Litvinenko’s killers used polonium worth $10m to give massive overdose

Monday, December 18th, 2006

I was under the impression that the polonium used to kill the former KGB spy was quite inexpensive, but now it looks like Litvinenko’s killers used polonium worth $10m to give him a massive overdose:

British investigators believe that Alexander Litvinenko’s killers used more than $10 million of polonium-210 to poison him. Preliminary findings from the post mortem examination on the former KGB spy suggest that he was given more than ten times the lethal dose.

Police do not know why the assassins used so much of the polonium-210, and are investigating whether the poison was part of a consignment to be sold on the black market.

They believe that whoever orchestrated the plot knew of its effects, but are unsure whether the massive amount was used to send a message — it made it easier for British scientists to detect — or is evidence of a clumsy operation.

A British security source said yesterday: “You can’t buy this much off the internet or steal it from a laboratory without raising an alarm so the only two plausible explanations for the source are that it was obtained from a nuclear reactor or very well connected black market smugglers.”
United Nuclear Scientific Supplies of New Mexico, one of the few companies licensed to sell polonium-210 isotopes online, said that as a single unit costed about $69, it would take at least 15,000 orders, costing more than $10 million, to kill someone.

The company said that as it sold to only a handful of outlets in the United States every three months, anyone placing an order for 15,000 units would be spotted.

Experts reckon that as little as 0.1 micrograms of polonium-210 would be enough to kill — the equivalent of a single aspirin tablet divided into 10 million pieces.

The penguin who goes shopping

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Lala, the penguin who goes shopping, was rescued by a Japanese fisherman years ago. Now Lala lives in an air-conditioned room and walks to the fish store each day, wearing a penguin backpack. The video is quite kawaii.

50 Lost Movie Classics

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

The Observer shares its list of 50 Lost Movie Classics. I can’t vouch for most of them, but I will recommend number 46.

Tsunami survivors given the lash

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Tsunami survivors given the lash — with tsunami-relief funds:

When people around the world sent millions of pounds to help the stricken Indonesian province of Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, few could have imagined that their money would end up subsidising the lashing of women in public.

But militant Islamists have since imposed sharia law in Aceh and have cornered Indonesian government funds to organise a moral vigilante force that harasses women and stages frequent displays of humiliation and state-sanctioned violence.

International aid workers and Indonesian women’s organisations are now expressing dismay that the flow of foreign cash for reconstruction has allowed the government to spend scarce money on a new bureaucracy and religious police to enforce puritan laws, such as the compulsory wearing of headscarves.

Some say there are more “sharia police” than regular police on the local government payroll and that many of them are aggressive young men.

“Who are these sharia police?” demanded Nurjannah Ismail, a lecturer at Aceh’s Ar-Raniri University. “They are men who, most of the time, are trying to send the message that their position is higher than women.”

In one town, Lhokseumawe, the authorities are even planning to impose a curfew on women — a move that social workers warn will force tsunami widows to quit night-time jobs as food sellers or waitresses and could drive them into prostitution.

Pygmy Marmoset

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

This Pygmy Marmoset is a funny looking little guy:

In this photo released by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a young pygmy marmoset holds on to a branch at the Bronx Zoo in New York, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006. This is one of two marmosets born on Aug. 20, and can be expected to reach a height of five inches and weigh in at one half pound. One of the smallest of all monkey species, the pygmy marmoset inhabits the jungles of Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

Richard Dawkins vs. Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) responds to the question, “What if you’re wrong?” — with references to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Russell’s Celestial Teapot, and other, more traditional, non-Christian deities, like Zeus and Thor.

A Theory of Investment Banking

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Arnold Kling presents A Theory of Investment Banking, trying to explain why I-bankers get paid so much, yet start out working outrageous hours (e.g. 100 hours a week) for not that much money:

I think you have to come up with a story about barriers to entry. One plausible story that occurs to me is that some highly-remunerated aspects of investment banking require experience. For example, if a corporate client is involved in a megabucks merger, the client cannot afford a mistake. So the client would pay a premium to have an experienced M&A (mergers and acquisitions) team.

The scarce resource in M&A is the experienced investment banker. The barrier to entry is that you cannot get experience without doing big deals, and you cannot do big deals until you get experience.

What that suggests is that if you are young and greedy, you would pay an investment bank to give you experience. And in fact, young investment bankers do feel exploited — working incredibly long hours, doing tedious stuff, and toadying up to people in a way that no self-respecting intelligent person would otherwise be willing to do. In return for that exploitation, you earn a decent living, but more importantly, you get the experience that gives you a chance to work/luck your way into the ranks of the truly rich.

Why I Hate WW II

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

In Why I Hate WW II, Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, explains that all the lessons of WWII are wrong:

Fact No. 1: They Were All Fascists.

At a military level, let’s face a nasty fact: WW II was Stalin vs. Hitler. The rest was window dressing. Stalin won because — because what, he was a nicer guy? Nope, he won because his brand of fascism was actually way more ruthless and bloody and effective than Hitler’s smalltime snobbery, and because Stalin had the whole US industrial machine backing him. There’s no moral lesson in that that I can see.

Fact No. 2: The Holocaust is a One-Shot Exception; Genocide Does Pay.

The Holocaust is the next-biggest non-lesson of WW II. Everybody loves to talk about this particular case of genocide because it failed, or so we’re told. The Germans paid a terrible price for what they did to the Jews. Nope; the Germans paid a terrible price for invading Russia. If they’d stuck to holding their half of Eurasia, Stalin would have continued his love affair with Hitler, the only human being he ever liked, and the European Jews would have been a shared buffet, divvied up between concentration camps flying the swastika or the red star.

Fact No. 3: There Are No Military Lessons to Be Learned from WW II.

This is my real pet peeve about WW II, because frankly I care way more about bad military history than all that moral bla-bla. Every military lesson people want to take away from WW II is wrong, and the one they could learn is the one they don’t want to learn.

So for starters, here’s the real lesson of the war: military superiority in the narrow sense isn’t nearly as important as economic strength and propaganda working in tandem.

Can You Find the C?

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Can You Find the C?:


One interesting element of such visual search problems is that autistics often don’t realize there’s even a puzzle or challenge to it; the different character simply jumps out at them.

What do private equity firms have that public firms don’t?

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

What do private equity firms have that public firms don’t?:

Private-equity firms want to buy companies for their portfolio, fix them, grow them and sell them in three to five years. The eventual buyer could be another company in the portfolio company’s industry, another private-equity firm or the public, through an IPO. The holding period is occasionally less than a year or as long as ten years. But always the goal from day one is to sell the company at a profit.

Facing a goal like that changes a manager’s mindset — usually in positive ways. No longer seeing a corporate future that stretches indefinitely into the distance, executives realize that they gain nothing by resisting change: With the exit looming, driving change is their only hope.

“Everybody in the company knows you’re on a sprint to do well,” says von Krannichfeldt. “It’s not this mindset of working for a company that’s been there for 100 years and will continue for another 100 years. I find this much more intense than a public company.”

Pay is a whole different concept in PE-owned companies. Don’t come to play unless you’re prepared to put significant skin in the game. While public companies talk a lot about aligning executive pay with performance, they typically award stock options and restricted stock on top of already substantial pay packages, giving executives lots to gain but little to lose.

And in big companies those options reflect the fortunes of the overall corporation, not the specific business a manager is running. By contrast, private-equity firms make the game much more serious. Not only is a far larger share of executive pay tied to the performance of an executive’s business, but top managers may also be required to put a major chunk of their own money into the deal.
Making a big new investment or taking a write-off for a plant closing may be the best thing for the business, but many public companies hesitate because such actions could cause the stock to tank. PE-owned firms don’t have to worry about it. “In private equity, you don’t need to go from quarter to quarter,” says von Krannichfeldt. “You can take write-offs, you can make investments that aren’t accretive in year one or year two. It’s a very different dynamic.”
What makes a huge difference is the release of managerial time from trying to placate and massage the public markets. Talking to shareholders, analysts and the media may be important jobs for a public-company CEO, but they’re massive distractions from the company’s operations. In practice, a public-company CEO is lucky if he spends 60 percent of his time actually running the place. In a PE-owned firm those distractions disappear, and the CEO is free to spend close to 100 percent of his time focused on the business.

Increased managerial attention comes to many PE-owned companies in another way as well. Several of these companies were initially parts of much larger outfits where they were not central to the mission. The parent firm focused top-management time and corporate resources elsewhere, which not only was bad for the stepchildren financially but also demoralized the managers.

“I used to joke that I had to fly to London to beg for attention,” says CEO Luther, recalling when Dunkin’ was part of giant Allied Domecq, which Pernod Ricard later bought. “Now it’s just a 20-minute ride downtown” to Bain Capital’s office in Boston. Genpact’s Pramod Bhasin adds, “We weren’t a strategic business for GE. Our whole intention was to be able to offer our services to the broad market.”
Combine all those factors and here’s what private-equity firms have figured out how to do: Attract and keep the world’s best managers, focus them extraordinarily well, provide strong incentives, free them from distractions, give them all the help they can use and let them do what they can do. No wonder these companies tend to be outstanding performers.

Changing the Game

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

In Changing the Game, Cringely explains how VCs are putting their trillion dollars to use:

The old model was for top firms (those run by intelligent people) to look at 800 deals per year and invest in two to six, pumping them with enough money to assure success while also killing off the founders and pushing for an early IPO and VC cash-out. The other VC firms just watched what the top firms were doing, then bought in on B or C rounds where the risks and returns were proportionally lower.

The new model is venture capital masquerading as a combination of hedge funds and investment bankers. Seed rounds are the only rounds and they are limited to angels, friends, and family. Very few companies go public and those that do are unique in their niches. Acquisition has always been the other exit strategy, but if the VCs don’t have a piece of the company being acquired, they can’t enjoy the benefits of a sale, so what’s to do? The VCs start acquiring companies, that’s what, in a classic hedge fund maneuver called a “roll-up.”

A roll-up means buying many companies in the same market niche, say convenience stores. A private equity group buys, for example, four to five chains of convenience stores totaling 2000 locations. They consolidate the chains saving fixed costs, obtain some economies of scale through bigger purchase orders, but mainly they sell off poor-performing stores for their real estate value, and eventually take the new company public or sell it for a profit to an even larger competitor.

Today’s high-tech version of VC-managed roll-up means buying a bunch of similar high-tech companies, consolidating their products and services, then selling the whole or taking it public, simple as that.

Pray for Coal

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

In Pray for Coal, Paige Ferrari lists the 10 most dangerous play things of all time. At the top of the list we find, of course, lawn darts:

Removable parts? Suffocation risk? Lead paint? Pussy hazards compared to the granddaddy of them all. Lawn Darts, or “Jarts,” as they were marketed, would never fly in our current ultra-paranoid, safety-helmeted, Dr. Phil toy culture. Lawn darts were massive weighted spears. You threw them. They stuck where they landed. If they happened to land in your skull, well, then you should have moved. During their brief (and generally awesome) reign in 1980s suburbia, Jarts racked up 6,700 injuries and four deaths.

The real standout though is number two, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. It’s fun, easy, and exciting! A.C. Gilbert, creator of the Erector Set, released the Atomic Energy Lab in 1951. It included the following components:

  1. U-239 Geiger radiation counter.
  2. Electroscope to measure radioactivity of different substances.
  3. Spinthariscope to watch “live” radioactive disintegration.
  4. Wilson Cloud Chamber to see paths of electrons & alpha particles at 10k mps
  5. Three very low-level radioactive sources (Alpha, Beta, Gamma).
  6. Four samples of Uranium-bearing ores
  7. Nuclear Spheres (used to visual build models of molecules)
  8. The book “Prospecting for Uranium”
  9. The “Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual”
  10. The comic book “Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom”
  11. Three “Winchester” Batteries (size “C”)

The irony is that it probably was perfectly safe. As one commenter noted:

Long term effects? None whatsoever. Uranium 238 is only dangerous if in finely powdered form and inhaled. You can safely swallow a pellet of U238; it just passes through.

Number nine is the one that speaks to me — the Battlestar Galactica Missile Launcher.

Wrestling Highlights

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

When you edit down competitive wrestling — freestyle or Greco — to just the highlights, it looks a lot more like pro wrestling.

Mouse-like creature saves New Zealand and rewrites history

Friday, December 15th, 2006

Mouse-like creature saves New Zealand and rewrites history:

New Zealand has long been thought to be a rare example of a land mass that evolved without land mammals after it separated from the ancient “supercontinent” of Gondwana about 82 million years ago.

Until now, decades of searching had shown no hint that furry, warm-blooded animals had ever trodden on Kiwi soil, despite them having thrived so widely in other lands. That picture is changed by the tiny fossilised bones — part of two jaws and a leg — that belonged to a unique land animal unlike any other mammal known. The bones of the creature, between the size of a mouse and a rat, were unearthed from the rich St Bathans fossil bed, in the Central Otago region of South Island and the findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

History in a nutshell

Friday, December 15th, 2006

Nick Szabo presents History in a nutshell:

I’ve written about geographic patterns that demonstrate the importance of securing as well as producing wealth. These have shaped forms of government and law. Hunter-gatherer tribes, under which our instincts evolved, had no need of large organizations, governments, or law as we know it. The dawn of agriculture was probably made possible, not by the discovery that food plants could be grown from seeds (this would have been obvious to a hunter-gatherer), but in solving the much harder problem of how to protect this capital investment over the course of a planting-growing-harvesting-storage cycle from fellow human beings. This required internal law and external security exercised much more thoroughly and over a larger area. It was securing the production, more than the production itself, that required eventually radical organizational evolution.

Once farmland became the main source of wealth, there were substantial economies of scale in protecting it. This posed a difficulty in forming organizations larger than tribes; those cultures that could coordinate larger militaries slowly displaced tribes that could not. This led to a wide variety of governmental forms, but they tended to have in common that the military consumed the bulk of the otherwise insecure agricultural surplus. The primary legal form was that of real property, usually claimed by military lords and their heirs.

The next phase appeared sporadically and temporarily among city-states that dealt most in goods (included harvested and transportable agricultural commodities) rather than farmland. As cultures became centered around trade and industry, converting from farmland to goods as the main source of wealth, they also tended to convert from feudal monarchies to republics (or as we tend to call them now, democracies). Contract law became as or more important than real property law. Real property became much more alienable, either sold outright or pledged as security for insurance or investments.

As most wealth became mobile, taxes became centered on trade and income — on wealth transfers that require crossing borders or crossing trust barriers — rather than on wealth. During the same centuries as the rise of republics, cheap paper made widespread monolinguistic merchant communities more effective. The printing press gave rise to modern national languages, making large-scale organizations such as the modern corporation and nation-state possible. This led to substantial efficiency gains both in the security of production (and of the accompanying trade) as well as in the production and trade themselves.

His History and the Security of Property goes into more detail.