Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Here's to a better 2009!

My wish for all of you, dear readers, is that you survive the current economic and social problems with your finances, relationships, and sense of humor unimpaired; that you find the New Year enriching, fulfilling and satisfying; and that you keep coming back here!

Thank you for keeping me company over the past year. I've enjoyed your comments (and learned from them), and I look forward to sharing the coming year with you as well.

Happy New Year to all of you: and may God bless you and yours, every one.


Favorite blog entries of 2008

Out of the 1,159 blog posts I've made over the past year, these are the ones that most made me smile, or think, or even cry.

Wednesday, January 2nd: Sam the Sex God.

Sunday, January 6th: Wolves fishing.

Saturday, January 19th: Jasper Carrot sings about his Bantam Cock.

Friday, February 8th: Men, romance and beer.

Tuesday, February 19th: Rogue SEAL team in action.

Wednesday, February 27th: A sudden and acute failure of the victim selection process.

Friday, February 29th: Rogue waves.

Monday, March 3rd: Gratuitous self-torture, caught on video.

Tuesday, March 11th: Japanese TV stunt.

Thursday, April 10th: Creative, witty steampunk; and, on the same date, how not to get a roll of cable up the stairs.

Monday, April 14th: The hazards of parking on a snow-covered surface.

Monday, May 12th: Farewell to a true heroine.

Tuesday, May 13th: Some amazing photographs of predator and prey.

Tuesday, May 20th: Sonar's come a long way.

Thursday, June 19th: They built a monument to WHAT???

Tuesday, June 24th: Of whisky, warfare and weapons of mass distraction.

Thursday, June 26th: Absolutely the worst music video I've ever seen!

Friday, June 27th: Human ovulation captured on camera.

Sunday, July 20th: Weekend Wings #25: Air gunners. (This edition of Weekend Wings still attracts more hits from search engines than any other. I guess air gunners aren't well covered in other online sources of information.)

Wednesday, July 23rd: When police become accessories to murder.

Sunday, July 27th: Remembering Mike.

Tuesday, July 29th: Epic TV reporter FAIL!

Thursday, August 7th: The craziness of gourmet bottled water prices.

Monday, August 18th: So that's what they mean by 'trouser snake'!

Sunday, August 24th: Why awards often aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Saturday, August 30th: Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Thursday, September 4th: Well, look what the wind blew in!

Saturday, September 6th: A recipe for neighborhood peace and quiet.

Friday, September 12th: More information than I needed!

Tuesday, September 16th: What happens when a Formula 1 driver takes his wife for a spin?

Thursday, September 18th: Iceberg of the year?

Sunday, September 21st: Lest we forget.

Monday, September 29th: So much for the cult of wine!

Thursday, October 2nd: It's Ig Nobel time again! (This article was linked by Reddit, and as a result has attracted more viewers than any other article of the past year - over 10,000, at last count.)

Sunday, October 12th: The world on a very small scale.

Thursday, October 16th: Sniggers of the day.

Saturday, October 18th: A loo with a view?

Monday, October 20th: Mind-bending music?

Saturday, October 25th: Is belly-dancing really good for you?

Sunday, October 26th: The results of 'Oops'!

Sunday, November 1st: 'I love you, Mum'.

Tuesday, November 11th: If you're feeling sorry for yourself - think of Hannah.

Friday, November 14th: The perils of gossip.

Tuesday, November 18th: Lessons learned from home repairs.

Sunday, November 23rd: A fish out of water!

Tuesday, November 25th: The future of books and reading.

Thursday, November 27th: A sad finale to the Chagos Islanders' last appeal.

Sunday, November 30th: The healthy, happy farmer . . .

Sunday, December 7th: Awwwww!

Monday, December 8th: Ninja? NOT!

Wednesday, December 10th: OK, this is insane!

Friday, December 12th: Doofus Of The Day #120

Wednesday, December 24th: The night Christmas became real.

I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them. If you have other favorites of your own, please add them in Comments.


Favorite Lolcats of 2008

I've posted a number of Lolcats over the past year from one of my favorite Web sites, I Can Has Cheezburger? Here are a selection of the best of them. Click on any picture to be taken to the original ICHC post and read viewers' comments.

And, just for fun, my favorite kitty video of the year.


Dave Barry reviews 2008

The inimitable Dave Barry's review of the past year is up at the Washington Times. He begins:

How weird a year was it? Here's how weird:

• O.J. actually got convicted of something.

• Gasoline hit $4 a gallon -- and those were the good times.

• On several occasions, "Saturday Night Live" was funny.

• There were a few days there in October when you could not completely rule out the possibility that the next Treasury secretary would be Joe the Plumber.

• Finally, and most weirdly, for the first time in history, the voters elected a president who -- despite the skeptics who said such a thing would never happen in the United States-- was neither a Bush nor a Clinton.

Read the rest at the link. As always, Mr. Barry has a neat turn of phrase and a fine sense of the incongruous.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Doofus Of The Day #135

Today's Doofus is from Germany.

Police have banned a woman driver's car from the road - for being too untidy.

The Vauxhall Astra was so full of junk, magazines, old clothes and even bits of furniture that they could barely see the driver at it roared down a motorway in Dusseldorf, Germany.

The driver - who has not been named by police - has been banned from taking the car on the road again until it has passed a tidiness test.

Police said the car was so full of junk the woman's face was pressed up against the windscreen as she drove.

"I'm sure this will make most people feel a lot better about leaving the odd sweet wrapper lying around in their car," joked one police source.

Y'know, I've been guilty of allowing junk to build up in my truck now and again . . . but ye Gods and little fishes! Looking at that picture, I can't imagine how she could have enough space to drive at all!


LIFE photo archive now online

I'm very happy to see at least part of the photo archives of LIFE magazine being made available online by Google.

These photographs are an historical treasure-trove, and should be invaluable to writers, scholars and students. I don't think all of them are yet available, but what there is has already caught my interest. They range from the 1860's to the 1970's. A few selections (click to enlarge):

Officers of USS Kearsage, off Cherbourg, France,
in June 1864, prior to their fight with the CSS Alabama

A barge containing sections of the Statue of Liberty is offloaded
at Bedloe's Island dock in the East River, June 25th, 1885

The very first Rolls-Royce motor car, 1903

A French village destroyed by artillery bombardment, 1916

Migrant pea pickers, Nipomo, California, 1937

Walt Disney, 1953

Splashdown of Apollo 11
(first manned mission to land on the moon), July 24th, 1969

There are thousands of other images, enough to keep me happily browsing in my spare moments for months to come. It's well worth a visit.


A smelly solution to smuggling - not!

I was amused to read that drug smugglers in Peru have turned to a new technique in an (unsuccessful) attempt to outsmart the law.

Traffickers hid 2.8 tonnes of cocaine in thousands of pounds of smelly bird droppings, Peruvian police said on Monday after uncovering the latest ruse to conceal drug shipments.

Cocaine exporters in Peru, the world's No. 2 producer after neighboring Colombia, counted on the stench of the dung, which is sold as a high-end organic fertilizer, tricking dogs trained to find drugs at ports of entry.

Guano, as the dung is known in Spanish, is rich in nitrates and phosphorous and has a strong ammonia smell. The cocaine was hidden in 400 bags of guano that together weighed 20 tonnes and was bound for Europe.

"The organic products camouflaged the cocaine by neutralizing it to avoid detection," police said after a five-month investigation that led to the seizure at a warehouse in Lima about 10 days ago.

I understand that a colloquial expression indicating approval of the quality of a drug is, "This is good s**t!" Perhaps the language of the street is more literally correct than we've previously imagined . . .


Be grateful to our nurses

I have two sisters in the nursing profession, and have some exposure to emergency medicine through my involvement with St. John Ambulance in South Africa during my teens and twenties (although not at the level of paramedic/EMT in the USA). I've always known that nursing could be not only a thankless profession, but also an extremely distasteful one on occasion.

This is borne out by a thread on, which asks: "What is your most gross, yucky, disgusting nursing horror story?" It's already 134 pages long, so you can imagine that there are a great many really nasty stories in there. If you're interested, it's worth reading, but be warned: it's not for the squeamish or faint-hearted!

Having read through that thread, it's a wonder to me that people still want to be nurses! I guess it's a calling in its own right. Certainly, ladies and gentlemen of that profession, you have a great deal more of my sympathy now than before I read it!


Monday, December 29, 2008

Doofus Of The Day #134

Let's see now.

Your boss says to you: "We're going to blow up the containment dam and let out the water. I want you to get us good video of the explosion for our training films."


So, you think to yourself . . . where should I put the camera?

Here's a hint.


I hope he (or she) wasn't standing behind it at the time . . .


Now that's an achievement!

I'm astonished to read of a young man who's accomplished something I'm sure most of his contemporaries would have regarded as impossible.

A Long Island teenager has earned all 121 merit badges offered by the Boy Scouts of America. It's an accomplishment the local arm of the organization calls "an almost unheard-of feat." Oceanside resident Shawn Goldsmith earned his final badge — for bugling — in time for his 18th birthday in November. He far surpassed the 21 badges required to achieve the elite rank of Eagle Scout.

He said he took about five years to earn his first 62 badges and then nearly doubled that number in a matter of months. He did it with the encouragement of his grandmother, who died shortly before he reached his goal.

The Binghamton University freshman was awarded his final badges on Dec. 19. He said he hopes to become a businessman and politician.

The full list of merit badges, as given on the Boy Scouts Web site, is:

American Business
American Cultures
American Heritage
American Labor
Animal Science
Atomic Energy
Automotive Maintenance
Bird Study
Citizenship in the Community
Citizenship in the Nation
Citizenship in the World
Coin Collecting
Composite Materials
Crime Prevention
Disabilities Awareness
Dog Care
Emergency Preparedness
Environmental Science
Family Life
Farm Mechanics
Fire Safety
First Aid
Fish and Wildlife Management
Fly Fishing
Graphic Arts
Home Repairs
Indian Lore
Insect Study
Landscape Architecture
Mammal Study
Model Design and Building
Nuclear Science
Personal Fitness
Personal Management
Plant Science
Public Health
Public Speaking
Pulp and Paper
Reptile and Amphibian Study
Rifle Shooting
Shotgun Shooting
Small-Boat Sailing
Snow Sports
Soil and Water Conservation
Space Exploration
Stamp Collecting
Traffic Safety
Truck Transportation
Veterinary Medicine
Water Sports
Wilderness Survival
Wood Carving

I'd say anyone who can complete all those badges has a very well-rounded education indeed! Congratulations to Shawn Goldsmith from this former Scout and Naval Cadet on an outstanding effort.


From the 'Not A Good Idea' department . . .

. . . we have this story of corporate re-branding gone awry.

It seems that earlier this year, Turkey's World Focus Airlines decided to rename itself. It wanted a more global image, something that would appeal to the international traveler. It came up with the name 'AnkAir' (which, being Turkish, I presume is a contraction of 'Ankara Airways' or something like that).

So far, so good.

It also came up with a new logo, apparently intended to look like the spreading wings of a bird, but which somewhat resembled the letter 'W'.

Also so far, so good.

Unfortunately, it then put the logo and its new name rather too close together on its aircraft. This caused speakers of English-English (as opposed to American-English, where the term isn't common) to do a double-take before they burst into raucous laughter. You see, in English-English, the two in combination appear to form a rather unfortunate word.


A Christmas gift idea that's coming back . . .

. . . although whether or not that's a good idea, I'm not sure!

You'll remember that before Christmas, I posted about Burger King's launch of a body spray that smelt like its burgers. Some commenters actually tried to buy the stuff, but found that it was sold out. (Would you believe that the $3.99 spray cans have been selling for up to $150 on eBay???)

Well, there's good news . . . I think. New stocks will shortly be arriving, according to this Reuters report.

So, if you missed it the first time, and you want to smell like a Whopper for your significant other, now's your chance!


Soapbox racing fun

The fifth annual Hoar Cross Downhill Soapbox Competition took place in England today, with all concerned seeming to enjoy themselves enormously. This competition is organized by the MAD Club, which isn't as bad as it sounds. From their Web site:

The MAD Club (Meynell Arms Drinkers) is a much deliberated and vaguely appropriate name for a group of Hoar Cross guys who, upon organising a regular pint in their beloved local The Meynell Ingram Arms in the village of Hoar Cross, decided to put together a number of annual events for both fun and the worthy cause of raising a few pennies for local charity.

The inaugural event, the Hoar Cross Downhill Soapbox in 2004 attracted over 1000 spectators watching 30 homemade soapboxes piloted by pairs of crazed drivers tackle the half mile School Hill within the village.

A total of over £14,000 was raised for the local St Giles Hospice along with an undertaking from MAD club members to continue this grand beginning with an annual programme of beer fuelled charity events.

More fantastic fund-raising events continued throughout 2005. Medieval Madness in August and Cycle to the Surf in September raised £15,050 for the When You Wish Upon A Star charity, the HC Downhill has now become an iconic local event with the 2006/2007 events raising over £130,000 for Birmingham Childrens Hospital and Acorns Childrens Hospice.

This years event is set to break all records and once again we are delighted to be supporting When You Wish Upon A Star.

I like the attention to detail that the competitors put into their designs. No ordinary soapbox cars will do - these have to be something special. Here are a few examples. Click the pictures for a larger view.

From 2007, the Flintstones car:

and the Coca-Cola delivery truck (with a Pepsi number-plate!);

From this year's event, 'Team Muppet':

Team 'Starsky And Hutch' demolish the chicane:

and team 'Here Come The Girls' show us how it's done:

Here's a video clip of the 2007 event. I'm sure the 2008 race will hit YouTube within a few days.

Looks like a lot of fun was had by all.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Doofus Of The Day #133

I don't know, I just don't know . . .

I suppose all of us were young and foolish once, particularly with our first vehicles. We'd try to show off to our friends, 'drifting' them across empty parking lots or dusty tracks.

However, there's a cardinal rule when doing so in the presence of other vehicles.

Make sure you know where the other guy is!!!


A long overdue 'green' solution

Those of you who've lived or traveled in the Third World will know all too well the many problems faced by rural (and some urban) dwellers.

- Sewage works are often not available at all, resulting in a 'night soil' bucket operation that makes the area smell to high heaven;

- When sewage treatment works are available, they're often no more than concentrators of sewage from an area, which is then discharged into the nearest river or stream. Those above the discharge point are OK, but the water downstream is polluted for many miles;

- Electricity and/or gas supplies are often not available, and when they are, they aren't exactly reliable: so much of the cooking and heating is done with firewood, or (for those wealthy enough to buy it) charcoal or coal. This denudes the surrounding landscape of trees;

- Fertilizer is very expensive, often too costly for poor rural people to afford, with negative consequences for the yield from their fields.

In two recent reports, the BBC describes projects in Nepal and Rwanda that address all of these problems simultaneously. It's very encouraging to read them.

In Nepal:

A model biogas project is creating a win-win situation for rural Nepalese, the industrialised world and the atmosphere.

The scheme recently won the renowned Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and is already being replicated in some Asian and African countries.

It is calculated that gas generated from cattle dung in rural Nepal has lit around 140,000 kitchens, saving 400,000 tonnes of firewood, 800,000 litres of kerosene and preventing 600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere.

The project, known as the Biogas Support Programme, Nepal, (BSP), has been implemented in 66 of the nation's 75 districts.

This at a time when most development work has come to a standstill in almost all districts because of the 10-year Maoist insurgency.

On the international front, the BSP has been able to "sell" the savings it has made in emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gases to industrialised countries. These nations can buy such "credits" to compensate for the extra greenhouse gases they produce over the allowances stipulated in the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate treaty.

Each BSP biogas plant is said to save some 4.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere every year.

First and foremost, a plant will save the carbon dioxide that would otherwise have been emitted by the burning of firewood. And by burning the cattle dung's methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 is prevented from entering the air.

The byproduct from a plant's digester is compost manure which will contribute nothing to the greenhouse effect.

"We have not even been talking yet about the savings of the carbon that is absorbed by the trees, and then sparing the trees from being used as fuel because of the biogas plants," says Sundar Bajgain, BSP's executive director.

This saving has yet to be sold as credit.

. . .

The project is also looking to clinch more deals with other western institutions as it plans to add 200,000 biogas plants by 2009 in rural Nepal, where cattle-raising is the basic means of livelihood.

"There are other banks in the Netherlands that are keen to buy carbon credits from Nepal's BSP," says Jan de Witte, former chief of the Dutch development agency SNV's office in Nepal.

The German bank KFW is also keen on buying carbon credits, adds Sundar Bajgain. All these deals are more likely to materialise now that Nepal has registered its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol with the UN.

. . .

It is a simple and natural technology - dung goes in, gas comes out. Here is how: bacteria that come with the dung from the cow's stomach break down the waste in an underground air-tight digester.

In the absence of oxygen, the mixing of cow dung with water leads to a reaction that produces a gas comprising up to 70% methane and the remainder CO2.

The digested slurry flows to an outlet tank and ends up in the compost pit, while the gas is tapped from the top of the dome with a pipe that ends in the burner of the kitchen stove.

BSP officials say that quite apart from the issue of carbon credits, the technology has eased the lives of rural women who otherwise choked and developed respiratory problems because of the firewood they would normally use in their kitchens.

. . .

The other attraction of the biogas project is the jobs which it produces. In Nepal, there are already 57 private companies specialising in digester construction, and developing ancillary industries. This gives employment to 11,000 Nepalese.

A report prepared by the European Biomass Industry Association and the conservation group WWF states that switching to farms producing ethanol and other biomass fuel could create hundreds of thousands of jobs while reducing one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

"Biomass currently provides only one percent of the power needs of rich countries, but could provide up to 15% by 2020," the report said.

Unlike fossil fuels, burning biomass, like biogas from cow dung, is generally considered to be carbon neutral.

Sounds like a very good idea, very well executed. A similar project in Rwanda also received the Ashden Award.

A Rwandan prison project, which reduces cooking fuel bills by using methane gas from inmates' toilet waste, has won a global environment award.

The Kigali Institute of Science and Technology has helped prisons cut their firewood spending by $44,000 (£25,000).

The residue sewage is then used as fertiliser on crops to feed each institution's 10,000 prisoners.

"Biogas kills two birds with one stone," Ainea Kimaro, the Ashden Award winning project head told the BBC.

Mr Kimaro received his $53,000 (£30,000) prize at a ceremony in London on Wednesday for underlining the vital role which small-scale sustainable energy can play in tackling both climate change and poverty in Africa, the award organisers said.

Most biogas plants are small, but Mr Kimaro's big tanks resemble giant brick beehives - constructed in a pit which is covered on completion.

Rwanda has a huge prison population with some 120,000 suspects awaiting trail for their alleged part in the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Five of the country's largest jails now boast biogas plants, either in operation or under construction.

At Cyangugu prison, with biogas now fuelling five of the nine boilers in the prison kitchen, their firewood bill has been cut by more than half.

"The firewood savings are excellent - they really make a difference for us," a Cyangugu prison warden said, adding that the odour-free compost had done wonders for the prison gardens.

"Look at all these bananas! This fertiliser really is the best," he said.

Mr Kimaro said the fact that the methane gas was generated from sewage had not put prisoners off their food.

"I myself I have a biogas plant in my house! It's a tropical solution to a tropical problem," he said.

Again, excellent news.

I wish more environmental organizations would put their weight and support behind such projects. Instead of marching in protest against first-world industry, which is largely impervious to their shouting, why not seek to actually do good instead of complain about the bad? I think their credibility would rise substantially if they could produce evidence of projects like these, that were helping to both reduce the environmental impact of humans and improve our lives, rather than simply moan and groan about what others are doing. Action speaks far louder than words!


Most emphatically NOT what I want for Christmas!

I'm aghast at the lengths to which some people will go in pursuit of their 'art' - to use the term loosely, of course.

Thailand's 'Scorpion Queen' might disagree with me, of course . . .

Thailand's self-proclaimed "Scorpion Queen" has set a new world record by holding a live seven-inch scorpion in her mouth for just over two minutes.

In a feat worthy of the reality television programme 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!', Kanchana Kaetkaew, 39, allowed her husband, Boonthawee Siangwong, to place the writhing poisonous arachnid on her tongue, where it stayed for two minutes and three seconds before she spat it out.

Her proud husband – known as Thailand's "Centipede King" – looked on as Miss Kaetkaew, dressed in a white dress covered with more of the stinging creatures, made her record attempt in front of a crowd at a shopping centre in Pattaya, a city on the Gulf of Thailand known for its nightlife and cabaret.

Miss Kaetkaew remains ambitious for more records and, for her next stunt, she is planning to live in a glass compound for 33 days and nights in the company of 5,000 scorpions.

If successful, she will beat her 2002 record of 32 days in a glass house with 3,400 scorpions. Her husband set a Thai record for enduring 28 days with 1,000 centipedes.

The "Scorpion Queen" and the "Centipede King" were married in a haunted house on Valentine's Day in 2006. The couple met while performing their respective stunts at a snake farm on the resort island of Koh Samui.

Uh . . . congratulations . . . I think!


In light-hearted Christmas vein . . .

I'm still enjoying the Twelve Days of Christmas, although not many Americans seem to celebrate the feast for the full period. I found two posts on other blogs that had me cackling into my tea today, and I wanted to share them with you.

The first is from John Scalzi - "How You Know It's Not Santa". A few guidelines:

  • His beard smells like your Uncle Dave’s glaucoma medicine.
  • His elves have prison tattoos.
  • He asks if you’d like to try some of his Prancer jerky.
  • He describes the Baby Jesus as “the competition.”
  • He burps in your face and calls it a “jingle belch.”
  • Instead of saying “Merry Christmas” he shouts “Happy Life Day” and then screams like a Wookiee.

There are lots more at the link. Enjoy!

The second is a discussion about Christmas between Ken (39) and his three kids (7, 5 and 2 respectively). A snippet:

EVAN: How did Jesus get rid of the dinosaurs?

ME: . . . I beg your pardon?

EVAN [impatient]: How did JESUS get rid of the DINOSAURS?

ABBY: Yeah!


ME: What do you mean, get rid of the dinosaurs?

EVAN: Weren’t there dinosaurs around once?

ME: Yes . . .

EVAN: And didn’t they used to eat people until Jesus came, and then Jesus came and got rid of them?


ME: [stunned silence]

EVAN: . . . or something like that?

ME: No, son. The dinosaurs were gone long before Jesus.

EVAN: I thought Jesus got rid of the dinosaurs.

ME: You’re thinking of the moneychangers, and the people who sold doves.

EVAN: [openly incredulous] Doves?

ME: Never mind. Daddy was joking.

EVAN: Jesus didn’t save us? I thought Jesus saved us.



EVAN: What did Jesus save us from?

ME: Sin.

[dead silence]

ABBY: And that’s why Santa brings us presents?

(Pauses to let helpless giggles subside . . . )

I love kids. They can tie up a preacher in theological knots so fast you wouldn't believe it if you weren't there to hear it! More of their discussion at the link.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thanks, Atomic Nerds!

A neighbor returned from a short Christmas vacation today, and this afternoon came over bearing a large cardboard box. It seems it was addressed to me, but the Big Brown Truck of Happiness dropped it at his house instead, probably a day or two before Christmas. Fortunately, they left it on a table in his carport, so it was undamaged by the heavy rains we've experienced in recent days.

It was from Labrat and Stingray, the Atomic Nerds. They very thoughtfully sent a large bag of cookies and another of cocoa mixture. Having read Matt's comments about the cocoa being laced with cayenne pepper, I haven't yet had the courage to try it, but I daresay when the next cold snap hits, it'll be just what the doctor ordered.

Many thanks, Labrat, Stingray. That was very thoughtful of you. I shall munch some of your cookies at the turn of the New Year, and think of you. I haven't forgotten my promise to send you something, but the local vendor of the deadliest hot sauces known to humankind seems to have suffered hurricane damage and relocated himself. Once I find his new premises, I'll send some along, and Labrat can take pictures (for publication on your blog, of course!) of flames erupting from Stingray's various and sundry bodily orifices as he tries it. (It should produce a nice flickering firelight effect on his tattoos!)


Doofus Of The Day #132 - a doofus of burning love!

There are so many songs this brings to mind . . . but I don't think this is what the poets have in mind when they speak of being 'on fire for' someone!

A Swedish man’s attempt to impress his girlfriend on Friday night backfired, putting him in the hospital with serious burn injuries and facing allegations of endangering the public.

The woman told police in Västervik in south eastern Sweden that her boyfriend poured gasoline over his arm and set the fuel on fire.

“It obviously didn’t go well. He burned his arm and other parts of his body and was in a state of shock,” said Kalmar police spokesperson Reine Johansson to the TT news agency.

“Don’t ask me what the point of the trick was supposed to be.”

The 33-year-old man was taken via ambulance to the hospital in Västervik.

According to police he will likely need specialized care at the burn clinic of Linköping University Hospital.

Following the failed stunt, the man is also under suspicion for negligence which endangers the public.

Police add that they have no reason to believe the man's burns resulted from actions other than those described by his girlfriend.

“We haven’t been able to talk with him yet; his condition is too bad to allow it. But we naturally plan to do so as soon as possible,” said Johansson.

Uh-huh. I'm sure they do. What's more, I daresay their 'talk with him' will begin with the Swedish equivalent of, "What the **** did you think you were doing, you dumbass???"


An atheist looks at Christian missions in Africa

I was intensely interested to read Matthew Parris' views on the value of Christian missions in Africa today.

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Those of you who read my Christmas story will understand why I tend to agree with Mr. Parris. Of course, I also believe that the Christian faith happens to be true, and that the purpose of missions is first and foremost to convey that truth: but if there are side benefits, I'll be the first to accept and applaud them!


Britain's new aircraft-carriers

Last weekend I published Weekend Wings #30, which examined the US Navy's carrier-borne aviation, present and future. In the process, I looked at what other countries were operating and building in the aircraft-carrier line, including the Royal Navy's proposed Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.

In an article today, the Daily Mail takes a closer look at these carriers, including photographs of a model of the ship. Click the pictures for a larger view.

It’s a 1:200 scale model of what will be the two biggest warships Britain has ever launched – the 65,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales.

Each ship will have nine decks topped by a vast flight deck and will tower six metres taller than Nelson’s Column from keel to masthead.

‘Cover the flight deck with grass and it would be a par four,’ says one of the design team.

They will carry 36 state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter stealth jump-jets and four helicopters each, and be able to get 24 planes airborne within just 15 minutes.

‘All the major navies in the world are now building them,’ says Dr Lee Willett, head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute.

‘The Russians have one of their big carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov, back at sea and have stated that they plan to build 12 carrier battle groups. The Chinese and the Indians are also under way with plans, the Japanese are building a destroyer that will act as a helicopter carrier and the US are working on new-generation carriers.

‘We’re an island nation and we have global interests so we need these four acres of moveable sovereign airfield that we can deploy wherever we want, whenever we need them.’

Aerial view,
showing the take-off ramp (A),
the giant lifts (B), the runway (C),
and the helicopter (D)

What the building of the carriers also shows is that Britain is running out of friends.

Willett says, ‘The world is an unstable place and, post-Iraq and the global war on terror, access to other nation’s territory or airspace is more difficult.’

Former naval officer and now author Lewis Page agrees.

‘Friendly nations are hard to find and it becomes even harder once you have taken over local air bases, which are then vulnerable to attack.

'But there is a way to avoid giving yourself a logistical nightmare and becoming a target. Without having to ask anyone you can put an aircraft carrier 15 miles offshore in international waters and carry out operations from there without a single person needing to set foot on land or a single supply convoy coming under fire.

'And you won’t need to go through any diplomatic hoops.’

. . .

But there are troubled waters ahead for this huge project, which still has the potential to go spectacularly wrong. Britain has never put together a ship in this way, on this scale, and there are fears over whether we have the commitment or the skilled workers to build the vessels to order and on time.

There have been criticisms of cost-cutting measures, concerns linger over whether the engines will work and, just to add to the uncertainty, the planes it is hoped will fly off the carriers have yet to be built.

. . .

No single shipyard in this country has the infrastructure or personnel to construct the entire ship, so the plan is to build them in sections in different shipyards. Work on the lower bow section has already begun in Devon. The other shipyards are set to begin cutting steel in March 2009.

The aft block will be built in Glasgow, the central block in Barrow-In-Furness and the forward section in Portsmouth. The remaining upper sections will be constructed in smaller docks; bids from shipyards are still being considered.

The blocks will then be transported independently to Rosyth to be put together. The integration process is scheduled to take around two years and the plan is that as soon as the first ship floats it will leave and then work will begin on the second.

Putting aside questions over whether the money or political will could dry up before these carriers are completed, simply the practicality of gathering the parts together is a logistical nightmare.

‘Transportation is one of our biggest problems,’ says Knight. ‘Ideally you would build part of the ship in a dock, flood the dock, float the section of ship out and tow it to Rosyth, where you float it into another dock and let the water out so it’s left resting on blocks. You then connect it to the next section.

‘But unfortunately the aft section doesn’t float. We’ve looked at barges to transport it, but there’s only one big enough to take that weight and who knows if that barge will be around when we need her.

‘Alternatively we could put tanks on her to give extra buoyancy – basically enormous floats. But this is risky because we’ll have to tow it from the west coast of Scotland to the east coast.’

If and when all the pieces do finally meet, then putting the thing together should be like assembling a Lego model. But this is a massive undertaking – each of these gigantic blocks will weigh up to 10,000 tons.

‘Joining these enormous sections together, physically hammering them along a block and then making sure they’re exactly aligned will be a pretty hairy operation,’ says Knight.

. . .

The project team admits that designing a ship with the desired features to a tight budget has been challenging. The result, they say, is notable more for simplicity and efficiency rather than hi-tech innovation. The most revolutionary element of the CVF design is its highly mechanised weapons handling system, which means a cut in the crew numbers required – from 4,500 on a US carrier (including a team of 150 just to move the weapons around) to 1,450.

One of the first things to go was nuclear power. Most modern aircraft carriers, including the American ships, are powered by an on-board nuclear reactor.

‘This is a brand-new ship, so getting through all the safety aspects of nuclear power would have been hideously expensive,’ says Knight.

Instead, like modern cruise liners, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales will be propelled by electrical motors, powered by two Rolls-Royce gas turbines and four diesel generators. The diesel generators are more economical and used for general cruising, but when you need to get somewhere fast or need more headwind to help the planes to take off then you switch to the gas turbines.

Money has also been saved in side armour protection, though Knight insists this was a strategic rather than a budgetary issue.

‘The CVF’s first line of defence is the frigates and the new Type 45 destroyers around us,’ he adds. ‘Our only self-defence is close-in weapons systems and small guns. Instead, what you have on the ship is 36 of the most lethal aircraft ever made.’

Artist's impression of the new ship


• The surface of the 16,000 square meter flight deck (172,222 square feet, or almost 4 acres - the size of three regulation NFL football fields, including the end zones) is covered in a grainy,heat-resistant paint,similar to very coarse sandpaper. The entire painted surface amounts to 370 acres - slightly bigger than Hyde Park.

• Two huge lifts, each with a 70-ton capacity, are capable of transporting two aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck in 60 seconds. The ship will be home to 36 Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and four EH-101 Merlin helicopters.

• The ground-breaking twin-island layout allows more deck space for aircraft and better visibility of the flight deck. The forward island is for navigating the ship; flight control is based in the aft island.

• The ship's 29,000 sq m hangar is 150 metres in length and has 20 slots for aircraft maintenance.

• There are 11 full-time medical staff on board managing an eight-bed medical suite, operating theatre and dental surgery.

• An onboard water treatment plant produces over 500 tons of fresh water daily.

• Two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines and four diesel generator sets produce 109MW - enough to power a town the size of Swindon.

• Cabins are spacious and cruise-liner style, with en-suite toilets and shower facilities. Officers and senior ratings have single or two-berth cabins. The maximum number of crew in a cabin is six.

• The carrier will carry more than 8,600 tons of fuel, enough for the average family car to travel to the Moon and back 12 times. This gives a range of up to 10,000 nautical miles.

• Top speed will be in excess of 25 knots, sufficient to cross from Dover to Calais in an hour.

• The two five-blade propellers are each 30ft in diameter - that's one-and-a-half times the height of a double-decker bus.

Looks like an interesting and innovative design. However, there are two potential problems. One is that the design will allow for the installation of catapults and arresting gear, but they won't be installed during building, for reasons of economy. That means conventional carrier aircraft won't be able to land on or take off from them - a potentially crippling liability in operations with allied fleets like those of the US and France, which operate such aircraft. The second is the lack of nuclear power. With today's increasingly electrically-powered and -operated weapons (including the first generation of laser beam weapons, just appearing on the market, as discussed in Weekend Wings #30), the ability to generate enormous amounts of electricity will be crucial to a ship's combat-effectiveness and survival. I rather suspect ships lacking a nuclear reactor won't be well placed to do this . . . and that could significantly affect their viability in future operations.

Still, an interesting effort. Let's hope the realities of the budget and the demands of the Welfare State allow them to be built! See the linked article for more information about them.


I've been tagged - but there's no way!

Clarence Grad 72 'tagged' me yesterday to participate in her blog meme.

Now the interesting part - tagging other bloggers that haven't already posted pictures! Here's the rules and the blogs:

1. Take a picture of yourself.. riiiiiight.. NOW!
2. DO NOT change your clothes. DO NOT fix your hair.. Just take a picture.
3. Post that picture with NO editing.
4. Post these instructions with your picture.
5. Tag 10 people to do this!

Here goes, with no particular rhyme or reason:

1. The Boomer Chronicles
2. Mary Kunz Goldman
3. Notes From An Inquisitive Mind
4. Bayou Renaissance Man
5. XUP
6. Ramblings By Reba
7. Nihil Obstat
8. Ailín
9. Willful Caboose
10. InDaBuff

Er . . . um . . . well, you see, it's like this.

I'd like to participate: but this morning, when I read this, I'd just got out of bed, and was not only rumpled and sleepy-eyed, but also stark naked. Furthermore, since I have titanium straps holding my back together, and nerve damage to my left leg, it takes me a while to get upright and on an even keel after I get out of bed. So, if I'd obeyed the meme instructions to take a picture 'right now', without improvements, you, dear reader, would now be gazing in utter horror at a badly bent narcoleptic nudist!

I'm afraid I therefore have to decline her meme invitation, with the best possible grace I can muster. I trust she - and you, dear reader - will content yourselves with the picture already posted in my profile.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Trust the Marines to make Christmas memorable!

I'm obliged to my buddy, SSgt. M., USMC, for e-mailing me the link to this video. He's in the sandbox right now, and knows some of those who made it.

It seems that members of the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines wanted to commemorate Christmas in Iraq: so they re-wrote the words to the carol, "The Twelve Days Of Christmas", and performed it on video. Here it is, in all its . . . er . . . well, perhaps 'glory' isn't the word to use!

For those who had trouble distinguishing the words, here are the twelve gifts:

1 - full resupply of TP
2 - megaphones
3 - crappy humvees
4 - portajohns
5 - hours of sleep
6 - rusty dumbells
7 - months deployment
8 - IPs (Iraqi Police) dancing
9 - sentries standing
10 - hours posting
11 - bags of trash
12 - freakin' flies!


Trivia and odd names of 2008

Two articles in the Daily Mail had me chuckling this evening.

The first looks at trivia questions put to a British company, Any Question Answered, during the past year. For your entertainment, here are a few examples.

Who got more fan mail than The Beatles? - Hitler received more during the Thirties and Forties than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Madonna combined.

How many chickens do we eat in our lifetime? - In the UK we eat, on average, 1,200 chickens each during our lifetime. That's 1,800 kilos of chicken meat, the same as eating a four-year-old elephant.

Can you fit an egg into a milk bottle without breaking it? - Yes. Soak a raw egg in vinegar for two days (this softens the shell). Heat the bottle in boiling water. Place egg on top of bottle: as the bottle cools, the air inside it contracts and the egg will be sucked in.

How many iPods would I need to store the estimated number of original released songs in the world? - With 4billion original released songs, you'd need 4 million 4GB iPod nanos, or 100,000 16GB iPod classics to store them.

How many ants could you fit in a jumbo jet and it could still take off? - The average ant weighs 3mg. Taking account of aerodynamics, a jet containing 46.5 trillion of them would still be able to take off (assuming one of them knew how to fly the plane).

If an ant were the same size as a human, how fast would it be able to run? - It would travel twice as fast as a Lamborghini. An ant-sized human, however, would travel at a measly 0.5cm per second.

Why are Apple computers called 'Apple'? - The founders chose the name so that it would come before rivals Atari in the phone directory.

Where is the longest bench in the world? - There is one 460.9 metres (1,498 feet) long in Masuhogaura, Japan. It's made of wood, and offers sunset views for you and 1,349 others.

There are lots more at the link.

The second article looks at some of the weirder choices of those who legally changed their names in Britain during the past year. Some examples:

Aron Mufasa Columbo Fonzerelli Ball In A Cup Boogie Woogie Brown: Formerly Aron William James Brown, 25, a cinema projectionist from Derby. He chose Mufasa from the Lion King, Columbo after the TV detective and Fonzerelli from The Fonz character in Happy Days. He picked Ball In A Cup because he is obsessed with the game and Boogie Woogie as he 'felt I needed to inject a bit of humour into my name'.

N'Tom The Hayemaker Haywardyouliketocomebacktomine: Formerly Tom Hayward. The 19-year-old computer games design student from Market Harborough, Leicestershire, changed his name after a night out clubbing and forgot about it. He was shell-shocked to receive a letter confirming his new name. Since then he has grown used to it.

General Ninja Ant: Formerly Anthony Richard Giles Bailey, a 42-year-old environmental campaigner from Southend-on-Sea. Picked General because he didn't want to be plain old Mr any more and Ninja because he is a martial arts expert. Ant is an abbreviation of his first name.

Tintin Captain Haddock Confused Brewer: Formerly Chris Brewer, 25, a stockbroker from Leeds. Tintin is his nickname because of his receding hairline. Captain Haddock is another Tintin reference and also because he is a keen Grimsby Town fan and their mascot is a haddock. Confused is a private joke. He says: "I got in trouble with the police on a lads' night out recently and they wouldn't believe me when I told them my name."

Happy Adjustable Spanners: Formerly Daniel Westfallen, 27, from Hornchurch, Essex. Decided to change his name for a bet on a drunken night out. All of his friends put names into a hat and Happy Spanners came out. His boss then picked Adjustable as a middle name.

Hint to US readers: what we call a 'monkey wrench', the English call an 'adjustable spanner'. There are more weird and wonderful names at the link.


A piece of firearms history for sale

I'm obliged to Jim H. for alerting me by e-mail to this auction.

One of the 201 pistols made by Colt for the 1907 US Army handgun trials is up for sale on Gunbroker. It was based on the design of the earlier Colt pistols of 1900 and 1902, but in the new caliber of .45 ACP. This is the gun that would evolve into the legendary Model of 1911, which was the issue sidearm of the US armed forces from that year until the 1980's, and is still issued to specialist units.

The cutaway drawings below show some of the differences between the original M1902 and the final M1911 version. The M1902 is above, the M1911 below. (Click the drawings for a larger view.)

The photographs of this historic weapon show many differences between the 1907 prototypes and the final Model of 1911. The external extractor was changed to an internal version; the barrel was changed to a straight version with a bushing, rather than have the bushing integral with the barrel in the form of a bulge; the grip angle was modified; the grip safety was lengthened; the slide stop was made longer externally; etc.

There are lots more pictures, including close-ups, at the link. The quoted starting price is $25,000, which seems fairly reasonable for a weapon of this vintage and this rarity. No bids yet, though. I don't have that kind of money to spare, but a collector somewhere doubtless will.