Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Quote of the day

From a cop friend, speaking of motorcycle accidents (he refuses to be identified even by his initials, preferring to be known as 'anonymous cop'):

A majority of the M/C crashes that I see are a combination of Asshativeness, Squidlyness and Dumbassification. Occasionally ETOH is tossed in, but rarely, and when it is, bleach is in order as well as the medical examiner.

Says it all, doesn't it?


Zippered luggage isn't very secure

For those who travel with zippered cases or bags, there's food for thought.

A video posted at Nokia MOSH shows how very easy it is to open a zipped case. It can even be re-sealed, leaving no trace of illicit entry.

Worth watching . . . and perhaps switching to luggage fastened more securely!


A different kind of beer

Following yesterday's post on the wine industry, I thought I'd balance the books bottles by taking a look at a couple of interesting articles on beer.

According to ABC Science of Australia, beer has been made from yeast that's up to 45 million years old.

A tiny colony of yeast trapped inside a Lebanese weevil covered in ancient Burmese amber for up to 45 million years, has been brought back to life in barrels of beer.

Emeritus Professor Raul Cano of the California Polytechnic State University, originally extracted the yeast a decade ago, along with more than 2000 different kinds of microscopic creatures.

Today, Cano uses the reactivated yeast to brew barrels of pale ale and German wheat beer.

"You can always buy brewing yeast, and your product will be based on the brewmaster's recipes," says Cano. "Our yeast has a double angle: We have yeast no one else has and our own beer recipes."

The beer received good reviews at the Russian River Beer Festival and from other reviewers. The Oakland Tribune beer critic, William Brand, said the beer has "a weird spiciness at the finish," and The Washington Post said the beer was "smooth and spicy."

Part of that taste comes from the yeast's unique metabolism. "The ancient yeast is restricted to a narrow band of carbohydrates, unlike more modern yeasts, which can consume just about any kind of sugar," says Cano.

Eventually the yeast will likely evolve the ability to eat other sugars, which could change the taste of the beer. Cano plans to keep a batch of the original yeast to keep the beer true to form.

If this has a ring of deja vu, it could be because Cano's amber-drilling technique is the same one popularised in the movie Jurassic Park, where scientists extracted ancient dinosaur DNA from the bellies of blood-sucking insects trapped in fossilised tree sap.

Cano's original goal was to find ancient microscopic creatures that might have some kind of medical value, particularly pharmaceutical drugs.

Interesting! If I find myself out West, I'll have to look for a bottle of Professor Cano's beer to sample. Perhaps Stingray or Labrat, living closer to California and having research contacts there, could arrange a taste-test and post the results on their blog for us?

(I particularly liked the international flavor. Yeast from a Lebanese weevil, covered in Burmese amber, converted to beer in California? That's globe-trotting for you!)

The article above contained a link to another on ABC Science, concerning - of all things - chocolate beer.

People in Central America were drinking beverages made from cacao before 1000 BC, hundreds of years earlier than once thought, a new study shows.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit.

These beverages were around 500 years earlier than the frothy chocolate-flavored drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

But in brewing this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks, the paper says.

"In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste," says John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.

"It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink."

More information at the link.

I've never had a chocolate-based beer . . . but I'm willing to experiment. All in the interests of science, you know!


Thoughts on the financial crisis

I've been following the drama in Washington over the so-called "rescue package" for banks and financial institutions, as have we all, I guess.

I'm both depressed, and mad as hell, because none of the politicians spearheading the "rescue package" are being honest about the origins of the problem. Furthermore, none of them are being honest about the future.

Let's take a look at where this all started. It's actually quite simple, and has two elements.

One is that financial markets have been steadily deregulated, and standards of supervision relaxed. This has happened because lobbyists (read: 'those who bribe legislators on behalf of outside interests') have worked steadily on politicians to get them to change laws, or amend regulatory standards, in the interests of their clients. "Need some money for your 're-election fund', Congressman? You want your son (or daughter) to get a scholarship to an Ivy League university? You need a zero-interest mortgage on a holiday property? You need the free use of a corporate jet to fly to some jet-setter's paradise for the weekend? We can help you - but first, would you please help us out by voting for (or against) this, or that, or the other law?" Money talks - and the banks and financial institutions made their money talk to politicians, so that they could make even more money. Greed. On both sides.

The second is the 'entitlement culture' that infests our political system at the moment. There are many forms of it: spending on education, housing, welfare, family assistance, and a host of other things. A couple of decades ago, pressure began to help poor families to buy their own homes. This resulted in laws encouraging 'entitlement banking' (note that there are two links there, both important). These basically penalized financial institutions if they didn't make loans to sectors of society that had historically not met their standards for an acceptable-risk loan. These laws punished banks who didn't make such loans by restricting their ability to do business in other fields. Not surprisingly, the banks complied - and the legislators compounded their folly by not only allowing, but encouraging quasi-Governmental organizations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to underwrite such high-risk loans.

In other words, a very large part of the current crisis has been created by our politicians, who were either negligent in their duty to act in the best interests of the country (instead of pandering to their 'base', whoever those groups might be, or accepting money for their 're-election funds', or other benefits, from special interest groups and their lobbyists), or deliberately sought to undermine sound fiscal discipline in the interests of a partisan ideological perspective.

Those same politicians are the ones who are now trying to legislate a way out of this mess. No wonder so many Americans are profoundly suspicious of their attempts. We don't believe they're honest to begin with: and we worry about the hidden agendas in their legislation, that will funnel even more Government money - OUR money, since it's our taxes that provide it - to 'special interests' or pork-barrel politics or greedy fat-cats.

What about the actual need for a 'rescue package'? Is it truly a necessity at this time, or is it just another political smoke-screen? A few days ago I quoted H. L. Mencken:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed [and hence clamorous to be led to safety] by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

Is this whole financial mess just another hobgoblin?

Unfortunately, it's more than just a scare tactic. Many financial institutions will go broke unless they're thrown a lifeline. Whilst most of us, as individuals, may not be affected by their bankruptcy in a direct, immediate and personal way, we certainly will be affected indirectly. You see, those institutions are the ones that have bought up the ill-advised mortgages issued by 'regular' banks at the behest of politicians. They didn't only buy them: they 'securitized' them and sold them on to investors (both corporate and individual) in this country and around the world. A depressingly large proportion of the US private national debt (as opposed to State debt) is now tied up in such financial instruments. If the institutions that issued them go under, the instruments they've sold become essentially valueless - and that means that the overseas money that helps keep the US economy afloat will probably dry up, as investors will be reluctant (to put it mildly) to throw good money after bad. That certainly will affect all of us.

It's a worldwide picture. As Max Hastings wrote in England today:

We are entering a new world, the landscape of which is still shrouded in mist.

Its most obvious characteristic is that both states and peoples will have less to spend.

For years ahead, outside the oil-producing countries and gangster cultures such as that of Russia, conspicuous consumption will become unfashionable.

Just as the heady, decadent Twenties gave way to the much more sober and austere Thirties following the Crash of 1929, so in the next decade we are likely to see less champagne drunk, fewer yachts launched, the eclipse of in-yer-face extravagance.

People who make real things, as distinct from mere money, and do real jobs as distinct from manipulating idiot financial-instruments, should regain some of the respect which they lost in the Age of Greed.

Government spending will be drastically curbed. The Exchequer will lack tax revenues or borrowing capacity to pay an army of political correctness enforcers, to fund the bloated benefits system and grandiose public works.

Much of this will seem welcome to ordinary people. For years, they have recoiled - and not out of envy or meanness - from the excesses of Wall Street, the City and the Exchequer. They instinctively understood that surfing upon oceans of cash was as corrupting as drug addiction or over-eating

We have become a morally obese society. Now it is diet time, with a vengeance.

Unfortunately, however, and as I suggested here a fortnight ago, neither in Britain nor in the U.S. can we allow ourselves the luxury of revenge upon the pretty horrible and incompetent people who have got us into this mess.

It is vital that the financial system should recover from this shambles, that Wall Street and the City should once more play a dominant part in the affairs of the world.

If primacy in this field passes to Asia, as our manufacturing has already done, then our future in the 21st century will look bleak indeed.

Delicious as it would be to see some bankers swinging gently in the autumn breeze from lampposts outside their offices, we cannot afford that indulgence.

We should pray that the U.S. Congress thinks better of its impulse on Monday, prompted by the fury of the American people, who wanted to leave the bankers to face the consequences of their great failure. If they go down, we go with them.

To recall Kipling's words after the Boer War, we have had no end of a lesson. The hubris of Anglo-American capitalism has been brought low in a fashion which even three months ago would have seemed unimaginable.

All of us are going to lose money - the only question is how much. Some of us are going to forfeit jobs and homes - the only uncertainty concerns how many.

I agree with the skeptics that the currently-proposed 'rescue package' is full of pork, loaded down with handouts to 'special interests', and highly unsatisfactory at best. It needs radical change before it'll be even remotely acceptable. However, some sort of 'rescue package' is probably necessary. Whether we'll get a good one, or whether we (and our children, and our children's children) will be saddled with the catastrophically high costs of yet another Washington boondoggle, is up to us.

I urge all readers to contact their Congressional representatives and Senators, making it clear to them that we'll hold them accountable for their votes on this issue. If they vote for another boondoggle, throw them out of office at the next election. That sort of promise gets the attention of professional politicians better than almost anything else - they don't want to be thrown off the Washington gravy train!

For myself, I'd like to see any 'rescue package' include the following elements:

  • No money at all to financial institutions unless and until all executives who received massive bonuses and other rewards for getting us into this mess are forced to repay the entire amount, plus interest. If they can't be made to do so, then the institutions that paid out these inflated, ridiculous benefits should be fined an equal amount as punishment;
  • Any payout to any financial institution should be matched by the US Government being given a matching equity position in that institution, based on its current market value, to be held by a specially established Government agency, and sold as soon as prudent and possible on the open market to recoup for the Government the money it's paid out;
  • No money at all to financial institutions in exchange for their worthless investments. If such investments are financially unsound in private hands, they'll be equally unsound in Government hands;
  • If home-owners can't afford the terms of their loans, let the 'rescue agency' established by the Government buy the loans from the banks at fair market value - not the inflated value the banks put upon them, or the ridiculous valuations of homes often given by so-called 'experts', but the actual value of the home(s) concerned based upon their current market worth. That way, the 'rescue package' will directly benefit the people who most need it - ordinary Americans, not the fat-cats of the banking world.

The last point can be achieved fairly easily. Market value of any home can easily be determined by taking the price paid for all homes in a given suburb or sub-division or area over the past year; dividing the price paid for each home by its area in square feet; and coming up with an average price per square foot for homes in that area. This can be adjusted up or down by up to, say, 25% for a particularly nice or particularly poor property. That should lower the valuations involved quite substantially - and the banks will have to write off the balance on their books as a 'bad investment', which will be suitable punishment for their greed. The home-owners can then negotiate repayment terms based on actual value. If they can't meet even those payments, they don't deserve to be in their own home. That's an economic fact of life. Under those circumstances, let their homes be sold to the highest bidder and the loans liquidated.

One final wish. As part of the 'rescue package', I'd like to see every politician who contributed to the problem by pushing for inappropriate loans to those who couldn't afford them, or resisted pressure to investigate the growing problems in this area in past years, kicked out of office. Let them pay for their ideological blindness and/or lax exercise of their responsibilities by losing their seats on the gravy train.

(That's a pipe-dream, I know. If you think it'll happen, there's a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC, I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills.)

A 'rescue package' is probably best described right now as a necessary evil. Something will have to be done - but we must hold accountable those responsible for this mess, both legislators and private-sector executives. If we don't, this will happen again, a few years or decades down the road. So, this election, consider the voting record of your representatives and Senators on these issues - and kick out those who don't deserve your support. Vote against every last one of them who voted in favor of the 'boondoggle package' that went down last Monday. That'll be the best hope for change any of us will get right now.

As for the Presidential election, I'm not enthusiastic about either candidate, and I suspect neither is equal to the challenge facing the victor - but ask yourself this. Of the two candidates, which comes from a constituency of 'entitlement politics', has always voted in its interests, and is therefore more likely to pander to such elements? Which comes from a constituency placing greater emphasis on self-reliance and individual responsibility, and is therefore less likely to pander to 'entitlement politics' pressure groups?

You'd better vote for the second . . . or else.


Monday, September 29, 2008

So much for the cult of wine!

Malcolm Gluck has done us all a great service by revealing much of the chicanery, obfuscation and downright lying that goes on in the wine industry. He's writing for the English market, but just about everything he says can be applied to what we encounter here in the USA.

Just whisper the word 'wine' and most of us will start dreaming about a glass of full-bodied red or a chilled, crisp white.

In goes the corkscrew, and out, slowly, comes the cork with a deeply satisfying 'pop'.

Well, stop dreaming right now.

We'll come to the details of why you've already made your first mistake by choosing a bottle sealed with a cork in a moment.

First, I have to tell you some broader home truths about the world of wine.

Because it's not the world of refined elegance and gentle self-indulgence that you probably imagine.

Instead, it's populated by liars, scroungers and cheats, administered by charlatans and snake-oil salesman and run on a system of misrepresentation and ritualised fraud.

It's a world that still deliberately surrounds itself in impenetrable, pretentious and often plain misleading wine-speak, churned out by snobby writers and duplicitous merchants who delight in the obscure and the shadowy, the indistinct and the imprecise.

Often the relationship between producer and supposedly impartial writer turns out to be so close they could accurately be described as twin cheeks of the same backside.

And yet it is from these often self-serving writers that we are supposed to take our wine-buying advice.

In pursuit of metaphors ever more elaborate, one particularly pretentious critic once described a bottle of Palo Cortado as a 'strange hermaphrodite sherry', a description so bizarre that any reader would be left utterly baffled instead of enlightened - and certainly not encouraged to try this genuinely delicious sherry.

At least when I once described a wine as 'reminiscent of a sumo-wrestler's jockstrap', you got a pretty good idea that it probably wasn't worth buying.

Wine drinkers have been cowed into believing that wine is a subject so complex that you must pass an advanced course just to dip your toe into it.

They are being duped by an unholy alliance of producers, merchants, restaurateurs and wine writers who have thrown a veil of quasi-religious mystique over wine, that enables them to transform a pleasant drink into an almost holy rite - and to charge a small fortune for the pleasure.

How do I know all this? Because I've been drinking the stuff for the best part of 40 years and spent the past 20 as one of those wine writers.

I wrote a weekly wine column for The Guardian newspaper and authored Superplonk, the bestselling guide to supermarket wine.

Both jobs, I hasten to add, were back in the good old days, when supermarkets actually sold decent, good value wine - something of an rarity these days.

Throughout my wine column-writing career, I was really only interested in two things - taste and value for money.

Now, however, I have written what could easily be my last wine book.

The reason: because with the title of The Great Wine Swindle, I tell it like it really is - and the wine industry isn't going to like it one bit.

First, how many of you realise the true contents of that bottle you're so looking forward to this evening? Because it certainly isn't pure fermented grape juice.

Sugar may have been added to beef up the alcohol levels, while the juice from all sorts of grapes that aren't on the label could easily have found their way into the bottle.

Some will be from different varieties, a practice which depending on the degree of substitution may or may not be illegal; others may even be from entirely different regions; even countries.

The latter are called vins de medicin - typically, big beefy reds from hot regions mixed in to provide colour, weight and alcohol to otherwise sub-standard wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Other fraudsters take a different approach. They re-label inferior wine from, say, the Languedoc and then pass it off as a highly-prized Bordeaux, such as a Margaux or Petrus, before exporting it, often to the Far East. It is estimated that 5 per cent of exported 'fine' wine may be fake.

The wine trade will tell you that this sort of thing doesn't happen now. But it does - and at every level.

Last year, I heard about a Moldovan pinot grigio - a wine made from one of the few grape varieties to be ordered by name and particularly fashionable among women drinkers - that was actually made from the distinctly less trendy sauvignon and traminer grapes.

A one-off? Not a chance. Only last summer, Off Licence News, a UK drinks trade publication, quoted Trading Standards Institute estimates that 'fake pinot grigio could account for as much as 30 per cent of wines in the retail sector'.

Misrepresentation and fraud are rife in the largely unpoliced international wine trade.

These days, you probably won't find anti-freeze in your bottle, as they famously did with certain Austrian wines in 1985, or in 1987, when methanol was added to some Italian wines and killed 23 people.

But the list of what you will find grows ever longer: oak powder, fruit flavourings, acids, cleaning agents, antioxidants, stabilisers.

The Australian Wine Research Institute's Analytical Service lists around 40 chemicals that are considered acceptable, including bentonite - an absorbent material, also used in cat litter, which helps remove excess protein from white wine.

By comparison, European regulations list over 60 (including three types of bentonite), while the official South African list runs to 76.

This is startling information for anyone who fondly imagined that you made wine merely by pressing grapes and letting nature do the rest.

I honestly wouldn't mind any of this if the wine tasted good, represented good value and there was an accurate list of ingredients on the label - incidentally, the Co-op is one of the few retailers committed to open and honest labelling.

But the Co-op stands alone. Wine, the establishment maintains, is too grand and romantic to carry anything as mundane as a list of ingredients.

Well, that's arrogant nonsense. Many wines are now no more natural than a sugary soft drink - and wineries should not be allowed to pretend that they are.

There are reasons why winemakers use this astonishing cocktail of chemicals. Wine, unlike many other products, is not uniform. It varies.

It changes from vineyard to vineyard, vintage to vintage, and over time. And the chemicals help them keep things predictable.

But what else do the vast majority of winemakers do with this unstable, unpredictable liquid?

They seal it with cork - a biological compound which is not only an ineffective seal against oxidisation, but has a whole range of unpredictable qualities of its own.

As a result, wine even varies from bottle to bottle.

The biggest problem, and a serial killer of good wine, is cork taint. This ruins one in ten bottles, literally decimating them.

Cork taint is caused by a chemical, 2-4-6 trichloranisole, which is inadvertently created by the chlorine cleaning that the tree bark undergoes before it becomes a wine seal.

It's responsible for the musty aroma that tells you instantly that a wine is corked - although any number of theatrically incredulous wine waiters will swear blind it isn't there.

Of course, there is an alternative to corks - although it's certainly not those infernal plastic corks that are so difficult to extract and well nigh impossible to put back.

No, the answer is the screwcap, an idea that still causes a sharp intake of disapproving breath among wine snobs. Why? Because we are told by the powers-that-be that wine is all about mystique and tradition, and that cork is a vital part of that romance.

But does a screwcap kill the romance of wine? Not if the fruit in the bottle is sexy; not, indeed, if it simply tastes as it's supposed to.

And, while we are slaying sacred cows, why does wine always have to come in the traditional 750ml bottle, a size that only exists because centuries ago that was what a glass-blower could blow with a single puff?

It would be better packaged in pints (in a Tetra Pak carton, say) or in a plastic pouch of two litres (for picnics and parties) or even an aluminium can. Only tradition and ritual maintain the idiocy of wine in glass bottles.

But one of the biggest nonsenses promulgated by the wine trade is the alleged importance of something called 'terroir', a French word used to describe the environment - an elusive combination of geology, geography and climate - in which the vines grow.

If the end-product was an edible fruit, a peach, say, the importance of terroir would be irrefutable - the combination of soil, slope and sun would obviously have a bearing on its quality and taste.

But we are not eating peaches, we are drinking wine, something produced, certainly from wine grapes, but only after they have been totally transformed by a complex biochemical process controlled not by nature, but by humankind.

But the 'terroirists' - the wine merchants, the producers, the toffee-nosed wine writers - want you to believe that despite all this human intervention and science, the wine will still reflect the vineyard where the grapes were grown. They say you can taste the landscape the grapes grew in.

Unfortunatley, this is rubbish. It is simply more jargon that wine writers and the high-end wine merchants they support can use to hoodwink their customers - you.

I'm not saying these so-called experts can't tell the difference between one wine and another (although an interesting scientific aside is that if you blindfold a group of seasoned wine-tasters, a significant proportion won't even be able to tell white from red).

But the difference they can taste is not down to terroir but to the difference between the individuals, the winemakers, who made the wines. Some do it one way, others another; some are outstanding, others are not.

Truly smart wine drinkers know there are only three things that really count - the grape variety, the year and, most importantly of all, the winemaker.

But terroir is part of a colossal con worked on the poor, misinformed, wine-drinking public.

Because the notion that one vineyard is better at producing wine than another leads to the idea - enshrined in official designations such as Appellation Controllee (AC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy - that certain regions produce better wines than others.

That's why we have been told that we are better off buying bottles that bear the initials AC or DOC. But this is nonsense, as anyone who has bought any one of umpteen highly disappointing Appellation Bordeaux Controlee wines will tell you.

It's good wine-makers that make good wines, not the fact that the world-famous Chateau Lafite winery is just down the road.

Even the Philippe de Rothschild company, famous for Bordeaux's grand cru Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine, now acknowledges this - as I discovered when I read the neck label of one of its subsidiary Chilean ventures...

'As in France, so it is in the New World, it is the winemaker who proves the inimitable finesse that distinguishes a Baron de Philippe Rothschild wine. This man, with a tongue like a tuning fork, tastes the cuvees (or parcels of wine) selects and, with infinite care, assembles them to produce beautifully balanced wines.'

Laugh? I cried. Apart from making the whole of the 1855 Bordeaux classification league, which is based on chateau site, irrelevant piffle, it is hugely entertaining to think of a winemaker with a forked tongue and his employer openly admitting it.

No, the only people who benefit from regional classifications, such as AC, are the vineyard owners whose properties become more valuable because they lie within its boundaries. And to maintain that value, they peddle the myth that their land is intrinsically special.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the Champagne region. This year, to cope with booming demand for their over-rated, over-priced but magnificently well-branded product, it was decided that they should expand their AC area to include 40 villages previously outside the designated area.

Suddenly, former wheat fields jumped from being worth £4,000 [about US $7,200] a hectare to a staggering - and please hold your breath - £800,000 [about US $1.45 million] a hectare.

Small wonder then that I describe the notions of Appellation Controlee and terroir as real estate scams.

But the truth is the whole wine business is a con - and the only victim is you, the great, wine-drinking, myth-swallowing, duty-paying public.

Well, it's time to start fighting back. It's time to start demanding labels that tell us exactly what's gone into our evening tipple and screwcaps that ensure it reaches your glass in tip-top condition.

Then, it's time to forget all the flowery metaphors, the ridiculous snobbery and the terroir talk, and have faith in your own judgment.

So, the next time you're faced with some self-serving wine expert who bamboozles you with their jargon and doubtful knowledge, just repeat this little mantra: 'I know what you do not; I know what I like.'

Because, take it from me, the rest is just claptrap.

Very useful stuff! Mr. Gluck has a new book coming out in October, "The Great Wine Swindle", which will go into these matters in a lot more detail.

Having read that article, it's already on my "To Buy" list.


The Corpus Clock

I'm fascinated by the new "Corpus Clock" unveiled a short time ago by Stephen Hawking in Britain. Lisa Jardine reports for the BBC:

A week ago I was invited to attend the inauguration of a modern marvel of chronological invention, which was officially dedicated to the memory of the largely forgotten John Harrison. On a bright, sunlit autumnal evening, a sizeable crowd gathered on the corner of King's Parade and Benet Street in Cambridge to watch Stephen Hawking - appropriately, our greatest living theoretical exponent of time - unveil the "Corpus Clock", the brainchild of an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College.

This extraordinary, entirely mechanical chronophage or "time-eater" has neither hands nor numerals to display the time. Instead, above a glittering two-metre diameter gold-plated disk, a huge, jaw-snapping, rolling-eyed mechanical grasshopper rocks back and forth, apparently munching successive notches of the revolving dials with every passing second.

Its movement triggers blue lights that dart across the clock face, registering the seconds and minutes as they pass. Each hour is signalled by a race of blue lights and the rattle of a chain dropping into an unseen coffin to remind passers-by of their mortality. Occasionally the pendulum hesitates to remind us that our perception of the march of time is subjective.

The clock's inventor said at the unveiling he "wanted to make timekeeping interesting", by turning the clock inside out "so you can see the seconds being eaten up" - literally by what is in fact a gigantic grasshopper escapement.

Standing modestly to one side during last week's ceremony was the man who invented and executed the clock. Unlike the author of A Brief History of Time, I can almost guarantee listeners have never heard of him. Yet Dr John C Taylor was introduced to the onlookers as "one of this country's greatest inventors" - and so he is.

The rather considerable fortune which has enabled John Taylor not only to provide the £1m the extraordinary clock eventually cost, but also the millions to turn the former bank building which houses it into a brand new undergraduate library for his old college (and I might add, educational bursaries including one held by a research student at my own institution), was accumulated as a result of a more humdrum invention, but one which is now so ubiquitous that we all of us depend on it.

It was he who perfected the kettle thermostat, the bimetallic strip which ensures our kettle switches off once it has boiled merrily for a few seconds, rather than boiling dry. This simple, elegant little invention is used globally in a wide variety of thermostatically controlled domestic electrical appliances. It is hard to imagine how we would do without it. Why, then, does his name not figure on honours boards across the British Isles?

Clocks are only one among a roll-call of instruments and appliances perfected by technical wizards over the centuries. Precision instruments are essential for testing the hypotheses of the very theoretical science which disparages the achievements of the inventors and technicians who designed and made them. No experimental science would be possible without clocks capable of measuring tiny increments of time.

Inventors like John Taylor turn the breakthroughs made by theoretical science into the applied benefits we see all around us. His company's website lists among their achievements not just corded and cordless kettles, but under-floor heating with a cordless connector and a new coating to make kettles boil less noisily.

Perhaps if our society were more ready to celebrate those who are ingenious, or "good with their hands", and produce the inventions that allow us to lead comfortable daily lives, we would all become genuinely interested in the science that underpins the kettle and the clock. Perhaps more of our children would then decide to make science their specialist study at school and university.

But in order for that to happen theoretical scientists in their laboratories and universities have themselves to be prepared to acknowledge the importance of engineers, inventors and technicians of all kinds, so that their achievements are celebrated as they deserve, and their names trip as easily off our tongues as those of Einstein and Newton.

The last two paragraphs are very important. So much science is theoretical, rather than practical. Sure, it eventually carries over into practical devices, but many scientists still disdain the "practicality" of engineers and technicians, preferring the "pure science" of the laboratory. That's one reason why the economies of so many other countries are based on copying Western inventions rather than developing their own. Those countries aren't afraid to direct their students into more practical applications of science, such as reverse-engineering others' inventions and learning how to produce them faster, cheaper and in greater quantity. Sure, their creativity may suffer - but their economies are booming.

Methinks we need a dash of commercialism to season the otherwise immaculate purity of our science classrooms . . .


How to derail competitive marketing

I'm amused to read a Swedish report of how one store's attempt to undercut a rival store's opening sale backfired.

A daring public relations stunt by a newly opened electronics store in Malmö left its long established competitor with empty shelves and its CEO seething.

“I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry,” said Anders Nilsen, CEO of the Elgiganten electronics chain, to the Dagens Media newspaper.

Nilsen was standing in front of a Malmö Elgiganten outlet to welcome customers interested in taking up the store’s offer of low priced flat screen televisions.

The sale was designed to coincide with the opening of the competing Media Markt electronics retailer's Malmö store.

But shortly after Elgiganten opened its doors, Nilsen watched in disbelief as a large truck pulled up and 20 people hopped out and started loading up the sale-priced televisions.

“I realized at once what was happening,” he told the newspaper.

“I was a little upset. They probably hadn’t assumed that I would be there. The guy in charge confirmed they were from Media Markt and then went to call headquarters.”

The stunt was a coup for the upstart Media Markt, which later sent an email to Nilsen confirming they had pulled the stunt.

Nice one! If your competitor tries to upstage your opening with a cut-price sale, buy up all the cut-price goods before anyone else can get to them! It takes deep pockets to do that, but if you've got 'em, flaunt 'em.

I wonder if they'll have a "slightly used sale" of their booty?


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Let's hear it for Dad!

I'm delighted to read the following report.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A man who police said broke into a home with the intention of sexually assault a 17-year-old girl in her bedroom died early Sunday morning after a struggle with the girl's father.

David Meyers (pictured), 52, was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after officers arrived following a report of a home invasion in the 3500 block of West 79th Street at about 3:20 a.m.

Officers said they found Robert McNally, 64, on the floor with his arm around the neck of Meyers, struggling to hold him down.

When officers told McNally he could let go, they found that Meyers was unresponsive. Medics who were called to the scene then pronounced Meyers dead.

Indianapolis police Sgt. Matt Mount said Meyers had come into the home naked, except for a mask and latex gloves.

"He had rope, had a knife, had condoms, had a gag," Mount said.

. . .

The results of the police investigation will be turned over to the Marion County Prosecutor's Office, but it is unlikely charges will be filed, police said.

More information at the link - and I should damn well hope there'll be no charges filed! If any DA were dumb enough to do so, I'd like to think that every right-minded parent (and daughter) in Indianapolis would camp out on his doorstep, screaming abuse at him until he got his priorities straight!

Well done, Mr. McNally! I'm sure you're a hero to your daughter - and you sure are to us!


Another word about The High Road controversy

I wrote at some length about the controversy surrounding The High Road forum (THR) in an earlier post. Many of you have commented on that post, and I've had a number of e-mails about it. I've also noted a number of reactions on other forums and blogs.

I'd like to say that a great many comments that are being made are not relevant to the central issue here. Whether or not someone said good (or bad) things about someone else; whether or not dissent is a good thing, and its silencing on THR at present a bad thing; whether or not one side, or the other, has made or is making wise decisions; all of these are IRRELEVANT at this point.

That central issue is this: the domain name and ownership of THR have been stolen. The rightful owner has now instituted civil legal action to retrieve his property. All of us should support that action, because if someone can steal another's property with impunity, it affects all of us, as it makes a mockery of the rule of law.

There's also a criminal law aspect to this, of course. Since the domain name was "hijacked" by a person in one state, while being transferred from the former owner in a second state to the new owner in a third state, it unquestionably becomes a matter of interstate commerce. This is reinforced by THR's "For Sale" sub-forums, where much interstate buying and selling takes place. That makes this a matter for federal law. As one formerly employed in (and now medically retired from) a law enforcement position with the US Department of Justice, I've made a few phone calls to former colleagues, who've expressed considerable interest in what's going on. I daresay we may see some action on that front in due course, over and above any civil litigation.

It's critically important that the right be upheld in this situation. If that doesn't happen, or if some form of "settlement" is reached whereby the guilty party receives any type of compensation for returning what has been stolen, it will make a mockery of justice and the rule of law. All of us should surely be in agreement that any such thing would be intolerable.

For myself, I won't be posting on THR's general forums until this matter is resolved. I see no reason why I should contribute even my presence to a stolen entity. I hope and trust that all my readers will feel - and act - likewise. Once THR's back in the hands of its rightful owner, we can all celebrate with him, and set about rebuilding the forum together.


EDITED TO ADD: I've had a couple of e-mails since posting this, from THR members who seem to think that there are two sides to this issue, and I'm only giving one, and the other side deserves a fair hearing.


There is only one central issue now at stake: the theft of one man's property by another. That's it. There is no other issue.

The rights and wrongs of that issue are clearly established for all to see. That's been done firstly by the testimony of (many) current and former moderators and administrators of THR, all of whom have acknowledged that it's Oleg's site and he's the boss. Secondly, the public testimony of the former domain name owner, Mr. Rich Lucibella, is a matter of open record. He's come out flat-footed about it, and made it clear that the other party in this dispute misappropriated the domain name, rather than transfer it to Oleg as he was instructed to do. If you need more evidence than that, I'm afraid I can't help you. Probably no-one can.

There aren't "two sides" to this story. On the main issue, that of criminal conduct, there is only one side - and it's going to win in court. The evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of that side that any other outcome is inconceivable.

As for any damage done to THR by the legal fight, or whether this situation could have been better handled, or whatever - yes, I think there are lots of things that could have been better handled, and plenty of fingers that can be pointed. Once the immediate problem has been resolved, we can hold all the inquests and discussions we wish about that. However, as I said above, that's no longer relevant to the problem at hand.

This whole affair boils down to a matter of crime and justice. When a crime - any crime - has been committed, whose side are you on? The criminal's, as he seeks to illegally and immorally retain the fruits of his crime, or use them as tools to extort? Or the victim of the crime, as he seeks justice?

Your answer will determine your position on the former, current and future ownership of THR.

It really is as simple, as black-and-white, as that.


Behold a master of bee destruction!

I had a small swarm of bees buzzing around my back door recently, and did a bit of research on the Internet to figure out why they were there, what they were doing, and what I could do to move them along. As it happened, they moved along anyway: but my research led me to this wonderfully inspiring story of enterprise, effort and sheer manic determination.

According to "Flannel Bob", posting on the Something Awful forums, he and his brother-in-law encountered a swarm of bees on a child's swing set in the latter's back yard . . . and started "loving with the bees" to get rid of them. The full story may be read here (WARNING: strong language/profanity alert), but I linked to a few of the photographs to give you a foretaste. Go to the link to see more, and read the full story.

It started with the bees clumping on the swing set.

The brother-in-law tried throwing a tennis ball at them, without much response: so he then threw a 40lb. towbar!

This knocked most of them off the swingset, but they simply regrouped and clumped around the bar once more. This called for stronger measures: a brazier filled with rags, with gasoline poured over them.

This killed many of the bees . . .

. . . but there were still some left. Clearly a bigger fireball was needed. To obtain this, first, the desperate duo threw 1½ quarts of paint thinner onto the fire.

They still had a few bee survivors - although at this point, I think the object of the exercise was less to finish off the bees than to see how large a fireball they could create without going to mushroom-cloud levels of physics!

As a final act, they threw two quarts of gasoline onto the fire. As "Flannel Bob" exclaims on the forum, "OH DEAR LORD ITS SO BEAUTIFUL. I AM SO PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN RIGHT NOW."

This certainly seems to have resolved their bee problem once and for all! As "Bob" notes:

Number of allied casualties (er, stings): 0
Number of bees killed: est. 10,000
Number of bee survivors: about 25 or so

The end result looked like this:

Looks like a bee-yootiful time was had by all! Go over to the Something Awful forums to read (and see) more about it (with the language warning already noted).


Doofus Of The Day #72 and #73

Our first Doofus Of The Day comes from Gold Beach, Oregon. He or she is a hospital worker who appears to be illiterate - at least, they can't recognize a man's name and figure out that their diagnosis is impossible!

A patient treated for agonizing abdominal pain received this surprising news in the hospital's paperwork: "Based on your visit today, we know you are pregnant." Surprising indeed for 71-year-old John Grady Pippen.

The staff at Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach gave the retired mechanic and logger the ridiculously happy news this month, along with some pain pills.

Hospital administrator William McMillan says an errant keystroke caused the hospital's computer to spit out the wrong discharge instructions for the grandfather.


Our second Doofus is from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lincoln police reported the rare occurrence of arresting a man who called them for help. Officials said a 25-year-old man called police Wednesday night to say someone was trying to break into his apartment.

When police arrived, they discovered it was the apartment manager trying to get into the apartment, which was supposed to be vacant.

Police said someone had illegally changed the locks on the apartment, and the man arrested was illegally occupying it.

Police also found more than three pounds of marijuana, equipment used to grow marijuana and nearly $3,500 in cash in the apartment.

Allow me to assure you, cops just love crooks who are that stupid! It makes their job so much easier . . .


Health warning: Talcum powder linked to ovarian cancer?

A very interesting article from Australia describes a newly-discovered link between the use of talcum powder on/in the groin, and ovarian cancer in women.

Women have been warned to immediately stop using talcum powder around their genitals in the wake of research which suggests particles may travel to the ovaries and trigger a process of inflammation that allows cancer cells to flourish.

Although previous studies have raised concerns over talc, the latest findings from the United States suggest women who use it are 40 per cent more likely to get ovarian cancer - a much greater risk than first thought - the Telegraph newspaper reports.

The findings, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, apply only to talcum powder used around the private parts, not on the rest of the body.

Experts from Harvard Medical School in Boston studied more than 3,000 women and found using talc merely once a week raised the risk of ovarian cancer by 36 per cent, rising to 41 per cent for those applying powder every day.

Dr Maggie Gates, who led the study, said that until the outcome of further research women should avoid using talc in the genital area.

One alternative is cornstarch powder.

The study revealed that the risks were greater still for those with a certain genetic profile.

. . .

Women who are overweight or use hormone replacement therapy are also thought to be more at risk.

Talc is made from a soft mineral called hydrous magnesium silicate, which is found throughout the world. It is crushed, dried and milled to produce powder used in cosmetic products by millions. Some experts say it has chemical similarities to asbestos, which can cause a deadly form of lung cancer.

Laboratory tests show ovarian cells exposed to talc divide more rapidly - a characteristic sign of cancer.

Until recently there was no proof that powder could travel through a woman's reproductive tract as far as the pelvis and then on to the ovaries.

But last year, a separate group of doctors at Harvard Medical School identified tiny particles of powder in the pelvis of a 68-year-old woman with advanced ovarian cancer who had used talc every day for 30 years.

I found this particularly interesting because of my massage training. Almost thirty years ago, I trained in Japanese massage for a year, part-time, and learned a lot about the craft. Something my Japanese instructors (Buddhist monks) emphasized was that talcum powder was not a desirable product for use on any part of the body. They regarded it with suspicion, even though they couldn't articulate why: and they recommended cornstarch, which was more "natural", as a better alternative. I've used cornstarch ever since when doing Japanese massage, where it's one of the means used to remove excess oil from the skin.

Looks like those monks knew what they were talking about!


Saturday, September 27, 2008

I wish I could have been there!

Earlier this week, Reuters reported on an unique concert held in Jerusalem.

Sixteen violins used by Jewish Holocaust victims -- including an instrument whose case was used to smuggle explosives that blew up a Nazi base -- were played on Wednesday in a concert in Jerusalem.

"Each violin has its own story," said Amnon Weinstein, 69, who together with his son has spent more than a decade restoring the violins collected from across Europe.

Weinstein, a violin maker, said he received the instruments in various states of disrepair, many of them decorated with stars of David, a testimony to their former Jewish owners.

"By restoring their violins, their legacy is born again," said Weinstein, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

They were played together for the first time in a concert titled "Violins of Hope" by members of Israel's Raanana Symphonette and the Philharmonia Istanbul Orchestra.

Before an audience of thousands gathered under the spot-lit walls of Jerusalem's Old City, world-renowned Israeli virtuoso Shlomo Mintz played "Avinu Malkeinu" (Our Father, Our King), a central prayer from the Jewish Day of Penitence.

One of the featured instruments, called Motele's Violin, belonged to a 12-year-old Jewish boy who played it for Nazi officers from Hitler's SS in Belarus in 1944.

Motele, with his violin, had joined other anti-Nazi partisans in a village near the border with Ukraine and managed to infiltrate a Nazi building there.

"The German officers heard him play in the streets one day and later brought him to perform every night in their compound in town," said Sefi Hanegbi, whose father played alongside Motele in a partisan camp in a forest during World War Two.

After each performance, Motele hid his violin in the building and walked out with an empty case. He would return with the violin case full of explosives, stuffing them into cracks in the walls, and eventually setting them off, Hanegbi said.

Motele was later killed in a German ambush, and Hanegbi's family brought his violin to Israel where it sat in a closet for decades. Weinstein first restored it about eight years ago.

The oldest violin in the collection, Weinstein said, had been donated to the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra by revered 19th-century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.

Ernst Glaser, a Jewish musician, was set to perform with that violin in the German-occupied Norwegian city of Bergen in 1941, but the concert was interrupted when local pro-Nazi youth began rioting and threatened to lynch Glaser for "befouling" the famed instrument.

Only when the conductor instructed the orchestra to play the Norwegian national anthem, prompting the rioting youth to stand at attention, was Glaser able to escape, Weinstein said.

"The violin was our saviour," said Helen Livnat, 68, who donated the instrument her father used to earn food for her starving family in a ghetto in Ukraine in the early 1940s.

"It's an honor knowing the violins that were once played in a time of hunger and suffering will be heard again with pride in the country that we love," she said.

I'd have given good money to attend that concert, and to have been able to say a prayer during the music for the musicians who played those instruments throughout the Holocaust. They may not have survived . . . but in the notes of their instruments, we remember them.


EDITED TO ADD: Xavier has some thoughts on this concert, plus a video of the luthier who repaired these violins. Worth reading.

Alternatives to the unkindest cut of all?

I'm hugely amused to read an Australian report of various alternatives to vasectomy. It's great to find a reporter with a sense of humor.

While men taking on responsibility for contraception is admirable, vasectomies are not always easy to reverse, and young men's scrotums being punctured left, right and centre like party balloons is not an ideal state of affairs.

A solution may be around the corner in the form of an Australian-designed system that switches a man's sperm flow on and off by remote control, operating a tiny valve injected into the vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm from the testes. In a bid to get men to embrace the new technology it is understood the remote can also be programmed to lock the car, shut the garage door, dim the bedroom lights, play a Barry White CD, record the football and put a pizza in the oven for afterwards.

Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide invented the system, which appeared on The New Inventors in June.

"I've been inundated with inquiries from men from all over the world," Abbott said in The Times this month.

Unfortunately the valve will need five years of animal trials before it can be used in human beings. The first four years will involve training rats how to use a remote.

The valve is just one of a number of high-tech reversible male contraceptive devices - known in leading scientific circles as "gizmos" - under development, The Times reports. In California a team is developing an implantable ring that circles the vas deferens and zaps sperm, making them unable to fertilise an egg.

Researchers recommend playing hardcore techno music rather than Barry White so that the sound of zapping blends in with the soundtrack. However, men over 30 have been warned not to try to keep pace with any tracks of more than 200 beats per minute.

A better method might be RISUG (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), which partially blocks sperm tubes and alters sperm through the injection of a compound. It takes 10 minutes and lasts 10 years.

RISUG is being trialled in India and may be on the market there within two years. Elaine Lissner, director of the non-profit Male Contraception Information Project in San Francisco, told The Times she could see Western men flying to India to get the injections, though it's unlikely their partners would still be in the mood by the time they got back.

"Men want new contraceptive methods," Lissner said. "A decade ago demand wasn't there and it was assumed women wouldn't trust men to take charge of birth control anyway. That has changed."

However, getting something from the laboratory to the pharmacy shelf is proving a slow process. Pharmaceutical companies are put off by the liability involved in testing on healthy young men, Lissner said, which must induce a lot of sympathy in healthy young women gradually being made unhealthy by the pill.

Lissner called on governments and charities to get involved in funding the next stage of trials. There are potentially more options out there than there are wrigglers in a specimen jar.

Neem extracts and papaya seeds, says the International Male Contraception Coalition (see malecontraceptives.org). Apparently a dry orgasm pill made a big splash when it was mooted two years ago.

Heat methods include a battery-operated scrotum heater, which would also provide somewhere to keep your hands warm in winter.

Alternatively, special underpants known as suspensories kill sperm by holding the testes close to the body, with the only side-effects being chafing and speaking in a very high voice.

Perhaps the most promising method involves blasting the testes with ultrasound. Not only does this disrupt sperm production for six months, but you get to take home a picture of them too.

Science reporting with a sense of the ridiculous! I love it!


Does this coffee taste funny?

From Iowa comes the following tale of woe.

It wasn't just the caffeine that gave an Iowa woman an extra jolt after she had her morning coffee. It was also the bat she found in the filter.

The Iowa Department of Public Health says the woman reported a bat in her house but wasn't too worried about it. She turned on her automatic coffee maker before bedtime and drank her coffee the next morning.

She discovered the bat in the filter when she went to clean it that night. The woman has undergone treatment for possible rabies.

Health officials say that the bat was sent to a lab but that its brain was too cooked by the hot water to determine whether it had rabies.

Well, I've heard of coffee beans passed through the digestive system of civet cats; but coffee brewed with bats is a new one on me! I wonder if she'll be able to echo-locate her way around the kitchen after drinking it?


An exploding custard truck???

Ye Gods and little fishes.

A lorry driver has been forced to flee after the 60,000 tins of custard and rice pudding he was transporting began to explode.

The cans of dessert exploded "like fireworks" after the a blaze broke out on his HGV.

The driver was unaware that his lorry, carrying 26 tonnes of Ambrosia custard and rice pudding to a local supermarket, was on fire and motorists were forced to flag him down.

He eventually stopped on the A382 in Chagford, Devon, and fled the truck seconds before 60,000 cans began exploding "like thousands of gunshots".

Fire crews raced to the blaze but the desserts were too well alight and the whole lorry was consumed in just 20 minutes.

Eyewitness Jill Pendleton, who runs a holiday booking company, captured the spectacle on her camera.

She said: "The first we knew about it was a whiff of smoke and burning sugar and then suddenly it just erupted.

"It was incredible how quickly the fire caught hold - the whole thing was over in less than 20 minutes.

"When the heat reached the tins they started to explode and we could hear what sounded like thousands of gunshots. It was quite a fireworks display.

A spokesman for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service said the road was closed for six hours while debris was cleared.

He said: "On arrival the crews found the lorry carrying rice pudding to be well alight on the highway. The incident was believed to be accidental."

Well, what can one say about this?

  • I'm glad the emergency services were able to rice to the occasion.
  • I guess the custard couldn't cut the mustard.
  • There was a hot time in the old truck tonight!
  • Talk about getting one's just desserts . . .
  • At least he wasn't carrying 26 tons of spotted dick!

Go on, add your own rude remarks in Comments!


Friday, September 26, 2008

The joys of refurbishment

As readers know, I had a house fire a few weeks back, and the house suffered additional damage during Hurricane Gustav. I've been busy the last couple of weeks supervising repairs and refurbishment. It's been an education!

This house was built about 60 years ago, shortly after World War II. In one sense, that's good, because a very high quality of materials was used: but in another sense, it's an archaeological time capsule. There have been renovations and/or expansions on at least three occasions, using different techniques and materials each time. These were hidden beneath wallpaper in two bedrooms, the bathroom and the kitchen: but the process of stripping off the wallpaper and revealing the bare walls beneath has uncovered them. Removing the old ceiling tiles has also revealed the plank ceilings, which actually look rather solid and well-made - except that additions and renovations have also resulted in an assortment of styles in some rooms!

The previous renovators used a range of materials. Some of the walls are drywall; others are a sort of imprinted board often found in mobile homes; and some are hardboard. There were several older repairs (including a door that had been blanked off), gaps left by the removal of old gas wall heaters, and cracks and crevices hidden by the wallpaper that are now exposed.

To prepare the walls for painting (I'm not using wallpaper), a huge amount of patching and repair work has been necessary. The contractors have spent this entire week doing nothing but scraping off up to four layers of wallpaper; spreading what they call "mud" on the walls, filling holes and gaps; repairing drywall with a special gel that refinishes the surface, preparing it for painting; and trying to figure out what to do with the imprinted board walls in the bathroom. It looks like the latter may have to be covered with a special wallpaper that's designed to be painted over, because the holes and gaps in this funny board can't be properly concealed any other way.

While they've been doing that, I've been doing load after load of washing, trying to get the smell of smoke out of my clothes, towels and bedding. I've also used the opportunity to sort out older clothes that I no longer need, so that I can donate them to Goodwill (after washing them, of course). I'll come out of this with a much reduced wardrobe. I'm going to do the same with my books as I re-sort them into their bookshelves.

Today, at long last, things look like they're beginning to come together. The contractors spent the day sanding the dried "mud" patches on the walls, painting the woodwork with a primer, and preparing to start the real paint job next week. The walls look like a crazy-quilted patchwork, but at least the deficiencies in them have been repaired. The workmen assure me that preparation is a good two-thirds of the job, and the painting should go much faster than the work up to now.

They'll paint the kitchen, living-room, bathroom, passage and one bedroom, and put up the new ceiling tiles: then I'll have to move myself and what furniture is still in the house into those rooms, while they tackle the last two bedrooms. Once all the painting's finished, the flooring contractors will move in to do the vinyl and carpeting, while the general contractors tackle outside work. After five weeks and over $30,000 worth of repairs and refurbishment, I'll have a completely renovated home.

It looks like another two-and-a-half to three weeks work to finish the interior . . . then I can get all my belongings back from storage and begin the fun, fun job of sorting them all out again! Lawdog's threatening to come up for a visit in late October, so I might rope him in to help me re-sort my library into alphabetical order. It'll be good to have a visiting slave volunteer to help out!


Now THIS is an economy-class airline!

You've doubtless heard of no-frills, economy airlines . . . but Shandong Airlines of China has to be the cheapest in the world (in every sense of the word!).

Anyone who has ever used budget airlines know only too well how uncomfortable it can be: long queues, cramped seats and every tiny extra costs you.

But at least they are never told to get out and help push their plane.

That is exactly what happened to a group of passengers in China who were asked to get out and push after their plane broke down shortly after landing.

The Chinese Shandong airlines flight CRJ7 arrived safely at Zhengzhou from Guilin, but broke down before it could taxi to the passenger terminal.

Airport staff were called out to help push, but they had to ask some of the 69 passengers on board to help because the plane would not budge.

It took the group nearly two hours to shove the plane half a mile to a side lane.

One of the airport workers said: 'Thank God it was only a 20-ton medium-sized aeroplane. If it were a big plane, it would have knocked us out.'

The plane remained parked in the side lane on Friday night, waiting for technicians arriving on the next flight to fix the problem.

I'd like to see a US economy airline try that approach . . . not to mention the FAA's response!


October's just around the corner . . .

. . . and that means Oktoberfest in Germany! The celebrations kicked off early (well, what's a few days in September when the beer's ready?)

More pictures of the fun and games may be found here.


Rescuing the banks - an Australian satirist's view

One of my favorite Australian commentators, Richard Glover, has a pointed take on the rescue package for banks and financial institutions currently being worked out in Washington.

On bankers and 500-kilogram gorillas

George Bush was unable to help the hurricane-battered poor of New Orleans but somehow he's located a spare trillion dollars for his distressed friends on Wall Street. It's a rescue package for bankers - dropped from the skies above Manhattan. You wonder what's in it. Bespoke suits? Stripy shirts with white collars? Braces?

The bankers have been thrilled to receive the help. Offered a trillion dollars of other people's money, they find themselves instant converts to the world of socialism and government assistance. All that talk about the free market; all that sneering about central government: that is sooo last month. Welcome to the Wall Street branch of the People's Collective for Distressed Bankers. It's like watching an atheist on his death bed begging for a Bible; you half expect the bankers to sing The Red Flag at the start of each day's trade.

The bail-out is necessary, we're told, because the speculators made some bad investment decisions. Their worthless assets will now be bundled together and placed in a sort of Bad Debt Holding Company and the stinking mess presented to American taxpayers, encircled with a bow. Thank you, Wall Street. Not so much a gift horse as a decade's worth of its droppings.

It's been a big change in lifestyle for bankers. Right up until last month, every 10 minutes saw a Wall Street banker buying a luxury property in the Hamptons. They've now had to find that guy and make him stop. It doesn't look good now that taxpayers are paying the bill.

So, exactly when did governments start rescuing people from their own bad investment decisions? If they are going to start now, how about that $10 you put on the Melbourne Cup in 1987 or the $25 that went down the drain on last week's Powerball?

As Exhibit A, perhaps I could tender the House of Merivale and Mr John disco-style suit I purchased in 1986 in a moment of speculative madness. (I was speculating on the fact that white flares were on the way back.) It was a very, very bad investment decision, a fact that became apparent the instant I arrived home and had a moment's visual intercourse with my bedroom mirror. So should the taxpayers of America or Australia now come to my rescue?

I still have the suit. Perhaps Mr Bush would be willing to add it to the pile of steaming refuse that will make up the holdings of his True Stinkers Holding Company.

Already included are the wonderfully named institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Who would have thought that the world's financial system rested on things with names like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? They sound like children's toys, most likely a line of rag puppets. What's your sister doing? "She's playing dress-ups with her Fannie Mae doll. She's pretending to marry her off to Freddie Mac."

Western capitalism survived al-Qaeda only to be brought down by a couple of Cabbage Patch dolls.

Either that or they are like characters from The Dukes Of Hazzard - hard-living Freddie Mac and his trashy girlfriend Fannie Mae. "Hey, Freddie, you seen Fannie Mae in her bikini? Oh my, that girl is highly leveraged."

So why are authorities suddenly rescuing the injured and foolish from the combat fields of capitalism? There's an answer to that, of course. You get bailed out when your size is so large and your mistakes so numerous that you can't be allowed to fail. A 500-kilogram gorilla with dyspepsia gets more attention than a mouse with a dicky heart.

In the end, they probably had no option other than to rescue the mad speculators - and quickly so, before they brought the roof down on all of us. But as the money is being doled out, can we at least ask for a few admissions? Can we demand that the gorilla at least takes some medicine for his continuing behaviour problems?

Can we all agree that the market, unfettered and uncontrolled, does not always get it right? Can we admit that capitalism is a great engine for material progress but that it needs to be guided and regulated?

We learnt all these lessons in the late '80s. So how come, so soon, we need to learn them all over again?

The other lessons of the late '80s, after all, seemed to have stayed with us. We remember that big hair can make a bad impression. That the Rubik's Cube gets boring after the first hour. And that white suit from the House of Merivale was a tragic error of judgment.

Why, then, do we have trouble remembering that other rule of the late '80s? Greed, unrestrained and unregulated, is not always that useful.

So far, the response to the profligacy of the speculators has been to supply new money but not new, permanent rules. So far, the response has been much like an old joke rendered into public policy: "It's true we're kleptomaniacs," the Wall Street bankers can still say. "But when it gets bad, we just take something for it."

I agree with Mr. Glover's sentiments. The proposed bail-out smacks too much of socialism for my taste. I think the bankers should stew in their own juice: and if some form of bail-out is necessary, let's have one that requires the bankers responsible for this mess to be stripped of all their assets as their contribution to fixing the foul-up they caused.


He made it!

Readers may remember my post earlier this month about Yves Rossy's planned attempt to fly across the English Channel suspended beneath a human-size wing.

Well, he made it!

He came. He soared. He conquered.

Birdman Yves Rossy powered into the record books yesterday with a remarkable cross-Channel flight - and a grin almost as big as his wingspan.

The Swiss adventurer stood on the White Cliffs of Dover after flying from France with a jet-propelled wing on his back and declared: 'It's like a dream come true.'

He parachuted into an English field 22 miles from Calais 13 minutes after takeoff. The 49-year-old aviator flew at up to 125mph after jumping from a plane 8,200ft above France.

Four jet engines on the single, 8ft wing allowed him to prove what he has always believed - that with a little help from technology, there's no reason why man shouldn't fly like a bird.

The route he chose retraced that plotted by cross-Channel pioneer Louis Bleriot when he flew the Channel in 1909. Back then, Monsieur Bleriot used a conventional looking aircraft and took 37 minutes.

Mr Rossy had twice postponed the attempt this week because of the weather. Yesterday Dover was bathed in brilliant sunshine and virtually cloudless skies. Inside the plane that took him up, he exchanged 'high fives' with his crew before leaping free. His wing tips unfolded and the jets fired up.

Apparently it wasn't too comfortable up there especially if, like Mr Rossy, you've got a bit of a bad back. The wing has limited mechanics and none of the technology boasted by his normal transport - as a pilot flying Swiss airliners.

He had a fuel lever to control the flow and an altimeter in his helmet to give various beeps at various heights. There were no brakes, and no steering wheel or joystick. Gentle manoeuvres of his head and arms were used to steer.

The only fuselage was his body, belly down towards the earth. He casually told us he used to be 'a bit of a daredevil' but doesn't now take unnecessary risks. That will be comfort indeed to the passengers he'll be piloting on Monday when he goes back to his regular job.

He told waiting reporters: 'It felt great, really great. I only have one word to all the people who helped me - thanks.'

Inside the plane Rossy had exchanged 'high fives' with his crew before he balanced himself on a step thousands of feet above ground with his compressed wing strapped to his back.

Final checks were then carried out on his wing before his jets were fired up and he leapt from the aircraft and across the Channel.

Minutes later he came into view for the scores of watchers gathered on top of the White Cliffs of Dover.

Rossy completed a few loops in the sky beyond the landing site before making his descent and deploying his parachute and landing next to the South Foreland lighthouse.

After landing with a bump, he waved and smiled as ambulance crews stood by.

The daredevil challenge by Rossy has led to him being compared to Superman and Buzz Lightyear, the computer-generated character from the animated film Toy Story.

Congratulations, M. Rossy! That's another first for the aviation history books.


Comment moderation enabled temporarily

Friends and readers, I'm sorry, but I've had to enable comment moderation on this blog for at least the short term. The controversy over The High Road (discussed in this post) appears to have drawn the trolls out from under the bridge, and I've had to delete a couple of nasty comments. In order to prevent this blog from being spoiled by those who should know better, I'm going to moderate all comments before they appear on the site.

This may mean that your comment will not appear for several hours - I'm not able to check every hour or so - but I hope you'll understand the need for the precaution.

Comments by trolls will disappear into the cyberspace void, which has been summoned to handle the influx.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

How many Google engineers does it take to tell the time?

A few days ago I blogged about Microsoft's advertising campaign for Windows Vista being embarrassed by the revelation that some of the images were produced on Apple computers. Now, according to Gizmodo, it looks like Google is joining Microsoft in the "embarrassment corner".

So here I was, all excited about Android. Not because the G1's physical design is especially attractive. In fact, it's a gray design with no soul. Not because of the user interface, which at first glance reminded me of a mash-up between the Nintendo DS and a '90s Windows desktop manager. No, I was excited because this is the first post-iPhone smartphone that could be a serious challenger to Apple's mounting dominance. Then I looked closely at this image and realized the G1 will not pose a threat to Apple at all.

The problem in this promotional mock-up image is obvious: The analog clock says it's 9:10 but the digital clock says it's 2:47.

I know. It seems like a dumb problem. But it is an obvious one. This is one of their main promotional images—which incidentally shows a T-Mobile G1 with a screen that seems to be broken, something which is bad enough on its own—and they failed to get it right. The problem with the clocks would have never escaped Apple's ferocious attention to detail, but it is not the image itself that's so troubling. It is what it symbolizes, what is missing at Android's most fundamental level: Attention to detail.

More at the link. I suspect Google has a long way to go with this project!


Another victim of the Skeleton Coast

I don't know whether many of my readers are familiar with the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. It's a wonderfully desolate place, which I've visited three times, and of which I have very fond (and awed) memories.

The Skeleton Coast is famous (or, rather, notorious) among seafarers for its shallow patches, which undulate back and forth along the coast; for its incredibly thick fogs, which spring up when the icy cold waters of the Benguela Current off the coast chill the sea air, and it meets the hot air from the Namib Desert along the shoreline; and for its utter desolation . . . hundreds and hundreds of miles without habitation or any sign of civilization. It's one of the world's last unspoiled places.

It has rolling sand dunes and towering mountains; desert elephants, uniquely genetically adapted to their environment; wildlife found nowhere else on Earth; and plants that have adapted themselves to the harsh environment.

Navigation has always been hazardous along the Skeleton Coast, and countless ships have run aground there over the centuries. Some have disappeared beneath the shifting desert sands, never to be seen again. Others have been sucked far inland as the desert has expanded to seaward, so that today one finds shipwrecks miles from the sea.

Their crews - at least until the last century or so - were doomed. Cast ashore in so desolate a place, they had only themselves and their own resources to rely on. Countless thousands must have perished there, never to be seen again. These shattered lifeboat wrecks tell their own silent story.

One of the more famous wrecks in recent times was that of the Dunedin Star.

She ran aground on the Skeleton Coast in 1942.

The mammoth rescue operation that unfolded included another wrecked ship, a crashed aircraft, and the need to rescue many of the rescuers! John Marsh wrote a famous book about it, now available via the Internet. Excellent reading.

The BBC reports that another shipwreck, lost for centuries beneath the sand of the Skeleton Coast, has been discovered. This one looks like an archaeologist's dream!

A team of international archaeologists is working round the clock to rescue the wreck of what is thought to be a 16th Century Portuguese trading ship that lay undisturbed for hundreds of years off Namibia's Atlantic coast.

The shipwreck, uncovered in an area drained for diamond mining, has revealed a cargo of metal cannonballs, chunks of wooden hull, imprints of swords, copper ingots and elephant tusks.

It was found in April when a crane driver from the diamond mining company Namdeb spotted some coins.

The project manager of the rescue excavation, Webber Ndoro, described the find as the "the most exciting archaeological discovery on the African continent in the past 100 years".

"This is perhaps the largest find in terms of artefacts from a shipwreck in this part of the world," he said.

The area is also known as the Skeleton Coast and is associated with the skeletons of wrecked ships and past stories of sailors wandering through the barren landscape in search of food and water.

Working out whose ship this was is no easy task.

Gold coins that the Portuguese crown began producing in October 1525 mean it could not have been the vessel of the famous seafarer Bartholomew Dias, who disappeared on one of his travels around the point of Africa in the year 1500.

But there are other pointers, including swivel-guns known to have been used by Portuguese and Spanish seafarers, and the boat's shape, indicating that it was a Portuguese "nau".

There are also copper ingots carrying a clearly visible trident seal that can be traced back to the German banker and merchant family of Jakob Fugger - the main suppliers of primary materials to the Portuguese crown.

Gold and silver coins have been deposited in a bank vault. Rare navigational instruments have been sent to Portugal for research, while pewter plates and jugs, pieces of ceramic, tin blocks and elephant tusks are temporarily housed in a warehouse on the premises of the mining company. Some are being freed of their layer of sand and salt to allow for more detailed scrutiny over their make and origin.

"It represents a very interesting cargo - we have goods from Asia, we have goods from Europe, we have goods from Africa," said Mr Ndoro.

"We always think that globalisation started yesterday but in actual fact here we are with something we can date to around 1500."

. . .

Bruno Werz, the archaeologist leading the excavations, said the shipwreck was particularly valuable because it had not been tampered with.

"This collection has not been disturbed by human interference," he said.

"We are very fortunate to have found an untouched wreck with all the material that was on site still here in one collection."

Archaeologists from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, the United States, the UK and Portugal are working on the excavation, which is due to be completed by mid-October.

Thereafter the detailed work of recording and preserving, which can take up to 30 years, can begin.

This should prove to be a fascinating "time capsule" of shipboard life and international commerce in the 16th century. I'll be watching with interest to see what else is revealed.