Baby put into X-ray machine at Los Angeles airport

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Wow. Baby put into X-ray machine at Los Angeles airport:

A woman sent her one-month-old grandson through an X-ray machine at Los Angeles International Airport, security officials said on Wednesday.

The woman, who spoke little English and was traveling to Mexico, put the infant in a plastic bin used to hold loose carry-on items for security scanning at the busy airport on Saturday morning.

Security screeners saw the baby as it started to pass through, pulled the bin out, and immediately sought medical assistance for the child, Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez said.

The baby was examined at a local hospital and judged not to have received a dangerous dose of radiation.

Virgin birth expected for Komodo dragon

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

The media-savvy folks at the Chester Zoo in England have said that they expect a virgin birth:

Flora, a pregnant Komodo dragon living in a British zoo, is expecting eight babies in what scientists said on Wednesday could be a Christmas virgin birth.

Flora has never mated, or even mixed, with a male dragon, and fertilized all the eggs herself, a process culminating in parthenogenesis, or virgin birth. Other lizards do this, but scientists only recently found that Komodo dragons do too.

“Nobody in their wildest dreams expected this. But you have a female dragon on her own. She produces a clutch of eggs and those eggs turn out to be fertile. It is nature finding a way,” Kevin Buley of Chester Zoo in England said in an interview.

He said the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas.

Bungee cord backpack makes light work of heavy load

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

A new bungee cord backpack makes light work of heavy loads by reducing vertical displacement:

Carrying heavy loads could become easier thanks to a new ergonomic backpack that uses bungee cords to take the strain off the shoulders and joints, scientists said on Wednesday.

The cords suspend the load in the pack so it stays at the same height from the ground while the wearer is running or walking and reduces the risks of muscle and joint problems.

Its designers said it will allow users to carry an extra 12 pounds (5.4 kg) while expending the same amount of energy as when carrying a normal backpack.

“For the same energetic cost, you can either carry 48 pounds in a normal backpack or 60 pounds in a suspended ergonomic backpack,” said Lawrence Rome of the University of Pennsylvania.

Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett on the Culture Show

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

If you enjoy animation, I recommend watching “animation anorak” Mark Kermode interview Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett on the Culture Show.

Johnny on Drawn! remarks that Hewlett’s influences include zombies, Daffy Duck, and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine — but he neglects to mention Tony Hart.


Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

They call themselves private military contractors — or, amongst themselves, the Coalition of the Billing. Josh Manchester calls them an Al Qaeda for the Good Guys. Mark Hemingway calls them Warriors for Hire:

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, the company’s founder, “believes to his core that this is his life’s work,” says Taylor. “If you’re not willing to drink the Blackwater Kool-aid and be committed to supporting humane democracy around the world, then there’s probably a better place” to go work, “because that’s all we do.”

Though his military career was brief, as a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, Prince is no dilettante. He attended officer candidate school after finishing college in 1992, and the next year he joined SEAL Team 8 based out of Norfolk. Prince eventually deployed to Haiti, the Middle East, and Bosnia, among other assignments. He is blond, handsome, and ridiculously all-American looking. His posture is ramrod straight, and his clipped sentences are true to his martial roots. At only 37, he remains in impeccable shape and looks as ready to step onto the battlefield as into a boardroom.

He hardly fits the soldier of fortune archetype. He is a staunch Christian — his father helped James Dobson found Focus on the Family — and his politically conservative views are well known in Washington, where Prince supports a number of religious and right-leaning causes. He attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a font of conservative ideology, where he is remembered for being the first undergraduate at the small liberal arts school to serve on the local volunteer fire department. (The only book on the shelf in the boardroom of Blackwater’s Northern Virginia offices is a copy of the eminent conservative historian Paul Johnson’s A History Of The American People.)

Nobody can say Prince is in it for the money, either. His father Edgar started a small die-cast shop in Holland, Michigan, in 1965. Along the way he patented the now-ubiquitous lighted vanity mirror in automobile visors; a year after his 1995 death, the family company sold for over $1 billion, an enormous inheritance for Erik and his sisters.

The next year Erik left the Navy and founded Blackwater. It was the end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration and Congress had been eagerly downsizing military facilities and training — much to the consternation of many officers, Prince included. Prince knew there would be a market for the kind of training Blackwater would provide; his initial purchase of 6,000 acres in Moyock does not suggest his vision for the company was modest. (It’s currently 7,500 acres; the company has plans to relocate the Florida aviation division to North Carolina near its headquarters, as well as open training facilities in California and the Philippines.)

Regardless of his inheritance, Prince’s subsequent shepherding of Blackwater has proved him as adept a businessman as his father. And there you have it. Erik Prince — mercenary mogul and liberal America’s worst nightmare. Not only can he buy and sell you, he can kill you before you even know he’s in the room.

For a conservative like Prince, you can’t make the world a better place without harnessing the power of free markets. He sounds more like an MBA than a mercenary. Prince believes that an entrepreneurial spirit and the military go naturally together: “This goes back to our corporate mantra: We’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what Fed Ex did for the postal service,” Prince says. “They did many of the same services that the Postal Service did, better, cheaper, smarter, and faster by innovating, [which] the private sector can do much more effectively.”

Some of Blackwater’s capabilities:

  • A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.
  • A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.
  • The country’s largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.
  • A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.
  • A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.
  • A 1,200-yard-long firing range for sniper training.
  • A sizable private armory. The one gun locker I saw contained close to 100 9mm handguns — mostly military issue Beretta M9s, law enforcement favorite Austrian Glocks, and Sig Sauers.
  • An armored vehicle still in development called the Grizzly; the prototype’s angular steel plates are ferocious-looking. The suspension is being built by one of Black water’s North Carolina neighbors — Dennis Anderson, monster truck champion and the man responsible for the “Grave Digger” (the ne plus ultra of monster trucks).

The Yellow Kid

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

The Yellow Kid is — arguably — the first modern comic strip:

Comics in America started with The Yellow Kid. At least, that’s how the oft-told story goes. But like most oft-told stories, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, that feature didn’t start out as comics, at least not in the modern sense of the word, a sequence of panels carrying a narrative — at first, it consisted of a single large illustration. For another, it wasn’t actually the first — newspaper and magazine cartoons had been growing in prominence ever since the ability to print them existed, and are known to have existed in America as early as the middle of the 18th century. In fact, an entire comic book, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, appeared in an American paper as early as 1842. For a third, the name of the feature wasn’t The Yellow Kid.

Cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault started drawing funny pictures about New York tenements in 1894, for Truth magazine. The first appeared in that year’s June 2 edition. On Feb. 17, 1895, one of them was reprinted in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World, inaugurating the series from which The Yellow Kid would eventually emerge. By the end of that year, Outcault was doing full-page ones, in color, on a weekly basis, under the title Hogan’s Alley (which appeared on a street sign as early as the very first of the Truth magazine cartoons). Gradually, there emerged a distinctive young character, identifiable by a bald head, huge ears, and a bright yellow nightshirt, which later had his dialog written on it. He wasn’t usually addressed by any particular name (although when that did happen, the name was was Mickey Dugan), but readers came to know him as The Yellow Kid.

I bring this up because, after I linked to that US presidents timeline game, someone I know — Hi, Cate! — put up a newspaper comic strip timeline game, and I was certain that The Katzenjammer Kids was the first comic strip.

In fact, I’m pretty sure The Katzenjammer Kids was the “correct” answer to the Trivial Pursuit question on the subject, and I got it “right” a few years back while playing with a group of unsuspecting non-geeks (or marginal geeks).

At any rate, the popularity of The Yellow Kid led Hearst to hire Outcault away, and George Luks continued using the character in Pulitzer’s World. Both papers became known for The Yellow Kid:

The papers that ran it were often referred to by New Yorkers as the “Yellow Kid” papers or, simply, “the yellow papers”. During the Spanish American War (1898), when their sensational and unreliable reportage reached a fever pitch, that style came to be known as “yellow journalism”.

It was only years later that comics evolved into their more stylized form — with big-headed kids who didn’t look quite so deformed, and who spoke via word balloons, rather than text on their nightshirts.

Does econ make people conservative?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Greg Mankiw, econ professor and textbook author, answers a letter from a student asking, Does econ make people conservative?:

I believe the answer is, to some degree, yes. My experience is that many students find that their views become somewhat more conservative after studying economics. There are at least three, related reasons.

First, in some cases, students start off with utopian views of public policy, where a benevolent government can fix all problems. One of the first lessons of economics is that life is full of tradeoffs. That insight, completely absorbed, makes many utopian visions less attractive. Once you recognize, for example, that there is a tradeoff between equality and efficiency, as economist Arthur Okun famously noted, many public policy decisions become harder.

Second, some of the striking insights of economics make one more respectful of the market as a mechanism for coordinating a society. Because market participants are motivated by self-interest, a person might naturally be suspect of market-based societies. But after learning about the gains from trade, the invisible hand, and the efficiency of market equilibrium, one starts to approach the market with a degree of admiration and, indeed, awe.

Third, the study of actual public policy makes students recognize that political reality often deviates from their idealistic hopes. Much income redistribution, for example, is aimed not toward the needy but toward those with political clout. This Dave Barry column, which is reprinted in Chapter 22 of my favorite economics textbook, describes a good example.

For these three reasons, many students in introductory economics courses become more conservative–or, to be precise, more classically liberal–than they began. Nonetheless, studying economics does not by itself determine one’s political ideology. I know good economists who are distinctly right of center and good economists who are distinctly left of center. In my department at Harvard, I would guess that Democrats outnumber Republicans among the faculty (although there is surely more political balance in the economics department than in most other departments at the university).

Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

In the rather dryly titled Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case, David Friedman, son of Milton, shares one of my favorite obscure bits of legal history:

In modern law the distinction between civil and criminal law depends on whether prosecution is private or public; in this sense all Icelandic law was civil. But another distinction is that civil remedies usually involve a transfer (of money, goods, or services) from the defendant to the plaintiff, whereas criminal remedies often involve some sort of ‘punishment.’ In this sense the distinction existed in Icelandic law, but its basis was different.

Killing was made up for by a fine. For murder a man could be outlawed, even if he was willing to pay a fine instead. In our system, the difference between murder and killing (manslaughter) depends on intent; for the Icelanders it depended on something more easily judged. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately; as one law code puts it: “The slayer shall not ride past any three houses, on the day he committed the deed, without avowing the deed, unless the kinsmen of the slain man, or enemies of the slayer lived there, who would put his life in danger.” A man who tried to hide the body, or otherwise conceal his responsibility, was guilty of murder.

There’s much more to the article, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Millwall brick

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

I hadn’t heard of a Millwall brick before:

A Millwall brick is an improvised weapon made of a manipulated newspaper.

The Millwall brick was allegedly used as a stealth weapon at football matches in England during the 1960s and 1970s. The weapon’s popularity appears to have been due to the wide availability of innocently appearing newspapers, and due to the ease of its construction.

Seemingly mindless criminals can be remarkably clever when it comes to making weapons.

Would Legal Marijuana Mean an Excise Tax Bonanza?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Jacob Sullum asks, Would Legal Marijuana Mean an Excise Tax Bonanza? No, not really:

Gieringer suggests a tax of 50 cents to $1 per joint, which is extremely heavy even compared to the cigarette taxes that prevail in New York City ($3 a pack, or 15 cents a cigarette, on top of the federal excise tax of 39 cents a pack). Even a levy as big as Gieringer proposes would bring in revenues that “might range from $2.2 to $6.4 billion per year,” according to his estimate.

Here’s where the bonanza would come from:

Drug law enforcement costs something like $40 billion a year, and marijuana accounted for 43 percent of drug arrests in 2005.

Is There a Barber in the House?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Doctors Larry and Jonathan Zaroff recount an unusual medical emergency in Is There a Barber in the House?:

A 50-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital with complaints of severe weakness and difficulty breathing. She had been quite healthy until the afternoon of the admission, with no history of serious illnesses.

The doctors at the university hospital where she became a patient are known for using their brains. They also use their stethoscopes wisely, and observe closely how a patient looks.

On examination this one was sweaty and had pinpoint pupils, and her lungs were wheezy. But unlike physicians of centuries ago, doctors today do not regularly use their noses. (In the 18th century, doctors could make diagnoses of kidney failure, diabetes and liver disease by smelling a patient.) For this woman, the diagnosis remained obscure for the next hour as her breathing got more labored and she became comatose.

A tube was placed in her windpipe and she was attached to a breathing machine. Then an experienced nurse, with good sense and a good sense of smell, came to the rescue. The nurse noted that the patient had a peculiar odor, resembling garlic, most prominently from her hair. The unusual odor raised the suspicion of insecticide poisoning with organophosphates.

The patient was immediately treated with atropine and 2-PAM to reverse the effects of the poison, while blood was sent to the lab to verify the diagnosis. Each time she received the medications she woke and improved, but then lapsed back into a coma with increasing lung problems. Her skin was washed and her hair was shampooed several times with no lasting improvement.

Since the primary contamination seemed to be in her hair, her head was shaved. After that she improved rapidly, her medicines were tapered and she regained consciousness. Soon she was able to breathe on her own.

The lab reports verified that the nurse had been correct. The patient had been poisoned with an organophosphate insecticide. Now her doctors wondered, How did her hair become impregnated with insecticide in quantities to bring her to the brink of death? This was no casual exposure. She denied a suicide attempt — swallowing would have been more direct. Nor could it have been attempted murder — there are easier ways to administer poisons more covertly.

The answer came from the patient when she fully awakened. She remembered exactly what she had done before becoming ill: her usual activities, except that she had gotten her hair shampooed by a neighbor.

The neighbor, when contacted, was willing to bring in the shampoo. Chagrined, she showed up shortly, bringing two containers. One held shampoo. The other, a similar jug, contained an organophosphate insecticide. Both receptacles were the same size, the labels old and blurred.

Inventor takes airport design to new heights

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Inventor takes airport design to new heights — of egotism:

Starry’s design calls for new airports — he calls them Starrports — to be built on relatively small parcels of land close to major cities. He envisions parallel runways — on an incline for landing and a decline for takeoff — leading jets directly onto, or off, the roof of a circular passenger terminal and parking garage. The distance from garage to gate would be short. The heat of the terminal would help de-ice the runways, and lights on the terminal could illuminate runways.

Starry says his design would cut air pollution at a single airport 56% and save 1,000 gallons of jet fuel per flight. Inclined runways would allow jets to burn less fuel, he says, because the planes would reach takeoff speed sooner and land without thrust-reversers. The short distance from terminal to runway would allow jets to wait at the gate instead of idling their engines on taxiways. And proximity to downtown would mean fewer miles by autos to and from the airport, also reducing air pollution.

“A Starrport can be built on one-third the land at one-half the cost,” Starry says. “It’s based on simple, understandable concepts.”

Pot is called biggest cash crop

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Pot is called biggest cash crop — probably because it is:

A report released today by a marijuana public policy analyst contends that the market value of pot produced in the U.S. exceeds $35 billion — far more than the crop value of such heartland staples as corn, soybeans and hay, which are the top three legal cash crops.

California is responsible for more than a third of the cannabis harvest, with an estimated production of $13.8 billion that exceeds the value of the state’s grapes, vegetables and hay combined — and marijuana is the top cash crop in a dozen states, the report states.

The report estimates that marijuana production has increased tenfold in the past quarter century despite an exhaustive anti-drug effort by law enforcement.
Using data on the number of pounds eradicated by police around the U.S., Gettman produced estimates of the likely size and value of the cannabis crop in each state. His methodology used what he described as a conservative value of about $1,600 a pound compared to the $2,000- to $4,000-a-pound street value often cited by law enforcement agencies after busts.

How Our Civilization Can Fall

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Orson Scott Card summarizes Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, the opening chapter of Michael Grant’s The Rise of the Greeks, which describes the collapse of the eastern Mediterranean economy, and Mark Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It before imagining How Our Civilization Can Fall:

Here’s how it happens: America stupidly and immorally withdraws from the War on Terror, withdrawing prematurely from Iraq and leaving it in chaos. Emboldened, either Muslims unite against the West (unlikely) or collapse in a huge war between Shiites and Sunnis (already beginning). It almost doesn’t matter, because in the process the oil will stop flowing.

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim “minority” without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat. The result is accommodation or surrender to Islam. The numbers don’t lie — it is not just possible, it is likely.

America doesn’t crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it’s a matter of time before we crash as well.
It takes two generations for the dark ages to reach America. But they will come, if we allow this nightmare to begin. Because once you reach the tipping point, there’s no turning back, as the Emperor Justinian discovered.

Our global economic system is a brilliant creation, imperfect of course, but powerful and effective in creating more prosperity for more people than ever in the history of the world. It is a creation of America’s military and America’s benign government of the world — so benign they pretend we don’t govern it.

Our enemies and most of our “allies” and many of our own citizens are working as hard as possible to bring the whole thing crashing down, though that is not at all what they intend.

They just haven’t learned the lessons — the principles — of how great economic empires are maintained. They only look at the political dogmas du jour and spout their platitudes. People like me are ridiculed for seeing the big picture and learning the lessons of history.

I actually recommend reading the whole article rather than just his ending Jeremiad, which simply sounds alarmist.

Retailers profit from unused gift cards

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Retailers profit from unused gift cards:

Last winter, Best Buy Co. reported a $43 million gain in fiscal 2006 from cards that hadn’t been used in two or more years. Limited Brands Inc. recorded $30 million in 2005 revenue because of unredeemed cards.

Even so, this holiday season is likely to see record sales of gift cards. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, estimates that shoppers will buy $24.8 billion worth of cards, up 34 percent from last year.
About 6 percent, or $4.8 billion, of this year’s gift cards will go unused, estimated Laura Lane, vice president of unclaimed property services for Keane Co., a compliance and risk management consulting firm.

Consumer Reports put the figure even higher, estimating that 19 percent of those who received cards last year had not used them because the cards were lost or expired.
Some gift cards get spent faster than others. Supermarkets and gas stations have close to 100 percent redemption rates, said Bob Skiba, who runs the gift card division of Ceridian Corp.’s Comdata gift card division, based in Louisville, Ky.

Even cards that get used are effectively a free loan to the retailer.