The Democratic Tendency

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Deogolwulf explains The Democratic Tendency of the modern Brit — or American, or European, really:

He notices that:
(1) Good government is lacking (in whatever way he might define it: fostering liberty, benevolence, lollipops for all, etc.)
He assumes that:
(2) Democracy is good government
He infers that:
(3) Democracy is lacking
And, having furthermore assumed that all good government is democratic, and wishing for more good government, he concludes that:
(4) We need more democracy.

Siamese Twins

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

The original “Siamese twins” were a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were born on May 11, 1811 in Siam (now Thailand), in the province of Samutsongkram, to a Chinese fisherman (Ti-eye) and a half-Chinese/half-Malay mother (Nok).

They were joined at the sternum by a small piece of cartilage; modern surgeons would have easily separated the two.

In 1829, they were discovered by a British merchant named Robert Hunter, and he went on to exhibit them as a curiosity during a world tour.

Here’s where the story gets particularly odd:

Upon termination of their contract with their discoverer, they successfully went into business for themselves. In 1839, while visiting Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the twins were attracted to the town and settled there, becoming naturalized United States citizens.

Determined to start living a normal life as much as possible, the brothers settled on a plantation, bought slaves, and adopted the name “Bunker”. On April 13, 1843, they married two sisters: Chang to Adelaide Yates and Eng to Sarah Anne Yates. Chang and his wife had 10 children; Eng and his wife had 11. In time, the wives squabbled and eventually two separate households were set up just west of Mount Airy, North Carolina in the community of White Plains – the twins would alternate spending three days at each home. During the American Civil War Chang’s son Christopher and Eng’s son Stephen both fought for the Confederacy. The twins died on the same day in 1874. Chang, who had been in declining health for several years, died first; Eng died one hour later.

In fact, the Bunker clan has more branches than a loblolly pine:

Their descendants — some 1,500 — have scattered across the country, but many still live in Mount Airy, a town of 8,000 north of Winston-Salem, where the slow roll of the Piedmont plateau lifts to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

(Hat tip to Yana.)

How China has created a new slave empire in Africa

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Peter Hitchens was in a car attacked by a Congolese mob, but he got away. Why did these semi-starved miners want him dead?

The diggers feared — and their evil, sinister bosses had worked hard on that fear — that if people like me publicised their filthy way of life, then the mine might be closed and the $3 a day might be taken away.

I can give you no better explanation in miniature of the wicked thing that I believe is now happening in Africa.

Out of desperation, much of the continent is selling itself into a new era of corruption and virtual slavery as China seeks to buy up all the metals, minerals and oil she can lay her hands on: copper for electric and telephone cables, cobalt for mobile phones and jet engines — the basic raw materials of modern life.

It is crude rapacity, but to Africans and many of their leaders it is better than the alternative, which is slow starvation.

On the one hand, he notes that his journalism — which is sure to trigger the “international community” into action — will cost them their jobs, and that their only alternative is slow starvation, yet he clearly thinks he’s doing the Lord’s work by stopping the “evil” Chinese “slavers” buying up minerals from Africans.

From 12 years onwards you learn differently

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

From 12 years onwards you learn differently than in your earlier years:

Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds and adults. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback (‘Well done!’), whereas negative feedback (‘Got it wrong this time’) scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring. Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. Adults do the same, but more efficiently.

The switch in learning strategy has been demonstrated in behavioural research, which shows that eight-year-olds respond disproportionately inaccurately to negative feedback. But the switch can also be seen in the brain, as developmental psychologist Dr Eveline Crone and her colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab discovered using fMRI research. The difference can be observed particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for cognitive control. These areas are located in the cerebral cortex.

In children of eight and nine, these areas of the brain react strongly to positive feedback and scarcely respond at all to negative feedback. But in children of 12 and 13, and also in adults, the opposite is the case. Their ‘control centres’ in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.

(Hat tip to FuturePundit.)

We need a Door Number Three for IT professionals

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Cringely says, We need a Door Number Three for IT professionals:

I have a friend of 20 years who is in a key technical role at a very large company. He’s too vital to the company to risk losing but too geeky to fit in. He’s on the craft (non-management) salary scale, but way higher than he ought to be for having no direct responsibility. All he does, in fact, is from time to time save his company from ruin. And even more rarely, he saves all the rest of us from ruin, too, in ways I am not at liberty to explain. How do you manage such a guy? Where he works they have him report to the CEO. The Big Guy has 5-6 direct reports and one of them — my friend — doesn’t manage anyone or anything.

THAT’S Door Number Three.

Somali Pirates Involved in Shootout, Leaving 3 Dead, U.S. Official Says

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Somali Pirates Involved in Shootout, Leaving 3 Dead, U.S. Official Says:

Disagreements between Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship laden with tanks and heavy weapons escalated into a shootout and three pirates are believed dead, a U.S. defense official said Tuesday. The pirates denied the report.

The U.S. destroyer USS Howard and several other American ships have surrounded the cargo ship Faina, which was hijacked Thursday and is now anchored off the lawless coast of Somalia. The pirates have demanded a ransom of $20 million and the U.S. Navy cordon aims to prevent them from taking any of the weapons ashore.

The official in Washington who reported the shootout spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. He refused to elaborate.

But the pirate spokesman insisted the report was not true. “We didn’t dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout,” pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said by satellite telephone Tuesday.

He said the Somali pirates were celebrating the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr despite being surrounded by American warships and helicopters.

“We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating Eid,” Mr. Ali said. “Nothing has changed.” The Islamic feast marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Do young Somalis take a career-aptitude test that points to options like pirate spokesman?

The Crazy Dream-Car

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Wil Shipley — who owns a Lotus Elise, the gas-powered car the Tesla is built on — calls the Tesla “the the crazy dream-car that a kid might design in his naivety of how the world really works, except some engineers didn’t get the memo on what’s possible, and went ahead and built it”:

It’s crazy-fast. It handles like a jet fighter. It gets the equivalent of about 140 mpg. It has no gears. It requires almost no maintenance.e It’s gorgeous. It’s whisper-quiet. And, in Seattle, runs off hydro power.

So, yes, I test-drove a Tesla today, for five laps on a closed course in the parking lot of a defunct K-mart. Then I took my supercharged Lotus Elise around the same course. (The Tesla I drove was an engineering prototype but is said to be very close to the one I’ll get next year.)
Remember: this car is NOT an automatic: there are no damn gears. It’s not shifting for you; there’s no annoying pauses where the car decides what gear you might want, right in the middle of your burn. The engine is basically hooked up directly to the damn wheels. It’s amazing. It has that responsive feeling of when you are driving a normal car in first gear, except it has that no matter how fast you are going.
Normally, features like “traction control” or “no shifting” put me off of a car, because they essentially translate to “low-performance-idiot-mode.” You turn them on and you feel like the car is driving and you’re a passenger. I’ve hated ‘em in Ferraris and Mercedes SLs.

With the Tesla, these features are put in to allow you to drive harder and faster and still feel completely in command. I am driving. I feel the road. I feel the wheels.

Branagh in talks to direct ‘Thor’

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Kenneth Branagh is in talks to direct 'Thor' — aye, verily:

Kenneth Branagh is negotiating to direct Thor, the next Marvel Comics property that will be turned into a live-action film by Marvel Studios. Pic will be released in 2010.

Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige’s choice of Branagh is surprising, as Branagh hasn’t really directed an action-heavy film since his debut on Henry V, a bloody telling of the British king’s conquest of France.

Branagh is the latest in a string of directors — such as Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Christopher Nolan (the Batman franchise) and Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) — with arthouse roots taking on big-budget comicbook fare.

Marvel will set a distributor for Thor shortly.

Thor comicbook adaptation, penned by Mark Protosevich, follows disabled medical student Donald Blake, who has an alter ego as the hammer-wielding Norse god Thor.

Marvel will self-finance the film via its $500 million credit facility through Merrill Lynch. Marvel used that coin to fund both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and will do the same for the Iron Man sequel that has director Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. returning.

The Thor negotiations come during a resurgence for Branagh. He’s currently drawing raves on the London stage in the title role of Ivanov, and he’ll next be seen acting in the Richard Curtis-directed The Boat That Rocked and the Bryan Singer-helmed Valkyrie.

Valkyrie is not, by the way, a Norse-mythology movie.

Finance is interested in you

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

You may not be interested in finance, to paraphrase Trotsky, but finance is interested in you, Mencius Moldbug notes:

1. We do not have a free-market financial system.

2. We have never had a free-market financial system.

3. Leaving the financial system to “work things out on its own” will not produce a free-market financial system. It will produce a smoking heap of rubble.

4. Paulson’s bailout is, if anything, far too weak. Our financial system is part of the government. The proper first step is to stop lying about this. This means nationalizing the banks. This is not an expansion of government, but a recognition of its actual size. It is not an expenditure, but a revision of accounting to reflect reality.

5. A free-market financial system would be way cool. More important, it would be extremely stable. But the only way to create one is to build it right from the start. If you have a car and you want a motorcycle, sell your car and buy a motorcycle. Don’t decide to call your car a “four-wheeled motorcycle,” and don’t think unscrewing two of the wheels will solve the problem.

6. Therefore, the government should close down the financial system we have now and replace it with one that doesn’t suck. What is the probability that this will happen? Zero. But at least you know.

The housing market works pathologically

Monday, September 29th, 2008

The housing market works pathologically, Edward Leamer notes:

A normal market works because demand curves are downward sloping, but for homes demand curves can be upward sloping. Declining prices in many regions are not bringing buyers back to the market. Price declines are creating the expectation of more price declines to come, and encouraging prospective buyers to postpone their decisions, which causes more price declines, and eventually overshooting of prices. When prices get back to normal and buyers have not returned, that’s when we need to find ways to bring the buyers back.

(Hat tip to Art De Vany.)

Carbon nanotechnology in a 17th-century Damascus sword

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Researchers have found what might be called carbon nanotechnology in a 17th-century Damascus sword:

Damascus blades were forged from small cakes of steel from India called wootz. All steel is made by allowing iron with carbon to harden the resulting metal. The problem with steel manufacture is that high carbon contents of 1–2% certainly make the material harder, but also render it brittle. This is useless for sword steel since the blade would shatter upon impact with a shield or another sword. Wootz, with its especially high carbon content of about 1.5%, should have been useless for sword-making. Nonetheless, the resulting sabres showed a seemingly impossible combination of hardness and malleability.

Reibold’s team solved this paradox by analysing a Damascus sabre created by the famous blacksmith Assad Ullah in the seventeenth century, and graciously donated by the Berne Historical Museum in Switzerland. They dissolved part of the weapon in hydrochloric acid and studied it under an electron microscope. Amazingly, they found that the steel contained carbon nanotubes, each one just slightly larger than half a nanometre. Ten million could fit side by side on the head of a thumbtack.

Carbon nanotubes are cylinders made of hexagonally-arranged carbon atoms. They are among the strongest materials known and have great elasticity and tensile strength. In Reibold’s analysis, the nanotubes were protecting nanowires of cementite (Fe3C), a hard and brittle compound formed by the iron and carbon of the steel. That is the answer to the steel’s special properties — it is a composite material at a nanometre level. The malleability of the carbon nanotubes makes up for the brittle nature of the cementite formed by the high-carbon wootz cakes.

It isn’t clear how ancient blacksmiths produced these nanotubes, but the researchers believe that the key to this process lay with small traces of metals in the wootz including vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt and nickel. Alternating hot and cold phases during manufacture caused these impurities to segregate out into planes. From there, they would have acted as catalysts for the formation of the carbon nanotubes, which in turn would have promoted the formation of the cementite nanowires. These structures formed along the planes set out by the impurities, explaining the characteristic wavy bands, or damask (see image at top), that patterns Damascus blades.

Apparently the ore used to produce wootz came from Indian mines that were depleted in the eighteenth century, and thus the ability to manufacture Damascus swords was lost.

How To: Take Down Somali Pirates

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Why is David Axe writing about how to take down Somali pirates?

The U.S. Navy destroyer Howard continues to shadow the Ukrainian vessel Faina, which Somali pirates seized last week. Faina is loaded with around three dozen T-72 tanks and other weapons reportedly bound for Kenya. “Howard is on-station,” Commander Curtis Goodnight, Howard‘s skipper, told a Navy reporter. “My crew is actively monitoring the situation.” The destroyer has even established unspecified “bridge-to-bridge” comms with the hijacked ship.

What might the Navy do if ordered to secure the seized weapons? Two recent French anti-piracy raids might offer a preview. In one raid in April, French commandos in helicopters, operating from ships, chased pirates onto land. A sniper in one chopper shot out the engines of the pirates’ vehicles; another chopper landed commandos to grab six of the startled Somalis.

In another raid in September, French commandos parachuted into the water near a hijacked yacht, under the cover of darkness, and swam a short distance to board, unseen. They shot dead one pirate, captured others and freed the yacht’s owners.

So if the Pentagon decides to take out the Faina pirates, how’s it going to go down? Four words: Djibouti (where U.S. Special Operations Command has a base north of Somalia), helicopters, Navy SEALs.

America Must Rescue the Bonuses at Goldman Sachs

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Michael Lewis satirically pleads that America Must Rescue the Bonuses at Goldman Sachs:

The total collapse of the global financial system is one thing — everyone at Davos in January saw that coming. But the shrinkage of the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. bonus pool is another. Whatever else the Treasury achieves it must know that if the employees of Goldman suffer any sort of pay cut, it will be judged to have failed. And our country may never recover.

Last year Goldman paid its employees $20 billion, 44 percent of the firm’s revenue. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein took home $68.5 million, and many otherwise ordinary human beings took home $10 million or more.

This inspired young people everywhere, many of whom may have privately wondered whether it was still worth their time to become investment bankers. Torn between a future in, say, the law and the manufacture of mezzanine CDOs they sucked up their courage and plunged onto Wall Street. And thank God for that: We needed the best and the brightest to get us into this mess, and we’ll need the best and the brightest to get us out of it.
To its credit the government has thus far done pretty much all it can to prevent any suffering inside the firm. Its extreme sensitivity to Goldman’s pain is the only way to explain its actions thus far.
Think of Wall Street as a poker game and Goldman as the smartest player. It’s sad when you think about it this way that so much of the dumb money on Wall Street has been forced out of the game. There’s no one left to play with. Just as Goldman was about to rake in its winnings and head home, the U.S. government stumbles in, fat and happy and looking for some action. I imagine the best and the brightest inside Goldman are right this moment trying to figure out how it uses the Treasury not only to sell their own crappy assets dear but also to buy other people’s crappy assets cheap.

At any rate, it won’t take long for Goldman Sachs to figure out how to make that $700 billion work for Goldman Sachs. This you can trust them to do. After all, Warren Buffett just did.

Starship Troopers Meets G.I. Joe

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I’m not sure that I’d describe the XM25 Individual Air Burst Weapon as Starship Troopers Meets G.I. Joe — but it does look like a good choice for hunting xenomorphs:

Current infantry weapons can shoot at or through an obstacle concealing enemy threats, but the Army has been trying for years to come up with a weapon for engaging targets behind barriers without resorting to mortars, rockets or grenades — all of which risk greater collateral damage. After fits and starts using a 20mm rifle housed in a bulky, overweight, complicated shell, technology finally caught up to shave the XM25 from 21 pounds to a little more than 12 pounds.

If the XM25 does what its developers hope, it will be able to fire an air-bursting round at a target from 16 meters away out to 600 meters with a highly accurate, 360-degree explosive radius.

The XM25 is about as long as a collapsed M4, weighs about as much as an M16 with an M203 grenade launcher attached and has about as much kick as a 12-gauge shotgun, said Barb Muldowney, Army deputy program manager for infantry combat weapons.

The semi-auto XM25 comes with a four-round magazine, though testers are looking at whether to increase the capacity to as much as 10 rounds.

Brains are what really makes this Buck Rogers gun work — it has them. The weapon combines a thermal optic, day-sight, laser range finder, compass and IR illuminator with a fire-control system that wirelessly transmits the exact range of the target into the 25mm round’s fuse before firing.

A Soldier can aim the XM25 at a wall concealing a sniper, for example, but “dial in” or adjust the distance by an additional meter above the target. When fired, the Alliant Teksystems-built round will explode above the enemy’s position, essentially going around the obstruction, Muldowney said.

Military-grade weapons aren’t cheap — but the XM25 seems oddly inexpensive next to the M4 carbine:

The weapon costs about $25,000 each, but experts were quick to point out that a fully-loaded M4 for optics and pointers costs pretty close to $30,000. Each ATK-made 25mm round costs about $25.

As Heckler and Koch, makers of the weapon itself, and L3 Communications — which makes the fire control system — crank out more weapons, the Army plans to push them out to the field for testing beginning in March 2009. That could include the first use of such a weapon in combat, Cline said.

If all goes according to plan, Soldiers might have their first XM25s in hand by 2014, far sooner than the Army’s small arms community had predicted even last year.

(I have mentioned the XM25 before.)

More virulent strain of herpes hitting sumo wrestlers

Monday, September 29th, 2008

More virulent strain of herpes hitting sumo wrestlers:

The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is notorious among the general public for causing unsightly cold sores and sore throats.

The symptoms recur because the pathogen can hide in nerve cells for a long time and then leap out.

But a more extreme form of the disease occurs among athletes who take part in close-contact sports, such as sumo, rugby and judo.

Known as Herpes gladiatorum, or scrumpox, it causes painful, virus-filled blisters to form on the face and the neck that can damage the skin. Fever, headaches and an infection of the lymph nodes can also result.
In a study published in a British journal, Japanese scientists looked at blood samples from 39 sumo wrestlers in Tokyo who had been diagnosed with H. gladiatorum between 1989 and 1994.

Tests revealed that some of the wrestlers had been infected only once, while in others, the disease had recurred several times.

The culprit for this was a variant of HSV1-1 called BgKL, which reactivates, spreads more efficiently and causes more severe symptoms than other strains, they found.

The authors, led by Kazuo Yanagi of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, believe the H. gladiatorum was transmitted by other wrestlers in the “stable” where they live and train together.

“Two of the wrestlers died as a result of their infections, so cases like this do need to be investigated,” Yanagi said in a press release.