Monday, August 31, 2009

The Skunk Works: Why Doesn't Everybody Work This Way?

Skunk Works
Lockheed Martin

"The Skunk Works® was formed in June of 1943 in Burbank, Calif. The Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its need for a jet fighter. A rapidly growing German jet threat gave Lockheed an opportunity to develop an airframe around the most powerful jet engine that the allied forces had access to, the British Goblin. ... One month after the ATSC and Lockheed meeting, a young engineer by the name of Clarence L. 'Kelly' Johnson and other associate engineers hand delivered the initial XP-80 proposal to the ATSC...

"...The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; some four months after work had already begun...."

The idea of finding competent, reliable people, telling them what needs to be done, and getting out of the way worked. And, still does.

There are (or can be) reasons for filling out forms, building consensus, and counting the paper clips: but it seems easy for a large company to use the Dilbert comic strip as the inspiration for its organization.

Although the Skunk Works® isn't as tangled in red tape as most outfits, there are a few rules. 14 of them: "Kelly's 14 Rules."

They seem to boil down to this:
  • If it needs to be done
    • Do it
    • With as few people as necessary
  • Document
    • Really important work
    • As little of everything else as possible
  • Communicate
  • Delegate
  • Trust
  • Define specifications up front or
    • Say which ones have to be filled in later
There's more detail - but, typically, about as much as necessary to define what the rules mean: and no more.

Sounds Like a Great Place to Work

I've worked in places that are more like Dilbert's company than the Skunk Works®.

I don't know why more companies don't do business this way. I suppose it's partly because you need self-starters to make that sort of system work, and not everybody works well that way. Partly, I think, it's because people with issues about control and trust sometimes get into management positions.

And I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to it than that. As John Muir wrote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

(("My First Summer in the Sierra" John Muir, 1911) - You may have seen it as "Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe." I prefer Muir's emphasis on "by itself" as contrasted to "everything else in the universe.")

Family Reunion: Vinegar and Garlic Bring Father, Son Together

"In China, a U.S. adopted teen finds his roots"
CNN (August 30, 2009)

"His father and uncle fall to the ground, crying uncontrollably. After 11 years of not knowing, relief of finding a child they thought had been lost forever pours out of them.

"That child is Christian Norris -- he's 17 now and he stood there unmoved as his father and uncle wept; perhaps because to him both men are distant memories.

" 'I don't really remember my dad that much,' Christian said quietly 'I just remember my uncle, who raised me much of the time.'

"His low-key, almost stone-faced demeanor was in stark contrast to his father Jin Gaoke. 'There are no words to describe the joy I felt when I saw him. He is like a piece of flesh from my own body.'..."

Which, of course, he quite literally is: just as my children got half their genes from me.

"...Christian set this day in motion three years ago when he asked his adopted mother Julia Norris to find his Chinese family; a search from Maryland in the United States, to a remote village in central China, which would eventually involve hundreds of China's savvy Internet users...."

The CNN article tells how Christian Norris's adopted mother and other investigators followed a cold trail back to northern China.

Jiacheng/Christian had been six when his parents sent him to live with an uncle's family: a side effect of China's 'one child' policy. Young Jiancheng had been told that his relatives were foster parents - as part of a cover story, or for another reason. He got lost at a bus station, on a visit to his parents, was eventually found and placed in an orphanage: and eventually adopted. Julia Norris had been told that Jiacheng's parents had abandoned or relinquished him.

It's a remarkable human-interest story; and an interesting, if brief, look at how Jiachng's birth family was found. One thing that put investigators on the right track was what his favorite foods were (like vinegar and garlic), and what he remembered his parents growing on their farm.

Two Entrepreneurs; Cheap, Fast, Simple Tools, and a Bit of Philosophizing

"The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine"
(August 24, 2009)

"In 2001, Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein noticed a quirk in the camera market. All the growth was in expensive digital cameras, but the best-selling units by far were still cheap, disposable film models. That year, a whopping 181 million disposables were sold in the US, compared with around 7 million digital cameras. Spotting an opportunity, Kaplan and Braunstein formed a company called Pure Digital Technologies and set out to see if they could mix the rich chocolate of digital imaging with the mass-market peanut butter of throwaway point-and-shoots..."

Turns out, they could. And, they were quite successful at it. If you only looked at number of sales. They were selling the cameras at 'way below cost, and had counted on customers turning the cameras in to get prints and a CD.

The customers didn't. So stores weren't sending the cameras back, the company couldn't refurbish the units for another sale: and customers were presumably content looking at their photos on a little 1.4-inch LCD.


Or, a learning experience.

Kaplan and Braunstein noticed a gap, over video camera sales. They came up with an inferior - no doubt about that - video camera. That
  • Was at a price people
    • Were willing to pay or
    • Could afford
  • Worked, within its narrow design limits
  • Was simple to use
Creating a product like that must have been very contra-intuitive to the makers of those high-end, high-definition, image-stabilized, digital-zoomed video units with features most users never discovered, and a download procedure that was marginally simpler than repairing a V-8, back in the fifties.

Those two weren't the only savvy entrepreneurs on the planet.

"...Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs. The low end has never been riding higher...." That's not quite a quarter of the way through the article. It runs to five pages on Wired's website: apparently an uncut copy of a traditional hardcopy magazine article.

I'm a bit more interested in the business aspect that's discussed: but there's plenty more, about the sort of "cheap, fast, simple tools" and the 'good enough' outlook they represent.

High-End, All the Features, is Nice: But - - -

Quite a few years ago I read a column by a knowledgeable, concerned aficionado of fine computers. He was incensed. For most of a page he explained how selfish, how wrong it was for people to not go out and buy new technology: just as soon as it was available.

He was reasonable, as I recall, realizing that it an all-new computer design wouldn't be available every month. But at least, he apparently felt, people should be out there, buying the peripherals.

I saw his point.

The information technology industry funds research by selling information technology. When the customers don't buy, money for research doesn't come, and new technologies take longer to develop.

I'd love to be able to follow the columnist's sage advice.

Thing is, although I like high-end technology, I've got champagne tastes on a beer budget. No complaints about that: Years ago I made decisions that I knew would result - barring miracles - in my making less money than I could. (It paid off big time: I married a remarkable woman, four of our kids survived, and one of them is getting married this week.)

Not Everybody is Alike - Aint' it Great?

Maybe almost all the people you know own Bentleys and Lambos, but use an old 2007 Audi A8 for driving around town; if you wonder what people who don't go to Telluride, St Moritz or Solang Valley do when they want to ski; you've heard of Walmarts but never actually seen one; and you like to stay on top of state-of-the-art technology. In that case, buying the latest, best equipment sounds like a good idea.

I have no problem with people who have more money than they need to stay clothed, fed, and sheltered spending the extra on - extras.

But, except for a (very) few people whose job or profession require top-of-the-line performance - or a swanky label on the box to impress clients - most of us get by pretty well with equipment that's pretty good.

Not the best, not the latest: but something that gets the job done.

Me? I'm working with a computer that's a decade old: I was able to afford a really good machine then, and got it. Good thing, too, since it'll be a while before I can afford any sort of replacement. No complaints: but I'm sure glad that others have what it takes to buy the latest and best. Somebody's gotta foot the bill for research and development, you know.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Swine Flu / Influenza A(H1N1) - Epidemic in Japan, New Virulent Strain, and Two Cases Down the Street: Now it's Personal

"WHO warns of severe form of swine flu"
Reuters India (August 29, 2009)

"Doctors are reporting a severe form of swine flu that goes straight to the lungs, causing severe illness in otherwise healthy young people and requiring expensive hospital treatment, the World Health Organization said Friday.

Some countries are reporting that as many as 15 percent of patients hospitalized with the new H1N1 pandemic virus need intensive care, further straining already overburdened healthcare systems, WHO said in an update on the pandemic...

"...Earlier, WHO reported that H1N1 had reached epidemic levels in Japan, signaling an early start to what may be a long influenza season this year, and that it was also worsening in tropical regions.

" 'Perhaps most significantly, clinicians from around the world are reporting a very severe form of disease, also in young and otherwise healthy people, which is rarely seen during seasonal influenza infections,' WHO said.

" 'In these patients, the virus directly infects the lung, causing severe respiratory failure. Saving these lives depends on highly specialized and demanding care in intensive care units, usually with long and costly stays.'..."

There's quite a bit more to the Reuters article: It's not particularly hard to read, although the language gets a tad technical in spots - unavoidable in discussing a disease, its symptoms, and probable effects.

Panic in the Streets? Not Here

I suppose by Monday evening there'll be more op ed pieces about fear-mongering and public hysteria.

Of which there has been some. Last spring, hog farmers in Egypt were pretty agitated. The Egyptian government, reacting to no swine flu cases - at all - in the country, started slaughtering pigs. (April 30, 2009)

I'd say that was more government hysteria than public hysteria. Not Egypt's finest hour.

Pig farming is a big part of the local economy - and, so far, Washington hasn't freaked out and ordered them all killed. And, although I'm pretty sure that a few of the 4,000 or so people who live in town are agitated about swine flu, I've yet to see anything I'd call "hysteria."

On the other hand, several people at the school down the street got infected with H1N1 over the summer. Two have been hospitalized. The school district explained that the infected group was just that: a group. And, that reasonable precautions have been taken - so parents don't need to worry about sending their kids to school on September 8.

And, yes: school opening is going according to schedule.

From what's in the public accounts, it sounds reasonable.

Granted, our youngest child will be home schooled starting this year - but that's been on the agenda for over a year. Our oldest started home schooling - at the request of the school - in 7th grade, and it's worked so well that we've given each of the kids the option. So far it's 4/4 for home schooling.

Back to that Reuters Article

People with asthma and diabetes may be at higher risk from this mutant flu - which makes it a bit personal for me. I've got diabetes, and several members of the extended family have asthma.

Interestingly, WHO hasn't found that people with AIDS are at a higher-than-usual risk from this years swine flu / H1N1.

What's in a Name? WHO's settled on H1N1

I see that WHO is calling the pandemic 'H1N1' - which is good enough for me. Labels are handy things: more so when they're consistently used.

WHO's updating its home page for H1N1: "Pandemic (H1N1) 2009." This is one of the better online resources I've found: for relatively current, pertinent, and plausible information about the pandemic.

In Japan, make that "the epidemic." They're not having a good time there, according to Reuters.

List of posts relating to Swine flu 2009; and list of background resources:

An 'It'll Do' Website About Landscaping

Updated (August 31, 2009)

Designer (profile not available) took the time to write a comment, pointing out some some apparent inconsistencies between this micro-review and the website. I've been unable to add the information, as suggested by Designer, since wasn't online when I checked, shortly after 9:00 a.m. this morning.
"The Landscape Design Site"
"Do It Yourself Landscape Design"

"The following pages focus on what you need to know to successfully and easily create your own finished landscape design without hiring a designer or landscaping contractor.

"You'll be exposed to some real professional knowledge, advice, tips, recomendations[!], and do-it-yourself landscape resources and pictures...."

Okay: It's a commercial website, for Steve Boulden / S&S Designed Landscaping in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I'm pretty sure that Mr. Boulden would like you to pay for his services. And, it's not the best-designed or maintained website on the planet. It was last updated a year ago, I had to click past a couple pages on my way to 'pictures' - and only one of the three links I clicked sent me to the external site it was supposed to.

That said, I think this could be a pretty good place to start, for someone who was planning a rather ambitious makeover of their lawn. There's a fair amount of text with what appears to be pretty good, general set of advice and ideas.

If I were starting a project like that, I wouldn't end my online search there, though. There's a lot more online: I suggest going to Google and tying in 'landscape design' - without the quotes.

That's if I were starting a project. This family doesn't have a lawn: we've got a yard. Which, considering our four kids and the size of the extended family, is just as well. It's nice to have a largish swath of grass, trees, and shrubs with a 'lived in' look.

"The future ain't what it used to be." Probably Just as Well

"I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life."
George Burns, US actor & comedian (1896 - 1996)
The Quotations Page

"The future ain't what it used to be."
Yogi Berra, US baseball player, coach, & manager (1925 - )
The Quotations Page

"Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present."
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, 200 A.D.[!], Roman Emperor, A.D. 161-180 (121 AD - 180 AD)
The Quotations Page

Since I was born during the Truman administration, I've been living in 'The Future' for a couple of decades now. We still don't have flying cars or atomic toothbrushes: but we do have the Web, blogs, and hundreds of cable television channels. And people are still the same maddeningly obtuse, refreshingly insightful, energetic, lazy, creative and dull lot they've been all my life.

I enjoyed reading those quips by George Burns and Yogi Berra. They both made good points. I think Marcus Aurelius Antoninus has a good point too. I've met people, off and on, over the years who seemed quite convinced that Terrible Things would make The Future unbearable. That's been a somewhat fashionable point of view for quite some time now.

Sure, we've got problems. But that's nothing new. Plato wrote about Socrates' concerns about a dangerous new information technology, a plague swept the Roman Empire while Marcus Aurelius was Emperor, and a thousand years ago half of my ancestors were enduring raids from the other half.

And yet, we're still here.

I don't think I'm complacent about what hasn't happened yet: but I don't think getting jittery makes sense, either.

Related posts:

Henri Matisse: a Pretty Good Set of Biographical Information

Henri Matisse
  • Born: 31 December 1869
  • Birthplace: Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France
  • Died: 3 November 1954
  • Best Known As: French artist and leader of the Fauve movement
"Henri Matisse is considered the most important French artist of the 20th century and, along with Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential modernist painters of the last century. Matisse began studying drawing and painting in the 1890s. A student of the masters of Post-Impressionism, Matisse later made a reputation for himself as the leader of a group of painters known as Les Fauves. An ironic label given to them by a critic (it means "wild beasts"), the name reflected Matisse's aggressive strokes and bold use of primary colors...."

That's how the page on Henri Matisse starts. Most of the information's what you'll pick up elsewhere online - although has, I think, one of the more thorough and accessible collections of text and pictures.

I was particularly interested in a paragraph at the end of's copy of a Wikipedia page:

"...Henri Matisse's grandson, Paul Matisse, is an artist and inventor living in Massachusetts. Matisse's great granddaughter Sophie Matisse is active as an artist in 2009. Les Heritiers Matisse functions as his official Estate. The U.S. copyright representative for Les Heritiers Matisse is the Artists Rights Society...."

The links on led back to pages (fair enough - they like to generate internal traffic). I did a quick search and found the URL for Artists Rights Society:


Artists Rights Society uses the acronym ARS - probably inspired by "ars longa, vita brevis", attributed to Hippocrates: or, 'Life is fleeting, but art endures.' ("The Trouble with Art" Ronald R. Thomas) And ARS is in New York City: N. Y.: so a good, memorable URL for the outfit is - until someone pronounces it.

Getting back to Henri Matisse.

I was glad to learn that his descendants, some of them, are keeping up the sort of creative work that Henri Matisse did.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Incredible Dancing Parrot, Frostie

"Frostie Dancing To Shake Your Tail Feather! Bird Loves Ray Charles!"

"Frostie The Funniest Dancing Bird On This Planet jives to the Blues Brothers & Ray Charles hit from their Difinitive [!] Collection Album! Frostie is a 20-year-old Bare-Eyed Cockatoo, otherwise...."

OnePickieChickie, YouTube (February 01, 2009)
video 2:42

This 'dancing bird' video is actually rather good. I think the "Funniest Dancing Bird On This Planet" has to be taken as a subjective statement.

On the other hand, this bird is good. I don't know how Frostie learned to dance: but I've seen worse choreography.


Solar Trees Top (Some) California Parking Lots

"Sun shades cool parking lots, pump out solar energy"
(May 29, (probably 2008))

"Add up all the asphalt parking lots surrounding the nation's malls, offices and commuter hubs, and there’s more than enough blacktop to pave over Connecticut. Envision Solar International hopes to tranform [!}those barren expanses into green-energy oases by erecting forests of 'solar trees'. About 12 feet tall, each 'tree' is capped with a 1,000 sq-ft canopy covered in solar cells...."

There are a couple of photos that show what the 'trees' look like. If that 1,000 square foot figure is accurate, each 'tree' is a bit over 31 feet on a side - assuming that they're square.

I like this idea. It's off-the-shelf technology, essentially nothing more than solar panels set on top of outsized carports.

I also like the common-sense economics involved. The article explains how Envision plans to make money by planing these 'trees.'

Techie Trellises: Really Green Buildings

"8-Story Antigravity Forest Facade Takes Root"
Wired Magazine (August 24, 2009)

"When Patrick Blanc was a boy, he suspended plants from his bedroom wall and ran their roots into a fish tank. The greenery received nourishment from the diluted - ahem - fertilizer and purified the water in return. Forty-five years on, the French botanist's gardens have grown massive in scale. One inside a Portuguese shopping mall is larger than four tennis courts, and there's one in Kuwait that's almost as big. But Blanc's recently completed facade for the Athenaeum hotel in London (shown) could be his most high-profile project yet. Looming over Green Park, it's an eight-story antigravity forest composed of 12,000 plants...."

There are about a half-dozen photos with the article, showing the vertical gardens.

Nit-picking time: "antigravity forest" is a stretch. Yes, it's unusual to see a landscaping project running up the side of a building on a high-tech trellis: but there's no breakthrough physics involved here: just a somewhat techie twist on the old idea of encouraging plants to shelter our buildings.

There's a little discussion of the technology involved - and how plants are selected for this unusual treatment.

The basic idea is very smart, I think: What's not mentioned in the Wired article is that the plants stop sunlight from reaching the walls of a building. In climates where solar heating is a problem during some seasons - like Minnesota in summer - keeping buildings in the shade like this could mean big savings on air conditioning.

Besides: those uber-tall trellises look cool.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Photo of an Old Winery: Undocumented, Undescribed, but Still Cool

"the old winery"

"© Sven Fennema"

That's it: that's all the text there is, apart from stock text about using the website's services, and telling our friends about it.

I'd like to know where the winery is, what it's called, how old it is, what sort of camera was used, and a thousand and one other details: but it's still a cool photo.

A Really Big, Flexible Colored Pencil Set

"felissimo's 500 colored pencil set for social designer"
design boom (on or before August 21, 2009)

"designed by felissimo for social designer this complete set of 500 colored pencils consists of 20 units, each pencil telling its own story with a unique name. you cannot buy the complete set of pencils all at once, but you can receive them over the course of 20 months. four different display methods..."

The lack of capitalization shows that this is a very creative and sophisticated post. the e e cummings thing you know i wonder if it s more haute when you don t use punctuation either

The first comment was: "Stupid and boring."

I must have low standards. I thought the 500-pencil set looked cool. I have no use for that many colored pencils: but I can see how a commercial artist might want something like this as a combination display and tool for the office.

I suspect the pencil set is intended at least as much as a visual accent for a room, as a practical tool for artists and designers. Which is okay.

And Now, for Something Completely Different: a South Korean Girl Group Music Video

This is, by my standards, fun, cheerful, with pretty good music and choreography. As someone said, 'it brings a smile.' Or something like that.


jazzin09, YouTube (April 27, 2008)
video 4:51

I'd never heard of Girls' Generation before - possibly because my command of Korean is extremely sketchy at best - and consists of terms used in Soo Bahk Do. One of my kids was watching this video, I started asking questions, and found this (higher-quality) copy on YouTube.

I gather that Girls' Generation has fans and unfans: the latter regarding the group as a girl-group copy of some specific boy-group. That may be true, but I don't see the problem.

My guess is that it's not all that hard to tell the difference between the two groups: After a certain age, it's hard to not notice the difference between boys and girls.

And, although I'm a bit more interesting in people who develop styles, I'm also interested in people who take what others have developed and put their own spin on it.

For newbies like me, who are clueless about Girls Generation, or SNSD, or So Nyeo Shi Dae, or 少女时代 - there's nine of them: Taeyeon~태연; Tiffany 티파니; Sooyoung 수영; Yuri~유리; Hyoyeon 효연; Seohyun~서현; Jessica 제시카; Sunny 써니; and YoonA 윤아.

Girls' Generation website:

About the apostrophe (') - They call themselves Girls' Generation on their website, the YouTube account with the video spelled it "GIRL'S" in the title. As is my custom, I quoted the title exactly as written, using what appears to be the correct usage elsewhere.

Lemming Tracks: Geeky Posts

The Lemming whipped out posts on Solar cycles and Earth's climate, cosmic rays, and a doubleheader about bee communication and a dying planet.

Sounds sort of geeky, doesn't it?

No surprise: the Lemming was a geek before geeks were cool.

However, the Apathetic Lemming isn't just a geek. I'm also interested in - well, take a look at the label could, and you'll get an idea. Today, however, I spotted that quartet of articles, and decided to 'trust my feelings,' and do micro-reviews on them.

Not to worry, though: the Lemming is off again, nosing around cyberspace. I'll be back.

Bee Communication and Non-Human Intelligence; And a Dying Planet

A quick look at two not-quite-related articles.

"Bee Celestial Navigation and Non-Human Intelligence" (August 27, 2009)

"Millions of years ago a group of wasps 'decided to' become vegetarians and so today we have the bee. Some of their cousins 'decided to' quit flying and so became the ants, but that is another story. Although only about 20% of bees are social, honey bees are very social indeed. It has been stated by several biologists that, if it were not for the honey bee pollinating plants, humans would only last 3 or 4 years as our food supply would disappear.

"The female honey bees are the workers of the hive. First, they learn to babysit, then they learn the construction trade...."

"...Bees are the only other species, to date, that have been shown to communicate with symbolic language—that is, they can 'talk' about details of something that is not present. (We note that psychologists dispute the use of the terms 'symbolic' being applied to any non-human communication systems, but bee scientists regularly apply this term to describe bee language.)..."

The bee dances have been known for decades, and we're still learning more about them. I was quite interested in this article, as a pretty good look at one part of the study of bees.

And, bees and how they communicate opens fascinating - if vague - possibilities about how non-human intelligence might work.

"Newfound Planet Might Be Near Death" (August 26, 2009)

"A newly discovered planet that whips around its star in less than a day may have been found mere cosmic moments before its demise.

"The planet, WASP-18b, is one of the 'hot Jupiter' class of planets that are huge in size (10 times the mass of Jupiter in this case), but orbit very close to their stars. Their very existence was surprising to astronomers when the first of them were found a few years back. Now they've become common discoveries.

But this scorched, gaseous world is only one of two known exoplanets that orbits its star in less than one Earth day (0.94 days to be exact). Coupled with its hefty mass, this leads to strong gravitational tugs between the planet and its star, WASP-18. (WASP stands for the Wide Angle Search for Planets, run by several universities in Britain.)...

WASP-18b is likely to fall into its sun quite soon - assuming that our current mathematical models for gravitation, hydrodynamics, and other factors are spot-on. Or, maybe something weird is holding the planet up.

Either way, there's a lot to be learned from observing it.

Somewhat-related posts:
Related posts, at

Death Rays From Space - No, Really

"Death Rays From Space: How Bad Are They?" (August 27, 2009)

"Cosmic rays pour down on Earth like a constant rain. We don't much notice these high-energy particles, but they may have played a role in the evolution of life on our planet.

"Some of the mass extinctions identified in the fossil record can be linked to an asteroid impact or increased volcanism, but many of the causes of those ancient die-offs are still open for debate.

" 'There may have been nearby astronomical goings-on that drastically increased the radiation on Earth,' says Brian Fields from the University of Illinois.

"A supernova going off 30 light-years away could cause such a jump in radiation on our planet that could directly, or indirectly, wipe out huge numbers of species. Currently researchers are looking for possible evidence for this sort of cosmic foul play.

" 'Just finding dead beasties is not proof of a nearby supernova,' Fields says...."

This article is a pretty good summary of where we're at in the study of cosmic rays and the massive die-offs Earth has experienced over the last several hundred million years.

Good news, by the way: there's no about-to-go-supernova close enough to be a threat. On the other hand, we may be at a grandstand distance for watching Betelgeuse when it goes up. It looks like we've got more to be concerned about, finding out just how much time we've got before the Yellowstone caldera blows its cap again.

An interesting detail: 'Death Rays From Space' points out that the sun goes through this galaxy's spiral arms at regular intervals. Sci-fi role playing games notwithstanding, stars in the Milky Way galaxy aren't at fixed positions: they orbit the galaxy's center, and the spiral arms are zones of intense star formation that appear to be more 'fixed' than the stars.

There's a possibility - a debated one - that there's a connection between Earth's ice ages and passage through the spiral arms.

Interesting place, the universe: and my guess is that we've just started to understand how it works.

Related posts:

The Unchanging Sun and Earth's Climate

"Sun's Cycle Alters Earth's Climate" (August 27, 2009)

"Weather patterns across the globe are partly affected by connections between the 11-year solar cycle of activity, Earth's stratosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean, a new study finds.

The study could help scientists get an edge on eventually predicting the intensity of certain climate phenomena, such as the Indian monsoon and tropical Pacific rainfall, years in advance.

"The sun is the ultimate source of all the energy on Earth; its rays heat the planet and drive the churning motions of its atmosphere.

"The amount of energy the sun puts out varies over an 11-year cycle (this cycle also governs the appearance of sunspots on the sun's surface as well as radiation storms that can knock out satellites), but that cycle changes the total amount of energy reaching Earth by only about 0.1 percent. A conundrum for meteorologists was explaining whether and how such a small variation could drive major changes in weather patterns on Earth...."

I suppose growing up in the Red River Valley of the North and living in Central Minnesota affects my perceptions. There's a rather obviously direct connection between that 800,000-mile-plus wide naturally occurring fusion reactor in the sky and the local climate. When the sun slides southwards in the sky, things cool off and water becomes a mineral.

Of course, that's the alignment of this patch of Earth's surface, in relation to the sun.

This article discusses what's been discovered about the (known) 11-year cycle that our star goes through, and the effect it has on Earth's climate. Specifically, "...the Sun's impact on two seemingly unrelated regions: water in the tropical Pacific Ocean and air in the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that runs from around 6 miles (10 km) above Earth's surface to about 31 miles (50 km)...."

the stratosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean - "seemingly unrelated?" As the article says, they're only six miles apart, separated by a rather turbulent part of this planet's atmosphere. Never mind. Years and years in academia taught me that specialists tend to be, well, specialized. They tend, I think, to forget that the universe doesn't consist of boxes, with what they're interested in one, what other researchers study in another, and lots of nothing in between.

While I'm in a nit-picking mood, one more thing: The sun is "the ultimate source of all the energy on Earth...." ?! The last I heard, cosmologists figure our star is at least second-generation, formed from material blown out of earlier stars - and that the 'ultimate source' of energy and matter is the kick-start this universe got a dozen billion years or so ago.

Again, never mind. Locally, the sun is the source of energy on Earth: including fossil fuels, where energy from sunlight got stored by plants quite a long time ago. Unless, that is, that applies to coal: and petroleum is something else.1

Bottom line: this is a pretty good article about one facet of a subject that's fairly new.

I remember how some my textbooks said that Galileo and company were persecuted something dreadful because they said that the moon and the planets weren't perfect and unchanging. Looks like we're going through a learning experience now, discovering that the sun changes - and that when the sun changes, Earth changes. Whoda thunk?
1 There's some rather interesting research being done, looking into the possibility of abiotic organic synthesis being involved in the origins Earth's petroleum - and maybe life. ("Sloan Deep Carbon Cycle Workshop Summary Report" Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution (May 15-17, 2008)

Unlike the college geography professor I had, who knew that continental drift didn't exist because he said it didn't, I'm willing to assume that what people knew about how the universe works a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, and ten years ago isn't quite as complete a picture as what we have today - and that there might, maybe, possibly, be more to learn.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lemming Tracks: Autumn Holiday Graphics

Cinderella: Halloween Edition

I created this as the Halloween, 2007, graphic for my Sauk Centre Journal, where I write about what's happening in this small town, here in the heart of darkest Minnesota.

And, no: we don't have fairy godmothers and very strange limo services here. Just a variety of blood-sucking invertebrates on the prowl during those months when the lakes and marshes aren't frozen solid.

Turkeys of the World, Unite!

Again, from 2007: The idea of turkeys reacting in a human way to Thanksgiving isn't anything new. However, as I explained that year:

"...I read that Seattle is teaching kids that Thanksgiving is a day of mourning: something about American Indians.

"Inspired by this alternative view of a traditional holiday, I created a relevant view of Thanksgiving that could be introduced next year..."

For the less militant at heart, I created this for the 2008 holiday.

Free the Thanksgiving Forty-Six Million

The turkey images were created by classyladytwo, on Renderosity. The graphic is a collage from her work, plus the signs and their artwork.

Schedule permitting, I make an effort to create something new for at least a few holidays each year: the ones that are a big deal in American culture, anyway.
Back to "Lemming Tracks: Digital Artwork Dredged from My Computer" (August 27, 2009)

Lemming Tracks: Artwork From a Work-In-Progress

I Come in Peace

- - - But I'm not stupid. This graphic, and the other one in this post, are part of a work-in-progress with the working title "Castle Dampthorn."

This image is from the point of view of someone being greeted by a Peace Maiden.

Peace Maidens are women, generally young, who act as negotiators for the petty kings and landholders of their world. Unaffiliated with any kingdom, they are renowned for their honesty and impartiality. Although they wear chain mail, they travel the lands unarmed as a sign of their peaceful intent.


I'm not sure if this spot exists in the Castle Dampthorn setting. I created it as an exercise in landscape and architectural design while working on Castle Dampthorn, back in 2007.
Back to "Lemming Tracks: Digital Artwork Dredged from My Computer" (August 27, 2009)

Lemming Tracks: Thinking and Imagining

The Lemming's Been Thinking

You may have seen this picture before. I used a copy, in "Lemming Tracks: The Lemming Has Been Thinking, Again" (October 30, 2008)) This graphic's been reduced to 48% actual size, to accommodate the blog's format. If your browser allows you to, you'll get more detail by viewing the image by itself. Or, try viewing it in this gallery page at Renderosity.

The only sort of art I've been able to work with for the last several years has been digital stuff like this. The thumb and first two digits on both hands were numb, an effect of carpal tunnel troubles. That was actually an improvement: for quite a while before that, they'd been quite distinctly painful.

Thankfully, I had learned touch typing in my youth, and so could type adequately well without (paradoxically) being able to feel the keys. Happily, keyboards generally are of a standard size and configuration. Using a mouse was no problem. The tactile sense in my palms worked fine.

Drawing or painting, though, were out of the question. I hadn't realized how much I relied on tactile feedback from those digits. Without it, I had barely enough control over where a pencil tip went to write legibly.

Getting laid off in the spring of 2006 freed up time to take my body in for a long-overdue overhaul. By the end of the year they'd swapped out both hips and fixed problems with my hands - including the carpal tunnel thing.

About that picture: The figure sitting on the box is this blog's mascot, the Apathetic Lemming. I'd been working with light and shadow, and this is how the exercise came out. If it seems a bit - somber? - that should be no surprise. I've felt like that, quite a bit, since I turned 13.

A few years ago I was diagnosed as having major depression: a treatable chemical glitch in the central nervous system. Now, instead of drinking a dozen cups of strong coffee each day to keep me going, I take a set of (prescribed) drugs that works better - without the jittery side-effects.

Enough about me. Next, here's the sort of thing I'd imagine when my immediate surroundings seemed about as dusty as that attic.

Refuge / Shangri-La

I've displayed this image in a few places, under both names. It's another impression piece, in a way: and something I worked on to get the hang of another 3D modeling program.

I'm not sure where it is, but my guess is that Refuge isn't on Earth. Or anywhere else in the Solar system. There's enough atmosphere for cirrus-like clouds, but the sky's mostly clear. And those stars are awfully bright.

Maybe someday I'll discover where it is.
Back to "Lemming Tracks: Digital Artwork Dredged from My Computer" (August 27, 2009)

Lemming Tracks: Digital Artwork Dredged from My Computer

As a change of pace the last 36 hours (part of it I've discussed in "Lemming Tracks: Skittish in Cyberland"), I decided to spend much of today getting some of the files on my computer organized.

I unearthed a few gems that had been misplaced a couple of years ago (a word of advice: don't re-organize your filing system while taking prescription pain medication).

That's the good news.

The bad news is that I haven't had (or taken) time to do my daily bit of reconnaissance on the Web, and don't have a single micro-review to post today.

I know it's not the same thing, but here's a selection of some graphics I found today: I've divided them into three posts, with two pictures and a bit of text in each. Autumn Holiday Graphics has a 'bonus' picture in it.

Thinking and Imagining

Artwork From a Work-In-Progress

Autumn Holiday Graphics

Lemming Tracks: Skittish in Cyberland

The Lemming ended yesterday's posts with one about this blog being blocked, and then unblocked. ("Lemming Tracks: Not the Lemming's Most Serene Day" (August 26, 2009)) This is a sort of sequel to that post.

Checking my email, I found an automated message from Blogger, telling me that this blog had been "identified as a potential span blog." Which I already knew: but it's good to know their system is thorough. The message also told me how to submit a request for review - which I'd already done.

And, saving me the time and postage of printing out a snail-mail message and sending it to toward the west coast, the third paragraph answered - in general terms - my question about what happened. Essentially, the message explained, Blogger uses software that does a fuzzy search for spam.

The good news is that Blogger can use this to free up more bandwidth and storage space by flagging and (eventually) deleting bogus blogs.

The bad news is that sometimes people get the experience I had. I'm down to checking the dashboard every few hours for another false positive - which is progress.

The good news is that their review process worked more rapidly than I thought it might.

Which is a good thing, since if you'd visited this blog while it was flagged, you'd have seen a warning sign. Not the sort of welcome I want you to have.

I've got an educated guess about what got me flagged, too: although I could be wrong. Not long before that message got sent, I'd posted a micro-review about a news item that discussed dangerous search terms, and unscrupulous website developers. This is, again, just guesswork: but I think the content of that post may have been what got the robot's attention.

Live and learn - I just hope this post doesn't go over the threshold.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lemming Tracks: Not the Lemming's Most Serene Day

Not quite 24 hours ago, I started setting up today's posts for this blog. That's when I discovered that Google/Blogger had blocked Apathetic Lemming of the North - for being a possible 'spam blog.' I asked for a review, of course - and the Lemming was unblocked by the time I staggered downstairs this morning.

I had a rough evening and night, though: trying to figure out what had triggered Google's action; and seeking some way to ask how to keep this from happening again. Google does have a snail-mail address, happily - and a laudably cost-conscious menu system for their land line and on their website. (The lemming's not complaining: it keeps costs down.)

So far, this blog hasn't been blocked again (yeah - I'm that nervous), and neither - I just now checked the Blogger dashboard (handy feature!) - have any of my other blogs.

That's good news, since if that 'review' process hadn't gone well, this blog would have been deleted, two weeks from yesterday. I didn't sleep well last night.

Oh, well, worse things can happen. And, have.

Do-It-Yourself Superball Recipe from Wired

"Make a Super Ball"
How-To Wiki, Wired, (August 26, 2009)

"Remember those impossibly bouncy, 25-cent wonders that could conceivably take out an eye? Bob Lazar, CEO of United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, offers these steps to making your own unruly orb...."

Despite 'nuclear' being in the name of his company, this super ball how-2 doesn't seem to involve any radioactivity. Just a few simple items like a wooden stick, ethyl alcohol, sodium silicate - - -.

Yeah. That sodium silicate might not be in the grocery. The wiki tells in general terms where to find it online, though.

The three-step process looks easy enough: although I'd suggest that you make sure the room you're in has decent ventilation. I'm rather glad to not see warnings like that in the article, though: here's a magazine that assumes its readers have a little common sense!

I won't be making one (probably), but reading this super ball recipe was a sort of trip down memory lane. I've got four surviving kids, you see, current ages 13 to 26.

Seven Very Strange-Looking Houses

"Top 7 Weirdest Houses"
MyWiki (November 25, 2007)

Hundertwasser's House, the Upside-Down House (more or less), a Toilet-Shaped House (this one's made several lists - and a post in this blog (December 28, 2007)), a House on the Stick (looks something like a billboard at sea), Bubble House (looks the way The Future used to), the Broken Column House and the Glass House by Philip Johnson.

There are weirder houses, but not by much.

A word or so about "the Glass House" by Philip Johnson: I see the author's point. That architectural oddity is beautiful, but ... well, take a look for yourself.

Not on the list is a house which I hope to find online someday. It was designed by an architect as a one-of-a-kind gift to his mother-in-law. Constructed of conventional planking, the house is a rectangular prism, resting on one edge, the four 'middle' corners supported by wooden pillars. A chimney is encased entirely in wood, and the door is in one of the sloping sides.

The house drew a little attention a few decades ago, as an architectural curiosity. Being from an agricultural area, I recognized the shape almost immediately.

It's a scaled-up replica of a commonly-used sort of fertilizer bin.

Vivaldi With Verve: Sue Son Plays 'Storm' on Britain's Got Talent

The audience reacted to one of the 'storm' sequences from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons, played by violinist Sue Son.

"Britain's Got Talent / Sue Son - Britain's Got Talent - Show 4"

BritainsGotTalent09, YouTube (May 2, 2009)
video 4:24

The video's an excerpt from an episode of Britain's Got Talent. Sue Son had gotten a second chance as a soloist - more at - and did, I think, a remarkable job. That's not a particularly easy piece for violin. Unhappily, Sue Son didn't make it to the final.

Bugs in Space, Day 2: or, Stop Earthlings Now!

"Astronaut Gloves Tested for Biological Contamination" (March 25, 2009)

"Astronauts recently had their gloves swabbed in an early effort to develop planetary protection measures that prevent humans from accidentally contaminating the moon or Mars on future missions.

"The crew of space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station used a new laboratory device to examine biological material on the gloves of astronauts servicing the space station. Such tests could help NASA understand and plan around how to prevent the spread of Earth life to other planets...."

It's sort of like "The Andromeda Strain" scenario, except in reverse. Instead of dealing with the a superbug from space, NASA is trying to reduce the chances that life on Mars or the moon didn't hitch a ride with astronauts. I think it makes good sense.

There's been a debate, ever since the first moon probes, about who's doing how good a job of sterilizing what. My guess is that it won't be over for years. Decades. Maybe never. Assuming that non-fossilized microbes are found on, say, Mars, and they're anything like what we grow here on Earth, there'll be the niggling suspicion that they arrived in an earlier probe, and adapted.

Unless they're really different, in which case our instruments might not pick them up - or register the critters as weird results that get written off as 'peculiar chemistry' back home. (A University of Giessen researcher has an intriguing explanation for why the Viking life experiment had weird results. Essentially, critters living in a very thin carbon dioxide atmosphere with only traces of water around might not have quite the same metabolism as the ones here at the bottom of Earth's moist nitrogen-oxygen mix. (March 5, 2009))

The article does a pretty good job of discussing how NASA's approaching the 'microbe stowaway' issue.
Looks like I'm in a rut, doesn't it? Two days in a row, micro-reviewing something about bugs in space: "They Sent Salmonella to the ISS - On Purpose" (August 25, 2009).
Other posts, about "Mars, Mostly."

Related posts, at

Continued from Yesterday: A Cat, a Dog, and a Pet Door

I've moved that cat-and-dog video from yesterday's post here:

"Cat Blocks Dog Intrusion"

andavid21, YouTube (July 25, 2009)
video, 0:15

I'd take that video's YouTube title with a grain or salt. I've known cats, and dogs: and neither was very serious during that 15 seconds. Still: it's cute.
I don't generally re-arrange posts like this, but for reasons that I still don't understand Google blocked this blog yesterday evening - something in their system flagged it as a 'spam blog.' Since it's possible that one or more of yesterday's posts was responsible, I'm editing them.

When I went back, I saw that they were noticeably different than the 50th percentile of posts here at Apathetic Lemming of the North.

Besides, I like this video.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

They Sent Salmonella to the ISS - On Purpose

"Salmonella in Space Get Even Nastier" (March 24, 2009)

"Salmonella sent to space have revealed secrets about the disease-causing bacteria that could help treat humans with food poisoning.

"Scientists sent Salmonella bacteria to the International Space Station aboard two space shuttle missions in September 2006 and March 2008. The researchers found that when the bacteria were cultured in the microgravity environment of orbit, they became more virulent than those on Earth...

"...'This research opens up new areas for investigations that may improve food treatment, develop new therapies and vaccines to combat food poisoning in humans here on Earth, and protect astronauts on orbit from infectious disease,' said Julie Robinson, program scientist for the International Space Station at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston...."

Looks like those wonderfully-awful low-budget fifties science fiction movies were on the right track: Bugs get badder in space. Sure, the salmonella microbes didn't grow into ten-ton tentacled terrors: but that's a detail.

Seriously, this article gives a pretty good overview of what's been learned from one experiment on the International Space Station, or ISS. Mainly, it seems, researchers have learned that there's a whole lot they don't know about how salmonella lives and infects.

But, now they've got a better idea of what it is that they don't know.

The article is a trifle technical in spots: "...'To our knowledge, no one had previously looked at a mechanical force like fluid shear on the disease-causing properties of a microorganism during the infection process,'..." for example. But a detailed knowledge of hydrodynamics and biology isn't necessary to get the gist of what's being said.
Edited August 26, 2009

Cute, Bushels of Cute, Barrels of Cute: Cute Overload

Cute Overload

"...What do you think you're doing?
"At Cute Overload, we scour the Web for only the finest in cute imagery. Imagery that is worth your Internet browsing time. We offer an overwhelming amount of cuteness to fill your daily visual allowance. Drink it in, People!..."
(Cute Overload About Us)

That should give you an idea of what sort of website this is. A handful of people handle submissions from who-knows-how-many contributors, compiling some of the most blue-mood-busting photos I've had the pleasure of seeing.

Wait. It's six people plus contributors. Humans have five digits. Just about blew my cover there.

These posts showed on on one day (August 12, 2009): Here's that video:

(Moved to "Continued from Yesterday: A Cat, a Dog, and a Pet Door" (August 26, 2009))

Finally, one of today's photos:

From "IT'S CALENDAR TIME!" For once, all-caps is justified.

Dangerous Searches: Jessica Biel, Brad Pitt

"Jessica Biel 'most dangerous' celeb search name"
MSNBC (August 25, 2009)

"So you want to be more in the loop about celebrity news than TMZ, and you can't resist the urge to click on the latest gossip about Jessica Biel's fill-in-the-blank...

"...You're not alone, but you are at risk. Biel is considered 'the most dangerous celebrity to search in cyberspace,' according to security firm McAfee, giving the movie star top billing as 'the riskiest' search.

" 'Fans searching for "Jessica Biel" or ... have a one in five chance of landing at a Web site that's tested positive for online threats such as spyware, adware, spam, phishing, viruses and other malware,' or malicious software, McAfee said in a press release...."

A bit farther down, the article points out that it isn't the search that could hurt you: it's visiting that cool-looking website you find in the search.

Yes, McAfee would like you to buy their anti-malware software. It's pretty good, by the way: I'm no longer using it, but you could do a lot worse. The article mentions a freebie offered by McAfee, SiteAdvisor.

The article doesn't say it quite this way, but the idea is: Think, THEN click. Some websites load - or try to load - malicious software along with what you see, and unwanted code may be in that nifty screensaver or ringtone you feel like downloading. "...More than 40 percent of Google search results for 'Jennifer Aniston screensavers' had 'nasty viruses, including one called the "FunLove virus." '..."

As the article's headline says, Jessica Biel is #1 on the list. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 in the list are Beyoncé, Jennifer Aniston and Tom Brady. The article lists quite a few others in the most-dangerous category.

Bottom line about the article: It does a pretty good job of discussing the current state of a perennial problem on the Internet. And does it in a clear, non-technical way.

I take online security seriously, since this computer is a critical tool in my work. Even so, I had a major problem with malware earlier this year. I was preparing a cybernetic 'nuclear option' when my oldest daughter and son - 26 and 13 years old, and both tech-savvy - rooted out the last of the malware. (April 13, 2009)

I've changed some of my online habits since then - and pay much closer attention whether or not a site I'm visiting is legitimate. The "whois" service offered free by quite a few hosting companies is handy.

I check, fairly often, to see if the URL I'm interested in is registered to someone or some organization that appears to be connected to the website's purported content. If it's not - or if the registrant is one of those services that let a person register anonymously - I'm not likely to take my browser there: no more than I'd follow someone wearing a mask into an alley.

Generally, in a post like this, I compare the current situation on the Internet to the American frontier days - what we call the 'wild west.' Instead of trying to come up with something fresh on that subject, here's a list of posts that compare today's cyberspace and the wild west: Related posts:
Edited August 26, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Naked Mole Rat: Ugly, but Weird

"The Naked Truth about Mole-Rats"
Zoogoer, Smithsonian National Zoological Park (May June 2002)

"Endowed with pinkish-gray, wrinkly skin, scant hair, and long buck teeth, naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) aren't likely to win any beauty contests. Some might refer to them as downright ugly, resembling an overcooked hotdog with teeth. Nonetheless, biologists and zoogoers are enchanted with these bizarre rodents.

"Naked mole-rats spend virtually their entire lives in the total darkness of underground burrows...."

The Zoogoer article points out that, despite the name, mole rats are more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas and guinea pigs than to either moles or rats.

It's longer than most pieces on the Web: over 2,500 words.

The language is fairly non-technical, but Zoogoer's "The Naked Truth about Mole-Rats" gives a fairly detailed description of the behavior and biology of mole rats, or sand puppies, as they're called in sub-Saharan Africa.

Their oddness goes 'way past appearance. They're "eusocial" creatures - the only mammals that live in colonies with physically distinct castes, like the social insects. They don't regulate their internal temperature, either - which makes them very odd mammals.

I wouldn't recommend the article for light reading during coffee break, but it's a quite good resource for someone wanting the inside scoop on Africa's mole rats.

Video Filmstrip of 19 Interiors

"Interior Design"

Hooyaiyei, YouTube (December 31, 2006)
video 1:41

No descriptions, no words apart from the title and credits. This video is a succession of 19 still photos showing a modest range of contemporary interiors. Depending on your preferences, the variety of transition effects from one image to another will be pleasantly unpredictable, an example of amateurish enthusiasm1 or distractingly random. Me? I liked it. There's music that struck me as pleasantly undemanding: a good background for the photos. Again, personal tastes will vary.

The rooms are, with a possible exception or two, bedrooms. This isn't as restrictive a selection as it might seem: several of the treatments could be applied to interior spaces with other functions.

I was impressed by two things: first, some of the rooms were shown with furnishings in mild disarray, as they would be when in use; second, the 19 interiors were not simply variations on a theme.

Bottom line? The video's entertaining, for someone with some interest in interior design; and might give a homeowner ideas on what to do with a room.
1 I don't think so, but I've been around painfully creative people enough to recognize what may set off artistic angst.

What Kids in the Car Shouldn't Have

"Five Things Not To Let The Kids Bring In The Car"
Brad Moon, GeekDad, Wired (August 24, 2009)

"Summer is drawing to a close (sorry, but it is) and it's time to tackle the dreaded chore of cleaning the vacation detritus collecting in our vehicles. I try to keep my truck reasonably tidy throughout the year, but when summer vacation season hits and the truck becomes the primary family wheels, it can be tough to keep up. The aftermath, come late August or September, can be grim. A typical fall cleaning session takes me an entire day with the vacuum, carpet shampooer, assorted scrubbers and cleaning potions and yields bags of dirt, sand, crumbs, pieces of broken toys and stray Pokemon cards. I've learned a few lessons along the way and I'm using that knowledge to produce my own list of banned items and substances with the goal of more pleasant road trips and easier fall cleanups. Needless to say, it isn't popular and I'll be the first to admit that it's quite possibly even more arbitrary than the TSA's Prohibited Items list...."

The Lemming is recovering from Monday morning, so please bear with me: and take my comments with a grain of salt. Or a shaker-full, to taste.

This post, on Wired's GeekDad feature, is one that I've run into for decades. Not the same words, of course, and the content is a bit different each time. But the 'what not to do on vacation' is a perennial favorite in some periodicals. This particular had a particularly nostalgic aura for me, since the author's writing style is suited to print format: with really long paragraphs.

I've learned that many online readers have the attention span of a caffeinated squirrel, so I try to keep paragraphs short. But I'm getting off-topic.

Back to the Micro-Review of a Veteran's Advice on Kids, Trips, Toys and Tribulations

The list of items, and discussion of why each should be verboten starts with:

"Those grabby pincer things they sell at all souvenir shops

"These plastic claw things are ubiquitous in gift shops, particularly zoo gift shops, for some reason, where they're usually fashioned so the grabby part resembles an animal's head. Robot hands are also a popular choice, and dinosaurs are always fair game...."

Next on the list is chewing gum. About which the author is quite correct: you do not want to get chewing gum in your hair. It's not a particularly advisable adjunct to the hair of any member of the family, when it comes right down to it.

Seriously? Taking this piece as a matter-of-fact bit of advice for parents of pre-teen kids, it's pretty good. Practical - and quite obviously written from experience. My wife and I have four surviving kids, and I recognize the situations.

There's a sort of bonus at the end: two items that parents should take with them on trips with the kids.
  • Diaper wipes
  • A lint roller
There's an explanation for why each of those items are handy. If you haven't discovered it already, there's a mess of off-label uses for diaper wipes.

I'd suggest taking your kid's personalities into account before pointing out just what those all-purpose cleaning sheets are, though.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Ways to Get and Stay There

"Keep your mind and body in top condition"
Sally Wadyka, Real Simple, CNN (July 15, 2009)

"Sure, the fountain of youth is as elusive as ever, but there's plenty you can do to stay young. With all that scientists are learning about the powers of exercise, antioxidant-rich roods, healthy fats, and brain-teasing games to keep you feeling and looking your best, age can really just be a state of mind. This head-to-toe guide shows how to beat the clock -- or at least slow it down.

"Taking Care of Your Brain

"What aging can bring: Forgetfulness, decline in mental agility, risk of Alzheimer's disease.

"What the research shows: 'Doing things that hit both the left and right sides of the brain, like word puzzles plus mazes and visuals, has been proven to build brainpower,' says Gary Small, M.D., director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Aging. Swedish researchers believe there's also a connection between physical activity and cognitive decline...."

Sounds like 'use it or lose it,' doesn't it? There's more, about taking care of your skin, teeth, muscles, lungs, feet, heart - - - You get the idea.

I was born during the Truman administration, so I'm a bit more interested in this sort of thing now than I was back in the days of Woodstock. The article's pretty much common sense, with a bit of a look at what researchers have to say.

It's not a place to find miracle cures or an elixir of youth: but I wouldn't want to go through my teens again, even if I could.

Bottom line: not the Ultimate Resource; but pretty good advice.

Gamers are Geezers, Apparently: 35, Overweight, and Bummed Out

"Forget Teens: Gamers Are 35, Overweight — And Sad, CDC says"
Sharon Gaudin, Epicenter, Wired (August 23, 2009)

"When you think of a hard-core gamer, do you picture a teenage boy battling his friends in World of Warcraft?

"Think again.

"The average gamer, far from being a teen, is actually a 35-year-old man who is overweight, aggressive, introverted — and often depressed, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (download PDF). The study also shows that when children and teenagers become game players, a trend toward physical inactivity and corresponding health problems extends - and is exacerbated - into adulthood...."

It's a pretty good look at some fairly-new research. It goes back to a 2006 survey of 552 people between the ages of 19 and 90 - living in the Seattle-Tacoma area - online. The researchers did a pretty good job, getting a wide spread of ages: but I wonder if they realized just how much of the world wasn't in the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington state.

Oh, well: the results are interesting, anyway.

So was at least one attitude reflected in the article:

"...'My issue is that it's not just gaming. It's social networking. It's the Web in general,' said [analyst at In-Stat Jim] McGregor. 'We've gained so much, but still it puts people in front of a computer screen for hours on end. It gives Americans just another reason to be fat, dumb and lazy.'..."

I remember when color television was a wonderful new technology - and a threat to the mental and physical health of Americans. My guess is that there may be a few more couch potatoes around now, because of that technology.

But I'm not all that worried. People have been dealing with dangerous new technologies for quite a while. And, somehow, surviving. Even, perhaps, benefiting.

Related posts:

Swine Flu / 2009 H1N1: Vaccines, Conspiracy Theories; and Common Sense

"WHO official predicts H1N1 'explosion'"
CNN (August 21, 2009)

"The world will soon see an "explosion" of swine flu cases as the H1N1 virus spreads rapidly around the world, a top World Health Organization official said Friday.

"Spread of the virus is entering an 'acceleration period' and it is certain that there will be more cases and more deaths, said Dr. Shin Young-soo, the organization's regional director for the Western Pacific.

" 'Most countries may see a doubling of cases every three to four days for two months until peak transmission is reached,' he said at a symposium in Beijing, China. 'At a certain point, there will seem to be an explosion in case numbers. I believe it is very likely that all countries will see community-level transmission by the end of the year.'..."

"...'We will only be safe when we have applied these lessons in every country dealing with this virus,' [Dr.] Shin [Shin Young-soo, the organization's regional director for the Western Pacific.] said. 'We need to learn quickly since, as I believe, it appears that this pandemic will get worse before the situation gets better.'"

The article gives a pretty good look at where the H1N1/swine flu epidemic is concerned.

The WHO (World Health Organization) has a few words about 'antivirals' -

"Recommended use of antivirals / Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 briefing note 8" WHO (August 21, 2009).

And, about the safety of vaccines -

"Safety of pandemic vaccines / Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 briefing note 6"
WHO (August 6, 2009).

It's All Some Kinda Plot, Apparently

If you go to Google and key in these words - swine flu vaccine danger - you'll see links to news, op-ed, and dire warnings about the awful dangers presented: by the vaccine and the dark forces behind it. "Globalization" figured prominently on the samples I glanced at.

Okay: Maybe there is some sort of vast conspiracy going on. (May 8, 2009) Then again, maybe not.

It's possible, although in my view quite unlikely, that the CDC, WHO, and one of those secret organizations that conspiracy-theory buffs like to invoke, is involved in some vast global conspiracy. It's even possible - although wildly unlikely - that space-alien, shape-shifting lizard people are behind the whole thing. (January 14, 2009, in another blog)

But I rather doubt it.

There's a kernel of truth in the claims that the H1N1 flu vaccine may be dangerous. All vaccines are dangerous. The trick is to balance benefit and risk. (May 1, 2009)

Hysteria, No; Common Sense, yes

There's no shortage of op-ed pieces about swine flu / influenza A(H1N1) "hysteria" - which may exist somewhere. I've read about it, but have yet to encounter an example.

Do I have to say it? Hysteria is not a reasonable response to the danger from the current influenza pandemic.

Common sense, yes. It's the same old boring stuff from childhood and hygiene classes: wash your hands; wash your food; don't inhale deeply when someone near you sneezes; don't lick door handles. There's more, but you get the idea.

I don't want to 'feed hysteria' - wherever it is. On the other hand, there's something new to say about swine flu / influenza A (H1N1), and it seemed like a good idea to share it.

About that flu vaccine? I'm at the age where getting a flu vaccine as autumn comes is good sense. I expect to get another one this year. If it includes an edge over this year's H1N1, fine.

Finally: Yes, I know. If it hasn't happened already, in tests, someone who got the new vaccine felt bad later, or maybe even died. That's tragic. But some people are sensitive to some substances.

The swine flu vaccine of 1976 was a case in point. About 1 in 80,0001 people who got the vaccine developed GBS, a very unpleasant condition, and died. (May 1, 2009) If there were no threat of swine flu, it wouldn't make sense to take the vaccine. If the odds of contracting, spreading, and possibly dying from swine flu were more than 1/80,000, taking the vaccine would have made sense.

My guess is that today's swine flu vaccine will be like every other: a tiny percentage of people will be sensitive to it - and there's no way of finding out, without taking the vaccine.

It's not a perfect situation; but it's not a perfect world, either.

List of posts relating to Swine flu 2009; and list of background resources:
Update (August 23, 2009)

A tip of the hat to lizditz, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this article:

"A Defense of Childhood Influenza Vaccination and Squalene-Containing Adjuvants; Joseph Mercola's 'Dirty Little Secret' "
Science-Based Medicine (August 21, 2009)

I haven't researched the specific assertions made in the article thoroughly: but I think it's worth reading as an example of how to think about benefit/risk ratios and the relative safety of vaccines.

One interesting point is that the SBM article asserts that the rate of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) appearing in people was 1 in 1,000,000. I'd been using a figure of 1 in 100,000 in several posts. (August 23, 2009, April 25, 2009, April 30, 2009, May 1, 2009) So, I had to go back and check my numbers.

And found out that I'd made a mistake - excessive rounding of the numbers.

I'd used as my source a CBS article whose writers couldn't seem to get over the horror of 1976, when a flu pandemic didn't happen - and 500 people came down with GBS. I'm not trivializing their experience: Guillain-Barré syndrome is, to say the least, unpleasant.

And 500 feels like a really big number.

CBS made the mistake of including other numbers in their article. Like 40,000,000 people getting immunized with the demon drug. And 500 coming down with GBS.

Oops - A Correction

500 divided by 40,000,000 (or 500/40,000,000) is 0.0000125: Or 1/80,000. I rounded that - arguably too much, to 1 in 100,000. I've revised/corrected the posts, with a footnote leading to this update.

One in 80,000; One in 1,000,000 - What's Going On?

It looks to me like SBM didn't take the CBS News numbers, but instead went to "Guillain-Barré Syndrome Following Influenza Vaccination," Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Vol. 292 No. 20, November 24, 2004, by by Penina Haber, MPH; Frank DeStefano, MD, MPH; Fredrick J. Angulo, DVM, PhD; John Iskander, MD, MPH; Sean V. Shadomy, DVM, MPH; Eric Weintraub, MPH; Robert T. Chen, MD, MA.

There's a certain amount of comparing apples and oranges here: the JAMA report didn't use 1976 data. Their study used data from a program that started in 1990. Part of the results:

"...The annual reporting rate decreased 4-fold from a high of 0.17 per 100 000 vaccinees in 1993-1994 to 0.04 in 2002-2003...."

Okay: a midpoint between 0.17/100,000 and 0.04/100,000 is right in the neighborhood of SBM's 1/1,000,000.

Pretty good odds, if the alternative is being open to infection from a potentially deadly disease: with the bonus of knowing you're spreading it to others.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

No Such Thing as an Uninteresting Subject: a Thought for the Day

"There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person."

G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905, from The Quotations Page.

Exploding Wieners, Awful Wordplay

"Exploding wieners, run for cover!"
Oddly Enough, Reuters blog (August 22, 2009)

"Blog Guy, I’m afraid this suicide bomb trend is spreading, and it scares me.

"Me too. There are way too many kinds of explosive gadgets. I saw this photo of a woman wearing a device made of an alarm clock and sausages.

"Sausages? They don't even explode, do they?

"Sure. In many parts of the world they’re also called bangers...."

Be assured: this isn't the wurst of the - awful - wordplay in this article. Frankly, I'm surprised that so much could be packed into such a short post. Just follow the links, and you'll see what I mean.

That's funny!

The source of the photo, not so much.

The photo comes from Reuters, and is part of a rather under-reported "...rally protesting against Afghanistan's 'Family Law', which diminishes women's rights in Afghanistan, near the Afghanistan embassy in Kiev August 21, 2009. Authorities in Afghanistan passed a law permitting men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands...." ("Topics / Women's-Rights / Photos " Reuters, via The Wall Street Journal (August 21, 2009))

I still think the Oddly Enough post is funny, though.

Blue Lobster Caught off New Hampshire

"NH man snares rare, cobalt-blue lobster"
The Associated Press (August 21, 2009)

"At first, New Hampshire lobsterman Bill Marconi thought he had caught a shiny blue beer can in his trap. It turns out it was a rare, cobalt-blue lobster. The 52-year-old lobsterman was out hauling 400 traps with his son Wednesday when he snared the 1 1/2-pound lobster in between his dock and the Isle of Shoals, about six miles off the coast...."

That's an odd lobster, but they do show up now and again. The AP article quotes a newspaper, saying that 1 in 5,000,000 lobsters is blue.

It's not that there's something wrong with the blue lobsters - it's that they're better at metabolizing astaxanthin. Never heard of astaxanthin? You're not alone. It's an antioxidant that's in some algae. And, before these odd lobsters get at it, it's red.

And, since it's an antioxidant, it's astaxanthin has its own website. Looks like antioxidants are still fairly hot in the health-food circle. Sort of like spinach was, back in the glory days of Popeye.

Astaxanthin might - or might not - help with high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. The Mayo Clinic website has some information about the stuff, in its discussion of Red yeast rice (Monascus purpureus)" - astaxanthin shows up under "Synonyms," a page later.

Back to that New Hampshire lobster: the article isn't very long, but shows what can happen when genetics and fishing meet. Related post:
A tip of the hat to wierdnews, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this article.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crooks Punch the Wrong Octogenarian

"Don't you mess with grandpa, sonny" (April 23, 2009)

"Ted Mazetier may be a grandfather, but at 84 years old, he's still got his chops.

"And two men learned that the hard way.

"Mazetier was driving down South Proctor Street Wednesday night when he spotted a car on the curb and two guys standing nearby. He thought they needed help, so he stopped.

"But as soon as he pulled over, the two men pounced...."

The bad news is that Mr. Mazetier got a black eye.

The good news is that he left a deep impression on each of the assailants. After which they fled. And were, eventually, caught.

They'd pulled a similar attack earlier.

I suppose it's unfair. Mr. Mazetier is a WWII vet, and spent much of his life keeping an eye on criminals in U. S. prisons. How could the two assailants have known that this octogenarian was about as helpless as Bruce Lee?

And the moral of this story is - - -
  • You can't judge a book by its cover?
  • Old geezers aren't necessarily easy targets?
  • Crime hurts?

A tip of the hat to irish_brigid, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this.
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