Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A novel way to waterski!

I'm highly amused by this video clip from Fairbanks, Alaska, showing a sled dog team towing a young lady on waterskis.

The thing about sled dogs is, they enjoy their work so much that it's effectively play for them. One need only watch them at the start and finish of a sled dog race to see how much fun they're having. During summer, when there's no snow for sled racing, I imagine this must have been one great big game to them! I wish I'd been there to see them throw themselves into it, with all the enthusiasm and vigor of their breed. Lovely creatures!


Creative architecture

The BLDGBLOG (which I'm assuming stands for Building Blog) has an interesting entry on a 'pavilion' built of old shipping pallets, ground anchors and tie rods. According to the author:

Designed to be easily assembled and dismantled, and then entirely recycled at a later date, the resulting building is intended as a temporary meeting place.

As the architect writes, the shipping pallets are "characterized by a complex geometry of open and closed surface portions," with the effect that a staggered stacking of each unit produces "interesting netlike structures." They add that the deceptively curvilinear form becomes a "cave."

The unexpected modular reuse of everyday materials is nothing new in architecture — seemingly every term in architecture school brings with it experiments in the tiling of things like cable ties, styrofoam cups, plastic water bottles, and so on — but the spatially dramatic effects of this particular experiment in large-scale, off-kilter pallet-stacking are worth seeing. In fact, a kind of micro-village of equally fluid forms built entirely from pallets would be fascinating to see.

The pavilion at night, lit from within, is also pretty eye-popping.

There's more at the link, including more photographs.

I'm always interested to see how creative artists and designers can take the cast-off things of society and turn them into something beautiful, or useful, or both. I'm not sure how useful this pavilion would be (particularly when it rains!), but it's certainly a novel idea to dispose of old shipping pallets. Congratulations to the designer.


Doofus Of The Day #386

Today's winner is from Snohomish, WA.

Darrel Elam, 52, was preparing to go hiking on Blewett Pass and had moved his 40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun from its holster to his back pocket to see if that position would be more comfortable for walking, said Jerry Moore, chief of administration for the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.

The gun discharged and shot down his left buttock and left leg, coming to rest just above his knee.

There's more at the link.

And that, boys and girls, is why you shouldn't carry a loaded gun in your pocket unless it's in a properly-designed pocket holster that covers (and safeguards) the trigger mechanism. Without that, anything inside your pocket, or anything pressing on your pocket from the outside, might activate the trigger mechanism, with results that are both noisy and painful (sometimes terminally so).

Mr. Elam was extremely fortunate that his injuries were relatively light. I bet he won't do that again in a hurry!


The Great Wall of . . . Denmark???

I'm intrigued by the news that archaeologists in Germany have uncovered a new section of a Viking-era defensive wall, originally designed to provide cover for a transshipment route from the Baltic Sea across the foot of Denmark to the North Sea. Der Spiegel reports:

Their attacks out of nowhere in rapid longboats have led many to call Vikings the inventors of the Blitzkrieg. "Like wild hornets," reads an ancient description, the Vikings would plunder monasteries and entire cities from Ireland to Spain. The fact that the Vikings, who have since found their place as droll comic book characters, were also avid masons is slightly less well known.

The proof can be seen in northern Germany, not far from the North Sea-Baltic Canal. There, one can marvel at a giant, 30-kilometer (19-mile) wall which runs through the entire state of Schleswig-Holstein. The massive construction, called the Danevirke -- "work of the Danes" -- is considered the largest earthwork in northern Europe.

Archeologists have now taken a closer look at part of the construction -- a three-meter-thick (10 feet) wall from the 8th century near Hedeby (known as Haithabu in German). It is constructed entirely out of stones collected from the surrounding region. Some of them are only as big as a fist, while others weigh as much as 100 kilograms (220 pounds). "The Vikings collected millions of rocks," says archeologist Astrid Tummuscheit, who works for the state archeology office of Schleswig-Holstein.

At a press conference Friday, Tummuscheit's team announced a further find -- one that they are calling a "sensation." The researchers have discovered the only gate leading through the Danevirke, a five-meter (16 feet) wide portal. According to old writings, "horsemen and carts" used to stream through the gate, called "Wiglesdor." Next to it was a customs station and an inn that included a bordello.

. . .

The new find is certain to attract significant attention above Germany's northern border as well -- the Danevirke is seen as a national treasure in Denmark. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has visited the site, as has Prince Frederik.

New calculations as to the age of the construction indicate, however, that the earliest parts of the wall might have been built by the Frisians and not by the Danes. Archeologists now think the foundation stone might have been laid as early as the 7th century.

The Frisians, who lived on the west coast of what is now Denmark and on a number of islands in the North Sea, were fighting for supremacy in the region with three other peoples: the Danes, the Slavs and the Saxons (see graphic). "It was the Kosovo of the early middle ages," says Carnap-Bornheim. In the end, however, it was the Danes who emerged victorious. According to contemporary records, King Göttrik of Denmark ordered in 808 that the border of his empire with that of the Saxons be fortified.

. . .

In order for goods from the east to be shipped to the west, they had to cross the narrow strip of land at the base of present-day Denmark. Traders would sail inland on the Schlei Inlet, but when they got to Hedeby, their wares were offloaded and carted overland to the Treene River, 18 kilometers away. Only there could the goods be reloaded onto boats and sailed into the North Sea.

For the duration of this short overland trek, the valuable goods -- including gold from Byzantium, bear pelts from Novgorod and even statues of Buddha from India -- were open to attack from the mainland. In order to protect this important trade artery, archeologists now believe, a bulwark of earth, stone and bricks was constructed. The Danevirke, in other words, was little more than a protective shield for commerce.

There's more at the link, including more photographs of the excavations.

It's fascinating to think of the decision process that led to the building of such fortifications. The amount of labor involved must have been immense; gathering so many rocks and stones, taking them to the places where they were needed, providing skilled masons to set them in place and secure them, then providing a garrison to defend the wall against intruders. Indeed, the effort would have been so great that it wouldn't have been economically worthwhile . . . unless the threat confronting them was so severe as to make such a colossal effort worthwhile. That, in turn, gives you some idea of the nature of the conflicts confronting our distant Northern European ancestors.

I guess, in its own way, this is a (much) smaller, simpler version of the Great Wall of China, which was built to keep invaders out of the Celestial Kingdom (with about as much success as the Danevirke enjoyed, in the long run!).


Monday, August 30, 2010

Doofus Of The Day #385

If this character didn't emasculate himself with this stunt . . . it's a pity!

Certainly, he deserves a Darwin award by amputation, even if he didn't quite earn one this time!


Not your average digestive system . . .

It seems the French have come up with a novel way to decommission their ageing submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Ares reports:

The propellant used to fuel France's submarine-borne M45 nuclear missiles -- which are being withdrawn and replaced by the M51 -- will be destroyed by bacteria: eaten not burned. The meal will be relatively pricey: €20 million ($25.3 million) is being spent by propellant-manufacturer SNPE to build the “dining-room” on its site at Saint-Médard-en-Jalles in the south-west of France where the bacteria will digest up to 500 tons of propellant a year.

. . .

The missiles' reservoirs will first be emptied and the residues mashed up before being macerated to separate the aluminum from the perchlorate ammonium, which is water soluble. It is this water which will then be fed to the bacteria.

SNPE says it is the perchlorate which caused them most difficulties and they have been working on a solution since the 1990s, looking for bacteria which could digest the perchlorate... and quickly. Once the bacteria have finished their job, a slightly salty water is left which is so clean it can be pumped into the nearby river.

There's more at the link.

Interesting approach . . . provided the fuel-eating bacteria can be confined to the facility, and not released to contaminate areas occupied by people. I'd imagine getting some of those fuel-laden bacteria into a human digestive system would make the effects of Texas chili pale by comparison!


Memories of the Blitz

A new book, published in England, tells the story of the ordinary men and women who endured the Blitz - the Nazi air raids on England in 1940 and 1941. It's of immense interest to me, because my father and mother were among them. Dad was serving in the Royal Air Force, but Mom spent many nights wide awake, carrying a bucket of water and a stirrup-pump, keeping watch for incendiaries and trying to put them out before they set fire to buildings.

The Daily Mail has run three articles taken from the book, describing what it was like to endure the Blitz. Here are some extracts from the articles.

The familiar wail of the air raid siren had sent porter Robert Baltrop clambering on to the roof of a Sainsbury's store in East London on that never-to-be-forgotten warm and cloudless late summer afternoon of September 7, 1940.

'It wasn't bad doing lookout duty during these daytime warnings,' he recalled, looking back on events that happened 70 years ago, 'sitting up there in the sunshine, smoking and looking down at the people going about their business as usual in the streets below. I wasn't even really sure what I was watching for.'

. . .

'All of a sudden, on the skyline coming up the Thames were black specks like swarms of flies, weaving their way through puffs of smoke,' he recalls.

'They were flying right across my line of vision, and sitting up there on the roof I had a perfect view of them, watching them fly across the Thames, coming in past Dagenham, Rainham and Barking.

'They were heading straight for London, and it was going to be the docks that were going to get it.

'I began to hear loud thumps, and those were bombs falling, and clouds of smoke were rising up - clouds of black smoke floating away until you couldn't see anything but a huge bank of smoke, and still they were coming.'

The first bombs fell on the Ford motor works at Dagenham, closely followed by a rain of high explosives and firebombs on Beckton gasworks, the largest in Europe.

Two hundred acres of timber stacks, recently arrived from North America and the Baltic, burned out of control along the Surrey Commercial Docks: 24 hours later, only one-fifth of the two-and-a-half million tons was left.

Within minutes, the huge warehouses and factories on both sides of the Thames were ablaze.

At West India Dock, burning spirits gushed out of the rum warehouses, a tar distillery flooded North Woolwich Road with molten pitch and rats swarmed out of a nearby soapworks.

Fire burned through the ropes of barges tethered along the quayside and the burning boats drifted downstream, only to return several hours later on the incoming tide, still smouldering dangerously.

No more than an hour after the first bombs had fallen, London's East End was engulfed by flames. Station Officer Gerry Knight, yelling to his telephonists to call for urgent reinforcements, told them it seemed as if 'the whole bloody world's on fire'.

. . .

'Black Saturday' would set the pattern for the next eight harrowing months - a horrific period of relentless aerial bombardment that came to be known as 'the Blitz' after the German word 'Blitzkrieg', meaning lightning war.

First the Luftwaffe would drop showers of incendiary bombs that would start fires. These would act as a beacon to guide the next wave of bombers to their target, and distract the fire and medical services.

The planes would then return with their deadly cargo for a second murderous onslaught.

. . .

Gerry Knight, who had memorably thought 'the whole bloody world's on fire' the previous night, died with a colleague when a bomb fell on Pageant's Wharf fire station.

All that could be found to identify the 44-year-old, who had fought so bravely all through the previous night to save the lives of the public and his own men, were his standard issue thigh-high fireman's boots.

When the photographer Bert Hardy visited the East End two days later, it was like 'the end of the world', he wrote.

'Whole streets down and gone. East End soldiers deserting to rush home and frantically try to find their folks. A man and a woman sitting on a pile of wreckage staring listlessly in front of them without speech.

'Revolting stories of official red tape in dealing with refugees and bereaved survivors, climaxing in the hideous affair of the refugees bunged into one East End School on Saturday night to be all bombed to death on Sunday.'

This 'hideous affair' referred to the tragedy of South Hallsville School - one of the most horrific and defining events of the entire Blitz.

It was to that school in Agate Street, Canning Town, that 600 people had been led during the bombings on the Saturday night: men, women and children in an acute state of shock.

Most had lost their homes; for some, members of their family had been killed or wounded, or were missing; they had few if any possessions; their clothes were torn and dirty, their faces blackened by smoke and soot, often caked with blood, their feet burned and lacerated.

Terrified, confused, some hysterical, others racked with uncontrollable anger, others traumatised and unable to speak, they clung desperately to each other.

Rest centre staff, hopelessly unprepared, themselves shocked and anxious, bustled around offering cups of tea, trying to find blankets for the refugees, many of whom were only wearing thin nightclothes, offering reassurance as bombs crashed all around and shrapnel grazed the walls: 'Don't worry, you'll be all right. We'll get you away.'

Ritchie Calder, a reporter on the now defunct Daily Herald newspaper, described how he had found 'thousands', rather than hundreds, sheltering at South Hallsville.

'From the first glance it seemed to me ominous of disaster. In the passages and classrooms were mothers nursing their babies.

'Whole families were sitting in queues perched on pitiful baggage waiting desperately for coaches to take them away from the terror of the bombs which had been raining down on them.

'These unfortunate people had been told to be ready for the coaches at three o'clock. Hours later the coaches had not arrived. Women were protesting with violence and with tears about the delay.

'Men were cursing the officials who only knew that coaches were expected. "Where are we going?" "Can't we walk there?" "We'll take a bus!" "There's a lorry we can borrow!"

The crowds clamoured for help, for information, for reassurance. But the officials knew no answer other than to offer a cup of tea.

'I knew that Sunday afternoon, that as sure as night would follow day, the bombers would come again with the darkness, and that the school would be bombed.'

And so it was.

'Filled with foreboding', Calder 'hastened back to central London.

'Three times I warned the Whitehall authorities during that evening that the people must be got away before more bombs dropped and certain disaster overtook them.

'Local folk back at the school were making equally frantic efforts to force the local authorities to act.'

But the displaced East Enders were still huddled in the school at 8pm on Monday when the alert sounded.

At 3.45 on the morning of Tuesday, September 10, 'the inevitable bomb' scored a direct hit on South Hallsville School.

Half the building was demolished, and hundreds of tons of masonry crashed down on its occupants.

Rescue workers, frantically digging and scrabbling in the ruins, tried to free the injured, while a cordon was thrown around the area to keep people from seeing what was happening, and the censor warned the Press there were to be no reports or pictures of the tragedy, so devastating would the effect be on the morale of the already shattered population.

. . .

... the most obvious place in London to shelter underground was the one the government refused — for reasons of safety and morale, as well as the necessity of keeping the city moving and supplies flowing in — to sanction: the Tube stations.

But even on the very first night of the Blitz, East Enders had defied official policy by buying a penny-halfpenny ticket for a short journey on the Tube and refusing to come up again, camping in their thousands on the cold stone platforms with no sanitation or refreshment.

A week later the Daily Worker heralded it ‘a people’s victory’ when 2,000 East Enders stormed Holborn station and officials made no attempt to keep them out.

By the end of September, the authorities had finally given in. The battle was won and from then on long queues formed outside the stations every day, with some families sending their children on ahead to reserve their spaces.

‘From the platforms to the entrance, the whole station was one incumbent mass of humanity,’ wrote one reporter after visiting Elephant and Castle Tube station at the end of September 1940.

‘Even in the darkened booking hall I stumbled across huddled bodies, bodies which were no safer from bombs than if they had lain in the gutters of the silent streets outside. Little girls and boys lay across their parents’ bodies because there was no room on the stairs.

‘Hundreds of men and women were partially undressed, while small boys and girls slumbered absolutely naked. Electric lights blazed, but most of this mass of sleeping humanity slept as though they were between silken sheets. On the platform, when a train came in it had to be stopped in the tunnel while police and porters went along pushing in the feet and arms.’

Aldwych station was closed and converted into an underground shelter where around 2,000 people were able to shelter alongside the Elgin Marbles and other treasures from the British Museum.

Westminster Council donated 2,000 books from the borough’s libraries for the shelterers’ use and ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association, or ‘Every Night Something Awful’, depending on your point of view) imported entertainers such as George Formby to entertain the crowds as well as putting on Shakespearean plays and films.

A local vicar conducted a regular service at the Aldwych shelter, and a play centre was provided for small children at Elephant and Castle, with a qualified teacher to provide handicraft lessons.

Such diversions spread to other shelters during that long winter underground (soon 52 stations had a library).

But there was one thing that no one could provide: any guarantee of safety. On October 14 a heavy bomb fell on Balham High Road in South London just above a point where two underground tunnels intersected and 600 people were sleeping.

Sixty-eight were killed, and for weeks afterwards those sheltering in nearby stations along the Northern Line were aware of a ‘ghost’ train that slipped quietly along the track at around midnight clearing the debris of the Balham disaster, a tragic cargo that included shoes, bits of clothing, handbags and toys.

At a minute to eight in the evening of January 11, 1941, a bomb fell on the booking hall of Bank station in the City, and a massive explosion tore through the building.

The blast from the bomb, according to one contemporary report, ‘travelled through the various underground passages, and in particular forced its way with extreme violence down the escalator, killing those sleeping at the foot of it at the time, and killing and injuring others sheltering on the platform opposite the entrances’ while others were hurled into the path of an incoming train’.

A total of 111 people were killed at Bank, including many passers-by, 53 shelterers and four underground staff.

While the injured waited for the ambulances to arrive, a Hungarian refugee doctor, Dr Z.A. Leitner, who had himself been injured in the blast, gave more than 40 morphine injections as he ministered to the injured single-handed in the choking dust.

At an inquiry into the blast opened in February 1941, the hero doctor paid tribute to those he had helped.

‘I should like to make a remark,’ he said. ‘You English people cannot appreciate the discipline of your own people. I want to tell you, I have not found one hysterical, shouting patient.

‘I think this very important, that you should not take such things as given — because it does not happen in other countries.

‘If Hitler could have been there for five minutes with me, he would have finished the war.

‘He would have realised that he has got to take every Englishman and twist him by the neck - otherwise he cannot win this war.’

. . .

The Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, near the local ordnance factory, displayed a lighted red cross on its roof to indicate its status. But to no avail: a huge bomb came crashing into one of the wards, and surgeon Dr Harry Winter watched 'a whole wall of the building fall slowly outward across the open ground where I'd been just a few seconds before'.

Afterwards he wrote: 'We put the patients on stretchers and blankets along the main corridor. Then the casualties started to come in, so fast that we didn't have time for detailed examinations. All we could do was divide them into resuscitation cases and those requiring immediate surgery. I suppose I did about 15 operations throughout the night.'

One of the student nurses at the city's Gulson Road Hospital, now in her 80s, has similar memories. 'The beds began to fill up very quickly,' she remembers. 'Sometimes we would have to clear away thick dirt before seeing the patient: they seemed to have been dug out of the ground. Everyone was working as a member of a team - even the consultants, who were normally treated like gods, became human.

'Until then, I had always had the fear of being left with the limb of a patient in my hand after amputation. The Blitz on Coventry changed all that for me. I didn't have the time to be squeamish. Thousands of patients passed through the hospital that night. If a patient died, they were just taken out of the bed and it was remade for the next patient.'

All night, huddled in public shelters, frightened citizens would hear snatches of news from Air Raid Precaution wardens who poked their heads in: 'The Birmingham Road's blocked'; 'Woolworths is gone'; 'The cathedral's on fire.'

Just before midnight, a further wave of bombers swept across Coventry. They had no need of navigational aids now: the burning city was a beacon, their targets illuminated as clear as day. By 1am, all the windows in the operating theatre at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital had been blown out.

'It was an amazing scene,' said Dr Winter. 'Patients were lying head to toe on every inch of space. Near the entrance lobby I noticed the hospital superintendent. He was kneeling beside the patients lying on the floor, and as I passed along I could hear a few words of their prayers.

'Although we had only 440 beds, we had 275 patients when the raid started, and hundreds more were admitted during the night. New patients were put on top of the beds while the old patients sheltered underneath them.

'At 4am our emergency light failed as I was in the middle of an operation. We quickly rigged up an automatic headlamp to a battery set and I finished the job. Bombs were still crashing down and every few minutes hunks of earth and debris crashed against the brick wall outside the theatre. By this time no one even bothered to duck.'

. . .

While London held the unwelcome record with 126 attacks, Merseyside - including Liverpool and Birkenhead - was Hitler's number-one target outside the capital on account of its links with the Atlantic. On November 28, more than 350 tons of high-explosive bombs, 30 large land mines and 3,000 incendiaries carpeted the area, killing almost 300 people.

One of the most distressing incidents of that dreadful night happened at the Ernest Brown Junior Technical College in Liverpool's Durning Road, the basement of which had been converted into a large public shelter. When the alert sounded, two trams stopped outside and the passengers streamed into the already crowded space. At 1.55am the school took a direct hit.

The three-storey building collapsed into the basement shelter, killing some people outright and burying others alive. Gas and boiling water from the fractured central-heating system poured in, and wooden beams ignited - 164 men, women and children were killed in the shelter and 96 were seriously injured.

The Lucas family lived in nearby Chantry Street. They used the school shelter nightly, but on November 28 Mrs Lucas had decided to stay at home with baby Brenda and six-year-old Joe, because people in the shelter had complained about Joe's whooping cough keeping them awake.

She sent her other four children to the school in the care of 17-year-old Florence, the oldest. All four children died in the shelter: Florence, George, aged four, Frances, nine, and Winifred, seven. 'The trauma of that night was so terrible that for six months my mother couldn't speak,' remembers Joe Lucas, now 76. 'She never spoke a word. Brenda was only a babe in arms, but for a long time Mam wouldn't let us more than an arm's length away from her.'

There's much more in the source articles, here, here and here, as well as many photographs. Recommended reading - and I'm certainly going to be buying a copy of the book from which they were drawn, when it becomes available in the USA.


Interesting photographic effects

I've been amused to see some rather remarkable photographs taken with cellphones, which display the 'rolling shutter' effect. According to Wikipedia:

Rolling shutter is a method of image acquisition in which each frame is recorded not from a snapshot of a single point in time, but rather by scanning across the frame either vertically or horizontally. In other words, not all parts of the image are recorded at exactly the same time, even though the whole frame is displayed at the same time during playback. This produces predictable distortions of fast moving objects or when the sensor captures rapid flashes of light.

This method is implemented by rolling (moving) the shutter across the exposable image area instead of exposing the image area all at the same time (the shutter could be either mechanical or electronic). The advantage of this method is that the image sensor can continue to gather photons during the acquisition process, thus increasing sensitivity.

Apparently most cellphone cameras use the 'rolling shutter' technique. The photographs of moving propeller blades on aircraft, shown below, were produced (quite unintentionally) using cellphones.

'Rolling shutter' effect can also produce strange images of other objects. A Flickr page shows some of the results. Interesting and amusing viewing.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

A tongue-twisting horse race!

One has to laugh at the names of two of the horses in this race - and the commentator's attempts to keep them straight as the finish line approaches!

I understand the horse race was held in New Jersey last weekend. Well done to the commentator for not losing his cool!


PowerPoint claims another victim - and, perhaps, costs US lives!

I was sorry - but not surprised - to read that after criticizing the 'PowerPoint culture' of US headquarters in Afghanistan, Colonel Lawrence Sellin, a reserve officer from New Jersey, has been relieved from his post. His 'mistake' (for which I applaud him) was to publish his opinion in an 'Outside View' column for United Press International. An excerpt follows.

Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.

Consider the following therapeutic.

I have been assigned as a staff officer to a headquarters in Afghanistan for about two months. During that time, I have not done anything productive. Fortunately little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well.

We are part of the operational arm of the International Security Assistance Force commanded by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus. It is composed of military representatives from all the NATO countries, several of which I cannot pronounce.

Officially, IJC was founded in late 2009 to coordinate operations among all the regional commands in Afghanistan. More likely it was founded to provide some general a three-star command. Starting with a small group of dedicated and intelligent officers, IJC has successfully grown into a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank. Around here you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.

The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill. It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon.

Random motion, ad hoc processes and an in-depth knowledge of Army minutia and acronyms are also key characteristics of a successful staff officer. Harried movement together with furrowed brows and appropriate expressions of concern a la Clint Eastwood will please the generals. Progress in the war is optional.

Each day is guided by the "battle rhythm," which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations. It doesn't matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the battle rhythm, it has the persistence of carbon 14.

And you can't skip these events because they take roll -- just like gym class.

The start and culmination of each day is the commander's update assessment. Please ignore the fact that "update assessment" is redundant. Simply saying commander's update doesn't provide the possibility of creating a three-letter acronym. It also doesn't matter that the commander never attends the CUA.

The CUA consists of a series of PowerPoint slides describing the events of the previous 12 hours. Briefers explain each slide by reading from a written statement in a tone not unlike that of a congressman caught in a tryst with an escort. The CUA slides only change when a new commander arrives or the war ends.

The commander's immediate subordinates, usually one- and two-star generals, listen to the CUA in a semi-comatose state. Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don't do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

There's more at the link. More of Colonel Sellin's columns for UPI may be found here. They're very interesting.

I fully share the good Colonel's concerns, because PowerPoint and similar programs have become self-defeating instruments. People concentrate so hard on fitting their briefings and presentations into the constraints of the software that the content often appears secondary in importance to the format. This is devastating to good management and control.

When I was a manager and director in the business world, I insisted that programs like PowerPoint should never, repeat, never be used in briefings, meetings, etc. for which I was responsible. I tried to train my people to follow the principles of 'completed staff work', and summarize any and every important issue into a single-page memorandum (with supporting documentation attached if necessary). If they couldn't summarize the important points into a single page, I had them break the problem down into smaller 'bite-size' chunks, each of which was a decision point in and of itself, and summarize each decision point in that way. By forcing our staff to think, analyze, and understand problems thoroughly, we achieved great success in almost all our endeavors - the kind of success that would have been impossible if we'd adhered to formulaic presentations and emphasized structure over content.

I'm hardly alone in this opinion. The world-renowned Dr. Edward R. Tufte has pointed out that the use of PowerPoint directly contributed to the disastrous series of decisions that led to the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia and the death of all aboard in 2003. His analysis may be read here. It makes very sobering reading. Others have found similar problems caused by an over-reliance on presentation software, which has become so common it's even acquired the name of 'Death By PowerPoint'.

I'm sorry that Colonel Sellin will no longer be part of the team advising US leadership in Afghanistan. Judging by what he wrote for UPI, he appears to have been one of the more sensible, level heads in that team. His departure may well have serious consequences if there's no-one of similar insight and forthrightness prepared to speak out when necessary - even placing his career at risk, if it should come to that. Such courage of conviction is all too rare.

Dare I hope that it's not too late for General Petraeus - who's not exactly been backward in the past in criticizing military bone-headedness himself - to 'see the light' and recall Colonel Sellin to his post? I have a feeling that if he's to succeed in the monstrous challenges confronting him, he'll need all the Colonel Sellins he can get!


The world's greatest dictionary goes all-electronic

The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) have announced that no new edition of the full dictionary will be published on paper.

It was first published 126 years ago and is respected the world over.

But the Oxford English Dictionary will never appear in print again, its owners have announced.

Instead, the 80 lexicographers who have been working on the third edition for the past 21 years have been told the fruits of their labour will exist solely online.

The OED has been available on the internet for the past ten years and receives two million hits a month from subscribers who pay £205 a year, plus VAT, to access it. [In the USA, individual subscribers pay $29.95 per month or $295 on an annual basis.]

Oxford University Press says the dominance of the internet means the latest update to the definitive record of the English language - currently 28 per cent complete - will never be published in print.

'The print dictionary market is just disappearing - it is falling away by tens of per cent a year,' said Nigel Portwood, 44, chief executive of OUP.

'Our primary purpose - and this takes a bit of adjusting to - is not profit, it is the dissemination of knowledge,' he said.

'Print is still pretty important round here but, wherever possible, if there is an opportunity, we are moving out of it.'

The printed dictionary has a shelf life of another 30 years, he predicts.

The third edition is only expected to be completed by 2037.

There's more at the link.

The existing Second Edition of the OED will still be available in a 20-volume printed version (US price $995.00) for the foreseeable future. It's already available online, where it's updated quarterly. I find its Word Of The Day (for which you can sign up via e-mail) to be a fascinating resource, often turning up words I'd never heard of before. I think that US 'fair use' copyright law will allow me to quote the definition of one word out of the over half-a-million defined in the full OED, so here's today's word, Tod:

I. 1. A weight used in the wool trade, usually 28 pounds or 2 stone, but varying locally.

1425 in Kennett Par. Antiq. (1818) II. 250 De xxiii todde lanæ puræ..per le todde ix sol. vi den. 1467 in Eng. Gilds (1870) 384 Custom for euery todd jd. 1542 RECORDE Gr. Artes (1575) 203 In woolle, 28 pounde is not called a quarterne, but a Todde. 1696 Phil. Trans. XIX. 343 Three or four Fleeces usually making a Tod of Twenty eight Pound. 1776 ADAM SMITH W.N. I. xi. (1869) I. 242 One-and-twenty shillings the tod may be reckoned a good price for very good English wool. 1833 Wauldy Farm Rep. 115 in Libr. Usef. Knowl., Husb. III, The agreement is made by the tod, which the dealers have contrived to enlarge to 28 lbs. 1888 Daily News 23 July 2/7 The finest growths of home-grown produce..changing hands at from 23s to 25s per tod.

b. A load, either generally, or of a definite weight.

1530 PALSGR. 281/2 Tode of chese. 1621 FLETCHER Pilgrim III. iv, A hundred crowns for a good Tod of Hay. 17.. Songs Costume (Percy Soc.) 248 There's the ladies of fashion you see..With a great tod of wool on each hip. a1722 LISLE Husb. (1757) 311 [They] allow three tod and an half of hay to the wintering of one sheep. 1863 W. BARNES Poems 3rd Coll. 73 Zoo all the lot o' stuff a-tied Upon the plow, a tidy tod. 1887 ROGERS Agric. & Prices V. 302 Prices of hay and straw... The cwt. and its subdivision, the tod, are the commonest of these exceptional measures. 1889 Devon farmer (E.D.D. s.v. Tad), I've a-got a middlin' tad [load of hay] here, sure 'nough.

fig. 1648 HERRICK Hesper., Conjuration to Electra, By those soft tods of wooll [clouds] With which the aire is full.

II. 2. A bushy mass (esp. of ivy; more fully IVY-TOD, q.v.).

1553 BECON Reliques of Rome (1563) 53b, Our recluses haue grates of yron in their spelunckes and dennes, out of the which they looke, as owles out of an yuye todde. 1592 WARNER Alb. Eng. VII. xxxvii. (1612) 183 Your Ladiship, Dame Owle, Did call me to your Todd. a1619 FLETCHER Bonduca I. i, Men of Britain Like boading Owls, creep into tods of Ivie. 1626 BACON Sylva §588 Some [trees] are more in the forme of a Pyramis, and come almost to todd; As the Peare-Tree. 1709 Brit. Apollo II. No. 73. 3/1 What Tod of Ivy hath so long conceal'd Thy Corps? 1908 Outlook 4 Jan. 4/2 Ivy tods were covered with pollen in Christmas week and the smaller gorse is flowering freely.

III. 3. attrib. or Comb. {dag}tod-wool, clean wool made up into tods.

1636 Minute Bk. Exeter City Chamber 5 Apr. (MS.), The weighing and sale of all toddwooll, rudge-washt wooll, and fleecewooll, and unwashed wooll.

Meat and drink for bibliophiles!


A salute to The Few, 70 years later

Today a special British Airways flight, an Airbus A321 airliner, carried 13 former Royal Air Force pilots, survivors of 'The Few' who defended their country during the Battle of Britain in 1940, on a tour of the area of the Battle. It was joined in formation flight by two historic fighters, a Spitfire and a Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The Daily Mail reports:

Every Battle of Britain veteran on board this special commemorative flight had seen the formation before. But the last time most of them flew in it was 70 years ago.

Back then, in these same skies in which all of them had fought for their country, it was a matter of life and death. Now it was a matter of pride.

And so - as two of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War made a victory flight alongside an airliner carrying 13 ex-RAF pilots - Britain paid tribute to The Few who risked their lives for freedom.

The British Airways A321 Airbus was taking the veterans on a tour of the coastline and mainland they defended so courageously in 1940 against Hitler's attempt to crush the country into submission. The oldest flyer was 97 now; the youngest 89. But none had forgotten the days when, as teenagers or young men in their early 20s, they overcame seemingly overwhelming odds to change the course of history.

Men like Tom Neil, 89 now, but then a 19-year-old Pilot Officer flying 'Spits and Hurries' with 249 Squadron (motto: With Fists and Heels) when the Battle of Britain loomed.

He saw dozens of his friends and colleagues killed, burned or wounded, but survived to fly 141 combat missions in eight months, bringing down 13 enemy aircraft, and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar.

Gazing out of the window as the historic aircraft prepared to form their escort, he recalled: 'I don't think I was particularly skilled. I was just very good at ducking and weaving. I suppose I was reasonably successful. But I never thought when I turned 20 that I would ever reach the age of 21.'

Nearby, Flying Officer Ken Wilkinson, 91, who piloted Spitfires under the command of legless flying ace Douglas Bader, conceded he must have led a 'charmed life' to survive the war without a scratch. Some of his friends, he said, never made it beyond their first mission.

The special flight and historic escort was organised to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, to honour those who survived and to remember those who gave their lives.

There's more at the link, including a picture of the aircraft, old and new, in formation over the English coast.

It seems odd to realize that the Battle of Britain took place seventy years ago. My father served with the RAF during the Battle, and through the rest of the war. He died last year, God rest him . . . I hope his former comrades-in-arms were there to meet him, and exchange wartime memories over a few glasses of whatever the heavenly brew might be.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Forgotten heroes

I remember September 11th, 2001, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

I've known for some time that those who responded to the attack were suffering health problems, and battling Federal, State and local bureaucracy to get some sort of relief; but I hadn't realized how serious, or how widespread, the problems really were. An article in the Daily Mail has jerked me out of my complacency.

11 September nine years ago, 2,975 people died in the worst-ever terrorist attack on US soil. The body count was shocking, and the trauma suffered by victims’ families hard to contemplate. But the danger to New York citizens was far from over. In addition to those who perished in and around the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and on United Flight 93, there are thousands of ‘shadow’ victims: people who inhaled the toxic dust cloud that enveloped Ground Zero and who are now suffering serious – in some cases fatal – illnesses as a direct result. Indeed, far more people are likely to die from the effects of the dust than in the attack itself.

These victims include office workers, shopkeepers, students and local residents – but the worst-affected are the ‘responders’: emergency service, recovery and volunteer aid workers who were exposed to the site at close quarters. These people went to help – and are paying with their lives. The New York City Department of Health has already recorded 817 deaths of World Trade Center (WTC) responders from illnesses generated by working on the site.

But as well as the official figures, there are currently another 20,000 recorded sick by the WTC Medical Monitoring Treatment and Environmental programmes. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the World Trade Center Health Registry, 410,000 people were heavily exposed to WTC toxins causing restrictive respiratory illnesses and cancers, which changes 11 September from a terrorist attack into a full-blown environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, where the initial toll was overshadowed by deaths and illnesses that were still occurring up to 20 years later.

On 9/11 the dust from the pulverised towers was so thick and far-reaching that you could write your name in it on cars in Brooklyn. It contained chemicals including asbestos, lead, dioxin and deadly PVCs (the WTC buildings were the most heavily computerised in the world), mercury from 500,000 shattered fluorescent fixtures, plus emissions from more than 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel smouldering underneath the site. Robin Herbert, co-director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, has expressed his concern about the number and combination of cancer-causing elements and other chemicals released, and observers have noticed a tendency for fast-developing and multiple cancers among emergency workers.

In the urgency of rescuing survivors from the rubble, crucial safety procedures seem to have been overlooked and conflicting instructions given by the authorities. People were operating without the correct protective clothing. Rescue teams were provided with paper masks that became clogged within seconds. Families who lived in the vicinity were told that they could clean up the contaminated dust with wet rags. A week after the attacks, in a bid to restore the collective morale of New York’s population and kick-start Lower Manhattan’s financial district, local workers, students and residents were told it was safe to return to their jobs, schools and homes. It was business as usual. Wall Street was open. New York had moved on.

But the shadow victims haven’t been able to move on – 70 per cent of emergency service workers have been diagnosed with serious respiratory problems as a result of their involvement with Ground Zero. And the real scandal is that post-disaster healthcare (mental and physical) has been so badly neglected that there is barely any provision for them.

. . .

The events of 9/11 were unprecedented, and the ensuing confusion reflects this. There is no existing legislation to support the emergency service workers. The fact that many responders were unpaid volunteers means that they are not covered by their medical insurance policies because they were not technically ‘at work’. Moreover, the link between exposure and illness has been incredibly complicated to prove.

Trying to quantify the effects of a toxic dust cloud and argue that multiple sicknesses have developed as a result of inhalation through the skin and mouth has been new territory for lawyers. Some 62 per cent of claims to date have been rejected, which has resulted in lengthy litigation and appeals.

. . .

The focus of 9/11 has always been on the victims in the towers: those who died on the day. But this secondary tragedy is even bigger in terms of numbers – and just as tragic, if less dramatic in its photo-news impact. The ‘shadow victims’ have had to go to extraordinary lengths to be seen or heard or treated, and their story deserves to be more widely told.

There's more at the link.

Here's a short video clip outlining the medical problems faced by first responders.

I've found at least two Web sites set up to publicize this issue and educate public opinion on what needs to be done:

I urge my readers to click over to both Web sites to read more about the issue for themselves.

Legislation to address the problem was recently rejected in Congress. I'm not going to argue with those who are wary about already-excessive Government spending, because I fully agree with them: but I suggest that in this specific instance, the money would be well spent. I believe we owe it to those who disregarded their own safety, and went into danger on our behalf, to cover the medical and other costs they've incurred as a result.

I'd like to suggest to all my readers that we contact our Congressional representatives and Senators, and ask them to move forward with the so-called 'Zadroga Act' as quickly as possible. I submit it's not just a good idea, but a national moral obligation.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Power car wash FAIL!

When they call it a 'POWER washer', they clearly mean it!

Perhaps they should fit it with a rifle-type stock to absorb the recoil?


First photographs of 'Dark Energy'

For those fascinated (as I am) by space and its mysteries, the Hubble telescope has just produced the first photographs of the effects of so-called 'dark energy'. A news release states:

For the first time, astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope were able to take advantage of a giant magnifying lens in space — a massive cluster of galaxies — to narrow in on the nature of dark energy. Their calculations, when combined with data from other methods, significantly increase the accuracy of dark energy measurements. This may eventually lead to an explanation of what the elusive phenomenon really is.

"We have to tackle the dark energy problem from all sides," said Eric Jullo, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It's important to have several methods, and now we've got a new, very powerful one." Jullo is lead author of a paper on the findings appearing in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal Science.

Scientists aren't clear about what dark energy is, but they do know that it makes up a large chunk of our universe, about 72 percent. Another chunk, about 24 percent, is thought to be dark matter, also mysterious in nature but easier to study than dark energy because of its gravitational influence on matter that we can see. The rest of the universe, a mere 4 percent, is the stuff that makes up people, planets, stars, and everything made up of atoms.

Dark matter in the cluster is mapped by plotting the plethora of arcs
produced by the light from background galaxies that is warped by the
foreground cluster's gravitational field. Dark matter cannot be
photographed, but its distribution is shown in the blue overlay.
The dark matter concentration and distribution is then used to better
understand the nature of dark energy, a pressure that is accelerating
the expansion of the universe.

In their new study, the science team used images from Hubble to examine a massive cluster of galaxies, named Abell 1689, which acts as a magnifying, or gravitational, lens. The gravity of the cluster causes galaxies behind it to be imaged multiple times into distorted shapes, sort of like a fun-house mirror reflection that warps your face.

Using these distorted images, the scientists were able to figure out how light from the more distant, background galaxies had been bent by the cluster — a characteristic that depends on the nature of dark energy. Their method also depends on precise ground-based measurements of the distance and speed at which the background galaxies are traveling away from us. The team used these data to quantify the strength of the dark energy that is causing our universe to accelerate.

"What I like about our new method is that it's very visual," said Jullo, "You can literally see gravitation and dark energy bend the images of the background galaxies into arcs."

There's more at the link.

That's pretty amazing! We're looking at a galaxy cluster over two billion light years away from Earth, so far away that no matter how good we may get at galactic exploration, it's unlikely the human race will ever reach it; yet even so, it's helping to reveal secrets of how our universe works. Mind-boggling, isn't it?


An early start to election shenanigans?

I see that Harris County in Texas (including the city of Houston) appears to be making an early run at the title of 'Voter Fraud Capital of the USA' for the 2010 mid-term elections.

First, a Houston non-profit organization allegedly submitted thousands of false and fraudulent voter registration forms, leading to the authorities investigating charges against it.

Next, all the voting machines for the county are destroyed in a mysterious fire.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman this morning said she is confident of timely, clean elections in November, even as a fire that destroyed the county's entire inventory of 10,000 electronic voting machines still burned.

. . .

Kaufman hopes to cobble together a collection of voting machines through loans from other counties and replacement equipment from its vendor, she said. All five members of Commissioners Court contacted her this morning to pledge their support in helping her with the resources needed to stage a successful election in which early voting begins in just 52 days, she said.

Kaufman encouraged people to vote early in person or by mail.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have a timely election here and that we’re going to take care of the voters," Kaufman said.

Houston Fire Department spokesman Patrick Trahan said arson investigators were at the scene of the fire, but no cause has been determined.

The three-alarm blaze started about 4:15 a.m. at the football field-size warehouse the county uses to store its election equipment. Firefighters extinguished the flames about four hours later.

No injuries were reported.

The county’s voting machines, including eSlate equipment, were stored at the nearly 27,000-square foot facility, county officials said.

There's more at the link.

One problem doesn't necessarily mean much. Two in rapid succession might be coincidence, although I doubt it. I'm waiting for a third problem to arise with voting in Harris County. If it does, I'll take it as pretty conclusive evidence that someone doesn't want an honest election in Houston this year.

Can any readers in the Houston area shed further light on this issue?


Ghost hunt goes wrong - new ghost added

I couldn't help but snort cynically at a news report from North Carolina.

A man who was with about a dozen people who were looking for a legendary "ghost train" in Iredell County was hit by a locomotive and killed early Friday morning.

. . .

The train was rounding a curve and approaching a trestle over Boston Creek just prior to Buffalo Shoals Road when it struck a man on the trestle, Chapman said.

Christopher Kaiser, 29, died at the scene and two more people were injured, according to Iredell County Sheriff Phillip Redmond. Kaiser's body was found below the trestle down a steep incline, he said.

The injured patients were airlifted to a local hospital. Their condition was not immediately known.

"During the investigation, witnesses told deputies they were at the site in hopes of seeing a 'ghost train'," the Iredell County sheriff's office said in a press release.

The sheriff said the incident coincided with the anniversary of a train wreck that occurred at the same location in 1891.

There's more at the link.

Let's see now. In all of recorded human history, there has never, repeat, never been a single verified, proven instance of 'ghosts' or 'haunting' or whatever.

Not one.

So, a dozen supposedly 'modern', 'educated' people decide to go walking along an active, in-use railway line, in the dead of night, in the hope that they're going to find something that anyone with half an ounce of common sense could tell them does not exist. Instead, they find an all too real train - or, rather, it finds them - and give its driver a permanent case of the shakes for hitting them (not that it was in any way his fault, of course). Way to go, idiots!

Oh, well . . . at least, if their daft ideas hold any water, there's now another 'ghost' at the site!



Thursday, August 26, 2010

An amazing piece of film history

In 1922, the newly-developed Kodachrome color film was being adapted to motion picture cameras. It wouldn't be ready for prime time until 13 years later, when the film Becky Sharp was made using the process; but it was sufficiently developed for testing. Some of the test footage survived, and has now been released.

According to Kodak's 'A Thousand Words' blog:

I learned that the flicker that you will see is a result of two different things. First, early cameras were hand cranked, or hand wound, to feed the film through. This could result in slight variations in speed. Second, there could be uneven densities in the film itself because of its age. These two physical characteristics combine to produce the "flicker" that you see. There are digital enhancements that can be made to address this but we thought it better to keep this in its original form.

I wonder, who were the ladies in this test? Were they Kodak employees? What kind of lives did they lead? Those questions are lost to the ages.

So without further adieu, here from 1922, a full 7 years before the first Academy Award ceremony, is some of the earliest color motion pictures that you will ever see.

That was kind of like time travel wasn't it? What did you think?

UPDATE March 11, 2010: This just in from friend and fellow film geek Mike C. more information on this piece of footage from a Silent Film Festival site. Well done!

"In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear.

George Eastman House is the repository for many of the early tests made by the Eastman Kodak Company of their various motion picture film stocks and color processes. The Two-Color Kodachrome Process was an attempt to bring natural lifelike colors to the screen through the photochemical method in a subtractive color system. First tests on the Two-Color Kodachrome Process were begun in late 1914. Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black/white negative stock, then made black/white separation positives. The final prints were actually produced by bleaching and tanning a double-coated duplicate negative (made from the positive separations), then dyeing the emulsion green/blue on one side and red on the other. Combined they created a rather ethereal palette of hues."

There's more at the link.

I find that film clip fascinating. It's amazing to think that we're looking at young women, now long dead, but then in the prime of their lives. I wonder if they thought, back then, that people as yet unborn would be looking at them in color, and wondering what their lives were like?


Ever heard of 'black rice'?

I hadn't, until I read a news report in the Daily Mail.

The cereal is low in sugar but packed with healthy fibre and plant compounds that combat heart disease and cancer, say experts.

Scientists from Louisiana State University analysed samples of bran from black rice grown in the southern U.S. They found boosted levels of water-soluble anthocyanin antioxidants.

Anthocyanins provide the dark colours of many fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries and red peppers. They are what makes black rice 'black'.

Black rice (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Research suggests that the dark plant antioxidants, which mop up harmful molecules, can help protect arteries and prevent the DNA damage that leads to cancer.

Food scientist Dr Zhimin Xu said: 'Just a spoonful of black rice bran contains more health promoting anthocyanin antioxidants than are found in a spoonful of blueberries, but with less sugar, and more fibre and vitamin E antioxidants.

'If berries are used to boost health, why not black rice and black rice bran? Especially, black rice bran would be a unique and economical material to increase consumption of health-promoting antioxidants.'

. . .

When rice is processed, millers remove the outer layers of the grains to produce brown rice or more refined white rice - the kind most widely consumed in the West.

Brown rice is said to be more nutritious because it has higher levels of healthy vitamin E compounds and antioxidants.

But according to Dr Xu's team, varieties of rice that are black or purple in colour are healthier still.

They added that black rice could also be used to provide healthier, natural colourants. Studies linked some artificial colourants to cancer and behavioural problems in children.

The scientists presented their findings today at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

There's more at the link.

I was intrigued by the report, particularly because I'd never heard of the stuff. A little searching found an article about it in Detroit's Metro Times, which stated:

So deeply purple the grains appear to be and are called black, this rice originated in China, has a nutty taste and aroma, is high in nutrients and gets its name from a legend that it was only grown for and consumed by Chinese emperors. There were rumors that these guys also fed it to their concubines because of its allegedly powerful aphrodisiac qualities.

Hmm. I don't know about aphrodisiac qualities . . . those have been claimed for almost everything under the sun at one time or another; and rhinoceros horn (for which wildly extravagant claims have been made in that department) at least looks the part, unlike black rice! Still, it's interesting to discover a food new to me. I'll have to look for some of this stuff, and try cooking with it.


Home at last!

I'm a very, very tired puppy. I've driven the best part of 4,000 miles during the past nine days, and whilst I might like to think I'm still as fit and energetic as I was three decades ago, I've got to admit that the years have taken their toll (not to mention my disabling injury six years ago, and my heart attack and bypass surgery last year). Still, I'm pleased I managed the trip.

I dropped off Oleg's firearms at his home, and collected a DVD of the pictures he took at Blogorado. A quick scan shows some great photographs. I'll put up a couple of them once I've had a chance to look at them in greater detail.

(Oh - a note to fellow Blogoraders [if that's a word!]; the missing P-22 turned up in - of all things - a box of assorted teas! I've no idea how it got there, but it's a relief to have found it.)

I'm going to put up a couple of posts, then hit the sack. Normal blogging routine should resume as of tomorrow night.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Inside a tornado

Environmental Graffiti has published an article with a number of video clips taken by security cameras, showing the impact of tornados 'up close and personal'. There are some remarkable views of the destruction they cause, filmed as it happened.

Here's just one of the clips they offer. (There's no soundtrack, so don't adjust your speakers.)

That's some amazing footage! There are more video clips at the link. Highly recommended viewing.


Doofus Of The Day #384

Today's award goes collectively to the Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council in South Wales, UK.

A cash-strapped council has been criticised for spending £190,000 [almost US $294,000] on a bridge - to allow dormice to cross the road safely.

Bosses at Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council in South Wales decided to erect three wire walkways above a new bypass to protect the rodent population.

Dormice will be able to use the bridge's specially reinforced meshed cages to cross the road safely.

They believe the interconnecting passages, which are suspended from 20ft wooden poles, will keep mice away from traffic when the full £90 million [about US $139 million] Church Village bypass between Pontypridd and Talbot Green opens next month.

But critics have said the cost of the project is 'obscene' and have accused the council of getting its priorities wrong.

. . .

Nichola Thomas, 34, who lives near the bypass route in Llantrisant, said: 'There are more pressing issues that the council could be spending money on.

'I find it absurd that they have spent such an obscene amount of cash on this.'

There's more at the link, including pictures of the 'bridge'.

Ye Gods and little fishes! In a time of national austerity, when every government body from local, through regional, to national, is struggling to make ends meet, the Council spends almost a quarter of a million dollars on
a bridge for pests??? That's what dormice are, after all, when they get into human habitation; and in the wild, they're hardly an endangered species, to put it mildly!

If the town or county council where I live decided to spend that much of their taxpayers' money on something so monumentally wasteful, I daresay many of the residents would attend their next meeting bearing tar and feathers - if not ropes!

Bureaucrats! Grrr!


So much for welfare . . .

Via The Unwanted Blog we learn of an interesting infuriating scam involving food stamps.

Would you be willing to exchange $86.79 for $24?

A pair of men at the Shaw’s supermarket on Main Street did just that on a recent Tuesday morning as they engaged in a food stamp scam funded by U.S. taxpayers.

After purchasing a reported 20 24-packs of bottled water, on sale that week for $2.99 a case before taxes and redemption fees were added, the men went behind the store to the loading dock and poured the contents of each bottle on the ground. Shortly thereafter, a reporter also witnessed the pair wheel their shopping cart into the vestibule of the store, feed the 480 bottles into a redemption machine and claim their cash value at the customer service counter.

In a ploy a number of the store’s employees describe as common, these men had found a way to turn their funds from the federally administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, into cold, hard cash, which can then be used to purchase items that do not meet the program’s guidelines. By doing so, they have poured tax dollars down the drain. And while Congress has outlawed the practice, change has been slow to come as the penalties for those found in violation have yet to be determined.

There's more at the link.

This really makes my blood boil. I know that many deserving people are dependent on food stamps to help make ends meet, and rely on them to feed their children. Scumbags like this who take advantage of the program to score quick cash (doubtless to buy a few rocks of crack, or beer, or something like that) make life difficult for everyone. Quite apart from those who'll use such incidents to argue for the total abolition of the program, the added administrative burden of putting in place checks to ensure that such abuses are caught (and, hopefully, punished) adds expense and layers of bureaucracy to an already overburdened welfare system.

I'd like to see some system in place whereby those convicted of such abuses are permanently barred from receiving any welfare benefits at all . . . but that might mean that their families would suffer. Anyone got any ideas to solve the problem without jeopardizing those who truly need assistance? Please share them with us in Comments.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Acrobatics on two wheels

I'm still on the road back from Blogorado, and won't be home until Thursday evening. I'll be putting up posts whenever I can, but full service is still a couple of days away.

Meanwhile, here's a fascinating video of some Chinese performers demonstrating that two wheels are eminently suitable as a platform for entertainment and gymnastics both!


Calorific catastrophe?

From JayG we learn of this gastronomic nightmare:

I wonder what the calorie count of that monstrosity might be? It might be worth keeping one handy, to offer to potential enemies before they turn violent. It'll probably blow their cholesterol levels off the charts!


Crime prediction software: an idea whose time has come?

I read a news report today (via Drudge) claiming that software capable of identifying and/or predicting those most likely to commit crimes was to be rolled out soon.

Developed by Richard Berk, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the software is already used in Baltimore and Philadelphia to predict which individuals on probation or parole are most likely to murder and to be murdered.

. . .

If the software proves successful, it could influence sentencing recommendations and bail amounts.

"When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is 'what level of supervision do you provide?'" said Berk.

It used to be that parole officers used the person's criminal record, and their good judgment, to determine that level.

"This research replaces those seat-of-the-pants calculations," he said.

. . .

Beginning several years ago, the researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 various crimes, including homicides. Using an algorithm they developed, they found a subset of people much more likely to commit homicide when paroled or probated. Instead of finding one murderer in 100, the UPenn researchers could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

Berk's software examines roughly two dozen variables, from criminal record to geographic location. The type of crime, and more importantly, the age at which that crime was committed, were two of the most predictive variables.

. . .

Scientifically, Berk's results are "very impressive," said Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany who is familiar with Berk's research.

Predicting rare events like murder, even among high-risk individuals, is extremely difficult, said Bushway, and Berk is doing a better job of it than anyone else.

But Berk's scientific answer leaves policymakers with difficult questions, said Bushway. By labeling one group of people as high risk, and monitoring them with increased vigilance, there should be fewer murders, which the potential victims should be happy about.

It also means that those high-risk individuals will be monitored more aggressively. For inmate rights advocates, that is tantamount to harassment, "punishing people who, most likely, will not commit a crime in the future," said Bushway.

There's more at the link. Very interesting reading.

Part of me is very concerned about the implications of this software for civil and human rights. I hate the thought that someone who's reformed, and who may be a very low risk for re-offending, might be highlighted by this software as a major risk, and therefore be subjected to much tighter and more intrusive monitoring than he might otherwise receive. Indeed, he might get so annoyed at the intrusion that he commits another crime almost as a way of 'getting his own back' on the system that he regards as oppressing him. I think this is a very real danger.

On the other hand, I've been a prison chaplain. Routinely we staff saw prisoners released whom we knew - knew, beyond a shadow of doubt - were still extremely dangerous to society. Their conduct behind bars, their attitude . . . everything about them screamed a warning to us: but we couldn't keep them incarcerated. They'd done their time, and no matter how sure we were that they still represented a danger to others, we weren't allowed to keep them behind bars.

If this computer system can somehow be used to independently identify such people, and the knowledge of corrections staff can be linked to its predictions, the combination might be a very effective tool to ensure that likely re-offenders are monitored so closely that their recidivism becomes almost impossible. Will this represent an invasion of their civil liberties? Yes, I'm afraid it will. Can it be justified? On strictly Constitutional grounds, no, I daresay it can't. Is it therefore wrong to employ such means? Only the courts can answer that . . . but I'd like to point out that in many states, a convicted felon automatically loses certain rights (e.g. the right to vote). Given such restrictions, should a felony conviction also carry with it the loss of the right to privacy, at least as far as likely re-offenders are concerned? I can't answer that . . . but I can recall seeing hardened offenders let go, and later reading about their arrest for committing the most violent, vicious and horrific crimes after their release.

What say you, readers? Is there any circumstance in which the use of such predictive software can be allowed to trump, or at least limit, one's human and Constitutional rights? If so, what circumstance(s)? If not, what alternative can you suggest to minimize the risk of re-offense? Let's hear your views in Comments.