Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not Your Usual Hobby

It's amazing what people do in their spare time. Some folks collect stamps, or go hiking, or, hell, do cross-stitch. Whatever. Something to make life a little more interesting. I write fiction. Some folks go further, doing something to change the world. I'm campaigning for Obama, for instance.

And then you get the weirdos. Consider a historian named Dee Brecheisen, for instance. What did he do that was so weird, you ask? Was he a snake charmer? Fire eater? Duct tape artist? Sock collector?

No, no, nothing like that at all. Those things would be too normal. No, Mr. Brecheisen collected civil war-era mummies and showed them off at home:

Or, more accurately, he was a grave robber of century-old burial sites.

Union troops had been stationed at Fort Craig, in New Mexico, in the 1880s to guard against Confederates and Indians, but the fortress had been abandoned and the location of its graveyard lost. Until, that is, Brecheisen found it, some time in the 1970's or '80's. Since then he has unearthed some 20 graves and stolen their contents, bodies and all.

But that's not the most disturbing thing. Apparently, at least some of these bodies and their possessions were displayed in his house. One historian friend of Brecheisen's, a guy named Don Alberts, visited the house 30 years ago and saw there the full mummified remains of an African-American Union soldier, "with patches of brown flesh clinging to facial bones." Did the friend DO anything about this? Did he report it to anyone? No.

Brecheisen: "Over here you can see my authentic collection includes a musket, a belt buckle, and, oh, the rotted remains of a corpse I dug up in the desert."

Alberts: "Oooh. Lovely. That's perfectly normal."

Brecheisen: "And next I'll show you my collection of Civil War hats…."

The skull of the soldier eventually wound up being stored in a brown paper bag.

When asked why Alberts hadn't reported his pal's macabre and illegal practice, he simply replied, "I didn't want to get a friend in trouble."

Goody for you, Don.

Sadly, Brecheisen recently died. All of his other "mementos" have been auctioned off by the family (apparently they didn't have any qualms about selling off body parts and stolen burial items, either).

Personally, I hope Brecheisen gets dug up a hundred years from now and displayed in someone's living room – and his head winds up in a paper bag.

It's good to have hobbies.

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Anti-Youth Device

I once had a chemistry professor who hated kids, including his college students. I first met Dr. Kopper just before the start of my freshman year, during a "pre-orientation" trip where he was one of the faculty chaperones. I happened to walk by when he was confessing his lack of ability to relate to the students to another faculty member and wishing he hadn't come along. Loser.

Well, Dr. Kopper would fully appreciate a device called the Mosquito (see picture), which has the sole purpose of chasing away youths by emitting a horrible, high-pitched whine at a frequency that people under 20 can hear, but people over 30 cannot:

That's right. If storeowners or old grumpy men don't want young people loitering around ('cuz, you know, all young people are up to no good!), they turn on the mosquito and the horrible shrieking chases the kids away. At 17.4 kHz at 85dB, folks older than 30 have lost just enough of their hearing by then that they can no longer hear it. Ingenious. Heck, we don't need young people around. We LIKE being old at heart, right?

The inventor of the product, Howard Stapleton, has sold some 4000 units of the device since he first tested it in 2005. Mostly in the U.K. From the very beginning, though, the product faced protests and bans. Nonetheless, it is still legal to use in most places.

Now it is facing yet another legal proceding:

When some grumpy child-hater in Brittany, France, mounted a unit on his house, some people around the neighborhood got sudden headaches, and children ran past the house holding their ears. I can just see some old guy laughing at them through the blinds.

The guy claimed to have mounted the unit after being the victim of vandalism. But now he's being sued by community members for using an "illicit sound weapon".

Personally, I'd rather have an anti-old fogie device.

Of course, teens being who they are, have turned this "mosquito alarm" to their advantage. They have created a ringtone on their cell phones at the same frequency. Thus, their phone can ring, but only they and their fellow students will hear it, and the teachers will not, and they can use the phones during class without the teacher knowing. Clever. They've even incorporated the sound into music so that only young people would "get it".

Damned kids! Get off my lawn! Where's my Mosquito….

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day! (Unless You're A Polar Bear)

I’d hate to be a polar bear these days.

My family recently went to the nearest zoo, where my young kids had a great time watching the very large polar bears frolicking in their pool, chewing on things like giant soccer balls, children’s play structures, and even a mannequin (!). The highlight for the kids, though, was watching the bears back up to the pool like a delivery truck and deposit there hot steaming piles of poop or streams of bright yellow pee. Eww! Great fun.

On this glorious Earth Day, where we concern ourselves with the well-being of our environment and animals, and the wild relatives of those two less-than-sanitary zoo animals, let us pause a moment to consider the plight of the polar bear.

In short, they are dying because the arctic ice is receding due to global warming (at a rate that surpasses even the most extreme models that scientists had predicted less than a decade ago). Polar bears require sea ice to hunt for seals, where the bears hang out at seal breathing holes and then ambush the blubbery animals. Yum! Without the sea ice, the bears starve. For the first time in centuries, as you may have heard, polar bears are being found dead due to starvation, and there are even reports of cannibalism.

Since this was discovered, a few years ago, environmental groups have been pressuring the Bush administration to take action to protect the polar bear and to reduce global warming through legislation. Not surprisingly, the President is less than interested, stalling protective status for the bears, moving forward with increasing off-shore drilling rights in polar bear habitat, and doing the usual oil-industry friendly activities that belch forth lots of carbon emissions. This despite his supposed change of stance toward Global warming.

Now those environmental groups have taken their appeals to the federal court system:

These groups are now suing the Bush administration to force them to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Protection Act. From the article:

“The Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear due to global warming was initiated with a scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace. In December, 2005, these groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the petition. As a result of that first lawsuit, in February 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in that case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 27, 2007, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as "threatened." By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The decision is now more than 2 months overdue.”

“To date, the government has received approximately 670,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress.”

Gee, what’s a polar bear to do? They can’t all live and poop in cushy zoo pools, can they?

Happy Earth Day. Now take a hike, and if you get cold, just think how much polar bears would like it to stay that way.

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How Many Farts Does It Take To Make A Tornado?

Apparently, not many. That is, if you do it at just the right time and place.

This week, Edward Norton Lorenz died:

Why is this notable? Because Dr. Lorenz is an early researcher in Chaos Theory who came up with a mathematical principle called the Butterfly Effect.

What is The Butterfly Effect? No, I'm not talking about that singularly horrible B sci-fi movie made a few years ago, or its even worse sequel. I'm talking about the mathematical theory that very small changes early on in a system, such as "the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil" could lead to extreme repercussions later in that system, such as "a tornado in Texas."

Lorenz was a meteorologist (and previously an Army Air Corps weather forecaster during WWII) who was trying to use mathematical models to make long-range forecasts of wind currents. One day back in 1961, Lorenz ran a computer simulation that he had run before (using one of those early, building-sized computers) and got a completely different result than he had the first time. Very surprising, since he had thought everything had been entered exactly the same. It turns out that this time he had rounded the number 0.506127 to 0.506, a 0.1% difference.

Some people would shrug that off, re-enter the correct number, and continue on with their work. I've known lab rats like that. But Lorenz was among the few who could see this result and realize the great significance of it. What he had stumbled upon was proof that very small changes, like a seemingly minor increase in temperature or wind speed and direction, could cause profound weather deviations down the line, perhaps in a totally different part of the world. This factor was dubbed the "Lorenz Attractor."

For example, if you start a ball rolling at the top of a hill, but it is at only a very slightly different position, it will likely wind up at a very different position at the bottom. Or if a seagull flapped its wings at just the right time and place in Brazil, the change it created in the wind could lead to a tornado in Texas (to use his examples). These sorts of things have been demonstrated in simulations again and again, including with the newest supercomputers. The movie "It's A Wonderful Life" illustrates this principle, in a more sappy, cultural manner (I cry everytime when George Bailey's brother makes that toast at the end!).

So, let me see if I understand: if a plaza full of Germans eating Octoberfest sauerkraut, brautworst, and beer suddenly let loose with a cloud of warm gas (from whichever end you choose), the sudden change in heat and wind could cause a cascade of events that leads to winds that rip across the Atlantic and belch up a hurricane that ravages America?

Damned Germans. I knew it! They caused Hurricane Katrina!

That's it! I'm throwing out my laderhosen.

Of course, those "Lorenz Attractors" can prevent devient weather, too.

And as for Dr. Lorenz, he led a very active life, with many awards, scholarly papers, and academic achievements, most of which seem to revolve around the later refinements of his initial discovery. You could say his personal "Butterfly Effect" was his own discovery of the Butterfly Effect, if that makes any sense. His Butterfly Effect theory has led to a better understanding of seemingly random events that can drastically change our weather – more important now than ever with global warming – and has been used in science fields far beyond meteorology.

He was an avid sportsman, even into old age. But cancer finally claimed him a few days ago, on April 16. He died at home in Cambridge, with family, having finished yet another paper only a week before. He was 90 years old.

Thank you for your contributions, Dr. Lorenz. And I'm glad to hear that your death wasn't a chaotic one. I just wonder what that last breath of yours did to the weather.

Images taken from HERE and HERE.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bush's New Stance

I'm shaking my head right now, and that's never a good sign.

Yesterday, President Bush announced in a press conference that halting global warming was a priority for his administration and urged other nations to develop measures to fight climate change:

Please excuse me, I need to run to the other room so that my laughter doesn't shatter the computer monitor and my tears don't short-circuit the keyboard.

Is he feeling okay? Is the prozac finally kicking in, or did another pretzel go down the wrong way?

This is the man who coined the term "junk science" to describe his opinion of years of tedious and well-formulated scientific findings from thousands of researchers all over the world who came to the conclusion that man-made pollutants were changing the world climate. The man who refused to include the United States, the world's worst polluter for carbon emissions, in the Kyoto Treaty. The man who put oil profits ahead of environmental legislation, and even put oil industry notables into key positions overseeing our nation's environment.

So far we've seen seven years of big-ass SUVs on the roads, a war over oil fields, huge cuts in research funding for areas of environmental studies and alternative energy sources, and record-smashing profits for oil companies. When Bush took office, a gallon of regular unleaded cost between $1.40 and $1.60. When I filled up my car a few days ago, at $3.50 a gallon, it cost me nearly $50.

And now, after years of melting glaciers, state-sized chunks of ice breaking off Antarctica and the arctic ice sheets, the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage in the summer for the first time in history, starving polar bears, bleaching coral reefs, and worldwide tours by one notable but very geeky ex-vice-president-turned-Nobel-laureate, our nation's Denier-in-Chief has suddenly changed his tune?

Hell, I'm glad Bush is finally acknowledging what the rest of the world's science community considers obvious, but how could we possibly take him seriously? It's too little, too late, especially for a lame duck who is drowning in scandal and oil.

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Don't Touch My Cola No Matter How Thirsty You Are

Here's a question for you: If you were really thirsty, and there was an ice-cold six-pack of your favorite soda that was seemingly abandoned in your work lunchroom refrigerator, would you help yourself to a can? What if no one else was in the building? What if the six-pack had been left untouched in there for weeks? Is it really stealing if no one seems to care if you take them? I have to confess, I'd be tempted.

What if, instead of a six-pack of pop, it was a plate of $1 bills?

I probably wouldn't touch them.

I once did some backpacking in the wilderness of Idaho a couple of sweltering summers. Just before leaving for a one-week hitch into the woods, with a forty-pound pack on my back, I left a six-pack of ice-cold cokes in the fridge of the bunkhouse where I was staying. By the time I got back, lean and sweating and ready to collapse, all of the cokes were gone. I was pissed off! No one confessed to this dastardly crime.

Here's another one for you: If you had to choose between making someone suffer quickly or slowly, which would you choose? Let me put it another way: When you take the band-aids off your kids, do you do it slowly or do you rip it off? I'm more of a "rip it off" kinda guy.

An Israeli researcher at MIT named Dan Ariely is exploring these very sorts of scruples:

He argues in his new book, "Predictably Irrational", that these seemingly irrational decisions people make about ethics is actually predictable, and he has tests to show it. The examples I gave above were two of the sorts of questions. The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list since February 19.

His results, in a nutshell: People start out with good intentions, but life experiences lead them to cheat just enough to get away with it, or to make irrational decisions that seem to justify their mindsets, often in a predictable and economically-driven way.

I think we'd all like to think we are very ethical people. I do. But if it's a hot, hot day in the middle of summer, there's a wet six-pack of cola sitting in that fridge, and the owner of that coke has been gone for a week, wouldn't you reach out for a cold one? You can pay him back later, right?

Go on. Take a sip. I won't tell. They'll never know it was you ….

Image taken from HERE, stolen without conscience.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Insert Foot In Mouth Disease

If your government is working on a highly-contagious virus that could threaten to wipe out massive numbers of cattle and other hooved animals, wouldn't you want it to be done in some location far, far away from other cattle? Say, a remote island?

Well, that's been the case for the last 50 years. Plum Island, out on the Long Island sound, has been the main research facility for Hoof and Mouth Disease (also known as Foot and Mouth Disease), for America, as well as Mexico and Canada (see picture).

But now the Bush Administration wants to move the facility to a mainland location:

Oh, but hey, our government must surely take all the reasonable precautions. I mean, being a contagious cattle disease that, if released into the general bovine population would spell the needless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cattle, won't this new facility will be located in some wilderness far beyond the reach of cattle farms? Right?

No, actually. According to a recent Congressional hearing on the topic, each of the five sites that they are considering, according to the article, are within range of between 132,900 and 542,507 cattle.

But they'll be careful. They'll have all the safeguards. Or will they?

It was revealed in that congressional hearing that the Plum Island facility, considered to be one of the nation's foremost top-level containment units, has had numerous accidents and releases of virus, one of which infected cattle outside of the facility in holding pens. Hoof and Mouth disease is so contagious that it can travel on the breath of worker, on their clothes, on their cars. In 2002, a simulation showed that an outbreak of the virus could potentially infect tens of millions of cows, leading to widespread food shortages, rioting, and a 25-mile-long trench to bury all the slaughtered cows.

The poor cows that get this disease experience painful mouth sores and hoof blisters that swell and burst, then can become infected. Eeesh. And I thought my occasional canker sores were painful.

And why are they moving the facility? Fear over being able to protect Plum Island against terrorists. Hillary Clinton was one of the ones who voiced this fear. Control of the island was recently put in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. I tell you, with all the over-reaction to terrorism (two wars, illegal wiretapping, data mining, waterboarding, screenings at airports, etc etc), I'd say the terrorists have succeeded in their goals of disrupting the American Way. Let's not make it worse, shall we? And, may I add, I am a little leary of decisions about human and animal health issues that seem driven more by politics than science.

Now, I have a great deal of respect for Hillary (although I'm voting for Obama), but I am FAR more afraid of our government's inefficiency and the potential for mistakes by my fellow lab rats than I am of any zealous bin Laden followers.

Get real, Bush. Let's keep the virus off-shore.

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

It's Time My Children Went Deaf

I've decided my children need to be deaf. Tomorrow I'm going to ruin their hearing forever.

No, I'm not kidding. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, though. Ice pick to the ear drum? No, too bloody. How about playing Iron Maiden at volume level ten on my stereo system, shoving their tender little ears up to the speakers. No, that won't work. They won't stay still long enough. I know! I'll take them swimming and give them a serious case of swimmer's ear, then pack their ears with ear wax harvested from my own auricular orifices via ear candles. Yeah, that's the ticket. That way it will seem "natural", and I will only be accused of neglecting to take them to the doctor as their ear drums swell and burst.

Are you horrified yet? Has our bombed-out, economically-depressed, Paris Hilton-ized culture not yet ruined your sense of ethics and numbed you beyond gross fear and loathing? No? Is it just because I'm talking about maiming my children?

Ah, but wait! If they were deaf, my little 2 and 3 year old babies would be part of a fantastic subculture of deaf people, able to learn the mysterious ways of sign language, and partake in a rich milieu of disability-turned-sense-of-self with their other deaf friends. Why, they would have an "identity".

You wouldn't think this could happen in the modern world, right? Not if the sensible government of England has its way.

A couple in the United Kingdom wants to have the right to purposely choose an embryo, through in vitro fertilization, which is deaf like them:

That's right. This couple wants to purposely choose an embryo that, like them, will have a genetic profile that indicates it will be deaf. Says the husband (who has the unlikely yet gustatory name of Tomato Lichy): "The core issue is that the government is saying deaf people are not equal to hearing people," he told the BBC via an interpreter. They are "profoundly grateful" to have a deaf child already. Now they want another one.

It's eugenics in reverse.

What bugs me, though, is that Mr. Tomato Lichy is assuming that a hearing child would not be able to be a member of her father's deaf subculture.

I've blogged on this in the past, a little more than a year ago. Now the UK is likely going to pass the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill, which, among other things, would make it illegal to purposely choose an embryo with a disability. The tiny minority of deaf people who, like our friend Tomato, actually wish to select a child like them will have an even harder time making their diabolical wish come true. They are calling it discrimination.

Oh, but please don't get me wrong. I know deaf people have a subculture. I can respect that. I even tried to learn American Sign Language once, and I've had friends who were legally deaf, but none of them ever expressed a wish to have children who, like them, would never be able to hear the bus bearing down on them, or the bear leaping at them in the woods, or the latest slaughtering of your favorite elevator music by star wannabes on American Idol (I'm not sure which of these is really the worst way to spend an evening).

Careful, you English Lords. You tread a fine line there regarding how you define "disabled" or "unhealthy". Sure, deafness seems an easy thing to label as disabled, but how "disabled" is disabled? Would having a gene for heart conditions count? Cancer? Irritable bowel? Acid reflux? And just because there's a genetic profile, the body doesn't always pay attention to it. Having a bad gene only increases your chances.

Is my purposeful deafening of my children really any different from dooming a child-to-be to a life of silence, just to satisfy its parents' sense of self? Would that embryo have any more say than my kids would?

Hmm. On second thought, maybe I won't ruin my kids' hearing. I'll wait and let them do it to themselves in their teen years, with whatever future form of iPod ear speakers are being used at that time. They'll just have to wait for that marvelous subculture that Tomato Lichy and his reverse-eugenics friends love so dearly. How heartless and cruel of me not to understand.

And as for Mr. Tomato's next child, I feel sorry for the baby if she isn't deaf, whatever way she comes into the world.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Disappearing Car Door

Do you tire of the same old car doors? Those bulky, swinging slugs of metal? Why, it's so last century! Are your rich friends struggling to keep up with your techno gadgets? Have you ever had the desire to make your expensive luxury vehicle look even more like a Star Trek shuttlecraft?

Now a company called Jatech has the answer for you – the Rotary Drop Door:

Step out of your car in style as you pull up to your friends, then your car door slides smoothly downward, folding underneath the car so that you can step out like a pimp and bask in their awe.

The link above has a really cool video of the doors in action. Jatech basically retrofits already-existing car designs by removing the factory-made doors and replacing them with a design that folds down and under the car body, thus they seem to disappear.

Sure, Delorian sports cars may have had those cool wing-like doors, but they never really caught on, did they? The new Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 has doors that swing upward and forward. Nice, but like the Delorian, you'd better have high ceilings in your garage. Same goes for the Ferrari Enzo, which takes up even more room. And then there's the Hungarian-made Kenguru, which only has a back hatch (and room for only one wheelchair-bound driver!). But this is the first car door design that is made to "disappear" into the car body that I know of.

Jatech doesn't reveal the cost of retrofitting your vehicle for their rotary drop door design, but I'm wondering how many Smart Cars, for instance, you could purchase for the same cost (each Smart Car starts at about $11,000).

And what benefit is this amazing miracle of auto design? Oh, sure, the makers say in their little video that it "saves on parking space" by removing the need for space for a swinging door, that it prevents car-door "dings", and that it makes getting in and out of the car more convenient. But let's face it, having this way cool design is just plain kick-ass, gets lots of looks, and gets you that much closer to getting laid.


Image taken from HERE.