Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some very impressive routines!

Some very impressive jumps, flips and acrobatics from this troupe. I'm not sure who's performing, or where this takes place - can anyone help?

My joints ache just looking at that!


Light blogging tonight

I've been packing all day, and I'm utterly worn out: so I'm afraid there won't be much in the way of blogging tonight. There won't be much (if any) tomorrow, either, as I'll be on the road with a moving truck packed to the gills with household effects. Those who are so minded, please say a prayer for safe travel. I hope to resume normal blogging schedule on Friday, from a new location.

I'll put up a quick video to amuse you in the meantime.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Things you can do with dice

I'm amazed at the creativity of the people who put together this video clip. I'd never have thought of common-or-garden dice as a medium of artistic expression . . . which goes to show why I'm no artist!

Very inventive and creative.


A caution about the Humane Society of the US

Farmgirl has a very timely post up about the fund-raising activities of the Humane Society of the United States. (I don't want to dignify that organization by linking to it from my blog, and the Wikipedia entry about it appears to have been written and/or edited by supporters - it doesn't give a balanced review.)

The HSUS is one of those organizations that tugs at our heartstrings with its appeals, but appears to waste much of what it receives on administration (as in, over three-quarters of donations!) and a political agenda that's often at odds with the interests of many Americans. It's anti-hunting, for a start. It's also said to be linked to a profoundly anti-firearms and liberal agenda in many places, although I've not personally encountered that.

Suffice it to say that this is one organization that won't be receiving my money. I endorse Farmgirl's recommendation of the ASPCA as an alternative, and also her comments about how to check up on any animal 'rescue' operation in your area. There are a lot of people exploiting the emotional appeal of distressed animals to make a good living - at the animals' (and our) expense.


Steampunk rampant!

A BBC report drew my attention to a recently-concluded exhibition of Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England.

In this video clip the Museum's Director and others introduce us to the exhibition.

There were some weird, wacky and wonderful exhibits on display. Here are photographs of a few of them.

The Museum also organized a live mannequin steampunk event on January 30th, which drew some . . . er . . . interesting characters!

I'd have loved to have been able to visit that exhibition! Perhaps next time . . . Meanwhile, those who like this sort of thing will find plenty more information, photographs and videos at the Museum's Web site. It's a lot of fun. If you'd like to know more about the Steampunk scene, I recommend the UK Steampunk Network Web site as a good starting point.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Another funny advertisement

This one's from what looks like a furniture or electronics rental store in Australia (to judge from the accent of the announcer). It made me laugh, so I thought you might enjoy it too.

Of course, flat-screen TV's would fit through the window edgeways, but we won't tell them that . . .


Doofus Of The Day #338

Today's winner is from England.

One dozy thief has been dubbed a 'numbskull' after stealing a handbag from a police officer - in a bar full of police officers.

Mark Jimenez eyed up laptops and bags, even while uniformed constables were arriving at the leaving do for Inspector Penny Mills.

The 46-year-old still went ahead and pinched a handbag during a speech before being rugby tackled and surrounded by 40 officers.

The incident happened at the Elk bar, just doors away from Fulham police station in west London.

Jimenez was a ‘numbskull’, said cllr Greg Smith, member for crime on Hammersmith and Fulham Council, adding: ‘I can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to try and pinch a detective’s bag from a room full of officers.’

A police source said of the January incident: ‘It was fairly obvious they were all police.

'I mean, there were speeches going on praising Penny’s work and a few uniformed officers even popped in to say goodbye.’

Inspector Mills said: ‘He put his hands up and said “fair cop”, which is something, I suppose.’

I guess it takes a special sort of stupidity to rob a cop who's in a bar full of more cops. Perhaps Mr. Jimenez was suffering from cop-per deficiency?


The insidious danger of State-run health care

The Daily Mail has published an outstanding article on how the British have become less resilient, more dependent, since the establishment of the National Health Service after World War II. In the light of Obamacare, it contains much that might be considered prophetic for the USA. Here's an extract.

The brass band from Yorkshire Main Colliery assembled outside the doctor’s surgery in Edlington, South Yorkshire, and began to play. From the window above fluttered a Union Jack; below, the doctor handed out drinks to the puffing bandsmen.

It was July 5, 1948, the first day of a new era: the age of the National Health Service.

But few of those people toasting the new arrival, born and bred in a country that valued stoicism, reticence and self-reliance, could have imagined how deeply their successors would sink into hypochondria and self-indulgence.

To the first NHS patients, the latest Department of Health figures — which show that the average Briton picks up a staggering 16 prescriptions a year and the Government spends an astonishing £22 million [about US $33 million] a day on prescription drugs — would seem utterly inconceivable.

For unlike their successors, those people who queued outside doctors’ surgeries in July 1948 were not whingers or hypochondriacs.

And what they would make of another report yesterday — that in an era of cuts and sacrifices, the Government’s ‘happiness czar’ Lord Layard is offering £80,000 [about US $120,000] a year for someone to run the new ‘Movement for Happiness’ — simply defies imagination.

They were the last in a long line of ordinary Britons who did their best to live up to the ideal of the stiff upper lip and saw life’s disappointments as troubles to be endured rather than as an excuse to demand yet more help from the state.

As the war had just shown, the average Briton had a strong sense of duty, believing in an obligation to give something to the state rather than the other way round.

‘What we want from the British people is self-discipline and self-restraint,’ said the founder of the NHS, the socialist firebrand Aneurin Bevan.

Sixty years on, those virtues seem to have evaporated.

. . .

We have become addicted to the idea that there is a pill for every ill.

You can even get pills for ‘cognitive tempo disorder’ — symptoms: dreaminess, sluggishness and laziness — and ‘intermittent explosive disorder’ — otherwise known as having a temper tantrum.

As Professor Busfield notes, this obsession with pill-popping is partly driven by the profiteering drug companies.

But it also says something deeper and more disturbing about our cult of self-indulgence, our insistence on instant happiness as an inalienable human right, and our reckless rejection of one of the oldest traits of Britishness: our resilience in the face of adversity.

Those first NHS patients had just come through the darkest time in British history, when we stood alone against Hitler’s tyranny. Yet what seems astonishing now is how few of them felt sorry for themselves.

. . .

Emotions are no longer kept in check by those suffering illness or misfortune, but instead permanently displayed. Tears spring readily to the eye and the notion of suffering in silence seems as alien to us as dragoons’ sabres or Bakelite radios.

Indeed, if the stoic spirit survives at all, it is in a few isolated bastions of the old order: the corridors of Buckingham Palace, where the Queen does her best to preserve a spirit of quiet service; or the deserts of Afghanistan, where our brave soldiers serve uncomplainingly despite grossly inadequate pay and equipment.

But in general, by comparison with our forebears, we have become a deeply spoiled and self-indulgent people.

We expect perfection in our daily lives, and when, inevitably, it fails to materialise, we turn to the government for handouts and to the doctor for pills.

Barely half a century after millions of Britons struggled grimly through their daily lives with hernias, rotting teeth and broken bones because they simply could not afford the doctor’s bill, we hand out 10,000 prescriptions a week for ‘anti-hyperactivity’ drugs, known as the chemical cosh, to ensure order in the classroom.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we have become so obsessed with a quick fix to every problem.

Thanks to the disgraceful neglect of history in the modern curriculum, many youngsters have no idea how lucky we are and no sense of the sacrifices our ancestors routinely had to make.

But the age of self-indulgence cannot last forever. In the next few years, deep cuts will mean there is no more money for happiness czars — and less money, I hope, for spurious prescriptions to be thrown around like confetti at a wedding.

In an age of austerity, we will need to rediscover the older values of stoicism and self-reliance. We will have to get used to looking after ourselves, rather than expecting the state to do it for us.

Few of us, thankfully, will have to put up with anything as dreadful as our forebears were forced to endure, whether from the great conflicts or terrible diseases that imperilled their lives.

But is it too much to hope that we can still learn something from their example?

There's more at the link. Very highly recommended reading for all those who think, as I do, that socialized medicine is a cure worse than the disease.


But what's the point???

I stumbled across this Web site in the process of wandering around the Internet. They sell this stuff.

I'm still trying to figure out the utility of lighted underwear. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I thought that underwear was . . . well, underwear! I can't imagine what good lights would do beneath covering garments - and then there's the risk of electric shock . . . If you want to do a Superman or a Batman and wear your underwear outside your clothing (and how the hell did the designers of those characters come up with that idea, anyway???), it's no longer underwear, and you may as well be advertising something. (But then, perhaps the wearers are . . .)

I'm afraid sometimes I just don't get it. Call me square, baby, but I just ain't hip to this.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Logical, perhaps, but not necessarily rational!

Let the video explain.


'Ring Tone Therapy'???

Ever heard of it? The BBC has.

Across Japan the arrival of spring is bringing out the cherry blossom but it is also making people reach for their handkerchiefs as, at this time of year, hay fever is rife.

A company called the Japan Ringing Tone Laboratory has developed what it claims is a cure.

For relief, sufferers need only wait for a call on their mobile phone. The sound is supposed to dislodge pollen if the user holds the handset up to their nose.

Another of the so-called therapeutic ring tones is for those trying to lose weight.

The Japan Ringing Tone Laboratory is led by Matsumi Suzuki, an expert in voiceprint technology of the kind used to authenticate tapes of Osama Bin Laden.

He was behind a device for dog-owners called Bow-lingual which, it is claimed, can interpret the meaning of barking.

But now ring tones are his speciality.

There is a range specially tailored for the needs of people with different star signs, such as one for Taurus, the bull, complete with mooing.

Index, the mobile phone content provider which markets the therapeutic ring tones, admits the technology behind them is perhaps a little unproven but insists the number of downloads suggests they may be working.

There's more at the link.

I must confess to being an instant skeptic about this. After all, the Bow-Lingual device has the 'honor' (?) of being awarded the 2002 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for 'promoting peace and harmony between the species'. I wonder what prize a ring tone for weight loss might receive? After all, Sonic treatment isn't usually associated with weight loss!


Doofus Of The Day #337

Today's Doofi are from Connecticut.

Police in Connecticut say even they were surprised by the actions of these criminals: two would-be robbers called a bank ahead of time to get the money ready and were arrested at the scene.

Fairfield police say they arrested 27-year-old Albert Bailey and an unidentified 16-year-old boy on robbery and threatening charges Tuesday afternoon at the People's United Bank branch on Stratfield Road.

Sgt. James Perez says the two Bridgeport residents called the bank and told a worker to get a bag of money ready. Perez says they showed up at the bank 10 minutes later, but police had been notified and arrested the suspects in the parking lot.

Perez told the Connecticut Post he classifies the suspects as "not too bright."

Here's a video report on the Doofidious Duo.

I'm sure the cops are still laughing - and even if they're not, I certainly am!


History comes to life

Back on March 14th I reported on the sale of a collection of British World War II propaganda posters. One of them was this:

The Daily Mail reports that the man pictured in the poster has been identified.

The dashing young airman who became the poster boy of the RAF during World War II has been revealed – 65 year after the conflict ended.

Squadron Leader Ian Blair, now 91, was 22 years old when the famous snap was taken in 1940 after his daring flying in north Africa earned him a medal.

But he didn’t realise his fame until two years later when, on a break in Bournemouth, he saw his face on a propaganda notice warning 'Careless Talk May Cost His Life'.

The poster, aimed at raising morale on the Home Front and spreading vital educational messages, was one of the most enduring images of the war.

Last week, a recently unearthed stash of mint condition pictures sold at auction for more than £25,000 after attracting bids from around the world.

Mr Blair, from Brentwood, Essex, who was born the year the RAF was formed, yesterday told of the moment in 1942 when he first saw the poster.

He said: ‘I wasn't even aware that it had been produced. The photo had been taken two years earlier, in North Africa, when I was a 22-year-old corporal.

‘I didn't think anything more of it, and then all of a sudden, there I was, hanging on the wall of a post office.’

In the famous image, Mr Blair is smiling in his airman's kit as if he hadn't a care in the world.

But just the day before, the former air ace of 113 Squadron had saved himself and a comrade with an act of bravery that won him the coveted Distinguished Flying Medal.

He said: ‘I look cheerful in the photo. I always look cheerful. But it doesn't tell you the true story - the full picture.

‘The day before, we had been sent out to bomb an enemy airfield at Derna, about 400 miles west of Alexandria.

‘We were in a Blenheim bomber, and I was the observer. That's the guy in the front who does the navigation and drops the bombs.

Bristol Blenheim Mk. I bomber

‘But as soon as I had released the bombs, a fighter-plane attacked us.’ Glasgow-born Sqn Ldr Blair still has the blood-stained flight log he made that day. The pencil entries end suddenly.

He said: ‘There was an almighty bang. When I looked round, the pilot - a chap called Reynolds - was slumped forward on the controls.

‘I think it was the very last round that killed him. It was really unfortunate. His luck had run out.

‘Then the aircraft went into a steep dive.’

Despite having never flown an aircraft in his life before that moment, the young airman - paid one shilling and sixpence per day extra to fill in as part-time air crew - took charge.

He said: ‘From that moment the only thing going through my mind was survival. Everything happened so quickly, and we had to get the heck out of there.

‘I managed to pull the pilot's body off his seat and get the aircraft under control. But we still had to get home and land the thing.

‘My gunner, Hank, sent a message back to base saying: “We're in dire trouble here, the observer is flying the aircraft.”

‘Lo and behold, when we got back to base there was whole gallery of people, cars, ambulances and fire tenders all lined up waiting for the ultimate - but it didn't happen.

‘I had spent a long time watching pilots, and made a textbook landing. We came down in a shower of dust.

‘Perhaps I was a bit over-confident. The air officer commanding the base apparently said: “If that guy can fly an aircraft without a pilot's course, let's send him on a pilot's course.”’

He was presented with his DFM by George VI.

Mr Blair, who joined the RAF as a boy entrant apprentice aged 16 in 1934, went on to fly Spitfires against the Luftwaffe, and was shot down twice before the war ended.

There's more at the link, including a picture of Mr. Blair today.

I found the story fascinating, not only because of its content, but because because my father also entered the Royal Air Force as a boy entrant apprentice at the same age (and about the same time) as Mr. Blair, and also served in the Western Desert. I wrote about my father's wartime experiences in Weekend Wings #9.

Sadly, my father died last year, or he'd have enjoyed reading about Mr. Blair's experiences. I wonder if they ever met? Sharing the same qualification and background as they did, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

An agricultural aircraft - NOT!

Back in February 2008 I posted a video clip of a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 jet transport making a very, very long takeoff run from an Australian airport - so long that it gave the air traffic controllers quite a fright.

It seems that Russian pilots of these aircraft can be just as scary when landing them. Here's a video of an Il-76 landing way too long on a runway - then seemingly the pilot loses control. All the action happens in the first minute; the rest of the clip (about another 7 minutes) shows the result, and the task of winching the plane out of the bushes.

If one has to have a close call aboard an aircraft, I don't think they come much closer than that!


How not to curry favor with your enemies

Back in March 2008 I reported that India was developing a grenade using a mixture of chili and pepper, designed to drive people out of enclosed spaces. It was supposed to work a bit like a tear-gas grenade.

This week it was reported that India's gone one better, producing a grenade filled with powdered bhut jolokia chilis.

Bhut jolokia chili peppers (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

They're certified to be the world's hottest chili pepper, and are claimed to be approximately 100-200 times hotter than an average jalapeño pepper, or 200-400 times hotter than standard Tabasco sauce.

The news prompted an Australian satirist to wax lyrical in the Sydney Morning Herald. After I stopped laughing, I thought you might enjoy his comments too.

There are high hopes the new invention – which sounds something like a cross between tear gas and capsicum spray – might replace more toxic weapons worldwide.

However, it may not work on all targets. It is understood men in macho cultures where extreme chilli eating is a rite of passage may have inbuilt resistance. A top-secret British police experiment, in which chilli grenades were used in an attempt to disperse football fans, reportedly backfired when the young men began bragging to each other about whose nose was running the most, before sitting down in the street and demanding beer, pappadams and a selection of chutneys.

The hooligans finally left the scene several hours later. A police report says they made boorish comments, stole a napkin holder and failed to leave a tip.

. . .

Military experts fear the Indian move could spark a nationalistic culinary arms race, with Russian troops flooding enemy trenches with beetroot soup, Chinese soldiers hurling deadly chicken feet and the French flipping crepes over their shoulders to make the path behind them slippery as they perform tactical withdrawals.

Sources deep within Australian Army bunkers report that military scientists in Canberra have been working on our own dinky-di secret weapon: a missile launcher that catapults a barrage of meat pies with sauce. The aim is to disable the enemy with hot gloop.

"Early results indicate that plain meat pies seem to cause the most mess," an army source said. "However, that's proved troublesome for the operators loading the launcher. Haven't really got past that stage. Problem may be that we've been microwaving them. Too soggy, you see. If only the consignment of conventional ovens we bought actually worked."

Insiders say a plan to use dagwood dogs [corn dogs, for US readers] as missiles was scrapped after human rights lawyers advised that this would contravene the Geneva Protocol regarding chemical warfare.

The United States, of course, is expected to resort to shock and awe, bombarding the enemy with its national dish: an enormous sesame seed bun that explodes on impact, scattering pizza, hamburgers, fries, fried chicken, hot dogs, milkshakes and boysenberry ice-cream in all directions.

After several such raids, the hope is that potential terrorists would be too fat to be allowed on passenger planes whether carrying bombs or not, thus guaranteeing the safety of the free world and indoctrinating foreigners in the American, Christian way of life at the same time.

There's more at the link.


Macro photography in the news again

The Daily Mail has published a series of photographs of insects covered in dew. The pictures were taken in the small hours of the morning by Miroslaw Swietek of Poland. Here are a couple (reduced in size to fit here) to whet your appetite.

That's some great macro photography! There are more pictures at the link. Highly recommended viewing.


Welcome to some new readers from New Zealand

I noticed a number of visits to my blog recently from the Trademe community message board in New Zealand. Nice to have you here, folks. Stay awhile!

One thing, though. I noted that when some of you link to this blog, you link to the main blog URL and tell folks to scroll down to the post that interests you. There's an easier way. Simply click on the title of the post you want, and it'll open in a new window, with a URL that'll take you directly to the post in future. The new window will also show all comments and links to the post. Alternatively, Windows users can use their secondary mouse button to click on the post title and then select 'Copy Link Location'. That'll copy the direct URL to your clipboard, and you can paste it from there to anywhere you want to use it. You can use that URL to direct others straight to the post in question; or you can use TinyURL or a similar service to make a shorter one for ease of posting.

I seem to have quite a few readers in Australia and New Zealand. As a Southern Hemisphere expatriate myself, it's nice to have you here.


Friday, March 26, 2010

The lady and the reaper

Here's a fun cartoon showing an old lady, ready for death, and the (mis)adventures of Death as he tries to claim her.


I guess that's one way to make a statement!

A New York artist has made a social and ecological statement by converting a Hummer to a propulsion system hardly envisaged by its designers. EGM Cartech reports:

An artist by the name of Jeremy Dean created something called “Back to the Futurama”, a statement to the current American consumer culture, the auto industry and the economic recession. Dean figured that the biggest impressions he could make for his “Back to the Futurama” would be to turn a Hummer H2 into a horse carriage, and that’s exactly what he did.

. . .

Jeremy says that the project was inspired by the Great Depression, at a time when people could no longer afford gas for their vehicles and hitched them to horses, creating “Hoover Carts.”

“I was fascinated by the Hoover Cart story and the image I saw in my mind of the re-imagined vehicle, this ultimate coping mechanism, and it seemed to me then, as it does now, a monument to the absurd, as only something utilitarian done in prolonged crisis can be,” Jeremy says.

His 1,800-pound car made its public debut in Central Park, pulled by two horses named Diesel and Dean.

There's more at the link, and at the artist's blog.

Here's a video put together by the artist to illustrate his project.

I'm not sure I'd agree with all his opinions, but he's certainly devised an eye-catching and original way to make his point. For that, kudos to him.


Authors and books who've influenced me most

Via Patrick at Popehat, I learned of a blog meme initiated by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. He listed the ten books that have influenced him most, and 'encouraged other bloggers to offer similar lists'. Quite a few have taken up his invitation, and I thought, “Why not?” - so here goes.

I'm in the unfortunate (?) position of being a bibliophile. I grew up in a home with over 3,000 books, and I've built up an extensive library of my own over the years. I recently (with much blood, sweat and tears, and feelings of having teeth pulled) reduced it to something like 3,500 volumes . . . and it hurt giving up every one of those I discarded! I can't wait for the advent of a really good electronic library system . . . it'll save me from (literally) shifting tons of weight every time I move house!

That makes it very difficult for me to choose a mere ten books that have influenced me most. I've certainly read well in excess of 25,000 books during my life so far (for example, in my last year at high school I kept a tally, and read over 700 books in addition to my studies). I therefore decided to approach this list by not looking at my bookshelves at all, so as to see which books and authors have stuck in my mind without the need for a visual reminder. I'm going to list the first ten that come to mind; but that's not really fair, as there are far more than ten who've had the same impact. Still, ten is a manageable figure, so I'll stick with it.

(I'm also going to cheat a little and list mostly authors, rather than their individual books, because their body of work as a whole has influenced me more than any single volume. I think this is within the spirit, if not the letter, of Mr. Cowen's challenge, so I hope he'll let me get away with it.)

Anyway, in alphabetical order by author (except, in one case, by the book's name, because there are too many authors to list), here goes.

1. The Bible.

Quite apart from being the source of revelation of my faith, I find the whole volume to be a fascinating detective story. For any given book, who wrote it? When? Why? Under what circumstances or conditions? To what extent is the author conveying the eternal, immortal, unchanging message of the Divine, and to what extent is he caught up in the culture and conditions of his own times and allowing those factors to influence and 'color' his message? Can the Divine truth(s) he conveys be readily distinguished from the latter factors? How does the Biblical message concerning any one aspect of faith and/or life (e.g. love, mercy, sin, etc.) change from early books to later ones, from the Old to the New Testament? How does Christ's advent alter Old Testament teaching – if at all?

There are so many questions, and the answers aren't at all easy in many cases. I have little time for the overly simplistic approach of Fundamentalism, which argues that 'if the Bible says it, that settles it'. My response is always to quote two passages to them, Matthew 12:30 (“he who is not with Me is against Me”) and Mark 9:40 (“he who is not against us is for us”). If every word in the Bible is exactly and literally true, then how can two such (seemingly) contradictory passages exist (both of them the words of Jesus Himself)? They usually start spluttering at that point, and cast aspersions in my direction. Pity, that . . . it kind of undermines their case. (There are, of course, many similar passages that defy a simplistic interpretation.)

Despite any difficulties in analysis or interpretation, however, the Bible remains the yardstick by which I judge my life in moral, spiritual and religious terms. It's not for me to make the Bible fit into my world so much as I must make my life conform to the standards revealed by God in and through its pages. Defining those standards is what makes things interesting, but the core ones are clear enough.

2. Jeff Cooper.

This prolific writer, firearms authority and father of the Modern Technique of the handgun is a seminal figure in the firearms world. He was unashamedly conservative, independent (although not what we would call Libertarian today) and self-reliant, and held himself and others to the highest standards of personal integrity. Regrettably, his philosophy on life is not as widely known as I think it deserves to be. His many books include five volumes of reminiscences and memoir which are as fresh today as when he wrote them. They've informed my own quest for knowledge and 'formation' in many ways. He also wrote regular columns for magazines and newsletters for graduates of his school, the American Pistol Institute; the latter have been published in three volumes. Many of his remarks are repeatedly cited by those knowledgeable in the field.

One of the chief reasons I'm alive today is that his teaching on the principles of personal defense and the use of firearms helped to keep me that way through eighteen years of what amounted to civil war in South Africa. Perhaps as a result, one of my favorites among many of his quotations is this:

“One bleeding-heart type asked me in a recent interview if I did not agree that ‘violence begets violence.’ I told him that it is my earnest endeavor to see that it does. I would like very much to ensure - and in some cases I have - that any man who offers violence to his fellow citizen begets a whole lot more in return than he can enjoy.”

Having (all too often) BTDT* as a prospective victim of violence, I can testify that his approach works!

3. Dorothy Dunnett.

This historical novelist kindled my imagination in a way that no other writer in this field has managed to do. Her marvelously fresh approach to some of the most tangled and turbulent periods of history has encouraged me to become something of an amateur historian myself. Her six-book Crawford of Lymond series remains, in my opinion, the single most important historical novel series of the 20th century.

4. Richard Feynman.

This Nobel Prize-winning physicist has amused and challenged me for many years. His two semi-autobiographical books (Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) are marvelously entertaining yet highly educational, and helped to renew my own interest in science. The Feynman Lectures On Physics, first published in 1964, has sold more than two million copies, and despite more recent developments in the field remains one of the most useful and accessible introductions to that field of science. His dedication to making his subject as clear and understandable as possible has influenced my own teaching and lecturing techniques. A remarkable man, who produced some remarkable literature.

5. Robert Heinlein.

His science fiction has engrossed me, challenged me, and made me 'think outside the box' in many ways, in terms of science, history, the future, politics, morality and many other issues. I haven't always agreed with him, but he's always succeeded in making me think all the more carefully about why this is so. His output is prolific, but if I had to select three of his novels that have most influenced me, they'd be Starship Troopers, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Time Enough For Love. He was, is and will probably forever be one of the 'greats' in the field of science fiction, which owes him an incalculable debt.

6. Thomas Merton.

This Trappist monk wrote prolifically about the spiritual and monastic life. As a young man, I found his earlier books, particularly those about his own formation as a monk and priest, and his works on meditation and contemplation, to be profoundly helpful in developing my spiritual life. His later works, where he challenged the status quo in terms of his perspective on modern life, I found less inspirational – but they were (and are) no less challenging, forcing me to re-examine what I believe and why I believe it. If I disagree with him, why? Am I being too blinkered or 'super-spiritual' in my approach? His books continue to give me 'seeds of contemplation'. I guess there's a spark of monasticism and/or 'solitude' in me, and he speaks to that. I re-read him to this day.

7. Alan Paton.

He's most famous for his 1948 book Cry, The Beloved Country, but he wrote many more works that have influenced me for many years. His two volumes of autobiography, Towards The Mountain and Journey Continued, give valuable insights into the racial tensions in South African society, and how this devout Anglican and intellectual giant of South Africa approached them. I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Paton, but I heard him deliver speeches on two occasions. Even though I left South Africa well over a decade ago, his books continue to speak to me.

8. Rosemary Sutcliff.

The books of this children's historical novelist were my constant companions as a child, and remain in my collection today. Physically handicapped, she never allowed that to stand in the way of her writing, and never used it as an excuse to live a less than fulfilling life. She brought the Roman, Saxon and Viking periods to life in an irresistibly fresh and interesting way, and her later English history novels conveyed a real sense of what life was like in those days. In a way, she's like a Dorothy Dunnett (q.v.) for children, yet writes with a timeless, ageless grace that makes her eminently readable by adults as well. She occupies a warm place in my bookish heart, and her books a permanent place on my shelves. (I was delighted to learn recently that her novel The Eagle Of The Ninth is being filmed, and should be released later this year. Provided the producers don't destroy her magnificent novel in the transition to film, I'll be there to see it.)

9. J.R.R. Tolkien.

I regard all the books in the Ring saga as essentially part of the same story, beginning with The Silmarillion, continuing with The Hobbit and ending with the three volumes of The Lord Of The Rings. I also love many of his shorter works, including Leaf By Niggle, Smith Of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles Of Ham. (However, I exclude the all-too-many volumes of his notes that were edited [after his death] and published by his son.) I think I've read the Ring saga every year since my very early teens, and The Hobbit earlier than that. I unhesitatingly classify it as the single most important work of English literature in the 20th century. It's shaped my approach to literature in a very powerful way. Tolkien's intensive scholarship and dedication (even developing his own unique languages for some of the races he invented, and doing so in such a linguistically correct way that the languages really do make grammatical and cultural sense) is perhaps unique. Also, of course, his philosophy, as expressed in the books (markedly and unashamedly Christian, highly moral, and personally challenging) both echoes and has influenced my own.

10. Barbara Tuchman.

This historian managed to tease new depth and meaning from her field in a wide-ranging series of books, always challenging her readers to look beyond the bare facts and consider their wider implications. She's a joy for any history buff to read, and makes one think more deeply about the era, personalities and factors influencing her subjects. I have all her books, and I've given out more than a few copies of several of them in an effort to inspire others to read more widely about history.

Well, there are the ten authors (or, rather, nine authors and one Book) that first come to mind, without glancing at my bookshelves. I could probably list dozens more just sitting here at my keyboard. I mean, having mentioned Heinlein, how about Asimov or Clarke or Anderson? Having listed Merton, what about Catherine of Siena or de Caussade or Foster or de Hueck Doherty or Mother Teresa or Theresa of Avila? Unfortunately, I have neither space nor time to list them all, so these will have to do.

I invite all my readers (particularly other bloggers) to name the ten authors and/or books that have most influenced them. Other bloggers will, I hope, post them on their blogs, and readers are invited to list their favorites in the Comments to this post. If you can't think of (or don't have time to list) ten, list two or three. It should make interesting reading!


* Been There, Done That.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Now that's a smart bird!

It seems Japanese crows are rather smarter than your average bird. This video clip demonstrates their applied intelligence in action.

That's pretty amazing, for an animal with a brain the size of a baked bean!


One of the first VC's to be sold

A very important artefact of military history is about to go under the hammer. The Victoria Cross awarded to then-Lieutenant John Simpson Knox (shown at left) is to be auctioned - uniquely, along with the cannon-ball that took off his left arm during the second of the two actions for which the medal was awarded!

The VC was awarded for the first time during the Crimean War, with the first three medals going to Royal Navy personnel. Master's Mate Charles Davis Lucas of HMS Hecla was awarded his for heroism on June 21st, 1854; and Lt. John Bythesea and Stoker William Johnstone of HMS Arrogant received theirs for their actions on August 9th of the same year. The next six VC's were all awarded to soldiers for heroism displayed on September 20th, 1854 at the Battle of the Alma during the Crimean War. Knox's VC is one of those six.

He was a Sergeant in the Scots Fusilier Guards at the time, and was commissioned after that action. His VC citation also mentions his subsequent heroism during the Siege of Sevastopol, when on June 18th, 1855, as a Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, he formed part of the ladder party in an attack on the Redan. He lost his left arm during that assault.

The Times reports:

The first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a soldier is being auctioned and is expected to fetch £120,000 [about US $180,000].

The medal is being sold with a Russian cannon ball that took off the arm of the recipient, Major John Simpson Knox, during the Battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean war.

The VC, on the left in the picture, is being sold with three other medals Knox was awarded, the Crimean Medal, next to it, the Légion d’honneur and the Turkish Crimean medal.

. . .

The sale is at Spink next month. Oliver Pepys, a medal specialist at the auctioneers, said: “We have researched the circumstances around the loss of Major Knox’s arm and have discovered a fellow soldier picked up the ball and gave it to him as a memento.”

There's more at the link.

The Times article is not correct in describing Knox's VC as 'the first awarded to a soldier'; as pointed out earlier, it's one of six awarded to soldiers for heroism on the same date. Nevertheless, it has real historical significance as one of the six. I hope a military museum can afford to buy it and put on display. It's indisputably an important part of the UK's martial heritage, and it'd be a shame to have it vanish into private hands, unavailable for public viewing.


A network of miniature cars?

General Motors has teamed up with SAIC of China to produce three models of a rather odd-looking electric vehicle. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

The EN-V - or Electric Networked-Vehicle - is a new two-seater concept vehicle that offers an autonomous mode which uses GPS and vehicle-to-vehicle communications along with distance-sensors and cameras to duck and weave its way through traffic using the quickest route.

The GM EN-V is an upright two-wheeled electric vehicle that has been developed by General Motors and its Chinese joint venture partner Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

The core idea of the vehicle is personal mobility with a small footprint - both literally and environmentally.

The EN-V is a zero-emissions vehicle (provided it's recharged using 'green' energy), and the city runabout is designed to be plugged in to a regular powerpoint overnight, with a range of only about 40km.

The EN-V also operates like a social networking website, allowing occupants to communicate wirelessly with friends or business associates while on the road.

It's tiny, too. The EN-V is only 1.5-metres (just under 5 feet) long, and weighs just 500kg (about 1,100 pounds) - by comparison the Smart ForTwo ... is 2.7-metres (just under 9 feet) long, and weighs in at 750kg (about 1,650 pounds). If the numbers don't seem to add up, that's because of the EN-V's extra weight, which comes from the bank of lithium-ion batteries that are used to power the twin 3kW (about 4 horsepower) electric motors.

Three models of the EN-V have been produced - the red and racy looking Jiao (pride in English), the grey stealthy looking Miao (magic) and the bright and cheerful blue Xiao (laugh).

. . .

EN-V has been designed to ease the mind's of commuters when it comes to traffic congestion, parking availability, air quality and affordability, and GM says the EN-V is "the vehicle for tomorrow's cities".

The car - if you'd call it that - is based on the platform of the Segway (two-wheeled balance-based personal transporter). Under that funky looking shell hides two wheels, and two occupants can fit side by side in the cabin, which is undeniably futuristic in its design.

GM says the EN-V should shift the way people think about vehicles.

"The EN-V concept represents a major breakthrough in the research that GM has been doing to bring vehicle autonomy to life," says Alan Taub, global vice-president of research and development for GM.

"The building blocks that enable the autonomous capabilities found on the EN-V concept such as lane departure warning, blind zone detection and adaptive cruise control are being used in some GM vehicles on the road today," he says.

Despite launching in Shanghai, the EN-V will not only be for Chinese cities - GM, SAIC and Segway have developed it for mega-cities around the world.

Estimates suggest that 60 per cent of global population will live in cities by 2030. The EN-V could well come in handy, then.

There's more at the link. Here's a video of the announcement of the vehicles.

I'm intrigued by the concept . . . but what happens to a car balancing on two wheels if it gets into an accident? Surely it'll topple, and cause additional injuries to its occupants? I suppose GM and SAIC have thought about that, and built in safety features to compensate, but it's still a concern for me.


Yet more good news for bacon-lovers

I've posted several articles about bacon and its delights; but the latest bacon development surprised me. (A tip o' the hat to FarmDad for mentioning the link on IRC.)

MMMMvelopes are bacon envelopes. No, they're not made of bacon, but they look like a perfectly marbled piece of pork flesh. But that's not the best part! The best part is that when you lick these envelopes to seal your writings inside, the adhesive TASTES LIKE SCRUMTRULESCENT BACON.

Seriously. No more envelopes that taste like finely aged butt cheese. No more tiny sponges dipped in water to avoid the taste of finely aged butt cheese. Lick your envelopes and lick them well, geek friends. Finally, a reason to send snail mail again!

There's more at the link. They're $8.99 for 25 envelopes, if you're interested. Personally, I have no hankering to actually taste envelopes while licking them, but if that floats your boat . . .


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Doofus Of The Day #336

Some people do things so dumb, they don't deserve to live.

Oh, Mr. Darwin . . . paging Mr. Darwin . . .


An amazing collection of illuminated manuscripts

Being something of a bibliophile, my imagination was captured by a report of a sale of illuminated manuscripts to be conducted by Christie's in London in July. The Telegraph reports:

An ''outstanding'' collection of illuminated manuscripts previously owned by kings, bishops and the aristocracy is expected to fetch up to £16 million when it goes under the hammer.

The private collection, which Christie's described as the most valuable of its kind ever to be offered at auction, includes the personal prayerbooks of King Francois I of France and Elizabeth de Bohun, great-grandmother of King Henry V of England.

The Arcana Collection: Exceptional Illuminated Manuscripts And Incunabula, which has a total estimate of between £11 million and £16 million, will go on sale in July.

But the sale is just the first part of the auction and more works which are currently being valued are expected to be offered to bidders over the next 18 months.

The manuscripts are owned by an anonymous American collector, who spent three decades amassing the prized items.

The illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books with illustrations and decorations painted in brilliant colours and gold.

Books Of Hours - prayerbooks intended for private use - were the most popular type of illuminated manuscript and their appearance could be tailored to an individual's taste.

. . .

Highlights of the collection include:

- A Book Of Hours illuminated for King Francois I of France, expected to realise £300,000 to £500,000.

Francois is described as one of the greatest princely patrons of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years in the king's service. After his death Francois acquired The Mona Lisa from the artist's estate.

- The Hours and Psalter of Elizabeth de Bohun, Countess of Northampton and great-grandmother of King Henry V of England, are expected to realise £2 million to £3 million.

These were lent by a previous owner, William Waldorf Astor, to the important loan exhibition in New York 1883 which raised funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

- A manuscript Bible produced in Italy in the middle of the 13th century.

It appears to have been made for the use of a convent of Dominican friars and carries an estimate of £2.5 million to £3.5 million.

The manuscripts will also go on public exhibition for the first time, between July 3 an 7, alongside Christie's auction of Old Masters and 19th Century Art.

There's more at the link.

It never ceases to astonish me to think of the incredible labor invested in the making of each one of these manuscripts. For a full Bible, lavishly illustrated, as many as several hundred people (many of them monks) would have labored for years to produce that single volume. Totally uneconomical, of course, except for the very rich . . . but I'm not sure that the dedication shown in the production of such work would survive in our machine and electronic age.


Are criminals poisoning the Mediterranean Sea?

An article in the Scientific American suggests they are. Here's an excerpt.

Processing and safely storing waste from the chemical, pharmaceutical and other industries can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per ton—which makes illegal disposal highly profitable. According to the Italian environmental organization Legambiente, some waste shippers that have operational bases in southern Italy have been using the Mediterranean as a dump. While acknowledging that “no wreck has yet been found that contains toxic or radioactive waste,” physicist Massimo Scalia of the University of Rome, La Sapienza, who has chaired two parliamentary commissions on illegal waste disposal, argues that other vidence makes their existence “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Scalia contends that 39 ships were wrecked under questionable circumstances between 1979 and 1995 alone; in every case, he adds, the crew abandoned the ship long before it sank. An average of two ships per year suspiciously disappeared in the Mediterranean during the 1980s and early 1990s, according to Legambiente—and the number has increased to nine wrecks per year since 1995. Paolo Gerbaudo of the Italian daily il Manifesto, who is assisting investigations, has identified 74 suspect wrecks of which he regards 20 as being extremely suspicious. (The record extends until 2001.)

A chart of suspicious ship sinkings and disappearances in the Mediterranean Sea
(For a larger view and details of each sinking, click here)

. . .

Significantly, the increase in the frequency of wrecking correlates with the progressive tightening of international dumping regulations. The first suspect sinking, in 1979, occurred the year after the Barcelona Convention, which restricts the disposal of pollutants in the Mediterranean Sea, came into force. Over the following decades other treaties expanded the regulations, culminating in a 1993 amendment to the London Dumping Convention that halted the ocean disposal of all radioactive waste and in a 1995 amendment to the Basel Convention that banned the deposition of the industrial world’s lethal excreta in developing countries. The laws ruined the ambitious plans of one firm, Oceanic Disposal Management, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, to drop tens of thousands of cubic meters of radioactive waste into the seabed off the African coast. Andreas Bernstorff, who formerly headed a Greenpeace campaign against the trade in toxic waste, reports that the number of schemes to ship such garbage to Africa fell steeply at this time, to at most one attempt per year. The drop coincides with a sudden and ominous rise in the frequency with which ships in the Mediterranean perished.

Despite profound concern in southern Italy, efforts to find the wrecks and identify their cargo have been slow. The endeavor is expensive, Scalia notes, and requires “serious engagement by magistrates and politicians”—which, but for “a few honorable exceptions,” has been lacking. Fear of violence may also have hindered investigation. In 1994 Italian television journalist Ilaria Alpi and cameraman Miran Hrovatin were shot dead near Mogadishu, after they picked up the hazardous waste trail in Somalia, where political upheaval has kept the country from enforcing controls.

That African nation possibly holds clues to the kinds of health hazards Italians might face. “My committee heard from Somalians who said many people in that area had symptoms of poisoning and some died,” Scalia attests, referring to a stretch of highway along which Alpi and Hrovatin may have witnessed the offloading of toxic substances. The tsunami of December 2004 dredged up giant metal containers from the seabed and placed them on Somali beaches—proving that the country’s coastal waters had also received questionable trash. A United Nations report blamed fumes from these unidentified objects for internal hemorrhages and deaths of local people.

In April 2007 Calabrian authorities had temporarily halted fishing in waters off Cetraro (where the Cunski lies, according to a turncoat from the ’Ndrangheta mafia) because of dangerous levels of heavy metals in marine sediment. In the region around Amantea, mortality from cancer between 1992 and 2001 exceeded that in neighboring areas, a study found; just as worrisome, hospitalizations for certain malignancies have risen in recent years.

There's more at the link.

The article makes for very interesting (and troubling) reading. If you think that here in the USA, we're not affected, think again . . . much of the world's toxic waste is generated here, and we're as vulnerable to criminally negligent disposal of it as any other country. Furthermore, if the countries bordering the Mediterranean find they can no longer use its water, gather its fish, or discharge their lower-grade pollutants into it because it's too toxic to absorb them any longer . . . just think of what that'll do to their economies - and those of their trading partners, like us.


New disease alert!

Received via e-mail from Holly:

Gonorrhea Lectim

The Centers for Disease Control has issued a warning about a new virulent strain of this old disease.

The disease is called Gonorrhea Lectim. It's pronounced (NOT) "Gonna Re-elect 'im."

The disease is contracted through dangerous and high risk behavior involving putting your cranium up your rectum.

Many victims contracted it in 2008 . . . but now most people after having been infected for the past 1-2 years are starting to realize how destructive this sickness is. It's sad, because it is easily cured with a new procedure just coming on the market called Vo-tem-out!

You take the first dose/step in 2010 and the second dosage in 2012 and simply don't engage in such behavior again, otherwise it could become permanent and eventually wipe out all life as we know it.

Several states are already on top of this like Virginia and New Jersey, and apparently now Massachusetts, with many more seeing the writing on the wall.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ballet in uniform?

A tip o' the hat to Bob at Raven's Beak for forwarding the link to this story.

BoingBoing reports:

The India-Pakistan border-crossing ceremony is "more like a cricket match than a ceremony" -- a kind of elaborate transborder military display complete with impressive hats and other regalia. Igpajo sez, "This ceremony looks like the bastard love child of a certain Monty Python skit and a Maori War Dance! Gotta love the little handshake at the end after all the posturing and stomping."

Having watched the video, I couldn't agree more!