Friday, December 28th, 2007

I’m not sure what to make of the Aptera:

It’s the Aptera — a futuristic car that has generated a lot of buzz lately — and with good reason — the Aperta is a very, very efficient vehicle (just check out the video: you’ll see what I’m talking about). The car’s head-turning design has a purpose: the shape is highly aeodynamic (much like a jet). It ready available for pre-order, and priced at about $27,000. There will be two models of the Aptera: an all-electric version that goes 120 miles on a charge (for 2008), and a gasoline version that will get 300 mpg (for 2009). The car is also said to be very safe, see the safety FAQ here.

Watch the Popular Mechanics test drive.

Pakistan’s Bhutto killed in gun, bomb attack

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Pakistan’s Bhutto killed in gun, bomb attack:

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Thursday, her party said.

“She has been martyred,” said party official Rehman Malik.

Bhutto, 54, died in hospital in Rawalpindi. Ary-One Television said she had been shot in the head.

Police said a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto as she was leaving the rally venue in a park before blowing himself up.

“The man first fired at Bhutto’s vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up,” said police officer Mohammad Shahid.

Police said 16 people had been killed in the blast.

“It is the act of those who want to disintegrate Pakistan because she was symbol of unity. They have finished the Bhutto family. They are enemies of Pakistan,” senior Bhutto party official Farzana Raja told Reuters.

A Reuters witness at the scene of the attack said he had heard two shots moments before the blast. Another Reuters witness saw bodies and a mutilated human head strewn on a road outside the park where she held her rally.

A little history:

Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime mister. He was executed in 1979 after being deposed in a military coup.

Bhutto became the first female prime minister in the Muslim world when she was elected in 1988 at the age of 35. She was deposed in 1990, re-elected in 1993, and ousted again in 1996 amid charges of corruption and mismanagement.

She said the charges were politically motivated but in 1999 chose to stay in exile rather than face them.

Bhutto’s family is no stranger to violence.

Both of her brothers died in mysterious circumstances and she had said al Qaeda assassins tried to kill her several times in the 1990s.

Intelligence reports have said al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani jihadi groups have sent suicide bombers after her.

Tiger kills one at San Francisco zoo

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

A certain part of me thinks, if I were a tiger, I’d totally eat people. Tiger kills one at San Francisco zoo:

This undated file photo provided by the San Francisco Zoo shows Tatiana, a female Siberian tiger. Tatiana, the tiger that mauled a zookeeper last year escaped from its pen at the San Francisco Zoo on Tuesday Dec. 25, 2007, killing one man and injuring two others before police shot it dead, authorities said.

Addendum: I’m beginning to think I’d totally eat a teenager who was (allegedly) taunting me:

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, police found a shoe and blood in an area between the gate and the edge of the animal’s 25- to 30-foot-wide moat, prompting the possibility that one of the victims dangled a leg or other body part over the edge of the moat.

Venture Brothers Holiday Gift Bonanza

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

Jackson Publick is offering up a Venture Brothers Holiday Gift Bonanza, including this MP3 of The Monarch & Dr. Girlfriend singing “Fairytale of New York”. He also includes an important bit of news:

One sour note from the past month (aside from my car getting hit yet again) is that Mr. Stephen Colbert has decided not to reprise his role as Professor Impossible this season, for reasons which probably have something to do with him being all super-famous, super-busy, and no longer in need of a few hundred bucks here and there. We figured this would happen eventually, considering his monumental success in the years since our first season, but we held out hope that the WGA strike would leave him with enough bored free time on his hands that he’d have a go at it. But after getting shuffled around from his assistant to his assistant’s assistant to his agent to his manager, one of them finally shot us an email saying: “Stephen has neither the time nor the interest in participating in your project.”

Was the “nor the interest” really necessary? I would have bought the “time” part without question, but man…you gotta kick a guy when he’s down like that? Well maybe I’m not interested in your ice cream, mister! Or your book. Unless someone buys it for me for Christmas.


Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

Have a happy Yule:

Many of the symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas are derived from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations. The burning of the Yule log, the decorating of Christmas trees, the eating of ham, the hanging of boughs, holly, mistletoe, etc. are all historically practices associated with Yule. When the Christianization of the Germanic peoples began, missionaries found it convenient to provide a Christian reinterpretation of popular pagan holidays such as Yule and allow the celebrations themselves to go on largely unchanged, versus trying to confront and suppress them. The Scandinavian tradition of slaughtering a pig at Christmas (see Christmas ham) is probably salient evidence of this. The tradition is thought to be derived from the sacrifice of boars to the god Freyr at the Yule celebrations. Halloween and aspects of Easter celebrations are likewise assimilated from northern European pagan festivals.

English historian Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Pope Gregory suggested that converting heathens would go easier if they were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the Christian God instead of to their pagan “devils”: “to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God”.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Newtonmas

Monday, December 24th, 2007

It’s beginning to look a lot like Newtonmas:

With the profusion of Christmas-related decorations, sales, and music, I thought it would be nice to offer a different kind of holiday suggestion, either instead of (if you don’t celebrate Christmas) or in addition to (if you do) the coming holiday.

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642 (old style), so it seems natural to take advantage of that complete coincidence and celebrate his life and works as Newtonmas. This idea was first introduced to me by my high school Physics teacher, who said that, since we were in a public school and thus couldn’t celebrate any religious holidays, we would celebrate Isaac Newton’s birthday by singing physics carols (similar to these), and doing some fun experiments. It was long enough ago that I don’t remember everything we did, but I recall figuring out what the effect of flushing the toilets in the bathroom above the classroom was on the water pressure in the classroom sink, figuring out how long it would take a Slinky to make it down a set of the school stairs, and—my favorite—watching a Road Runner cartoon to make note of everything that happened that defied the laws of physics.

So it’s my suggestion to seize the opportunity to teach your kids some basics of physics. If you have older kids, you could try teaching them the basics of calculus, too. Of all the sciences, I’ve always thought that physics was the easiest one to teach in a fun way (did you ever do the monkey in a tree lesson?), mostly because you’re not generally working with volatile substances or dead animals, so safety is less problematic.

The Shovel and the Epee

Monday, December 24th, 2007

In The Shovel and the Epee, Sam Sheridan looks at striking in MMA versus boxing:

First, the gloves: the 4 ounce gloves used in MMA cut very easily, and they give a lot more guys “a puncher’s chance.” Almost everyone is heavy-handed with those on, flash knock-downs happen all the time.

Just ask George St. Pierre—I doubt anyone had warned him about the devastatingly heavy-hands of Matt Serra before Serra upset St. Pierre by TKO last Saturday to win the UFC welterweight title. In boxing, a guy is a “puncher” or he’s not—but in MMA, almost everybody’s a “puncher.”

In boxing, defensive stylists like Winky Wright can catch punches on their gloves, but that won’t fly in MMA, not with the little gloves. Likewise James Toney’s defensive masterpieces, the shoulder roll and catching shots on the top of his head, won’t work.

Another friend, a boxer, had said that “boxers learn to roll with punches” which is true, and can mitigate a lot of the power when you get caught clean—but with the little gloves, I think rolling with punches is minimally effective. There’s not much to roll with.

The more important difference between MMA and boxing is range, and the biggest modifier to range is the take-down. The biggest, most decisive single attack in MMA, the take-down and defending it are HUGELY important. You can’t stand in the pocket and shoulder-roll and bob and weave, because your opponent will drop (“change levels”) and take you down; and he’ll end up on top, a hugely advantageous position.

To avoid being taken down, you have to keep your distance and be ready to “sprawl” out, to keep your legs away from an opponent’s grasping hands. Beautiful, flowing, fluid combination punching leaves you in range to be taken down.

You can’t take a wide stance, or plant your feet without increasing the danger of your legs getting snatched out from under you. In fact, without boxing’s strict rules about the clinch, combination punching might never have evolved to the point it is at today.

Of course, kicking and kneeing also changes the range, and punching in MMA becomes a little more like jousting—you’ve got to come in with straight punches and get out. Chuck Liddell’s striking is pretty much unquestionably the best in MMA at 205 pounds, and boxers look at him and think he looks terrible. Floyd Mayweather recently commented during a media teleconference that “UFC ain’t nothing but a f_king fad. Anybody can go out there and street fight. If they think (UFC light heavyweight champion) Chuck Liddell is so good, we should take Chuck Liddell and take a good heavyweight under Mayweather promotions….” And he even offered a million dollars of his own money. All the diatribe does is reveal Mayweather’s ignorance, because Chuck is emphatically not boxing.

Chinese police dog may teach pandas to fight

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Your Chinese panda style is no match for my German dog-fu! Chinese police dog may teach pandas to fight:

Scientists in China may use a police dog to teach pandas to fight after the first artificially bred panda released into the wild was apparently killed after a battle with other animals, local media reported on Saturday.

That sounds hardcore, until you get to this part:

The pandas would learn how to protect themselves by observing the dog, increasing their chances of survival when they were eventually released into the mountainous wilds of the far western province of Sichuan.

You can’t learn to fight just by watching…

Heal thyself: One doctor’s experiment

Monday, December 24th, 2007

In Heal thyself: One doctor’s experiment, Anna Masellis — who survived Wilms’ tumor, a rare pediatric kidney cancer, as a child and went on to get her Ph.D. in oncology — describes how she fought pancreatic cancer as a 41-year-old:

A week later, I went in for a Whipple, the routine surgery to remove part of the pancreas. It was supposed to take seven hours but lasted less than one; the doctors discovered a 3.5-centimeter mass on my pancreas and rice-kernel-sized patches of cancer all over my abdominal cavity. The surgeon gently explained to my waiting family that the cancer had already spread too far to do the Whipple (and further tests would show tumors in my liver). Then he informed them that I might have only two months to live.

My mom took the news hard, which broke my heart, but from what I knew of the disease, I wasn’t surprised by the prognosis. Because of my advanced stage, the oncologist prescribed pain relief and gemcitabine, the most effective drug for pancreatic cancer, which temporarily staves off the disease in roughly 10 percent of patients. But that wasn’t going to be enough. From my research, I knew my approach had to be more aggressive — and that it was up to me to find the right experimental treatment plan.

I believed the best thing to do was attack the cancer from multiple angles at once, using a range of drugs. But in order to do that, I needed to find an oncologist who was willing to push the envelope with me.
I went through four cycles of chemo. It was grueling, and I was lucky to have friends who cooked for me and drove me to my appointments. Two months later, despite the prognosis, I was still alive. A month after that, in August, I had another CT scan: The mass on my pancreas had shrunk a hopeful 50 percent, and the liver lesions were also slightly reduced. I was thrilled — until I learned that a lesion on one of my abdominal muscles had grown by half a centimeter. Suddenly, my joy vanished; all I felt was devastated.

I went home and thought about what wasn’t working with the chemo and, ultimately, figured that the drugs may not have been reaching the inside of my abdomen well enough. I remembered a journal article I had read, which described a procedure in which medicine is surgically delivered into the peritoneal cavity, where it can bathe the tumor cells directly. It’s a method Dr. Bender had long used for ovarian cancer, one that only recently became standard treatment for that disease. Dr. Bender and I discussed the idea, and we agreed it was a good approach. The only glitch: We had to wait a month; my body needed to recuperate and build immunity after the last round of chemo, so I wouldn’t be susceptible to infection during surgery.

I was so energized to have a new strategy that it was hard to wait. Finally, in October, my surgeon installed a port between my lowest two ribs, where the drugs would be infused. He discovered that, despite the enlarged tumor, every abdominal cancer kernel had been obliterated. Gone! I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he told me. I smiled, too — I was making progress.

The abdominal infusions made my belly puff up, and I felt tiny electrical-shock sensations and harsh gastrointestinal cramping that lasted a week. In March 2007, after 18 weeks of treatment, my CT scan showed a clean abdomen. The news was incredible, but I still had a tumor on my pancreas, so I devised yet another regimen of chemo. Our hope was that switching therapies would keep the cancer from becoming resistant to treatment.

It’s been a year and a half since I was given only two months to live. The CT scan I had this past August showed no metastatic cancer anywhere, and the primary tumor on the pancreas had shrunk to 2 centimeters and formed calcified plaques, which most likely indicate dying or dead tissue. Even so, I have no delusions: Pancreatic cancer has a nearly 100 percent chance of recurring. Until that happens, I’m taking full advantage of the time I’ve been given. I spent the summer in Italy with my kids, I see friends and I pick up my squash racket to play when I can.

Hellboy II:The Golden Army

Friday, December 21st, 2007

It looks like we can expect Hellboy II:The Golden Army on July 11th of next year. Here’s the trailer:

The trailer’s also available in HD over at IGN. All the action’s over at the production site though.

Wikipedia cites Mignola on the premise of the movie:

It’s not Nazis, machines and mad scientists but the old gods and characters who have been kind of shoved out of our world. I kind of equate it to the whole American Indian situation. The Indians were shoved onto reservations. You had your old, wise Indians who said, “You know, this is the way it is. We can’t fight anymore. We just have to accept our fate.” You then have your Geronimo character saying, “Or we could just kill the White Man.” That’s kind of the situation we have in the film. We have our elf characters resigning to the way things are and then there’s one saying, “Or we could take the world back.” The main difference is – what if the Indians had a nuclear warhead? The elves have their equivalent of the weapon that is too terrible to use. What if this guy decided to use it?

If you’ve already watched the Director’s Cut and can’t wait for more, you might check it the animated Hellboy offerings, Blood and Iron and Sword of Storms.

Unwrapping the Miraculous Logistics Behind Operation Christmas

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Unwrapping the Miraculous Logistics Behind Operation Christmas:

Here’s our theory: There is, in fact, a nonsupernatural Santa. It’s a transnational corporation with one mission-critical fulfillment goal: Every kid who celebrates the holiday gets a toy on Christmas eve.

Wired spoke with business process consultants, surveillance experts, shipping pros, and a former Navy SEAL to piece together the basic outlines of the operation — focusing, for purposes of this exposé, on points of service in the continental US. From command and control at the North Pole to secret manufacturing facilities in China and Eastern Europe, from the Pacific shipping lanes to the deployment of domestic-access operatives, Santa owns the silent night. With NSA surveillance tech, they see you when you’re sleeping, and they know when you’re awake. They know when you’ve been bad or good — thanks to algorithms that make Google look like Pong. You better not shout. You better not cry. Operation Santa is coming to town.

View the entire infographic.

Foster care better than orphanages for kids’ IQs

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Foster care better than orphanages for kids' IQs — when the orphanage is in Romania, and the foster care is provided by specially trained parents:

In the study, U.S. researchers randomly assigned 136 young children in Bucharest’s six orphanages to either keep living there or live with foster parents who were specially trained and paid for by the study. Romania had no foster-care system in 2000 when the research began.

The team chose apparently healthy children. Researchers repeatedly tested brain development as those children grew, and tracked those who ultimately were adopted or reunited with family. For comparison, they also tested the cognitive ability of children who never were institutionalized.

By 4½, youngsters in foster care were scoring almost 10 points higher on IQ tests than the children left in orphanages. Children who left the orphanages before 2 saw an almost 15-point increase.

Nelson compared the ages at which children were sent to foster care. For every extra month spent in the orphanage, up to almost age 3, it meant roughly a half-point lower score on those later IQ tests.

Children raised in their biological homes still fared best, with average test scores 10 points to 20 points higher than the foster-care kids.

Who Benefits from the Federal Government?

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Who Benefits from the Federal Government?

Social Security, the biggest category, doesn’t benefit the rich at all because net Social Security payments are heavily biased against the rich. According to Eugene Steuerle and Adam Carasso of the liberal Urban Institute a two earner couple earning $230,000 a year (thus putting them at the mean household income for the top 20%) and scheduled to retire in 2030 will pay $227,886 more in social security taxes than they receive in benefits (in present value).

Defense is the next biggest category. To me a lot of “defense” spending doesn’t benefit anyone but let’s be generous and say that the rich benefit from military spending in proportion to their income share which for the top 20% means 55%. Thus $301b.

Medicare benefits the rich less than the poor since they are healthier (plus they must pay higher premiums) but let’s say that Medicare benefits the rich in proportion to their population. If we say the top 20% are rich and assume that this is the same in the 65 and older category then 20% of Medicare goes to the rich. $78.8b.

Medicaid doesn’t benefit the rich. The rich do use unemployment insurance but at far lower rates than the poor. Does welfare benefit the rich? Not directly but maybe from the warm glow. I don’t think the benefits of charity are what most people mean when they say that the rich benefit from the federal government but who knows. Let’s again be generous and say that the warm glow goes just to the rich and that it is worth 20% of the benefit to the poor. $73.4b

Everything else includes the example that people always seem to mention first, roads! Alas, the entire transportation budget is just $77 billion, not much there even if a lot of it goes to the rich. By my judgment a lot of “everything else” has low value but again let’s be generous and say that the rich benefit from everything else in proportion to their income share (.55). $233b.

Excluding the national debt gives us a total of $687 billion out of $2597 billion going to the rich or 26%. If we assume that the division of the national debt is the same as for the government as a whole (since this is just past expenditures) the percentage is still 26%.

Thus in a generous accounting the rich get 26% of the benefits of federal spending and pay 68.7% of the costs. In percentage terms the rich get about 37 cents on the dollar.

Alternatively stated about 63 cents of every dollar in taxes paid by the rich is transferred down. Given that the median voter is a taxeater not a taxpayer we should not be too surprised, although this is a smaller number than I would have guessed before I did the calculation.

Whales may have evolved from raccoon-sized creature

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Whales may have evolved from raccoon-sized creature:

In the search for a missing evolutionary link to modern whales, scientists have come up with an unlikely land cousin — a raccoon-sized creature with the body of a small deer.

Prior molecular studies have proposed the hippo as the closest land relative of today’s whales, but researchers reporting in the journal Nature on Wednesday suggest a four-footed creature from India known as Indohyus, which probably hid in water in times of danger.

Asteroid may hit Mars in next month

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Asteroid may hit Mars in next month:

Mars could be in for an asteroid hit.

A newly discovered hunk of space rock has a 1 in 75 chance of slamming into the Red Planet on Jan. 30, scientists said Thursday.

“These odds are extremely unusual. We frequently work with really long odds when we track … threatening asteroids,” said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The asteroid, known as 2007 WD5, was discovered in late November and is similar in size to an object that hit remote central Siberia in 1908, unleashing energy equivalent to a 15-megaton nuclear bomb and wiping out 60 million trees.

A 1-in-75 chance seems much, much higher when the target is our planet.