of windows with such things).

Since parachutes became more widespread, there's been interest in finding out whether Leonardo's design would work. There was one problem, however. He used a wooden frame to hold his parachute open. Such things don't fit very well through small aircraft doors - or into parachute packs, for that matter.

In 2000 Adrian Nicholas tried to use a parachute based on Leonardo's design. It didn't work properly, and he had to use a reserve chute (of more modern design) to reach the ground safely.

Last weekend Olivier Vietti-Teppa of Switzerland tried again - and succeeded.

His parachute was made of four equilateral triangles of cloth, seven yards to a side, with no wooden frame and a muslin mosquito-net at the base. He carried a modern reserve parachute, just in case, but didn't need it.

He said after the jump in Payerne, near Geneva: "It worked perfectly. I was unable to steer it, but I just glided gracefully to the ground.

"I came down smack in the middle of the tarmac at Payerne military airport. A perfect jump."

Nicely done, Sir! I hope that somewhere up there, Leonardo's spirit was smiling as you drifted past him.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Weekend Wings #16: First Across The Atlantic

For over half a century, aviation has been taken for granted by the public. From the end of World War II, civil aviation has offered fast, convenient service to almost anywhere on Earth (or, at least, near enough to make it easy to get the rest of the way by alternative means of transport). Accidents, while tragic and often spectacular, are relatively rare. Flying is (statistically speaking) the safest means of mass transport out there.

It wasn't always that way.

We tend to forget that one of the primary attributes of those who paved the way for future fliers wasn't skill, or knowledge, or enthusiasm (although they had all those in plenty). It was sheer, raw courage. They put their lives on the line every time they took off in their flimsy, frequently unreliable aircraft. With tragic regularity, some of them fell off that line and became statistics.

The Atlantic Ocean was probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome in the first quarter-century of flight. It claimed the lives of many fliers, and continued to do so even in the safer years that followed. Over the next three instalments of Weekend Wings I'd like to pay tribute to some of the gutsy, daring pioneers who first tamed the Atlantic.

In 1913 Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the London Daily Mail newspaper (amongst other media holdings), announced a prize of £10,000 (about $50,000 at then-current exchange rates, and worth about twenty times that today). It would be awarded to the first pilot(s) to cross the Atlantic in either direction between the North American continent and any point in the British Isles (including, at the time, all of Ireland). The flight had to take no longer than 72 consecutive hours, and the pilot had to finish in the same aircraft with which he started. Intermediate stops could only take place on water, and the pilot would have to take off again from approximately the same place he landed.

Glenn Curtiss, the first pilot to take off and land on water, was eager to take up the challenge. He posted the $500 entry fee and designed a flying boat for the crossing, named the America. (Click this and all other pictures for a larger view.)

By August 1914 it was ready, and the flight was scheduled for the 5th . . . only to have World War I break out on August 3rd. The dream of a Trans-Atlantic flight disappeared for the duration.

Towards the end of the war the US Navy contracted with the Curtiss Aeroplane And Motor Company to develop a new flying boat, very large for its day. It was designed for anti-submarine patrol, and the Navy specified that if possible it was to be able to fly across the Atlantic. This was desirable due to the menace of German submarines, which would make transporting it by ship too risky. Four aircraft were ordered in the first batch.

The prototype Curtiss NC-1 was powered by three 400hp Liberty L-12 engines in a tractor configuration (i.e. the propellers were mounted ahead of the engines, pulling the aircraft forward). It was equipped with a wireless transmitter and receiver and crew sleeping quarters. It first flew on October 4th, 1918.

In November 1918 it flew with 51 people on board, a world record. The three-engine configuration proved to be underpowered, so a fourth engine was added to subsequent aircraft. It was installed in an elongated central nacelle containing two engines. One pointed forward in tractor configuration, and another was mounted behind it in pusher configuration (i.e. the engine was reversed, pointing to the rear of the aircraft, with the propeller pushing air towards the tail). The pusher propeller had four blades, while the three tractor propellers had only two. This unique configuration is shown in the close-up photograph of the NC-4's engines below. Note the radiators mounted above the engines, behind the propellers.

The NC-2 was damaged during testing, and was cannibalized for spare parts. The NC-1 (upgraded to production standard), NC-3 and NC-4 went into service with the US Navy in early 1919. From their initials, they became affectionately known as the Nancy's.

Following the end of the war, British and other fliers were planning an assault on the North Atlantic, with the revived Daily Mail prize as a tempting reward. However, the rules had changed. No "ocean stoppages" would be permitted, and no aircraft of "enemy origin" were eligible. This barred the US Navy's giant flying boats and the large German bomber aircraft, both developed towards the end of the war, from competing.

Undaunted, the US Navy set up a Trans-Atlantic Flight Planning Committee to consider an attempt using its new NC flying boats. Commander G. C. Westerfelt submitted a 5,000-word proposal to the Committee, recommending the use of what he called "stake boats" at regular intervals along the course. They would serve as navigational route markers, and also rescue any fliers that had to come down in the water. His proposal was accepted by the Committee, which forwarded it to the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. It was enthusiastically supported by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and quickly approved.

The plan was initially classified "Secret", but due to an administrative oversight, orders assigning Commander John H. Towers to command NC Seaplane Division One, which would undertake the mission, were left unclassified and released to the press. A firestorm of publicity followed. (Towers would go on to become second-in-command of the Pacific Fleet during World War II, and command it after the war. Another famous admiral from World War II was also involved in the transatlantic flight: Lieutenant-Commander Mark A. Mitscher was one of the pilots aboard NC-1.)

The US Navy made an enormous commitment of time, money and ships to the project - almost 60 vessels, from destroyers to battleships, would be involved as "stake boats", and others would serve as "mother ships" for the flying boats. Naval Air Station Rockaway in New Jersey was selected as the start point for the trip. The photograph below shows two of the Nancy's, NC-3 and NC-4, at NAS Rockaway.

The attempt was almost derailed by a disastrous hangar fire on May 5th, 1919, which destroyed the tail of NC-4 and one wing of NC-1. However, Commander Towers recalled that some parts had been cannibalized from the decommissioned NC-2. Frantic telephone calls ascertained that NC-2's tail and wings were still available. They were rushed to NAS Rockaway and transplanted onto the damaged Nancy's, just in time for the flight.

On May 8th, 1919, the three Nancy's set off from Rockaway for Halifax, Nova Scotia. NC-1 and NC-3 made it safely, but NC-4, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Albert C. Read, was forced down at sea due to engine failure. She had to undergo repairs at Chatham Naval Air Station on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The following day NC-1 and NC-3 flew to Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, where NC-4 joined them on May 15th. She was almost too late: as she flew in over the bay, Read was horrified to see the other two Nancy's taxiing for take-off! Fortunately for NC-4's crew neither of the other two aircraft was able to get airborne that day, probably due to a fuel overload. NC-4 joined her squadron-mates, and the crews prepared their aircraft for the long leg across the Atlantic to the Azores.

Waiting for them in Trepassey Bay was the USS Aroostook, which had laid moorings for the flying boats. She would serve as their tender or "mother ship" while they waited to tackle the Atlantic. The first picture below shows her in an unknown harbor. In the second, NC-3 is taxiing past her in Trepassey Bay. NC-1 is moored in the background. NC-4 had not yet arrived.

All the Nancy's had experienced problems of one sort or another. NC-4 had been forced down at sea on two occasions due to engine problems, and she had a new engine installed at Trepassey Bay. There was no time to test it thoroughly, as the aircraft had to take advantage of the first favorable weather forecast. They waited at the moorings laid for them.

Also in Newfoundland was a US Navy patrol airship, the C-5, which was intended as a backup craft in case the Nancy's couldn't make the crossing. I couldn't locate a photograph of C-5, but the one below shows her sister airship, the C-7.

Unfortunately, C-5 broke loose from her moorings on May 15th during a gale (fortunately while no-one was aboard). She was blown out to sea and lost. Everything was now up to the flying boats.

On May 16th the Nancy's took off for the Azores. It was a difficult take-off, the heavily laden aircraft having to run cross-wind, and Commander Towers offloaded his radio transmitter in an attempt to save weight. All three finally made it into the air by late afternoon, and set off into the night.

The three photographs below show, from top to bottom, NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4 taking off from Trepassey Bay for the transatlantic flight.

Try to imagine the enormous difficulties facing the crews of the Nancy's. They were flying in open-cockpit aircraft, exposed to the freezing cold of the North Atlantic (they flew over icebergs for the first part of the journey). Each waiting warship was to transmit a message as soon as the aircraft flew over them, whereupon the next ship would commence firing star-shells at 5-minute intervals to guide the aircraft to them: but what if the aircraft became widely separated? The first aircraft would precipitate the signal, but then the ship sending it would stop firing star-shells. The following aircraft would thus be deprived of navigational references. Also, the presence of the ships was no guarantee of accuracy. As Commander Towers said later:

“Those who think that having destroyers 50 miles apart made navigation as easy as ‘walking down Broadway’ should have been with us that evening. It was not until darkness came on and they began to fire star shells at five-minute intervals that I could think of anything but finding the next destroyer. They could not be expected to be exactly on position, and if we didn’t find them just where we expected them, there was always the question, are they wrong or are we?”

The destroyers had been ordered to shoot to the North-West, at an angle of 75°, with their fuses set to detonate at 4,000 feet. The aircraft had been instructed to fly to the South of the ships, supposedly eliminating the risk of being hit by the star-shells. Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. As Commander Towers later reported:

“I had set a course which was taking us by the destroyers, just south of them, like clockwork, when finally as we approached one, it was apparent we would pass to north of it. I thought it was out of position and was reluctant to change my heading. Besides, I could see through the thin clouds and thought they could see us, too, so I kept right on. Having timed their shooting, I knew they were due to fire just about as we were in line. Either the destroyer didn’t see us or they didn’t believe in deviating one iota from their instructions for, right on the second, I saw the flash from the gun. The star shell exploded just under us. I glanced back and in the moonlight both Richardson and McCulloch looked as though they would like to take the navigation out of my hands."

The Nancy's carried special navigation instruments designed by US Navy Lieutenant R. E. Byrd, later to become a renowned polar explorer and Rear-Admiral. These instruments were of great importance, helping the aircraft stay on course at night, in cross-winds, and measure drift in the absence of any fixed landmarks. Improved versions would later accompany Byrd on his famous flight across the North Pole.

Thick fog added to the difficulties of navigation. After station ship 13, USS Bush, Towers in NC-3 did not see any more of the destroyers. He navigated by dead reckoning until he felt sure he was near the Azores. Afraid he might hit a mountain, he landed NC-3 in the Atlantic: but the huge swells damaged the aircraft so badly it could not take off again. The NC-1 did the same, suffering the loss of the lower section of her tail. Destroyers began searching for them, but NC-3 was South of the predicted course and NC-1 was North of it. Finding them would be neither quick nor easy.

Read in NC-4 had a much easier time of it. He chose to fly high, at about 3,000 feet, between layers of cloud. At that height fog wasn't a factor. He finally sighted the Azores at about 9.30 a.m. on May 17th. He was supposed to fly to Punta Delgado, but due to the poor weather decided to cut his journey short. He landed initially in the Bay of Praia, but after getting his bearings took off again and landed at the nearby harbor of Horta, where the cruiser USS Columbia was waiting.

Meanwhile, the rescue drama at sea was playing out. NC-1 sent an emergency message, and for five hours her crew ran the engines to keep her head to the mountainous waves, bailing out water and getting very seasick. Finally the Greek merchant ship Ionia appeared. Attempts to take NC-1 in tow failed due to the heavy seas, and the crew was evacuated. NC-1 sank, and her crew was taken to the Columbia in Horta.

Commander Towers in NC-3 accomplished a truly amazing feat of seamanship. He couldn't radio for help, having landed his transmitter before leaving Trepassey Bay. He and his crew sailed NC-3 backwards for 205 miles. He brought NC-3 to anchor in Punta Delgado on May 19th. The aircraft was too badly damaged to continue, which was a bitter disappointment to Towers, but he and his crew's courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds were justly acclaimed.

Read brought NC-4 to Punta Delgado on May 20th. The photograph below shows her anchored in the bay.

Meanwhile, an Australian pilot, Harry Hawker, and his navigator, Kenneth Grieve, took off from Newfoundland on May 18th to attempt the crossing. They disappeared in mid-Atlantic, and for a time were presumed to have drowned. Fortunately they were picked up by a passing ship, but she didn't have a radio transmitter, so their whereabouts weren't known for some days. Their presumed loss shook Britain and saddened their American counterparts in the Azores.

Commander Towers might have expected to take over NC-4 from Lieutenant-Commander Read to complete the journey. However, Secretary Daniels was adamant that since Read had been successful so far, he was to complete the journey. Towers was ordered to travel to England by destroyer. He must have been a very frustrated man!

Read took off from Punta Delgado early on the morning of May 27th, reaching Lisbon that evening. NC-4 thus became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, albeit with a mid-ocean stop-over. The map below, showing the warships stationed en route, has a small segment missing in the middle due to a defective original, but is otherwise accurate.

The photograph below shows NC-4 taxiing into Lisbon harbor.

On May 30th NC-4 left Lisbon for Plymouth, England, to complete her epic journey. After an overnight stop at Ferrol, Spain, she arrived on 31st May.

USS Aroostook was waiting, having lifted the moorings she'd laid in Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, then crossed the Atlantic to rendezvous with the flyers. Aroostook set about dismantling the NC-4 to ferry her back to America, while Read and his crew were lionized by the British press and aviation enthusiasts for their accomplishment. They attended civic receptions in Plymouth and London. The celebrations were enhanced by the safe arrival of the rescued Hawker and Grieve, who met NC-4's crew and exchanged congratulations.

The photograph below shows the six-man crew of NC-4, the first people to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. From left to right: Lt. E. F. Stone, USCG, pilot; Chief Machinist's Mate (Air) E. T. Rhoads, USN, Engineer; Lt. W. K. Hinton, USNRF, Pilot; Ens. H. C. Rodd, USNRF, Radio Operator; Lt. J. L. Breese, USNRF, Reserve Engineer; and LCdr. A. C. Read, USN, Commanding Officer and Navigator.

Upon their return to the USA the transatlantic flyers were greeted as heroes. Read made a recruiting tour of 39 cities, and NC-4 was restored to flying condition and sent around the country for the same purpose. She's shown here after reassembly. (You can get some idea of how big she is from the size of her pilots and crew.)

Six more NC series flying boats were ordered, NC-5 through NC-10. NC-4 made her final operational flight in 1922, and was put into storage. Many years later she was fully restored, and is now on display in the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, where her huge bulk dominates one wing of the display area.

She's well worth a visit (as is the whole Museum, one of my favorites. If you haven't been there, it's something you really should put on your "must-see" list.)

Somewhat belatedly, in 1929, the US Navy issued the NC-4 Medal to honor the achievement of Read's successful crew. It was awarded to only seven recipients: Read's crew and Commander Towers, who qualified for it as the overall Commanding Officer of the mission. It's one of the rarest US military medals. The names of all of NC-4's crew are inscribed on the medal, but Chief Rhoads' surname is wrongly spelled. He must have been more than a little irritated, as the mistake could never be corrected!

NC-4's flight was to be overshadowed within two weeks of its completion by another aircraft and crew. We'll talk about them in the next Weekend Wings.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

I've been tagged

Don has tagged me for the latest blog fad meme.

OK. Here goes.

The rules are:

1. Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. No cheating!
2. Find page 123.
3. Find the first five sentences.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

My three sentences:

True, German propaganda had built them up as a force to be dreaded, and their tough reputation alone worked wonders - many an enemy unit threw in the towel just knowing they were coming, whether they parachuted behind enemy lines or not. On the other hand, thought Linton more practically, the boots had not been very warm nor sufficiently sturdy for the tough winter conditions they had just endured.

So the rumors about Berlin electrified everyone at the base.

They're from David Stafford's excellent "Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter Of World War II". It's a superb reconstruction of the last days of the war in Europe, seen through the eyes of carefully selected participants: an American soldier in Italy, a war correspondent travelling with General Patton, a Canadian soldier in Holland, a female relief worker trying desperately to save survivors in the newly-discovered Nazi concentration camps, and others. It's my current nightstand book. Very highly recommended.

I'm not going to tag anyone, though. Those who feel like playing, go for it.


Mayhem in Chicago: politically correct insanity

I'm sure many of my readers have been following the story of the multiple shootings in Chicago last weekend. Three dozen of them left nine people dead and many others injured.

Criminal conduct, right? Yep. But do the police in Chicago come out and say that?

Like hell they do.

Police blame the warmer temperatures for the spike in violence.

"We know that we're approaching warmer weather, the summer season. We know that this is going to be a very busy season for the Chicago Police Department. There's no doubt about that," Bond said.

Chicago Police have also recently started using helicopter patrols to try to curb gang violence. Choppers will be flying over areas prone to gang activity, especially on weekends when more shootings seem to occur.

Well, in the third paragraph of the quote, they finally said something useful. Turns out that "gang violence" is a factor. It's still not identified as criminal, mind you - and the warm weather might even be responsible for the gangs. You never know.

This weekend, according to another news report, "police planned to increase patrols and put SWAT officers and specialized units on the streets" to prevent more such incidents.

In the same report, Mayor Daley issued yet another fatuous, ridiculous, idiotic, ideologically blinkered and utterly ineffectual statement.

A fired-up Daley blasted the gun industry and called on parents and adults to do their part by intervening to help troubled youth and by working to keep others on the right path.

"I don't want people to wait for Mayor Daley to call a meeting. I want you to call a meeting in your home with your children and loved ones. I want you to go next door and talk to those children next door. I want the parents of the block to say 'This block will be free of violence,'" he said.

It is key for children to be occupied in after-school or other programs so they stay out of trouble, especially when they're not in a classroom, Daley said.

Mayor, I have news for thee. It's not the gun-makers who are pulling the triggers on your streets - it's criminal thugs! And thanks to your anti-gun stance that has seen the defensive use of handguns (and even their possession) made extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, those thugs can terrorize innocent citizens without much fear of retaliation. And your variety of "fired-up" indignation is a major part of the reason why others are getting rather more literally "fired up" on your streets.

If your gang-bangers didn't have guns, they'd use machetes, or baseball bats (as did another famous Chicago resident, a certain Mr. A. Capone, if I recall correctly), or Molotov cocktails, or whatever else comes to hand. They do so daily in prison. I know. I've worked in a high-security prison. I had the dubious privilege of meeting many Chicago gangster types inside its walls. Long may they stay there.

Guns aren't the problem, Mayor Daley. As always in the history of the human race, bad people are the problem. If you don't get that, you don't get anything. Period.

Other "activists" in Chicago seem to have no greater sense.

Tio Hardiman, executive director of CeaseFire, an anti-violence group, said young people need help finding alternatives to the streets.

"We need to go right to the corners and find out what some of these young people want to do, identify some employers that are willing to hire maybe 30 from this neighborhood, 30 from another neighborhood and try to get them hired somewhere so then we can get them off the corners."

Uh-huh, Mr. Hardiman. You really expect me, or anyone else, to hire people off the street - from areas where their inhabitants' main leisure-time activity seems to involve murder and mayhem?

Dream on, buddy.

Let's take a look at where the problem lies. This map shows the location of the recent shootings on a map of the greater Chicago area. The blue markers represent shootings: the red ones, fatal shootings. (Click the map for a larger view.)

Greater Chicago doesn't have a problem. Certain very specific suburbs or areas have the problem. If you want to deal with it, Mayor Daley, then deal with those areas. Deal with the rampant gang activity, the drug-dealing, the prostitution, the endemic "welfare culture" of a great many who live there. Force the people of those areas to stand on their own two feet, without keeping them dependent on handouts from the State that have turned many of them into welfare junkies. Tell them that if they persist in screwing up their own areas, you won't spend another nickel on fixing the problems they themselves have caused. Do all that . . . and you might get somewhere.

I don't think you'll do anything of the sort, unfortunately. That same "welfare culture" ensures a nice, solid block of votes for people like you who "talk the talk", but have neither the intention nor the ability to "walk the walk".

Areas and cities with more level-headed inhabitants don't have this problem, Mayor Daley. I recall when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The city where I live had an influx of "refugees" from there, including many gang-bangers and thugs. They promptly tried to do to us what they'd become used to doing in New Orleans . . . and got the shock of their lives. You see, in our town many of us (most?) are armed; we don't have a problem looking out for ourselves and each other; and we're absolutely determined that our streets will not become the sewers and shooting galleries (of more than one variety) that you've permitted yours to become, Mayor Daley.

One of my fonder post-Katrina memories was watching two local cops handcuff three New Orleans gang-bangers prior to putting them in durance vile.

One of them, still blubbering from the shock of having a female shop assistant shove the muzzle of a twelve-gauge shotgun under his nose and invite him to "Go for it, dumbass!", said tearfully to one cop, "But dis NEVAH happen in New Oh-Leen!"

The cop looked at him, rather irritably (euphemism!), and retorted, "Yeah . . . but this ain't New Orleans!"

(Preach it, brother!)

You make me sick, Mayor Daley, as do all those of your ilk. Shame on you - and on all those dumb enough to elect politicians like you.


A 30-year-old Twinkie: gone but not forgotten

A little whimsical food-and-science content for your enjoyment.

I was amused to read of the retirement of a science teacher in Maine after 31 years. It seems Mr. Roger Benatti had some innovative ideas to keep his students interested. One of them was to place an unwrapped Twinkie in his classroom to see what would happen to it over time.

Speckled with bits of mold, the bright yellow cake still adorns his lab, but Bennatti only vaguely remembers why he kept the Twinkie so long.

"We wanted to see what the shelf life of a Twinkie was," said Bennatti. "The idea was to see how long it would take to go bad."

The Twinkie stayed on top of the board through his career — joined in later years by a Fig Newton — and occasionally inspired new food experiments. Bennatti estimates the ever-yellow Twinkie is about 30-years-old.

"It's rather brittle, but if you dusted it off, it's probably still edible," Bennatti said. "It never spoiled."

Mr. Bennatti retired last year, but all is not lost. The historic Twinkie has been rescued by another teacher, and will be displayed in her classroom.

I enjoy the fun and games surrounding Twinkies. There's an entire Web site devoted to 'scientific' experiments involving them. The 'scientists' have even written (bad) haiku about them! A few examples:

Twinkies don't burn well
unless doused in alcohol.
Then they make good fires.

Microwaved Twinkies
emit a great deal of smoke
and smell very bad.

Is the Twinkie smart?
Is it just ignoring us?
Maybe never know.

My suggestion for their next experiment: can Twinkies be used to make ethanol and thus contribute to the fight against global warming?


Friday, April 25, 2008

Politics, aptly summed up

In this election season, the photograph below (received via e-mail from Fred - thanks, buddy!) says it all.

Click for a larger view.

I think it was Churchill who once spoke about 'the politics of the sewer'. I think he'd approve!


How do you make prehistoric buffalo wings?

First, you catch your Tyrannosaurus Rex!

I'm delighted to read of a study by Dr. John Asara and his colleagues at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.

Dinosaurs may have been more closely related to chickens than reptiles, according to a report released on Thursday.

. . .

Molecular analysis, or genetic sequencing, of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex protein from the dinosaur's femur confirms that T. rex shares a common ancestry with chickens, ostriches, and to a lesser extent, alligators, scientists said.

“Last year we just made a very loose connection based on (protein) sequence identification and we had no reptiles," Asara said. "And now with very high probability we can make the connection of T. rex to birds."

. . .

"We determined that T. rex, in fact, grouped with birds--ostrich and chicken--better than any other organism that we studied," he said. "We also showed that it groups better with birds than modern reptiles, such as alligators and green anole lizards."

The mind boggles at the thought of a six- to seven-ton chicken, forty feet long from nose to tail, with a five-foot-long head, and jaws equipped with rows of jagged teeth!

Hmmm . . . I wonder how you deep-fry that sucker? Would Colonel Sanders' secret blend of eleven herbs and spices improve the flavor? How many serving-size pieces would KFC be able to cut from it?

(And just think of the meat on that drumstick!)


Prove dat mumbo-jumbo, man!

I love it!

LONDON (Reuters) - Fortune-tellers, mediums and spiritual healers marched on the home of the British prime minister at Downing Street on Friday to protest against new laws they fear will lead to them being "persecuted and prosecuted".

Organizers say that replacing the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 with new consumer protection rules will remove key legal protection for "genuine" mediums.

They think skeptics might bring malicious prosecutions to force spiritualists to prove in court that they can heal people, see into the future or talk to the dead.

Psychics also fear they will have to give disclaimers describing their services as entertainment or as scientific experiments with unpredictable results.

. . .

With the changes expected to come into force next month, spiritualists have faced a barrage of headlines gleefully suggesting that they should have seen it coming.

I think such legislation is long overdue. What the news report doesn't specify is that it applies, not to those who participate in (or conduct) such activities as a voluntary activity, but those who offer such services for money.

I've never met a medium, or spiritualist, or 'psychic healer', who could convince me that they were genuine. Not even close. They could never produce any verifiable, empirical evidence of healings or 'manifestations' that could be measured scientifically. Unfortunately, there are many gullible people out there who've been taken to the financial cleaners by such charlatans. I'm all for limiting the opportunity for such fraud.

Of course, there will be those who argue that organized religion might be considered in the same light. You may be shocked to learn that I agree with them. I'm a believer, a retired pastor: but I have to admit, some of the shenanigans of televangelists, preachers of 'miracle crusades' (which seem to come through my part of the country with monotonous regularity), and the like, are stomach-turning. I classify them in the same category as fake psychics and fortune-tellers.

To me, one's religion is something one does, not something one talks about. Action speaks louder than words. If you believe something, live it! I won't call someone a Christian just because he or she verbally professes that belief and goes to church every Sunday. I've known many such people who live the most Godless and sinful lives imaginable once they get home. Similarly, I've known some out-and-out atheists and skeptics whom I regard as fine men and women, more Christian in their behavior and treatment of others than most of those you'll find in church. In my understanding of God and faith, such people will have their reward. So will the other variety.

My faith isn't threatened when others mock it or refuse to share it. I try to show it by the way I live. If that evidence makes some people want to know more, I'm grateful. If they don't like what they see, if it isn't convincing, the fault isn't God's - it's mine, for not living as I should. And I don't think churches should demand an automatic tithe, or a set 'fee' or 'planned giving' on a regular basis. Isn't that a bit like psychic charlatans demanding money up front?

If those churches are doing God's work, their actions rather than their words will convey it. Those who are convinced by the way they see God's word being lived out on a daily basis will contribute, because such contributions are part of living a shared faith. They're voluntary and given from the heart. On the other hand, if people don't see that sort of faith in action, if they don't see the fruits of belief, why should they be asked to pay on the basis of a legalistic formula? Isn't that what a mandatory tithe really is - legalism?

(I'm probably going to be blasted as heretical by many of my minister friends for saying that, but oh, well, . . . )


Thursday, April 24, 2008

A hunk of burning love - literally?

I've already mentioned the perhaps over-enthusiastic use of the Taser by police.

There's one guy in Canada who might have a whole new reason to dislike the thing.

A Hamilton man Tasered by police is in hospital after the stun gun ignited a "flammable object" in his pants, burning him.

The incident is under review by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which probes all police-related deaths and serious injuries. According to the SIU, police were called to a Queenston Road apartment in Hamilton's east end around 9 p.m. Thursday.

"Three officers went there in response to a disturbance call," said SIU spokesman Frank Phillips yesterday. "During the interaction, an officer discharged his Taser. A flammable object the man had in the waistband of his pants ignited."

Like the title of this post (and the song) says . . . "a hunk of burning love", perhaps?


A new entry for my 'Must Buy' list

I'm an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and used to be far more involved with the field than I am today. Back in the 1970's I used an Olympus OM-1 system, and graduated to a Nikon SLR system in the 1980's. Today, in the digital age, I use the Pentax digital SLR series.

We take all this equipment and technology for granted - but in the early days of photography, things were very different. Experimentation and adaptation were the order of the day. Take the beginning of color photography, for example.

It was not until 1907 that autochrome - the process through which colour photographs were first produced - was invented in Paris.

For the first time, vivid pictures of a world still largely unexplored were revealed to a mesmerised public.

And it was all thanks to the humble potato.

It was by using microscopic grains of potato starch that brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere revolutionised photography.

They spread four million of them - dyed in shades of red, green and violet - over a glass plate, compressing them with a roller.

When the plate was exposed to light, the potato grains acted as filters and yielded a startling colour image.

French millionaire and philanthropist Albert Khan was among the first to see the possibilities of autochrome.

He poured his entire fortune into hiring a team of photographers, which he dispatched to more than 50 countries.

His aim was to make a record of all the people of the world.

Khan, one of the richest men in Europe, was forced to abandon his work in 1931, after losing everything in the Wall Street Crash.

However, his legacy of more than 72,000 autochromes . . . give an invaluable glimpse of the world at the beginning of the 20th century.

I'm fascinated to learn that BBC Books is bringing out a volume of his best photographs. This one goes straight on my "Must Buy" list! Art and history all in one go!


It's true - when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns!

That phrase is hated and derided by the anti-gun lobby, but it's starkly and undeniably true.

Further evidence of that truth has just come to light in Britain, where the Home Office's British Crime Survey has released its latest figures.

Sixty people a week are being wounded as gun crime continues to rise, Home Office figures have revealed.

Firearms incidents rose by four per cent last year to just under 10,000 - meaning that guns are now featuring in almost 30 offences every day.

The number of people killed or wounded rose to 3,048.

. . .

The four per cent year-on-year rise in gun crime comes despite massive police efforts to crack down on illegal firearms.

During 2007 some 49 people were shot dead. down from 56 the year before. The number of serious-injuries also fell, from 424 to 355, but there was a surge in less serious injuries, up five per cent from 2,518 to 2,644.

The number of threats with guns rose by the same proportion to 5,282.

This, in a nation that banned the private possession of almost all handguns in 1997. Even the national Olympic team has to practice abroad.

Why can't anti-gunners get their heads around straightforward, simple logic?

If you ban guns, only those who respect and obey the law will obey the ban.

Criminals don't obey the law in the first place. Why are we surprised when they disobey yet another law, banning the tools of their trade?

Banning guns disarms the good guys, not the bad guys. The results are universally the same, and are reflected in the latest figures from Britain. No surprise there.

A gun is an inanimate object. I could place a gun on my desk right now, loaded, cocked, safety catch off, pointing right at me . . . and nothing would happen. Without a finger on the trigger, it won't go bang. It's not the gun that's the threat - it's the person wielding it.

When a child is killed by a drunk driver, we don't blame the car - we blame the person behind the wheel. When a pilot misjudges his landing and crashes an aircraft, we don't blame the plane - we blame the person flying it. Yet, when a gun is used in a crime, the anti-gunners go into hysterics blaming the gun, rather than the person wielding it.

An inanimate object is morally neutral. It's neither good nor evil. It can be used for good, or for evil, but the good or evil of its use is determined by the person using it, not its own intrinsic nature. I can use a baseball bat for perfectly good and legitimate purposes, like knocking a ball around the park . . . or I can fracture innocent skulls with it. Same bat, same operator, but whether the action is good or evil depends on my use of the bat - not the bat itself.

To argue otherwise makes no rational sense whatsoever.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, though. Logic and rational thought have never been part of the anti-gunners' platform . . .

In the same way, not all so-called "gun violence" is bad. (I can hear the anti-gunners screaming already!) Gun violence by a criminal is certainly bad. However, gun violence by a citizen legitimately defending him- or herself against criminal attack isn't bad - it's good. (Provided, of course, that it uses only sufficient force to stop the attack and doesn't become vigilante justice.) When a policeman uses his gun to shoot a felon, in general, that's a good thing: because if he hadn't, the felon might have hurt or killed him, or someone else, or gotten away to hurt and kill another day.

No, Bambi, not all gun violence is bad.

When you read the screeds of anti-gun propaganda, think about it. Who's acknowledging reality? The gun-grabbers? Or those who recognize reality when it slaps them in the face?


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Darwin strikes again

I was saddened to read of the death of Stephan Miller. Saddened - and bloody angry!

You see, Mr. Miller was bitten to death by a five-year-old grizzly bear known as Rocky, who starred in the film "Semi-Pro".

Three experienced handlers were working with the grizzly Tuesday at the Predators in Action wild animal training center when the bear attacked Stephan Miller, 39, said San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers.

Stephan Miller is the cousin of training center owner Randy Miller, she said.

Pepper spray was used to subdue and contain the bear, and there were no other injuries, Beavers said. Paramedics arriving shortly after the initial emergency call around 3 p.m. were unable to revive Stephan Miller.

The state Department of Fish and Game and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were investigating the incident.

Fish and game spokesman Harry Morse told the San Bernardino Sun Tuesday his department would not decide whether the bear will be euthanized because the attack occurred outside its jurisdiction during a training session on facility grounds.

Morse speculated that the county animal care officials may decide the bear's fate.

This brings Timothy Treadwell to mind. He was the doofus who tried to pretend that he could walk with bears, live with them, understand them. He allegedly said that whilst he didn't believe he'd be killed by bears, if it ever happened he'd be proud to be bear scat. Well, he ended up that way - at least in semi-digested scat form, as officials killed the bear that ate him before it had the chance to deposit his terminally-digested remains on the ground. It's unfortunate that a bear didn't teach him that lesson before Treadwell persuaded his girlfriend to accompany him on his last excursion. She, too, ended up a victim of bears.

Why is Rocky being blamed for doing what comes naturally to a grizzly bear? You might as well blame a lion for eating meat, or the wind for blowing, or the clouds for raining.

Rocky's a grizzly bear.

Bears are predators.

Sooner or later, if you fool around with them, you're going to be prey.

Live with it.

(Or die with it, as the case may be.)

I hope someone will have the common sense and decency to transport Rocky to one of the bear sanctuaries around the country, where he can live out his life as a bear should. Regrettably, if he's grown too used to human beings, that probably won't work, and he'll have to be euthanized.

However, if that happens, never let it be said that Rocky was euthanized for being dangerous. He's a predator! Predators are dangerous by definition!

No, Rocky will die because humans failed him by ignoring his true nature and treating him as something he wasn't - cute. And that's not his fault.


The perils of Web-based computing

This isn't going to be a technical discussion, don't worry.

Microsoft has just announced its Live Mesh initiative. This will seamlessly integrate data and applications on your computer and the Web, and you'll be able to store your data in a central location where you can retrieve it from any computer. It's Microsoft's answer to Adobe's AIR and Google Gears, both of which address the same issue. The field is often called "cloud computing", which isn't a bad description - everything's up in a cloud of computers. Somewhere.

These sound fine and dandy, but there are three issues that the developers and boosters of these and similar products haven't addressed to my satisfaction.

The first is security. We read almost daily of data being lost by Government departments, banks and commercial firms. It's endemic. How can any user be sure that his or her data will be secure when it's all on a server somewhere on the Web? The server might not even be in his own country - it could be in China, Russia or Nigeria, where computer hackers run rampant. For all the assurances that one's data is 'safe', I guarantee right now that such data will be accessed by unauthorized persons at some stage. Probably sooner rather than later.

The second is reliability. I rely on the Web very heavily for research and other activities, but at least when there's a slowdown due to heavy traffic, or a lightning strike takes out my neighborhood cable for a few hours, I can work on my computer using my data and applications. If all those are stored on a server somewhere in the never-never-land of the Web, and I can't access them - then what? If terrorists take out key cables or nodes - as appears to have happened recently in the Middle East, taking down Internet services to several countries for days and weeks - what happens to little old me?

The third is privacy. Google already retains copies of every single e-mail sent and received by Google Mail clients. Even if you delete them from Google's mail service, their servers still retain backup copies. Google mines those e-mails for personal information to tailor advertisements delivered to you. What are you betting that Google won't do precisely and exactly the same to your personal information, files, data, pictures and everything else you store on their servers? And if you think that Microsoft, Adobe or any other company won't do precisely the same thing, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills.

No, you can count me out of the integrated online environment, thank you very much. I'll continue to keep my own applications and my own data on my own hard drive, and back them up onto my own devices.


I've had it with damnfool fashions!

Would someone please tell me why some women insist on dressing like tarts, floozies, prostitutes, hookers, sluts - call it what you will?

(I specifically exempt ladies from this criticism. Ladies are women who have some sense of self-respect. Regrettably there are far fewer ladies around today than there used to be. For those of my readers who fit this definition, a heartfelt Thank You!)

The latest outrage is this.

Yes, it's an ultra-low-cut pair of jeans with a semi-bikini (if I can dignify those scraps of material with that name) above it.

For anyone tempted to wear one of these culotte catastrophes, allow me to point out a couple of facts.

1. You'll be on display like a side of beef in a butcher's shop. Why???

2. To any man with a sense of respect for women, you'll be a slap in the face - because you'll be flaunting the fact that you neither want, nor are worthy of, any respect whatsoever.

3. To your neighborhood gang-bangers and rapists, you'll be clearly asking for whatever you get. You don't believe me? Try working in a high-security prison, as I have. Listen to the sex offenders brag.

- "I gave that ho what she was lookin' for!"

- "O' course she wanted it, dressed like that!"

- "Bitch hangs it all out like that, she's ready, bro."

I haven't made up a single one of those statements - and I've left out others that I won't publish in my blog for reasons of language and decency.

And for those men who look at those jeans, snigger, and say, "Yeah, I'd like to see my gal in those!" - consider this.

Would you let your early-teen daughter wear them?

Why not?

If you don't want her to wear them, why do you want any other woman to wear them?

Oh, for the days when clothes were carefully chosen to frame and set off a woman's beauty! Today they seem to be designed to serve only as the rim of a sewer manhole! (And yes, I'm aware of the double implication of that word. I use it deliberately.)

To my lady readers - am I crazy? I'd love to hear from you in Comments.