Cthulhu License Plate

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Any Lovecraft fan should get a smile out of this Cthulhu License Plate, spotted “on a Jeep in March of this year.”

The Value of a New York Dollar

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Daniel Gross looks at The Value of a New York Dollar — about 76.2 cents — once you account for higher housing costs, tax costs, etc., which are only partially offset by higher wages.

Knock-out blow

Monday, October 30th, 2006

In Knock-out blow, Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist) explains that a beautiful old neighborhood church was flattened because of attempts to preserve it:

The story is simple. Hackney Council was discussing the possibility of extending a conservation area to include the church. Once that happened, it would be difficult to get permission to demolish the church and build something else. The developers weren’t stupid, and knocked the old building down while they still could.

In the US, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives broad powers to federal agencies to restrict development in order to protect species. This can produce the same perverse incentives as Hackney’s conservation area. Economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael studied what happened when the rare red-cockaded woodpecker was discovered in commercially valuable forests in North Carolina. Forest owners who were unwilling landlords to the woodpecker were, of course, not allowed to cut timber. But woodpeckers tend to move about, so there are no prizes for guessing that the forest near the woodpecker, but outside the restricted zone, was cleared immediately.

Michael Margolis, Daniel Osgood and John List found a similar situation in Arizona regarding rare pygmy owls. In 1997, developers discovered that large tracts of land near Tucson were about to be designated “critical habitat”, which would mean restrictions on development. Naturally, the developers didn’t wait.

MIT’s pint-sized car engine promises high efficiency, low cost

Monday, October 30th, 2006

MIT’s pint-sized car engine promises high efficiency, low cost:

For decades, efforts to improve the efficiency of the conventional spark-ignition (SI) gasoline engine have been stymied by a barrier known as the “knock limit”: Changes that would have made the engine far more efficient would have caused knock — spontaneous combustion that makes a metallic clanging noise and can damage the engine. Now, using sophisticated computer simulations, the MIT team has found a way to use ethanol to suppress spontaneous combustion and essentially remove the knock limit.

When the engine is working hard and knock is likely, a small amount of ethanol is directly injected into the hot combustion chamber, where it quickly vaporizes, cooling the fuel and air and making spontaneous combustion much less likely. According to a simulation developed by Bromberg, with ethanol injection the engine won’t knock even when the pressure inside the cylinder is three times higher than that in a conventional SI engine. Engine tests by collaborators at Ford Motor Company produced results consistent with the model’s predictions.

With knock essentially eliminated, the researchers could incorporate into their engine two operating techniques that help make today’s diesel engines so efficient, but without causing the high emissions levels of diesels. First, the engine is highly turbocharged. In other words, the incoming air is compressed so that more air and fuel can fit inside the cylinder. The result: An engine of a given size can produce more power.

Second, the engine can be designed with a higher compression ratio (the ratio of the volume of the combustion chamber after compression to the volume before). The burning gases expand more in each cycle, getting more energy out of a given amount of fuel.

The combined changes could increase the power of a given-sized engine by more than a factor of two. But rather than seeking higher vehicle performance — the trend in recent decades — the researchers shrank their engine to half the size. Using well-established computer models, they determined that their small, turbocharged, high-compression-ratio engine will provide the same peak power as the full-scale SI version but will be 20 to 30 percent more fuel efficient.

The temperature is as likely to go down as up

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Richard Lindzen, Arthur P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT, says the temperature is as likely to go down as up.

How Trey Parker and Matt Stone made South Park a success

Monday, October 30th, 2006

How Trey Parker and Matt Stone made South Park a success:

You won’t find “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening tearing apart his show at the last minute. That show’s writers labor over scripts and then send them off to be animated in South Korea. The entire process, typical of modern animation, takes eight months.

Parker and Stone, however, produce each of their shows in a week. They start Thursday morning with a writers’ meeting and finish the following Wednesday, when they send the show to Comedy Central via satellite uplink hours before it airs at 10 P.M.

I guess that explains how they stay so timely.

The Decline and Fall of the Elephant Empire

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Charles Siebert wonders if we’re looking at An Elephant Crackup:

Just two days before I arrived, a woman was killed by an elephant in Kazinga, a fishing village nearby. Two months earlier, a man was fatally gored by a young male elephant at the northern edge of the park, near the village of Katwe. African elephants use their long tusks to forage through dense jungle brush. They’ve also been known to wield them, however, with the ceremonious flash and precision of gladiators, pinning down a victim with one knee in order to deliver the decisive thrust. Okello told me that a young Indian tourist was killed in this fashion two years ago in Murchison Falls National Park, north of where we were.

These were not isolated incidents. All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990’s to monitor the problem. In the Indian state of Jharkhand near the western border of Bangladesh, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In the past 12 years, elephants have killed 605 people in Assam, a state in northeastern India, 239 of them since 2001; 265 elephants have died in that same period, the majority of them as a result of retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge. In Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts appear almost daily, from Zambia to Tanzania, from Uganda to Sierra Leone, where 300 villagers evacuated their homes last year because of unprovoked elephant attacks.

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity — for want of a less anthropocentric term — of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990’s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in ‘‘a number of reserves’’ in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.

What’s going on?

Typically, elephant researchers have cited, as a cause of aggression, the high levels of testosterone in newly matured male elephants or the competition for land and resources between elephants and humans. But in ‘‘Elephant Breakdown,’’ a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

What do you do when adolescent males act up?

When South African park rangers recently introduced a number of older bull elephants into several destabilized elephant herds in Pilanesburg and Addo, the wayward behavior — including unusually premature hormonal changes among the adolescent elephants — abated.

Young males evidently need a coach or drill sergeant to keep them in line.

The Worst Mistake

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Jared Diamond says that “Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history”:

Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny. Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.

New Glowing Mushrooms Found in Brazil

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

New Glowing Mushrooms Found in Brazil:

Like a black light poster come to life, a group of bioluminescent fungi collected from Ribeira Valley Tourist State Park near São Paulo, Brazil, emanates a soft green glow when the lights go out.

The mushrooms are part of the genus Mycena, a group that includes about 500 species worldwide. Of these only 33 are known to be bioluminescent — capable of producing light through a chemical reaction.

Since 2002 Cassius Stevani, professor of chemistry at the University of São Paulo; Dennis Desjardin, professor of mycology at San Francisco State University in California; and Marina Capelari of Brazil’s Institute of Botany have discovered ten more bioluminescent fungi species — four of which are new to science — in Brazil’s tropical forests.

If all stories were written like science fiction stories

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Mark Rosenfelder notes that if all stories were written like science fiction stories they would go something like this:

Roger and Ann needed to meet Sergey in San Francisco.

“Should we take a train, or a steamship, or a plane?” asked Ann.

“Trains are too slow, and the trip by steamship around South America would take months,” replied Roger. “We’ll take a plane.”

He logged onto the central network using his personal computer, and waited while the system verified his identity. With a few keystrokes he entered an electronic ticketing system, and entered the codes for his point of departure and his destination. In moments the computer displayed a list of possible flights, and he picked the earliest one. Dollars were automatically deducted from his personal account to pay for the transaction.

The planes left from the city airport, which they reached using the city bi-rail. Ann had changed into her travelling outfit, which consisted of a light shirt in polycarbon-derived artifical fabric, which showed off her pert figure, without genetic enhancements, and dark blue pants made of textiles. Her attractive brown hair was uncovered.


The Rare Carpathian Armadillo

Friday, October 27th, 2006

I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula years ago — it was much, much better than Frankenstein, by the way — and I’ve seen any number of vampire movies in my day, but I only recently saw the “original” 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi as the count.

A few observations:

  • In the film, it is Renfield (who ends up a bug-eating lunatic) and not Jonathan Harker (the protagonist of the book) who goes to Transylvania.
  • Dracula’s castle contains rats, fake spiders, and … armadillos. Seriously. I don’t know who the set-dresser was who came up with that one, but they’re there.
  • In the castle, Renfield faints at the sight of a laughably fake bat, and Dracula’s wives approach, when Dracula appears and descends — off screen — on Renfield. Rumor has it that the studio didn’t want Dracula to attack a man on screen — too gay — but fading to black doesn’t seem much better. Anyway, this somehow turns Renfield into his loyal, lunatic manservant.

Lighthouse of Alexandria

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

I didn’t realize how long the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood:

The Pharos of Alexandria was a lighthouse built in the 3rd century BC (between 285 and 247 BC) on the island of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt to serve as that port’s landmark, and later, a lighthouse.

With a height variously estimated at between 115 and 135 metres (383-440 ft) it was among the tallest man-made structures on Earth for many centuries, and was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by classical writers.

It ceased operating and was largely destroyed as a result of an earthquake in 1375; some of its remains were found on the floor of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour by divers in 1994. More of the remains have subsequently been revealed by satellite imaging.

The Library of Alexandria did not last nearly as long.

Revolt of the fairly rich

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Matt Miller discusses the surprising revolt of the fairly rich:

Not long ago an investment banker worth millions told me that he wasn’t in his line of work for the money. “If I was doing this for the money,” he said, with no trace of irony, “I’d be at a hedge fund.” What to say? Only on a small plot of real estate in lower Manhattan at the dawn of the 21st century could such a statement be remotely fathomable. That it is suggests how debauched our ruling class has become.

The widening chasm between rich and poor may well threaten our democracy. Yet if that banker’s lament staggers your brain as it did mine, you’re on your way to seeing why America’s income gap is arguably less likely to spark a retro fight between proletarians and capitalists than a war between what I call the “lower upper class” and the ultrarich.

Here’s my outlandish theory: that economic resentment at the bottom of the top 1 percent of America’s income distribution is the new wild card in public life. Ordinary workers won’t rise up against ultras because they take it as given that “the rich get richer.”

But the hopes and dreams of today’s educated class are based on the idea that market capitalism is a meritocracy. The unreachable success of the superrich shreds those dreams.

“I’ve seen it in my research,” says pollster Doug Schoen, who counsels Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton, among others. “If you look at the lower part of the upper class or the upper part of the upper middle class, there’s a great deal of frustration. These are people who assumed that their hard work and conventional ‘success’ would leave them with no worries. It’s the type of rumbling that could lead to political volatility.”

Lower uppers are doctors, accountants, engineers, lawyers. At companies they’re mostly executives above the rank of VP but below the CEO. Their comrades include well-fed members of the media (and even Fortune columnists who earn their living as consultants).

Lower uppers are professionals who by dint of schooling, hard work and luck are living better than 99 percent of the humans who have ever walked the planet. They’re also people who can’t help but notice how many folks with credentials like theirs are living in Gatsby-esque splendor they’ll never enjoy.

The Leadership Myth

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

In The Leadership Myth, Arnold Kling notes that “one way in which libertarians differ from conventional liberals and conservatives is that we place less faith in having good political leaders”:

The conventional wisdom is that we would be better off if politically powerful leaders were less mediocre. Instead, my view is that we would be better off if mediocre political leaders were less powerful.

He describes “the real value of democracy”:

Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

An example of an institution that I believe works well is a sports tournament. A good chess tournament or tennis tournament produces a winner who is far better than mediocre.

Another example of an institution that works well is the scientific method. I trust the results of well-designed experiments much more than I trust popular opinion.

Many institutions give concentrated decision-making power to experts. Examples include business decisions made by corporations or tenure decisions made by academic departments. Many government agencies are built to work on this model, but in the absence of the competitive discipline that exists in the private sector, the results are mixed. My personal impression is that some agencies, such as the Federal Reserve, have an abundance of expertise, while other agencies, such as the CIA, appear somewhat deficient.

For me, the value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials. The fact that leaders can be tossed out by popular vote helps to limit their abuse of power. Democracy gives the people the power to toss out the bums.

We should expect mediocrity from politicians:

We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are selected by a very unreliable process. In general, I try to avoid contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into politics.

Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Frederick Turner examines Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society:

The change is radical. Whereas the Wahhabi/Baathist killers are indiscriminate in whom they kill, as long as their victims may include Shiites or at least people who might have voted in the elections, the death squads are quite focused in their aim. There is all the difference in the world between bombing a marketplace and shooting a man you have identified and chosen. Reason — even a vile and brutal reason — can be found in the second, where it was absent in the first. The whole point of bombing a market or a bus station is to assert the monstrous and magisterial superiority of chaos itself, of unreason — only thus can the ultimate terror be evoked, terror of what no reasonable strategy of complicity or evasion can avoid. Only thus can ordinary decent people be forced to accept any kind of order, however evil they find it, as long as it is predictable.

But death squads are rational, in their own horrible way. They may prove, as they did in Latin America, to be a pretty effective method of wiping out implacable enemies of social order and preparing the way for democratic and law-abiding government. In living memory almost every decent and legal regime in Latin America was preceded by a chaotic period in which ordinary men armed themselves with guns, said goodnight to their families, and went out in groups to kill some local dissident. That period was a bit further back in the past for the French, the English, and the Americans. But no nation can be shown to have reached the rule of democratic law without it. The work of the vigilantes is the hideous and dark crime that Socrates and the Greek tragic dramatists hinted must underlie all civilization. That crime is indeed a crime, and its perpetrators must stand trial for it, whether before God or some human tribunal. But it is possible that true civil self-government can only be established with its aid.

Death squads are distinctly better than suicide bombers. Their members want to survive and have something to lose — they envisage a future in which they can stop killing and get on with family life, while the horrible nightmares gradually fade.