Saturday, February 28, 2009

The nunchaku as a sports implement?

I've always known of the nunchaku as a fighting weapon, used in Oriental martial arts.

I'd never heard of it being used as a table-tennis bat, or a golf club, or any other form of sporting implement - until seeing these two videos. The first shows the legendary Bruce Lee using a nunchaku to take on first one, then two table-tennis players - with success.

The second shows another martial artist, using his nunchaku in ways that would probably make the ancient masters of the art twirl madly in their graves!

It's amazing to think that a simple peasant's weapon could be so versatile.


Stunning archaeological discoveries in Turkey

Last year I wrote about the discoveries at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. Recent excavations have uncovered even more information - and it's mind-boggling in its impact. This is truly one of the most stunning discoveries in the history of archaeology. As the Daily Mail reports:

Archaeologists worldwide are in rare agreement on the site's importance. 'Gobekli Tepe changes everything,' says Ian Hodder, at Stanford University.

David Lewis-Williams, professor of archaeology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, says: 'Gobekli Tepe is the most important archaeological site in the world.'

Some go even further and say the site and its implications are incredible. As Reading University professor Steve Mithen says: 'Gobekli Tepe is too extraordinary for my mind to understand.'

So what is it that has energised and astounded the sober world of academia?

. . .

... several unique factors lift Gobekli Tepe into the archaeological stratosphere - and the realms of the fantastical.

The first is its staggering age. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old.

That means it was built around 10,000 BC. By comparison, Stonehenge was built in 3,000 BC and the pyramids of Giza in 2,500 BC.

Gobekli is thus the oldest such site in the world, by a mind-numbing margin. It is so old that it predates settled human life. It is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-everything. Gobekli hails from a part of human history that is unimaginably distant, right back in our hunter-gatherer past.

How did cavemen build something so ambitious? Schmidt speculates that bands of hunters would have gathered sporadically at the site, through the decades of construction, living in animal-skin tents, slaughtering local game for food.

The many flint arrowheads found around Gobekli support this thesis; they also support the dating of the site.

This revelation, that Stone Age hunter-gatherers could have built something like Gobekli, is worldchanging, for it shows that the old hunter-gatherer life, in this region of Turkey, was far more advanced than we ever conceived - almost unbelievably sophisticated.

It's as if the gods came down from heaven and built Gobekli for themselves.

This is where we come to the biblical connection, and my own involvement in the Gobekli Tepe story.

About three years ago, intrigued by the first scant details of the site, I flew out to Gobekli. It was a long, wearying journey, but more than worth it, not least as it would later provide the backdrop for a new novel I have written.

Back then, on the day I arrived at the dig, the archaeologists were unearthing mind-blowing artworks. As these sculptures were revealed, I realised that I was among the first people to see them since the end of the Ice Age.

And that's when a tantalising possibility arose. Over glasses of black tea, served in tents right next to the megaliths, Klaus Schmidt told me that, in his opinion, this very spot was once the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. More specifically, as he put it: 'Gobekli Tepe is a temple in Eden.'

To understand how a respected academic like Schmidt can make such a dizzying claim, you need to know that many scholars view the Eden story as folk-memory, or allegory.

Seen in this way, the Eden story, in Genesis, tells us of humanity's innocent and leisured hunter-gatherer past, when we could pluck fruit from the trees, scoop fish from the rivers and spend the rest of our days in pleasure.

But then we 'fell' into the harsher life of farming, with its ceaseless toil and daily grind. And we know primitive farming was harsh, compared to the relative indolence of hunting, because of the archaeological evidence.

When people make the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, their skeletons change - they temporarily grow smaller and less healthy as the human body adapts to a diet poorer in protein and a more wearisome lifestyle. Likewise, newly domesticated animals get scrawnier.

This begs the question, why adopt farming at all? Many theories have been suggested - from tribal competition, to population pressures, to the extinction of wild animal species. But Schmidt believes that the temple of Gobekli reveals another possible cause.

'To build such a place as this, the hunters must have joined together in numbers. After they finished building, they probably congregated for worship. But then they found that they couldn't feed so many people with regular hunting and gathering.

'So I think they began cultivating the wild grasses on the hills. Religion motivated people to take up farming.'

The reason such theories have special weight is that the move to farming first happened in this same region. These rolling Anatolian plains were the cradle of agriculture.

The world's first farmyard pigs were domesticated at Cayonu, just 60 miles away. Sheep, cattle and goats were also first domesticated in eastern Turkey. Worldwide wheat species descend from einkorn wheat - first cultivated on the hills near Gobekli. Other domestic cereals - such as rye and oats - also started here.

But there was a problem for these early farmers, and it wasn't just that they had adopted a tougher, if ultimately more productive, lifestyle. They also experienced an ecological crisis. These days the landscape surrounding the eerie stones of Gobekli is arid and barren, but it was not always thus. As the carvings on the stones show - and as archaeological remains reveal - this was once a richly pastoral region.

There were herds of game, rivers of fish, and flocks of wildfowl; lush green meadows were ringed by woods and wild orchards. About 10,000 years ago, the Kurdish desert was a 'paradisiacal place', as Schmidt puts it. So what destroyed the environment? The answer is Man.

As we began farming, we changed the landscape and the climate. When the trees were chopped down, the soil leached away; all that ploughing and reaping left the land eroded and bare. What was once an agreeable oasis became a land of stress, toil and diminishing returns.

And so, paradise was lost. Adam the hunter was forced out of his glorious Eden, 'to till the earth from whence he was taken' - as the Bible puts it.

Of course, these theories might be dismissed as speculations. Yet there is plenty of historical evidence to show that the writers of the Bible, when talking of Eden, were, indeed, describing this corner of Kurdish Turkey.

There's a whole lot more information and pictures at the link. Highly recommended reading.


Has Costco ever heard of logic???

Let me tell you a tale of online shopping frustration.

I wanted to buy an article from Costco that I'd found through an online review. So, I went to the Costco Web site, and found the article in question. All went well - until I tried to buy it.

First of all, they won't ship to a Post Office box - don't ask me why. Since I don't receive mail at my residential address (I don't even have a mailbox outside my home), this was a real problem. I couldn't for the life of me imagine why they wouldn't dispatch my order to my P O box - after all, they ship via USPS - but there wasn't much I could do about it. Sighing, I gave them my physical address, and went on with the transaction.

Then, when it came time to give them my credit card details, they wanted to know the card's billing address. Guess what? It's my P O box. And - guess what again? As soon as I entered it, their system rejected it with another note that they don't ship to P O boxes! This, despite the fact that it wasn't a shipping address, but a billing address!

Just who designed this system for Costco? Who are the clowns who approved it for retail use? Who's the imbecile who decided not to ship to P O boxes? And how many orders has Costco lost through not paying attention to the reality of their customers' lives?

A big Thumbs Down to Costco - and, yes, I canceled my order, rather than bother trying any further maneuvers through the labyrinth of their ordering system. I've got better things to do with my time. Sam's Club has given me excellent service so far, so I'll see if they have what I need.


Playing in the mud . . . it's not just for kids!

It seems that farmers in Japan have a unique way of preparing for the planting season. Reuters posts this video of their preparations.

Looks like they all had fun - except for the babies!


Don't you just love feisty ladies?

A huge round of applause to Mrs. Ellen Basinski of Elyria, Ohio, who showed a gang of teenage thugs where to get off on Wednesday.

The 70-year-old wife of a Lorain County Family Court judge meted out a little domestic justice of her own Tuesday afternoon when she fought off four robbers with her favorite saucepan.

Ellen Basinski refused to be intimidated by a man and three boys who forced their way into her house on Columbus Street and demanded money.

"One of them picked up my purse and just dumped it out," she said Wednesday. "Now, my purse is like Fibber McGee's closet, it's got everything in there. I got very angry."

Before she even gave much thought about what she should do, she grabbed an Emeril Lagasse 5-quart saucepan.

"I picked up the saucepan and smacked him right on the head," she said. "He looked at me and said, 'Lady, why did you do that?' And I hit him again."

The robber's friend threw a bottle of Jack Daniels at the woman, striking her on the foot. He told police he was trying to distract the woman so his friend could get away from her.

The intruders realized Basinski was no easy prey and ran. They didn't get far. The four were quickly caught by police, with the help of neighbors who told officers where they ran.

. . .

[Her husband] is grateful things ended as well as they did, but he said he had a long talk with his wife.

"She did all the things I told her never to do in that kind of situation," he said. "We've been married 47 years and she raised our five sons. She's not afraid of anything."

There's more at the link. Here's a video report of the incident.

To add to her triumph, Chef Emeril Lagasse apparently heard of Mrs. Basinski's unorthodox use of one of his pots -and the fact that it's been retained by the police as evidence. He's come up with a nice solution.

As soon as Emeril Lagasse heard how Ellen Basinski fought off four burglars with her favorite pot -- a 5-quart Emeril Lagasse saucepan -- he went into action.

Quicker than you can say "Bam!" the famed TV chef picked up the phone and said he was sending the 70-year-old Elyria homemaker a whole new set of cookware.

"I mean, it just blew my mind!" Lagasse said by phone from New York City. "I mean, I feel terrible for her -- not only about the situation she faced, but because she probably may not get that pan back. That's not good, not good."

"Well, God love him," Ellen Basinski exclaimed when she heard the news of Emeril's forthcoming largesse. A 10-piece set of nonstick Emerilware retails for about $199.

Nice touch, Chef Lagasse!

How I love it when bad things happen to bad people . . . and these four thugs, right now, are sure to be the laughing-stock of their jail. I'd love to hear their excuses for how four young, fit, strong teenage males were driven out in panic by a 70-year-old woman wielding a saucepan!


Carnival all over the world

A few days ago I wrote about Carnival time in Rio. Now the Big Picture has lots of fascinating photographs of Carnival festivities all over the world. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite. Click each picture for a larger view.

From Sao Paolo, Brazil:

From Tenerife in the Canary Islands:

From Oristano in western Sardinia:

I don't want to post more, due to copyright considerations (fair use of a few is OK, but no more than that). Click here to see the whole collection. It's very interesting viewing.

Oh - on second thought, I simply have to post one more, specially for the benefit of the beautiful and gracious Phlegm. She's into shoes, so this should be an eye-opener for her! From Las Palmas in the Canary Islands:

Eat your heart out, Phlegmmy!


Friday, February 27, 2009

Doofus Of The Day #172

With rescuers like this, who wants to be rescued anyway?

A mountain rescuer from western Sweden has been relieved of his duties after attempting a rescue while under the influence.

The call for help came last Thursday from two women suffering from exhaustion in the peaks of Härjedalen.

Several hours later a mountain rescuer arrived on snowmobile.

But the man's odd behaviour made the women wonder whether or not he was sober enough to carry out the rescue, the Länstidning newspaper reported.

Their suspicions were confirmed moments later when the drunken would-be rescuer slammed his snow scooter into a tree trying to haul the women down the mountain on a sled.

Concerned for their safety, the women returned to their tent and placed another call to the mountain rescue service, which yielded better results.

The drunken rescuer also managed to find his way out of the mountains, but not before getting stuck yet again.

He was subsequently asked to leave the mountain rescue team altogether.

“He obviously should have declined the mission by explaining that he wasn’t sober,” said Östersund police spokesperson Bengt Stadin to the newspaper.

No s**t, Sherlock!


Feeling hungry? You'd better be to tackle this!

I'm amazed to read a news report about the Nascar Café's latest offering.

A Las Vegas casino cafe is rewarding patrons who can put away a 2-foot, 6-pound burrito with a most logical prize - free unlimited rides on a roller coaster that runs in both forward and reverse.

The offer comes with a caveat, though: Those who accept the challenge but can't finish "The Bomb" burrito have to take a picture with an extra small, pink T-shirt that says "Weenie."

Six pounds of burrito??? Ye Gods and little fishes! It may cost 'only' $19.95, but that amount of food would keep me going for two or three days!


I wish I'd had this during my service!

I'm intrigued to see that load-bearing exoskeletal 'suits' for soldiers are now becoming a real and practical possibility. The latest development is from Lockheed Martin, who partnered with Berkeley Bionics to produce something they've called HULC - for Human Universal Load Carrier.

Lockheed Martin's press release announced:

Dismounted Soldiers often carry heavy combat loads that increase the stress on the body leading to potential injuries. With a HULC exoskeleton, these loads are transferred to the ground through powered titanium legs without loss of mobility.

The HULC is a completely un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton that provides users with the ability to carry loads of up to 200 lbs for extended periods of time and over all terrains. Its flexible design allows for deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting. There is no joystick or other control mechanism. The exoskeleton senses what users want to do and where they want to go. It augments their ability, strength and endurance. An onboard micro-computer ensures the exoskeleton moves in concert with the individual. Its modularity allows for major components to be swapped out in the field. Additionally, its unique power-saving design allows the user to operate on battery power for extended missions. The HULC’s load-carrying ability works even when power is not available.

Lockheed Martin is a leading provider of advanced technology solutions for the Warfighter including ground Soldier systems such as wearable situational awareness equipment and mobility assistance systems. Future advancements in exoskeleton technologies will focus on specific user communities, shifting energy and performance requirements. Lockheed Martin is also exploring exoskeleton designs to support industrial and medical applications.

Very interesting! Here's Lockheed Martin's publicity video for HULC.

With painful memories of humping a very heavy load of gear for many, many footsore miles during my military service, I can only hope - for the sake of today's servicemen and -women - that HULC, or something like it, is rapidly developed to production status. It'll be a Godsend!


One that didn't get away!

Gizmodo tells us of a lost cellular phone that was found in a rather unusual way.

Andrew Cheatle was hanging out on a boat when he dropped his phone in the water. He thought it was gone for good, but a week later, his old phone called his girlfriend.

It turns out, a 25-pound cod ate his phone and was then caught by fishermen. They found the phone, pulled out the SIM card and put it in another phone and called his girlfriend.

More info and a photograph are at the link.

Oh, well. At least he won't be carping on about his loss!


From 'Lord Of The Rings' to 'Lady Of The Fishes'!

I'm amused and impressed by this report.

Nadya Vessey, from Auckland, New Zealand, suffered a medical condition as a child that forced doctors to amputate both her legs.

When a little boy asked her what happened to her legs, she told him she was a mermaid.

The idea stuck - and, two years ago, she wrote to Oscar-winning special effects company Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, to ask them to make her a tail.

She never believed they actually would.

But for the people behind the special effects in blockbuster hits like 'Lord of the Rings', 'The Chronicles of Narnia', and 'King Kong', the task was a piece of cake.

Now the astounded - and delighted - Nadya has a fully-functioning tail.

It comes complete with a fitted suit, and covered with digitally printed sock with hand-painted mermaid scales.

'A prosthetic is a prosthetic, and your body has to be comfortable with it and you have to mentally make it part of yourself,' Nadya, who has been swimming in a pool and Auckland Harbour, told New Zealand media.

'It was absolutely amazing,' said costumer Lee Williams. 'It's beautiful to watch Nadya swim and to see that dream come true and to be a part of that. I feel quite blessed.'

More info and pictures at the link. Well done, Weta, for helping this lady to live so much more at ease with her disability! I'm impressed.


The conflict of moral principle versus hard reality

As a retired pastor, and one who takes moral and ethical issues seriously, I've been reminded again of the conflict between principles and the reality of everyday life.

My train of thought was sparked by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A new UN declaration of intent [on illicit-drug-use policy] is due to be signed in Vienna on March 11. However, there are serious disagreements between member countries over whether a commitment to "harm reduction" should be included in the document, which is published every 10 years.

Now the Vatican has issued a statement that claims that using drugs is "anti-life" and "so-called harm reduction leads to liberalisation of the use of drugs". The Vatican's last-minute intervention appears to have led to Italy withdrawing from the EU consensus on the issue and thrown the talks over the declaration into confusion.

In 1998 the declaration of intent was "a drug-free world - we can do it", which critics said was unrealistic and did not tackle the complex nature of drug treatment. In favour of including support for a harm-reduction clause are most EU countries, Brazil and other Latin American countries, Australia and New Zealand. They argue that some commitment to tackling HIV and addiction through needle exchange programs and methadone and other drugs should be included.

. . .

Release, a British drugs and legal advice charity, said: "By making a statement against harm reduction, the Vatican has indicated that its moral objection to drug use is more important than its commitment to the sanctity of life. If the Vatican is allowed to influence the UN to adopt a naive and ineffective drug policy it will needlessly lead to the increased spread of blood-borne viruses and the death of thousands more people from HIV/AIDS."

Release argues that drug treatment programs are vital for those living with HIV/AIDS and that not to accept this will put their lives at risk. "Needle and syringe exchange programs have significantly contributed to the reduction of HIV transmission among people who use drugs," it said.

There's more at the link.

This highlights the conflict between principle and compromise. The Vatican regards illicit drug use as morally wrong, evil, 'black' rather than 'white'. From that perspective, it is, of course, entirely correct to oppose any measures that might downplay or minimize that reality, blurring the 'black' of absolute evil into the 'gray' of partial and de facto (if not de jure) acceptance. On the other hand, governments and organizations such as Release have to deal with the reality that illicit drug use is a daily fact of life. They have to try to help those sucked into this mire, addicted to the drugs, and unable or unwilling to break free of their habit. Should they be ignored, left unaided, because their conduct is morally unacceptable, or illegal? Should the help extended to them be restricted to that which is in line with absolute moral principles (namely, efforts to break their addiction and reform them), but doing nothing to help those who will not or cannot succeed at such efforts? Or should the help extend to measures that will at least reduce the 'collateral damage' caused to themselves and others by those who can't break free - even if this means tolerating their behavior?

This applies to many other areas besides drug policy, of course. Contraception; abortion; marriage and relationships; crime (including the definition of what constitutes a crime, as well as establishing punishment for it and/or rehabilitation of criminals); these and many other areas run headlong into the conflict between what is 'absolutely right' or 'absolute truth' (which is itself disputed among many participants), and what is 'practically possible' or a 'realistic approach'.

The great tragedy, in my opinion, is that so many adopt the approach that since the 'ideal' is unattainable, impossible in an imperfect world, we should abandon or ignore it entirely, and deal only with the reality that's presented to us. This leads to policies (both private and State) that ignore the higher moral ground in their attempts to be 'practical'. Such approaches offer no solution whatsoever. While dealing with reality, we can and should strive to eliminate (or, at the very least, reduce to the absolute minimum) the root of the problem, which is (in virtually every case) wrong choices, wrong actions, wrong conduct. If we tolerate the wrong in an attempt to address its results, we abandon people (and future generations) to the effects that it will cause in their lives.

On the other hand, those who press for the recognition and propagation of the 'ideal', the 'absolute truth', must also accept that their position can become so ideologically (or theologically) rigid, so 'perfect', that it ignores the fact that we live in an imperfect world. Whilst striving for the absolute good, can we morally ignore the reality that not everyone shares our perspective on that truth (indeed, some vehemently disagree with it), and that we can't expect them to adopt our approach in dealing with it? Shouldn't we try to find what common ground we can, so that options for intervention, treatment and resolution can be as broadly based and effective as possible?

Take abortion as a common (and highly controversial) example. My perspective is shaped by my Christian faith. I categorically and absolutely reject abortion as an alternative to contraception. To me, that's murder, pure and simple. The foetus in the womb, if left alone, will emerge as a human being. Since there's no possible way to determine when it changes from 'a collection of cells' to 'a human being', it must be treated as the latter from conception to birth. Naturally, given that every human being has an absolute right to life, I also reject abortion in the case of medical defects being discovered in the foetus, just as I reject euthanasia. Of course, others, with different convictions, will hold different views.

However, even I have to acknowledge that there are some circumstances where the agony facing the mother (or both parents) can be so great that the 'absolute' must take them into account. What about rape? Naturally, the child in the womb is innocent of that (or any other) crime, and has the same right to life as any of us. On the other hand, the mother's mental anguish at being forced to have the 'seed' of the crime growing within her may be so overwhelming as to cause her serious, perhaps lasting harm. I can't ignore that reality. For her to abort the child within her womb would be wrong, from my moral perspective: but to force her to bear it, because it's innocent, might be equally morally wrong, in the light of the possible consequences of that decision for her own mental health. I have to accept that a choice must be made between two very great evils. I'm not God, and don't pretend to be. If she chooses to abort the child, because she simply can't bear the thought of carrying it to term, who am I to condemn her? I'll do my very best to understand her, sympathize with her, and stand by her. I won't minimize what she's done to the child, and I'll try to help her repent of any wrongdoing and seek God's mercy: but I can't morally force her to adopt an 'absolutist' view of the matter. If I did, wouldn't I be raping her all over again - not physically, but morally? I can seek to persuade her, by example and by word; but I can't compel her.

I also have to accept that if I reject abortion, I must concede that there needs to be some alternative that will make it unnecessary (except in the most extreme cases). That means permitting contraception. Of course, a Christian 'absolutist' view would be that contraception is not needed, because sex should only take place within marriage, where children are the God-given and expected fruit of the marriage, and therefore a married couple should 'have as many children as God sees fit to give them'. On the other hand, that ignores the reality that many (including professed Christians) do indulge in sex before or outside marriage. (As a pastor, I'd guesstimate that the vast majority of couples I married were already lovers, and most had been for a long time.) Many of those engaging in extra-marital sex are not Christians, and see no reason why they should adopt a Christian moral code in that regard. Can I realistically deny contraception to them because my moral perspective disapproves of it?

I freely confess that this is an ongoing conflict within me: the clash between what I firmly believe to be absolute truth, revealed by God and binding on all humanity, versus the reality that many don't share my beliefs, and the further reality that life can be a whole lot more complicated than 'black' or 'white'. There are an awful lot of shades of gray out there! I've learned to be very wary of those who insist on seeing the world in 'black' or 'white'. They tend to be (or become) fundamentalists, intolerant of any other point of view or perspective. At the same time, I acknowledge that if I become too tolerant, too inclusive, in my moral perspective, I risk betraying what I believe to be true, and making myself a hypocrite and a fraud.

There are no easy answers. If anyone declares that there are, he/she is probably operating from within one particular moral perspective, and insisting that if only everyone would adopt that moral code and obey it absolutely, there'd be no problem. He/she would be right in that . . . but I submit that such insistence is utterly utopian, and has lost touch with reality.

I'd be very interested in hearing from readers how you've experienced this conundrum in your own life. This applies particularly to my friends who hold different beliefs, or reject the Christian moral code. If you have any particular examples you'd like to share with us, please do so in Comments. Hopefully we can all learn from each other, given mutual respect.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Doofus Of The Day #171

Today's Doofus is again from Australia. A tip o' the hat to Julie for e-mailing the link to me.

A THIEF has bungled an attempt to break in to a car in Adelaide, locking himself inside the vehicle as police arrived.

Police said the man was one of two caught early this morning breaking into cars at Port Noarlunga, in the city's southern suburbs.

A 28-year-old was found hiding in some bushes while a 53-year-old was found hiding in one of the cars.

"The man, while breaking in to the car, had locked himself inside and couldn't get out," a police spokesman said.

How dumb do you have to be to lock yourself inside a car? I thought they all had buttons or switches to open the doors. This particular Doofus must have been particularly gifted in the 'not-all-there' department!


Shear-thickening fluid armor goes mainstream

I've been watching the development of shear-thickening fluids (also called 'dilatants' or 'non-Newtonian fluids') with great interest. They promise to revolutionize things like body armor and vehicle traction control.

Now, an article in the Daily Mail suggests that the British Army is about to deploy the first application of this technology on active service.

On the face of it a layer of orange jelly may not sound the best way to protect a soldier's head from high velocity bullets and shrapnel.

But the British Army's standard-issue combat helmet is set to be upgraded with a liner made from gooey miracle gel, which responds to a sudden impact by locking instantly into a solid form - absorbing huge amounts of energy harmlessly.

A UK-based technology company was today celebrating a £100,000 contract from the Ministry of Defence to develop its D3O shock-absorbing gel to help save the lives of British troops fighting on the frontline in Afghanistan.

The advanced nano-technology of the D3O shock-absorbing gel relies on the bizarre properties shown by 'intelligent molecules' under extreme pressure.

It is already in use in a range of sports and ski wear featuring flexible knee pads or soft hats which instantly stiffen into protective layers when a skier or snowboarder hits the ground hard.

Now the same technology is destined for use in war zones.

Ultimately the army's existing bulky helmets and heavy, restrictive body armour could be slimmed down thanks to the addition of pockets and layers of jelly.

The Army's existing Mark 6A combat helmet has been in service for 20 years, and consists of a tough ballistic nylon layer with padded lining inside.

Now the aim is to produce a new liner made from the miracle gel, which will absorb much of the energy of an impact from a bullet - reducing the chances of it penetrating the outer layer and softening the shock to a soldier's skull and neck.

The gel's inventor Richard Palmer, chief executive of D3O Lab, said: 'It's rather like comparing RoboCop and Spider-Man.

'RoboCop is the past - heavily protected but bulky and cumbersome - whereas Spider-Man is more nimble, covert and flexible.

'The gel works at a molecular level. When moved slowly the molecules will slip past each other, but in a high-energy impact they will snag and lock together, becoming solid, and in doing so they absorb energy.'

For those who've never seen shear-thickening fluids in action, here are two videos. The first is a TV demonstration of a tank full of a cornstarch-and-water solution, which turns solid under a hard impact, but remains fluid under normal pressure. You'll see people run across it safely, but sink into it if they stand still.

The second is a demonstration of US experiments to apply shear-thickening fluids to body armor. I'm sure the US armed forces are at least as advanced as Britain in their testing of this stuff.


But is it art?

I'm laughing at an article in Metro UK.

It's a lovely day in Qingyuan, in China's Guangdong province. The birds are singing in the trees; in the distance, the Bei river flows gently on; and along the streets echoes the unmistakable sound of an ox pulling a cart with two gigantic fake breasts on it.

The vast, ball-shaped breasts were made by Chinese artist Shu Yong, and shown during a local arts show in Qingyuan.

The sculpture was previously featured in an exhibit in Beijing that aimed to increase appreciation for natural curves in a country where plastic surgery is booming.

I can't publish the picture provided with the article, because I know many of you read this blog at work, and the picture is definitely not work-safe! However, to have a good laugh, once you're in a safe viewing environment, I highly recommend clicking on the link and enjoying the photograph. It's priceless!


"Trust Your Heart" may be the right thing

I'm intrigued by new research to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research later this year. In a pre-publication press release (PDF file), the Journal states:

Trust Your Heart: Emotions May Be More Reliable When Making Choices

When choosing a flavor of ice cream, an item of clothing, or even a home, you might be better off letting your emotions guide you, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Our current research supports theories in evolutionary psychology that propose that our emotions can be conceived as a set of ‘programs’ that have evolved over time to help us solve important recurrent problems with speed and accuracy, whether it is to fall in love or to escape from a predator,” write authors Leonard Lee (Columbia Business School), On Amir (University of California, San Diego), and Dan Ariely (Duke University).

“We investigated the following question: To what extent does relying on one’s feelings versus deliberative thinking affect the consistency of one’s preferences?” write the authors. To get at the question, the authors designed experiments where participants studied and chose among 8-10 products, sometimes relying upon their emotional reactions and sometimes calling upon cognitive skills. Their conclusion: “Emotional processing leads to greater preference consistency than cognitive processing.”

. . .

It seems the old adage “trust your heart” is true for consumers. “If one buys a house and relies on very cognitive attributes such as resale value, one may not be as happy actually purchasing it,” write the authors. “Indeed, our results suggest that the heart can very well serve as a more reliable compass to greater long-term happiness than pure reason.”

This is particularly interesting to me because I have a tendency to over-intellectualize problems and issues. I'm aware of it, and so I can compensate for it, but it's a common fault with many people - men in particular. We can over-analyze something to such a depth that we become victims of 'paralysis by analysis' - in other words, never coming to a decision, or taking action. Our analysis ends up costing us more in time, effort and other useful things than a quicker, simpler decision would have done.

Also, as a counselor of many years experience, I've seen the problems that can occur when a couple tries to over-analyze their compatibility. Many churches and other pre-marriage counselors now demand that couples complete all sorts of personality tests and the like, to see whether they're truly compatible before they 'take the plunge'. Whilst I regard these as valuable tools to help the couple understand themselves and each other as individuals, I'm not so sure that they can predict the success of a marriage. After all, we're using them more today than at any time in history - and the divorce rate has never been higher! Sure, a couple can be 'in lust' more than they're 'in love', but that tends to wear off over time, so a longer courtship can reveal more than any number of tests.

My own 'acid test' for a relationship is very simple: can the couple laugh together? Do they have a compatible sense of humor, and can they laugh at themselves and at life together? If so, I think it's very likely that they'll succeed in building a life together. Absent a sense of humor, a lot of other problems are likely to emerge. That reality suggests that the heart really is the best predictor of success in such relationships, as humor is more at the 'gut level' than cerebral, IMHO.


A Doofus Defeated

Back in January, Dr. Richard Batista won our 140th Doofus Of The Day award. He sued his estranged wife for the return of the kidney he'd donated to her some years before, or alternatively $1.5 million in damages.

Unfortunately for the good doctor, his claim has just been shot down in court.

A surgeon who once donated a kidney to his wife won't get the kidney back - or money for it - as part of the couple's divorce settlement, a court decision said.

Dr. Richard Batista, 49, of Ronkonkoma, made headlines last month when he demanded that his estranged wife, Dawnell Batista, 44, of Massapequa either return his kidney or give him $1.5 million.

But in a decision released yesterday, State Supreme Court marital referee Jeffrey Grob said it's not legal to put a monetary value on a human organ - and may even "expose the defendant to criminal prosecution."

Richard Batista's lawyer, Dominic Barbara of Garden City, said he had "no idea what he [the referee] was talking about," with regard to criminal prosecution.

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for the Nassau district attorney's office, said only that his office has not received a complaint in the case.

Dawnell Batista's lawyer, Douglas Rothkopf of Garden City, said unless Richard Batista appeals the decision, this means that the value of the kidney will no longer be an issue in the case.

"This is a significant decision that clearly finds that human organs are not commodities that can be divided as property in a divorce," he said.

Although the referee ruled against his client, Barbara called the decision a "complete victory." He cited a line later in the decision, in which Grob says that while the kidney cannot be assigned monetary value, Richard Batista's "sacrifices, magnanimity and devotion" can be taken into account in settling the case.

Ah, well . . . Nice try, but no cigar kidney, Dr. Batista! I have to agree with the court's decision. After all, if organs could become property, we'd have crooked lawyers behaving like highwaymen, demanding that recipients 'stand and de-liver'!


Now that's dedication!

I'm amazed to read of a Buddhist monk who's prayed in the same spot in his temple for years . . . so long that his footprints have made a permanent impression in the floor!

There are few people who have made their mark on life quite like monk Hua Chi.

He has knelt to pray so many times that his footprints remain deeply, perfectly ingrained on his temple's wooden floor.

Hua, who is about 70, has been performing a strict daily ritual at the site in the monastery town of Tongren, in Qinghai province, China, for nearly 20 years.

Every day before sunrise, he arrives at the temple steps, places his feet in his footprints and bends down to pray a few thousand times before walking around the temple.

The footprints are 1.2 inches deep where the balls of his feet have pressed into the wood.

More at the link.

That's pretty amazing! I don't share this monk's religion, but I'll gladly add him to my prayers, that his own prayers may be answered by God's grace. It's good to have the examples of dedicated men and women like him, to remind us of what's truly important in life - and beyond it.


The Alamo, day by day

Robert, over at Blackfork, is commemorating the current anniversary of the Battle of The Alamo in 1836 by blogging the events of each day as they occurred, based on the best historical evidence. So far he's done four days, and he's bringing the siege to life for me in a way that I find very interesting. He adds a human touch.

Here are direct links to the days he's done so far: or you can simply click here to go to his blog home page, and scroll down to read each day in reverse order.

Thanks, Robert! Very interesting reading.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A screaming frog???

I'd never heard of a screaming frog, but this video shows one reacting in just that way to the investigations of a curious cat.

Curiouser and curiouser! Anyone know what breed of frog that might be? Are there more like it? Where are they found?


Of fishes, crocodiles and owls

Three animal stories caught my eye in today's news. I thought you might enjoy them too.

First is a report of a deep-sea fish that can see through its own transparent head!

This amazing barreleye fish really does have eyes in the back of his head.

Accustomed to living in the pitch-black of the deep sea, the animal has developed this unique and incredibly useful ability to spot predators trying to sneak up on it, as well as potential food.

The discovery came when the fish was filmed by marine biologists trying to solve the 50-year-old mystery of how it uses its eyes.

For years scientists believed its eyes were fixed and it only provided a view of what was directly above its head.

However it now emerges that over time the Macropinna microstoma has evolved so its eyes are able to look out in different directions from within a transparent shield.

While its body is mostly dark, the top part of its head is transparent, and its eyes are clearly visible.

According to evolutionary biologists, it developed such a powerful sense of sight as a result of the harsh environment it lives in.

The fish, which is only a few inches long, lives at great depths just below the line at which sunlight can penetrate the water. The marine biologists also found that it uses its large, flat fins to remain motionless in the water.

This means that creatures around it cannot see it clearly. Predators lurking above it cannot spot it either, however it can look upwards to hunt for the small fish and plankton it lives off.

When a suitable morsel is identified, the barrelfish attacks out of the darkness and swiftly engulfs its prey.

To avoid looking at the sun when it moves into shallower waters, the creature's eyes can rotate to look forward so it can see where it is swimming.

Its amazing eyes glow a bright-green and researchers believe it may have developed a form of light filter which allows it to ignore the sunlight and spot the bioluminescence of small fish and jellyfish - it's favourite food.

The two holes which look like eyes on the front of the fish are in fact nales, olfactory organs similar to human nostrils.

The barrelfish has a crystal-clear liquid over its eyes, held in place by a tiny membrane.

If that was to break, its eyes would become exposed to the sea and the pressure that exists at its natural depths of between 2,000ft and 2,600ft would instantly kill it.

Fascinating! What more wonderful creatures remain to be discovered, deep in our oceans?

The second report, from Florida, describes a novel crocodile relocation technique that's being tested.

Florida wildlife managers have launched an experiment to see if they can keep crocodiles from returning to residential neighborhoods by temporarily taping magnets to their heads to disrupt their "homing" ability.

Researchers at Mexico's Crocodile Museum in Chiapas reported in a biology newsletter they had some success with the method, using it to permanently relocate 20 of the reptiles since 2004.

"We said, 'Hey, we might as well give this a try," Lindsey Hord, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's crocodile response coordinator, said on Tuesday.

Crocodiles are notoriously territorial and when biologists move them from urban areas to new homes in the wild, they often go right back to the place where they were captured, traveling up to 10 miles a week to get there.

Scientists believe they rely in part on the Earth's magnetic fields to navigate, and that taping magnets to both sides of their heads disorients them.

"They're just taped on temporarily," Hord said. "We just put the magnets on when they're captured and since they don't know where we take them, they're lost. The hope would be that they stay where we take them to."

Hord and his co-workers have tried it on two crocodiles since launching the experiment in January, affixing "a common old laboratory magnet" to both sides of the animals' heads. One got run over by a car and died, but the other has yet to return, Hord said.

. . .

"This one is by no means a really well-developed scientific study with a control group. It's just something we thought we would try," Hord said. "We do have to make some room to live with them."

Interesting, if it works. However, I have one question. What happens if a magnet-wearing alligator swims too close to another one, similarly equipped? Will they instantly lock together like lovers, under the influence of magnetic attraction? Will this lead to all sorts of complications in crocodile society, including accusations of having an unnatural attraction to others?

The third report is bound to delight those who are soppy about animals from time to time (including yours truly).

In his five short weeks of life, Orbit hasn't met many other owls.

So he isn't at all worried that his new best friend doesn't hoot back.

The orphaned chick is perfectly content in the company of the stuffed bird perched next to him and is never far from his side.

Orbit, a common barn owl, was given the toy by Lyndsey Wood, his carer at Folly Farm, near Narberth in West Wales.

She said: 'A friend suggested that I find something like a toy owl to stop Orbit feeling lonely.

'I thought he might try to eat it, but he just cuddles up to it and goes to sleep.'

All together, now: "Awww!"


The surprising complexity of snowflakes

I'm intrigued by a Reuters report.

The random, symmetrical beauty of snowflakes has been recreated in a computer program, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.

It took four years for two mathematicians from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of California, Davis, to develop the computer model's theory and perform the computations.

"Even though we've artfully stripped down the model over several years so that it's as simple and efficient as possible, it still takes us a day to grow one of these things," Wisconsin researcher David Griffeath said in a statement.

In nature, snowflakes form from water molecules crystallizing around a speck of dust or other material. The result is intricate fern-like stars, needles and prisms, often adorned by tiny ridges and circular markings.

The model may help meteorologists predict how snowflake types affect the amount of water that reaches the ground.

"Water is the most amazing molecule in the universe, pure and simple," Griffeath said. "It's just three little atoms, but its physics and chemistry are unbelievable."

Coming from a country (South Africa) that doesn't experience snow except high on the mountains, except for freak conditions, and living in Louisiana, where it's very rare indeed, I'd never paid much attention to snow. I investigated further, and found the Web site, hosted by CalTech. It contains a lot of useful information, as well as some fascinating image galleries of snowflakes under a microscope. Very interesting reading.

To think that different snowflake shapes or patterns may actually affect how much water reaches the ground! Fascinating. I must learn more about this.


Oh, those pesky computers!

I'm cynically amused by two mammoth 'computer errors', on opposite sides of the globe, but both blamed on the computer rather than the operator. In both cases, I suspect the latter is more at fault than the system!

First, from Sweden, we hear of a woman who became an instant billionaire.

A woman from Gothenburg couldn’t believe her eyes when she discovered a 10 billion kronor ($1.13 billion) deposit in her bank account.

Cornelia Johansson discovered the windfall on Monday, after she logged on to her Internet bank to pay some bills, regional daily Göteborgs-Posten (GP) said in its online edition.

"The balance was more than 10 billion kronor. It said the amount had been deposited as a correction for a credit card purchase," Johansson's boyfriend Daniel Höglund told the daily.

“Something must have gone totally wrong. We waited anxiously for whoever sent the 10 billion to come forward.”

On Tuesday morning, the money was still credited to her account, but a few hours later it was gone, as mysteriously as it had arrived.

A press spokeswoman for Nordea bank, the largest bank in the Nordic region, later explained the mystery as "a technical mistake made by a company."

No s**t, Sherlock!!! I wish my credit union would make a similar mistake in my favor! However, since the sum involved is many times their capitalization, I daresay my wishes are unlikely to become reality . . .

The second incident involves a bond trade in Japan.

As mistakes go, it really was a biggie.

Instead of ordering corporate bonds worth 30 million yen, the Japanese arm of Swiss bank UBS asked for bonds worth 3 trillion yen.

The difference of five zeros meant the order would cost £21 BILLION [US $29.841 billion], rather than the more modest £210,000 [US $298,410] intended.

Tthe bank insisted it was due to a computer glitch rather than the infamous 'fat finger syndrome', which in recent years has seen traders make massive mistakes by pressing too many zeros on the keyboard.

Thankfully for UBS Securities Japan, the Tokyo Stock Exchange was able to cancel the order.

The firm said that it had intended to place a 30 million yen order to simultaneously buy and sell the bonds of the video game-maker Capcom in a so-called cross-trade, but that its computer system placed a 3 trillion yen order instead.

While the botched trade was the biggest in monetary terms in the history of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, it was placed through an off-hours trading system, so traders said it had no real impact on financial markets and that it had been cancelled at no cost to the Swiss Bank.

The incident nevertheless underscored the relatively lax approach to systems and compliance in Japan, an analyst in Tokyo said.

"These types of mistakes seem to happen more often here even if it's only once every several years.

'They seem to be very very big when they do happen,' said Neil Katkov, senior vice president at financial services consultancy Celent.

'UBS apologizes for the error and any inconvenience caused to market participants,' the Zurich-based bank said in a statement.

. . .

The size of the botched order by UBS on Wednesday far exceeded the 595 billion yen [US $6.1 billion] in total convertible bond turnover on the Tokyo exchange for all of last year.

Sorry, UBS, but I simply don't believe you. No 'computer system' inserts so many extra zeroes suddenly, without ever having done it before. Some fat-fingered fumbler did it. One can only hope you confiscate his keyboard before he makes a mistake that can't be corrected!

No wonder some banks are in financial trouble . . .


The danger from Mexican gangs is spreading

I'm probably regarded as a Cassandra by some people for the number of times I've posted about the danger from the current Mexican instability. Well, guess what? Each and every day, news reports and analyses are proving my warnings to be correct.

The two most recent reports are frightening. Strategic Forecasting speaks of the expansion of Mexican drug cartel operations into other countries. Here's an excerpt.

Significantly, the impact of violent Mexican criminals stretches far beyond Mexico itself. In recent weeks, Mexican criminals have been involved in killings in Argentina, Peru and Guatemala, and Mexican criminals have been arrested as far away as Italy and Spain. Their impact — and the extreme violence they embrace — is therefore not limited to Mexico or even just to Latin America. For some years now, STRATFOR has discussed the threat that Mexican cartel violence could spread to the United States, and we have chronicled the spread of such violence to the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond.

Traditionally, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations had focused largely on the transfer of narcotics through Mexico. Once the South American cartels encountered serious problems bringing narcotics directly into the United States, they began to focus more on transporting the narcotics to Mexico. From that point, the Mexican cartels transported them north and then handed them off to U.S. street gangs and other organizations, which handled much of the narcotics distribution inside the United States. In recent years, however, these Mexican groups have grown in power and have begun to take greater control of the entire narcotics-trafficking supply chain.

With greater control comes greater profitability as the percentages demanded by middlemen are cut out. The Mexican cartels have worked to have a greater presence in Central and South America, and now import from South America into Mexico an increasing percentage of the products they sell. They are also diversifying their routes and have gone global; they now even traffic their wares to Europe. At the same time, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations also have increased their distribution operations inside the United States to expand their profits even further. As these Mexican organizations continue to spread beyond the border areas, their profits and power will extend even further — and they will bring their culture of violence to new areas.

Burned in Phoenix

The spillover of violence from Mexico began some time ago in border towns like Laredo and El Paso in Texas, where merchants and wealthy families face extortion and kidnapping threats from Mexican gangs, and where drug dealers who refuse to pay “taxes” to Mexican cartel bosses are gunned down. But now, the threat posed by Mexican criminals is beginning to spread north from the U.S.-Mexican border. One location that has felt this expanding threat most acutely is Phoenix, some 185 miles north of the border. Some sensational cases have highlighted the increased threat in Phoenix, such as a June 2008 armed assault in which a group of heavily armed cartel gunmen dressed like a Phoenix Police Department tactical team fired more than 100 rounds into a residence during the targeted killing of a Jamaican drug dealer who had double-crossed a Mexican cartel. We have also observed cartel-related violence in places like Dallas and Austin, Texas. But Phoenix has been the hardest hit.

Go read the whole thing. Very sobering stuff indeed for anyone living anywhere near the Mexican border, or in any city with a large Hispanic population.

To confirm Stratfor's warning, right on cue comes this news report today.

Federal authorities arrested more than 750 people across the country in what they describe as "the largest and hardest hitting" operation to ever target the "the very violent and dangerously powerful" drug cartel known as Sinaloa.

The cartel is being blamed for much of the violence erupting along the U.S.-Mexican border, according to officials familiar with the operation.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and divisions of the Department of Homeland Security have spent two years investigating and arresting people associated with the Sinaloa cartel — which they say has been smuggling drugs, laundering millions of dollars obtained illegally and fueling a wave of violence along the Southern border.

Combating that violence was "the whole point" of the operation, one law enforcement official told FOX News.

"International drug-trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to the safety and security as of our communities," Attorney General Eric Holder said in prepared remarks at a Washington press conference Wednesday afternoon, his first as head of the Justice Department.

. . .

Federal and state narcotics-related charges have been unsealed against associates of the Sinaloa Cartel in California, Minnesota and Maryland.

But the cartel's influence stretches even farther. Other organizations with ties to those cases have been busted by authorities in parts of Minnesota, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.

According to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, 230 cities across the country are faced with some form of drug cartel or Mexican gang presence.

There's more at the link.

Still reckon I'm exaggerating, or starting at shadows? I think not.


Welcome to visitors from the Persian Gulf region

Since late yesterday evening I've been a bit taken aback to find dozens of new visitors to this blog originating from Middle Eastern ISP's. By now they must total a couple of hundred. All of them were looking at the article I posted a few weeks ago about Israel's Harpy and Harop anti-radar drones - and all had reached it via Internet search engines.

Clearly, something had happened to spark sudden and very intense interest in these weapons. Intrigued, I did a search of my own to find out what was going on. I found this article on an Iranian news Web site.

Israel is developing a loitering drone capable of tracking elusive ground targets amid reports that Iran is seeking an anti-aircraft system.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is reportedly developing a killer drone, known as Harop, which can be used against "anti-aircraft systems and mobile or concealed ballistic missile launchers".

. . .

Harop, which is deployed as a "fire and forget" weapon, is designed to travel over 1,000 kilometers to patrol an assigned area and attack any hostile radar activated in its vicinity.

The development comes at a time when the Israeli military is making preliminary preparations for launching a war against Iran to take out the country's nuclear infrastructure -- according to its annual work plan for 2009.

Despite Western doubts over the success of any military plan against Iran, Israel -- which terms the country as an "existential threat" -- has repeatedly threatened to take out Iranian nuclear infrastructure through aerial strikes.

. . .

While casting doubt over the possibility of an imminent Israeli attack, Iran has moved to enhance its defensive capabilities against aerial strikes through acquiring a sophisticated Russian-built anti-aircraft missile system, S-300.

The S-300, dubbed as the "game-changer", is feared by US and Israeli weapons experts as an element that can effectively rule out a successful attack against Iran.

. . .

Harop, an advanced version of the Harpy killer drone, has been optimized to operate against enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles.

The radar killer drone is also capable of detecting suspected ballistic missile sites, where it would target missile silos and shelters as they are opened before firing.

With Israeli war threats running hot and cold, Tehran has long been eying the S-300 defense system to ensure the safety of its nuclear infrastructure against a potential Israeli strike.

Tel Aviv, however, expects to surprise Iranian military officials with the loitering weapon as it can target the radar-equipped S-300 before it enters attack mode.

It looks as if that report has gained wide circulation in Iran and surrounding nations, and interested parties in those countries are scurrying to find out more about Harop.

To all of you, thanks for visiting this blog, and I hope you find it interesting. I also hope and pray, as do all people of goodwill, that no situation will arise that will necessitate the use of such weapons . . .


The state of the economy

We've heard all the politicians bulls**tting about the US economy. I believe little of what they say. After all, isn't the litmus test for whether a politician is lying to see whether his or her lips are moving?

I've been struck by four fairly powerful analyses in recent days, all received through various e-mails. I thought you might be interested. I recommend all of them very highly. I don't agree with everything they say, but they certainly made me think!

First, a tip o' the hat to the Mad Rocket Scientist, who drew my attention to an excellent article in Wired entitled 'Recipe For Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street'. It's staggering in its implications - not least of which is the crass stupidity of the economists and bankers who relied on such a faulty model! An excerpt:

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li's work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

For five years, Li's formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.

His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored.

Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li's formula hadn't expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system's foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril.

David X. Li, it's safe to say, won't be getting that Nobel anytime soon. One result of the collapse has been the end of financial economics as something to be celebrated rather than feared. And Li's Gaussian copula formula will go down in history as instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees.

Very thought-provoking indeed. Go read the whole thing.

The second analysis is a video posted on Snotr, which makes a pretty good effort at explaining the 'credit crunch' in layman's terms - and in only 11 minutes. I found it very informative. Here it is.

The third source is an article in Information Clearing House entitled 'How The US Economy Was Lost'. I must state up front that I don't agree with all the author's premises. For example, he's very strongly anti-free-trade, whereas I can see the sense in it to at least some extent. Protectionism has ruined just as many economies as has free trade. Nevertheless, his perspective on the loss of US jobs and what it's done to our economy overall is very telling. An excerpt:

The proverbial hit the fan when Soviet, Chinese, and Indian socialism collapsed around 1990, to be followed shortly thereafter by the rise of the high speed Internet. Suddenly, American and other first world corporations discovered that a massive supply of foreign labor was available at practically free wages.

To get Wall Street analysts and shareholder advocacy groups off their backs, and to boost shareholder returns and management bonuses, American corporations began moving their production for American markets offshore. Products that were made in Peoria are now made in China.

As offshoring spread, American cities and states lost tax base, and families and communities lost jobs. The replacement jobs, such as selling the offshored products at Wal-Mart, brought home less pay.

“Free market economists” covered up the damage done to the US economy by preaching a New Economy based on services and innovation. But it wasn’t long before corporations discovered that the high speed Internet let them offshore a wide range of professional service jobs. In America, the hardest hit have been software engineers and information technology (IT) workers.

The American corporations quickly learned that by declaring “shortages” of skilled Americans, they could get from Congress H-1b work visas for lower paid foreigners with whom to replace their American work force. Many US corporations are known for forcing their US employees to train their foreign replacements in exchange for severance pay.

Chasing after shareholder return and “performance bonuses,” US corporations deserted their American workforce. The consequences can be seen everywhere. The loss of tax base has threatened the municipal bonds of cities and states and reduced the wealth of individuals who purchased the bonds. The lost jobs with good pay resulted in the expansion of consumer debt in order to maintain consumption. As the offshored goods and services are brought back to America to sell, the US trade deficit has exploded to unimaginable heights, calling into question the US dollar as reserve currency and America’s ability to finance its trade deficit.

. . .

The pressure of jobs offshoring, together with massive imports, has destroyed the economic prospects for all Americans, except the CEOs who receive “performance” bonuses for moving American jobs offshore or giving them to H-1b work visa holders. Lowly paid offshored employees, together with H-1b visas, have curtailed employment for older and more experienced American workers. Older workers traditionally receive higher pay. However, when the determining factor is minimizing labor costs for the sake of shareholder returns and management bonuses, older workers are unaffordable. Doing a good job, providing a good service, is no longer the corporation’s function. Instead, the goal is to minimize labor costs at all cost.

Thus, “free trade” has also destroyed the employment prospects of older workers. Forced out of their careers, they seek employment as shelf stockers for Wal-Mart.

Again, thought-provoking stuff. Go RTWT.

Finally, at this year's TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, Juan Enriquez delivered an 18-minute talk that really blew my mind. I most strongly recommend that you make time to view the whole thing. When you look at his take on where we've come from, and where we're going to, you'll question most aspects of your future. Very, very powerful stuff.

I hope you've found these four insights useful. They've certainly opened my eyes.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Doofus Of The Day #169 and #170

The supply of Doofi appears inexhaustible . . . fortunately for those of us who enjoy laughing at them!

Doofus #169 is from Bridgwater in Somerset, England.

A cannabis grower let police in on his secret hobby after posting home videos of the crop on YouTube.

The 25-year-old was arrested after officers saw footage on the website documenting the stages of growth at his home in Bridgwater, Somerset.

The man made his arrest even easier after using his real name as his "internet handle".

Police searched the house and seized one large cannabis plant and associated hydroponics equipment used to maximise heat and light conditions.

PC Adrian Peck, of Avon and Somerset police, said: "The male had been videoing the growth of the plant over a number of months and uploading his horticultural endeavours onto the site to document it - providing us with fairly conclusive evidence.

"The cultivation of cannabis is illegal. If you break the law and are foolish enough to then advertise your criminal activities on the internet, it makes it very easy for the Police to catch you."

No s**t, Sherlock! Seems almost a shame to go to all that trouble to let the cops catch you, then present them with only one plant, though. Where's the ambition?

Doofus #170 is a collective award to five teenagers in Palm Bay, Florida.

Five Palm Bay juveniles were arrested Tuesday on charges related to the burglary of a house on Nagel Drive Northwest, Palm Bay police said.

Officers were called to the area about 2:30 p.m., when a resident noticed that his neighbor’s glass door was broken. Police found that the inside of the home had been vandalized.

A 36-inch television had been smashed, and furniture had been broken. Several doors also had been damaged.

A police officer then followed a trail of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups packages in the backyard. The officer noticed another wrapper on the front door step of a house directly across the street from the rear of the victim’s house.

Officers approached the residence on the 200 block of Maywood Avenue Northwest, and found several juveniles inside. The mother of one provided consent to search the home.

The juveniles, who were 14 to 16 years old, confessed to the burglary after being interviewed, and told police that the goods were hidden in the attic, Palm Bay police said.

Bad enough to be an angst-ridden teenager riddled with hormones: but to leave a trail of evidence from the scene of the crime right up to your own front door? That takes stupidity of a degree that even teenage hormones can't excuse!