Boxer-Kerry

Just launched today is a Senate version of the Waxman-Markey bill which was passed by the house a few months ago. Like house bill, it looks like it will have almost no impact on GHG emissions while cutting US jobs, slowing the economic recovery, and generally being crappy piece of legislation which adds many more government oversights and controls.

El Obamismo said "With the draft legislation they are announcing today, we are one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future and making America more energy independent," except none of that is true. If you wanted to make the US more energy independent, you would promote nuclear plants and find a real waste facility other than the failed Yucca mountain (a program which Obama has essentially shut down - and which it deserved, but there needs to be a better other option).

These idiotic tax-and-trade bills only "save the environment" by marginally reducing US demand through higher costs, and at the same time make the US less competitive and reduce US national investment while increasing imports of foreign fuel (our study proved that).

If you want to cut GHG, have less babies in the world, work with China and India on clean tech, reduce reliance on coal-plants in the US and abroad, invest in nuclear energy and increase the price of gasoline (much as that last one I would hate personally - I dont think it is a bad policy option).

The bills on the table are idiotic. We need a real analysis of how we reach a stable and environmentally friendly way to produce and consume energy. These are massive tax bills and nothing more.

ISS to get a replicator (3D Printer)

What do you do when you are up in space, and you really long for that cup of Peruvian coffee, slice of French pastry, or Russian lug nut from 1997 that somehow drifted off into space and left your space toaster inoperable? You replicate it.

Or actually, you print it.

For now the tech is pretty much limited to that third option: the lug nut. Pasty chefts and coffee shops take heart. NASA is looking at flying a 3D printer that will allow those aboard the ISS to create small objects that they need.

This is known by the distinctly sci-fi name of Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication, or EBF3. Essentially it uses an electron beam to melt metal and then the beam and a rotating surface to reform the metal in the shape of the object desired. It allows any part to be fabricated as long as there is a good enough rendering of the part (including layers).

The benefits in space are readily apparent: the costs of getting anything up to orbit are astronomical, the speed replacements can be delivered is very slow, and the quantity of small and difficult parts is staggering.

But there are benefits here on the blue planet. In situ fabrication means that aerospace companies or militaries will be able to manufacture parts when needed at specific locations, instead of a central supplier and then shipping the part. It also reduces the need to machine down huge blocks of aluminum or titanium, where waste has to be recycled at significant cost. In one example this method would make a 300lb titanium aerospace part out of 350lb of titanium instead of the 6,000lb blocks which are currently used.

It cant yet deliver a thin crust slice of New York brick oven pizza to astronauts dehydrated-food weary stomachs, but it can serve up a very helpful helping of parts and pieces which keep the ISS and future spacecraft happily functioning and in orbit.

How Far can We Go?

Turns out that human spaceflight is not perhaps as limited as you might think. But there is a catch. Or two.

We will never be able to explore the whole universe. It is expanding so rapidly (faster than the speed of light at the edges) that we will never be able to visit the whole thing. Which is not really a problem, because we have a whole lot to explore anyway.

But here is the interesting part. With a spaceship which accelerated at a steady 9m per second, or roughly 1g of force, up to the speed of 0.99 the speed of light it would only take 30 years for an astronaut to arrive at the spot as far away as light from our Sun could reach, roughly 15 billion light years. 30 years is incredibly quick, a single lifetime rather than many generations. It means that long distance travel really is possible.

But here is the catch. If you then turned that ship around and headed home, you would have a hell of a time making it back to Earth. At just relativistic speeds if you hit the brakes one second too late you would overshoot the earth by millions of light years.

Or actually, you would overshoot where the Earth used to be by millions of light years. Because if you flew out to the effective edge of the human universe and then flew back you would have spent 60 years exploring. But 70 billion years would have passed on Earth. The Sun would have gone out tens of billions of years before, swallowing the Earth with it, and leaving the bright galaxy you had left only 6 decades before a dark and dust filled emptiness.

So yes, humans could explore to the edge of the universe, but for whom? Personally, I find the fact that it is even remotely feasible for a human to pass 60 years but 70 billion to pass on Earth absolutely staggering. As a reference point, the consensus is the Earth itself is roughly 4.5 billion years old.

As an interesting aside, since my mind tends to jump towards these things, could it not then be possible to spend much less time in space, and instead of exploring - simply fast forward? If it were possible to climb aboard and loop around the universe, coming back in a decade or two but 1,000 or 10,000 or 1,000,000 years ahead - would you take the risk?

Watery Moon

Water has been found on the Moon. And not just in the craters near the poles either (which have long been suspected of harboring ice, and have recently proven to be the coldest places in the galaxy, with temps hovering within 10 degrees of absolute 0) but all across the surface of the moon, albeit in very low concentration.

Three different satellites have confirmed the presence of water or hydroxyl. Perhaps the most interesting part is how the water got there. Some may have come from comets or other sources. But some may also have come from the solar wind, a stream of high energy hydrogen atoms emitted by the sun, striking the oxygen rich rocks and surface of the moon, breaking apart their bonds, and forming water.

Mass Shenanigans

The Mass Senate recently voted to approve a bill that allowed Deval Patrick to appoint an interim Senator to the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy. It looks as though Paul Kirk will be that appointee.

The thing is, a couple years ago the Democrat controlled senate voted to block the power of the governor to do so, when it would have been against Democrats interests. Now they reverse their stance, many admitting personal distaste for the measure, so that the Democrats can get back quickly to their crucial 60-40 majority in the Senate.

Government based on the will of the people? Based on the rule of law? Drawing limited and enumerated powers from the national and state constitutions? No. None of the above. This is partisan legislating at its most despicable.

The Stupid Things Tariffs Do

Tariffs are the bane of the free market. Econ 101 will tell you that barriers to trade are almost never good things and instead stifle competition and raise end costs to the consumer.

Case in point: the Ford Transit Connect


This rather cool small work van is very popular in Europe. Actually the whole segment is very popular in Europe and does not even exist over here. Ford thinks there is a business case to be made for importing them as small businesses often dont want or need a big white van that gets 15mpg, can't fit down narrow streets and drives like a tank (and I know - drove one for a winter in Park City delivering skis). And I think they are right, just last night I saw a Scion xB driving by with work ladders on the roof and the rear seats removed.

The thing is back in the 1960's Germany (West Germany actually) decided it was against the importation of American chickens and eggs. So it imposed a tariff. The United States, being very proud of its chicken farming and none too happy about this, decided to retort. We put a tariff on German trucks. This is why Mercedes, one of the biggest European truck makers, has almost no presence in the US. When it introduced the Sprinter (which is better than all the American big vans) through Chrysler, it shipped knocked down kits to the US and then assembled them here, IKEA style but actually putting them together before they sold them, to get around the law.

Ford has taken a different, and amusing, approach which highlights just how dumb and pointless and expensive these laws are. It builds the Ford Transit Connect in Germany as a "wagon" with rear windows and a 2nd row of seats. These "wagons" are then shipped to the US. When they get to the US, the rear glass from the "wagons" is removed, metal sheets are hot welded in place, the seats are ripped out and then ripped up with the cushioning etc being used for landfill cover. In only a few minutes one of the "wagons" can be turned into a commercial use panel van.

How much does it cost Ford per vehicle? I would guess a few $100, lets call it $500. That is money which goes nowhere. It is an additional and pointless cost which just gets passed on to the consumer.

Top Gear HD

The best car show in the world, some of the best (if not the best) cinematography of any show on television, an hours worth of hilarity, insane stunts and beautiful exotic cars... and it has always been shot in standard def.... (Clarkson voice).... Until Now.

The next season (the 14th) will be shot in HD. Finally. Honestly, this show more than any other show in the world deserves to be in HD. After pro sport, this is the show where HD will actually matter.

The catch? As far as I know, Verizon (which I have) does not yet pick up BBC America HD. Of course, there are always the interwebs (and bittorrent), but I would love to just have it on my DVR. Here's hoping that Verizon does the right thing and brings the best show in the world to these HD loving shores.

As a side note, I would love it also if the BBC decided to actually show Top Gear on time, rather than months late... but I would settle for HD at this point.

College online

Just saw an amusing advert for going to college online. They used a college age girl walking around in her pj's to sell the idea of online college.... Which is ironic because what you don't get by going to college online is girls. Or human interaction at all for that matter. Pretty funny actually.

Quality Cartoons


Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez
Cartoons by Michael Ramirez

I found Jesus



The Four Part Land: Prelude

As I work on the new Book of Norm website (see nav bar ------->)
my brother is working on the new website for his recently mostly completed but still being edited novel. This is set in "The Four Part Land," a Tolkienesque fantasy world with a very developed set of cultures, societies, creatures and geography.

The new website also has up the Prelude and first part of the first chapter.

Swing on over to
http://thefourpartland.com/the_prelude.php
to read the prelude.

Also - I will be working in the near future to market the book, any thoughts are appreciated.

Rule of Law? Independent Judiciary? Not for Obama

In what may be a sign of things to come and is a sign of the attitude of the current administration, the United States is currently heavily pressuring the independent judiciary of Honduras to violate their own constitution.

It is doing this because the current administration does not like the ruling handed down by the independent judiciary of a sovereign democracy. The Honduran Supreme Court found President Zelaya to be in violation of that nations constitution on a number of fronts. He was thus removed from power.

The United States is calling this a "coup." The administration, particularly Hillary and Obama, are pressuring the court to break their own constitution and re-instate President Zelaya. Obama instructed Hillary to punish the judiciary of Honduras because they followed the rule of law rather than his wishes. Say much for his belief in the rule of law? Say much for his belief in democracy? Or for that matter, his own infallibility?

At the same time all this is going on, the Congressional Research Service has come out with a non-partisan review of the facts: "Available sources indicate that the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system."

The important takeaway here is that we should all be building forts in Montana and stockpiling large caliber weapons. Actually, no. And I dont believe in the right to bear arms. But all that said it is actions like this which make me more sympathetic to those who see the fight as the people vs. the govt.

The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law are two of the most fundamental principles of modern democracy, without them, we could not and would not have the United States. And right now we have President and Secretary of State who are doing everything they can to abolish those principles in a neighboring democracy.

Obama's Nontax Tax: From the WSJ

Interesting WSJ article summing up Obama's approach to what is and what is not a "tax."


President Obama didn't make much news on his round of five Sunday talk shows yesterday, with one notable exception. The President revealed a great deal about his philosophy of government and how he defines a tax increase. It turns out the President thinks a health-care tax is not a tax if he thinks the tax is for your own good.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Obama was asked by host George Stephanopoulos about the "individual mandate." Under Max Baucus's Senate bill that Mr. Obama supports, everyone would be required to buy health insurance or else pay a penalty as high as $3,800 a year. Mr. Stephanopoulos posed the obvious question about this kind of coercion when "the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don't [buy insurance]. . . . How is that not a tax?"

"Well, hold on a second, George," Mr. Obama replied. "Here's what's happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average—our families—in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I've said is that if you can't afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn't be punished for that. That's just piling on. If, on the other hand, we're giving tax credits, we've set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we've driven down the costs, we've done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you've just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's . . ."

"That may be," Mr. Stephanopoulos responded, "but it's still a tax increase." (In fact, uncompensated care accounts for about only 2.2% of national health spending today, but that's another subject.)

Mr. Obama: "No. That's not true, George. The—for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore . . ." In other words, like parents talking to their children, this levy—don't call it a tax—is for your own good.

Mr. Stephanopoulos tried again: "But it may be fair, it may be good public policy—"

Mr. Obama: "No, but—but, George, you—you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase."

"I don't think I'm making it up," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. He then had the temerity to challenge the Philologist in Chief, with an assist from Merriam-Webster. He cited that dictionary's definition of "tax"—"a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes."

Mr. Obama: "George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now. . . ."

Mr. Stephanopoulos: "I wanted to check for myself. But your critics say it is a tax increase."

Mr. Obama: "My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I'm taking over every sector of the economy. You know that. Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we're going to have an individual mandate or not, but . . ."

Mr. Stephanopoulos: "But you reject that it's a tax increase?"

Mr. Obama: "I absolutely reject that notion."

If you can follow this reasoning, then you probably also think that a new entitlement is the best way to reduce entitlement spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate's individual mandate will result in new revenues of some $20 billion over 10 years because some people will choose to opt out of ObamaCare—or because they can't afford to buy in, given that other taxes and regulation will make health care more expensive. If that $20 billion doesn't count as tax revenue, then what is it?

And for that matter, what doesn't count as a nontax under Mr. Obama's definition? All taxes can be justified in the name of providing some type of service, however wasteful. Mr. Obama complains that "My critics say everything is a tax increase," as if that is his political problem. His real problem is that the individual mandate really is a tax, but the President doesn't want voters to think of it that way, because taxes are unpopular.

Rabbit Holes

When I was working on the new website www.bookofnorm.com (go check out the basic theme if you like, it is very minimalist, easy to use with touchscreen phones, and quick to navigate through), I came up with the idea of rabbit holes.

Namely, when I spend time on a website I normally like to look at a chains of articles that I find interesting. The idea of a rabbit hole is just that - a chain of articles which are linked by a theme. Really it is just a content reorganization from this blog, but I think it will be an interesting read for people.

I am working on other new ideas that will revolutionize the web. Ok, not really revolutionize. But things I think should be there. Next up: content mapping.

Coming this Winter: Cheap Gas

In an issue near and dear to my heart (though against my professional interests), gas prices are likely headed lower soon.

Options traders are betting on a big fall in prices as the slowly recovering world economy is not enough to keep gas prices high - they have gone up over 50% this year, but the demand is just not there. Prices are expected to fall as much as 40% by December - according to options traders.

Which, considering that I am now driving my not-so-good-on-gas Ford Expedition again (though to be honest, I got about 22mpg in the s4 anyway), is very good news for me.


Cheapest Way to Cut C02 Emissions? Contraception

40% of global pregnancies are unintended.

The single biggest determining factor in human's emissions of greenhouse gasses is population size.

a+b=contraception is the cheapest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

The study, done at the London School of Economics agrees with a WHO report set to come out in November that rampant overpopulation is what is destroying this planet. Thus the solution to the GHG problem, in a brilliantly oblique way, is to reduce the population expansion.

Of course, this is not really politically feasible. Could you imagine Obama trying to get up and explain to the American people that his solution to global warming is nationalizing Trojan Condoms and shipping them by the container ship to Asia and Africa?

Sadly, what is lost in politics is the ability to brilliantly out-think the problems of the world, the only solutions that are acceptable are the solutions which can be easily explained to the lowest common denominator individual. One can only hope that the need to reduce the population expansion gains some global traction and the US does eventually throw some weight behind it.

I have to say again though, I love how everyone is going on about cap-and-trade, geo-engineering and giant wind turbines and the simplest solution? Contraception for the developing world.

Policy Recap

Quick recap of what we have seen in the last year or so (and certainly, some of these started with the previous administration, but have gotten worse with the current one. Others are 100% new admin).

• Monetary policy will likely cause inflation.

• The fiscal-stimulus package will likely result in unprecedented levels of deficits and interest payments that reduce the amount of credit going to the private sector.

• Federal spending on infrastructure, social programs, and transfers to the states will increase government consumption and transfers, lead to more regulation and, in some cases, encroach on state responsibilities, damaging the integrity of the legal system.

• Bailout policies involve changes in existing rules, damaging property rights, the integrity of the legal system, and the legal enforcement of contracts.

• Other measures, or proposed measures, that will reduce economic freedom include higher marginal incometax rates, increased regulation of the financial and manufacturing industries, and increased regulation related to the cap-and-trade system.

The Sec. State: MIA?

Where is Hillary Clinton?

We just announced that we were pulling the missile defense shield, a move with very significant impacts on our international stance, our allies in Europe and some will believe our relationship with Russia (though I can guarantee it wont do a damn bit of good there). Through all of this, she has been no where to be seen.

Actually, when was the last time you can remember her doing anything public at all?

In her defense, much as I think she is an amoral political operator, I think she is a little more steeped in the realities of politics than our current college professor president. It would not surprise me at all that she is against the move and instead believes that we should have taken on Russia and Iran, the two targets of the system--one directly, one symbolically--instead of trying to appease dictators.

What do you get when you appease a dictator? Them screaming about how they will never give up their nuclear programs, or how the holocaust never actually happened. From Russia you just hear a big chuckle and "Good... goood.... heh heh."

Our Secretary of State is out of the loop, perhaps because she disagrees, perhaps because she was shunted aside after being appointed to appease the party and a few voters, but perhaps (and much as Obama is a great speaker, I think Clinton is actually the shrewder politician, Obama caught a confluence of historical and social waves and rode them to an easy victory) she is stay out because she knows it is better for her.

In this scenario Mrs. Clinton is the invisible Sec. State because she does not want to get involved with the politics of the current administration, saving herself when she runs on a centrist platform in three years which takes down the left-wing President and runs over the still unorganized Republican party...

Just saying.. I think it makes sense...

1959 Chevy Bel Air vs. 2009 Chevy MAlibu: 50 years of progress

Dan Brown's Worst Sentences

This is from the Telegraph, and it is pretty funny. I like Dan Brown, but the writing is pretty terrible (especially with Deception Point).

His 20 worst sentences, as decided by the editors of the Telegraph:

20. Angels and Demons, chapter 1: Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal — wisp of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete.

They say the first rule of fiction is “show, don’t tell”. This fails that rule.

19. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 83: "The Knights Templar were warriors," Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.

“Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.

18. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: He could taste the familiar tang of museum air - an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon - the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.

Ah, that familiar tang of deionised essence.

17. Deception Point, chapter 8: Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.

It’s not clear what Brown thinks ‘precarious’ means here.

16. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move." On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?

15. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he'd suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces - elevators, subways, squash courts.

Other enclosed spaces include toilet cubicles, phone boxes and dog kennels.

14. Angels and Demons, chapter 100: Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World - The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

The Rio de la Plata. Between Argentina and Uruguay. One of the major rivers of the Old World. Apparently.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop's ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.

A keen eye indeed.

13 and 12. The Lost Symbol, chapter 1: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 17: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.

Oh – the Falcon 2000EX with the Pratt & Whitneys? And the Manurhin MR-93? Not the MR-92? You’re sure? Thanks.

11. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

Do angry oxen throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.

10. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow.

Did they hit him with the kaleidoscope?

9. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 32: The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. "SmartCar," she said. "A hundred kilometers to the liter."

Pro tip: when fleeing from the police, take a moment to boast about your getaway vehicle’s fuel efficiency. And get it wrong by a factor of five. SmartCars do about 20km (12 miles) to the litre.

8. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 3: My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.

And they say the schools are dumbing down.

7 and 6. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 33: Pulling back the sleeve of his jacket, he checked his watch - a vintage, collector's-edition Mickey Mouse wristwatch that had been a gift from his parents on his tenth birthday.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 6: His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December - a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics... something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations.

In the words of Professor Pullum: “It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance to what is being narrated.”

5. Angels and Demons, chapter 4: learning the ropes in the trenches

Learning the ropes (of a naval ship) while in the trenches (with the army in the First World War). It’s a military education, certainly.

4, 3, and 2. The Da Vinci Code, opening sentence: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.

Angels and Demons, opening sentence: Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Deception Point, opening sentences: Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.

Professor Pullum: "Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence".

1. The Da Vinci Code: Title. The Da Vinci Code.

Leonardo’s surname was not Da Vinci. He was from Vinci, or of Vinci. As many critics have pointed out, calling it The Da Vinci Code is like saying Mr Of Arabia or asking What Would Of Nazareth Do?

Forbes.com: GM's Fuzzy Math

Not sure this assesment is entirely accurate, but an interesting and very dark take on the upcoming chevy volt.

http://www.forbes.com/2009/09/15/general-motors-chevy-volt-environment-opinions-contributors-autos.html

-- Sent from my Palm Pre

NPR, Acorn, and Bigotry

The farse that is acorn, liberal ideology and our current POTUS.

From the WSJ:

"a fourth Acorn office visit by freelance investigators James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles. As Johnny Carson used to say, it's weird, wild stuff. The woman manning the Acorn office in San Bernardino, Calif., Tresa Kaelke, responds to the pair's requests for help setting up a child-prostitution ring by claiming to be an ex-prostitute herself. "Heidi Fleiss is my hero!" she exclaims. When Giles claims her former pimp abused her, Kaelke tells of having been abused by an ex-husband--then confesses to his premeditated murder."

The liberal attitude in response to this can be neatly summarized as follows.
NPR's Frank James:
"It's also important to keep in mind that ACORN's workers are coming from the same low-income neighborhoods the organization serves, with all that entails--poor schools, high crime and the sorts of social problems that have been documented for decades.

So the flaws conservatives are pointing out about ACORN are not so much problems associated with that organization per se but more about the problems of being poor and minority in urban America."

In other words, bigotry. High-handed, I am doing this for all the right reasons, you really can't blame the individual and its not their fault bigotry, but bigotry nonetheless.

And then of course, you have the NYT, which I like as a paper as long as I am not reading anything about politics.

This was their take on the story:
"For months during last year's presidential race, conservatives sought to tar the Obama campaign with accusations of voter fraud and other transgressions by the national community organizing group Acorn, which had done some work for the campaign.

But it took amateur actors, posing as a prostitute and a pimp and recorded on hidden cameras in visits to Acorn offices, to send government officials scrambling in recent days to sever ties with the organization.

Conservative advocates and broadcasters were gleeful about the success of the tactics in exposing Acorn workers, who appeared to blithely encourage prostitution and tax evasion. It was, in effect, the latest scalp claimed by those on the right who have made no secret of their hope to weaken the Obama administration by attacking allies and appointees they view as leftist."

Spin much?

Anyway, too much to do to write a lot here, but suffice it to say I hope this thing has legs because the best option for America over the next couple years is to hamstring the democrats and then regain rep. congressional control in the mid-terms. That is the only way to stem the tide of big-government spending bills and socialist programs.

US "Adjusting" the missile shield

The US will be eliminating adjusting the missile shield that had been planned for Eastern Europe.

The US believes that N. Korea is not planning on building long range missiles. Which is pretty much like saying that they think the Easter Bunny has no interest in larger chocolate eggs: a) we have not a damn clue what the Easter Bunny thinks (we cant even confirm basic information like whether it exists) and b) of course the Easter Bunny wants bigger and better eggs.

With that analogy out of the way, I would like to point out how this also pisses off some of our closest allies (Eastern Europe) in the vain hope of appeasing Russia. So we gave in to the demands of an aggressive dictatorship over the cries of aid from fledgling democracies in the name of stability and international friendship. Sound historically idiotic to anyone else?

Sure, Poland and the Czech Republic saw the missile shield mostly as a protection from the mother to the North, as it should have been. It also happened to protect all of Europe from N. Korean and Iranian missiles, which I dare say would have been a good thing, considering our current plan for preventing these two rouge states from gaining nuclear ICBMs is to ask them please to stop.

Oklo: Natural Nuclear Reactors (follow on to NewScientist Article)

Oklo: Natural Nuclear Reactors

Nature showed that it could effectively contain the radioactive wastes created by the natural nuclear reactions

Creating a nuclear reaction is not simple. In power plants, it involves splitting uranium atoms, and that process releases energy as heat and neutrons that go on to cause other atoms to split. This splitting process is called nuclear fission. In a power plant, sustaining the process of splitting atoms requires the involvement of many scientists and technicians.

It came as a great surprise to most, therefore, when, in 1972, French physicist Francis Perrin declared that nature had beaten humans to the punch by creating the world’s first nuclear reactors. Indeed, he argued, nature had a two-billion-year head start.1 Fifteen natural fission reactors have been found in three different ore deposits at the Oklo mine in Gabon, West Africa. These are collectively known as the Oklo Fossil Reactors.2

And when these deep underground natural nuclear chain reactions were over, nature showed that it could effectively contain the radioactive wastes created by the reactions.

No nuclear chain reactions will ever happen in a repository for high-level nuclear wastes. But if a repository were to be built at Yucca Mountain, scientists would count on the geology of the area to contain radionuclides generated by these wastes with similar effectiveness.


Nature’s reactors

In the early 1970s, French scientists noticed something odd about samples of uranium recovered from the Oklo mine in Gabon, West Africa. All atoms of a specific chemical element have the same chemical properties, but may differ in weight; these different weights of an element are known as isotopes. Some uranium samples from Gabon had an abnormally low amount of the isotope U-235, which can sustain a chain reaction. This isotope is rare in nature, but in some places, the uranium found at Oklo contained only half the amount of the isotope that should have been there.3

Scientists from other countries were skeptical when first hearing of these natural nuclear reactors. Some argued that the missing amounts of U-235 had been displaced over time, not split in nuclear fission reactions. "How," they asked, "could fission reactions happen in nature, when such a high degree of engineering, physics, and acute, detailed attention went into building a nuclear reactor?"

Perrin and the other French scientists concluded that the only other uranium samples with similar levels of the isotopes found at Oklo could be found in the used nuclear fuel produced by modern reactors. They found that the percentages of many isotopes at Oklo strongly resembled those in the spent fuel generated by nuclear power plants, and, therefore, reasoned that a similar natural process had occurred.4

The radioactive remains of a natural nuclear fission reaction that happened 1.7 billion years ago in Gabon, Africa, were held in place by the surrounding geology



Uranium isotopes decay at different levels

The uranium in the Earth contains dominantly two uranium isotopes, U-238 and U-235, but also a very small percentage of U-234, and perhaps small, undetectable amounts of others. All of these isotopes undergo radioactive decay, but they do so at different rates. In particular, U-235 decays about six-and-a-third times faster than U-238. Thus, over time the proportion of U-235 to U-238 decreases. But this change is slow because of the small rates of decay.

Generally, uranium isotope ratios are the same in all uranium ores contained in nature, whether found in meteorites or in moon rocks. Therefore, scientists believe that the original proportions of these isotopes were the same throughout the solar system. At present, U-238 comprises about 99.3 percent of the total, and U-235 comprises about 0.7 percent.5 5 Any change in this ratio indicates some process other than simple radioactive decay.

Calculating back to 1.7 billion years ago—the age of the deposits in Gabon—scientists realized that the U-235 there comprised about three percent of the total uranium. This is high enough to permit nuclear fissions to occur, providing other conditions are right.6


So how did nuclear reactions occur in nature?

Deep under African soil, about 1.7 billion years ago, natural conditions prompted underground nuclear reactions. Scientists from around the world, including American scientists have studied the rocks at Oklo. These scientists believe that water filtering down through crevices in the rock played a key role. Without water, it would have been nearly impossible for natural reactors to sustain chain reactions.

The water slowed the subatomic particles or neutrons that were cast out from the uranium so that they could hit-and split-other atoms. Without the water, the neutrons would move so fast that they would just bounce off, like skipping a rock across the water, and not produce nuclear chain reactions. When the heat from the reactions became too great, the water turned to steam and stopped slowing the neutrons. The reactions then slowed until the water cooled. Then the process could begin again.7

Scientists think these natural reactors could have functioned intermittently for a million years or more. Natural chain reactions stopped when the uranium isotopes became too sparse to keep the reactions going.


What happened to the nuclear waste left at Oklo?

Once the natural reactors burned themselves out, the highly radioactive waste they generated was held in place deep under Oklo by the granite, sandstone, and clays surrounding the reactors’ areas. Plutonium has moved less than 10 feet from where it was formed almost two billion years ago.8

Today, manmade reactors also create radioactive elements and by-products. Scientists involved in the disposal of nuclear waste are very interested in Oklo because long-lived wastes created there remain close to their place of origin.

The Oklo phenomenon gives scientists an opportunity to examine the results of a nearly natural two billion-year experiment, one that cannot be duplicated in the lab. By analyzing the remnants of these ancient nuclear reactors and understanding how underground rock formations contained the waste, scientists studying Oklo can apply their findings to containing nuclear waste today. The rock types and other aspects of the geology at Oklo differ from those at Yucca Mountain. But this information is useful in the design of a repository at Yucca Mountain. Were the Oklo reactors a unique event in natural history? Probably not. Scientists have found uranium ore deposits in other geological formations of approximately the same age, not only in Africa but also in other parts of the world, particularly in Canada and northern Australia. But to date, no other natural nuclear reactors have been identified.

Scientists believe that similar spontaneous nuclear reactions could not happen today because too high a proportion of the U-235 has decayed. But nearly two billion years ago, nature not only appears to have created her first nuclear reactors, she also found a way to successfully contain the waste they produced deep underground.

The radioactive remains of natural nuclear fission chain reactions that happened 1.7 billion years ago in Gabon, West Africa, never moved far beyond their place of origin. They remain contained in the sedimentary rocks that kept them from being dissolved or spread by groundwater. Scientists have studied Yucca Mountain to see if the geology there might play a similar role in containing high-level nuclear waste.

13 Things that Don't Make Sense

From NewScientist:

1 The placebo effect

Don't try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't know.

Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease. He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.

2 The horizon problem

OUR universe appears to be unfathomably uniform. Look across space from one edge of the visible universe to the other, and you'll see that the microwave background radiation filling the cosmos is at the same temperature everywhere. That may not seem surprising until you consider that the two edges are nearly 28 billion light years apart and our universe is only 14 billion years old.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the thermal equilibrium we see now.

This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions. "Inflation", for example.

You can solve the horizon problem by having the universe expand ultra-fast for a time, just after the big bang, blowing up by a factor of 1050 in 10-33 seconds. But is that just wishful thinking? "Inflation would be an explanation if it occurred," says University of Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees. The trouble is that no one knows what could have made that happen – but see Inside inflation: after the big bang.

So, in effect, inflation solves one mystery only to invoke another. A variation in the speed of light could also solve the horizon problem - but this too is impotent in the face of the question "why?" In scientific terms, the uniform temperature of the background radiation remains an anomaly.

A variation in the speed of light could solve the problem, but this too is impotent in the face of the question 'why?'

3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays

FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles - mostly protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei - that travel through the universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still don't know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the most energetic particles ever seen in nature. But that's not the real mystery.

As cosmic-ray particles travel through space, they lose energy in collisions with the low-energy photons that pervade the universe, such as those of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Einstein's special theory of relativity dictates that any cosmic rays reaching Earth from a source outside our galaxy will have suffered so many energy-shedding collisions that their maximum possible energy is 5 × 1019 electronvolts. This is known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit.

Over the past decade, however, the University of Tokyo's Akeno Giant Air Shower Array - 111 particle detectors spread out over 100 square kilometres - has detected several cosmic rays above the GZK limit. In theory, they can only have come from within our galaxy, avoiding an energy-sapping journey across the cosmos. However, astronomers can find no source for these cosmic rays in our galaxy. So what is going on?

One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong. His special theory of relativity says that space is the same in all directions, but what if particles found it easier to move in certain directions? Then the cosmic rays could retain more of their energy, allowing them to beat the GZK limit.

Physicists at the Pierre Auger experiment in Mendoza, Argentina, are now working on this problem. Using 1600 detectors spread over 3000 square kilometres, Auger should be able to determine the energies of incoming cosmic rays and shed more light on the Akeno results.

Alan Watson, an astronomer at the University of Leeds, UK, and spokesman for the Pierre Auger project, is already convinced there is something worth following up here. "I have no doubts that events above 1020 electronvolts exist. There are sufficient examples to convince me," he says. The question now is, what are they? How many of these particles are coming in, and what direction are they coming from? Until we get that information, there's no telling how exotic the true explanation could be.

Update: Follow the latest hunt for GZK neutrinos.

One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong

4 Belfast homeopathy results

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.

5 Dark matter

TAKE our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin.

Vera Rubin, an astronomer working at the Carnegie Institution's department of terrestrial magnetism in Washington DC, spotted this anomaly in the late 1970s. The best response from physicists was to suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see. The trouble was, nobody could explain what this "dark matter" was.

And they still can't. Although researchers have made many suggestions about what kind of particles might make up dark matter, there is no consensus. It's an embarrassing hole in our understanding. Astronomical observations suggest that dark matter must make up about 90 per cent of the mass in the universe, yet we are astonishingly ignorant what that 90 per cent is.

Maybe we can't work out what dark matter is because it doesn't actually exist. That's certainly the way Rubin would like it to turn out. "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she says. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle."

Update: Some scientists are trying to create the stuff themselves. See Let there be dark matter.

If the results turn out to be real, the implications are profound. We may have to rewrite physics and chemistry

6 Viking's methane

JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with carbon-14.

So why no party?

Because another instrument, designed to identify organic molecules considered essential signs of life, found nothing. Almost all the mission scientists erred on the side of caution and declared Viking's discovery a false positive. But was it?

The arguments continue to rage, but results from NASA's latest rovers show that the surface of Mars was almost certainly wet in the past and therefore hospitable to life. And there is plenty more evidence where that came from, Levin says. "Every mission to Mars has produced evidence supporting my conclusion. None has contradicted it."

Levin stands by his claim, and he is no longer alone. Joe Miller, a cell biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has re-analysed the data and he thinks that the emissions show evidence of a circadian cycle. That is highly suggestive of life.

Levin is petitioning ESA and NASA to fly a modified version of his mission to look for "chiral" molecules. These come in left or right-handed versions: they are mirror images of each other. While biological processes tend to produce molecules that favour one chirality over the other, non-living processes create left and right-handed versions in equal numbers. If a future mission to Mars were to find that Martian "metabolism" also prefers one chiral form of a molecule to the other, that would be the best indication yet of life on Mars.

Update: Also see our Top 10 controversial pieces of evidence for extraterrestrial life.

Something on Mars is ingesting nutrients, metabolising them and then belching out radioactive methane

7 Tetraneutrons

FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six particles that should not exist (see Ghost in the atom). They are called tetraneutrons: four neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of physics.

Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together.

The team fired beryllium nuclei at a small carbon target and analysed the debris that shot into surrounding particle detectors. They expected to see evidence for four separate neutrons hitting their detectors. Instead the Ganil team found just one flash of light in one detector. And the energy of this flash suggested that four neutrons were arriving together at the detector. Of course, their finding could have been an accident: four neutrons might just have arrived in the same place at the same time by coincidence. But that's ridiculously improbable.

Not as improbable as tetraneutrons, some might say, because in the standard model of particle physics tetraneutrons simply can't exist. According to the Pauli exclusion principle, not even two protons or neutrons in the same system can have identical quantum properties. In fact, the strong nuclear force that would hold them together is tuned in such a way that it can't even hold two lone neutrons together, let alone four. Marquès and his team were so bemused by their result that they buried the data in a research paper that was ostensibly about the possibility of finding tetraneutrons in the future (Physical Review C, vol 65, p 44006).

And there are still more compelling reasons to doubt the existence of tetraneutrons. If you tweak the laws of physics to allow four neutrons to bind together, all kinds of chaos ensues (Journal of Physics G, vol 29, L9). It would mean that the mix of elements formed after the big bang was inconsistent with what we now observe and, even worse, the elements formed would have quickly become far too heavy for the cosmos to cope. "Maybe the universe would have collapsed before it had any chance to expand," says Natalia Timofeyuk, a theorist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.

There are, however, a couple of holes in this reasoning. Established theory does allow the tetraneutron to exist - though only as a ridiculously short-lived particle. "This could be a reason for four neutrons hitting the Ganil detectors simultaneously," Timofeyuk says. And there is other evidence that supports the idea of matter composed of multiple neutrons: neutron stars. These bodies, which contain an enormous number of bound neutrons, suggest that as yet unexplained forces come into play when neutrons gather en masse.

8 The Pioneer anomaly

THIS is a tale of two spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972; Pioneer 11 a year later. By now both craft should be drifting off into deep space with no one watching. However, their trajectories have proved far too fascinating to ignore.

That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them, causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe. So what is causing it?

Nobody knows. Some possible explanations have already been ruled out, including software errors, the solar wind or a fuel leak. If the cause is some gravitational effect, it is not one we know anything about. In fact, physicists are so completely at a loss that some have resorted to linking this mystery with other inexplicable phenomena.

Bruce Bassett of the University of Portsmouth, UK, has suggested that the Pioneer conundrum might have something to do with variations in alpha, the fine structure constant. Others have talked about it as arising from dark matter - but since we don't know what dark matter is, that doesn't help much either. "This is all so maddeningly intriguing," says Michael Martin Nieto of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We only have proposals, none of which has been demonstrated."

Nieto has called for a new analysis of the early trajectory data from the craft, which he says might yield fresh clues. But to get to the bottom of the problem what scientists really need is a mission designed specifically to test unusual gravitational effects in the outer reaches of the solar system. Such a probe would cost between $300 million and $500 million and could piggyback on a future mission to the outer reaches of the solar system (www.arxiv.org/gr-qc/0411077).

"An explanation will be found eventually," Nieto says. "Of course I hope it is due to new physics - how stupendous that would be. But once a physicist starts working on the basis of hope he is heading for a fall." Disappointing as it may seem, Nieto thinks the explanation for the Pioneer anomaly will eventually be found in some mundane effect, such as an unnoticed source of heat on board the craft.

Update: see Computer sleuths try to crack Pioneer anomaly.

9 Dark energy

IT IS one of the most famous, and most embarrassing, problems in physics. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was slowing down after the big bang. "Theorists are still floundering around, looking for a sensible explanation," says cosmologist Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We're all hoping that upcoming observations of supernovae, of clusters of galaxies and so on will give us more clues."

One suggestion is that some property of empty space is responsible - cosmologists call it dark energy. But all attempts to pin it down have fallen woefully short. It's also possible that Einstein's theory of general relativity may need to be tweaked when applied to the very largest scales of the universe. "The field is still wide open," Freese says.

Update: see Superconductors inspire quantum test for dark energy, and Dark energy: Seeking the heart of darkness.

10 The Kuiper cliff

IF YOU travel out to the far edge of the solar system, into the frigid wastes beyond Pluto, you'll see something strange. Suddenly, after passing through the Kuiper belt, a region of space teeming with icy rocks, there's nothing.

Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer seems to be a 10th planet. We're not talking about Quaoar or Sedna: this is a massive object, as big as Earth or Mars, that has swept the area clean of debris.

The evidence for the existence of "Planet X" is compelling, says Alan Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. But although calculations show that such a body could account for the Kuiper cliff (Icarus, vol 160, p 32), no one has ever seen this fabled 10th planet.

There's a good reason for that. The Kuiper belt is just too far away for us to get a decent view. We need to get out there and have a look before we can say anything about the region. And that won't be possible for another decade, at least. NASA's New Horizons probe, which will head out to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, is scheduled for launch in January 2006. It won't reach Pluto until 2015, so if you are looking for an explanation of the vast, empty gulf of the Kuiper cliff, watch this space.

11 The Wow signal

IT WAS 37 seconds long and came from outer space. On 15 August 1977 it caused astronomer Jerry Ehman, then of Ohio State University in Columbus, to scrawl "Wow!" on the printout from Big Ear, Ohio State's radio telescope in Delaware. And 28 years later no one knows what created the signal. "I am still waiting for a definitive explanation that makes sense," Ehman says.

Coming from the direction of Sagittarius, the pulse of radiation was confined to a narrow range of radio frequencies around 1420 megahertz. This frequency is in a part of the radio spectrum in which all transmissions are prohibited by international agreement. Natural sources of radiation, such as the thermal emissions from planets, usually cover a much broader sweep of frequencies. So what caused it?

The nearest star in that direction is 220 light years away. If that is where is came from, it would have had to be a pretty powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation using an astonishingly large and powerful transmitter.

The fact that hundreds of sweeps over the same patch of sky have found nothing like the Wow signal doesn't mean it's not aliens. When you consider the fact that the Big Ear telescope covers only one-millionth of the sky at any time, and an alien transmitter would also likely beam out over the same fraction of sky, the chances of spotting the signal again are remote, to say the least.

Others think there must be a mundane explanation. Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for the SETI@home project, says the Wow signal was almost certainly pollution: radio-frequency interference from Earth-based transmissions. "We've seen many signals like this, and these sorts of signals have always turned out to be interference," he says. The debate continues.

Update: see Top 10 controversial pieces of evidence for extraterrestrial life.

It was either a powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation beaming out a signal

12 Not-so-constant constants

IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.

But that's heresy. Alpha is an extremely important constant that determines how light interacts with matter - and it shouldn't be able to change. Its value depends on, among other things, the charge on the electron, the speed of light and Planck's constant. Could one of these really have changed?

No one in physics wanted to believe the measurements. Webb and his team have been trying for years to find an error in their results. But so far they have failed.

Webb's are not the only results that suggest something is missing from our understanding of alpha. A recent analysis of the only known natural nuclear reactor, which was active nearly 2 billion years ago at what is now Oklo in Gabon, also suggests something about light's interaction with matter has changed.

The ratio of certain radioactive isotopes produced within such a reactor depends on alpha, and so looking at the fission products left behind in the ground at Oklo provides a way to work out the value of the constant at the time of their formation. Using this method, Steve Lamoreaux and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggest that alpha may have decreased by more than 4 per cent since Oklo started up (Physical Review D, vol 69, p 121701).

There are gainsayers who still dispute any change in alpha. Patrick Petitjean, an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, led a team that analysed quasar light picked up by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and found no evidence that alpha has changed. But Webb, who is now looking at the VLT measurements, says that they require a more complex analysis than Petitjean's team has carried out. Webb's group is working on that now, and may be in a position to declare the anomaly resolved - or not - later this year.

"It's difficult to say how long it's going to take," says team member Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "The more we look at these new data, the more difficulties we see." But whatever the answer, the work will still be valuable. An analysis of the way light passes through distant molecular clouds will reveal more about how the elements were produced early in the universe's history.

Update: No such thing as a constant constant?

13 Cold fusion

AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

That's quite a turnaround. The DoE's first report on the subject, published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion results, produced by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and unveiled at a press conference in 1989, were impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false.

The basic claim of cold fusion is that dunking palladium electrodes into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to move into palladium's molecular lattice, enabling them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory.

BookOfNorm.com

Big news (is coming).

There is now a Bookofnorm.com

But, as if you just clicked on it you would have found out, it is not big news yet because bookofnorm.com just redirects back here.... for now...

this will continue to be the blog. I simply like it too much and it is too easy to use (I dont want to FTP every time I post, and I can email posts to this, and I like the format and it has all the old posts etc etc etc).

But in the near future there will be, hopefully, a fair bit more coming along.

Obama's Health Care Demands

Obama, at this late and critical hour, has come out basically demanding no watered down compromise but the full bill that he asked for. And he wants it for free.

You have to give one thing to him, he is determined to do what he sees as best. I think he has finally realized that this nation faces a very difficult time ahead if we dont get spending under control. So he is demanding that the bill does not add to the deficit. Actually demanding it. On top of that he is demanding that there is immediate coverage provided to those with preexisting conditions. Of course, this is basically saying that people who have never paid for car insurance have the right to demand coverage for a crash, after the crash occured. Make sense to anyone else? Regardless, Obama is demanding that too.

He actually went out on a limb and said he would not pass unless it did not cost taxpayers. And it is quite a limb, because most Washington oddsmakers were thinking this would be settled by some kind of co-op compromise with more protections phasing in by 2013. Dems are already looking for wiggle room in el Omabaismo's statements, thinking "well, it wont add to the deficit in the first year" etc.

I have to give the pres props for standing up for what he thinks is right. The issue is, he's wrong. And he is simply ignoring the facts.

Lets start with what we should do. There are a lot of good suggestions out there to fix healthcare in this country. Revamp medicare: shift from reimbursing set rates for single proceedings to tackling the overall long-term health of the patient and emphasizing preventative measures. In that vein, make the standard corporate health insurance contract 3-5 years, so that insurers have long-term cost savings (read "healthier patients") at heart. Lets also do tort reform as lawsuits are a massive tumor feeding on the health insurance industry and bringing everyone's costs up. Finally, lets link health care coverage to real costs for the insured. Why will this help? Because every patient does not need 500 cat scans and isotope imaging tests which the current healthcare system supports as the consumer does not see any cost to themselves. It results in atrocities like Lahey up here in Boston, whose first answer to any problem is run 15 different $1,000 tests and bill the insurance company.

The result is that the well insured are far over-treated because it is in the medical establishment's best interest to do so. And who would be the best to reign in costs? The current bill says the government, which is idiotic because a) the government is arbitrary and is generally useless at effectively cutting costs and b) because it takes away the fundamental right to chose coverage for your self, hence all the talk of "death panels" which in reality be more like "what level of care makes sense for us to provide" panels. The individuals should decide, the government should have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

But beyond simply being wrong, he is lying to the American people.

He says that the bill will not make you change the coverage you already have. But it will, because it mandates that you have certain benefits in your health insurance, as you are too dumb to know what is best for you. He said you would not be "forced" into the govt. run health care plans, but as they are subsidized many employers would shift over, forcing a large part of the population into the government plans.

He says he wants to help working class American families. Fine. The version of the bill in the house right now? It has an 8% income tax. 8% is a lot. The 2007 US Median household income was $50,233, which means that you will be paying a little over $4,000 a year in new taxes. Want to keep you old healthcare plan? You get screwed.

But the biggest lie (or stupidity) of all, and as it usually has been with this president, is when it gets down to money. Obama is grandstanding on how he demands it to be free. Currently, the bill is expected to add $240 billion over the next 10 years, and that already includes the exchange of a lot of funny money "savings" for real tax-payer dollar costs. His demands for no denial of service for pre-existing conditions will simply add to the cost.

What he wants, what Obama really seeks, is a better world where magically socialism works and the benign government ruled by philosopher kings (or King) doles out justice, healthcare, social welfare, and a big helping of righteousness. The goverment will not "force" you to do anything, just offer lots of good things to within your reach, where before they would have cost something. They refer to this as "paternal libertarianism." And it is the biggest crock ever foisted on the American people. It is a sham, a phony Hollywood American store-front with a dead empty concrete lot behind it. Paternalism and libertarianism are two diametrically opposed ideologies. Paternal libertarianism does not and cannot exist. It is simply the lifeless soulless catch 22 slime mold of paternalism dressed up in the bright, individual, and American colors of libertarianism.

In some screwed up way I actually believe Obama thinks his sham "paternal libertarianism" represents the ultimate American conception of freedom, freemarkets, and justice. I know he sees the American lower and middle classes the victims of long-standing oppression and injustice at the hands of corporations and the upper class. This most likely was born of his time in Chicago, where there surely were many disadvantaged. But it was after that he took the wrong turn. It is socialism, paternalism, and a belief in the weakness and inability of the individual which creates unfair and unjust situations. It is the arbitrary decisions of the government that lead to hatred, jealousy and a chip on the shoulder, to a sense of "having a right" to things where you have no rights, only the ability to work towards those goals. The fundamental human rights of the individual are in the pursuit not the achievement.

snuggie fashion show

The snuggie is going to be featured at NY fashion week. Yes the snuggie...

Which is pretty much incredible, as they will be bringing new animal prints and a doggie snuggie as their big introductions.

I still dont want one.

http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_16032/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=Dyz2LIrd

The four most dangerous roads in the world

Pretty interesting and crazy list...

This is the original article, as written by Avi Abrams in November, 2006. All rights reserved, @ Ian Media.

1. Bolivia's "Road of Death"

North Yungas Road is hands-down the most dangerous in the world for motorists. If other roads could be considered impassable, this one clearly endangers your life. It runs in the Bolivian Andes, 70 km from La Paz to Coroico, and plunges down almost 3,600 meters in an orgy of extremely narrow hairpin curves and 800-meter abyss near-misses.

A fatal accident happens there every couple of weeks, 100-200 people perish there every year. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank named the La Paz-to-Coroico route "the world's most dangerous road."

Among the route there are many visible reminders of accidents, wrecked carcasses of lorries and trucks lie scattered around at the bottom... (read BBC article)






(images via 1, 2)

The buses and heavy trucks navigate this road, as this is the only route available in the area. Buses crowded with locals go in any weather, and try to beat the incoming traffic to the curves.

It does not help that the fog and vapors rise up from the heavily vegetated valley below, resulting in almost constant fogs and limited visibility. Plus the tropical downpours cause parts of the road to slide down the mountain.






(images via 1, 2, 3)

Apparently some companies make business on the road's dubious fame by selling the extreme bike tours down that road. "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" is one of them. (you can read one such biker's account here.) If you are nuts enough to consider it, please be advised that you will be only adding to the road hazards, as it's hard to spot a cyclist on the road's hairpin curves, and your shrieks (as you fall down the abyss) will disturb the peace and quiet of the villagers nearby.









(images via MarkoP, some originals unknown)


2. Russian Siberian Road to Yakutsk

This is the official federal-government highway to Yakutsk, and it is also the only one to get there. As there are no other roads, the intrepid motorists are doomed to wallow in this dirt, or wait in week-long 100 km car line-ups (they say women even gave birth there while waiting).

This can turn into a major humanitarian disaster during rainy spells, when the usual clay covering of the road turns into impassable mud blanket, swallowing trucks and tractors alike. In the meantime the city has to partly airlift food products.









(images credit: Pasik's Journal)

Here is an aerial shot of this road in winter:


(image via)


The "Haunted Road" in Russia

There are also rumors of seemingly quite normal 30 km stretch of Russian country road, which nevertheless gets an unexplained amount of car accidents; the locals suspect underground gas seepage which causes motorists to fall asleep...

This creepy tale is supported by the evidence of car crash statistics and the tales of survivors, who do not remember anything prior to the crash and act strangely "drugged" afterwards. Hopefully this will be properly investigated before the road claims more victims.


3. Russian-Georgian "Military" Mountain Roads



Sukhumi "Military" road in the former Soviet Georgia, in Caucasus mountains, which truckers and wine-drunk crazy "Lada" drivers navigate with the utter abandon, typical of the local mountain people... but we could not locate any photos of it. Only this old postcard... If you have any more pics, send them in.

First sent in pic (photo by V. Krasnogolovy) -




4. Nepal, Tibet & Bangladesh Roads

Those bound for Mount Everest will know what we talk about. There are some hair-raising, hardly maintained roads in the area - which bus and truck drivers have to negotiate to get to small villages. A road in Nepal, leading from From Katmandu to Everest Base Camp:



A typical India-Nepal Road:


(originals unknown)