Thursday, April 30, 2009

Doofus Of The Day #201

Today's Doofus is from Montana. According to The Smoking Gun, Erik Slye received a notice to report for jury duty. He responded as follows in a sworn affidavit:

Apparently you morons didn't understand me the first time. I CANNOT take time off from work. I'm not putting my family's wellbeing at stake to participate in this crap. I don't believe in our 'justice' system and I don't want to have a g*ddam thing to do with it. Jury duty is a complete waste of time. I would rather count the wrinkles on my dogs balls than sit on a jury. Get it through your thick skulls. Leave me the f**k alone.

The Smoking Gun reports:

The document, of course, did not sit well with court officials and led a judge to threaten to jail Slye. But after being summoned to court, Slye apologized for the affidavit and avoided being cited on a criminal failure to appear rap. And he also was excused from serving on a jury.

Well, he got off jury duty, anyway! I'm amazed he wasn't fined or jailed for that outburst. He was a Doofus for writing it, but a lucky Doofus for avoiding the consequences!


Now that's a tidy stash!

I'm amazed at a report of a vault manager at a New York jeweler, who apparently stole 513 pounds of gold from her employer over a five-year period.

Authorities said Wednesday that Teresa Tambunting, 50, of Scarsdale, N.Y., a longtime employee of Jacmel Jewelry, brought a suitcase filled with 66 pounds of gold worth an estimated $868,000 back into the company's office after an investigation was launched in January, The New York Times reported. Authorities allegedly found another 447 pounds of stolen gold at the vault manager's home in February, the newspaper said.

. . .

District Attorney Richard A. Brown said in the statement ... "It is alleged that this once-trusted employee carried out her long-term scheme by concealing jewelry and raw gold in the lining of her pocketbook."

At the time of writing, gold is listed at US $866 per troy ounce. There are 14.58334 troy ounces to one pound avoirdupois, so a pound of gold would be worth just over US $12,629. The 513 pounds of gold she's alleged to have stolen thus come to a total of almost 6.5 million dollars! That's not a bad return on so long-term a plot, walking out each day with a few small pieces of gold concealed on her person.

One wonders what she planned to do with it. She certainly doesn't seem to have converted any to cash and used it.


Don't mess with a marching band girl!

From Quartz Hill, California, comes a report that two muggers bit off more than they could chew last Friday.

A 17-year-old high school marching band student beat up two assailants who tried to mug her as she walked to school in this high desert community about 40 miles north of Los Angeles, sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

The girl punched one of the men in the nose, kicked the other in the groin and beat both with her large baton before she ran away on Friday morning, officials said.

"The moral to this story is don't mess with the marching band girls, or you just might get what you deserve," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Deputy Michael Rust.

He said two men approached the girl from behind, grabbed her coat and demanded money. Deputies searched near Quartz Hill High School for the muggers, looking for a man who was holding his bloodied nose and the other limping.

No arrests have been made, but Rust said it appears the girl made her point to her assailants.

"Final score: Marching band 2, thugs 0," Rust quipped.

Good for the young lady! Let's hope she sees those two again, this time while accompanied by the rest of the marching band. Why should she have all the fun to herself?


What the Internet is all about

If you've ever wondered what the Internet is all about, there's an article in New Scientist entitled "Eight Things You Didn't Know About The Internet". It makes highly interesting reading.

The article tries to answer the following questions (click each one for a link to the relevant sub-article):

  1. Who controls the internet?
  2. Could the net become self-aware?
  3. How big is the net?
  4. Is there only one internet?
  5. Is the net caught in the credit crunch?
  6. Where are the net's dark corners?
  7. Is the net hurting the environment?
  8. Could we shut the net down?

It also has a fascinating image gallery in a sidebar called "Exploring The Exploding Internet". I recommend enlarging the graphics to full size in order to read them properly. For example, here's one showing the submarine cables carrying Internet traffic. To see it full-size, click here. You may have to click the newly-displayed image again to expand it to its full 3,000 x 1,650 pixel resolution - five times larger than that shown below.

All very interesting information, and useful to understand the complexity of the World Wide Web that we take for granted.


Swine flu produces mordant humor

It looks like the outbreak of swine flu is producing some lighter moments. Bob G. sent this cartoon to me via e-mail today.


Will this become the world's most expensive car?

A Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe, one of only six ever made, is to go under the auctioneer's hammer on May 15th. (Click the pictures for a larger view.)

Speculation is that it's certain to fetch the highest price ever paid for an American car, and may surpass the all-time record for the most expensive car ever. That record was set by a 1961 Ferrari California Spyder, which fetched $10,894,900 at an auction in Maranello, Italy, according to Sotheby's and RM Auctions, who organized the sale.

According to Luxist:

The story goes back to the summer of 1963 when, at the eleventh hour, Enzo Ferrari called off a deal that would have given Ford 50% ownership in his company. Dejected and vindictive, Ford set out to beat Ferrari at its own game, and this is the car that made it happen. Based on the iconic Shelby Cobra roadster, the Daytona coupe featured a specially-designed aerodynamic body to give it an extra 25 mph of top speed. With a big-block, racing-tuned Ford 427 V8 under the hood, the Daytona was fast enough to beat the Italians, clinching the FIA GT title in France in 1965, and bringing the glory home to America.

The auctioneers have released this video of the car at the Bondurant Driving School in Arizona earlier this year. Bob Bondurant drove it to three victories during its racing heyday.

Sweet-sounding beast! I'll be interested to see what price it fetches in these recessionary times. Given its scarcity, I suspect it'll be a case of "Recession? What recession?"


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The 2009 Wacky Warning Label Contest results are in!

To the joy of connoisseurs everywhere, the winners of the annual Wacky Warning Label Contest have just been announced.

A toilet seat that attaches to a trailer hitch has gained national recognition — for a warning label that says you'd better not use it while the vehicle is moving. "The Original Off-Road Commode" won this year's "Wacky Warning Labels" contest, organizers announced Wednesday. The contest, now in its 12th year, is intended to highlight claims that frivolous lawsuits have distorted the U.S. civil justice system.

Steve Shiflett of Hampton, Ga., won $500 for submitting the toilet seat's warning that it's "not for use on moving vehicles."

Hunters are a chief target audience for the toilet seat, which is sold by Wylie, Texas-based Convenient Sports International. The company is "very pleased" with the recognition, said Mike Willis, president of national sales.

The seat is not designed to lock onto a trailer hitch. Company officials added the warning about two years ago after learning that at least one consumer had modified their product and was driving around with it on the back of his vehicle.

"It was a concern because, 'What if, what if?'" Willis said.

Daniel Berganini of Fridley, Minn., won the second-place prize of $250 for a line in a wart-removal product's instruction guide that is unlikely to reach its targeted audience: "Do not use if you cannot see clearly to read the information in the information booklet."

Third place was a tie between a cereal bowl warning, "Always use this product with adult supervision," and a bag of livestock castration rings cautioning, "For animal use only." Michael Leonard of Yarmouth, Maine, and Freddy Krieger of Baroda, Mich., each won $100.

"Do not eat the LCD panel," warns a label on a 1-by-4-inch LCD screen, a finalist submitted by David Almcrantz of Goleta, Calif.

Past winners include a small tractor that cautioned "Danger: Avoid Death," and a warning not to put people inside a washing machine.

The contest, sponsored this year by the Foundation for Fair Civil Justice, has a serious edge, said organizer Bob Dorigo Jones, of Novi, Mich.

"We want to expose how the American civil justice system is out of whack, and this contest allows us to use humor as a hook to start an important debate over how much consumers and families spend because of frivolous lawsuits, how much more they spend on everything from medicine to automobiles," he said.

I love contests like this. They highlight the silliness and stupidity of our bureaucratically-burdened, litigious society - and also its cost to us all. As Bob Jones points out:

“Legal reform is urgently needed to help propel America’s economic recovery." says Dorigo Jones. "Companies need to be focusing on developing new products and jobs, not on defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits.

But today, the thickest section of any telephone book in the U.S. is the section advertising the services of personal injury lawyers, and that is not a recipe for an economic recovery. For America to thrive, we need to expand the labor market, not the litigation market.”

“According to the Pacific Research Institute,” continued Dorigo Jones, “$589 billion would be saved per year for investment in new jobs and consumer spending if U.S. tort-cost levels were comparable in relative size with other industrialized countries. This amount equals an annual 'litigation tax' for a family of four of more than $9,000."

I know how devastating such costs can be to manufacturers. For example, one can build a light sport aircraft oneself, from a kit, for $30,000 to $40,000. To buy the same aircraft from the manufacturer, fully built up - so that they carry any legal liability for flaws in construction or assembly - costs more than double that amount. The difference is partly labor costs, to be sure, but I'm told that over 25% of the total price is to pay for liability insurance. That's a heck of a premium! It's no wonder that some manufacturers have left the private aircraft market altogether, finding such costs impossible to bear.

In 2007, on the tenth anniversary of the awards, Jones published a book entitled 'Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest, and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever'.

It's a must-read for those interested in this sort of stupidity. The 2007 winners were:

  • First place went to a warning label on a washing machine that warns, “Do not put any person in this washer”.
  • Second place was awarded to a label on a personal watercraft that warns: “Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level.”
  • Third place went to a warning on a cell phone that says: “Don’t try to dry your phone in a microwave oven.”
  • An honorable mention was given to a warning on the cover of a Yellow Pages book which cautions users: “Please do not use this directory while operating a moving vehicle.”

Ah, lawyers and bureaucrats . . . I think it's time we seriously considered Shakespeare's advice concerning them!


Are the Internet's 'tubes' clogging up?

Former Senator Ted Stevens famously described the Internet as 'a series of tubes'. Whilst his comments were greeted with a hailstorm of derision, the analogy isn't always inappropriate: and, according to the Sunday Times, those tubes are getting clogged.

Internet users face regular “brownouts” that will freeze their computers as capacity runs out in cyberspace, according to research to be published later this year.

Experts predict that consumer demand, already growing at 60 per cent a year, will start to exceed supply from as early as next year because of more people working online and the soaring popularity of bandwidth-hungry websites such as YouTube and services such as the BBC’s iPlayer.

It will initially lead to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes at a time. From 2012, however, PCs and laptops are likely to operate at a much reduced speed, rendering the internet an “unreliable toy”.

. . .

In America, telecoms companies are spending £40 billion a year upgrading cables and supercomputers to increase capacity, while in Britain proposals to replace copper cabling across part of the network with fibreoptic wires would cost at least £5 billion.

Yet sites such as YouTube, the video-sharing service launched in 2005, which has exploded in popularity, can throw the most ambitious plans into disarray.

The amount of traffic generated each month by YouTube is now equivalent to the amount of traffic generated across the entire internet in all of 2000.

. . .

Analysts express such traffic in exabytes – a quintillion (or a million trillion) bytes or units of computer data. One exabyte is equivalent to 50,000 years’ worth of DVD-quality data.

Monthly traffic across the internet is running at about eight exabytes. A recent study by the University of Minnesota estimated that traffic was growing by at least 60 per cent a year, although that did not take into account plans for greater internet access in China and India.

While the net itself will ultimately survive, Ritter said that waves of disruption would begin to emerge next year, when computers would jitter and freeze. This would be followed by “brownouts” – a combination of temporary freezing and computers being reduced to a slow speed.

Ritter’s report will warn that an unreliable internet is merely a toy. “For business purposes, such as delivering medical records between hospitals in real time, it’s useless,” he said.

“Today people know how home computers slow down when the kids get back from school and start playing games, but by 2012 that traffic jam could last all day long.”

There's more at the link.

This is certainly something to watch, and not only from the perspective of number of Internet users or amount of data being transferred. It already seems clear that some of the cuts in Internet cables in the Mediterranean during recent years were not accidental, but deliberate. This had the effect of greatly slowing Internet traffic to the Middle East and South-East Asia. If terrorists can do that again, and add that burden to an already clogged Internet, it might lead to a wholesale breakdown of the 'electronic economy'. It'll definitely impact users like myself, who rely on the Internet to earn our daily bread.


Sooner or later, out it comes!

A drug smuggler is lucky to be alive after ingesting almost two pounds of cocaine and trying to walk through a customs inspection.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say it took a suspected Toronto drug mule three weeks to excrete 76 tampon-sized packets of cocaine into a bedpan.

Hatim Gulamhusein, 48, was arrested April 7 at Toronto's international airport after arriving on a flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, RCMP Cpl. Cathy McCrory told the National Post.

She said border agents are "very good" at spotting people who have swallowed drug packages or secreted them in their bodies.

Once in custody, Gulamhusein required six trips to a hospital for X-rays and CT scans, and refused to allow doctors to surgically remove the large packets, McCrory said. He did consent to taking laxatives, which she said resulted in a "24-hour bedpan vigil," the report said.

"The doctors said that if one of these became compromised inside him, there was nothing they could do for him," McCrory said. "We didn't need any more evidence -- he was pooping dope, so we were good to go -- but we were very concerned for his health."

He passed nearly two pounds of cocaine with a street value of about $100,000, the RCMP said.

I've seen at first hand what happens to drug 'mules' when such packages burst inside their digestive tract. Death is a frequent result, and usually can only be avoided if they're near a hospital that can pump their stomachs and remove any other packages before it happens again. Believe me, it's not something you want to witness for yourself. Mr. Gulamhusein is lucky to be alive!

On the other hand, the evidence-gathering officers had the original s****y job . . . Did they keep a straight face during the process? Would that be described as a 'deadpan' face, or a 'bedpan' one?


A major step forward for the disabled

Being partly disabled, and working with disabled and handicapped people as I do, I'm excited about this report from England.

Scientists have developed a wheelchair controlled by the power of thought.

The robotic chair could revolutionise life for those with severe disabilities who are unable to use a conventional joystick.

It works by creating a three-dimensional picture of the area around it, with a laser scanner. This is displayed on a screen in front of the user.

To steer the chair, the user simply concentrates their thoughts on the part of the display where they want to go.

Electrodes in a skullcap then detect the brain activity of the users - and work out their destination.

Dr Javier Minguez, who developed the chair at the University of Zaragoza in Spain, said the volunteers took just 45 minutes to learn how to use the chair safely and accurately.

He is now working on a commercial version that is even easier to use.

'The purpose of this work was to demonstrate the usability of the wheelchair,' he told New Scientist magazine.

'All the subjects successfully solved all the navigation tasks and learned how to deal with the device in a similar way.'

The chair is the latest device to be controlled by the power of thought.

Last month, car giant Honda unveiled a 'mind reading' helmet that can control the movements of a robot.

Similar helmets have been used to move a cursor on a computer screen and control a room's lights, operate a telephone and manipulate a robotic hand.

There's more at the link.

This is amazing! If we can harness the power of the brain, through electronics, to drive such devices, it'll make the lives of countless disabled and handicapped people that much more independent, interesting and worthwhile. Kudos to Dr. Minguez and his team. I look forward to seeing how this device can be developed.


A pie in the face!

Readers in other parts of the world may not realize how deep-seated is the rivalry between English counties (also known as shires). In many cases it dates back centuries, and whilst good-natured today, in the past actual battles were fought over local disputes.

The county of Cornwall is at the south-western tip of England, with the county of Devon (also known as Devonshire) its neighbor to the east. Rivalry between them has been long and intense. Now, to the utter fury of many Cornish people, a pie contest has been won by an 'interloper' from their neighboring county. It's re-ignited the feud.

In terms of aroma, texture and sheer scrumptiousness it was just what a Cornish pasty should be.

But it wasn't Cornish. So the decision to award a Devon pastry the top title in a Cornish pasty competition has caused outrage.

The winning firm, Chunk of Devon, was only allowed to enter the category at the British Pie Awards because of an administrative mix-up.

Producers from Cornwall who lost out in the blind taste test are now threatening to boycott the awards permanently.

Ann Muller, of the Lizard Pasty Shop in Helston said firms should not be allowed to label their pastry products ‘Cornish’.

She said: ‘Why don’t they just call them Devon pasties? They’re happy to call their cream teas Devonshire and we’ve got Cornish cream teas.

‘Why do they want to call their pasties Cornish? Stop messing about and don’t forget where the border is.’

But Chunk of Devon managing director, Simon Bryon-Edmond, 47, defended their title and criticised their counterparts for ‘resting on their laurels’.

He said: ‘It seems the Cornish may have got a bit podgy round the waist when it comes to pasty-making and have been relaxing and rather resting on their laurels.

‘We were the underdogs in the competition but we know our pasty is a winner.

‘The judges were asked to think again because we were from Devon but they have turned the appeal down. We are the winners.

. . .

The chairman of the British Pie Awards Matthew O'Callaghan admitted organisers had made a mistake and apologised to Cornish pie makers.

He said: "There was supposed to be a disclaimer on the application form which stated all entrants to the Cornish Pasty competition must come from Cornwall.

'It wasn't done and I have to admit it was an administrative cock up. The judges held a blind taste competition and felt the Devon pasty tasted the best.

'Personally I was gutted for the Cornish - it was not a pleasant moment when we realised someone from Devon had won.

'I knew what it would mean to the Cornwall pie makers and I can only apologise. I understand all the old arguments will be brought up again.'

Mr O'Callaghan is also chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie association and is part of the legal bid to keep the name exclusive to Melton Mowbray.

He said: 'I believe Cornish pasties should only come from Cornwall and next year we will make that stipulation as part of the awards.

'I would appeal to all Cornish pasty makers to come back next year and show us how to make the perfect Cornish pasty.'

It's fun to see such a storm in a teacup. I think Cornish pasty makers should enter a competition for the best Devonshire cream tea, and win it. That'd get their own back, and no mistake!


Saigon falls: April 30th, 1975

This is a somber anniversary. On April 30th, 1975, the city of Saigon and the Republic of South Vietnam fell to the advancing North Vietnamese Army.

In the days prior to the collapse of South Vietnam, a flawed evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind, was conducted to get US personnel and many of their South Vietnamese collaborators out of the country. They were flown by helicopter to US Navy ships offshore.

Many more were flown out by Vietnamese helicopters. There was no room aboard the US ships for so many aircraft. Many had to be pushed overboard after landing to make room for more arrivals. Others were deliberately ditched in the sea by their pilots, who were rescued, along with their passengers, by small craft.

The US Ambassador to South Vietnam, would later testify before Congress that over 22,000 out of some 90,000 persons associated with the Embassy were evacuated. However, these figures took no account of the untold number of South Vietnamese who collaborated or served with the US armed forces, the CIA, and other bodies. The total at risk of reprisal from the North Vietnamese conquerors was probably well in excess of a million persons. To add to their danger, many confidential US records were not destroyed during the evacuation, but abandoned, to be recovered by the invaders for scrutiny at their leisure.

The victory of North Vietnam was an immense international humiliation for the USA, and probably contributed significantly (along with the Watergate scandal) to Jimmy Carter's victory in the next Presidential election. The real tragedy is that it need not have been a humiliation at all. The Vietnam war could have been won within a matter of a year or two in the mid-1960's, if only US politicians had been willing to let the military use its power to destroy North Vietnamese infrastructure, so that it no longer had the capacity to wage war. When such attacks were mounted in later years, including the mining of ports and the Linebacker bombing campaigns, the North Vietnamese proved vulnerable, and were forced back to the negotiating table. It would not have been impossible - although probably costly - to achieve the same thing many years earlier, and ended the war by 1967 or 1968. However, political interference meant that the opportunity was never grasped.

Fortunately, that lesson was well learned by the US military. In the decade following the end of the Vietnam war, it rebuilt itself, and applied the lessons learned at both strategic and tactical levels. By the time of the first Gulf War it had emerged as a supremely professional armed force, the most capable in the world, and to a large extent this is still true today (although the ongoing strain of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has drained its reserves and stretched it to the limit).

Nevertheless, today is a time to remember those abandoned by the US to their advancing enemies. As former South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu said in his resignation speech on April 21st, 1975:

Is an American's word reliable these days? ... The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom and it was in the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men.

The fall of South Vietnam is a permanent blot on this country's record, and one of which we should rightly be ashamed. May such a thing never happen again!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

One of Monty Python's funnier moments

Having recently posted a video from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I thought another bit of British humor might go down well. Here's one of their funnier sketches.

WARNING: Suggestive language alert. Might not be work-safe.


Doofus Of The Day #200

Our double centenary Doofus is from Italy.

A furious fiancee dumped her boyfriend after catching him fondling another girl's boobs on Facebook just days before their wedding.

The angry fiancee, named only as Valeria A. by Italian media, plastered posters all over the Italian capital Rome when she saw snaps of her husband-to-be, identified only as Antonio M. by Italian media, embracing another woman on the social networking website.

She and a pal printed and stuck up hundreds of posters at train stations and office blocks around the city where her fiance and their friends work.

A picture - taken from Antonio's Facebook profile - shows him nestling his head between a girl's naked boobs.

"Thank goodness there's Facebook! At least I've disovered you're a traitor pig before the wedding! Signed, your former betrothed bride and the 548 guests of our wedding," wrote Valeria, 28.

Yep - if you're idiot enough to want to cheat, keep it private!


Economy comes at a price

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has just conducted a series of tests designed to see how smaller cars fared when in collision with mid-size vehicles. The results were most interesting. From their press release:

"There are good reasons people buy minicars," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "They're more affordable, and they use less gas. But the safety trade-offs are clear from our new tests. Equally clear are the implications when it comes to fuel economy. If automakers downsize cars so their fleets use less fuel, occupant safety will be compromised. However, there are ways to serve fuel economy and safety at the same time."

The Institute didn't choose SUVs or pickup trucks, or even large cars, to pair with the micro and minis in the new crash tests. The choice of midsize cars reveals how much influence some extra size and weight can have on crash outcomes. The Institute chose pairs of 2009 models from Daimler, Honda, and Toyota because these automakers have micro and mini models that earn good frontal crashworthiness ratings, based on the Institute's offset test into a deformable barrier. Researchers rated performance in the 40 mph car-to-car tests, like the front-into-barrier tests, based on measured intrusion into the occupant compartment, forces recorded on the driver dummy, and movement of the dummy during the impact.

Laws of physics prevail: The Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo, and Toyota Yaris are good performers in the Institute's frontal offset barrier test, but all three are poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars. These results reflect the laws of the physical universe, specifically principles related to force and distance.

Although the physics of frontal car crashes usually are described in terms of what happens to the vehicles, injuries depend on the forces that act on the occupants, and these forces are affected by two key physical factors. One is the weight of a crashing vehicle, which determines how much its velocity will change during impact. The greater the change, the greater the forces on the people inside and the higher the injury risk. The second factor is vehicle size, specifically the distance from the front of a vehicle to its occupant compartment. The longer this is, the lower the forces on the occupants.

Size and weight affect injury likelihood in all kinds of crashes. In a collision involving two vehicles that differ in size and weight, the people in the smaller, lighter vehicle will be at a disadvantage. The bigger, heavier vehicle will push the smaller, lighter one backward during the impact. This means there will be less force on the occupants of the heavier vehicle and more on the people in the lighter vehicle. Greater force means greater risk, so the likelihood of injury goes up in the smaller, lighter vehicle.

Crash statistics confirm this. The death rate in 1-3-year-old minicars in multiple-vehicle crashes during 2007 was almost twice as high as the rate in very large cars.

"Though much safer than they were a few years ago, minicars as a group do a comparatively poor job of protecting people in crashes, simply because they're smaller and lighter," Lund says. "In collisions with bigger vehicles, the forces acting on the smaller ones are higher, and there's less distance from the front of a small car to the occupant compartment to 'ride down' the impact. These and other factors increase injury likelihood."

The death rate per million 1-3-year-old minis in single-vehicle crashes during 2007 was 35 compared with 11 per million for very large cars. Even in midsize cars, the death rate in single-vehicle crashes was 17 percent lower than in minicars. The lower death rate is because many objects that vehicles hit aren't solid, and vehicles that are big and heavy have a better chance of moving or deforming the objects they strike. This dissipates some of the energy of the impact.

Some proponents of mini and small cars claim they're as safe as bigger, heavier cars. But the claims don't hold up. For example, there's a claim that the addition of safety features to the smallest cars in recent years reduces injury risk, and this is true as far as it goes. Airbags, advanced belts, electronic stability control, and other features are helping. They've been added to cars of all sizes, though, so the smallest cars still don't match the bigger cars in terms of occupant protection.

Would hazards be reduced if all passenger vehicles were as small as the smallest ones? This would help in vehicle-to-vehicle crashes, but occupants of smaller cars are at increased risk in all kinds of crashes, not just ones with heavier vehicles. Almost half of all crash deaths in minicars occur in single-vehicle crashes, and these deaths wouldn't be reduced if all cars became smaller and lighter. In fact, the result would be to afford less occupant protection fleetwide in single-vehicle crashes.

Yet another claim is that minicars are easier to maneuver, so their drivers can avoid crashes in the first place. Insurance claims experience says otherwise. The frequency of claims filed for crash damage is higher for mini 4-door cars than for midsize ones.

There's more at the link. What's not stated in the IIHS press release is that larger, heavier vehicles than mid-size cars can just about flatten a compact car in a collision. I've seen the results when a Ford F150, or Chevy Silverado 1500, or Dodge Ram 1500, collide with a sub-compact car. For the latter (and its occupants) they're not pretty.

Here are two video clips from the IIHS tests. The first shows a Mercedes C300 versus a Smart ForTwo; the second, a Toyota Camry versus a Toyota Yaris. In each case, note how far the larger, heavier car's front penetrates into the bodywork of the lighter car - right back into the passenger compartment. Scary!

So, friends, if you want to save money on gas, and are considering buying a small car to that end, you might want to reconsider. What's a few extra gallons of gas each month compared to the lives of your loved ones who'll be traveling in the vehicle?

Speaking for myself, I'll stay with a larger vehicle: and if I have to buy another vehicle for anyone else dear to me, it'll be a used larger vehicle. I'll pay more for gas, but counterbalance that with the savings on the purchase price. I won't put someone I love behind the wheel of a compact or sub-compact car - not with evidence like that to consider!


A baby's mind is far more complex than it seems

I'm astonished by some of the latest theories concerning a baby's mind. The Boston Globe has a very long and interesting article about it. Here's an excerpt.

... scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they've revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation - they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

This hyperawareness comes with several benefits. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they've mastered everything from language - a toddler learns 10 new words every day - to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants' inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process.

In fact, in some situations it might actually be better for adults to regress into a newborn state of mind. While maturity has its perks, it can also inhibit creativity and lead people to fixate on the wrong facts. When we need to sort through a lot of seemingly irrelevant information or create something completely new, thinking like a baby is our best option.

"We've had this very misleading view of babies," says Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Philosophical Baby." "The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the world. There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment."

One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults - this is why, until the 1970s, many infants underwent surgery without anesthesia - that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."

There's something slightly paradoxical about trying to study the inner life of babies. For starters, you can't ask them questions. Young children can't describe their sensations or justify their emotions; they can't articulate the pleasure of a pacifier or explain the comfort of a stuffed animal. And, of course, none of us have any memories of infancy. For a scientist, the baby mind can seem like an impenetrable black box.

In recent years, however, scientists have developed new methods for entering the head of a baby. They've looked at the density of brain tissue, analyzed the development of neural connections, and tracked the eye movements of infants. By comparing the anatomy of the baby brain with the adult brain, scientists can make inferences about infant experience.

These new research techniques have uncovered several surprising findings. It turns out that the baby brain actually contains more brain cells, or neurons, than the adult brain: The instant we open our eyes, our neurons start the "pruning process," which involves the elimination of seemingly unnecessary neural connections. Furthermore, the distinct parts of the baby cortex - the center of sensation and higher thought - are better connected than the adult cortex, with more links between disparate regions. These anatomical differences aren't simply a sign of immaturity: They're an important tool that provides babies with the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information with ease.

While the pruning process makes the brain more efficient, it can also narrow our thoughts and make learning more difficult, as we become less able to adjust to new circumstances and absorb new ideas. In a sense, there's a direct trade-off between the mind's flexibility and its proficiency. As Gopnik notes, this helps explain why a young child can learn three languages at once but nevertheless struggle to tie his shoelaces.

But the newborn brain isn't just denser and more malleable: it's also constructed differently, with far fewer inhibitory neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that prevent neurons from firing. This suggests that the infant mind is actually more crowded with fleeting thoughts and stray sensations than the adult mind. While adults automatically block out irrelevant information, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the conversation of nearby strangers, babies take everything in: their reality arrives without a filter. As a result, it typically takes significantly higher concentrations of anesthesia to render babies unconscious, since there's more cellular activity to silence.

The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.

"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."

There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.


Great work by the pilot

A light sport aircraft with engine trouble landed on a main street in Winter Haven, Florida, a few days ago. The Skyranger aircraft, similar to the one shown below (click the picture for a larger view), is very popular among home builders, with over 1,000 flying at present.

The plane had video cameras installed, so the entire emergency and safe landing was captured. Here's how it looked.

Well done to the pilot for a quick response to an emergency.


No regrets? I'm not so sure . . .

There's a new book out entitled 'No Regrets: The Best, Worst, & Most #$%*ing Ridiculous Tattoos Ever'.

I'm no tattoo expert, but I can't honestly say these are the worst I've ever seen (military service will give you a whole new insight into bad tattoos, believe me!). Still, there are the weird, the incongruous and the just plain silly. Here are a few examples from the book.

1. The stump of a wrist, tattooed to look like a thumb.

2. The face of the late rapper Ol' Dirty B*****d, tattooed on the top of a foot. Did someone have a fe(e)tish about him, perhaps?

3. No prizes for guessing the plant, or the sentiments of the wearer about it!

4. Frank Zappa picking his nose, preserved forever on one's arm? Er . . . not for me, thanks.

5. Chewbacca on a lower leg - which had to be shaved before the hairy one could be tattooed on it! Now that's irony!

6. A dolphin smoking a bong, blowing smoke through its breathing hole. The La-Z-Boy is a nice touch!

Yep - if you open a beer bottle with your teeth, the tattoo on your forehead's likely to be proved correct, and sooner rather than later!

Yes, that's a tattoo of a rosy red slap mark! Quite why such a blow would deserve such commemoration, I can't quite figure.

Why anyone would want the Nike trademark and slogan tattooed on their back, I can't quite figure out. Still, as long as he's happy . . .

A blue winged horse mounts a pink cigarette-smoking wingless horse, both riding on a cloud of smoke, topped by a rainbow? And all this on the back of the neck? Oy gevalt!

An admirable sentiment - but on the shins?

Pin-up images or wanted posters?

I've never gotten a tattoo myself, but I have friends who are more or less covered with them. I'll have to ask their opinions of this lot, and see what they say.


Monday, April 27, 2009

It's not a china shop, but a supermarket will do!

It seems an Irish bull had an urge for freedom the other day.

It was market day when the bull jumped out of the ring at the cattle mart and headed off up the main street [of Ballinrobe, Co Mayo].

Supermarket owner John Cummins said: "He got out of the mart about a kilometre away and galloped right up the town - past Tesco - turned left, then right and came straight into the front door.

"He went straight through the shop, out into the store, had a good look about, turned around and went straight out again. I could not believe my eyes."

While Mr Cummins is laughing about it now, he said it could have been a very different story.

"It is a good news story but it could have been a bad news story, a pregnant woman could have been hurt, a child could have been hurt, anyone in the store. There could have been a lot of damage or there could have been damage to cars, thank goodness no one was injured."

The bull was later recaptured and returned to the cattle market.

Fortunately, security camera footage from Cummins Supervalu store has been placed on YouTube, so we can all enjoy the proceedings.

As I said . . . not quite a china shop, but the bull did his best regardless!


Doofus Of The Day #199

Today's award goes unhesitatingly to Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office. According to CNN:

A White House official apologized Monday after a low-flying Boeing 747 spotted above the Manhattan skyline frightened workers and residents into evacuating buildings.

The huge aircraft, which functions as Air Force One when the president is aboard, was taking part in a classified, government-sanctioned photo shoot, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

"Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision," said Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office. "While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption."

The incident outraged many New Yorkers, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"First thing is, I'm annoyed -- furious is a better word -- that I wasn't told," he said, calling the aviation administration's decision to withhold details about the flight "ridiculous" and "poor judgment."

"Why the Defense Department wanted to do a photo op right around the site of the World Trade Center defies the imagination," he said. "Had we known, I would have asked them not to."

"I was here on 9/11," said iReporter Tom Kruk, who spotted the plane as he was getting coffee Monday morning and snapped a photo. Kruk called the sight of the aircraft low in the sky "unsettling."

Linda Garcia-Rose, a social worker who counsels post-traumatic stress disorder patients in an office just three blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once stood, called the flight an "absolute travesty."

"There was no warning. It looked like the plane was about to come into us," she said. "I'm a therapist, and I actually had a panic attack."

There's more at the link.

Anyone who could unthinkingly, unhesitatingly approve such a flight, in the face of memories of September 11th, 2001, is so blind to reality that the mind boggles. Why is this man still at his desk???


'Swine Flu'? Not in Israel, it's not!

I'm sure most readers are aware by now of the outbreak of 'swine flu' in Mexico, that's spreading throughout North America, and perhaps worldwide. However, according to Reuters:

Swine flu? Not in the Jewish state.

"We will call it Mexico flu. We won't call it swine flu," Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a black-garbed Orthodox Jew, told a news conference Monday, assuring the Israeli public that authorities were prepared to handle any cases.

Under Jewish dietary laws, pigs are considered unclean and pork is forbidden food -- although the non-kosher meat is available in some stores in Israel.

Y'know, Minister, I don't think that a flu virus is going to give a damn, one way or another, about your dietary, religious or naming conventions. Your people are going to get sick anyway!


A hero of a different kind

We tend to think of heroism as a human characteristic: but it's been displayed on our behalf by our animal companions for many generations. One such hero was remembered at an auction in London recently.

Rip was made homeless after the Luftwaffe attacked Poplar, East London, in 1940. He somehow survived the bombing but was left to roam the streets, probably stealing scraps to keep himself alive.

One day he came across an Air Raid Precaution Warden called King, and befriended him. Mr King tossed him titbits in the hope that he would go away.

But that brief gesture led to a partnership which endured for the war - and in every sense, for King and country.

Far from disappearing, Rip volunteered for duty and became the unit's first mascot - then, crucially, the service's first sniffer dog.

It wasn't a question of training him, Mr King noted at the time - they simply couldn't stop him.

Rip instantly showed a talent for locating people buried in bomb debris, mostly around the badly hit dock area that became a prime target during the Blitz.

Despite the dangers, he worked courageously through the crashing and explosions of the bombing raids, braved fire and smoke with apparent disdain, and was completely unfazed by the air-raid sirens that used to strike fear into the hearts of the population.

The first sign that someone was trapped in the rubble was a twitching and sniffing of his sensitive nose.

So keen was he to follow it through that he dug at the fallen bricks and masonry like a Jack Russell looking for a rabbit (a trait assumed to have been passed down through what was clearly a highly complex ancestry).

After blackout he would accompany Mr King on his nightly tour of street shelters, always welcoming a tasty treat from grateful people he met.

It was largely due to Rip that the authorities later decided to train dogs formally to trace casualties.

In July 1945, his uncommon valour earned him the PDSA Dickin Medal, two years after it was introduced by the veterinary charity's founder Maria Dickin. He wore it proudly on his collar until he died.

The bronze medal was given to animals displaying 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' serving or associated with the Armed Forces or Civil Defence units, and has since been awarded to animals involved in Iraq.

When Rip died, he became the first of a succession of 'supreme animal heroes' to be buried in the PDSA cemetery in Ilford, Essex.

The headstone inscription reads: 'Rip, D.M., "We also serve" - for the dog whose body lies here played his part in the Battle of Britain.'

There's more at the link. According to the Houston Chronicle, Rip's Dickin Medal fetched over $35,000 at auction last Friday.

I wonder whether the USA ever introduced any comparable medal, whether official or private, for courageous animals? I've read of the 'war dogs' used by our armed forces, for example. Were there ever any awards for their courage? If anyone knows, please tell us more in Comments.


Who says demonstrations have to be ugly?

An Italian protester has had his day in court over a recent demonstration.

A man received an eight-month suspended jail sentence Monday for rolling a half million or so colored balls down Rome's famed Spanish Steps.

Graziano Cecchini, 54, was convicted of disrupting bus services with his January 2008 stunt, which he described as a protest against dishonest politicians of all parties, ANSA reported Monday.

Cecchini criticized the outcome of his trial, the Italian news agency said.

"What sort of interruption of service could there possibly have been? The Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) is a pedestrian area. There wasn't any crime, only a pop-art event," he said.

Here's a video report of the day's fun and games. Certainly, the street-sweepers seem to be enjoying themselves!

Mr. Cecchini is a well-known 'artistic protester'. One of his previous feats involved dyeing the waters of the Trevi Fountain a deep blood-red.

Creative protest, certainly! Perhaps our rather boring home-grown variety might take some lessons from him? We'd probably all enjoy the results!


A noteworthy anniversary

While I was gallivanting around south-eastern Texas, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrated 19 years of service since its launch on April 25th, 1990.

This remarkable instrument has advanced scientific investigation of the cosmos to a degree previously unimaginable. NASA has supplied the following 'factoids':

  • Hubble's latest solar arrays (installed during Servicing Mission 3B) cover 36 square meters (384 square feet) -- equal to the area of a highway billboard.
  • The telescope's 17 years' worth of observations have produced more than 30 terabytes of data, equal to about 25 percent of the information stored in the Library of Congress.
  • Hubble weighs 24,500 pounds -- as much as two full-grown elephants.
  • Hubble's primary mirror is 2.4 meters (7 feet, 10.5 inches) across -- taller than retired NBA player Gheorghe Muresan, who is 2.3 meters (7 feet, 7 inches) tall. Muresan is the tallest man ever to play in the NBA.
  • During its lifetime Hubble has made about 800,000 observations and snapped about 500,000 images of more than 25,000 celestial objects.
  • Hubble is 13.3 meters (43.5 feet) long -- the length of a large school bus.
  • Hubble does not travel to stars, planets and galaxies. It snaps pictures of them as it whirls around Earth at 17,500 mph. The telescope has made just more than 100,000 trips around our planet, racking up about 2.4 billion miles. That mileage is slightly more than a round-trip between Earth and Saturn.
  • Each day the orbiting observatory generates about 10 gigabytes of data, enough information to fill the hard drive of a typical home computer in two weeks.
  • The Hubble archive sends about 66 gigabytes of data each day to astronomers around the world.
  • Astronomers using Hubble data have published nearly 7,000 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built.
  • About 4,000 astronomers from all over the world have used the telescope to probe the universe.

To celebrate the anniversary, NASA released this picture of the Arp 194 system of galaxies, also known as the so-called 'Question Mark Galaxy'. Click the image for a larger view.

NASA describes the photograph and Arp 194 as follows:

To commemorate the Hubble Space Telescope's 19 years of historic, trailblazing science, the orbiting telescope has photographed a peculiar system of galaxies known as Arp 194. This interacting group contains several galaxies, along with a "cosmic fountain" of stars, gas, and dust that stretches over 100,000 light-years.

The northern (upper) component of Arp 194 appears as a haphazard collection of dusty spiral arms, bright blue star-forming regions, and at least two galaxy nuclei that appear to be connected and in the early stages of merging. A third, relatively normal, spiral galaxy appears off to the right. The southern (lower) component of the galaxy group contains a single large spiral galaxy with its own blue star-forming regions.

However, the most striking feature of this galaxy troupe is the impressive blue stream of material extending from the northern component. This "fountain" contains complexes of super star clusters, each one of which may contain dozens of individual young star clusters. The blue color is produced by the hot, massive stars which dominate the light in each cluster. Overall, the "fountain" contains many millions of stars.

These young star clusters probably formed as a result of the interactions between the galaxies in the northern component of Arp 194. The compression of gas involved in galaxy interactions can enhance the star-formation rate and give rise to brilliant bursts of star formation in merging systems.

Hubble's resolution shows clearly that the stream of material lies in front of the southern component of Arp 194, as evidenced by the dust that is silhouetted around the star-cluster complexes. It is therefore not entirely clear whether the southern component actually interacts with the northern pair.

The details of the interactions among the multiple galaxies that make up Arp 194 are complex. The shapes of all the galaxies involved appear to have been distorted, possibly by their gravitational interactions with one another.

Arp 194, located in the constellation Cepheus, resides approximately 600 million light-years away from Earth. It contains some of the many interacting and merging galaxies known in our relatively nearby universe. These observations were taken in January of 2009 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. Images taken through blue, green, and red filters were combined to form this picturesque image of galaxy interaction.

Fascinating! Prior to Hubble we'd never have been able to see this level of detail; and Hubble's successors (if we can afford them) will reveal even more. Let's hope NASA receives the funding it needs for those successors, and to keep Hubble in operation for as long as possible.

Congratulations to the agency on nineteen fruitful, productive years of Hubble research.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chinese fakes create an international incident

It's been known for many years that Chinese manufacturers create fakes of well-known international brands. The Daily Mail recently did an article about them, mentioning (among others) these knock-offs of M&M's:

a coffee shop that looks rather familiar, but somehow not:

and a fashion house that's fruitful, but fake:

Now, according to the BBC, it seems that citrus fruits from China, labeled as produce of Israel, have ignited a firestorm of unhappiness in Iran.

A twist has emerged in the story of Israeli citrus fruit reportedly sold in Iran in defiance of a ban on commercial dealings between the two enemy states.

It has now been revealed the fruit, a type of orange-grapefruit hybrid marketed as Jaffa Sweetie, were not Israeli in the first place.

The Sweeties were brought to Iran from China, where faking the origin of goods is a common practice.

The discovery of apparent Israeli origin caused a stir in Iran.

Outrage followed, distribution centres stocking the fruit were sealed and accusations were traded.

Such is the infamy of dealing with Israel that an Iranian official went so far as to accuse the opposition of a "citrus plot".

However, Tal Amit, the general manager of Israel's Citrus Marketing Board, told the BBC the fruit had not originated in his country.

"First of all, it's a bit annoying that somebody is using our brand name and registered trademark without our permission," he said.

"Apart from this, I would like very much the Iranian people to eat Israeli fruit straight from the origin and not via China.

"But the politics is not allowing us to do any commercial relations with Tehran at the moment while back 30 to 40 years ago, Tehran was a superb market for our fruit."

The genuine Israeli Sweetie is primarily exported to the Far East's richest markets, Japan and South Korea.

That could explain the prestige of the fruit in the eyes of Chinese exporters and the temptation to counterfeit it.

It'd be a bit ironic if the next war between a Jewish and an Islamic nation was caused by criminal counterfeiters from an officially atheist state, wouldn't it?


How to get your goods to market - NOT!

From the Daily Mail comes this astonishing photograph.

Bystanders who saw this bizarre sight trundle its way along the dusty roads to market must have thought this driver had gone 'coco-nuts'.

In a desperate attempt to get his haul to market, a coconut seller piled hundreds upon hundreds on the back of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk.

But the precarious load looked in danger of falling off as the overloaded motorised rickshaw made its very slow journey.

The husks were tied together before being hauled across the buggy as the driver attempted to get his stock to market in the city of Mysore in India's Kamataka.

Perhaps it would have been quicker to have walked, as the vehicle was only moving at a snail's pace.

An onlooker said: 'The husks were all tied to each other using their own fibres. Crazy.'

I'd hate to get stuck behind that in a traffic jam!


A lazy day in San Antonio

Miss D. and I had a quiet, laid-back sort of day after the fun and excitement of the past two days with the Alamo Liaison Squadron.

We didn't leave the hotel until late morning. After all, we'd been running hard for two days, and Sundays are for resting! I had a lot of fun with a two-year-old Pyrenean Mountain Dog in the parking lot of the hotel. His owners had tied him to the fence overnight, as he couldn't be admitted to the hotel, but of course, for a breed like that, that was no hardship. He perked up when I came out bearing my breakfast of bagels spread with cream cheese, topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs, and begged insisted on sharing it with me. (He ended up with all of it - I went back for more!) The fun part was, he deliberately left a chunk of bagel (after licking the cream cheese off it), and carefully positioned it before lying down a few feet away. The Great-Tailed Grackles (of whom there are dozens nearby) immediately lined up along the fence to fly down and eat it - whereupon he'd jump at them, growling loudly, and they'd fly back up to the fence with squawks of furious frustration. He kept at it for at least half an hour, having a wonderful time playing with the birds. Who says dogs don't have a sense of humor?

I tried to get to Market Square with Miss D., but the thousands of people and hundreds of cars in the area soon convinced us that we wanted to be elsewhere, ASAP! Instead, we spent the afternoon following the Mission Trail to each of the San Antonio Spanish missions. The only one we omitted was the Alamo, which was in the middle of town, where all the people were. Not a good idea for a quick visit! Here's the Mission Concepción, to give you a small taste of what we saw.

From there, we tried to find the Botanical Garden, but got horribly lost in a maze of badly-signposted streets in and around the Zoo. We eventually gave up, and spent a short while in the Japanese Tea Gardens instead, which was very interesting. By now it was well after four, and we hadn't eaten since breakfast at the hotel: so we decided on an early supper, and by mutual consent headed back to the Barn Door, where we'd eaten yesterday. Another wonderful meal ensued . . . chicken-fried chicken, a Texas-size New York strip, fried mushrooms with gravy, fried onions (thin-sliced, juicy and tender - lovely!), chocolate cream pie for Miss D., and home-made strawberry shortcake for yours truly (which proved so successful that another portion accompanied us back to the hotel, for a late-night snack!). The service was of a quality to match the food, and I happily tipped our waitress 30% for the second night in a row. She was worth it. I can't recommend the Barn Door too highly, if you find yourself in San Antonio and hungry.

We leave early tomorrow morning for Houston, where Miss D. will catch a plane back to Alaska. After dropping her at the airport, I'll head on back to Louisiana. Diamond Mair has promised to give me telephonic instructions for an easier, quicker route than I-10 (about which I complained a couple of days ago, if you recall), so I'm hoping for a less stressful return trip.

Normal blogging tempo should resume by Tuesday evening. Thanks for your patience in allowing me a few days off from the normal volume of posts!