Heart Attack on Jet Full of MDs (and Carjacking the Judo Team Minivan)

Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

Sometimes, the stars align just right. If you’re going to have a heart attack, you might as well have it on a plane full of cardiac specialists on their way to a conference. Woman Has Heart Attack on Jet Full of MDs:

A flight in the United States proved lucky for a British woman who suffered a heart attack. Fifteen heart specialists, all bound for a medical conference in Florida, stood up to offer help when a cabin attendant asked, “Is there a doctor on board?”

Of course, sometimes it works the other way, as the Miami Herald reports:

This guy picked the wrong visitors to carjack.

His victims: a college judo team from Miami-Dade that pounded him on the head, twisted him like a pretzel and pinned him on the ground until L.A. cops arrived.

“I thought it was pretty funny because out of all the cars this man picked, he picked ours,” said Cristina Baldacci, 23, one of the members of Florida International University’s judo team in the backseat of the rented minivan Sunday.

“All I kept thinking the whole time was, `This guy is really barking up the wrong tree.’”

Heinlein

Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

On their 2blowhards.com blog, Michael (blowhard 1, not a SF fan) asks Friedrich (blowhard 2) about SF author Heinlein — best known for Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land:

A few of the things I’ve learned from hanging out online:
  • How many people identify themselves as libertarians.
  • How many people have gone through serious Ayn Rand phases.
  • How many bright people read and enjoy sci-fi as adults.
  • The immense cultural importance of Robert Heinlein.

I think I’ve managed to semi-understand the first three of those phenomena. The fourth still eludes me.

Friedrich’s response:

Heinlein created a revolution in S.F. around 1940. He turned the genre from something along the lines of “Buck Rogers” into a vehicle for commenting on politics, religion, sociology, etc. His most influential stuff (on the development of S.F.) was his early work, which all fit together into a coherent view of about 200 years of ‘future history.’ His writing style owes quite a bit to hard-boiled detective fiction, but without the pessimistic social vision; several of his first person heros sound an awful lot like Archie Goodwin of the Nero Wolfe stories. So much for his place in ‘literary’ history.

I like him because he seemed to come from the world of pre-Depression America: self-confident, can-do attitude, big believer in free markets and the necessity for kicking ass now and then. I read him all the time at Our Lousy Ivy University as an antidote to Marxism, feminism, identity politics, and political correctness generally. One quote, obviously written in response to the expansion of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ during the 60s and 70, sort of sums him up in my mind: “Nobody really has any rights, but everybody has plenty of opportunities.”

I don’t know if he ever heard of sociobiology, but he would have been a big fan. I recall that he was a big believer in heredity and masculinity at the exact moment that all right-thinking people disparaged them. A number of his books for teenagers show an intelligent, capable, hard-working kid facing an oppressive social situation and figuring a way to get out from under. They seemed intended for smart kids who hadn’t found their place in the world yet; they were intended to empower, and they did.

Friedrich’s aren’t the only interesting comments though. I enjoyed many, but Steve Sailer‘s in particular:

I reread Heinlein’s books every four years. To my taste, he was the most interesting sociological novelist of the 20th Century, but he was not a literary artist. He had a serviceable style, influenced by the best stuff of 1939, the year he started publishing: Raymond Chandler and screwball comedy dialogue. But he never let artistry slow down the flow of analysis of How The World Works.

Tom Clancy is his best known modern disciple. The team of Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle are probably his most sympatico heirs in hard sci-fi.

Heinlein means different things to different people in large part because he published three major cult novels between 1959 and 1966, each of which appeals to a completely different cult. Starship Trooper is the first book on the official U.S. Marine Corps reading list. Stranger in a Strange Land was extremely popular with the 1960s drug crowd. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a favorite of libertarians.

Many would argue, however, that the core of his achievement was his 1950s juvenile novels, perhaps culminating in “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.”

Others would point to his astonishing burst of creativity from 1939-1941. For example, his 1940 short story “Solution Unsatisfactory” was the farthest anyone thought through the strategic implications of atomic weapons (which would not exist for another five years) until the later 1940s. In this pulp magazine story, the U.S. brings WWII to an end in 1945 by use of atomic weapons, then quickly falls into a global struggle with Russia. After WWIII, which lasts 4-days, world government is tried, but that quickly turns into a dictatorship run by the man in charge of the atomic weapons. The story ends in despair.

Others might like his bestsellers from the 1970s after his major illness, although some may feel he was past his peak.

His 1964 fantasy novel Glory Road is not recommended. Heinlein had an immensely practical mind and really couldn’t take the genre seriously.

Iran Asks ‘Why Are Our Earthquakes So Deadly?’

Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

Iran Asks ‘Why Are Our Earthquakes So Deadly?’ draws a clear distinction between California and Iran:

In stark contrast to a tremor of similar strength last week in California that killed just two people, the toll in Friday’s Iranian quake could reach about 50,000.
[...]
Fingers are also being pointed at the mud bricks common in towns like Bam. They are cheap and popular because they keep houses cool in summer and warm in winter. But they crumble easily, suffocating many who survive the actual quake.

“In Iran…the houses are essentially made of dust,” said Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics in quake-prone Italy. “When buildings made of concrete collapse there are pockets of air where you can breathe and survive two, three, maybe even five days. But with mud houses, and the dust they produce when collapsing, you die much quicker.”

Two deaths versus 50,000.

U.S. Announces Ban on Ephedra Diet Supplement

Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

The FDA has finally gone and done it. From U.S. Announces Ban on Ephedra Diet Supplement:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday it will ban the weight-loss aid ephedra, saying it is unsafe and can cause heart attacks and stroke.

It is the first time the FDA has banned a supplement.

Some quotes:

“Ephedra is an adrenaline-like stimulant that can have potentially dangerous effects on the heart,” the FDA said in a statement.

“Other recent studies have also confirmed that ephedra use raises blood pressure and otherwise stresses the circulatory system, effects that have been conclusively linked to significant and substantial adverse health effects like heart problems and strokes.”

Of course, caffeine “raises blood pressure and otherwise stresses the circulatory system” too.

Even if dieters are “likely to do more harm than good by taking ephedra,” shouldn’t that be their choice? Certainly many dieters do use ephedra productively.

Trebuchet

Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

As Fryer’s Kits’ Trebuchet page points out, “the Trebuchet was a medieval siege weapon that hurled rocks at castle walls.” Building a full-size trebuchet is a lot of work. They offer downloadable instructions for a tiny cardboard machine that “will hurl a grape 30 feet.” Excellent.

How Santa Made Me an Atheist

Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

I got a kick out of Julian Sanchez’s How Santa Made Me an Atheist:

I don’t remember clearly when my parents first told me about Santa Claus, but I do remember being skeptical. Flying reindeer? How was that possible? Bringing presents to every child on the planet? Surely that couldn’t be done in a single night. Even if it could, how could you possibly fit enough presents on a sleigh without constantly running back to the North Pole for reloads? If someone had this kind of technology, why weren’t we trying like crazy to replicate it?

I don’t think my parents had expected these sorts of questions. They just looked at each other, seeming a bit surprised, and let it drop. Come Christmas day, they gave it one final attempt: “Look, Santa ate the cookies we left out.” I considered that for a moment. I don’t think I’d encountered Occam’s Razor yet, but the first thing to occur to me was: “I bet Dad just ate them! That’s more likely than flying reindeer.” At which point they gave up.

I was slightly resentful at first — why were they trying to deceive me? I thought perhaps they’d hoped that the idea of a magical old man watching my every action, and doling out (or withholding) presents accordingly was some kind of threat to make me behave well. In the end, I concluded that probably that was what some parents were hoping to do — I knew the story was told to lots of kids — but that mine had just thought that it would be fun for me, a game of make-believe. That’s why they’d just given up when I didn’t seem inclined to play along.

Sometime soon after, when I started kindergarten, I first encountered the notion of “God” via another child. Again, I don’t remember the specifics. But I remember thinking: “Oh, I know this game.” I decided not to spoil the make-believe for the other kid. When he was older, surely his parents would explain that they hadn’t been serious.

Rough Men Stand Ready

Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

On my flight back from California, I sat across the aisle from a young man, obviously a Marine — lean, crew cut, tattoos of .223 M-16 rounds flanking a skull labelled “USMC” — and I was reminded of a famous Orwell quote:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

Only I couldn’t remember the exact quote, so I couldn’t share it with my brother-in-law sitting next to me. When I looked it up, I discovered that Orwell may never have said it. The Wikiquote List of Misquotations explains:

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Alternative: “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.” [I've also seen it as "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."]

Notes: allegedly from Rough Men by George Orwell. There is no evidence in existence that Orwell ever wrote or uttered either of these versions of this idea. While these do bear some similarity to a comment made in an essay that Orwell wrote on Rudyard Kipling, the two statements above are considered to be illegitimate by Orwell scholars.

(Is it ironic that George Orwell would be quoted as saying something he never said? Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.)

A little more research found the quote from his essay on Kipling (from 1942):

Men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.

Also, I didn’t realize/remember that “George Orwell” was a pseudonym for Eric Blair.

PowerPoint Is Evil

Monday, December 29th, 2003

In PowerPoint Is Evil, Edward Tufte attacks “slideware”:

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.
[...]
At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play — very loud, very slow, and very simple.

Edward Tufte: Graphic of the Day

Monday, December 29th, 2003

Edward Tufte‘s Graphic of the Day from February 10, 2002 caught my eye — it’s about road and exit numbering. Why did this catch my eye? Well, I’ve been living in Pennsylvania and cursing the horrible freeway — pardon, turnpike — signs for a couple years now, including the numbered exits. Actually, numbering the exits isn’t so bad, but not listing what exits are coming up (and how far they are) is bad. We never had exit numbers in California.

Then I visited for Christmas, and I saw that the Culver exit on the 5 (note to easterners: it’s the 5) is now exit 99! Eek!

Anyway, what I didn’t realize is that some states number exits consecutively, while others number them by distance. Numbering them by distance sounds…useful. And you don’t have to renumber (or use A, B, etc.) when you add a new exit.

Something else I didn’t realize: Pennsylvania is in the process of switching over from consecutive to distance-based exit numbers. Very interesting… (And it would explain all the “old exit” signs…)

Google Holiday Logos

Monday, December 29th, 2003

I just discovered that Google has “a variety of logos commemorating holidays and events” — most banal, but some amusing. The logo for Escher’s birthday could have been more…Escher-esque, but I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the logos for the 50th Anniversary of Understanding DNA, Michelangelo’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Picasso’s birthday (even though I don’t enjoy Picasso’s work), St. Patrick’s Day, and Piet Mondrian’s birthday.

Glutamine No Help for Dieting Athletes

Monday, December 29th, 2003

Supposedly, glutamine, an amino acid, can help dieters maintain muscle mass while losing fat. Glutamine No Help for Dieting Athletes reports on a study with wrestlers that does not support that hypothesis:

In the present study, Finn and his colleagues set out to test the effect of glutamine in 18 college wrestlers who were enrolled in a 12-day weight-loss program. All athletes consumed the same high-protein diet, but some wrestlers also took glutamine supplements. The other athletes received an inactive placebo instead.

All participants lost a significant amount of weight during the study, researchers report. Although the aim was to lose fat, not muscle, all athletes lost similar amounts of fat-free mass.

In fact, glutamine supplements did not have a significant effect on how much muscle was maintained.

Of course, wrestlers on a 12-day crash diet lose tremendous amounts of water weight — and water weight is “lean” mass. You’d think the scientists would have taken that into account…

What I Learned During the Economic Slump

Monday, December 29th, 2003

In What I Learned During the Economic Slump, David Pottruck, co-CEO of Charles Schwab draws a distinction between sales and service:

We like to say at Schwab that the difference between sales and service is relevance. If a client perceives us as presenting a solution to a problem he doesn’t have, that is selling. That feels really bad, and it’s a huge waste of time. On the other hand, if the client sees us as presenting a solution to a problem he does have, that’s service. That’s not sales.

Pottruck also comments on incentives:

One of the mistakes I made was thinking that, if I changed our incentive systems in certain fundamental ways, I would change behavior. What I’ve come to understand is that people do things because of lots of different motivations. Incentive systems alone can’t do it.

People in sales jobs are very economically oriented and will typically respond enormously to changes in compensation. Many technologists, on the other hand, take pride in developing intellectual property, in working on the latest things. If you put such a person on technology maintenance, even if you pay him more, he won’t be happy.

Another thing I’ve learned in the past two or three years is that we constantly underestimate how powerful recognition is. People will respond tremendously to recognition — especially in times like these, when people are feeling so bad about so many things. Feeding people’s emotional souls is such an important thing. One of my guiding thoughts when I speak with employees, one on one or in large groups, is that they may forget exactly what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Fear of Book Assassination Haunts Bibliophile’s Musings

Sunday, December 21st, 2003

In Fear of Book Assassination Haunts Bibliophile’s Musings, André Bernard reviews Nicholas Basbanes’ A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, a book that “examines the bonfires that have consumed entire centuries of man’s musings on matters great and small”:

In 1562, a Franciscan friar who had accompanied Spanish troops to Mexico ordered the burning of thousands of Mayan hieroglyphic books, in an attempt to eradicate the repository of local spiritual beliefs and to pave the way for Christianity. In one afternoon, practically the entire record of a civilization had been turned to ashes; only four codices are known to have survived. In 1914, the German Army invaded the Belgian city of Louvain, a treasure house of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. In an act of no military significance whatsoever, Louvain’s magnificent library of 300,000 volumes, which included nearly a thousand irreplaceable illuminated manuscripts, was burned to the ground. (“At Louvain,” said a man who watched it happen, “Germany disqualified itself as a nation of thinkers.”) More recently, during its psychopathic reign in Cambodia in the mid-1970′s, Pol Pot’s regime destroyed nearly all of ancient Cambodia’s manuscripts and monuments. In its rage against modernity and civilization, the Khmer Rouge went so far as to examine ordinary citizens for marks on the bridge of the nose, the telltale sign of reading glasses — which was enough to bring down a death sentence.

I’m surprised there are extant references to damnatio memoriae

If books are not the most perishable products of human civilization, they have, throughout recorded history, attracted the homicidal attentions of every conquering army. In large-scale versions of the penalty the Romans called damnatio memoriae, a punishment for individuals found guilty of committing crimes against the state which involved erasing every reference — whether on stone, in a monument or on parchment — to the person in question, invaders have settled not just for mass murder of the local citizenry, but have indulged in the wholesale disappearance of every written trace of a culture (as the Taliban did to non-fundamentalist Afghans), a language (as the Normans did to the Saxons), a people (as the Romans did to the Etruscans). Early Christian and medieval monks attacked the memory of non-Christian culture with zealous efficiency.

Ooh, “bibliophilic tidbits”:

And, of course, there’s time for many bibliophilic tidbits. Here’s a quick sample. The great English politician William Gladstone read an average of 250 books a year as an adult, and wrote an essay on how to design and arrange a home library. The Lindisfarne Gospels, the 10th-century Beowulf codex, the sole surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the unique copy of William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman were all saved from destruction by the same man, 17th-century antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. Not one literary or historical document of Etruscan origin has survived, not even in Greek or Roman translation. There is no known original manuscript of any work by Molière, nor have any poetry manuscripts by Edmund Spenser or Andrew Marvell ever been found. Charles Lamb included in his catalog of “books which are not books” — and therefore not readable — scientific treatises and almanacs. Norway has established a book repository in a series of tunnels hollowed deep into a mountainside in the Arctic Circle, where every book written in Norwegian is frigidly preserved, secure from the predations of the outside world.

The Loom: 10% Myth, 1% Fact?

Saturday, December 20th, 2003

In The Loom: 10% Myth, 1% Fact? Carl Zimmer explains the old “you only use 10% of your brain” myth:

In a nutshell, in the 1930s neurologists figured out that only 10% of the human cortex becomes active during sensory stimulation or the motor control of the body. So the other 90% was referred to as ‘silent cortex.’ This technical term doesn’t mean that that 90% is useless, only that it is silent in these particular tasks, like walking and smelling. In fact, these other regions become active in other kinds of thought — such as making decisions and recalling memories. But that didn’t stop the 10% figure from taking on a life of its own.

It turns out that that 10% figure is actually an overestimate:

By coincidence, the 10% story has been on my mind again recently. Over the summer I came across a fascinating paper in Current Biology by Peter Lennie of New York University. Lennie takes a look at how much energy the cortex uses to think. First, he calculates the total amount of energy used by the human cortex, based on recent neuroimaging studies. Then he calculates how much energy a single neuron in the cortex uses when it generates an electric impulse. And finally, he uses these figures to estimate how many neurons in the cortex can be active at any one time. His estimate? Around one percent.

Prospect Magazine – Albert Camus

Saturday, December 20th, 2003

Paul Barker discusses Albert Camus‘s life:

Camus’s first and best-known novel, L’Étranger, written in his twenties, is a short moral tale, in the tradition of Voltairean contes, about a meaningless (‘absurd’) murder. Its flat short sentences have a permanent appeal to adolescent angst.

L’Étranger is one of the few novels I’ve read in French. “Its flat short sentences” didn’t appeal so much to my adolescence as to my limited French comprehension.

I wouldn’t expect these conditions to spawn a famous writer:

Camus was himself an outsider. Like the philosopher Jacques Derrida, he was Algerian-born. But Derrida was middle-class Jewish; Camus’s background was humbler: the white working class of Algiers. His father was a wine company foreman, killed on the Marne in 1914, eight months after his son’s birth. His mother, Spanish by origin, was illiterate and partly deaf. With her husband dead, she worked as a cleaner. Camus took his baths in a zinc tub, in a home without books.
[...]
For the settlers, in a province which was then administratively part of metropolitan France, Algeria was a Mediterranean California. Camus’s early writings are suffused with the charms of sun, sea and sand. The Algerians — meaning the settlers — were, he wrote in his early twenties, “a race without a past, without tradition and yet not without poetry.” The poetry largely consisted in “the cult of an admiration of the body.” Algiers was then a colonists’ city, with only 50,000 Arabs out of 220,000 inhabitants. Camus wrote dreamily about “the flowers and sports stadiums, the cool-legged girls.” When he began to write seriously he worried about keeping a “fragile” balance between work and sun-worship.

It’s hard to imagine Algeria as a Mediterranean California these days.

In 1957, Camus was offered and accepted the Nobel prize. He retained the frugality of his youth, never travelling first class on trains. For the Stockholm ceremony, he borrowed a dinner jacket; Francine borrowed a mink stole. At a question and answer session with students, he was asked about Algeria. He saiid, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” From the left, Le Monde was delighted to give prominence to the quote.
[...]
Camus spent some of his Nobel money on a farmhouse in Provence, where he began a new novel, Le Premier Homme (The First Man). In 1959, after Christmas in the farmhouse with his family, he wrote fond letters to his current mistresses — two actresses and a Balmain model — saying he’d soon be back. On 3rd January 1960, he accepted a lift in his publisher Michel Gallimard’s high-performance Facel Vega. The next day, after lunch, the car hit a roadside tree on the N5. Camus was killed instantly. In his briefcase were 144 pages of his draft novel, which was eventually published as he’d left it. It is about growing up as a poor white in Algeria.

I guess it’s ironic that an obsessively frugal, consumptive, existentialist writer died in flashy car crash.