Knowing the Enemy

Friday, December 29th, 2006

In Knowing the Enemy, George Packer cites David Kilcullen on global counterinsurgency:

One good example of Taliban information strategy is their use of “night letters.” They have been pushing local farmers in several provinces (Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar) to grow poppy instead of regular crops, and using night-time threats and intimidation to punish those who don’t and convince others to convert to poppy. This is not because they need more opium — God knows they already have enough — but because they’re trying to detach the local people from the legal economy and the legally approved governance system of the provinces and districts, to weaken the hold of central and provincial government. Get the people doing something illegal, and they’re less likely to feel able to support the government, and more willing to do other illegal things (e.g. join the insurgency) — this is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way. They are specifically trying to send the message: “The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you — the choice is yours.” They also use object lessons, making an example of people who don’t cooperate—for example, dozens of provincial-level officials have been assassinated this year, again as an “armed propaganda” tool — not because they want one official less but because they want to send the message “We can reach out and touch you if you cross us.” Classic armed information operation.

(Hat tip to Erik.)

Woz and $2 Bills

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Woz is an odd fellow:

You can purchase $1, $2, and now $5 bills from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving on sheets. The sheets come in sizes of 4, 16, and 32 bills each. I buy such sheets of $2 bills. I carry large sheets, folded in my pocket, and sometimes pull out scissors and cut a few off to pay for something in a store. It’s just for comedy, as the $2 bills cost nearly $3 each when purchased on sheets. They cost even more at coin stores.

I take the sheets of 4 bills and have a printer, located through friends, gum them into pads, like stationery pads. The printer then perforates them between the bills, so that I can tear a bill or two away. The bills that I’d tipped the waitress came from such a pad.

Read the whole story to see what kind of trouble this got him into.

Born of fire

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Born of fire, from the latest Economist, describes the jinn, or genies, of Islamic folklore:

Although Somalia and Afghanistan have different religious traditions (Somalia being more relaxed), jinn belief is strong in both countries. War-ravaged, with similarly rudimentary education systems, both have a tradition of shrines venerating local saints where women can pray. Women are supposed to be more open to jinn, particularly illiterate rural women: by some accounts education is a noise, a roaring of thought, which jinn cannot bear. Sometimes women turn supposed jinn possession to their own advantage and become fortune-tellers. Among the most popular questions asked of such women is: “Will my husband take a second wife?” The shrines are often little more than a carved niche in a rock, with colourful prayer flags tied to nearby trees. Jinn are said to be attracted to the ancient geography of shrines, many of which predate Islam; as some have it, the shrines were attracted to the jinn.

Islam teaches that jinn resemble men in many ways: they have free will, are mortal, face judgment and fill hell together. Jinn and men marry, have children, eat, play, sleep and husband their own animals. Islamic scholars are in disagreement over whether jinn are physical or insubstantial in their bodies. Some clerics have described jinn as bestial, giant, hideous, hairy, ursine. Supposed yeti sightings in Pakistan’s Chitral are believed by locals to be of jinn. These kinds of jinn can be killed with date or plum stones fired from a sling.
Unbelieving jinn, those who resisted the Koran, are shaytan, demons, “firewood for hell”. Many Muslims see the devil as a jinn. Some reckon the snake in the Garden of Eden was a shape-shifting jinn. All this may yet play a part in the war on terrorism. Factions in Somalia and Afghanistan have accused their enemies of being backed not only by the CIA but by malevolent jinn. One theory in Afghanistan holds that the mujahideen, “two-legged wolves”, scared the jinn out into the world, causing disharmony. It is jinn, they say, who whisper into the ears of suicide-bombers.

Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani, a Pakistani cleric connected with a jihadist group, Jamaat al-Fuqra, has given warning to America that its missiles will be misdirected by jinn.

Ford was one of the most athletic presidents

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

Sports Illustrated notes that Ford was one of the most athletic presidents:

His deliberate manner of speaking, some highly publicized mishaps and a recurring Chevy Chase bit in the early days of Saturday Night Live helped advance the notion that Gerald R. Ford was a bit of a bumbling stumbler.

In fact, Ford was one of the nation’s fittest and most athletic presidents.

Ford, who has died at age 93, played center on the University of Michigan football team, where he was a three-year letter winner. His teams enjoyed consecutive undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933. He was the Wolverines’ most valuable player in 1934 and, on Jan. 1, 1935, he played in a college all-star game known today as the East West Shrine Game.

Michigan later retired Ford’s No. 48 jersey.

During a 1934 game against the University of Chicago, Ford became the only future U.S. president to tackle a future Heisman Trophy winner when he brought down halfback Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman the following year.

Overcoming allergies possible

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

It looks like it is possible to overcome food allergies:

First, youngsters spent a day at the Duke hospital swallowing minuscule but increasing doses of either an egg powder or a defatted peanut flour, depending on their allergy. They started at 1/3,000th of a peanut or about 1/1,000th of an egg, increasing the amount until the child broke out in hives or had some other reaction.

Then the children were sent home with a daily dose just under that reactive amount. Every two weeks, the kids returned for a small dose increase until they reached the equivalent of a tenth of an egg or one peanut — a maintenance dose that they swallowed daily.

After two years, four of the seven youngsters in the egg pilot study could eat two scrambled eggs with no problem, and two more ate about as much before symptoms began, researchers report in the January edition of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

In the peanut pilot study, yet to be published, six of the children challenged so far could tolerate 15 peanuts, Burks says; Elizabeth’s limit was seven.

Tolkien v. Power

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Alberto Mingardi discusses Tolkien v. Power:

Hardcore environmentalists have tried to enlist Mr. Tolkien among them, focusing on Tolkien’s candid love for nature, for example. But if loving nature necessarily implies you are an environmentalist, people like Ludwig von Mises should also have been very sympathetic toward the Green movement. Indeed, as Justin Raimondo points out, his point wasn’t to bash industry or capitalism; it was to illustrate that evil is expansionist and projects itself even on the landscape. Hence bad environmental aesthetics are a reflection of bad rulers, which is to say, the use of power.

And here we have the correct understanding of the theme of the novel: it is about the evils of power. More precisely, the book aligns itself against power–not “economic power” or “social power”, but specifically political power. This is also the central theme of the classical liberal political tradition.

This has been explained in various occasions by Tolkien himself:

“You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: and allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 121.)

“Power is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales” (p. 152.)

“The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on” (pp. 178-179.)

“In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit” (p. 243.)

“Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)” (p. 246.)

So, we can say The Lord of the Rings fictionalize Edmund Burke’s motto: “In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse!” That’s what Tolkien is trying to convey and dramatize in a novel over 600,000 words long.

Bomb could flood New York subway within hours

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Bomb could flood New York subway within hours:

The analysis, based on work by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and leaked to the New York Times, suggested that the network of tunnels was more vulnerable than had been thought. A bomb that could be carried easily on to a train could make a 50 sq ft (about 4.6 sq metre) hole in the side of the tunnels and potentially breach both sides, the analysis found. More than 1m gallons of water would enter the tunnel every minute, putting at risk the lives of up to 900 passengers – the capacity of a crowded train. About 230,000 people travel every day through four train tunnels that lie along the bed of the Hudson river. The concerns over the fragility of these tunnels are thought to apply equally to several rail tunnels that connect Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens under the East River.

Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus:

For better or worse, happy people have a harder time focusing.

University of Toronto psychologists induced a happy, sad or neutral state in each of 24 participants by playing them specially chosen musical selections. To instill happiness, for example, they played a jazzy version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. After each musical interlude, the researchers gave subjects two tests to assess their creativity and concentration.

In one test, participants in a happy mood were better able to come up with a word that unified three other seemingly disparate words, such as “mower,” “atomic” and “foreign.”

OK, before you read ahead, find a word that unifies the following three seemingly unrelated words:

  • mower
  • atomic
  • foreign

Incidentally, the test seems like it was devised in the 1960s.

Have your answer? OK, let’s continue:

Solving the puzzle required participants to think creatively, moving beyond the normal word associations–”lawn,” “bomb” and “currency” — to come up with the more remote answer: “power.”

Interestingly, induced happiness made the subjects worse at the second task, which required them to ignore distractions and focus on a single piece of information. Participants had to identify a letter flashed on a computer screen flanked by either the same letter, as in the string “N N N N N,” or a different letter, as in “H H N H H.” When the surrounding letters didn’t match, the happy participants were slower to recognize the target letter in the middle, indicating that the ringers distracted them.

Dreaming of a Remote Christmas

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Today we’re used to infrared remote controls, but back before modern battery technology Zenith developed the first practical remote oontrol, and it wasn’t based on infrared or radio. Dreaming of a Remote Christmas explains:

One of Zenith’s top scientists was an Austrian émigré named Dr. Robert Adler, a brilliant man who was a wizard in, among other things, high-frequency sound. In a matter of months Dr. Adler’s research team worked out an elegant solution, a purely mechanical device that required no batteries.

Adapting the principle of ultrasonics — sounds at a frequency beyond the human ear — the Adler team came up with a system of four precisely “tuned” aluminum rods. Each rod was about 2-1/2 inches long, but each was in fact cut to an exact length that gave it a unique frequency when vibrated. Above each rod was a small hammer, triggered by spring, corresponding to the four buttons. One rod’s inaudible vibration turned the set on and off, two moved the channel selector up or down, and the fourth (McDonald’s favorite) muted the sound.

Zenith was able to test and put the Space Command into production in time for the Christmas shopping season of 1956. It was expensive. It increased the cost of a Zenith television receiver by 30 percent. This was because a special ultrasonic receiver involving six vacuum tubes had to be installed in sets sold with the remote. I do not remember the exact price of the set George and I saw that day in Pittsburgh but it made my uncle, who loved technology, a bit ashen faced.

All I Want for Christmas…

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Douglas Kern opens All I Want for Christmas… with an amusing take on Christmas loot:

Recently I read that in Austria and some Latin American countries, the bringer of gifts at Christmas is not Santa Claus, but rather the Christ Child. I like our way better. The notion of the Christ Child as the dispenser of Christmas loot raises troubling theological dilemmas that Santa just doesn’t present.

When Santa accidentally gives your kid a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it’s just shabby elf labor gone awry, but when The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is giving your offspring ultra-violent video games, it’s a harbinger of the apocalypse. And while it’s no big deal when Santa gives you a pair of Dockers that’s a size too small, what is God try to tell you when his Son gives you size 32 instead of 34? Does God want you to lose weight? Does 32 have a sacred meaning in Aramaic? And if you take them back, what will you tell Saint Peter when, on Judgment Day, he asks what you did with the in-store credit at Sears? Multiply all these problems by a hundred if you’re a Calvinist. There you are, painstakingly scrutinizing yourself and your position in life to see if you’re a member of the elect, and the Christ Child leaves you a sign of God’s will: a $30 gift card for Applebee’s. What could it mean?

Scientists link weight to gut bacteria

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Scientists link weight to gut bacteria:

In one of the two studies in Nature, Gordon and colleagues looked at what happened in mice with changes in bacteria level. When lean mice with no germs in their guts had larger ratios of Firmicutes transplanted, they got “twice as fat” and took in more calories from the same amount of food than mice with the more normal bacteria ratio, said Washington University microbiology instructor Ruth Ley, a study co-author.

It was as if one group got far more calories from the same bowl of Cheerios than the other, Gordon said.

In a study of dozen dieting people, the results also were dramatic.

Before dieting, about 3 percent of the gut bacteria in the obese participants was Bacteroidetes. But after dieting, the now normal-sized people had much higher levels of Bacteroidetes — close to 15 percent, Gordon said.

The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up:

According to various estimates, here’s what happens to your clothing giveaways. In most cases, a small amount of the items, the best quality castoffs — less than 10 percent of donations — are kept by the charitable institutions and sold in their thrift shops to other Americans looking for a bargain. These buyers could be people who are hard up, or they could be folks who like the idea of a good deal on a stylish old item that no longer can be found in regular stores.

The remaining 90 percent or more of what you give away is sold by the charitable institution to textile recycling firms. Bernard Brill, of the Secondary Recycled Textiles Association, told ABC News: ‘Our industry buys from charitable institutions, hundred of millions of dollars worth of clothing every year.’
So, at this point, the charity you have donated clothes to has earned money off of them in two ways — in their shops and by selling to recyclers. Then the recycler kicks into high gear. Most of the clothes are recycled into cleaning cloths and other industrial items, for which the recyclers say they make a modest profit.

Computerized efficiency helps UPS handle busiest time of year

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Computerized efficiency helps UPS handle busiest time of year:

The back of his UPS truck is stacked floor to ceiling, but neatly, with boxes sticking an inch or so over the edge of their shelves — lip loaded, in UPS jargon. That makes it easy for Alles to grab the packages. They’re also slanting downward toward the truck’s outer wall — the better to stay put when Alles takes a corner.

And thanks to technology on which UPS is spending $600 million company-wide, Alles, a driver out of the firm’s distribution center in Elm Grove, feels confident that the 500-odd packages, which he will deliver to 344 stops, have been loaded in the correct order.

His handheld computer, meanwhile, will tell him the sequence for his route, one of 179 running out of Elm Grove on this day. All told, Alles and his fellow drivers here will deliver about 65,000 packages over the next several hours.

UPS has long been known for efficiency.

Drivers don’t run. That might cause injuries, which definitely aren’t efficient. They do, however, move briskly — about two steps per second. A residential stop should take 30 seconds, steering wheel to steering wheel, spokeswoman Donna Barrett said.

While at a stop, drivers are supposed to hang their key ring from a finger so it’s handy when they get back behind the wheel, where they simultaneously start the engine with their right hand while fastening the seat belt with their left.

Shock Waves Can Save Hearts

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Shock Waves Can Save Hearts:

Extracorporeal cardiac shock wave therapy sounds like something Capt. Picard might need after a run-in with the Borg. But it’s actually a new, real-life way to treat end-stage heart disease.
A team of Japanese researchers found that blasting the heart with shock waves helps patients grow new blood vessels and increase blood flow.
Shimokawa and his colleagues aimed low-energy pressure waves at the chests of nine patients with end-stage coronary artery disease. During a typical session they hit 20 to 40 different areas of the heart with 200 pulses each. Blood flow increased and symptoms were alleviated in all patients, suggesting the growth of new blood vessels.

The researchers used a shock wave generator made especially for the heart. Using its fine adjustments, they could focus waves on a 2-square-millimeter area, and aim them virtually anywhere.

‘Hibernating’ man survives for 3 weeks

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

‘Hibernating’ man survives for 3 weeks:

A man who went missing in western Japan survived in near-freezing weather without food and water for over three weeks by falling into a state similar to hibernation, doctors said.

Mitsutaka Uchikoshi had almost no pulse, his organs had all but shut down and his body temperature was 71 degrees Fahrenheit when he was discovered on Rokko mountain in late October, said doctors who treated him at the nearby Kobe City General Hospital. He had been missing for 24 days.

“On the second day, the sun was out, I was in a field, and I felt very comfortable. That’s my last memory,” Uchikoshi, 35, told reporters Tuesday before returning home from hospital. “I must have fallen asleep after that.”

Doctors believe Uchikoshi, a city official from neighboring Nishinomiya who was visiting the mountain for a barbecue party, tripped and later lost consciousness in a remote mountainous area.

His body temperature soon plunged as he lay in 50-degree weather, greatly slowing down his metabolism.